A plastic palimpsest: Judge Woolsey’s judgement on Ulysses

James_Joyce_Time_magazineJoyce has attempted—it seems to me, with astonishing success—to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries, as it were on , not only what is in the focus of each man’s observation of the actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious.

In may places it seems to me to be disgusting, but although it contains, as I have mentioned above, many words usually considered dirty, I have not found anything that I consider to be dirt for dirt’s sake. Each word of the book contributes like a bit of mosaic to the detail of the picture which Joyce is seeking to construct for his readers … when such a great artist in words, as Joyce undoubtedly is, seeks to draw a true picture of the lower middles class in a European city, ought it to be impossible for the American public legally to see that picture?

—Judge Woolsey, The United States of America v. One Book Called “Ulysses.”

It’s strange to think of it now, but the Post Office Department was a major federal law enforcement agency

It’s strange to think of it now, but the Post Office Department was a major federal law enforcement agency. On the eve of World War I, the FBI (then called the Bureau of Investigation) was a fledgling subsidiary of the Justice Department. When the Espionage Act was signed in 1917, there were only three hundred Bureau of Investigation agents, and the Secret Service had only eleven counterespionage agents in New York. But the Post Office (an executive branch department in those days) was well established. It had 300,000 employees, including 422 inspectors and 56,000 postmasters overseeing the circulation of fourteen billion pieces of mail every year. The Post Office reached the far corners of the country, and it had been that way for decades. Long before there were highways and telephones there were postal roads and mail couriers. Small towns had post offices before they had cemeteries.

So when the United States entered World War I and the government wanted to censor dangerous words with a nationwide mechanism that had a long history of constitutional authority, it turned to the Post Office. The government gained the power to censor words by mastering the ability to circulate them, and warfare—the other foundation of big government— justified more censorship. This was how the government found James Joyce. The censorship of Ulysses began not because vigilantes were searching for pornography but because censors in the Post Office were searching for foreign spies, radicals and anarchists, and it made no difference if they were political or philosophical or if they considered themselves artists.

The growth of the federal government is largely the story of the growth of the Post Office, and a powerful Post Office was the cornerstone of the U.S. censorship regime. Since its establishment in 1782, the Post Office had a legal monopoly over mail circulation, but the government didn’t exercise that power until 1844, when Congress declared that the system’s purpose was “elevating our people in the scale of civilization and bringing them together in patriotic affection.”Out of a diverse population sprawling across the continent, the mail would make Americans. The policy began a half-century expansion during which the Post Office build roads, slashed postage rates and stiffened penalties for private carriers violating the government’s monopoly. From 1845 to 1890, mail volume increased one hundred times over.

The Post Office garnered most of its strength by slashing postal rates. In 1844, it charged twenty-five cents to carry a letter four hundred miles, and if the letter had two sheets, the postage doubled (envelopes counted as another sheet). Seven years later, that same letter could be delivered nearly across the continent for only three cents. Newspapers and magazines enjoyed reduced rates since before the days of Ben Franklin, and yet periodical postage also plummeted. By 1879, newspapers and magazines were grouped as “second-class mail” and delivered anywhere for two cents per pound. If the recipient lived in the same county as the sender, delivery was free. Rates didn’t hit rock bottom until 1885, when periodicals were delivered anywhere in the country for one cent per pound, and it remained that way until 1918.

World War I dramatically expanded postage censorship. Postmaster General Albert Burleson claimed the Espionage Act gave him the authority to judge mailed material without court approval or congressional oversight. When Congress asked Burleson to disclose his surveillance instructions to the nation’s postmasters, he simply refused. The Post Office decided who broke the law, who deserved the rate increases or outright bans and deserved criminal prosecution. Burleson was a man to be reckoned with. He wore a black coat to match the black umbrella he carried at all times, and one of the president’s advisers called him “the most belligerent member of the cabinet,” which was saying a lot in 1918. He once complained about a socialist newspaper’s “insidious attempt to keep within the letter of the law.”

The most dangerous book: the battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, by Kevin Birmingham (pp 109-110) (The Penguin Press, 2014).

Trained hawks have a peculiar ability to conjure history

Trained hawks have a peculiar ability to conjure history because they are in a sense immortal. While individual hawks of different species die, the species themselves remain unchanged. There are no breeds or varieties, because hawks were never domesticated. The birds we fly today are identical to those of five thousand years ago. Civilizations rise and fall, but the hawks stay the same. This gives falconry birds the ability to feel like relics from the distant past. You take a hawk onto your fist. You imagine the falconer of the past doing the same. It is hard not to feel it is the same hawk.

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

Not only is ubiquitous surveillance ineffective

Not only is ubiquitous surveillance ineffective, it is extraordinarily costly. … It breaks our technical systems, as the very protocols of the Internet become untrusted…. It’s not just domestic abuse we have to worry about; it’s the rest of the world, too. The more we choose to eavesdrop on the Internet and other communications technologies, the less we are secure from eavesdropping by others. Our choice isn’t between a digital world where the NSA can eavesdrop and one where the NSA is prevented from eavesdropping; it’s between a digital world that is vulnerable to all attackers, and one that is secure for all users.

—Security expert, Bruce Schneier, writing in the Atlantic in January 2014, taken from No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald.

known only in a series of subordinate clauses

He, too, must speak the Word everlasting. And over this resolve presides a woman who is nameless, faceless, known only in a series of subordinate clauses, ‘Who… / Who… ’, who walks with ‘the new years’, who restores his power to write ‘new verse’, and who bends her head in silent acceptance and gives the all-important sign that the Lord’s Word would come.

—from The Imperfect Life of T. S. Eliot  by Lyndall Gordon (p 235).

There would be no place to hide. Notice the date.

The United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through air… That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything—telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.

—Senator Frank Church, Chair, Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, 1975.

Epigraph to No Place to Hide, Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S., by Glenn Greenwald.

It acts as a Conduit for what we call Sha

“Terrible Feng Shui here. Worst I ever saw. You two crazy?”

“Because of…?” Dixon indicating behind them, in thickening dusk, the Visto sweeping away.

“It acts as a Conduit for what we call Sha, or, as they say in Spanish California, Bad Energy.— Imagine a Wind, a truly ill wind, bringing failure, poverty, disgrace, betrayal,— every kind of bad luck there is,— all blowing through, night and day, with many times the force of the worst storm you were ever in.”

“No one intends to live directly upon the Visto,” Mason speaking as to a Child. “The object being, that the people shall set their homes to one side or another. That it be a Boundary, nothing more.”

“Boundry!” The Chinaman begins to pull upon his hair and paw the earth with brocade-slipper’d feet. “Ev’rywhere else on earth, Boundaries follow Nature,— coast-lines, ridge-tops, river-banks,— so honoring the Dragon or Shan within, from which Land-Scape ever takes its form. To mark a right Line upon the Earth is to inflict upon the Dragon’s very Flesh, a sword-slash, a long, perfect scar, impossible for any who live out here the year ‘round to see as other than hateful Assault. How can it pass unanswer’d?”

Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon (p542).