Eugene Jolas, ‘The Revolution of Language and James Joyce’, in Our Exagmination [... &c.; 1929] (NY: New Directions 1972), pp.77-92.

Bibliographical note: Eugene Jolas, ‘The Revolution of Language and James Joyce’, in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress: A Symposium, ed. Samuel Beckett [1929] (NY: New Directions 1972), pp.77-92 [pp.77-76 being title and blank verso].

The Real metaphysical problem today is the word. The epoch when the writer photographed the life about him the mechanics of words redolent of the daguerreotype, is happily drawing to its close. The new artist of the word has recognized the autonomy of language and, aware of the twentieth century current towards universality, attempts to hammer out a verbal vision that destroys time and space.

When the beginnings of this new age are seen in perspective, it will be found that the disintegration of words, and their subsequent reconstruction on other planes, constitute some of the most important acts of our epoch. For in considering the vast panorama of the written word today, one is struck with the sensation of its endless and monotonous repetitiousness. Words in modern literature are still being set side by side in the same banal and journalistic fashion as in preceding decades, and the inadequacy of worn-out verbal patterns for our more sensitized nervous systems seems to have struck only only a small minority. The discovery of the subconscious by medical pioneers as a new fierle for magical explorations and comprehensions should have made it apparent that [79] the instrument of language in its archaic condition could no longer be used. Modern life, with its changed mythos and transmuted concepts of beauty makes it imperative that words be given new compositions and relationships.

James Joyce, in his new work published serially in transition, has given a body blow to the traditionalists. As he subversts the orthodox meaning of words, the upholders of the norm are seized with panic, and all those who regard the English language as a static thing, sacrosanct in its position, and dogmatically defended by a crumbling hierarchy of philologists and pedagogues, are afraid. Epithets such as “the book is a nightmare,” “disgusting, distorted rubbish,” “utterly bad,”, &c., have been poured on the author and his work.

In a recent essay in the Criterion entitled “Style and the Limitations of Speech”, Mr. Sean O’Faolain attempts to dispose of the Joycian onslaught by examining the nature of language and its limitations, and he arrives at the remarkable stand-pat conclusion of the “immobility of English.” Mr. O’Faolain states among other things: “There are real limitations to the eloquence of words. These are mainly two, despite the overteeming richness of what we do possess, our vocabulary is not of our manufacture and it is limited: and meanwhile, liberty to invent, and add to, and replace, is absolutely denied us - denied us, as it would seem, for all time.” Mr. O’Faolain, basing his conclusions on a dessicated philosophy of historicism, rejects Mr. Joyce’s language as “a-historic,” and chides him for running counter to certain eternal laws of nature.’

Again, in a review of Anna Livia Plurabelle ([in] Irish Statesman, Dublin) after examining a phrase beginning with: [80] “She was just a young thin pale soft shy slim slip of a thing &c.,” and after indicating that Mr. Joyce’s system had collapsed, because he (the reader) was unable to penetrate the meaning of certain neologisms, Mr. O’Faolain concludes that this language is “almost music” and serves no useful purpose. The sentence he quotes (from page 21 of A.L.P.) contains the word “silvamoonlake” which he analyses. This mental exercise ends in the recognition of silva as being in relation to silver and sylva, moon as being moon, and lake as being lake. That is already something, although lake should also be understood to have some relation to a lacteal, or milky, image (cf. p.24, A.L.P.) the Petrarca Laura allusion, “By that Vale Vowclose’s lucydlac, &c.”). He stumbles against the neologism “forstfellfoss.” This means nothing to him. Now the word foss, “which puzzles him more than “forst” and “fell,” - although the real meaning of “forst” has also escaped him, it being indicative of tree - is rather well known to students of geography. It is a geographical and topographical term which my Baedeker readily reveals to me. Under the heading of World’s Biggest Waterfalls, I discover, not only Niagara Falls (170 m. high) but Feigumfoss in Norway (656 m. high). I also find other falls in Norway bearing the generic ending of foss: Esplansfoss, Grandefoss, Hoenefoss, Stalheimsfoss, and many others. It has been a custom for some time to admit to English citizenship such geographical and topographical terms as: pampa, (ice)berg, spa, fjord, campagne, steppe, veldt, lock, savannah, geyser, maelstrom, lande, canyon, &c. Mr. O’Faolain will probably object that he is not supposed to know Scandinavian in order to understand a work of English literature. But it is equally apt to say that a knowledge of Latin and Greek, and a light smattering of other languages, is no longer sufficient in an [81] age that is rapidly coming to a complete internationalization of the spirit.

Let it be understood once and for all that we can no longer accept the ideas of a past epoch. We are not interested in romantic “passé-ism,” nor in infantile parallelisms.

The most cursory glance at the evolution of English, or other languages, shows that speech is not static. It is in a constant state of becoming. Whether the organic evolution of speech is due to external. conditions the people themselves bring about, or whether it is due to the forward-straining vision of a single mind, will always remain a moot question. I imagine there is an element of both working simultaneously at this process. Renan once accused Saint-Paul of “audaciously violating, if not the genius of the Greek language, at least the logic of human language.” The reason for Saint-Paul’s heresy lies in the fact, - as pointed out by the Rev. Marcel Jousse - that he tried to follow the laws of spoken human language. There is no logical reason why the transmutation of language in our day should not be as legitimate as it was throughout the ages. While painting, for instance, has proceeded to rid itself of the descriptive, has done away with the classical perspective, has tried more and more to attain the purity of abstract idealism, and thus led us to a world of wondrous new spaces, should the art of the word remain static? Is it not true that words have undergone radical changes throughout the centuries? Should James Joyce, whose love of words and whose mastery of them has been demonstrated in huge creations, be denied the right (which the people themselves hold) to create a vocabulary which is not only a deformation, but an amalgamation of all the languages in the so-called English-speaking world? The English language, after all, has been an amalgamation from [82] the very beginning of its existence. Why should the unilingual Englishman feel worried, when in the British Isles alone, there are five languages still in common use: Manx, English, Irish, Gaelic and Welsh! With what right can the “unilingual” Englishman demand that the well of the English language remain undefiled ? It is a very muddy well, at best.

