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From the Print Journal

Esperantic Modernism: Joyce, Universal Language, and Political Gesture

© 2017 Johns Hopkins University Press

Incubation Period

In the 1965 movie Incubus, a pre-Star Trek William Shatner, with characteristic avidity, plays the role of Marc, a wounded soldier who comes to the village of Nomen Tuum in search of curative water (fig. 1). While there, he is seduced by a beautiful young succubus, whose appointed task is to prevent Marc’s recuperation and instead deliver his soul to hell. What transpires is a bit too complicated, or silly, to merit recounting in detail, but suffice it to say, in Hollywood-speak, that the film is an arena where Twilight meets The Twilight Zone meets Nietzsche’s The Twilight of the Idols. The director of Incubus, Leslie Stevens, creator of the recently cancelled Outer Limits television series, was seeking a way to make the low-budget black-and-white film distinctively eerie and to market it to the burgeoning art house cinema circuit. He settled on a clever strategy: Incubus’s dialogue would be in the constructed international auxiliary language, Esperanto. Asserting his newly found auteur status, Stevens would not allow the film to be dubbed into any single national language; it would thus always require subtitles. In this case, Esperanto was viewed not as a means of communicating across national borders and promoting universal brotherhood, but of preserving those boundaries, of maintaining an uncanny and succubus-like kernel of foreignness in language itself.[1]

Fig. 1. Incubus (1965), Esperanto scene. 

Ne ĉiam estis tiel—or, to translate Esperanto into English, this was not always so. Esperanto emerged in 1887 with the publication of Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof’s Unua Libro (First Book). Zamenhof, who lived from 1859 until 1917, was a Bialystok (Russian Empire)-born Lithuanian-Jewish ophthalmologist and amateur philologist, who spoke Russian, Yiddish, Polish, and German as a child and taught himself French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and English in early adulthood (fig. 2). In Unua Libro, writing under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto (Doctor One-Who-Hopes), Zamenhof created the language that would surpass its early rival Volapük to become the world’s best-known and most widely spoken constructed international tongue.[2] Zamenhof’s fervent “hope” was to create an auxiliary language that would be easy to learn and could combat the parochialism of national languages that in part generated inter-ethnic and international conflict, these linguistic differences obscuring more fundamental similarities and connections between peoples.[3] Almost a decade before the publication of Unua Libro, a teenaged Zamenhof and his friends “canonized” the “universal tongue” by writing and—it is claimed—enthusiastically singing a four-line anthem in proto-Esperanto, expressing the fundamental aims of the movement:

Malamikete de las nacjes,

Kadó, kadó, jam temp’ está!

La tot’ homoze in familje

Konunigare so debá. (Korzhenkov, Zamenhof, 14)


(Hostile barriers between peoples,

Fall, fall, it is time!

The whole of humanity

Must come together as one family.)[4]

Within a dozen years of the anthem’s creation, and a mere three years after the initial publication of Unua Libro, Zamenhof’s booklet had been translated (often by Zamenhof himself, sometimes by Esperanto aficionados) into Polish, French, German, English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Swedish, Lithuanian, Danish, Bulgarian, Italian, Spanish, and Czech. Around the turn of the twentieth century, the language’s popularity grew rapidly, especially among European intellectuals. It was spoken by Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry (1904), Physics (1906), and Peace (1911); it was also advocated by well-known politicians, including French socialist Jean Jaurès, and celebrated writers such as Leo Tolstoy and George Bernard Shaw.[5]

 Fig. 2. Doctor Zamenhof, creator of Esperanto.

As indicated in its anthemic embrace of “the whole of humanity,” Esperanto from its inception was associated with a progressive democratic socialism and internationalism that defended such universal humanist principles as women’s suffrage, freedom of expression, and widespread literacy. Many of these principles would eventually form the political basis for the League of Nations, where there was sustained debate about making Esperanto an official language of the League.[6] It is noteworthy that Zamenhof was an opthalmologist, as Unua Libro draws heavily on the rhetoric of clear vision propounded throughout Western Enlightenment discourse: if one could only see clearly the root causes of international conflict, the argument went, then one could take the necessary steps to ameliorate them.[7] It is also not incidental that Zamenhof, rather like Quebecer William Shatner, grew up in a home and community in which multiple languages, including Yiddish, were spoken. Zamenhof’s birth name was Leyzer Levi Markovitch Zamenhof, and as Esperanto flourished, his Jewish background did not escape notice.[8] From the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, Esperanto, by proponents and opponents alike, was considered emblematic of the kind of extraterritorial cosmopolitanism often associated with Jews. Adolf Hitler, in Mein Kampf (1925), explicitly linked Esperanto to a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, while Josef Stalin, who for a brief period in his formative years taught himself Esperanto (as did many international socialists of this period, democratic and revolutionary), is said to have eventually come to view it as a “language of spies.”[9] On the other hand, consummately cosmopolitan intellectual Jews like Eric Auerbach associated Esperanto with the banalization and standardization of culture.[10] Although it has periodically been politically repressed, and although its popularity generally declined in the latter part of the twentieth century, today Esperanto is still spoken at a basic level of competency by up to 1.5 million people, with a durable presence in such far-flung places as Hungary, Turkey, Brazil, North and South Korea, Iran, South Africa, Tunisia, and Togo.[11]

Esperanto should be considered in relation to, and indeed a part of, literary modernism. This is so not simply because of the chronological coincidence between the rise and persistence of Esperanto and that of literary modernism, but because the debates around Esperanto intersect with and challenge some of the most-often-asserted ambitions of modernist writers, including internationalism, cosmopolitanism, and a particular, contested kind of universality. From the beginning, Zamenhof envisioned Esperanto not as a lingua franca for doing business or making diplomacy but as a form of creative expression. In Unua Libro, he included his own translation into Esperanto of a poem by Heinrich Heine. Soon afterward, as he continued to publish Esperanto exercise and grammar books, he produced a translation of Hamlet (see, e.g., Polonius’s observation about method and madness: “Kvankam tio ĉi estas frenezo, ĝi tamen havas en si metodon”).[12] By 1910, Zamenhof and other Esperantists had translated a number of English language plays, novels, and poems, including The Tempest, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and As You Like It, Byron’s Heaven and Earth, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Dickens’s The Battle of Life, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, parts of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and Oscar Wilde’s Salomé. Indeed, many modern and classic European plays were performed in Esperanto, including Euripedes’s Iphigenia at Aulis, starring German actress and suffragist Hedwiga Reicher in the title role of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s heroically self-sacrificing daughter.[13]

Beyond asserting its connections to and importance for literary modernism, I want to suggest that a consideration of what I am calling “Esperantic modernism” can also potentially contribute to current debates, both in modernist studies and in literary studies more generally, over “world literature” and translation: is there a persistent Goethean tradition of literature that exceeds national boundaries and is it “the universal possession of mankind,” or does such a notion of translatability efface important cultural, historical and political differences?[14] Moreover, given that Esperanto inherently raises questions about communication and interpretability, an exploration of Esperantic modernism also concerns (and challenges) recent modes of “distant” or “surface” reading that seek to move away from the “hermeneutics of suspicion” and away, too, from phenomenological explorations of language itself and toward a more pragmatic mode of “description” attuned to sociology, computer science, and object-oriented ontology.[15]

Poster for fifth international Esperanto Congress in Barcelona, 1909.

