Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The year of Ulysses: reading right to left

For literature in English, 1922 was one of the great years. It was the year of The Waste Land and The Enormous Room, tombeaux over the century that conceived the Titanic and the Congress of Vienna but forgot to edit the builders' language for hubris. But it was also a year when language was rethought in other ways, from the refurbished Dickensian satire of Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt to the babbitized proto-Newspeak of Reader's Digest. All of these texts shaped and were shaped by the history that brought forth the year 1922, and the greatest of them all, Ulysses, demolished and rebuilt an edifice of culture that had been standing since the moment Odysseus shaped his bed from a tree rooted in the ever-enduring earth.

But that year Ulysses was not alone. In fact, another book from the great year, The Jews, by the Edwardian man of letters Hilaire Belloc, was even more daring than Ulysses in one respect, for Belloc was attempting to translate another ancient story into the language of 1922 with no command of any language but the language of 1922. He understood, too, that that effort had to eventuate in tragedy. Addressing readers whom he sometimes called "the white race" and sometimes called simply "us," Belloc brought them up against the full horror of historical unrepresentability this way.
(Click to enlarge.)

Yes: helplessly unable to navigate the impassable gulf, isolated on its barren shore by the presence of a Jew on the other side, the white race has been forced by that presence to acknowledge that it will never know itself. Because it can't know the Jew, it can't know at all. It is in danger of failing mind's primal duty.

Fortunately, however, history has equipped the white race with a reliable phrasebook: Belloc's The Jews. What has made the book invaluable to the white race was one of history's fortunate accidents -- an accident that happened to befall Hilaire Belloc in his own home. There, speaking English even as she dwelt under her master's alien roof, was a Jewish informant, communicating Jewish intelligence. The informant was, in fact, as Belloc says, one of his best friends. But it wasn't mere best-friendship that enabled Belloc to communicate with the informant. No; Belloc could communicate because (but how?) he too knew the secret Jewish code. And now, thanks to Belloc's heroic cryptography, you too, white reader, can know it. Only read from the back of The Jews to the front the ways Jews do, and you'll spot the spy lurking in the dedication, fiendishly disguised as Belloc's prose.
But don't stop there! Read on, sinking ever deeper into the dark backward and abysm, and there on the book's very title page, invisible to any but Miss Ruby Goldsmith, the members of her race, and the uncanny Hilaire Belloc, is a pair of words meant to be read, uncannily, from right to left, end to beginning. Transliterated from left to right into the chirality of the white race, the two Hebrew words say shalom l'Yisroel. In translation, that means "peace to Israel."
But as of 1922 Belloc's readers knew how untranslatable that word "peace" was, and how full of blood irony. If they didn't know it at the beginning of The Jews, they knew it by the end. After all, there at the end, on Belloc's title page, it's in a language that doesn't even sound white.


"(Silent, thoughtful, alert, he stands on guard, his fingers at his lips in the attitude of secret master. Against the dark wall a figure appears slowly, a fairy boy of eleven, a changeling, kidnapped, dressed in an Eton suit with glass shoes and a little bronze helmet, holding a book in his hand. He reads from right to left inaudibly, smiling, kissing the page.)"

And as Joyce's stage direction here at the end of the "Circe" episode tells us, Mr. Bloom's cry to his dead child is also inaudible.