Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Gruesome Carnage of the Joyce Wars

One of the best things about the series of tubes we call the Internet is that it can send you tumbling down branching paths of discovery that you would never normally venture along, or which would have taken months or even years of conventional library research or study. (Plinko from The Price is Right, above, was intended as a metaphor for the branching paths of discovery, and I’m keeping it even though it doesn’t really work. I always liked Plinko.)

Anyway, start researching something apparently straightforward like panda bears or Mark Twain, and you will almost certainly end up learning about all manner of outlandish bric-a-brac like mezuzahs, Port Foozle, Zam-Zammah, or even Plinko.

This is especially good for me because I love to read but have never been very good at the business of switching gears while reading: tracking down material from footnotes, looking related things up in indexes, cross-referencing, switching from book to book to verify a detail. Once I start reading something in an encyclopedia I just keep right on reading all the articles in alphabetical order until hunger forces me to stop.

For example, if I read that so-and-so was a follower of Wittgenstein or Kierkegaard or Schopenhauer, and if I am embarrassingly ignorant of just exactly what the hell a Wittgenstein is, I will more often than not just skip over the offending word without a second thought and continue reading about good old so-and-so. If this Wittgenstein jerk is really that important, I say to myself, he’ll pop up on his own and present himself to me when the time is right. So far this hasn’t happened. Wittgenstein might as well be a brand of floor wax as far as I know.

So, the Internet is a perfect way for me to fill some of those gaping holes in my basic knowledge. For example, after an hour on Wikipedia yesterday I finally, definitively grasped the difference between Plutarch and Petrarch.

One of my virtual research binges yesterday plunged me deep into a very interesting morass, something which I hadn’t known about at all: The cataclysmic Joyce Wars of the late 1980s.

The battle focussed on a new edition of Ulysses which came out in 1984, and which was intended to be somehow definitive. I’ll give as brief an overview of the kerfuffle as I can.

Apparently, the Joyce Estate, who in everything I’ve read seem to be colossal assholes, decided to commission a shiny new edition of Ulysses primarily for the purpose of renewing their copyright for another 70 years. The new book would then entirely replace all the older editions, and they would continue to rake in the dough.

So, to summarize the project: the greatest novel of the 20th century would be substantially revised and recopyrighted, not in order to make the book better, but so that the author’s great-grandchildren wouldn’t have to work.

Admittedly, Ulysses is a book with a very complicated printing history, and most scholars seem to agree that every edition so far has between several hundred and a couple thousand errors or problems in it. So, in spite of the Joyce Estate’s rather unscholarly motives for obtaining a “new” Ulysses at any cost, their project to create an authoritative new edition created a lot of genuine excitement and support among Joyce scholars.

Whom did the Joyce Estate select to edit this grand new edition? Hans Walter Gabler, a scholar working in Munich, who had conceived an idealistic, laboriously computer-aided editorial method that he was convinced would unerringly produce the Platonic text of Ulysses as Joyce would have intended it. Let me run that by you again. A German came up with a rigid philosophical basis for exactly how something should be done, and decided in advance that no deviation from the course would be accepted. What could possibly go wrong?

Gabler’s method involved creating a computerized (this was revolutionary when he started it in the late 70s) “synoptic” text which would cross-reference all the variations in certain versions of the text. However, it seems that there were several problems with his command of English, the way he proceeded with the edits, and his inflexibility about the project, and he ended up alienating two of the respected Joyce scholars who were supposed to be overseeing the new edition. The book was published anyway, and was supposed to serve as the definitive edition for decades to come. It was, in fact, the only edition being printed for much of the 1980s.

Then a relatively young scholar named John Kidd started poking holes in Gabler’s grand construction, claiming angrily in the New York Review of Books that Gabler had introduced hundreds of new errors not extant in previous editions. Kidd’s printed arguments centered on a couple cases where Gabler had misspelled the names of verifiable citizens of Dublin - names which had been spelled right in previous editions.