To demonstrate and bolster these contentions, I focus in this article not on those English language writers who actively advocated for Esperanto (like Shaw or like H. G. Wells, who, apparently affirmatively, claimed Esperanto to be the “natural gift of Jewry to mankind”), whose works readily lent themselves to international translation and wide distribution, but on a decidedly more ambivalent and indeed singularly untranslatable figure: James Joyce.[16] More than any other well-known modernist writer, Joyce took Esperanto’s ambitions seriously (even when playing with the constructed language) and in his writing considered the significant obstacles to the language’s success. Indeed, while Esperanto might initially seem incidental to Joyce’s oeuvre—merely one of the dozens of languages and tens of thousands of bits of data he incorporates, ranging from advertising slogans for soap to the various sounds of flatulence to the way water flows through Dublin’s pipes—his references to the constructed language are crucial for modernist scholarship to try to understand. In fact, when Esperanto’s supposedly easy-to-learn cosmopolitan universalism comes into contact with Joyce’s novels’ multiple national and local languages, some of the most persistent and urgent questions confronting modernist literary studies are exposed: the value of difficulty, the status of language as such, and the fraught relation between aesthetics, ethics and politics, especially colonial, postcolonial, and what Joyce dubs “semicolonial” politics. To reconsider and re-theorize these questions in light of Joyce’s engagements with Esperanto in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, I conclude the article by exploring some of Giorgio Agamben’s speculations about language, gesture, and politics, and I make the case for a new perspective on what Stephen Dedalus, in Ulysses, calls “universal language.”[17]

Universal Brotherhood, “Warpeace,” and the Babel of Intelligibility

Ulysses was published in book form in 1922, after World War I dealt a significant blow to Esperantists’ brotherly aspirations, but its events are set in 1904, at the height of Esperanto’s early vogue.[18] In the hallucinogenic “Circe” episode, Leopold Bloom, an Irish Jew whose father had emigrated from Hungary, tries to pass into the red-light district, and is confronted by a sinister-looking “figure” whose “visage” seems injected with “dark mercury” (356).[19] The figure blocks his way and demands “Password. Sraid Mabbot,” to which Bloom uncomfortably responds, “Haha. Merci. Esperanto. Slan leath” (356). Immediately, then, thanks to Bloom’s apparent confusing of the would-be-gatekeeper’s Irish (for Mabbot Street) with Esperanto, and use of French, the universal language is associated not with openness and understanding but with gatekeeping and a secret code or password.[20] Soon afterward in “Circe,” Bloom is named Lord Mayor of Dublin. In grand oratory, and with considerable self-importance, he proclaims

I stand for . . . [u]nion of all, jew, moslem and gentile. Three acres and a cow for all children of nature. . . . Tuberculosis, lunacy, war and mendicancy must now cease. General amnesty, weekly carnival with masked licence, bonuses for all, esperanto the universal language with universal brotherhood. No more patriotism of barspongers and dropsical imposters. Free money, . . . free love and a free lay church in a free lay state. (399)

Bloom associates these political promises with what he calls “the New Bloomusalem in the Nova Hibernia of the future,” but he is eventually accused of fraud and numerous other crimes, and is publicly excoriated and deliciously humiliated (395).

The text’s carnivalesque-cum-deflating portrayal of Bloom’s Esperantic platform is worth lingering over. Obviously, the image of Bloom as Lord Mayor is ridiculous, not merely because his quasi-progressive, quasi-socialist political ideals of a disease-free, peaceful “universal brotherhood” are hopelessly utopian, but because, in the context of Ulysses, they are shown to have their source in Nietzschean ressentiment, which the self-styled “philosopher with a hammer” famously defined as a kind of creative nay-saying by “those beings who, denied the proper response of action, compensate for it only with imaginary revenge.”[21] Indeed, the whole fantasy of power in the Lord Mayor sequence represents Bloom’s “unconscious” response to the xenophobic Citizen (from “Cyclops”), the Irish Republican “barsponger” who had mercilessly badgered and bullied Bloom earlier in the text’s day, not least for being a Jew. Bloom’s persecuted Jewishness undeniably informs his own momentary political advocacy of Esperanto, to rather self-serving effect. Yet while in this sense Ulysses “has a laugh at Bloom,” just as the drunks in “Cyclops” do when Bloom tries to define a nation—“the same people living in the same place . . . or also in different places”—by no means is the impulse to create a “universal brotherhood” by fleeing the restrictive nets of national identity thereby entirely debunked; rather, the ethical and political (indeed geopolitical) impulses inherent in the humanitarian project of which Esperanto is a part survive, as Bloom/Odysseus does in “Circe,” after being mocked (272).

This thread connecting Esperanto with both ethical and political impulses, as well as with carnivalesque debasement and survival, is picked up again and woven more intricately and repeatedly in Finnegans Wake (1939), where, amid the polyphony of tongues through which the text processes utterances, Joyce incorporates over a dozen Esperanto phrases or individual words, grouped into small clusters of pages associated with five or six episodes across three of the novel’s four books. In some cases the Esperanto passage appears largely grammatically correct; in others an Esperanto word is transformed into a Joycean portmanteau; in still others the Esperanto is misused, apparently deliberately.[22] In playing with Esperanto in this way, Joyce tests the boundaries of its communicability and interrogates its claims to potential universality. Moreover, as many of these Esperanto or Esperanto-like passages concern war and international misunderstanding, precisely the arenas in which Esperantists hoped to intervene, Joyce queries the extent and utility of Esperantists’ internationalism.

From the Irish Times,  24th September 1926.

The first use of Esperanto occurs in the Wake’s very early pages, just after the “Willingdone” museum scene, as lead character Humphrey Chittenden Earwicker (HCE) is being introduced though not yet named. As HCE, who is compared to, or embodies, Humpty Dumpty, Finn McCool, and the Duke of Wellington, among many other mythical and historical figures, is said to be asleep, Joyce clearly places the brotherly language of Esperanto within the rhetorical frame of war and peace. The imagined setting is Christmas Eve: “it’s the armitudes toonigh, militopucos, and toomourn we wish for a muddy kissmans to the minutia workers and there’s to be a gorgeups truce for happinest childher everwere” (Finnegans Wake, 11, emphasis added). For those readers of this article not habituated to Joyce’s mode of narration in the Wake, I offer a loose translation, fully aware of the hazards of reduction: “It’s the armistice tonight, warpeace, and tomorrow morning”––“toomourn” preserves the idea of mourning––“we wish for a merry Christmas / kiss mans to the minute / munitions workers, and there’s to be a gorgeous (or vomit-worthy) truce for happy children everywhere” (the initials invoke HCE’s name). The two Esperanto words “milito,” war, and “paco,” peace, are here combined into a neologism, “militopucos,” which, while seemingly nodding to the word “Volapük,” acutely condenses the nauseatingly oxymoronic logic of the Christmas armistice (or “armitides”—which word also preserves the idea of “armies” and “tides,” as though from Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach”).[23] In this way, Esperanto is introduced in the Wake as a kind of pivot point in language between war and peace, in a section precisely about the dubious durability of “peace.”[24]

Soon after this first appearance, Joyce embeds a brief Esperanto phrase in a slightly longer Volapük one, as though to indicate both the connection between the international auxiliary languages and, in a sense, the “birth” of Esperanto out of its dying predecessor.[25] In book 1, chapter  2, just after some of the origins of HCE’s name are first explained, and his obscure crime, insinuated in the previous chapter, is beginning to enter general gossip, the text places both languages into the framework of sexual politics: “[L]ed is the lol. Zessid’s our kadem, villapleach, vollapluck. Fikup, for flesh nelly, el mundo nov” (34, emphasis added).[26] “Led” signifies “red” in Volapük, while “lol” means “rose”; the resulting sentence fragment suggests the saccharinely poetic “red is the rose” (though perhaps the English war of the roses is also referenced, as it is in the early pages of Portrait) and links the “lol” / rose, through the international language of flowers, with the “lily” of “Lilyth” (the name of Adam’s first wife, in the Kabbalah) in the nearby sentence.[27] Yet “led is the lol,” through the multivalency of the portmanteau words, also preserves the English words “lead” and “loll,” as though suggesting a lazy, idle scheming (or seducing) typical of HCE and many other male characters in Joyce’s fiction. Meanwhile “Zessüd” in Volapük means “necessity” and “kadem” academy, so “Zessid’s our kadem” can be rendered “necessity is our academy,” a cliché as tired as Ulysses’s “university of life,” which Leopold Bloom in Ulysses claims is the august institution that awarded him his educational degree. This is followed by the comical, almost Yiddish-inflected “villapleach, vollapluck,” which while asserting “will you please speak “Volapük,” also intimates “peach,” “pluck” (as in Milton’s description of Eve: “she pluck’d, she eat: Earth felt the blow”) and “fuck.”[28]

