Of the many fruitful avenues of interpretation explored at the recent James Joyce in the Nineteenth Century conference in Durham (2010), one of the more contentious was Joyce’s inheritance, or lack thereof, of the mystical bent that characterized many of his predecessors. An interest in the Rosicrucian stories of Yeats, for example, was variously conceived by prominent Joyceans as either especially revealing or as an aberration. This paper does not set itself the task of extrapolating Joyce’s motives, satirical or serious, from textual evidence, but merely posits another aspect of the increasing web of mystical allusions that permeate Joyce’s works. More specifically, it contributes to Nick De Marco’s recent return to Hermeticism in Joyce, itself an expansion upon Tindall’s near isolated 1954 treatment (1). While De Marco argues for Joyce’s use of The Corpus Hermeticum, we look instead to that second core Hermetic work, the Emerald or Smaragdine Tablet. De Marco describes it as “another important hermetic revelation well known to Joyce,” but neither he nor (to the best of my searching) anyone else has systematically sought it out in Joyce’s texts (2). If the attempt to do so places this author on either side of the afforementioned dichotomy, it is only inadvertently so.
Atherton’s Books at the Wake concludes it “very unlikely that Joyce was deeply read in esoteric lore.” For despite an alleged knowledge of “such people as Hermes Trismegistus and Paracelsus,” the most obvious use of the Hermetic sayings in Finnegans Wake, “The tasks above are as the flasks below, saith the emerald canticle of Hermes” (FW 263.21-22), is likely derived second hand from Arthur Symons (3). Surrounding references to “excellent inkbottle authority” and “solarsystemised” (FW 263.24) recall Trismegistus’s status as “scribe of the Gods” and his import to “astronomy and astrology” in addition to mythology, information that could have been gleamed from the Encyclopedia Britannica (4). Helene Cixous, acknowledging Joyce’s attraction to “the magic universe where Kabbala, Hermeticism, and alchemy unite,” adds that the interest is not comparable to the “infrastructure” of Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy, “the masterworks of Hermeticism contributed only elements of decoration which were soon discarded”(5). Geert Lernout adds that Yeats incited the “esoteric presence” of Hermes Trismegistus in rejection of “English materialistic philosophy,” but it is not clear that Joyce’s rejection of Yeats is tantamount to a rejection of the esoteric presence itself (6). Stanislaus, for example, holds that Joyce’s interest in the occult is “as much in earnest” as George Russell’s, and that he once seriously considered the theosophical and hermetic traditions (7). That Paracelsus labored in the mystical sphere as well as the sphere of reality is, for Stanislaus, what attracted Joyce to this figure. The sometimes inflexible mystical/realist fissure of extant scholarship may thus be entirely inapplicable to Joyce. The upshot is that one need not chose between Boldereff, who posits a hermetic symbolism as the key to unlocking Joyce’s works, and a staunch materialism that would reduce all of mysticism to mere “cultic twalette” (FW 344.12). As Lernout makes explicit, the European rejection of what it rightly or wrongly perceives as “American symbol hunting” is in error where it fails to credit American scholars with any real discoveries (8). To feel forced to choose between the abstract symbol and the material particular is to ignore the historical reality of mysticism in fin de siècle Dublin.
This paper contends that one element of that reality to permeate Joyce’s texts is the legend of the Emerald Tablet, though it is well concealed and requires some excavation, after the fashion of Terrinoni’s Occult Joyce and Jaurretche’s The Sensual Philosophy. Typically, expositions of Hermes (Roman Mercury) in Joyce’s texts have focused on the Hermes of Homer’s Odyssey, Robert Newman providing a particularly thorough exposition of same (9). Jennifer Fraser has extended this into the Homeric “Hymn to Hermes,” (10) and De Marco, more recently, into that later syncretism of Greek Hermes and Egyptian Thoth, Hermes Trismegistus. This paper, via the hidden Emerald Tablet of The Thrice Great, tentatively extends Joyce’s hermeticism beyond Ulysses in both directions, from Dubliners to Finnegans Wake. We begin, however, with Ulysses.
