James Joyce and the word ‘Yes’
Ever since I finished Ulysses earlier this summer, I’ve had the last seven words rattling around my head. yes I said yes I will Yes. These seven words are the last seven words of a sentence that lasts five and a half pages and almost 250 lines, and they’ve stuck with me because they capture a euphoria I’ve rarely felt. I’m rather fond of Nelson Goodman’s aesthetic philosophy, and there’s one portion of his excellent book Languages of Art where he argues something along the lines of: what makes sad art sad (and so on) is not that that art effectively makes its viewers feel the sadness of a particular scene, because then art is simply a less good version of real life, for no verbal description or pictorial depiction of, say, love is as powerful as actually feeling love. Goodman is right, but one key reason Ulysses has stuck with me, and those seven words in particular, is that the euphoria I felt while reading them does rival (and eclipse) many of my real life experiences. Surely not the experience of a marriage proposal—in that Ulysses must pale next to real life, as Goodman notes. However, in the joy of the words themselves, combined with their meaning in the context of the novel, there is a very real feeling that is the novel’s own, and which is not a pale impression of anything. The euphoria of these words isn’t the (foggy, imperfect, diminishing) mirror of the event they describe, but an ecstasy that’s internal to the novel and its peculiar logic.
Ulysses was my second experience with Joyce, after I read most of Dubliners for an otherwise rather pointless literary theory class I audited (I know as little about theory now as I did then, only now I can throw a handful of new terms around), and the rest of Dubliners because it was amazing. Perhaps I would have been better off reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man before Ulysses—I can certainly see the logic that leads to that being the common recommendation—but I’m glad I didn’t read it until later this summer, after I’d spent a month and a half or so with the end of Ulysses haunting my thoughts. The reason I’m glad is that, having spent so much time marveling at the command of English Joyce showed in wrangling so much emotion out of so few words, I was able to fully appreciate the genius of one particular passage in Portrait, also focusing on the word ‘yes,’ but with an entirely different effect. Here are both passages, first from Ulysses [pp. 643-644, Gabler edition, episode 18, lines 1592-1609] (I obviously won’t quote the entire final sentence of Ulysses, just the portion where the word ‘yes’ plays a central role):
and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas 2 glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
And from Portrait [p. 134, Penguin Classics edition]:
He could not grip the floor with his feet and sat heavily at his desk, opening one of his books at random and poring over it. Every word for him! It was true. God was almighty. God could call him now, call him as he sat at his desk, before he had time to be conscious of the summons. God had called him. Yes? What? Yes? His flesh shrank together as it felt the approach of the ravenous tongues of flames, dried up as it felt about it the swirl of stifling air. He had died. Yes. he was judged. A wave of fire swept through his body: the first. Again a wave. His brain began to glow. Another. His brain was simmering and bubbling within the cracking tenement of the skull. Flames burst forth from his skull like a corolla, shrieking like voices:
—Hell! Hell! Hell! Hell! Hell!
In the second passage (the first chronologically, of course), ‘yes’ is a terrifying word. All of the joy at the end of Ulysses is gone, replaced by fear in the face of damnation. Stephen Dedalus, the ‘he’ of the passage, has just heard a sermon in which the preacher discusses the fall from Eden, then addresses the congregation, “Now let us try for a moment to realise, as far as we can, the nature of that abode of the damned which the justice of an offended God has called into existence for the eternal punishment of sinners.” The remainder of the sermon is a horrifyingly detailed account of Hell, and Joyce, in the passage quoted, captures the terror of the word ‘yes’ when it becomes the answer to “will I go there,” “will I be eternally damned”.
In addition to reading Joyce, I’ve also read a fair amount of Nietzsche recently (I’m currently in the midst of reading through his major works in chronological order). Joyce had read Nietzsche, and so far as I know admired him. Joyce was centrally concerned with the ways Ireland was wedged between and stifled by British rule on one side and the Catholic church on the other, and it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t sympathize with Nietzsche’s harsh criticisms of Christianity. In fact, in reading Joyce, I’ve toyed somewhat with the idea that he is in some respects Nietzsche applied to a specific culture (Nietzsche, of course, commented on every culture he could get his hands on). Certainly Stephen Dedalus’ famously stated aim in Portrait, to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” (276) is a very Nietzschean aim. The extent to which Dedalus’ goals can be attributed to Joyce is certainly debatable, but it is hard not to see Joyce’s writing as in many ways creating an Irish conscience by exploring the state of then-contemporary Irish culture.
More importantly, though, in the case of the two passages above, is the specific tenor of Nietzsche’s philosophy, both his positive accounts of Zarathustra’s attitude toward life (which is discussed more strictly philosophically also in works like Beyond Good and Evil) and his specific critiques of Christianity. In both cases, Nietzsche fixates on the word ‘yes’ (and its opposition to the word ‘no’). Nietzsche describes his philosophy as a yes-saying philosophy, and implores his followers to say yes to life. He opposes this to Christianity, which he sees first and foremost as a philosophy that would deny life, that says no. With this consideration in mind, it is difficult not to look at the passage from Portrait in light of Nietzsche’s philosophy, knowing that Joyce did read Nietzsche. Read in this light, the passage is a visceral exploration of Christianity, and the Catholic church in particular, as a no-saying institution, as an institution that has managed even to pervert the joyous word ‘yes’ into something crippling and diminishing. The passage that closes Ulysses, then, returns ‘yes’ to its rightful glory. Indeed, ever since I read that passage in Portrait, the final seven words of Ulysses have continued to infiltrate my thoughts, and they have only grown more powerful, battling against the incursions of an equally memorable but much darker passage.
This is of course a partial reading of mere parts of two complicated and dense works of art, and I make no claim to having the final word. I welcome any and all input as to why my analysis may not work—my end goal here is understand Joyce, and I expect that will require being hopelessly wrong at many points along the way.