The rest of the passage extends these sexual politics into the international political realm, and particularly that of imperialism: “Fikop” signifies “Africa” and “Nelij,” England, in Volapük, while “el mundo nov” is proximate to “the new world” in Esperanto (“la mondo nova”), though with the gender of its definite article reversed.[29] So “Fikup for flesh nelly, el mundo nov,” means, in Volapük-English-Esperanto, “Africa, for England (Nelij), is the new world,” but since “flesh Nelly” also signifies “whore” and Fikup contains within it “fuck up,” an obscene insinuation accompanies the inscription of the (for Joyce, equally obscene) imperial power apparatus.[30] In this early part of the novel, then, the two supposedly easy-to-learn universal languages are embedded in knotty interpretive passages, and “the new world” or “mundo nov” that Esperanto’s democratic socialist and internationalist adherents envisioned is contested by the constricting reminders (and remainders) of the political present, including especially colonialism. “Hostile barriers between people” do not, unlike HCE (as Humpty or the biblical Adam), easily or quickly “fall.”[31]

In the following chapter, as HCE imagines a theatrical production of his own life, another, still longer Esperanto phrase can be found, and it, too, humorously inscribes the constructed international auxiliary language in a network of power relations. HCE thinks of himself as akin to Buddha (“the Compassionate”) “called up before the triad of precoxious scaremakers,” which, one presumes, means precocious children who scare one while also invoking “dementia praecox” or premature mental deterioration. In the context of the narrative of the Wake, these three “scaremakers” could represent HCE’s own children, Shem, Shaun, and Issy, or the three soldiers in Phoenix Park with whom HCE/Wellington possibly had some kind of sexual encounter, along with two girls (52).[32] The Esperanto phrase follows in parentheses: “Spegulo ne helpas al malbellulo, Mi kredas ke vi estas prava, Via dote la vizago rispondas fraulino” (52).[33] 

Roland McHugh’s translation of the Esperanto renders this phrase, “A mirror doesn’t help an ugly person. I believe you’re right. Your fortune is your face, replies a young lady,” and, in his indispensable book of Wake annotations, McHugh notes that “My face is my fortune” comes from a “nursery rhyme” that he does not name (Annotations, 52). In fact, the song is called “My Pretty Maid,” though the words from the song appear in the Wake as though they were filtered through the dialogue of an Oscar Wilde society play. “My Pretty Maid” concerns a money-minded gentleman’s attempted seduction of a young farm girl:

Where are you going, my pretty maid?

I’m going a milking, sir, she said.

May I go with you, my pretty maid?

You’re kindly welcome, sir, she said.

What is your father, my pretty maid?

My father’s a farmer, sir, she said.

What is your fortune, my pretty maid?

My face is my fortune, sir, she said.

Then I won’t marry you, my pretty maid.

Nobody asked you, sir, she said.”[34]

As was the case when Leopold Bloom, in Ulysses’s Nighttown, haplessly responded to a request for a password with “Esperanto. Slan Leath,” in the Esperanto passage in the Wake the constructed auxiliary tongue is used to facilitate a possible (though here likely failed) assignation with a young woman of a lower social class. Instead of engendering mutual understanding that would help ensure world peace, Esperanto becomes in this section of the Wake a coded language that would allow for interpersonal domination and exploitation.[35] Here, though, Joyce inverts the gendered logic of the invitation; it is the pursued young woman who responds “Via dote la vizago,” your fortune is your face (doto actually means “dowry”).  

While the earliest references to Esperanto in the Wake thus explore the international political dilemmas of “warpeace” and the sexual desires (and desires for domination) that mirror those political dilemmas, Joyce’s use of Esperanto in book 1, chapter 6 enters the fraught arenas of race and class. This appearance occurs shortly after the introduction of the Mookse and Gripes (in part representatives of Norman invaders and indigenous inhabitants of Ireland, and more generally rich and poor, but also reiterations of brothers Shaun and Shem), who argue at length about time and space in general and Irish geography in particular. In this context another quite long (and garbled) Esperanto phrase appears, immediately following a mention of “mooremoore murgless,” a reference to Moore and Burgess, a famous troupe of England-based blackface minstrels: “Sgunoshooto estas preter la tapizo malgranda. Lilegas al si en sia chambro. Kelkefoje funcktas, kelkefoje srumpas Shultroj. Houldian Kiel vi fartas, mia nigra sinjoro?” (160).[36] “Sconosciuto” means “unknown” or “stranger” in Italian, but the portmanteau “sgunoshooto” also contains within itself “gun” and “shoot.” I pick up the rest of the rather awkward translation of the Esperanto into English from McHugh: The stranger/gunshooter “is beyond the small carpet. He reads to himself in his room. Sometimes functions, sometimes shrinks shoulders. Today how are you doing, my black sir?” (Annotations, 160).[37] The entire passage, which draws as well on the plight of Othello (“mooremoore”), while also invoking Thomas Moore, famous for his “Irish Melodies,” is a variation of the Christy Minstrel “olio,” a kind of precursor to vaudeville banter. During the olio section of the minstrel show, a white performer in blackface would frequently make a preposterous stump speech, full of ludicrous malapropisms.[38] Given that the passage in the Wake is itself in Esperanto—language of transparency and brotherhood—it is no doubt significant that there are (at least) three grammatical errors: “lilegas” should be “li legas,” “funcktas” should (if McHugh’s translation is correct) be “funckcio,” and “houdian” should be “hodiaû—unless these words, like “fartas,” themselves are meant to carry extra, presumably comical, meanings. The question “How are you today, my dark/fair sir?” is one of many recurrent motifs in the Wake, and is expressed in many different languages including French, Irish, Greek, Latin, Russian, Italian, Danish, German, and Kiswahili. In this case, Joyce inserts the question into an obscure, Esperantic farce involving the potential violence of an unknown “gunshooter.”

There are no further significant examples of Esperanto in Finnegans Wake until two brief, related sequences toward the end of the novel, in book 3, chapter 4—the Third Book of Shaun.[39] These sequences take place late at night, and involve Mr. and Mrs. Porter (reiterations or avatars of HCE and his wife ALP, Anna Livia Plurabelle), and their young children, Jerry, Kevin, and Isobel (reiterations or avatars of children Shem, Shaun, and Issy). In the first, Mr. and Mrs. Porter, in bed and trying to have sex, are interrupted by Jerry/Shem’s cries. After Mrs. Porter consoles the terrified Jerry, the two parents begin to communicate in Esperanto, presumably so the children won’t understand. (McHugh’s translation follows the quotation):

Li ne dormis?

S! Malbone dormas.

Kia li krias nikte?

Parolas infanetes. S! (Finnegans Wake, 565)[40]


—He hasn’t slept?

—S! Sleeps badly.

—What is crying at night?                 