It is my contention that the above is a description of the Emerald Tablet, or Tabula Smaragdina, of Hermes Trismegistus. This inference rests partly upon Molly’s abandonment of calligraphy to “the corrosive action of copperas, green vitriol and nutgall.” As a description of the ingredients and corrosive acidity of Iron-gall ink, it is applicable to texts ranging from ancient times up until the twentieth century, though the method was popularized in late medieval Europe. But there is much else to suggest the Emerald Tablet as a further hidden referent. Firstly, there is a similarity between Molly’s chemical (or alchemical) method of corroding hieroglyphics and corresponding descriptions of the Tabula Smaragdina as “a precious stone, an emerald, whereon these characters were represented in bas relief, not engraved” (11). Regarding “Greek and Irish and Hebrew” characters, the Phoenician characters of the original tablet, almost identical to the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, also gave rise to Greek. For example, Molly’s confusion over how to write the initial capital letter of Quebec recalls the “K” sound of Greek qoppa, a distortion of Phoenician “Q”. And although Irish does not possess a direct linguistic lineage to the Emerald Tablet, “the Emerald Isle” (U 12.554) itself clearly could be symbolized by the Emerald Tablet. More suggestive is the appearance of ‘vitriol’ itself, it being the acronym of the following Hermetic acronym: Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem, Visit the Interior Parts of the Earth by Rectification Thou Shalt Find the Hidden Stone. The most conspicuous term here, “rectification,” appears only once in the two thousand or so pages of Joyce’s creative works. Towards the beginning of this same Episode, Bloom assents “covertly to Stephen’s rectification” (U 17.31), in a short passage that also contains “certain chemical compounds of varying degrees of adulteration and alcoholic strength” (U 17.37-38). This is a nice demonstration of how a deductive methodology, as opposed to the ‘evidence first’ of the geneticist, might yet make some headway in grasping authorial intention. The implication is that Joyce deliberately leaves the required materials nearby, with which one can subsequently corroborate (but never prove) the initial deductive assumption. It does not carry the weight of uncovering the acronym itself in manuscript materials, but it is certainly grist to the mill. To this reader, the cat and mouse process justifies itself, irrespective of its many blind alleys. If the steganographic Joyce be found primarily in the finished text, then setting manuscript materials momentarily aside would be the best method of engaging with him. The theoretical aspect remains integral to the reader’s practice, the task of which is to extricate the uninformed guesses from the lucky ones. The word “acronym” is not in Ulysses, “acrostic” once. Only one use in all Joyce’s creative works, located between the “rectification” and the “vitriol,” when Leopold fashions the letters of his first name (POLDY) into a Valentine’s day acrostic for Molly (U 17.410-416). In the context of Joyce’s corpus, the odds of such proximity (“rectification…acrostic…vitriol”) as a matter of coincidence are lesser than 1 in 100, though this probabilistic method of ‘progression’ cannot exclude entirely the possibility of another Throwaway.
Already in the eighth century the word ‘vitriol’ was used “in the correct significance of an impure ferrous sulphate”(12). The earliest use of the acronym I have located is in a handwritten 1574 edition of the Aurora Philosophorum of Paracelsus, now housed in the Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg (13). The initialism (in this case ‘vitriolum’) is unmistakable, with the first letter of each word capitalized, and written in red ink. The Rosie Crucian Secrets, a work loosely attributed to John Dee, also originates the acronym in the Aurora Philosophorum of Paracelsus (14). The latter was subsequently translated from hochdeutsch into Latin by Gerard Dorn, and published as part of a wider collection in Basel in 1577, under the title Aurora thesaurusque philosophorum. An English translation by J. H. Oxon, Paracelsus his Aurora, & treasure of the philosophers, appeared in London in 1659, but Joyce would most likely have encountered this work, if at all, in the modern rendition of A. E. Waite’s The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus (1894). In Waite’s edition of the Aurora, what is essentially a tract on the lapis philosophorum or philosopher’s stone, Chapter XII is entitled ‘General Instruction concerning the Arcanum of Vitriol and the Red Tincture to be extracted from it.’ It begins that “Vitriol is a very noble mineral among the rest, and was held always in highest estimation by philosophers, because the Most High God has adorned it with wonderful gifts. They have veiled its arcanum in enigmatical figures like the following : ‘Thou shalt go to the inner parts of the earth, and by rectification thou shalt find the occult stone, a true medicine.’” Paracelsus continues that “it must not be deprived on any account of its green colour. If it were, it would at the same time lose its arcanum and its power” (15). We have said that Paracelsus’ acronym is not ‘vitriol,’ but the extended ‘vitriolum,’ Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem Veram Medicinam, a usage inconsistent with Joyce’s. Furthermore, ‘green vitriol,’ also known as copperas, ferrous sulphate, or FeSo4, is widespread throughout alchemical literature, and as such it becomes increasingly difficult to identify Joyce’s sources. One might consider the ‘Green Vitriol or Copperas’ which appears in an account of alchemical ‘Experiments on Mercury and Silver’ in the January 1881 edition of Blavatsky’s Theosophist (16). It is better known as the 17th century cure of Sir Kenelm Digby, a “pulverized green vitriol” to be applied not to the wound but to the offending blade (17). Raymond “Lully” (FW 96.19) also conducted alchemical experiments with green vitriol, but none of the above fashion the direct link between green vitriol and Hermes Trismegistus that the wider context of Joyce’s usage suggests. Equally, the above are all textual sources, and as such cannot well account for Molly’s “signs and hieroglyphics.” Without certain knowledge of Joyce’s sourcebook here, we can only seek a possible source that will satisfy the above conditions, which leads us to the (reputedly) 15th century German alchemist and Benedictine Canon, Basilius Valentinus.
