Nothing in black and white

Nothing in black and white

In Brief

During Bloom's brief absence from the pub in Lestrygonians, Nosey Flynn says "there's one thing he'll never do," and he mimes the action by pretending to write his signature on the table beside him. Davy Byrne says, "I know." "Nothing in black and white," Flynn affirms. This attribution sounds suspiciously like an antisemitic slur casting Jews as financially cunning, but Flynn has just been talking at length about Freemasonry, and there is more evidence to suggest that he is thinking of that order's obsession with secrecy—in particular, a Masonic oath that Bloom recalls in Circe.

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Gifford notes an "assumption that all Jews were averse to swearing an oath on signing a contract" (presumably because such oaths would have drawn on Christian religious language), and Sam Slote echoes him, remarking that Bloom's refusal to sign his name "Follows from the (erroneous) superstition that Jews are forbidden from signing legal contracts." But Gifford also supposes that Flynn is expressing "the suspicion of Bloom's secretiveness as a Mason." (Thornton and Johnson do not attempt to gloss the passage, and Kiberd rather unhelpfully remarks that it concerns Bloom's reluctance to "sign a cheque.")

In a personal communication, Des Gunning puts his money on the Masonic interpretation, citing an oath sworn by new members of the fraternal order to keep its mysteries secret. Malcolm C. Duncan's Ritual and Monitor of Freemasonry (1866) records a version of this oath, in which the candidate had to "sincerely promise and swear, that I will always hail, ever conceal, and never reveal, any of the arts, parts, or points of the hidden mysteries of Ancient Free Masonry" to anyone not known to be a fellow Mason. "I furthermore promise and swear that I will not print, paint, stamp, stain, cut, carve, mark, or engrave them, or cause the same to be done, on any thing movable or immovable, capable of receiving the least impression of a word, syllable, letter, or character, whereby the same may become legible or intelligible to any person under the canopy of heaven, and the secrets of Masonry thereby unlawfully obtained through my unworthiness."

To be sure, the oath does not obligate one never to sign one's name or commit mundane transactions to writing, but given Flynn's lurid preoccupation with the secrecy of Masons it is entirely reasonable to suppose that he might attribute such reluctance to a man whom he supposes to be a Mason. And much later in the novel it becomes clear that Bloom has in fact taken the oath. At the end of Circe, in language nearly identical to that recorded in Duncan's work, he mumbles his commitment to conceal the sacred mysteries: "swear that I will always hail, ever conceal, never reveal, any part or parts, art or arts . . ."

For what it's worth, Davy Byrne for one did not subscribe to the doctrine of "Nothing in black and white." Senan Moloney reports that on a wall of his pub, next to the women's restroom, hangs a postcard which he apparently mailed back home in September 1912 telling his employees and friends that he was having a good time in America, had "Enjoyed the parade," and hoped that they all were well. He signed it "DB."

John Hunt 2020
Illustration (p. 33) from Duncan's Ritual and Monitor of Freemasonry (1866) showing a "candidate taking the oath of an Entered Apprentice," with a Master Mason holding a gavel behind the altar and a Conductor standing behind the candidate. Source:
Illustration from Duncan's ritual (p. 19) showing compasses placed on the altar, "both points covered by the square." Source:
Postcard sent by Davy Byrne from America in September 1912 to his colleagues in the pub, displayed on one of the pub's walls. Source: Senan Moloney.