I suppose it barely deserves mention that we writers are obsessed with language. After all, ours is a business dependent on describing the mundanely familiar as something exotic and fresh. The imagination enters into that, but so does the choice of the actual words. According to the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, there are 171,476 words in current use in our language although that doesn’t mean you can use all of them. You may know that argute is a synonym for shrewd, or to pother means to fuss, however your reader will quite likely not know what in hell you’re talking about and so dismiss you as a pretentious pile of stercoraceous (I think you can guess the meaning).

There too, there are the regional variants of language. I have been working on a play where one of the characters is from Waterford, in southeastern Ireland.  Now if I write that this character says, ‘Your one una what you shifted got a ballygunner back for a face’ is familiar as an insult in the province of Munster, but I’m quite sure you can’t decode that as one man saying to another that he is unimpressed with the quality of the latter’s latest sexual conquest.

Wasn’t it all ever so much easier when we were children? We had nowhere near as many words and phrases, idioms and allusions to sort through. I’ll bet you remember when you were just a toddler and storytelling was as simple as, ‘Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down the road and this moocow that was coming down the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.’ Now there’s something we can all understand! Yet that is a sentence from the first chapter of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, one of the most brilliant novels written in the twentieth century.

Now to my knowledge of literature, which on the whole is pretty good, no one before Joyce ever even attempted what he succeeded with in his novel of Stephen Dedalus; showing the development of a young thinker virtually from birth through his years of schooling and beyond. Joyce accomplished this structurally through the use of free indirect discourse, a means of narration wherein the narration is allowed to slip in and out of Dedalus’ mind like a cat through an open window without a bunch of interruptive two  word phrases such as ‘he thought’, ‘Stephen considered’, or ‘he felt’. This is a tricky business, yet as awkward as it may seem it is actually much more life-like. After all, as you’re reading this paragraph are you literally thinking, ‘I find this confusing, I think.’ No, our minds don’t internally speak and record in that way.

The beauty and importance of James Joyce’s Teaching Life and Methods is that its author, Elizabeth Switaj shows us the pathways where Joyce’s experiences as what we know today as an ESL teacher led to his using language not just as a quarry of words to be plugged into imaginative sentences; rather it is how characters acquire and use language that shows us their essence. It is language and only language that separates us from chimps, dogs and garden snails.

For entertainment purposes, the best of  James Joyce’s Teaching Life and Methods is in its first chapter as it follows through the great man’s rather poor-paying career in the Berlitz schools of continental Europe over the first two decades of the previous century. Although he did stick with the program of Berlitz, whereby one spoke only in English to his Italian students (in Trieste) and never introducing synonyms until the students were good and ready for them (only tables at first, desks would come along down the road), he does sound like a rather imaginative teacher. He used nursery rhymes, lullabies and passages from Shakespeare, while occasionally ‘imitating a ballerina and sliding down the bannister with the girls.’

Ah yes, the girls. Switaj does not go into forensic investigation on this, as  James Joyce’s Teaching Life and Methods is a serious academic study of the author’s work and not his sex life, however there is enough circumstantial evidence presented where one can safely surmise that Joyce was rather attracted to his late adolescent charges although apparently he never actually did anything about it physically. There were no student complaints about J|Joyce’s attention, although at least one set of parents were less than amused when he escorted their daughter home after a night of liquid and carouse.

Back to the more serious matters of this serious book Switaj takes us through all of Joyce’s major works, often in line by line and even word by word detail, revealing how the novelist used his knowledge of how our minds process language. For instance, there is this passage discussing how and why Ulysses begins as a more-or-less traditional novel before soaring off into a masterpiece of myth and madness:

‘By beginning Ulysses with more ordinarily novelistic language, with occasional and increasing diversions, Joyce applies the pedagogical technique of chaining to his novel, connecting what students already know to what they must learn. Such chaining is implicit in the carefully graded vocabulary and sentence structure of the BerlitzMethod. That said, it would not be accurate to say that the “Telemachiad” actively teaches or prepares the reader for the rest of Ulysses. A beginning language student who scanned through the “Preparatory Lessons” of the Berlitz First Book would not be able to make much sense of the “Elementary Reading-Pieces” either, however. A passive reader will be no more ready for the later episodes after reading the “Telemachiad” than one who never read the first three episodes at all, nor does active solitary study often suffice, as the proliferation of guides to Ulysses demonstrates.’

I can simultaneously agree and disagree with Elizabeth Switaj on that point. It is absolutely true that a plurality and quite likely a majority of readers find |Ulysses  a goddam difficult book because they have literally forgotten how they learn. It’s all inside our minds but we have forgotten how to access it. I’m quite sure that seems quite opaque, so let me explain using an example from – yes – language acquisition. Noam Chomsky, who for all serious intent virtually invented the modern study of linguistics said that it is virtually impossible for anyone over the age of ten to ever, ever become fluent in a new language. We will always be translating in back into our familiar first language or vice versa.

Joyce in Ulysses and also The Dubliners follows the route he lays out quite clearly in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. We learn by starting with the simple, imitating those we see as wise, then gradually allow layers of complexity and symbol, idioms and allusions to take shape. His great works do that same precise modeling, yet we want to resist it as we feel that what we know to be as storytelling is consistent from word one to word last. We are as rigid as the Jesuit teachers who forced the King’s English onto Stephen Dedalus; whereas what we need to do to appreciate the brilliance of Joyce or any other ‘experimental’ writer is to allow ourselves to drift, imagine and wonder. Listen, you might just hear a moocow clop-clopping down the road.

James Joyce’s Teaching Life and Methods is not a book to be thrown in your beach bag next to the tinned sausages and thermos of margaritas. I won’t delude you into thinking this is a light read. However, I do urge it upon Joyce fans and also other writers and editors. Learn how the mind processes information and that can improve your own work. Or if that doesn’t work, go slide down a banister. Fun will set you free.

Be seeing you.