A biographical exposition of Valentinus is better avoided, as even such fundamental details as his date of birth and name are open to dispute, notwithstanding his sometime reputation as the father of modern chemistry. When chasing the philosopher’s stone, one is increasingly led into questionable source materials and pseudonymous tracts, a fact of which Joyce was perhaps not unaware. What one can say of Valentinus is that he reportedly shared Lully’s experiments on green vitriol, and is widely credited with being the first to extract oil of vitriol. His method of dropping a “bar of iron” into blue vitriol (or copper sulphate) results in the corrosion of iron and the production of green vitriol (or iron sulphate) and copper (18). In today’s chemistry classes, this once alchemical experiment is a common demonstration of a single replacement reaction, Fe + CuSO4 → FeSO4 + Cu. Amongst the many important alchemical works published under the name of Valentinus is the Azoth Philosophorum, in both German and Latin editions in 1613. The Azoth is one of the more popular texts of alchemical literature, re-appearing in various subsequent anthologies, such as the Bibliotheque des Philosophes Chimiques (1741). Joyce need not have been exposed to the allegorical woodcuts of the 1613 original in order to see Valentinus’s ‘vitriol’ acronym etched upon the Emerald Tablet. The diagram is also found in later ‘picture books’ like the Geheima Figuren der Rosenkreuzer and from there into A. E. Waite’s Brotherhood of the Rosicrucians Or Rosy Cross (19). The following diagram is taken from the 1659 French edition of the Azoth, one of a handful of Valentinus’s works to be found in the “aristmystic” library of “old Sare Isaac” (FW 293.30-31) (20).
This pictorial version of the vitriol acronym is a source worth considering for Molly’s “hieroglyphics,” with the Emerald Tablet conceivably informing both the “green” colour of the vitriol, as well as the Hebrew/Greek origins of Molly’s signs. No other potential source uncovered makes the Hermes-vitriol connection so explicit. Whether Joyce encountered Valentinus’s diagram in some contemporary source or in the original remains an open-ended question. That he encountered it, however, is something one might test with further textual exegesis.
The Vitriol Works in Ulysses
A good starting point is to search Ulysses for further uses of ‘vitriol,’ in order to see if the context corroborates this reading. There is only one such use, spoken in Bella Cohen’s by a medley of voices that relate Bloom’s sins of the past.
The “strongmembered males” are loosely suggestive of “the phallic Hermes”(21) and “the gross boar” recalls the fact that Hermes was the God of boars. Fraser has argued convincingly for Joyce’s use of Shelley’s verse adaptation of the “Hymn to Hermes.” Shelley’s text, for example, shares with Ulysses the Homeric title of its preceding Episode, “Oxen of the Sun” (22). The appearance of the boar here alongside the hermetic vitriol might likewise incite Shelley’s “White tuskéd boars,” over which Hermes is given dominion (23). This would not be out of keeping with Joyce’s typical method. In A Portrait, for example, we find the Egyptian counterpart of Hermes, “Thoth, the god of writers,” appearing amidst a wealth of bird imagery that cannot be divorced from his status as a bird-headed deity (P 225). Stephen’s “ashplant” there becomes “the curved stick of an augur” (P 225), clearly indicative of Hermes and his “herald’s staff, which is his most frequent attribute” (24). Joyce’s Thoth is therein found “writing with a reed upon a tablet and bearing on his narrow ibis head the cusped moon,” suggesting not only his Ibis symbol but surely the Emerald Tablet itself (P 225). Following this lengthy treatment of augury and birds, Stephen is next found in the library with Cranly, when a priest opposite snaps shut his copy of “The Tablet,” ostensibly a right wing English newspaper but possibly a further covert invocation of Hermes Trismegistus (P 227). The use of the word “Emerald” in A Portrait is also reasonably consistent with Joyce’s Thoth imagery, appearing firstly alongside a “bottle of ink” and later as “a sign upon the flesh” of the bird-girl on the beach (P 70 & 373). Cixous has previously commented upon a possible Smaragdine connection with the latter (25). Notwithstanding the unmistakably hermetic connotations of Thoth in A Portrait, the phallus and boar appearing alongside Joyce’s earliest use of ‘vitriol’ in Ulysses are not entirely convincing. What likely attracted Joyce to Hermes is his “many-sided character,” one that cannot be derived “from a single elemental conception” (26). On some accounts the God of cattle, on others the God of wind, of the phallus, of travel or the messenger God, the myriad qualities of Hermes are all too easy to invoke. His ability to slip between heaven and the underworld also engendered associations with the arts of magic, fortunetelling, and the dream world. Considered as part of a yet wider conception involving the Egyptian Thoth and the syncretism of Hermes Trismegistus, the symbols of Hermes become even more malleable. Nevertheless, there is much else in the surrounding context of Bella Cohen’s brothel to suggest that this earlier use of ‘vitriol’ is likewise hermetic.
