Noserag

In Brief

Joyce had a lifelong aversion to hyphens. When words needed to be combined, he made one compound word. Ordinary compound words like "stairhead," "dressinggown," "gunrest," and "handkerchief" may not call much attention to themselves, but the novel soon introduces more startling examples, such as Mulligan's request, "Lend us a loan of your noserag to wipe my razor.” That coinage generates others in the next few paragraphs: “snotgreen” (cruder still), “oakpale” (lyrical), “snotgreen” (again), and “scrotumtightening” (la pièce de résistance).

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This part of Telemachus also displays another feature of Joycean language that shaped A Portrait and continues throughout Ulysses: a tendency to repeat words or phrases in such a way as to induce meditation and accumulate resonance. The snotgreen sea soon becomes linked with the green bile that Stephen’s mother vomited into a bowl, and Stephen’s mother comes into the conversation because Mulligan calls the sea “our great sweet mother,” “Our mighty mother!” The green sea becomes “a bowl of bitter waters” like the one beside the bed. And the waters are bitter not only because they remind Stephen of his mother’s suffering but also because a Yeats song which he sang for her mentions “love’s bitter mystery.” Stephen's fear of drowning in the sea becomes linked with his fear of being swallowed up in guilt over the mother whom he loves and fears. Words generate more words in Ulysses, and the reader will soon discover that this can happen not only in adjoining paragraphs but also across vast distances. 

In these several paragraphs, which are not at all unusual in Ulysses, one encounters something like a prose poem in which words clump together, separate, generate new words, associate in new ways. The image at right identifies interpenetrating clusters of sound and sense:

nose, snot, mouth, taste, eating, vomiting, bile
sea, water, liquid, bowl, bay
the color green
razor, blade, killing, death
mothers

This prose poem (constructed, admittedly, by the note-writer's decision to excerpt several paragraphs of Joyce's narrative) begins with attention to the word “noserag,” and ends in the same way. It could have started earlier, beginning perhaps with the bowl in which Mulligan has stirred his lather, or Stephen’s fear of drowning in the sea. 

JH 2011

A congregation of words.