Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Physical Writing Process [Pt. 5: James Joyce & Jorge Luis Borges – Writing With Eye Trouble]

I have the impression that the most iconic images of James Joyce are those in which he's wearing an eye-patch, and the reason he’s wearing it is because he suffered from eye problems his entire life (iritis, conjunctivitis, glaucoma, episcleritis, synechia, and cataracts), which became worse as he got older. During the time he was living in Zurich he had to undergo several operations on his eyes, and for years he was almost completely blind. People close to the author and his works at the time have related stories about he coped with this. Joyce (of course) wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of his writing, so he took to writing with a red crayon on massive sheets of white paper. I haven’t seen any facsimiles of these manuscripts, but I like knowing that he was able to continue his writing in this fashion.

[This is only my creation of what I imagine some of Joyce's manuscripts may have looked like. Reading Joyce makes me think that I have an idea of the sorts of wordplay that must be going on when I’m reading someone like Witold Gombrowicz in translation and the translator says that the jokes in certain passages are untranslatable.]

In correspondence with his patron Harriet Weaver, Joyce wrote, "In spite of my eye attack I got on with another passage by using a charcoil pencil (fusain) which broke every three minutes and a large sheet of paper. I have now covered various large sheets in a handwriting resembling that of the late Napoleon Bonaparte when irritated by reverses." Some reports say that he was using charcoal on sheets of butcher’s paper. By his own words, it sounds like it was quite a struggle – not nearly as convenient as if he could have just written with a normal pen or typed it up.


Another great writer who went blind later in his life was Jorge Luis Borges. I love the passage in his short story “The Other” when the older Borges explains what it is like to go blind to his younger counterpart:

“When you reach my age, you’ll have almost totally lost your eye-sight. You’ll be able to see the color yellow, and light and shadow. But don’t worry. Gradual blindness is not tragic. It’s like the slowly growing darkness of a summer evening.”

That always resonates with me as a beautiful metaphor for losing one’s eyesight - something that people usually think of as anything but beautiful. I don’t know much about how Borges managed his reading and writing as he lost his eyesight, but he did have people who would assist him, including his mother who lived to be 99. It sounded to me like he would dictate what he wanted to write and manage to continue his literary work in this fashion. If anyone out there reading this has more to input about Joyce or Borges' writing habits, I'd appreciate the input!

I'll be back on June 5th with the final entry in this series.

P.S. In case you didn't hear about it, James Joyce was in the news recently in a story involving a synthetic cell's DNA and copyright law: "James Joyce's Words Come to Life and are Promptly Desecrated."


  1. If possible, I'd like to know where you got Joyce's eye problems info from. Thanks!

  2. I only noticed this comment now. I didn't save my sources from when I wrote this, but the quote from Joyce can be found here:

    This book "Dear Yeats, Dear Pound, Dear Ford: Jeanne Robert Foster and Her Circle of Friends" by Richard Londraville and Janis Londraville mentions his use of butcher's paper:

    Also, here's a New York Times article that mentions him writing on big white sheets of paper with red crayon:

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