“If I am to write anything fine or noble in the future I shall do so only by listening at the doors of your heart.”
By Maria Popova
As an ardent lover of love letters, I have encountered few exemplars of the genre more piercing than those penned by James Joyce (February 2, 1882–January 13, 1941).
In 1904, just after his first major essay was rejected from publication, 22-year-old Joyce met Nora Barnacle — a young chambermaid he described as “a simple honorable soul,” one “incapable of any of the deceits which pass for current morality.” From the moment they met until Joyce’s dying day, the two were bound by an uncommon love that translated into a relationship unconventional in many ways, especially by the era’s standards — they had a son and a daughter out of wedlock and didn’t marry until 27 years into their lifelong relationship.
Nora’s unselfish honesty was intensely alluring to Joyce. Only with her was he, a man otherwise guarded and chronically mistrustful, capable of complete self-revelation — she was the nonjudgmental, loving receptacle for his dueling enormities of ambition and self-consciousness that often bled into self-loathing. The unflinching trust that developed between them became the supreme engine of their love — for what is love if not the net we trust will catch us as we fall from grace into our deepest imperfections, then bounce us back up to our highest selves?
In a letter from October of 1909, found in Joyce’s altogether spectacular Selected Letters — the same treasure trove that gave us the teenage author’s beautiful letter of appreciation to Ibsen, his greatest hero, and his poetic plea to Lady Gregory — 27-year-old Joyce writes to Nora during a trip to Dublin:
You dear strange little girl! And yet you write to ask if I am tired of you! I shall never be tired of you, dearest… I cannot write you so often this time as I [am] dreadfully busy from morning to night. Do not fret, darling. If you do you will ruin my chances of doing anything. After this I hope we shall have many many many long years of happiness together.
My dear true good little Nora do not write again doubtfully of me. You are my only love. You have me completely in your power. I know and feel that if I am to write anything fine or noble in the future I shall do so only by listening at the doors of your heart.
Two days later, still away and working hard to have Dubliners published, Joyce is seized with longing for Nora and grows even more homesick:
My darling Tonight the old fever of love has begun to wake again in me. I am a shell of a man: my soul is in Trieste [the couple’s home]. You alone know me and love me.
A century before philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s terrific treatise on why embracing our neediness is essential for healthy relationships, Joyce embraces his and pleads with Nora in the same letter:
I am a jealous, lonely, dissatisfied, proud man. Why are you not more patient with me and kinder with me? The night we went to Madame Butterfly together you treated me most rudely. I simply wanted to feel your soul swaying with languor and longing as mine did when she sings the romance of her hope in the second act Un bel di: “One day, one day, we shall see a spire of smoke rising on the furthest verge of the sea; and then the ship appears.” I am a little disappointed in you. Then another night I came home to your bed from the café and I began to tell you of all I hoped to do, and to write, in the future and of those boundless ambitions which are really the leading forces in my life. You would not listen to me. It was very late I know and of course you were tired out after the day. But a man whose brain is on fire with hope and trust in himself must tell someone of what he feels. Whom should I tell but you?
But after this lamentation, the letter rises above these trifling resentments and takes a most heartening turn toward the ultimate assurance of love — that however short we may fall of our highest selves, however much we may disappoint our loved ones, they will love us anyway and love us not despite but because of our imperfect humanity. Decades before Joseph Campbell admonished against the deadliness of perfectionism in love, Joyce writes:
I love you deeply and truly, Nora. I feel worthy of you now. There is not a particle of my love that is not yours. In spite of these things which blacken my mind against you I think of you always at your best… Nora, I love you. I cannot live without you. I would like to give you everything that is mine, any knowledge I have (little as it is), any emotions I myself feel or have felt, any likes or dislikes I have, any hopes I have or remorse. I would like to go through life side by side with you, telling you more and more until we grew to be one being together until the hour should come for us to die. Even now the tears rush to my eyes and sobs choke my throat as I write this. Nora, we have only one short life in which to love. O my darling be only a little kinder to me, bear with me a little even if I am inconsiderate and unmanageable and believe me we will be happy together. Let me love you in my own way. Let me have your heart always close to mine to hear every throb of my life, every sorrow, every joy.