—Speaks childishly. (McHugh, Annotations, 565)

It is especially worth regarding the connection Joyce makes, during this moment of coitus interruptus, between Esperanto and infant words (“parolas infanetes”) or babble. Joyce obliquely links Esperanto with the recurrent Wakean theme of the biblical Tower of Babel, in which those post-flood human beings who sought to “make a name” for themselves built a giant tower, whereupon God “scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth” and “confound[ed] the language of the entire earth,” giving the city a name, Babel, which, in ancient Babylonian meant “Gate of God” but in a Hebrew pun of the type found often in the Torah, signifies “Confusion.”[41] As Jacques Derrida notes, the “Babelian theme or the word Babel . . . is coordinated with all the phonemes, semes, mythemes, etc. of Finnegans Wake” (“Two Words,” 25). Joyce seems to suggest with the juxtaposition to Esperanto that the attempt to construct a universal language of brotherhood is akin to trying to build or rebuild the famed fallen tower.[42] 

In another, related, sequence on the following page, Mr. Porter, who drank heavily earlier in the night and keeps trying to have sex with his wife, is admonished by her to cover his loins, as their children, who have apparently entered the room, can see his naked body: “Vidu, porkego! Ili vi rigardas. Returnu, porkego! Maldelikato!” McHugh translates this as: “See, big pig! They are looking at you. Turn back, big pig! How coarse!” (Finnegans Wake, 566; Annotations, 566).[43] Whereas “infant words” in the previous passage invoked Babel, the profusion of unintelligible languages, and divinely mandated diaspora, Mrs. Porter’s coded admonishment to her husband here clearly points to Ham’s curse (by Noah), another crucial and oft-reiterated motif in the Wake. The power politics of the Freudian primal scene bleed into an important if fleeting observation about the history of slavery, since Ham in the biblical narrative is the inheritor of land that medieval theologians assumed was Africa, and hence it was thought that Ham’s curse morally justified the transatlantic slave trade.[44] 

The linkages Joyce makes between Esperanto, religious narrative, and global political history emerge again as the Wake is winding toward its end, also of course its Viconian new beginning, in book 4. In this passage, the soliloquizing ALP, trying to awaken her sleeping and very possibly dead husband, exclaims: “Rise up now and aruse! . . . I am leafy, your golden, so you called me, my me life, yea your golden . . . Yawhawaw. Helpunto min, helpas vin” (619). The final (run-on) sentence in ALP’s (Livia/the “leafy”/Liffey/life) excerpted plea is part correct and part incorrect Esperanto. “Helpanto min” (not “helpunto min”), evoking the noun form that Zamenhof himself used in calling himself Doktoro Esperanto, means “One who helps me,” whereas “helpas vin” in actual Esperanto, denotes “helps you.” ALP is therefore suggesting, “Someone who would help me, helps you.” This would harmonize with the religious overtones that are evident throughout the passage: in the rhetoric of resurrection (“arise,” which may be “a ruse” or even a Russian); in ALP’s pet name “May” (Mary, Joyce’s mother’s name) and in her presumably tearful but possibly laugh-accompanied “Yawhawaw,” which insinuates the tetragrammaton, “YHWH,” the Hebrew God’s unpronounceable and unspeakable name.[45] “Help[a]nto min, helpas vin” also resonates with Jesus’s reminder to his followers that “One who believes in me believes in him who sent me” (και ο θεωρων εμε θεωρει τον πεμψαντα με).[46] But again, the religious overtones and resonances contained in the Esperanto passage are not mere recapitulations of fragments of scripture; rather, invoked and reworked, woven into the confusing fabric of multiple languages, they suggest the psychological stakes of, and political and historical obstacles to, the ethical import of “helping” one another.

“Sprakin sea Djoytsch?”: On and In Communicability[47]

It is perhaps not surprising to readers of Joyce that this little archive of apparently “throwaway” references to Esperanto in Finnegans Wake contains a great deal of meanings that evoke the specter (and “Scepter”) of divine, political, and sexual power. I hope to have demonstrated in the preceding section that Joyce’s engagement with Esperanto occurs at highly specific moments, to refer to war, to British colonialism and imperialism, to racial and class struggle, and to the “battle” of the sexes.[48] It is doubtless true that these themes or conflicts recur throughout the text in many other languages, but their presentation in Esperanto significantly queries the very rationale for a “universal” (auxiliary) language: that it will bring about peace between “brothers.”

And yet, it will surely also have been noticed that there are many striking affinities between the ambitions of Esperantists and those of Joyce himself in writing the Wake. In fact, that “the whole of humanity / must come together as one family,” Zamenhof’s anthemic introduction of what would become Esperanto, succinctly describes both the central conceit of Finnegans Wake and the nightmare of history from which it is trying to awake. More specifically, on the level of the line, the word, and the phoneme, what Joyce tried to accomplish in Finnegans Wake was, in many ways like Dr. Zamenhof’s Esperanto, precisely the creation of a new, “invented” language made up of a network of already-existing other ones.

Consider Joyce’s own post-Babel-like writing immediately before the “parolas infanetes” passage above: Mrs. Porter, trying to cheer up her frightened young son Jerry, who has wet the bed and is terrified of a vision of his angry father, says, or thinks (or, rather, temporary narrator the evangelist Mark, also Tristan’s cuckolded uncle Mark, relates that ALP says or thinks), “Opop opop capallo, muy malinchily malchick! Gothgorod father godown followay tomollow the lucky load to Lublin for make his thoroughbass grossman’s bigness. Take that two piece big slap slap bold honty bottomside pap pap papa” (Finnegans Wake, 565). In this passage, Mrs. Porter/ALP implies, in English, “father” (“pop,” “pap”) and, in Italian and Spanish, “horse” (“caballo”/”cavallo”), as if to console or quiet her son by telling him of his father’s next-day journey. “Gothgorod” brings together an implication of the Goths with the Russian word for “town” (also preserving the word “God”), while “godown” is a word meaning “warehouse,” associated with British trade (especially opium trade) in imperial India and “Free Trade”-era China. After “godown,” which carries as well the simpler meaning “go down,” the text slips into Chinese-inflected English pidgin, in which “going faraway tomorrow down the rocky road to Dublin”—the “Rocky Road to Dublin” was the name of a scenic railway in Coney Island, New York, catering in the early twentieth century to nostalgic Irish-American immigrants—is ventriloquized through the “lucky load to Lublin” (a city in Poland that, not incidentally, before World War II had a majority Jewish population, insinuated perhaps in the “thoroughbass grossman’s bigness,” which also describes HCE/Mr. Porter, a publican and small businessman).[49]

This almost randomly chosen example demonstrates the kind of international, translational thinking that is required for even the most rudimentary understanding of the Wake, the kind of thinking that, like Esperanto itself, in part defies or defuses a univocal notion of national identity. Anthony Burgess, nodding to Michael Frayn, famously dubbed Joyce’s use of language “Eurish,” but Esperanto itself can fairly be described, as Burgess does the Wake, as “a weird sort of pan-European with Asiatic loan-words added.”[50]

While there are thus many evident affinities between Joyce’s writing and Esperanto, it is essential to note that during the composition of the Wake, Joyce, speaking through his younger admirers, emphatically rejected this correlation. In the ostensibly explanatory set of essays Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, originally published in the literary journal transition, Stuart Gilbert asserted that while “the Irish writer’s vocabulary is world-wide,” “it would be wrong to see in Work in Progress . . . any sort of propaganda for an international tongue, a new Volapük or Esperanto.”[51] Similarly, Robert McAlmon claimed that Joyce “does not want to create a new literary esperanto, but he wishes to originate a flexible language that might be an esperanto of the subconscious,” without saying whose sub (or un) conscious is being mined.[52] Joyce himself registers a hilarious denunciation of constructed (a posteriori) languages during one of the many trial scenes in the Wake. Reworking the words of Danish linguist and international language advocate Otto Jespersen, who had written that “the ideal way of constructing an a posteriori language . . . would be . . . to make the grammar a priori in spirit,” one of the fugitive narrators/advocates/witnesses notes, in a parenthetical passage, “in the Nichtian glossery which purveys aprioric roots for aposteriorious tongues this is a nat language at any sinse of the word” (Finnegans Wake, 83).[53] Seaghán Ua Neachtain was the author of an eighteenth-century dictionary of the Irish language, but “Nichtian” clearly draws on the German word “nicht” (not) and, as well, points toward the proper name Nietzsche, himself a rigorous questioner of what has been called the “prison house” of language.[54] “Aposteriorious tongues” refers not only to constructed languages, but with signature Joycean vulgarity insinuates obsequious tongues licking posteriors. “Nat” means “night” in Danish: Danes were one of many invaders of Ireland, and since the Wake is a “novel of the night,” “night language” describes the Wake’s deployment of words. “Sinse” implies the sins of which HCE, and broadly human beings since the fall, stand accused. But more simply and directly, in this phrase Joyce’s unnamed narrator is emphatically announcing that constructed language “is not language in any sense of the word,” or, for that matter, world.

