Jack’s Naughty Bits: The Love Letters of James Joyce

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Jack's Naughty Bits
We are the animals with language and the animals that fall in love and it is our glory and our curse to spend our lives trying to use the one to express the other. Milton called words “dead things with inbreathed sense able to pierce” and though we would have them pierce, too often they thud or hobble. It often surprises me that the study of literature has any objective other than to find the most piercing, beautiful, elegant expressions of the fundamental joys and problems of human existence. We are all of us always lacking the right words, and literature is one of the few places where we sometimes find them. Great books are great because they scribble down what most of us wish we could say but probably will never be able to. Literature should be studied not for its history, but for its impact it has on the living present, and it can only do that if the books we teach still have currency in the quotidian realities of students. No book is great in a vacuum, but only for whatever beauty, poignancy and vitality it contains that can be made to make sense to the contemporary reader. We should read Beowulf, for example, not because it is among the earliest works in English, but to find lines like: “Now, for a time, you find glory in your strength, yet soon sickness or sword shall diminish it, or fire’s fangs, or flood’s surge, or sword’s swing or spear’s flight, or appalling age; brightness of eyes will fail and grow dark; then death shall overcome you, warrior.” Now that’s pathos!


That’s why, to take another obvious example, when one teaches the hermetic, staggering, singular genius of James Joyce, it is not enough to say, “He was the most important, original writer in English in the twentieth century,” and then begin assigning chapters from Ulysses. Nor perhaps does it make sense even to introduce Joyce with Dubliners or Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which, however accessible, are far inferior texts and not what makes Joyce Joyce. In my opinion, students deserve to begin with his letters, especially the racy ones (assuming, perhaps optimistically, a rather progressive classroom). For in a series of notes written to his wife Nora while in his late twenties, Joyce demonstrates what the greatest modern writer in the English language can do in a literary genre most of us have had a go at: the lust letter. And what he does is get nasty — nasty, shocking, and scurrilous, yes, but also real, human, accessible, likeable and, always, brilliant. The Joyce that one finds in the letters is a writer you want to keep reading, a complex figure who you admire and empathize with. This disposition goes a long way toward making you want to read Ulysses — and helping you understand it.


In the letter below Joyce confesses the impact Nora’s sexy letters have had on him. Stereotypes would have us believe that men don’t get aroused by “mere” words, but anyone who’s ever received a pink, perfumed, prurient bit of poetry knows that’s not the case (and, truth be told, it sounds like Nora was sending some real humdingers). Joyce’s response is the only one appropriate — more! — and the words he finds to express both the simple sentiment and the complex libido that underlies it are sure proof of the power of the pen. In the days before phone sex and Internet chat rooms, this is the way it was done. Or the way it was done right.


James Joyce to Nora Barnacle Joyce, December 9, 1909

You say [your letter] is worse than mine. How is it worse, my love? . . . You say what you will do with your tongue (I don’t mean sucking me off) and in that lovely word you write so big and underline, you little blackguard. It is thrilling to hear that word (and one or two others you have not written) on a girl’s lips. But I wish you spoke of yourself and not of me. Write me a long long letter, full of that and other things, about yourself, darling. You know now how to give me a cockstand. Tell me the smallest things about yourself so long as they are obscene and secret and filthy. Let every sentence be full of dirty, immodest words and sounds. They are all lovely to hear and to see on paper even but the dirtiest are the most beautiful . . .

I am happy now, because my little whore tells me she wants me to roger her arseways and wants me to fuck her mouth and wants to unbutton me and pull out my mickey and suck it off like a teat. More and dirtier than this she wants to do, my little naked fucker, my naughty wriggling little frigger, my sweet dirty little farter.

Goodnight, my little cuntie. I am going to lie down and pull at myself till I come. Write more and dirtier, darling. Tickle your little cockey while you write to make you say worse and worse. Write the dirty words big and underline them and kiss them and hold them for a moment to your sweet hot cunt, darling, and also pull up your dress a moment and hold them in under your farting bum. Do more if you wish and send the letter then to me, my darling brown-assed fuckbird.

last week next week

Jack Murnighan‘s stories appeared in the Best American Erotica editions of 1999, 2000 and 2001. His weekly column for Nerve, Jack’s Naughty Bits, was collected and released as two books. He was the editor-in-chief of Nerve from 1999 to 2001, before retiring to write full time and take seriously the quest for love.

Introduction ©2000 Jack Murnighan and, Inc.