April 12, 2013

Central Bank of Ireland misquotes Ulysses on commemorative coin


An “artistic representation of the author and text”

“I fear those big words,” says Stephen Daedalus, early in Ulysses, “that make us so unhappy.” Stephen, of course, isn’t referring to words like “onomatopoeia” or “honorificabilitudinitatibus,” but to words with big meanings (in this case, “generous” and “just”). But yesterday a little word made a lot of people unhappy, when it was reported that the Central Bank of Ireland had added “that” to a quote from Ulysses it was featuring on commemorative coins.

10,000 coins were minted featuring this quote: “Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things that I am here to read.” The actual quote, which appears in the 3rd chapter of James Joyce‘s masterpiece, reads: “Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read.” All in all, a pretty minor error, but it has been a source of embarrassment for the Irish Central Bank. They acknowledged the mistake yesterday by releasing a short statement:

The Central Bank acknowledges that the text on the Joyce coin does not correspond to the precise text as it appears in Ulysses (an additional word “that” has been added to the second sentence). While the error is regretted, it should be noted that the coin is an artistic representation of the author and text and not intended as a literal representation.

How Joyce would feel about the error is up for debate. I assumed that Joyce, a notoriously slow and meticulous writer, would be none-too-pleased, though that assumption is most likely based on this most likely apocryphal anecdote from Stephen King‘s On Writing:

According to the story, a friend came to visit [Joyce] one day and found the great man sprawled across his writing desk in a posture of utter despair.

“James, what’s wrong?” the friend asked. “Is it the work?”

Joyce indicated assent without even raising his head to look at the friend. Of course it was the work; isn’t it always?

“How many words did you get today?” the friend persuaded.

Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled facedown on his desk): “Seven.”

“Seven?” But James… that’s good, at least for you!”

“Yes,” Joyce said, finally looking up. “I suppose it is… but I don’t know what order they go in!”

Mark Traynor, who manages the James Joyce Centre in Dublin, however, thinks that there is a bit of Joyce’s spirt in the error, telling the Guardian:

“For one thing, Joyce was an author who embraced errors. As Stephen remarks in Ulysses, ‘A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery’,” said Traynor. “So if there is any value in the little mistake by the minters it is that it has bred a new, unexpected narrative. What should have been a fairly mundane launch of a commemorative coin has suddenly reached a much wider audience than expected… even after the cessation of copyright on Joyce’s major works—you still can’t reproduce a couple of sentences without causing a bit of scandal.”

The coins, which cost €46, will remain on sale, despite the error.


Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.