Since languages, even constructed ones, are inherently subject to communicative indirection, Joyce’s writing makes a strong (perhaps the strongest) case for a difficulty that demands active translation and interpretation, rather than mere reception or description, by its readers. In addition, Esperanto’s universalist aspirations, already undermined in the text by their reduction to a sort of secret code, are challenged by their limited geographical scope. Indeed, how “universal” can a universal language be, Joyce appears to ask, if its vocabulary and grammar rely primarily on a combination of languages of the dominant military powers of late-nineteenth century imperial Europe? Joyce’s deployment of a plethora of national and regional languages—grounded in but also undermining the world’s emergent dominant language, English—parodically reveals the philological and political histories of those national and local groupings and their links to conflict, including especially military conflict.[55]        

Yet despite the revelation, in Ulysses, of Esperanto’s potential psychical sources and, in Finnegans Wake, deflation of many of its grandest ambitions, Joyce’s novels do truly seem to reflect Esperantists’ “hope” that a critically cosmopolitan outlook can engender progressive, indeed revolutionary political change. But this hope requires getting from a certain notion of “universality” in language to the realm of political action––no mean feat. In what follows, I offer, by way of conclusion, a few speculations about the enduring political efficacy of the concept of “universal language”—and modernist demands for a certain way of reading that language.[56]

Universal Language and the Gesturality of Politics

Because of the hallucinogenic fireworks of the brothel scene in Ulysses’s “Circe,” it is frequently forgotten that the episode begins bluntly by depicting Stephen Dedalus walking with his acquaintance Lynch in “Nighttown” amid scenes of extreme destitution, degradation, and a general sense of carcerality. Perhaps reflecting on the vision of a “deaf mute” with Tourettic tics being momentarily imprisoned by desperately poor young children, or perhaps noting the presence of the British soldiers guarding the entrance to Mabbot Street, or most likely simply responding to his friend Lynch’s shooing away of a liver-and-white spaniel “with a kick,” a drunk and unfed Dedalus suddenly begins intoning one of the overwrought philosophical musings familiar to readers of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. “So that gesture, not music not odour,” he opines, picking up on an apparently interrupted thought, “would be a universal language, the gift of tongues rendering visible not the lay sense but the first entelechy, the structural rhythm” (Ulysses, 353). Lynch immediately dismisses this claim with the chiastic exclamation “pornosophical philotheology,” yet Stephen’s vision of “universal language” (apparently quite different from Lord Mayor Bloom’s, expressed later in the same episode) must at least be detained before dismissal, even though Stephen’s pretentiousness is surely ironized. Claiming gesture as potentially a “universal language,” Stephen suggests that language (what he calls, with another reference to the tower of Babel, “the gift of tongues”) makes visible not the everyday sense of things but “the first entelechy,” Aristotle’s term for the actualization of potential, with a possible reference as well to God’s making light with a word––the first, or ultimate, performative utterance. Readers of Portrait or the early episodes of Ulysses will recognize that there is still more Aristotle in Stephen’s idea of “structural rhythm”—a key concept in the Poetics. Finally, the fact that the “gesture” in question involves possibly kicking a dog invokes the fragment in Xenophanes about Pythagoras in which the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher first discusses “metempsychosis” and raises the ethical proscription of harming another being with an immortal soul.[57]

Stephen’s windy philosophical claim thus both reveals and queries the relation between language as such, gesture, ethics, and politics, a relation especially pertinent in a chapter that takes the form of a theatrical performance, in which several human characters are corporally punished for political subversion.[58] In his very early (1929) explanation of Giambattista Vico’s importance for Joyce in Work in Progress, Samuel Beckett attributes to Vico the notion that “in its first dumb form, language was gesture,” and crucially maintains that this gesturality remains within language as it “evolves” into poetic writing.[59] This allows Beckett to argue emphatically, against Joyce’s perceived and actual accusers, that in the Wake “form is content, content is form. You complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read—or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something; it is that something itself” (“Dante . . . Bruno,” 14).

In a series of essays written both before and after the young Beckett was ventriloquizing Joyce’s Viconian aspirations, Walter Benjamin addressed the implications of language and gesture for politics in strikingly apposite ways. In his now-famous essay on translation and translatability, for example, Benjamin insists, much as Beckett does in his essay on Joyce’s writing, that a translation’s “essential quality is [neither statement] or the imparting of information”; rather the task of the translator is to encounter and reveal the “pure language” in which a text is “meant in all languages.”[60] In “On Language as Such [or In General] and [On] the Language of Man” (Über Sprache überhaupt und über die Sprache des Menschen), Benjamin suggests that “[f]or an understanding of artistic forms, it is of value to attempt to grasp them all as languages”; these languages involve “not only communication of the communicable but also, at the same time . . . the non-communicable.”[61] In his first essay on Kafka, Benjamin claims that “Kafka’s entire work presents a codex of gestures” and further that “Kafka could grasp some things always only in gesture.” But such gestures, for Benjamin, possess neither “symbolic” nor “mimetic” meanings in themselves; rather, gestures precisely involve and reveal a hesitation before or on the threshold of meaning.[62]

Drawing heavily on Benjamin’s insights, Agamben, who oversaw the translation of Benjamin’s corpus into Italian, has written a number of essays on gesture, although, unlike his directly political-philosophical work on the state of exception, the camp as nomos, and “bare life,” this work has received relatively little critical attention in modernist literary scholarship. In the essay collection Potentialities, responding to the self-posed question “What is a gesture?,” Agamben defines gesture neither as a pre-linguistic phenomenon nor in the classical philosophical sense as something external to language, added for emphasis in order to convince a listener. Instead, he associates gesture with “the muteness inherent in humankind’s very capacity for language” and asserts its “speechless dwelling in language.”[63] By identifying gesture with speechless dwelling, Agamben suggests, in a way that dovetails with Stephen Dedalus’s Aristotelian musings, that gesture is a muteness of language located inside language itself and, moreover, that this gesturality charges language with potentiality.

In the same essay, which concerns the work of the German critic Max Kommerell, Agamben draws on Benjamin’s writing on Kafka, Marcel Proust, and the early modern Spanish dramatist Pedro Calderón de la Barca to suggest that in “genuine” criticism, the kind practiced by Benjamin and Kommerell, and presumably Agamben himself, a concern with literary history or genre is displaced by what he calls “comedic” thinking.[64] In this kind of thinking––and there are echoes of Brecht’s epic theatre here as well––dramatic action is understood not in terms of character or “personality” but rather through disorienting, defamiliarizing gestures. Applying this idea of gesturality to literature and literary history more broadly, Agamben claims that writing like Proust’s “ceases to be the established text that the critic must investigate and then consign, intact and inalterable, to tradition. [One finds] instead the gestures that, in [these] wondrous texts, exhibit only a gigantic lack of memory” (“Kommerell, or On Gesture,” 80). Agamben implies that these wondrous, gigantically amnesiac gestures can, like the Benjaminian Bild or “image,” disrupt the generic and chronological codifications that inform literary history and indeed challenge familiar conceptions of history itself.

Agamben specifically asks “What is a gesture?” a second time in the provocative essay “Notes on Gesture,” in which he suggests that the “crisis of gesturality” that had accompanied many peoples’ shock at the onset of urban modernity in the later nineteenth century entered into the very form of silent cinema in the early twentieth, entailing a loss of gestures in the world.[65] Put succinctly: in cinema, “a society that has lost its gestures tries at once to reclaim what it has lost and to record its loss.”[66] Moreover, “[b]ecause cinema has its center in the gesture and not in the image,” Agamben writes, “it belongs essentially to the realm of ethics and politics (and not simply to that of aesthetics)” (“Notes on Gesture,” 55).