Most notably, we find in this same Episode the only appearance of the word “Hermes” in Ulysses, there being two more in Finnegans Wake. It is understandable that the extant Joycean literature should so often invoke Hermes as the messenger-God of Homer’s Odyssey, but his only direct mention in Ulysses comes via the “Occult pimander of Hermes Trismegistos” (U 15.2269). Amidst the jumble of occult and zodiacal references in the following lines we find “darkhidden Father!...I am the light” (U 15.2272-2275), possibly derived from the second book of The Divine Pymander, in which the Father figure Poemander relates “I am that Light, the Mind, thy God, who am before that moist nature that appeared out of darkness” (27). This direct reference to The Divine Pymander (if accurate) may in turn be designed to point us to the Emerald Tablet, considering “the green light” which follows it and, more pointedly, the link between colour and gemstone fashioned by Zoe’s flesh, which “appears under the sapphire a nixie’s green” (U 15.2277-2292). Earlier in ‘Circe,’ Bloom’s punishment for his sins is to be stoned by “all from Agendath Netaim and from Mizraim, the land of Ham” (U 15.1900-1901). Mizraim is here significant of Egypt, but that Joyce also conceives of Mizraim the person (son of Ham, son of Noah) is suggested by the shortly preceding description of Bloom’s lineage. “Moses begat Noah, and Noah begat Eunuch…and Agendath begat Netaim…and Virag begat Bloom” (U 15.1855-1868). Traditionally, Hermes is the great grandfather of Bloom’s mythological counterpart, Ulysses, and Mizraim is the father of Hermes Trismegistus. These possible roles for Hermes in Bloom’s lineage cast his great great grandfather, “Jasperstone,” as another possible covert allusion to the Tablet. The jasper of antiquity was commonly green, and often compared (even confused) with emerald in both Greek and Egyptian traditions. Pliny, for example, lists “green jasper” along with emerald under the title of smaragdus, while both Pliny and Theophrastus locate a green mineral, “half emerald half jasper,” in the mines of Cyprus (28). Like “The Tablet” of A Portrait, the “Jasperstone” here would be a particularly covert allusion, but appearing alongside Thoth and Mizraim respectively, the presumed hermetic connotation should not be discounted offhand.
The ‘vitriol’ of Bella’s brothel must also be considered in the light of this Episode’s containing two of three uses of the word “Mercury” in Ulysses. Most notably, the recurrent sense of hiddenness is captured in the following. “A sinister figure leans on plaited legs against O’Beirne’s wall, a visage unknown, injected with dark mercury. From under a wideleaved sombrero the figure regards him with evil eye” (U 15.212-214). This injection of mercury perhaps foreshadows Bloom’s later consideration of “Sulphate of copper poison, SO4 or something in some dried peas” (U 16.801-802). We might consider that Joyce’s placing CuS04, or blue vitriol, in some peas is to conceive of it as green, with the unfinished “SO4 or something” deliberately opening up the possibility of FeSO4. Bella’s brothel also sees Joyce’s second usage of “Mercurial Malachy” (U 15.4171), who in Episode I reminds Stephen not to forget his “Latin quarter hat” that accompanies the more obvious Hermes imagery of his “ashplant” (U 1.518-528). In the Butcher-Lang translation of Homer’s Odyssey, it is “the wand wherewith he lulls the eyes of whomso he will, while others again he even wakes from out of sleep” (29). This imagery, also incorporating numerous references to Hermes’s sandals, is extended when Mulligan “tugged swiftly at Stephen’s ashplant…Mercury’s hat quivering in the fresh wind” (U 1.593-602). In the midst of these unmistakable invocations of Hermes, the following action can reasonably be conceived as Joyce’s first Ulysses reference to the Emerald Tablet.
