Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omnia, or ‘Eros Triumphant’, in which all the proper metaphors for love have been turned over by an unreformed Eros, who straddles the wreckage to make an antic display of his sex.
These deeply erotic letters were written in 1909 by James Joyce to his lover Nora Barnacle.
    For the young couple it was a period of painful separation. ‘Jim’ and Nora had met in June of 1904, fallen passionately in love, and together quit Ireland for continental Europe. But in 1909 Joyce was impelled to return to Dublin to work on the publication of Dubliners, leaving Nora in Trieste with their two children.
    Without that brief context to the letters — that at the time of their writing, Joyce and Nora had been together for five years and were now raising a family abroad, and so hardly in the first flush of romance — the correspondence they shared during their separation might be viewed as mere pornography. But they are much more than that: they are the longing, desperate words of a man responding in kind to the woman he loves.
    It was Nora who initiated the letter-writing, who first used the profanity that so thrilled Joyce, and who saw the path towards keeping their passion alive while they were parted. Their increasingly graphic exchanges would afford Joyce something he could find only inside their relationship — and nowhere else. And so the letters served a pragmatic, as well as an erotic, purpose: they were an investment in intimacy.
    She may have got more than she had bargained for. For Nora, his mentor in love, Joyce would suspend his distaste for crude language and learn to revel in its novelty. His own lustful desires and recollections, and the exceptionally explicit manner in which they are described, certainly linger in the mind. Yet as we read the letters in sequence, and as the obscenities escalate, the layers of depravity seem somehow to build to a joyous purity, breaching the upper limits of lewdness into a perfect, contrary innocence.
    Sadly Nora’s replies remain lost to us. And so when reading Joyce’s words we should remember that we are glimpsing only one side of a private exchange, and at a remove of over a hundred years. But even from this distant perspective we can see that this pair of moonstruck lovers, unwillingly but necessarily separated, are sharing a sacred and profane language of their own, a hymn to a secret passion as yearning and as intimate as the act of love itself.

Nicholas Jeeves,
May 2020