But against the backdrop of this all-consuming love, an unexpected drama unfolded — that fall, during the same trip to Dublin, Joyce was led to mistakenly believe that Nora had been unfaithful to him in the early days of their romance five years earlier, a period he cherished as one of sacred intimacy. He wrote to her from what he would later characterize as a state of “utter despair,” attacking her for the betrayal, berating himself for being unworthy of her love, and treating her infidelity as proof of his unworthiness. In the midst of all this, Nora — who had been tasked with singlehandedly managing the household and raising the children while Joyce was away trying to get Dubliners published — grew increasingly frustrated and threatened to leave him.
When it became apparent that the whole thing had been a misunderstanding and Nora had never been unfaithful, he proceeded to send her a series of letters, both breathtakingly beautiful and utterly heartbreaking, further berating himself for having so misjudged his beloved’s character and beseeching her to forgive him. In an intensely self-flagellating letter from early November of 1909, Joyce writes:
You write like a queen. As long as I live I shall always remember the quiet dignity of that letter, its sadness and scorn, and the utter humiliation it caused me.
I have lost your esteem. I have worn down your love. leave me then. Take away your children from me to save them from the curse of my presence. Let me sink back again into the mire I came from. Forget me and my empty words. Go back to your own life and let me go alone to my ruin. It is wrong for you to live with a vile beast like me or to allow your children to be touched by my hands.
Leave me. It is a degradation and a shame for you to live with a low wretch like me. Act bravely and leave me. you have given me the finest things in this world but you were only casting pearls before swine.
If you leave me I shall live for ever with your memory, holier than God to me. I shall pray to your name.
Nora, remember something good of the poor wretch who dishonored you with his love. Think that your lips have kissed him and your hair has fallen over him and that your arms have held him to you.
I will not sign my name because it is the name you called me when you loved me and honoured me and have me your young tender soul to wound and betray.
And yet the most hope-giving part of the episode is that the perceived breach of trust only strengthened their bond. Perhaps it is no accident that we use the heart — a mighty muscle — as the symbolic seedbed of love. It’s a biologically apt metaphor: We can’t build our bodily muscles without first tearing down the fibers of which their tissue is woven — hypertrophy, or muscle growth, occurs when the body repairs the fibers torn down during exercise, thickening them in the repair process. Trust, too, grows by hypertrophy.
A day later, Joyce writes to Nora — or of Nora, for he uses the third person to relay to her a diaristic vignette intended to convey the depth of his feelings for her:
I received two very kind letters from her today so that perhaps after all she still cares for me. Last night I was in a state of utter despair when I wrote to her. Her slightest word has an enormous power over me. She asks me to try to forget the ignorant Galway [Nora’s hometown] girl that came across my life and says I am too kind to her. Foolish good-hearted girl! Does she not see what a worthless treacherous fool I am? Her love for me perhaps blinds her to it.
I shall never forget how her short letter to me yesterday cut me to the quick. I felt that I had tried her goodness too far and that at last she had turned on me with quiet scorn.
Today I went to the hotel where she lived when I first met her. I halted in the dingy doorway before going in I was so excited.
I have been in the room where she passed so often, with a strange dream of love in her young heart. My God, my eyes are full of tears! Why do I cry? I cry because it is so sad to think of her moving about that room, eating little, simply dressed, simple-mannered and watchful, and carrying always with her in her secret heart the little flame which burns up the souls and bodies of men.
I cry too with pity for her that she should have chosen such poor ignoble love as mine: and with pity for myself that I was not worthy to be loved by her.
Twice while I was writing these sentences tonight the sobs gathered quickly in my throat and broke from my lips.
I have loved in her the image of the beauty of the world, the mystery and beauty of life itself, the beauty and doom of the race of whom I am a child, the images of spiritual purity and pity which I believe in as a boy.
Her soul! Her name! Her eyes! They seem to me like strange beautiful blue wild-flowers growing in some tangled, rain-drenched hedge. And I have felt her soul tremble beside mine, and have spoken her name softly to the night, and have wept to see the beauty of the world passing like a dream behind her eyes.
Jim and Nora remained together for the remainder of the author’s days. Complement the amorous portion of Joyce’s wholly magnificent Selected Letters with the love letters of Iris Murdoch, Vladimir Nabokov, Charlotte Brontë, Oscar Wilde, Ludwig van Beethoven, James Thurber, Albert Einstein, Franz Kafka, and Frida Kahlo.