After Kidd’s first article in the New York Review, there followed a spate of responses and letters back and forth between Kidd and the Gablerites. The exchanges are all online, and even if you’re not into the minutiae of editing they’re still a great read. I’m personally very interested in Joyce and the approaches people take to editing his books, but I’m far from knowledgeable enough about the textual problems of Ulysses to be able to judge Gabler, Kidd or anyone else’s insights into what should be done about this ellipsis or that comma. However, I soon found what I knew about Gabler’s methods and attitude to be annoyingly... (can I say this?) Teutonic. God knows I love many, many Germans, and many, many things about Germany, but I think we can all agree that there is a certain... tendency toward philosophical idealism? in the region. A certain desire for everything to be perfect, even if it means sweeping imperfections under the rug in the form of massive self-delusion. I witnessed this firsthand in 2002, when everyone was deeply, deeply shocked that prices suddenly doubled after the Euro conversion. But... the government assured us prices wouldn’t change! This is impossible! This can not true be! In any case, I found Gabler and his refusal to admit that his project had any flaws annoying, Kidd entertaining, and the heated scholarly arguments riveting, particularly for the way that Kidd savagely eviscerated anyone who defended the new edition of Ulysses.

In these articles, anyone who tries to stick up for Gabler gets torn apart. John Kidd comes across as the optimal defender for Joyce: pugnacious, iconoclastic, all-knowing, playful, and credible. One of his responses is amusingly written as if from the perspective of a future scholar looking back on the debate after the dust has settled. He even makes little flights of sarcastic Joycean silliness like “Irony abounds. What redounds to Dr. Kidd rebounds. On several grounds, it sounds, he’s out of bounds” (this was mocking Gabler’s imperfect English).

Gabler, on the other hand, however brilliant a scholar he might be, could only in his own defense sputter condescending gibberish like “Dr. Kidd’s argument against the edition of Ulysses, then, is seriously flawed by an elementary failure to distinguish its critically editorial functions before a background of documentary referentiality which he tends to mistake for its representational aim.” Wie, bitte?

It was a classic David and Goliath story: Kidd showed several main figures of the Joyce establishment to be a wrong-headed clique of yes-men pandering to the Joyce estate, and called for the new edition of Ulysses to be pulled from the shelves and replaced with one of the older versions.

I spent the entire afternoon yesterday eagerly reading these articles and related material, and I felt a rush of surrogate joy when I read that John Kidd had been wholly successful in his crusade. Around 1989 Random House decided they’d lost confidence in the trade version of Gabler’s Ulysses, and ended up bringing back an older edition. Kidd had in the meantime been given an important-sounding post at a new Joyce Center at the University of Boston, and his own edition of Ulysses based on his painstaking research was in the works, and would be appearing soon. The End. The Joyce Wars were over, and the good guys had won.

A triumph for critics and nitpickers everywhere, I thought. One clever man had toppled a mini-industry and had very publicly given a pompous, inflexible German professor his comeuppance. Surely Joyce would have approved.

Then I did a quick search on Kidd, to see if his edition of Ulysses had ever come out. Nope. It turns out he’s unemployed, sick and crazy, spending his days wandering angrily around his old college quad, talking to pigeons.

In a quote in the newspaper article about Kidd’s sad state Gabler, glancing down from his pedestal in Munich, murmurs something condescending about how he feels sorry for Kidd, who by the way hadn’t raised more than a half-dozen serious questions about Gabler’s edition (according to Gabler). And this article was from 2002. For all I know, Kidd’s been institutionalized or dead for six years.

My heart sank. What a tragic, if grotesquely fitting, end to the whole thing. I’m glad Gabler’s 1984 edition got discredited, but he clearly didn’t learn any lessons. And in the end, the study of James Joyce probably destroyed John Kidd’s life.

Michael: You were flying today, buddy.

Buster: Yes, I was flying. But a little too close to the sun.

Lucille: You let him go in the sun?


• daVies • said...

Do you know what happened to John Kidd??? I worked with him in 2003 on his edition of Ulysses (mind-blowing stuff) and spoke to him in 2007, but have just read that he is dead. Can you confirm this? Thanks - daVies

Jorn said...

I've also just heard that Kidd has died and am looking for details. I worked with him in the 90s and his health was very poor. His ego was gigantic, though, so I don't see him as saint or savior.

Anonymous said...

In the very early 1980s John Kidd was a frequent visitor to a bookstore I worked at in Santa Cruz and a friendship of sorts developed. Mostly he waxed at length on his enthusiasm for Joyce, (and Jung) filled me in with all sorts of textual details, etc. Over at least a year I must have listened to hours of his discoveries and ideas regarding Ulysses. Even back then he was obviously on a mission. I just now thought to check to see what might have become of him. Sadly he seems to have died. --Stuart