Agamben’s claims about the gesturality of cinema and its consequent connections to ethics and politics are crucial for the similar, concluding claim I want to make about Joyce’s Esperantic writing, which is “not simply” concerned with the aesthetic––or even the debasement of the aesthetic in order to introduce a new aesthetics, as it were, through the safely guarded back door. Rather, by providing a limit case on the one hand inviting translation but on the other approaching incommunicability, Joyce’s writing helps to illuminate literary language’s relation to ethics and politics, the latter term of which Agamben describes as the “absolute and complete gesturality of human beings (59). Like Jerry/Shem’s “parolas infanetes,” this gesturality is linked to infancy.

In Idea of Prose, Agamben addresses the infant’s languageless play as the archetypal openness that points beyond nation, tradition, and political domination and toward absolute potentiality. Drawing on the Tower of Babel biblical episode, as well as on the Benjaminian conception of a pre-Babelian, Adamic language, Agamben asserts that

[t]he plurality of nations and the numerous historical languages are the false callings by which man attempts to respond to his intolerable absence of voice; or, if one prefers, they are the attempts, come to nothing, to make graspable the ungraspable. Only on the day when the original infantile openness is truly,

dizz[y]ingly taken up as such . . . will men be able finally to construct a history

and a language which are universal. . . . This authentic recalling of humanity to

the infantile soma is called thought—that is, politics.[67]

For Agamben, pre-linguistic infantile openness—pure gesturality—is intimately connected to genuine political expression, and “only when” this openness is “taken up as such” can universal language and history be “constructed.”

Perhaps the redemptive flourish that ends Agamben’s Benjaminian proclamation seems out of step with recent critical demands for a more sober, practical, descriptive “surface reading,” for big-data-assisted “distant reading,” for an object-oriented ontology that aims to move outside of language and toward “things,” and for an ever-narrower textual historicism. But it surely accords with what Joyce in his writing seeks to accomplish and arguably accomplishes: rather than being consigned to a national (or monolingual) literary tradition, or placed in a strict chronology, to produce through the constant evocation of millennia of cultural memory a “gigantic lack of memory” that is itself potentially politically liberatory. Agamben calls this zone of freedom “infancy” and links it with universal language and universal history, both of them lost in modernity and (like the sleeping HCE in the Wake) not easily revived. Yet by placing the outer limits of infancy and gesture inside language as such, Joyce’s novels incubate a pregnant pause, in which the dream of a universal language, a gift of tongues, collides with the “warpeace” of history, of nations, and of everyday life. The “collideoscape” thereby produced reveals and potentially awakens the ambivalent gesturality of hope (Finnegans Wake, 143).


[1] This marketing strategy was not successful. According to the film’s producer, Anthony Taylor, at its premiere at the San Francisco film festival, a group of fifty to one hundred Esperanto enthusiasts laughed uproariously at the actors’ garbled pronunciation of the language. After a lackluster cinematic release, the film disappeared and was not found until 1996, when a copy was discovered in Paris. Incubus went on to become a minor camp classic first on video and then DVD, eventually earning far more than its producers’ initial $125,000 investment; Incubus, directed by Leslie Stevens (1965; New York: Winstar Cinema, 2001), DVD. Concerning “incubation” and delayed return on initial investment: I am grateful to Martin Harries, Jennifer Wicke, and Emily Wittman, who helped me shape this article during its rather long gestation. Thanks are also owed to participants in a lively NYNJ Modernism Seminar at Columbia University in early 2016, especially organizers Sarah Cole and Rebecca Walkowitz, and to my research assistant Michele Chinitz. Modernism/modernity’s Debra Rae Cohen and two anonymous but insightful readers for the journal offered helpful suggestions for improvement. I especially thank Humphrey Tonkin, a renowned expert on Esperanto, who generously offered information about the constructed language and helped with translation of Joyce’s use of Esperanto in Finnegans Wake.

[2] Volapük (“World Language”) was created in 1880 by Johann Martin Schleyer, a Roman Catholic priest in Baden, Germany. It is worth bearing in mind that the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century also saw the development and codification of constructed and reconstructed national languages, such as modern Turkish, Hebrew, and Bahasa Indonesia. In 1930, Charles Kay Ogden offered “Basic English” as an international auxiliary language and as a way to teach English as a second language. Ogden himself famously tried to translate a small section of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. For more on Ogden and Joyce, see Megan Quigley, Modernist Fiction and Vagueness: Philosophy, Form, and Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 133–46. For more on the language reform movement, including the “Society for Pure English,” which included Thomas Hardy, Edith Wharton, and A. C. Bradley, see Morag Shiach, “‘To Purify the Dialect of the Tribe’: Modernism and Language Reform,” Modernism/modernity 14, no. 1 (2007): 21–34.

[3] The language proceeds largely through affixes added to root words that are often recognizable to those with training in Latin, Greek, or almost any major European national language. For example, the root word vend (which relates to selling) allows the formation of words such as the infinitive vendi (to sell) and the nouns vendejo (a store or shop), vendisto (a salesperson), and vendaĵo (item for sale). See Aleksander Korzhenkov, Zamenhof: The Life, Works and Ideas of the Author of Esperanto, trans. Ian Richmond, ed. Humphrey Tonkin (New York: Mondial, 2010), 14.

[4]Although the rhythm of the anthem is similar to that of the Internationale, the melody is different.

[5] Shaw later tried to reform the irregularities of English spelling; his estate created the Shavian alphabet.

[6] Ivo Lapenna, “La situation juridique des ‘langues officielles’ avant la fondation des Nations Unies,” La Monda Lingvo-Problemo 1 (1969): 5–18.

[7] See Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992); and Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

[8] Leyzer Zamenhof began using the Russian name Lyudovik (Ludwig) while at university. For a brief, celebratory biography of Zamenhof, see Edmond Privat, The Life of Zamenhof, trans. Ralph Eliott (London: Allen and Unwin, 1931). Esther Schor’s Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2016), which traces the language’s history and the cultural life of some of its current speaking communities, emerged after this article was at press.

[9] “As long as the Jew has not succeeded in mastering other peoples he is forced to speak their language. . . . But the moment that the world would become the slave of the Jew it would have to learn some other language (Esperanto, for example) so that by this means the Jew could dominate all the more easily” (Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, trans. Ralph Manheim [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943], 264). Zamenhof died in Warsaw in 1917, but his wife and daughter perished at the Treblinka concentration/death camp. On Stalin learning Esperanto, see Robert Service, Stalin: A Biography (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 78. The claim about the “language of spies” appears often on Esperanto-promoting pages on the Internet, but I have not found a quotation directly attributable to Stalin.

[10] In a 1935 letter to Walter Benjamin, Auerbach, writing from the island of Büyükada near Istanbul, Turkey, claimed, “[i]t is becoming increasingly clear to me that the present international situation,” primarily Nazism, from which he had fled, but also conceivably Stalinism, will lead “us along a bloody and tortuous path to an International of triviality and a culture of Esperanto” (quoted in Karlheinz Barck and Anthony Reynolds, “Walter Benjamin and Erich Auerbach: Fragments of a Correspondence,” Diacritics 22, no. 3/4 [1992]: 81–83, 82).

[11] Esperantists are also active on the Internet, with several Esperanto sites offering on-line lessons in the language. An exception to the general tendency toward the diminishment of the language’s popularity over the course of the later twentieth century came in the later 1960s and early 70s, when Esperanto saw a resurgence of use in Western Europe, as it was connected to both the international peace movement and (as noted above) featured, or referred to, in a few science fiction films and television programs. During the Cold War, the language was also spoken in parts of Central and Eastern Europe, in what was sometimes viewed by authorities as a protest against Communist Party rule. In the People’s Republic of China, by contrast, Esperanto use was tolerated and even encouraged. For more on the repression of Esperanto, see Ulrich Lins, La danĝera lingvo: Studo pri la persekutoj kontraŭ Esperanto (Moscow: Progreso, 1990).

