‘the word known to all men’

Tom Deveson’s comment on my Y.Y. post reminds us of Joyce and his linguistic taboo-breaking. Robert Lynd was cautious about this:

‘There are things that even hardened war veterans do not like to see in cold print.’

It’s interesting to see the association of swearing and the war. Even civilians like Lynd had gathered that the war was an obscenity-rich environment, where even those brought up carefully might become hardened to the most basic kinds of language.

This reminds me of a theory I’ve been forming for some time. I am not an especially obsessive Joycean, and those who know more about the subject may shoot me down in flames for this, but I might as well explain my idea here, in the hope that it might interest someone.

There is a repeated phrase in Ulysses: ‘the word known to all men.’ Richard Ellman, a formidable Joycean, developed an interpretation of the book based on the idea that its great theme was love (of many kinds) and that this ‘word known to all men’ was therefore ‘love’.

This fits, to a degree, the first appearance of the phrase, in Stephen’s stream of consciousness about a girl he has seen:

Touch me. Soft eyes. Soft soft soft hand. I am lonely here. O, touch me soon, now. What is that word known to all men? I am quiet here alone. Sad too. Touch, touch me.

His thoughts are erotic and turned to love-making. But if the word is love, why the roundabout way of saying it?

A much later appearance of the phrase is in the Nighttown nightmare chapter, where Stephen meets his mother’s ghost:

STEPHEN: (Choking with fright, remorse and horror.) They say I killed you, mother. He offended your memory. Cancer did it, not I. Destiny.
THE MOTHER: (A green rill of bile trickling from a side of her mouth.) You sang that song to me. Love’s bitter mystery.
STEPHEN: (Eagerly.) Tell me the word, mother, if you know now. The word known to all men.
THE MOTHER: Who saved you the night you jumped into the train at Dalkey with Paddy Lee? Who had pity for you when you were sad among the strangers? Prayer is allpowerful. Prayer for the suffering souls in the Ursuline manual and forty days’ indulgence. Repent, Stephen.

The logic of the dialogue is swirling and confused, but if we take ‘the word known to all men’ to be love, then Stephen is asking his mother to say she loves him, I suppose. Once again it seems a roundabout way of saying it.

Ellman’s theory impresed Hans Walter Gabler, who edited a new edition of Ulysses in 1984; this cleared up a number of typographical errors in early editions, but also added in some manuscript passages that Joyce had presumably chosen not to include in the original publication – though as the printing of Ulysses was a complex business, there is much room for doubt and debate here.

New paragraphs appears in Chapter 9, in the context of a discussion of Shakespeare, and especially of Pericles. As a comment on: ‘My dearest wife, Pericles says, was like this maid. Will any man love the daughter if he has not loved the mother?’ comes this:

—Will he not see reborn in her, with the memory of his own youth added, another image?
Do you know what you are talking about? Love, yes. Word known to all men. Amor vero aliquid alicui bonum vult unde et ea quae concupiscimus…

The Latin is a mash-up of a passage from Aquinas, and its import is that love wills goodness because we seek out what we desire.

I don’t know how far Mr Gruber was justified in adding this passage from a manuscript draft, though to do so would definitely not be the act of a conservative editor. Joyce had I think not protested its absence from any of the editions published during his lifetime.

But even if one accepts that the interpolation is justified, it still seems to me to be an odd phrase. ‘Love’ is not the only word known to all men. What about life, death, food, drink, danger…? I’m sure you can think of more.

My theory – which you can take or leave, is that he’s here referring to a special word: one known to all men, though in 1904 it was never written down and never uttered in polite society. A word which belonged strictly to men’s private conversation, and which no woman was supposed to know.

In other words, ‘word known to all men’ is ‘fuck’ or ‘fucking’. A word that Stephen even in his interior monologue refers to by a circumlocution or euphemism.

Follow this reading, when Stephen sees the pretty girl, his mind turns not to a pure love, but to sex. In turn the Nighttown fantasy becomes even more lurid and Oedipal, with Stephen in his swirling dream challenging his mother to say a word that admits the basic physical fact of procreation.

Even in the passage Mr Gruber has interpolated, this reading makes sense. In the midst of the discussion of Shakespeare, where Stephen is making a point about love, his inner thoughts turn to physical lovemaking as well as spiritual and fatherly love.

The word ‘fucking’ does appear in the novel, of course, in the coarse language of the English soldiers in the brothel scene. They say it out loud. But for Stephen it is a word that he knows (being a man), but not one that he fully articulates even in his private thoughts.

Maybe someone else has made this suggestion before. Maybe Joyceans will have strong reasons against it. But I’d suggest that this reading makes Ulysses a more challenging and unsentimental book. But what do you think? Does it make sense?


  1. Tom Deveson
    Posted May 15, 2020 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    This is not a proper reply, but it might interest or amuse readers.

    Alfred Noyes wrote in 1922 about Ulysses, under the heading Rottenness in Literature in the Sunday Chronicle:

    ‘It is simply the foulest book that has ever found its way into print…The writing of the book is bad simply as writing…there is no foulness conceivable to the mind of madman or ape that has not been poured into its imbecile pages…the only sound analysis of the book in this country was…that it was ‘couched in language that would make a Hottentot sick’…it is the extreme case of reduction to absurdity of what I have called the ‘literary Bolshevism of the hour’

    Ezra Pound and Alfred Noyes had appeared in the same issue of Poetry in March 1913.

  2. Tom Deveson
    Posted May 15, 2020 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    A swift thought only, because I’m supposed to be elsewhere –

    Molly uses the word twice during her soliloquy. She recalls wanting to shout it out during an orgasm, and then she imagines using it to her husband to let him know [tauntingly] that she’s been to bed with someone else.

    In the erotic letters Joyce wrote to Nora at the end of 1909, he uses it again and again and recalls how she said it repeatedly to him ‘that night in bed in Pola’. He uses it both tenderly and provocatively and [as it were] obsessively. Calling Nora ‘my darling brown-arsed fuckbird’ and in another letter ‘my dark-blue rain-drenched flower’ and in yet another ‘my life, my star, my little strange-eyed Ireland’ – I’d find it difficult to separate those epithets into the proper and improper.

    I’ll try to think more but I’m called away…

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