James Joyce



Was he insane?


If you stop a man in the street and show him an opened page of James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake", and ask him if he thinks the author who wrote that was in his right mind, you will pretty quickly get a response that the man is insane. Or he may he walk off quickly deciding that you are as insane as your question. I want to use that example as first evidence for my question about James Joyce's proper state of mind.

Some years ago I was friendly with a well known psychiatrist, who had published several papers on the work of James Joyce. At a party one evening in his elegant home overlooking the fading summer sunlight on the lake, I raised the question of his view on James Joyce. Later that evening when the guests were thinning out, he invited my into his library and laid out a series of professional Journal publications which he and others had written in the last decade.

----- Look these over, while I go and refresh your drink, and after we have talked about the Joyce situation, you can ask more seriously the question about his mental compos-ity.

I left the party a little confused by the smart party conversation interspersed with trays of canapes and mixed drinks, but it was that late evening interview which stuck in my memory. I was fascinated by Joyce's Ulysses when in college, years later I graduated to the Wake and several times taught a course in it despite the warning of the head of the English program that this was not something students could possibly understand. I realized he was talking about what he could understand and wisely said nothing in order to give my course.

There are two ways to approach late Joyce. You can get the classic Skeleton Key and pore over obscure references which only a Joyce specialist could identify. Or you can take the text as something to read aloud, paying attention to the configuration of the words and sounds, and hear a mixed concert of multiple voices orchestrating the hidden story of a riverrun past Adam and Eve's, turning pages beyond Isobel in silentsailing night until in exhaustion lowly longly a wail went forth and pure YAWN lay low. There is of course always more to tell me tell me, tell me, Elm. But I always approach first through the words and their twisted combobulations, and above all I listen to the sheer sounds. That is the score, and later behind all that, there is time (a lifetime. . . ) to pry at discovering the hidden meanings.

But if you opened Finnegans Wake cold without the many volumes of criticism, or a biography of Joyce amplified by reading about the author 'as a young man', or a college course like mine, you might well ask if the author was in his right mind or - - - to put it bluntly, insane. After all, who writes stuff like that?



Let me proceed indirectly in Joycean fashion and tell you something about my uncle Albert, since I feel it may cast light on this case. Albert was second child to a previously married lady and my grandfather who was nearly seventy years old at the time of their marriage. Their two children were as different as the night and day. My mother was a handsome woman of clear intellect who as bookkeeper in an uncle's leather good warehouse, never lost a penny in the accounts of a million dollar annual sales. But Albert is reported to have reached to turn off a light bulb from his bath when a boy, and this may have accounted for some alteration of the neural patterns in his brain in the coming years.

If May was pretty and round and sharp, Albert was unusually tall. He was lean and of a handsome aquiline visage, and would have been accounted as a good looking man were he not metamorphosed by a long history of oddities. The favorite of his mother well into his forties, he never worked a regular job since the day she died. He did purchase a Model A when they appeared and toured the southern states with suitcases full of small goods and little oddities which he sold from town to town until evicted for lack of a license. Each winter he brought the car to our home and parked it in the back yard to my mother's chagrin. He lived downtown in a cheap furnished room, until the warm weather reminded him to travel again and he was off with his cases of goods.

I only mention this history as preface to my purpose of telling you something very unusual. Albert had a habit of phonetically changing words, altering the sounds while keeping the words somehow in focus, and uttering them as discoveries or surprises in a conversation. Of course my mother was furious at this lack of proper communication. She was convinced he was mentally impaired in some unaccountable fashion, but since he was her brother and a poor fellow withal, he was always welcome in our home at the dinner table. As a compulsive miser to boot, he would bring a bottle of the cheapest wine as a guest's dinner present each time he came , and nothing could induce him to spend a dollar more for a bottle which he knew after all would end empty in one evening's use.

It is Albert's words and wordings which I am interested in, and let me give you a few examples which I remember. A common word like 'hospital' was transformed into a witty veterinarian's 'horsespital'. The act of 'suicide' turned up as 'sewer side', a "conoisseur' transformed unexpectedly as a 'corner sewer' and a dozen more would pop up in the course of any evening's entertainment. But these were not errors or the wanderings of an incapacitated mind. Albert smiled as he uttered each fresh neologism, he knew they were surprises and he was sure that they would be received as very funny. Some would relate to daily life, other to politics, others were arcane and nobody knew what they meant and if they were supposed to laugh. But Albert knew what he was doing, it was all intentional, there was nothing fortuitous or random about the process.

It was years later when teaching Joyce to a class of wide-eyed college students, that I began to recall Uncle Albert's word changes, and I could not help suspecting that they were the same kind of verbal destructuring that characterized James Joyce's later years. Albert even had a notebook full of scraps of his verbal mutations, just like Joyce's notes written on bits of paper and laid out on his bed to be incorporated later into the grand plan. Of course Albert had no grand plan, he never thought of writing a poem or a story into which he could graft his mis-morphed witticisms. He died leaving me suitcases of trinkets from Occupied Austria and the then renascent post-war Japan. The morphed words vanished with the man leaving no trace in the world of people who speak directly and say what they mean.

Now the question arises: Was Uncle Albert insane, as my mother flatly stated? Or was he pursuing a path less followed, a new way of handling the words which we all use, but with a special attention to the phonetics and the associative sub-meanings? His life history was not normal, no right minded man pins his neckties into a roll-up shade to store and press them at the same time. No normal man gets a lawyer to defend his right to the thirteen dollar a week room, against the Church which wants to tear the building down for a church parking lot. And what about that Model A, which one day in the everglades area of Florida unaccountably stopped running? Albert took out his suitcases and pushed the car into the water where it sank to the bottom without a trace, leaving him car-less for the rest of his life.

Albert was peculiar without question. But was he insane?

Absolutely not. Being odd and speaking oddly is not a sign of cerebral disturbance, it is nothing more than being odd and speaking oddly. Had James Joyce not been an odd fellow all his life, and not had the habit of thinking strangely and using words in the most obscure manner, there would have been no masterpiece like Finengan's Wake to tease and confuse the world of literary readers. So I come to my final point, which is why I have written for you this curious account of my very curious Uncle Albert: I will state that Albert was clearly NOT INSANE. And in respect to the similarities between his verbal transmogrifications, and those of the famous author James Joyce, I think it can be reasonably stated that:

James Joyce, no more than my uncle Albert, was clearly not insane. Quod erat Demonstrandum.




William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris