High grade ha
High grade ha
Among the many daring forms of verbal inventiveness in Ulysses, one major feature from Calypso onward is the truncation of words. Thoughts, dialogue, and narrative are studded with fragments, abbreviations, acronyms, and single letters plucked from the beginnings and ends of words. Joyce's aim may be, in part, simply to mimic the ways in which human beings use language, but he also deploys these devices to comic effect and explores their linguistic, epistemological, and hermeneutic implications. The pattern of shortening words is established when Bloom picks up his "Plasto's high grade ha."
These four words appear in a "sweated legend in the crown" of the hat, suggesting that the final letter may have been worn away by repeated use, or obscured by "hairoil," or sewn out of sight in a seam. Things like that happen to printed letters all the time, and a lesser novel would supply the missing one on the premise that that's what such a fragment is really saying. Joyce had a finer and quirkier sense of reality. He presents the mutilated morphology as is and goes out of his way to suggest that it has been perpetuated in Bloom's consciousness, becoming a new word that he recalls whenever he looks in his hat. When the object is featured again at the beginning of Lotus Eaters, the narrative's free indirect style shows how he thinks of it: "Under their dropped lids his eyes found the tiny bow of the leather headband inside his high grade ha."
Many interpretive responses to this shortened word are
possible. One writer of a weblog (www.spectacle.org) infers
that the entire novel is a high grade (allusive, intellectual,
pretentious) ha (a big joke, sending up the overly serious
reader). Alternatively, one might note that, in the moment
before Bloom's eyes spot the hat's "legend" in Lotus
Eaters, he has been reading other "legends" on packets
of tea in a shop window: "In Westland row he halted before the
window of the Belfast and Oriental Tea Company and read
the legends of leadpapered packets: choice blend, finest
quality, family tea. Rather warm. Tea. Must
get some from Tom Kernan." Has one company's legend poached a
letter from another's, conscripting it to serve in making a
new kind of meaning? In Lestrygonians, Bloom is still
repeating the T in memory and dwelling on its sound: "Tea.
Tea. Tea. I forgot to tap
Whatever one may make of this verbal odd duck, it certainly
is not flying solo. Lestrygonians features many such
single letters. Some are familiar and unremarkable: Jack
Power's father, Bloom thinks, was "a G man"—a
plainclothes officer in Dublin
Castle employed by the G division of the D. M. P. , which surveilled
Fenian activity. But the novel
has itself produced Y and S men a few pages earlier, when a
sandwichboard display passes by Bloom on Westmoreland Street:
"A procession of whitesmocked men marched slowly towards him
along the gutter, scarlet sashes across their boards. . . . He
read the scarlet letters on their five tall white hats: H. E.
L. Y. S. Wisdom Hely's. Y lagging behind drew a chunk
of bread from under his foreboard, crammed it into his mouth
and munched as he walked." Bloom crosses the street when "apostrophe
S had plodded by." Just as T becomes estranged from
signifying Plasto's hats and advertises a different product,
so Hely's personified letters stray away from their word,
become separate entities, and threaten to signify something on
Perhaps Y and S mean nothing at all, but the whole string of
men with letters on their chests makes Bloom think of
acronyms, in which each individual letter initiates a word:
"Like that priest they are this morning: we have sinned:
we have suffered." The priest in Lotus Eaters
had IHS emblazoned on his surplice, prompting Bloom to grasp
at the significance: "I have sinned: or no: I have suffered,
it is." He returns now to this mistaken interpretation, just
as earlier in Lestrygonians he returned to a second
acronym he thought of in the church, INRI: "Iron nails ran
in." Such abbreviations usually have clear meaning to an
in-crowd: every Latin-trained priest knows that INRI signifies
Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum, Jesus of Nazareth, King
of the Jews. But even churchmen differ on the significance of
IHS: do the letters mean In Hoc Signo or Iesus
Hominum Salvator? In fact the foreign-language
estrangement goes one level deeper: both constructions falsify an
original Greek signification.
Isolated letters, whether traveling alone or strung together
in acronyms and similar abbreviations, invite readers to
complete the communicative circuit by supplying other letters
necessary to make some word or words. They invite inference,
but at the same time they conceal the thing signified from
those who do not already know the words. Anyone not in the
know may wallow in ignorance for years, which is what has
happened to readers of Ulysses from two more letters
in Lestrygonians. Someone has scrawled "U.P.: Up"
on a postcard and sent it to Dennis Breen, who goes half mad
with paranoid inference. Breen feels certain that he knows
what the letters mean, and perhaps the jokester who mailed the
card does too. Intrepid annotators can join them by
identifying some highly plausible
referents, but it is always possible that Jim is having
a high grade ha at their expense, and that the prankster is
doing the same with Breen.
The novel contains some less interesting abbreviations drawn
from common speech which nevertheless twist readers' minds in
similar knots as they try to supply the missing letters. In Calypso
Bloom thinks of "M'Auley's down there: n. g. as
position," almost certainly shorthand for "no
good." (The "first principle of real estate" is location,
location, location!) In Lestrygonians he imagines that
ads for gonorrhea treatments have been posted in greenhouses "on the q.
t.," which Slote, citing Brewer's Dictionary of
Phrase and Fable, says means "quiet." (By subtracting
the three letters between the initial letter and the last one,
perhaps?) In Eumaeus Bloom thinks that hiring a cab
to ride home with Stephen might be a good idea "in their then
condition, both of them being e.d.ed."
Gifford and Slote both gloss the abbreviation as slang for
"exhausted," but the provenance is unclear, and the chapter's
narrator makes matters worse by tacking a second "ed" onto the
first one to form a spectacularly inept past participle.
Other not-quite-acronymic abbreviations sprout up in
institutions like the aristocracy and the clergy that heap
multiple titles on their distinguished members, finding it
helpful to coin shorthand versions that can be hung on a name
like medals on a chest. Joyce clearly enjoyed the absurdity of
this. At the beginning of Wandering Rocks "Father
Conmee S.J." (Society of
Jesus) chats with the wife of "Mr David Sheehy M.P."
(Member of Parliament), walks on, sees a sign announcing that
"The reverend T. R. Greene B.A." (Bachelor of Arts)
"will (D.V.)" (Deo volente, God willing)
"speak," steps onto a tram from which "Nicholas Dudley C.
C." (Curate in Charge) has just stepped off, and ponders
the mission of "saint Peter Claver S.J." to the many Africans
"to whom the faith had not (D.V.) been brought." Cyclops supplies
a long list of clergymen adorned with 17 such tags. They name
real titles and orders, but the prevalence of a handful of
favored capitals (especially C, O, P, S, and D) gives the
impression that the letters are somehow copulating and
Cyclops also heaps a smothering truckload of 19
honorific abbreviations on "H. R. H." (His Royal Highness)
George, Prince of Wales: "K. G., K. P., K. T., P. C., K. C.
B., M. P, J. P., M. B., D. S. O., S. O. D., M. F. H., M. R. I.
A., B. L., Mus. Doc., P. L. G., F. T. C. D., F. R. U. I., F.
R. C. P. I. and F. R. C. S. I." Some of the titles are
genuine, some are real but weirdly inapplicable, and some are
simply mocking. The game of discerning just what kind of honor
might be signified by such abbreviations spins off, in other
parts of Ulysses, into sheer inventive play, as when Aeolus
headlines turn the crude taunts "kiss my arse" and "kiss my
royal Irish arse" into the respectable-sounding "K. M. A."
and "K. M. R. I. A." In Scylla and Charybdis a
meaningless mnemonic turns out to carry a message when Stephen
ponders his debt to George
Russell: "A. E. I. O. U."
Distinct from these many initial-letter abbreviations are the
times when a single letter is subtracted from a word, as in
the case of Bloom's ha. Other such words occur to him quite
naturally as reflections of idiomatic speech. In Lotus
Eaters he thinks of a poor street urchin "Waiting
outside pubs to bring da home. Come home to ma, da."
In Aeolus he uses a staple of hurried newsroom
discourse when he asks Nannetti to insert a short paragraph
about Alexander Keyes' business into the paper: "Well, you can
do that and just a little par calling
attention. You know the usual. Highclass licensed premises.
Longfelt want. So on." Later in the chapter another
newspaperman uses the same shorthand: "— Of course, if
he wants a par, Red Murray said earnestly, a pen
behind his ear, we can do him one."
Readers may infer that every such fragment is mere slang, as insignificant as ma or da. If they do, they will miss the rich suggestiveness of "ba" in Nausicaa. A sleepy Bloom notices a bat flitting about in the evening sky: "Ba. What is that flying about? Swallow? Bat probably." Is Bloom somehow tiredly laboring to articulate the word "bat"? Not likely, because he first wonders if the flying animal is a bird, and then decides it is a bat, with no difficulty of recall. Is he merely expelling air from his lips to express his frustration at not knowing what the animal is, in a low-energy form of "Bah!"? Possibly, but why then does he repeat the tiny sentence ("Ba.") three more times over the course of the next paragraph and a half?A glimpse of what Joyce may be doing here comes into somewhat clearer focus if one realizes that Bâ is an English transliteration of the Egyptian hieroglyphic for a part of the human soul that survives death and flies away like a bird. In many of the sentences after Bloom's four uses of the word, he thinks about "Metempsychosis" and metamorphosis and fancies that the bat is "Like a little man in a cloak." But it seems unlikely that Bloom would know much about ancient Egyptian metaphysics, so perhaps Joyce is layering his own learned symbolism on his protagonist's relatively unsophisticated thoughts—as happens often in the novel. Still, the reader is challenged to construe Bloom's thought process each time he articulates the syllable. One thing is clear: the fragment does not signify "bat" in any simple, one-to-one way, but it does link the flying mammal with the flying soul-principle.
At other times, the novel shows Bloom hearing or seeing part of a word and struggling to identify the complete unit. Hades registers his hearing "Oot: a dullgarbed old man from the curbstone tendered his wares, his mouth opening: oot" just before revealing what the old man is selling: "Four bootlaces for a penny." In Lestrygonians, he spots four letters on a YMCA pamphlet and for a second wildly supposes that his own name may be on it: "Bloo... Me? No." The word is "blood." This brief adventure of sense-making, enlivened by a witty elaboration of M into "Me," illustrates the pervasive human habit of seizing on some bit of information plucked from the welter of sensory experience and guessing at the larger pattern it may represent. Daniel Kahneman's 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow argues that the human brain is constantly leaping to conclusions by such heuristic shortcuts.
Having seen himself on a piece of paper by adding a letter
that is not there, Bloom later finds himself removed from a
piece of paper by the subtraction of a letter that should be
there. In Eumaeus he is "Nettled not a little" to see
that the Evening Telegraph has listed an "L. Boom"
among the mourners at Dignam's funeral. At the graveside, the
reporter Joe Hynes, who knows Bloom well enough to borrow
money from him but not well enough to remember his "christian name," has gotten him
to say that it is "L . . . Leopold." This initial letter finds
its way into the paper but then disappears from the
surname—almost as if a typesetter robbed the L from an
adjoining word to complete the line. (The same article
contains a line of badly "bitched type," which Bloom
attributes to a typesetter's distraction.)
As with the migratory T, the sliding L raises interpretive
questions for readers: should it be regarded merely as an
instance of the proofreading problems to which daily
newspapers are susceptible, or does it evoke something
distinctive about Bloom? Critics have noted more than once its
affinity for the "contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality"
in Proteus, where Jesus the Jew makes a big boom. For
Bloom himself, the change becomes just another amusing quirk
to incorporate into his self-image: "L. Boom pointed it out
to his companion B. A." (Stephen Dedalus, Bachelor of
In addition to any other kinds of sense that one may make of
Joyce's verbal truncations, it seems fair to say that his
novel captures the bewilderment and epistemological pluck of
human beings plunged into the maelstrom of linguistic
mutability. Botched type, obscured print, fragmentary sight,
imperfect hearing, advertising gimmicks, highbrow titles,
insider patois, idiomatic slang, foreign words, beguiling
coincidences: all these things throw chaff at the mind's
radar, muddying the waters of communication and making
language something more than a logically arranged sequence of
clearly articulated concepts.