‘Ulysses’ in the dock

A Book Review by Frances Devlin-Glass

Joseph M. Hassett: The Ulysses Trials: Beauty and Truth Meet the Law, Lilliput Press, Dublin, 2016
ISBN: 9781843516682
RRP: €25

For those with a literary bent, with legal training, interested in censorship or with a James Joyce obsession, this is an engaging and enlightening read. While it does not provide the big picture about censorship which Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses does so admirably (winner of many prestigious non-fiction awards), it does deal with the 1921 and 1933 trials in close detail, and contests Birmingham’s account of Quinn’s performance as defence counsel for the first trial. He brings to the job a background in literary criticism (which could do with a bit of updating in the areas of narratology and postmodern theorising) and also extensive trial experience in the USA, which is extremely useful to the lay reader about legal intricacies (moi).

Birmingham made quite clear (contrary to Hassett’s claims) that Quinn’s heart wasn’t in the trial and that he was probably a prude, not good qualifications for a trial which would attempt to settle the censorship battle of the century, but Hassett is able to prove the case convincingly by adducing more evidence. Although presented by others (notably Jack Yeats) with pointers to the winning arguments, Quinn, whose tastes in avant-garde art did not keep pace with Joyce’s drive for truth-telling, perversely not only failed to use the advice tendered, but misused it. Hassett is particularly good on Quinn’s equivocations about the novel in his first trial. He excoriates Quinn’s false analogies (outlined in a letter to Pound), and his reliance on the defence that the text was unintelligible, incomprehensible, obscure, and unlikely to corrupt. A manifestly weak argument, and one that is élitist and self-serving, from which the novel has suffered subsequently a great deal. It was not a defence based on the quality of the writing, or on a deep understanding of Joyce’s intentions in writing, nor did it demonstrate any understanding of Joyce’s systematic questioning of what a literary text may and may not be about. Sexuality, and how others might esteem him, appear to have been problems for Quinn.

I prefer Birmingham’s account of the second trial, with its artistic commitment to scene-setting and pacing the narrative. It is much more of a page-turner, and demonstrates triumphantly the more open mind of Judge Woolsey, and his and Ernst’s commitment to deeply understanding Joyce’s extraordinary experiment not only with depicting what was considered outrageous and objectionable in the way of subject-matter (bodies mainly), but also with teaching one another the joys of free indirect discourse and how Joyce deploys it.

Hassett’s book also brings into the the public domain the influence of Judges Augustus Hand and Learned Hand (cousins) whose job it was to sit on a panel appealing Woolsey’s decision. Learned Hand appears to have been a rather laconic soul who considered Woolsey ‘a bit of a show-off’, and too literary, ‘a dangerous thing for a judge to be’ unless ‘brilliant’. Their brilliant contribution to the debate was to bring literature within the ambit of the scientific. Hassett comments with his own wry wit: ‘Molly would have been proud to see her insight lauded as scientific’. My comment is that the naturalist literary enterprise was in this judgment richly vindicated. Again, and no doubt influenced by Woolsey, the legal argument reverted to what is referred to in broad-brush-strokes as ‘streams of consciousness’. It may not be what Virginia Woolf might have understood by the term, but it was a step in the direction of better understanding of Joyce’s narrative strategies.  The erotic was for literary purposes deemed a fit subject for art on the grounds of its truthfulness, and its contribution to the whole work.  It was absolutely critical that Woolsey and Ernst had read, as many a time-poor and less energetic judge and attorney might, not just the offending passages but the novel in its entirety. Hand also applied the ‘dominant effect’ test, and the Ulysses cases, with Hand’s help, broke new ground effectively and permanently challenging obscenity laws and discarding Victorian reticence and repression of sexuality in literature.

While I am grateful for the expert testimony on the legal side, the book falls down for this reader on one major score: it begs the question of what is Truth and Beauty, key terms in his subtitle and argument passim. Hassett continually invokes these ‘transcendental signifiers’ as if they have meaning independent of the power structures that create them as unquestionable goods to which everyone will pay obeisance. I can get on board with his argument when he talks about Joyce’s drive towards ‘veracity’, though I’d prefer the more literary terms, ‘realism’ or ‘hyperrealism’, though these terms also need justification, definition, and precision in their usage. Literary criticism as practised contemporaneously is highly aware of institutionally powerful imperatives to create concepts like Beauty and Truth, and to question whom they serve. And they are critical to any debate about censorship.

Hassett very entertainingly gives accounts of Joyce’s good manners towards Quinn in receiving the news of the failure of the first trial. He was unexpectedly restrained, but he goes on to offer two pieces of evidence of Joyce’s incorporation of the trial into the rewriting of Ulysses (why am I not surprised?): he argues that Anderson and Heap’s claims as publishers of the iconoclastic Little Review that they ‘gloried’ in it, and they were indeed proud and steadfast supporters of literary avant-gardism, were transmogrified in the Circe episode into the Veiled Sybil’s declaration (just before she suicides melodramatically), ‘I’m a Bloomite and I glory in it’.  The other detail of the trial that makes its way into the text is the expert testimony of Phillip Moeller that Joyce drew on Freudian thinking. This is transformed into Dr Buck Mulligan’s spoofing testimony as a ‘sex specialist’ at Bloom’s trial. Both are witty grits turned into comic pearls in Ulysses.

Nonetheless, despite my literary reservations, this book contributes to the debate about censorship and explains why Joyce’s great novel was held up from publication in most of the Anglophone world by its incompetent black-letter legal defence in 1921. Three cheers for Sylvia Beach who, in 1922, published the novel, and for defence lawyer Ernst, and Judge Woolsey who actually read the book when they took up the legal challenge again in 1933, and were open-minded about the assault Joyce mounts on the silence around bodies and sexuality in literature.

The first generation of appreciative readers of Ulysses were indeed a liberal-minded lot who took the care to make the investment as readers that this complex text demands. I’m in awe of them. It’s so much easier for those who come after, who learn from what they laboured to teach us.

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances is the founding Artistic Director of Bloomsday in Melbourne and a member of the Tinteán editorial collective.