[12] William Shakespeare, Hamleto: Reĝido de Danujo, trans. L. Zamenhof (Paris: Hachette, 1902), 56.

[13] The performance took place at the Grand Opera House in Dresden during the Fourth International Congress of Esperantists in 1908. Reicher later had several roles on Broadway and had a major part in the 1939 political thriller, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, considered the first Hollywood anti-Nazi film; Confessions of a Nazi Spy, directed by Anatole Litvak (1939; Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2010), DVD.

[14] David Damrosch, What is World Literature? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003); Emily Apter, Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability (New York: Verso, 2013).

[15] See for example, Franco Moretti, Distant Reading (New York: Verso, 2013); Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations 108, no. 1 (2009): 1–21. See also the more recent “Description across Disciplines,” special issue, Representations 135, no. 1 (2016).

[16] The latter quotation appears in Kaori Nagai’s “‘The New Bilingualism’: Cosmopolitanism in the Era of Esperanto,” in Rerouting the Postcolonial: New Directions for the New Millennium, ed. Janet Wilson, Cristina Sandru, and Sarah Lawson Welsh (New York: Routledge, 2010), 50.

[17] James Joyce, Ulysses, ed. Hans Walter Gabler, Wolfhard Steppe, and Claus Melchor (New York: Vintage, 1986), 353.

[18] The first World Esperanto Congress was held in Boulogne-sur-Mer in 1905. The Congress has been held each year since, with the exception of 1916–19 and 1940–46.

[19] It is worth noting in relation to Leopold (Virag) Bloom’s Hungarian-Jewishness that one of the most prolific and important Esperantists in twentieth-century Hungary was Tivadar Schwartz, who changed his family name to Soros (which means “will soar” in Esperanto), and later emigrated to Britain and then the United States. His son, the Hungarian-born United States citizen George Soros, became an international financier/speculator and human rights promoter and still occasionally supports Esperanto projects.

[20] In addition to mistaking the Irish Sraid Mabbot for Esperanto, Bloom gets the Irish wrong; in grammatically correct Irish, goodbye is “Slán leat.”

[21] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality and Other Writings, trans. Carol Diethe, ed. Keith Ansell-Pearson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 20.

[22] I have not been able to determine precisely how or when Joyce came upon Esperanto, or to gauge the extent of his familiarity with the language. As a student of modern languages at University College, Dublin, in the first decade of the twentieth century, Joyce would likely have been exposed to Esperanto. (The first Esperanto society in Ireland was founded in 1903; Joyce graduated University College, Dublin in 1904.) When he was an English-language teacher in Pola (now part of Croatia) and Trieste (now part of Italy) from 1904 until 1920––both then part of the multiethnic, multilingual Austro-Hungarian empire––there is little doubt that he would have met Esperanto speakers. According to John McCourt, in Trieste in 1910 a “Circolo Esperantistico was founded and ran courses in the Civica Scuola on via Giotti, a school where Joyce also held lessons” (The Years of Bloom: James Joyce in Trieste, 1904–1920 [Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000], 262n125). Among Joyce’s circle of multilingual admirers in Paris in the 1920s and 30s, very likely some were fluent or at least competent in Esperanto. As the Wake came into being, Joyce certainly would have had access to Esperanto dictionaries or grammar books, although no such book appears in the list of items of his library in either Trieste or Paris. (His encounter with Volapük, discussed later in this essay, clearly drew from a book containing examples of Volapük grammar and vocabulary, with which Joyce played in the Wake.) In any case, Joyce knew about Esperanto well enough to include two (possible) references to “Ido,” the “reformed” version of Esperanto that emerged in 1907 (James Joyce, Finnegans Wake [1939; rpt., New York: Penguin, 1976], 276, 465). Finally, it should be made clear that while some of the words and phrases I will explore in this section are unquestionably Esperanto, others are either of uncertain linguistic origin in themselves or are distorted so that they might seem to be part of a different language. I take my cue in calling them “Esperanto” from Roland McHugh’s identification of the language in his authoritative Annotations to Finnegans Wake (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006). 

[23] The Esperanto neologism “Militopucos” was added to galley proofs for publication of the first edition of Finnegans Wake in book form. It appears typewritten.

[24] In “Two Words for Joyce,” Jacques Derrida analyses at length the multiple and multilingual implications of the two words “he war” that appear at the end of book 2, chapter 1 of the Wake (after the section on children’s games) and suggests their connections to the rhetoric of war and peace (Derrida and Joyce: Texts and Contexts, ed. Andrew J. Mitchell and Sam Slote [Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013], 22–40).

[25] Volapük has many more verb forms than does Esperanto and was viewed as far more difficult to learn.

[26] As was the case with “militopucos,” above, this passage was added to galley proofs for publication as a book.

[27] There is also a traditional Irish ballad that begins “Red is the rose that yonder garden grows / Fair is the lily of the valley.” In addition, “led is the lol” recalls the song at the very beginning of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “O the wild rose blossoms / On the green place” that the very young Stephen Dedalus re-sings “O, the green wothe botheth” (James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ed. R. B. Kershner [Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006], 20).

[28] As for the English word “pleach,” meaning “to interlace,” particularly as it pertains to tree branches, see Antonio to Leonato: “Walking in a thick-pleached alley in mine orchard” (William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, in The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington, 6th ed. [New York: Pearson, 2008], 1.2.8–9).

[29] “El mundo nov” is also close to “el mundo nuevo” in Spanish.

[30] Vincent Cheng correctly notes that “representations of racial and imperial/colonial relationships [are] one of the central and structuring topics of Finnegans Wake” (Joyce, Race, and Empire [Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1995], 251).

[31] Joyce’s Volapük vocabulary draws from, and parodically undermines, Danish linguist Otto Jespersen’s explanation of the way Volapük works: “[T]he stem itself must always begin and end with a consonant. Accordingly Academy becomes kadem. R is avoided: fire is fil and red led . . . [N]o word may end in s: rose is made into lol. As ne is the negative, such a word as necessity is clipped of its initial syllable, and becomes zesüd. [For this reason] England [is] Nelij” (An International Language [London: Allen and Unwin, 1928], 34–35, emphases original). In this book, Jespersen, who was an early advocate of Esperanto, advances his own created international auxiliary language, Novial.

[32] HCE’s “crimes” are insinuated innumerable times but never directly described. He may have been masturbating while looking at the two girls, and then caught doing so by the three soldiers, or he may have participated in a kind of orgy with all five of the other vaguely described characters, or something else entirely might have occurred. In any case, the entire text is portrayed not as a series of actions that take place in the world, but as one long dream, though, as John Ashbery writes of “the ‘it was all a dream’ / syndrome”: “the ‘all’ tells tersely / Enough how it wasn’t” (“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror: Poems [New York: Viking Press, 1975], 78).

[33] Again, the Esperanto passage was not included in the original version of this text as it appeared in Work in Progress but was added to the galley “corrections” for publication as a book.

[34] The song appears with slightly less suggestive lyrics in Walter Crane’s A Baby’s Opera: A Book of Old Rhymes with New Dresses (London: Frederick Warne, 1900). Some of the other featured songs in this 1900 collection were “Mullberry Bush,” “Three Blind Mice,” “Little Jack Horner,” and “The Song of Sixpence.”

[35] That Joyce was drawing on a phrase book in his use of “Spegulo ne helpas al malbellulo” seems almost certain. The Esperanto expert Humphrey Tonkin informs me that “Al malbelulo ne helpas spegulo” (a mirror doesn’t help an ugly person) is proverb number 30 in Zamenhof’s Proverbaro (1910 and subsequent editions).

[36] As with all of the Esperanto excerpts discussed above, this passage was added to the galley corrections.

[37] A more accurate translation of the first part of the phrase might run “Anonymous is on the far side of the little carpet [should be tapiŝo, not tapizo]. He reads to himself in his room. Sometimes [his] shoulders shrink.”

[38] Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 6.

