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Portrait of James Joyce (1882-1941), Author, Jacques-Emile Blanche from the National Gallery of Ireland used under Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

“A man of genius makes no mistakes”: Joycean misapprehensions

Joyce invites misapprehension in many ways. He overtly signals the importance of error with Stephen’s famous line in “Scylla and Charybdis”: “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery”. This is a particularly shrewd move on Joyce’s part. Since a man of genius makes no mistakes, anything that seems like a mistake must actually be something ingenious that can only be discerned by a suitably astute reader. In effect, Joyce implies that there are no mistakes in this text, just artistic brilliance that may or may not be properly apprehended.

This, of course, can drive readers crazy, or at least, a little paranoid. This is further compounded by the many misapprehensions have circulated around Joyce. The famous line about errors being volitional and the portals of discovery has itself been misapprehended and misquoted. On Wikiquote, it was formerly rendered as “Mistakes are the portals of discovery”. This mistake has since been corrected, but the misquotation endures and can be found in many places and has even succumbed to further misquotation. On the façade of a pub in central Dublin it has now become the curious “A man’s errors are his portals of discovery”.

Joyce was even misquoted on the commemorative €10 coin Ireland issued in 2013. They picked the first few lines from “Proteus”, one of the more famously difficult passages in Ulysses: “Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot’. The coin has instead, “Signatures of all things that I am here to read”. Of course, there is some humour here in the fact that in this passage Stephen is thinking about the problems of apprehension, specifically visual apprehension: what it is to see and to understand what one sees, the signatures of all things to be readand that are to be misread and, eventually, misattributed on a commemorative coin.

The Central Bank admitted that the whole thing was a mistake, but initially they tried to pull their blunder through a “portal of discovery” and claim it was a deliberate aesthetic choice. In their first press release on the matter they said, “it should be noted that the coin is an artistic representation of the author and text and not intended as a literal representation.”

This was of course mildly embarrassing for the Central Bank, but these kinds of typos have infected the Joycean corpus for years. The first edition of Ulysses is famously riddled with errors because it was printed in France, by a French printer who did not understand English. In 1921 when he was going through the page proofs for Ulysses and seeing all the mistakes that were being made, Joyce groused, “I am extremely irritated by all those printer’s errors. … Are these to be perpetuated in future editions? I hope not.” But, the following year, after the first edition was published, Joyce and Harriet Weaver and John Rodker began compiling a list of corrections to make for the second printing. Joyce wound up vetoing many of the emendations suggested by Weaver and Rodker since, as he explained to Weaver, “These are not misprints but beauties of my style hitherto undreamt of”.

Sometimes, editorial mangling winds up creating something evocative, such as the word “enchanced” instead of the more conventional “enhanced”—an “enchanced” emendation that originally appeared in the 1936 Bodley Head edition and which survived through several more printings. This particular misprint is all the more intriguing since it seems like a Joycean effect even though it was the result of some typesetter’s error: a word enhanced by a chance mistake.

To claim that something is wrong, you have to know what is right, or, improving ourselves, you have to thinkyou know what is right. There are several ranges of response to error, for example, one can be a pedant and criticise. This is the scholarly response, something academics are paid to do. There is obviously a place for such nit-picking. But it’s not necessarily an end in itself. In a human world, there has to be a place for human quirks and foibles and blunders. Indeed, life itself can be considered a mistake, or rather, the result of a lot of mistakes. Biological evolution—the slow accumulation of alterations in the genetic code—could be characterised as an erroneous transmission of information across generations and across domains, kingdoms, phyla, and so on. If there hadn’t been erroneous—that is, imperfect—transmission of genetic data, then human life would never have evolved. It’s not just that error makes us human, but rather, error made humans. And so, this leads to another type of response to error: acknowledgement and acceptance. This is perhaps the lesson of Ulysses, the affirmation of the messier parts of life, even typos. Ulysses, like life, is“enchanced.” Misapprehension is fundamental to being a Joycean and fundamental to being human.

Feature image: Portrait of James Joyce (1882-1941), Author, Jacques-Emile Blanche from the National Gallery of Ireland used under Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Recent Comments

  1. Michael

    Boris Johnson is quite a genius in his use of language and the quote from Joyce that a genius commits no error rather fits the way Mr Johnson sees himself.

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