The “green stone” in a “silver case” is recalled in a later depiction of Ireland as “ERIN, GREEN GEM OF THE SILVER SEA” (U 7.236). More obviously in Episode IX, five pages prior to “the faithful hermetists” (U 9.281-282), Stephen recalls of Haines, “I smoked his baccy. Green twinkling stone. An emerald set in the ring of the sea” (U 9.101-102). There is “an expensive engagement ring with emeralds set in the form of a fourleaved shamrock” (U 12.667-668) and an Irish bull “with an emerald ring in his nose” (U 14.583-584). These might just as well recall Eliphas Levi’s declaration that, on Thursdays, the magician should wear an emerald ring, but the imagery is in any case hermetic (30). We do not aspire here to certain knowledge of Joyce’s sources in each instance, but merely point to the likelihood of some further hermetic allusions scattered throughout Ulysses. And note at this point that “the Emerald Isle” is a possible hiding place for Joyce’s Emerald Tablet.
To sum up these possible allusions, the “Hermes Trismegistos” of Bella Cohen’s can be considered in conjunction with that Episode’s “vitriol” and its numerous invocations of Mercury. These in turn strengthen the case for the Emerald Tablet being present both in the “green vitriol” of the final Episode, as well as the “green stone” alongside the Mercury of the first. That Ulysses should be effectively framed within two covert references to the Emerald Tablet might serve to strengthen De Marco’s claim that the other central Hermetic text, The Corpus Hermeticum, with its eighteen separate tractates, was utilized for the “structural organization” of Ulysses, whose eighteen Episodes are likewise subdivided into a further three-part division. Of the two Episodes/tractates De Marco singles out as especially revealing of this structural correspondence, one is Episode XV, which we have seen contains many of Joyce’s hermetic allusions. The other is Episode X.
The suggestion of a Hermetic “key” might well inform the early discourse on the Martello Tower key between Stephen and Mulligan, which contextualizes the green twinkling stone of Haine’s cigarette case. On this same page, Stephen “trailing his ashplant by his side,” thinks “He wants that key. It is mine. I paid the rent. Now I eat his salt bread. Give him the key too. All. He will ask for it. That was in his eyes” (U 1.627-632). One could cite numerous further possible allusions, though the more tenuous connections serve only to detract from the concrete ones, which considered in isolation span from the opening to the closing Episode of Ulysses. That Joyce’s texts do not immediately illustrate his alleged knowledge of the hermetic tradition might thus reflect a deliberate attempt to keep such references hidden, rather than the allegation’s being untrue. It would be a nice touch to encode the philosopher’s stone such that the reader requires some knowledge of alchemical works in order to discover it. On the face of it, this is to negate Newman’s contention that “The message to read Hermetically is itself a philosopher’s stone, found not at the conclusion of a search, but in the discovery that the search is its own purpose” (32). It seems that there is in fact a literal philosopher’s stone encoded in Joyce’s web of hermetic allusions, but this is not to detract from Newman’s methodological point. The hermeticism of Ulysses remains most pertinent to the hermeneutics of the meta-reader, and provides no solid foundation or all encompassing vantage point. If Hermes is Joyce’s “god of signposts” (Letters I, 147), we can add that every signpost points us to another pointless sign. On this reading, The Emerald Tablet is no destination, but an invitation to be lost in “an immense network of well kept wrong turnings” (33).
Concurring with De Marco’s contention that the text of the Emerald Tablet is not a structuring device for Ulysses, we might yet consider Joyce’s structural use of Valentinus’s pictorial representation. For the tripartite division of The Thrice Great, which enabled his seamless historical adoption by the Christian tradition, is equally open to assimilation by the sometimes “trivial” or tripartite methods of Joyce (34). More specifically, the Eagle, Lion and Star of Valentinus’s diagram are easily transposed upon Joyce’s trinity of primary characters. Leopold, often “Leo” for short, and “Lionel” or “the lion of the night” in Bella Cohen’s, is clearly reminiscent of the Lion (U 15.753; U 15.447). Stephen Dedalus, of the Icarus plummet, might equally be transposed onto the Eagle. It is in the vicinity of the “green stone” of Episode I that Mercurial Malachi flaps his wings in mockery. And when Stephen returns to thoughts of birds and augury outside the National Library in Episode IX, we have recently been presented with the “tile” books of Thoth within it. “Thoth, god of libraries, a birdgod, moonycrowned. And I heard the voice of that Egyptian highpriest. In painted chambers loaded with tilebooks” (U 9.353-355). This deductive assumption might well be falsified if Molly were not in turn symbolized by the star, though we are presented instead with further textual corroboration. “Mrs. B. is the bright particular star, isn’t she?” (U 12.993) Of course, Ulysses will often supply the required evidence merely by probability of scale, but one further incident is nevertheless worthy of mention in this respect. In Episode XVII, there is the simultaneous sighting, by Stephen and Bloom, of a comet as they walk together towards Bloom’s house, where Molly lies awake in bed.
