Response to “Ulysses by Numbers”–David Kurnick


David Kurnick

“We can indeed count” words, Eric Bulson observes, and concludes that therefore “the counting must go on” (4). The reasons to move from the first remark to the second will not be self-evident to everyone. But “Ulysses by Numbers” gives an unprecedentedly intimate sense of Joyce’s compositional practice, offering not just a fascinating picture of how Ulysses grew but also an account of why it grew in the increments it did. Perhaps the most surprising discovery here for Joyce scholars is the fact that, as Bulson puts it, “even after serialization stopped, Joyce was still writing by the numbers” (26): even released from the 6,000-word increments suggested by Pound for the novel’s serial installments, Joyce kept creating at scales of 6,000. It turns out that “Circe,” which seems to obey no rules save the volcanic logics of the unconscious and Joyce’s own ambition, is dutifully designed to fit into eight installments of The Little Review. Figure 9, where you can see this finding visualized, offers a startling picture of genius in compromise with the materiality of publication.

Bulson thus indisputably helps us get a sharper sense of how “the serial logic of length” (6) conditioned this particular masterwork. Accordingly, my questions about his essay are less about the findings themselves than his account of them, and they concern the charisma that the rhetoric of number itself exerts in the essay. Surely Bulson’s most provocative claim is that his method will help us get at Ulysses’ “numerical unconscious” (4). The formulation suggests an opaque but determining structure whose revelation will be decisive for our sense of the meaning of the whole. And Bulson does tend to connect number with causality in just this way. “More words on the page but fewer seconds passing in the plot: that is a discovery Joyce made while writing Ulysses” (19). This can’t really be said to be a discovery, though, since Joyce could have learned that discursive time affects diegetic time from (to pick a name not quite at random) Homer, who interrupts a classic action-movie moment—an arrow whizzing by Menelaos—with a startling simile about Athena deflecting it “the way a mother / would keep a fly from settling on a child / when he is happily asleep”[i]: the words take longer to read (or to hear recited) than an arrow to miss its mark, and even longer if you pause to think about them. And “more words” is only one way texts slow down story-time: arcane or boring or made-up words can achieve a similar end with relative verbal economy, as can disorienting shifts in point of view, or a lot of jokes, or odd images. Every attempted reader of Finnegans Wake knows that the number of words on the page has relatively little to do with how long it takes to read that page and how much time it seems is passing in the “plot” as you do so (if I had to quantify, I’d say that word count in the Wake isn’t even the half of it).

It’s not that word count is irrelevant to narrative pacing. But its status as the factor driving Joyce (or any other writer) in a particular novelistic project needs to be established. My sense is that Bulson is drawn to number because we have new and powerful tools to help us count with relative facility—and he has used those tools with precision and ingenuity. But we might be wary of installing the facts those tools let us assemble as the engine of textual construction; this is the methodological metalepsis Pierre Bourdieu identifies when he warns against “giving as the source of agents’ practice the theory that had to be constructed in order to explain it.”[ii] To put it simply: is number essentially operating in Bulson’s argument as a metaphor for length? We could formulate Bulson’s signal discovery about the pace of Ulysses’ growth in two ways: a) Joyce’s earliest episodes average 5,233 words, and later the average jumps to 11,179; b) with “Scylla and Charybdis” Joyce starts writing episodes at double the length he’d agreed upon with Pound, thereby facilitating the publication of the later episodes over two installments of The Little Review. The information referred to by each sentence is identical, but my sense is that the specifics of the first version would be news to Joyce, while he’d readily acknowledge the second, amused that the professoriat has finally caught up with him.

This doesn’t in itself argue for the priority of either version: literary scholarship is under no obligation to limit itself to insights that would have occurred to literary producers, especially scholarship aiming for the unconscious determinants of literary forms. But what makes 5,233 versus 11,179 a more compelling way to describe a relation between literary objects than twice as long? It seems that the appeal of the more precise version derives from the charisma of quantification more generally (as, I suspect, does the temptation to describe that precise version as exercising the shaping power of the unconscious). Ours is a numbery historical moment, and that numberiness has a marked technicist (and digital) bent.[iii] But to fathom the status of “the numerical” in Joyce, one would want to know, in addition to the numbers themselves, what conceptions of the numerical Joyce was working with, and what ideas of number may have been working through him. Does it matter to our sense of number in Ulysses that one of the pioneering efforts to map word frequency in the English Bible was published by the Reverend J. Knowles (who was developing a system to teach blind people to read) in 1904, the year in which Joyce set his novel? Or that one of the major advances in this same field—Edward Thorndike’s ranking of word frequencies in a corpus comprising 10,000 words—appeared in 1921, in the hiatus between Ulysses’ run in The Little Review and the publication of the completed book version? (Would Joyce have known or cared about either of these events?)[iv] What did “6000 words” mean to a word-processorless writer—a painstaking tally, a rough calculation based on the number of manuscript pages, a guess? (Did Joyce or Pound ever literally count anything)? And how did Joyce use these experiences of number to play with (or ignore) the rhetorics of number operative in his moment? With a writer as deliberately self-revolutionizing as Joyce, this will get complex fast: it’s not only that our numberiness is different from his, but that the degrees and meanings of numberiness varied over the course of his work.

