James Joyce on demography

I’ve been listening to Donal Donnelly’s wonderful recorded reading of Ulysses, and naturally both the format and my advancing years have highlighted passages that didn’t interest me when I read it in my teens and 20s. In particular, there is the unceasing drumbeat of birth and death: hundreds and hundreds of references, only the most prominent of which are, on the death side, Stephen Dedalus’s mother and Leopold Bloom’s son Rudy, and Paddy Dignam, whose funeral Bloom attends; and on the birth side, Mina Purefoy’s agonising three-day labour. Of course, you can’t miss it, but I didn’t notice the big picture. In particular, I didn’t notice how Bloom keeps circling from the individual death to the population level — what one might call the demographic perspective — and back again. (I also had forgotten how much time Bloom spends reflecting on scientific matters generally.) He has thoughts like

Funerals all over the world everywhere every minute.

Child born every minute somewhere.

and most impressively

Mina Purefoy swollen belly on a bed groaning to have a child tugged out of her. One born every second somewhere. Other dying every second. Since I fed the birds five minutes. Three hundred kicked the bucket. Other three hundred born, washing the blood off, all are washed in the blood of the lamb, bawling maaaaaa.

Cityful passing away, other cityful coming, passing away too: other coming on, passing on. Houses, lines of houses, streets, miles of pavements, piledup bricks, stones. Changing hands. This owner, that. Landlord never dies they say. Other steps into his shoes when he gets his notice to quit. They buy the place up with gold and still they have all the gold. Swindle in it somewhere. Piled up in cities, worn away age after age. Pyramids in sand. Built on bread and onions.

This sheds some light on the telegram that Stephen recalls early on, with its famous misprint: “Nother dying come home father.” It’s not just a misprint. “Nother” is one letter away from “Mother”, the person he should care about most in the world. But it’s also one letter away from “another”, that is, just another one in an endless sequence of humans dying. And many people are appalled that he seems to have treated his own dying mother as just an instance of a principle.

(The Gabler “corrected edition” appeared in 1984, right around the time I was first reading Ulysses, and so I recall that the press coverage of this publishing event emphasised a few obviously significant emendations, in particular this one, where editors had consistently  corrected the telegram misprint back to “Mother”, thus making a complete hash of the scene since it was impossible to understand why Stephen said that the telegram was a “curiosity to show”. But even then the thematic significance eluded me.)

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