One derives confidence in the applicability of the theoretical framework from the fact that it facilitates correct predictions regarding textual particulars. Given “star” and “Leo,” for example, one might predict that Stephen, the Eagle, is “Vega in the Lyre.” And an etymological search concludes that Vega is indeed derived from the Arabic ‘Al Nasr al Waki,’ or ‘swooping eagle’. It is thus tempting to stretch the connection to this abstract level. On the other hand, to have reader’s running amok among the infinite interpretability of ancient symbols is surely part of Joyce’s joke. There is the nagging suspicion that we are being asked to “creepycrawl after Blake’s buttocks into eternity” (U 9.87-88). Or that the joy of conquest derived from digging up the philosopher’s stone does not translate to Joyce having attached some special significance to burying it, above any other mundane referent. Notwithstanding, we can surely posit its likely appearance at various points in Joyce’s work, from A Portrait to Finnegans Wake.
With respect to the Wake, the supposition of a thin hermetic thread is neither novel nor contentious. Roland McHugh notes two paraphrases of the Emerald Tablet text, second precept (of ten). In Roger Bacon’s formulation this reads “That which is beneath is like that which is above: & that which is above, is like that which is beneath, to worke the miracles of one thing” (35). Joyce’s first rendition, “The tasks above are as the flasks below, saith the emerald canticle of Hermes” (FW 263.21-22) is foreshadowed, consciously or not, by “thermos flask” (FW 71.2). The second, “as broad above as he is below,” is accompanied on the same page by “Merkery” as well as three green gemstones (of seven gems listed) in “chrysolite, jade” and “jasper” (FW 494.4-18). The precept is not quoted in Ulysses, but Gilbert’s study (the particulars of which were sometimes prompted by Joyce) mentions “The Smaragdine Table of Hermes Trismegistus” before quoting this precept specifically. Gilbert moreover refers to the precept in its “diagrammatic form” of “two triangles interlocked…the figure known as Solomon’s Seal” (36). If we follow McHugh further in positing both “Emerald Isle” and “hemorrhoids” in the “Emerald-illium” (FW 62.11-12) and “emerods” (FW 63.19) a few pages prior to the “thermos flask” of I.3, then we might fashion a connection with Samuel Beckett’s Emerald Isle (“the haemorrhidal isle”), which appears in the second line of his own poetic JAMESJOYCE acrostic, ‘Home Olga.’ “J might be made sit up for a Jade of hope…”(37). Without positing a direct dialogue at play here, the overlap is worthy of mention within the context of an intense period of Joyce/Beckett cooperation from 1928-1930 (38). These Emerald allusions may not in the end contribute to hermeticism in the Wake, but two uses of “Hermes” and two references to the Tablet’s second precept undoubtedly do. Attention may be drawn to “vetriol of venom” (FW 101.24) and “eyes like transparents of vitricus” (FW 230.33-34) but “vitriol” itself makes no appearance (39). Nevertheless, hermetic allusions of sorts are already evident in the earliest of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake Notebooks (VI.B.10). From Criterion, I, 1, he noted the word “hermocopidae” (VI.B.10.012). It is not found in the Wake but Joyce’s search for meaning, “Mutilators of Hermæ, or statues of the god Hermes, used as boundary-marks, mile-stones, sign-posts, etc” (40). may have suggested the “milestones in their cheadmilias faultering along the tramestrack by Brahm and Anton Hermes!” (FW 81.6-7) Returning to the Notebooks, two lines subsequent to the above we find the single word “hermeneutics” (VI.B.10.012). Not in Criterion and presumably suggested by or encountered when searching for “hermocopidae,” the term is again said to derive from Hermes. Saving Scripture, few works have contributed more raw materials to the art of interpretation it denotes than the late works of Joyce. There is a danger in our honing the art too acutely, with adverse effect on authorial intention, but in Joyce’s case it is nonetheless difficult to resist the temptation. We thus wish to consider, lastly, the possibility that Joyce’s hermeticism is already at play in the early stories of Dubliners.