These are not Bulson’s questions, but my suspicion is that his findings would become most resonant when seen in their context. To answer such questions we would need an ecology of number in Joyce—one that would account, in A Portrait of the Artist, for the “thousand times” Stephen Dedalus feels he has yielded to Ellen’s charms as well as the “ten thousand idolators” baptized (according to the catechizing rector at Clongowes) by Saint Francis Xavier. The rhetoric of number in Portrait reaches its peak in the hellfire sermon, where we are asked to imagine the walls—“four thousand miles thick”—that pen in the damned, as well as the stench emanating “from the millions upon millions of fetid carcasses massed together in the reeking darkness”; and the novel famously concludes with Stephen’s resolution to “encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience.”[v] Even this quick review makes clear that number in Portrait operates on a decimal system, the zeros intensifying what Joyce thus encourages us to understand as a unified vital energy: eroticism (“a thousand times”), religion (“four thousand”), and artistic vocation (“the millionth time”) are divisible by one another. We are still essentially here within a lyricism of number, number as expressivist amplification device.

Things are altogether different by the time we reach the numberiest of Ulysses’s sections: “Ithaca,” the penultimate episode, proceeds by alternating a series of questions about the ongoing action with the madly technical responses those questions elicit from the narrator (Joyce called the episode’s method “mathematical catechism”). The joke of “Ithaca” is the yawning discrepancy between the abstraction of the language and the experiential texture of the events it narrates. Nowhere is the effect more evident than in the answer to the question, “What relation existed between [Stephen and Bloom’s] ages?” Bloom is 38 in Ulysses, Stephen 22, but naturally the narration will not say so thus straightforwardly. Instead Joyce spins out a mathematical series: starting from 1883, the first year when the ratio comprised by their ages calculated in years was expressible in a non-infinite form (i.e., when Bloom was 17 and Stephen was 1), the narrator points out that had Stephen aged normally from that year while the ratio between their ages had somehow remained constant, by the 1904 in which the novel transpires, Bloom would be 374 (that is, Stephen’s age of 22 multiplied by the factor of 17 that separated them in 1883). By the time Stephen reaches 70 (in 1952), Bloom would be 1190 years old; and if Stephen were himself in turn to reach that fantastic age, Bloom would have to be 83,300 years old, “having been obliged to have been born in the year 81,396 B.C.”[vi]

Does it matter that Joyce’s numbers don’t work? (By my calculation, when Stephen reaches 1190, Bloom would be 20,230 …). Barry McCrea, commenting recently on these errors, has read them as indicating that “the world is neither perfectible nor fully describable … [T]he mistaken calculations serve as a reminder that this is a novel” and not a mathematical formula.[vii] His point is supported by the fact we can make “novelistic” sense even of the outlandishly large and faux-precise numbers: the increasing gap between the men might stand as a figure for Bloom’s sweetly anxious protectiveness toward Stephen, or of Stephen’s self-absorbed inability to imagine himself on the same time-scale as his companion. The very counterfactual ground of the thought experiment, whereby one man ages normally while the other outpaces him at ever more fantastic rates, captures the temporal warpings subtending any relation between reader and story (having first read Ulysses at 22, I will always feel that Leopold Bloom is older than me by a factor of about 1.7; now, unaccountably, I am 1.105 times older than him.) Most mysteriously, the coldness of these calculations doubles as a form of tenderness: the number-crunching of “Ithaca” might be parodying our humanistic orientation to literary character, but it does so by embarrassing us into a solicitude on behalf of literary character (by episode 17, Stephen and Bloom have been engineered to appear to exceed any numerical account of them.)

All of which is to say that Joyce’s episode offers both a micro-history of and a commentary on the coming-to-being of our number ecology, insisting on the headiness of its sublime technicism even as it conjures its most intensely felt reality effects. Joyce’s straddling of these two aesthetics might be one way to describe his continued interest for historians of the novel: Ulysses’ self-constitution as a professional-object-in-waiting makes it feel at once perfectly suited to and faintly mocking of the most technically precise accounts we might offer of its workings. But the suitability and the mockery both remain to be read, as do the relations between them. So, yes, “the counting must go on”—so long as we agree to remain unsure about what the counts mean.


[i] Homer, The Iliad, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1974), 60.

[ii] Pierre Bourdieu, In Other Words: Essays Towards a Reflexive Sociology, trans. Matthew Adamson (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990), 60.

[iii] For incisive recent contributions to the discussion of method in the digital humanities, see Alan Liu, “The Meaning of the Digital Humanities,” PMLA 128.2 (2013): 409-423, and Andrew Goldston and Ted Underwood, “The Quiet Transformations of Literary Studies: What Thirteen Thousand Scholars Could Tell Us,” New Literary History 45.3 (2014): 359-384. Both articles address the interpretive question as it pertains to much larger corpuses than Ulysses, but their discussions of how meaning does or does not inhere in quantitative digital methods raise interesting questions even for what Bulson calls the “single data set” constituted by Joyce’s novel (6).

[iv] J. E. De Rocher, The Counting of Words: A Review of the History, Techniques, and Theory of Word Counts (New York, 1973), 5-9.

[v] James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914; New York: Penguin, 2003), 72, 115, 128, 130, 275-6.

[vi] James Joyce, Ulysses (1922; Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993), 632.

[vii] Barry McCrea, In the Company of Strangers: Family and Narrative in Dickens, Conan Doyle, Joyce and Proust (New York: Columbia UP, 2011), 143.