Double centenary: as Ulysses was published, its defender, John Butler Yeats, died

Joyce and Yeats fought for the right of authors to describe the world as they see it

A hundred years ago, on February 2nd, 1922, James Joyce’s groundbreaking novel Ulysses was published. The same day was the last full day of life for John Butler Yeats, the barrister and painter who first articulated the successful argument that Joyce’s novel was not obscene.

Was it coincidence that the architect of Ulysses’ liberation exited the world as Ulysses entered? But what is coincidence? What explains the uncanny way in which JBY, as poet WB Yeats’s father was known, arrived at the right place at the right time, then exited as Joyce’s novel was born?

Joyce and JBY had encountered each other in 1904 on Sandymount Strand, the stretch along Dublin Bay where Joyce’s alter ego Stephen Dedalus engages readers of Ulysses by wondering, “Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount Strand?”

The real-life encounter occurred while Joyce and Oliver St John Gogarty, the model for Buck Mulligan in Ulysses, were walking from the tower where readers now find Stephen and Mulligan in the opening episode of Ulysses. When the tower-dwellers asked JBY for a loan of two shillings he replied that he had no money, and they would just spend it on drink anyway. Ever the scholastic logician, Joyce responded gravely, “We cannot speak about that which is not”. He later explained to Gogarty that JBY had disregarded Occam’s Razor, the principle of logic against introducing superfluous arguments. It was enough for JBY to say he had no money, Joyce maintained: “He had no right to discuss the possible use of the non-existent.”

As Joyce worked on his novel, JBY took a trip to New York that morphed into continuing residence, a luxury enabled by New York lawyer John Quinn, who paid JBY’s rent in return for manuscripts of poems by JBY’s son. When obscenity charges were brought against the New York publishers of an episode of Joyce’s unfinished novel in 1920, the fates led the publishers to Quinn to defend them.

The 81-year-old JBY saw at once that, as he wrote to Quinn, “it is really a grave issue … whether the books of Joyce and such as he are to go free or not”. He understood that “[T]he whole movement against Joyce and his terrible veracity, naked and unashamed, has its origin in the desire of people to live comfortably, and, that they may live comfortably, to live superficially.” Joyce’s “intense feeling for what is actual and true”, JBY argued, was more important to society than superficial comfort. Not wanting to be known as an advocate of “sex literature”, Quinn did not use JBY’s argument, emphasising instead that the episode at issue could not corrupt because “no one could understand what the thing was about”. He lost the case, and the editors were prohibited from publishing further episodes.

Joyce learned of this apparent death-blow to his novel while visiting Sylvia Beach’s bookshop Shakespeare & Company in Paris. The intrepid Beach managed to publish Ulysses just soon enough to coincide with time-obsessed Joyce’s 40th birthday. Nonetheless, Joyce’s tarnished novel was barred by customs authorities in the United States and England, and was unable to reach a wide audience until 1933 when the federal court in New York accepted a rationale similar to JBY’s and declared that Ulysses was not obscene.

The ingenious structure of Ulysses suggests a way of understanding the mystifying linkage between its entry into the world and JBY's departure. Joyce's novel purports to recount the events of a single day but incidents spanning many years across great distances are simultaneously alive in the minds of the novel's characters and, indeed, its readers. It is unclear whether Joyce anticipated the insight of 21st-century physics that time is imposed on reality by the structure of the human mind. What is clear is that February 2nd, 2022 is a good time to celebrate James Joyce and John Butler Yeats for their great contributions to establishing the right of authors to describe the world as they see it.

Joseph M Hassett's latest book is Yeats Now: Echoing Into Life (Lilliput Press)

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