The Vitriol Works in Dubliners
In light of the above, one might reconsider Joyce’s motives behind the chosen route of ‘An Encounter.’ “We walked along the North strand road till we came to the Vitriol Works, and then turned to the right along the Wharf Road” (41). Mahony brought his catapult “to have some gas with the birds. Mahony used slang freely, and spoke of Father Butler as Bunsen Burner” (42). There is no need to incite the alchemical Vitriol of Hermes in explication, when the Vitriol Works were themselves a chemical factory. But we might consider the wider context of ‘An Encounter’ as a whole. Already in 1969, Fritz Senn wrote that “the predominance in the story of the number three may suggest the Trinity: the three-part structure, the three magazines mentioned, a ‘three-master’, ‘three o’clock’, ‘three totties’, etc.” (43). Terence Brown is unconvinced by the further suggestion that the “Pigeon House,” later to become Dublin’s power station, implies the dove, or Holy Ghost, of Christian iconography (44). This does not detract from the clear bird imagery, however, or the stories unmistakable tripartite symbols, just as easily assimilated into the iconography of the Hermetic Trinity. We might add to this that the two boys can’t play Indians because “you must have at least three,” and that the absentee, “Leo the idler,” betrays laziness typical of the star sign that is his symbol (45). Senn notes the many phrases “expressing movement in a closed circle,” down to the locale of Ringsend, which could contribute to this sense of planetary motion (46). The “spirit of unruliness” diffused amongst the children, their being “under its influence,” and the obvious lack of communication, all suggest the astrological mischief of Mercury retrograde (47). And the story’s being set on “a mild sunny morning in the first week of June” ensures that the action unfolds, like Ulysses, under the influence of Hermes, ruler of Gemini (48). In the Trinitarian connection, we might also consider the three others present when the children “crossed the Liffey in the ferryboat, paying our toll” (49). The better known Hermes of Greek myth is the conductor of the dead to Hades, whereupon they are handed to the ferryman, Kharon.
As three is the chosen number of ‘An Encounter,’ so green is the chosen colour. The narrator, unable to decipher the legend on the stern of the ferryboat, “came back and examined the foreign sailors to see if any of them had green eyes for I had some confused notion” (50). Brown considers, “in this context of seafaring and adventure,” an early reference to Ulysses, whom medieval tradition held to have green eyes (51). Without wishing to negate the suggestion, the maritime context is notably absent in the later ‘encounter,’ when our narrator meets “the gaze of a pair of bottle green eyes” (52). And the cat which leads them to the green eyed stranger might reappear in Leopold Bloom’s pussens, “her eyes were green stones” (U 4.35). ‘An Encounter’ in fact contains two uses of ‘stone,’ half the quota of Dubliners, and the only two that actually designate stone objects. Again, the stranger comes to them three times, has a hat and stick, “a suit of greenish-black,” and the boy who watches him chews “one of those green stems on which girls tell fortunes” (53). The stranger is “magnetised by some words of his own speech, his mind was slowly circling round and round in the same orbit” (54). His feet, however, walk for fifty paces and then “retrace his steps,” again consistent with the retrograde astronomy of Mercury (55). This might be recalled in Ulysses when Stephen spots the green twinkling stone, trails a wavering line with his ashplant on the path, and thinks “They will walk on it tonight, coming here in the dark” (U 1.630). A hermetic reading of ‘An Encounter’ could also inform the stranger’s perversion for whipping young boys, it being simply Hermes’s whip, or Shelley’s “glittering lash”(56), with which Hermes whipped Ixion for lusting after Hera. Much in ‘An Encounter’ could be indicative of Hermes’s role in the stranger’s “elaborate mystery”(57), though there is a danger in reading the hermetic Vitriol of Molly’s hieroglyphs ‘back’ into the “Vitriol Works” of Dubliners. The “vitriol works” of ‘Circe’ might instead reveal Joyce’s own retrospective hermetic reading of ‘An Encounter,’ though it does appear curiously poised for just such an interpretation. If, on the other hand, the hermetic intent was already present during the composition of Dubliners, this would not imply that Joyce’s Trinitarian ‘Encounter’ was fashioned for exclusively hermetic reasons. The ‘trivial’ method more likely appeals for its multi-referential possibilities, and ‘vitriol’ but Joyce’s most succinct expression of one of these. ‘An Encounter’ is itself but one of a wider trinity of stories in Dubliners to centre on a young unnamed narrator. The Sisters and Araby respectively invoke “that Rosicrucian there” and “some Freemason affair” (58), opening up the possibility of further occult manifestations of the Trinity. This is all only to concur with Senn’s earlier diagnosis that the varied readings of ‘An Encounter’ are “possibilities that enrich the story” and not “a substitute for it or an indispensible key” (59).