But, says Mr. O’Faolain, “a word is a fragment of history that we have agreed to accept as a symbol for a limited number of its own experiences and ours, and the writer works with these experiences and our knowledge of them; as a result, words become in his hands most pliable, roguish and suggestive things.” To illustrate his point he chooses the word “gentleman.” This example seems to me inept. If he wishes to show that words do not change, then gentleman does not show it. But to show that they do change, let us take “ title,” for example. The Latin word is “titulus” which is the cross on top of the letter “t.” INRI was a “ titulus” for the cross of Christ. There is even a feastday of that name in the Roman Catholic Church. To the lawyer a “title” represents the authenticity of a document representing an heir’s succession. When an American society girl marries a duke or a marquis, she is marrying a “title.” Then “title” also indicates the descriptive term for a work of literature. For Gene Tunney, the word “title” represents the honor he received, after Mr. Jack Dempsey had seen the starry firmament. Etc., etc.’ (p.83.)

While Mr. Joyce, beginning with Ulysses, and now in his still unnamed work, has been occupied in exploding the antique logic of words, analogous experiments have been made in other countries. In France, Germany and Italy, the undermining process has been going on for the past fifteen [84] years. In order to give language a more modern elasticity, to give words a more compressed meaning thorugh disasociation from their accustomed connections, and to liberate the imagination with primitivistic conceptins of versb and nouns, a few scattered poets deliberately undertook to disintegrate their own language. [...] The revolution of the surrealists, who destroyed completely the old relationships between words and thought, remains of immense significance. A different assocation of words on planes of the spirit makes it posible for these poets to creat a universe of beauty the existence of which has never been suspected before [cites Léon-Paul Fargue, M. Leiris, André Breton, Gertrude Stein, August Stramm, et al., but makes no ensuing remarks on O’Faolain] (pp.82-85.)


James Joyce gives his words odors and sounds that the conventional standard does not know. In his super-temporal and super-spatial composition, language is being born anew before our eyes. Each chapter has an internal rhythm differentiated in proportion to the contents. The words are compressed into stark, blasting accents. They have the tempo of the Liffey itself flowing to the sea. Everything that the world of appearance shows, everything that the automatic life shows, interests him in relation to the huge philosophic and linguistic pattern he has undertaken. The human element across his words becomes the passive agent of some strange and inescapable destiny. / Those who have heard Mr. Joyce read aloud from Work in Progress know the immense rhythmic beauty of his technique. It has a musical flow that flatters the ear, that has the organic structure of works of nature, that transmits painstakingly every vowel and consonant formed by ear. (p.89.)


The English language, because of its universality, seems particularly fitted for a re-birth along the lines envisaged by Mr. Joyce. His word formations and deformations spring from more than a dozen foreign languages. Taking as his physical background the languages spoken in the British Empire, past and present (Afrikaans-Dutch: South-Africa; French: Canada; etc.) he has created a language of a certain bewilderment, to be sure, but of a new richness and power for those who are willing to enter into the spirit of it. Even modern American, so fertile in astonishing anarchic properties, has been used by him. The spontaneous flux of his style is aided by his idea to disregard the norms of orthodox syntax. Using the pun, Mr. Joyce has succeeded in giving us numerous felicitous tournures in spite of the jeers of the professors. Did not the New Testament itself use puns in order to put over an idea?“Tu es Petrus, et super hanc [90] petrum aedificabo ecclesiam meam,”; which is used in the first book, provides certainly a sufficiently good precedent.

For it is the condition between waking and sleeping as well as sleep itself which James Joyce is presenting to us in his monumental work. Here for the first time in any literature, the attempt is successfully made to describe that huge world of dreams, that a-logical sequence of events remembered or inhibited, that universe of demoniacal humor and magic which has seemed impenetrable so far. (To be sure, Gerhardt Hauptmann in Hannele’s Himmelfahrt attempted to present a dream-state, but it remained bound in the old literary conceptions as far as the actual expression was concerned.) The dynamics of the sleep-mind is here presented with an imagination that has whirled together all the past, present and future, as well as every space related to human and inorganic evolution.

But in developing this theme, Joyce realized that the elements of sleep have never been properly described as far as the real night language is concerned. Obviously we do not use the same words while asleep as those we employ when awake. If you make the experiment of transcribing the narrative events of your dream, you will forever be confronted with this difficulty. Every writer who has tried to communicate his dreams to us has stumbled against the inadequacy of his presentational or verbal medium. For the broken images of the dream floating through a distorted film and the actual mechanics of words that occur in the movement need a radically new attitude.

James Joyce has given us this solution, and his language corresponds to this need. Listen to“Father Viking Sleeps,”; the physiological description of sleep in Work in progress:”; Liverpoor? Sot a bit of it! His braynes coolt parritch [FW74, ... &c.; here p.91; end.] (pp.90-92.)

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