Improviso no. 1


chart (1)
A Google N-gram chart documenting the use of the word “scrotumtightening” and variants in the English language from the 1600 to 2008. The first recorded use was in James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses.
The same chart with a more detailed view of the usage throughout the last century.

I have a love-hate relationship with Joyce. I consciously began reading literature with his novel Ulysses (which I picked up from a book sale near my school because of its beautiful cover and not because it was in Modern Library’s 100 best books of the 20th century which I only found out only later that night when I googled about the book) and my first writings were shamelessly obscure thanks to my imitating him. But then I met other writers (and some more pretentious than him) and soon enough my unreserved admiration began to cool down. At one point I even thought I hated him, especially after reading Woolf’s remarks about undergraduate pimple-scratching (I have read the same remarks mutatis mutandum about DFW’s debut novel—the work of “very clever fourteen year-old,” but this by Wallace himself and by, say, Jonathan Franzen. Of course that was only Virginia Woolf at her worst, and she could be prudish, she could be insecure, but amazing to walk with in the charm of London mornings.

I still love Joyce, though now it’s no longer the fanatic love of a freshman English-philosophy double major who would swear reading the novel was a revelation, ecstatic, like Saint Augustine reading for the first time the Scriptures, and equally dangerous.  It’s a more mature kind of love, which picks at faults not for its own enjoyment , but with the selfless martyrdom unseen in young fanatics: I think of it as a martyrdom, yes, and maybe love is a love-hate relationship, and we are only being verbose by calling it any other way.


It has been two years since I last read Ulysses. Reading it requires time, in the pre-Huxley sense of the word, and time I could not give. Still I would leaf through its pages occasionally, reading a paragraph, reciting the already familiar passages which by now has become as majestic as incantations, discovering sentences which seem to be there for the first time, or which you don’t recognize to be Joyce’s word, or which—if you did recognize it—seemed from someone else’s book. But nothing remains as clear to me as on my first reading of it as the triad that opens the book, the Telemachiad or whatever, which is probably one of the greatest examples of English prose. Unlike the rest of the book which sometimes lapses to plain insufferable logorrhea, the beginning of Ulysses was crystalclear. It was like the Dubliners with its silent epiphanies, but here Joyce seems to be at his best, never struggling for the right word, never trying to do away with his indolence.

It is Joyce’s “nicely polished lookingglass”  (Letters, 63-64) by which he aims to show the Irish to themselves. But then, fearing that the mirror’s immaculate appearance would distract us from the image he is trying to present with it, Joyce breaks the mirror and tells us to look at ourselves (or, if you insist, tells the Irish to look at themselves) with the cracked looking glass of the servant. To enchant us (for I think Joyce knew that readers within three standard deviations of the average—Woolf’s common reader, if you will—would inevitably misunderstand him) he tells us it is the symbol of Irish art, among other things.


But this post is not about Irish art, or mirrors. Actually, it’s about the word “scotumtightening,” which appears for the first time in Joyce’s novel Ulysses. I don’t think that word has ever been used outside of Joyce-related contexts. Majority of the word’s appearance would have been in theses by MFA studentss or in articles in esoteric literary journals (which thankfully nobody reads)  about the novel or Joyce’s writings. Though I remember a particular instance of it in DFW’s Infinite Jest: “the scrotumtightening November cold.” I think has everything to do with the fact that one could not read the word without unconsciously associating it with Joyce, thus rendering it unfit for common usage. Even Wallace used the word with Joyce in mind.




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