The case of a hermetic reading is slightly complicated by its incorporating these very methodological implications. While Hermes can be used, more or less effectively, to decode this or that intermittent passage, his import is not in the end reducible to a key or philosopher’s stone. Considered methodologically, he is more akin to a master key, a hermeneutical lesson that all doors are already open. If the emerald canticle of Hermes does indeed span from Dubliners to Finnegans Wake, then it marks a reasonable centerpiece for Joyce’s works. But the ever elusive Hermes ensures that the Hermetic center point is no sooner postulated than it dissipates into nonsense. To borrow a metaphor of Wittgenstein, the hermetic reader “must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it” (60).
Conclusion: Circumference Nowhere
In Dream of Fair to Middling Women, Samuel Beckett, with obvious resonances for his early Joycean or synthetic method, considers the reduction of “heterogeneous entities…to a deep common point of divergence.” Beauty, he contends, is unitary, “with a centre everywhere and a circumference nowhere” (61). The Dream Notebook simply lists “Bonaventure” as a source for the phrase, likely via Inge’s Christian Mysticim (62). But as Ackerley points out, it may also have been encountered in “Alan de Lille, Dante, Meister Eckhart, Rabelais and Pascal,” and more probably in Leibniz (63). In Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, also a known source for Joyce, this infinite intellectual sphere “is God, according to the doctrine of Hermes Trismegistus” (64). Pascal’s editor traces it to this same source, and Alan de Lille was borrowing directly from the ‘Asclepius’ of the Corpus Hermeticum. This exhausted hermetic commonplace also finds its way into The Secret Doctrine of Blavatsky (65), where Joyce would likely have encountered it, but its ultimate effect is to demonstrate the difficulty of tying Joyce or Beckett to a single source. The metaphor, in approaching the omnipresence of the hermetic sphere it describes, well illustrates the hermeneutical challenge which Joyce’s seemingly infinite sourcebooks, and possible theoretical frameworks, present for the reader. Beckett’s later descriptions of Belaqua in Dream, “At his simplest he was trine…The third being was the dark gulf,” explicitly link the aforementioned metaphor to the Trinity (66).
That the Trinitarian connection could be fashioned here for theological reasons (“sloth” as the third deadly sin) does not contravene its theoretical applicability to the hermetic Trinity in Joyce. Instead of weighing the Homeric Hermes against Thoth or Trismegistus, or grappling with questions of structural foundation and secondary graft, we conclude instead that ‘There is no real Hermes.’ As López-Pedraza remarks, “Hermes has no need to fight for his center; he does not have one” (68).
James Lowell, in a discussion of the anomalous situation of 19th century American literature, compares it to “the sphere of Hermes. It is divided into many systems, each revolving round its several suns, and often presenting to the rest only the faint glimmer of a milk-and-water way” (69). The analogy might well be extended to a consideration of Joyce’s entire corpus, which can be conceived of as a vast venn diagram that its creator traversed with increasingly abstract and all-inclusive areas of intersection. The reader is left with a seemingly infinite series of signposts, which connect internally, but also point outwards to a wealth of apparent sources that are simply too many for any one man to have read. Sylvia Beach’s suggestion that Joyce “probably read everything by the time he was twenty” is a nice thought, but not to be taken literally (70). The challenge for the reader is to recognize that the signposts are often just that, that they can point to each other or in no particular direction, and that Joyce was not necessarily lost within the woods in which we find ourselves. So when Joyce’s finger points us to the moon, we would do well to keep looking at his finger. That is to say, one must resist the temptation to always take the signpost as pointing towards a concrete something. It is the reader’s inability to resist this temptation that imbues Joyce’s texts with our collective omniscience, and deprives his corpus of circumference. Joyce’s encouragement and solicitation of early interpretations (Our Exagmination) set the crystalline spheres in motion. Our collective imagination was deftly woven into the story with an end result of ‘circumference nowhere.’ Yet however many versions of Joyce’s works will yet appear, and however organic his process of creativity, the text remains a material finite entity. In so far as we choose to thoroughly follow up the hermetic signs, Joyce will be ascribed a thorough knowledge of the hermetic tradition. In so far as we refuse to do so, for whatever reason, these particular signs will constitute some unaccountable remainder, an aberration. But this is to tell us nothing of the roads which Joyce himself traversed. It seems the more we read, the more our sphere of certainty is restricted to the single truth that Joyce could not have read all this. We can presume that Joyce knew something of the philosopher’s stone, and at some point he probably looked upon a diagrammatic invitation to the interior parts of the earth. That is not to say, however, that he took up the invitation, that he ever studied the Azoth Philosophorum, or that there is an Emerald City at the centre of Joyce’s world.