[39] The helpful Wake search engine,, lists all recognized uses of Esperanto words and phrases, and notes Joyce’s “malbongusta” (in bad taste) and “kapr” (goat) on pages 438 and 475, respectively, but in this article, I am not examining every use of the international constructed language, only those uses I feel are most significant.

[40] Unlike the Esperanto passages in book 1, discussed above, this passage appeared in the drafts and first published edition. In the notebook version of this passage, the word “Dormas” appears crossed out before “Malbone dormas.” See BL 47482af3v, James Joyce Archive 60:4, University of Buffalo, New York.

[41] Genesis 11:4–9, King James translation.

[42] This four-line Esperanto passage on troubled sleep and “infant words” is itself complicated by a number of confusing errors. The correct Esperanto rendering of “at night” is not “nikte” but “nokte”; perhaps Joyce had in mind the Greek “νύχτα” (nichta, night). “Parolas” means “he, she or it speaks,” and “infanete” (no “s” at the end) means “like an infant,” so a better translation of the last line of the passage would be “speaks like an infant”). Finally, the “s” should, in Esperanto, have a circumflex to make the silencing “shhh!” Without it, a sinuous serpentine sibilance is implied.

[43] Again, small errors in Esperanto abound: “Ili vi rigardas” should be “ili vin rigardas,” i.e. “they’re looking at you.” “Returnu” looks like an attempt to render “Turnighu,” which means “turn around.” As I noted earlier, the extent to which Joyce is deliberately getting the Esperanto wrong is unclear, but it is surely significant that the supposedly easy-to-learn language so often appears as incorrect.

[44] As Vincent Cheng notes, “The Western characterization of Africans as ‘the sons of Ham’ has long been useful in the rationalization of the oppression of blacks, since blackness—‘the signs of Ham’––was conveniently interpreted as the literal sign of the curse that Noah placed on Ham” (Joyce, Race, and Empire, 270–71).

[45] In one of his many guises earlier in the text, HCE assumes the role of a Russian general in the Crimean War, shot dead by a certain Buckley, an Irishman fighting on the side of the United Kingdom.

[46] John 12:45, my translation.

[47]  “Are we speachin d’anglas landadge or are you sprakin sea Djoytsch?” (Finnegans Wake, 485).

[48] As Christine Froula has shown, in no way does this “battle” imply a rigid hierarchy of sexual identities. Rather, “this self consciously cross-gendered ‘I’ dramatizes the accidental relation of sex to the gender play of its letters. The I’s of the Wake—fluently merging, emerging, remerging—dramatize identity as a kind of fluid dynamics, unfixed and unbounded by body or essence” (Modernism’s Body: Sex, Culture, and Joyce [New York: Columbia University Press, 1996], 228).

[49] Compare to a similar faux-Chinese pidgin English in this encomium to love, uttered by the monoscopic narrator of the “Cyclops” episode: “Li Chi Han lovey up kissy Cha Pu Chow” (Ulysses, 273).

[50] Anthony Burgess, Re Joyce (New York: Norton, 1965), 187.

[51] Stuart Gilbert, “Prolengomena to Work in Progress,” in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, ed. Samuel Beckett et al. (London: Faber and Faber, 1961), 47–76, 58, 57. Gilbert goes on to note that Work in Progress “may well be easier reading for a polyglot foreigner than for an Englishman with but his mother tongue” (58).

[52] Robert McAlmon, “Mr. Joyce Directs an Irish Word Ballet,” in Our Exagmination, 103–16, 110.

[53] Jespersen quotes a letter from “Dr. Sweet sent in 1907 to the Delegation committee” (An International Language [1929, rpt., Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2007], 41).

[54] Fredric Jameson based the title of his influential 1972 study The Prison House of Language on a contentious translation of an aphorism in Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Will to Power. The aphorism in Nietzsche’s Der Willen zur Macht reads, “Wir hören auf zu denken, wenn wir es nicht in dem sprachlichen Zwang tun wollen, wir langen gerade noch bei dem Zweifel an, hier eine Grenze als Grenze zu sehn.” This aphorism is best translated in Kauffmann and Holingdale’s more sober English version: “We cease to think when we refuse to do so under the constraint of language; we barely reach the doubt that sees this limitation as a limitation.” See Nietzsche, Der Wille zur Macht (Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner Verlag, 1996), Aphorismus 522; and Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1968), 283.

[55] Travel almost anywhere in the twenty-first century and the language of international commerce, and of the expression of international ideas, is the one spoken by the majority of inhabitants of the nation-state with the world’s most powerful military. Rebecca L. Walkowitz implicitly grapples with this question in her Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015). Arguably, Joyce, in Finnegans Wake, anticipated this now fully fledged phenomenon that shapes the framework in which many contemporary novels are written, published, distributed, and read.

[56] Given the space limitations of this essay, in the next section I move quickly from a brief reconsideration of Ulysses’s “Circe” episode, to Samuel Beckett’s claims of the Wake’s language’s grounding in “gesture,” to Walter Benjamin’s writing on language as such and gesture, and ultimately to Giorgio Agamben’s treatment of gesture as the essence of politics. I develop the broader implications of Agamben’s theory of gesturality in relation to what he calls the “gag” in my “Samuel Beckett and the Colonial Gag,” forthcoming in Modernism, Postcolonialism, Globalism, ed. Richard Begam and Michael Valdez Moses (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 2018. For an excellent treatment of how Joyce relates international auxiliary languages and gestural languages—film, hieroglyphics, and illuminated manuscripts––in an effort to subvert theories of an “Aryan” language, see Jesse Schotter, “Verbivocovisuals: James Joyce and the Problem of Babel,” James Joyce Quarterly 48, no. 1 (2010), 89–109.

[57] “Once when he [Pythagoras] was present at the beating of a puppy, he pitied it and said ‘stop, don’t keep hitting him, since it is the soul of a man who is dear to me, which I recognized, when I heard it yelping’” (Carl Huffman, “Pythagoras,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward Zalta, last modified May 28, 2014,

[58] David Kurnick has demonstrated the residually public theatricality implicit in Ulysses’s supposed generic interiority (and in an important strand of Victorian and modernist English language novels more generally). See Kurnick’s Empty Houses (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

[59] Samuel Beckett, “Dante . . . Bruno. Vico . . Joyce,” in Our Exagmination, 1–22, 11. The long Wake episode, “Mick, Nick and the Maggies,” portrayed as a dumb show or pantomime with no words but innumerable bodily gestures, was first published in 1934, after Beckett’s essay on the Work in Progress was published, but it certainly accords with Beckett’s characterizations of Joyce’s writing, and undoubtedly impacted Beckett’s own later theatrical projects as well.

[60] Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” in Selected Writings, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, vol. 1, 1913–1926, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 253, 261.

[61] Walter Benjamin, “On Language as Such and the on the Language of Man,” in Selected Writings, 1:73–74; Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1989), 2.1:156–57.

[62] For Benjamin, “there is no gesture in Kafka” that does not reveal “an ambiguity before  decision” (Benjamin über Kafka: Texte, Briefzeugnisse, Aufzeichnungen, ed. Hermann Schweppenhäuser [Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1981], 159).

[63] Giorgio Agamben, “Kommerell, or On Gesture,” in Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, ed. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 78.

[64] In this essay, Agamben highlights those commedia dell’arte figures beloved by Kommerell: Harlequin, Pantaloon, Columbine, and others.

[65] Agamben begins the essay by focusing on the tics and jerks of those with then-newly discovered Tourette’s Syndrome––recall the jerks of the “deaf mute” at the beginning of the “Circe” episode––and then claims that the arrival of cinema embedded in its very form this gesturality. For Agamben, pace Gilles Deleuze, the crucial element of cinema is not the image but the gesture.

[66] Giorgio Agamben, “Notes on Gesture,” in Means Without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 52.

[67] Giorgio Agamben, The Idea of Prose, trans. Michael Sullivan and Sam Whitsitt (Albany: SUNY Press, 1995), 98.