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June 22, 2009

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My new favorite blog is Gary Dexter’s How books got their titles. Dexter gives the biographies (nomographies?) of famous books according to the following criteria:

1) the title should not be explicable simply by reading the text of the book itself; 2) each title should be the title of a book or play that has been published as such (rather than e.g. a poem or story that appears as part of a collection); 3) no quotations as titles.

Here’s the story of Freud’s The Ego and the Id, part of the title and concept of which was adapted from George Groddeck’s The Book of the It:

In the early years of psychoanalysis, practitioners were very anxious to establish their respectability as legitimate medical men. This was still an age of sexual puritanism, in which the sexual organs and sexual functions were not generally mentioned in polite conversation, and in which sexual categories as we now know them, or think we know them — homosexuality, bisexuality, transvestism, transsexualism — were still at an early and controversial stage of development. In this atmosphere, George Groddeck delivered a notorious speech to the congress of psychoanalysts at The Hague in 1920, opening his address with the words: “I am a wild analyst.” This was somewhat crass. Analysts were regarded by the public as “wild” already: it was exactly the image the profession wished to avoid. In his speech Groddeck went on to develop the idea that unconscious forces were the rulers of the human organism: even bodily diseases were caused by unconscious conflicts and neuroses. Groddeck moreover insisted on bringing his mistress to conferences and was the author of a risqué novel, The Seeker of Souls.

Nevertheless Freud liked Groddeck personally. He wrote to Max Eitingon that Groddeck was “a bit of a fantasist, but an original fellow who has the rare gift of good humour. I should not like to do without him.” And Freud and Groddeck were in regular correspondence about their projects in 1923. Groddeck wrote to Freud, explaining his concept of the It, an idea partially derived from Nietzsche:

I am of the opinion that man is animated by the unknown. There is an It in him, something marvellous that regulates everything that he does and that happens to him. The sentence “I live” is only partially correct; it expresses a little partial phenomenon of the fundamental truth: “Man is lived by the It.”

And Joyce’s Ulysses:

Joyce was from an early age deeply in love with the Odyssey. “The character of Ulysses has fascinated me ever since boyhood,” he wrote to Carlo Linati in 1920. As a schoolboy he read Charles Lamb’s Adventures of Ulysses, an adventure-yarn version of the story which presents, in Lamb’s words, “a brave man struggling with adversity; by a wise use of events, and with an inimitable presence of mind under difficulties, forcing out a way for himself.” Joyce said later that the story so gripped him that when at Belvedere College (he would have been between the ages of 11 and 15) he was tasked to write an essay on “My Favourite Hero”, he chose Ulysses. (The essay title “My Favourite Hero” actually appears in Ulysses, on page 638 of the World’s Classics edition .) He later described Ulysses to Frank Budgeon as the only “complete all-round character presented by any writer…a complete man…a good man.”

Unsurprisingly therefore, this “complete man” surfaced as early as Joyce’s first major prose work — Dubliners of 1914. Joyce had originally planned that it include a short story called “Ulysses”, the plot of which was based on an incident which took place in June 1904. Joyce was involved in a scuffle on St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, after accosting another man’s lady-companion, and was rescued and patched up by one Albert H. Hunter. Hunter, according to Joyce’s biographer, Richard Ellmann, was “rumoured to be Jewish and to have an unfaithful wife” (in both of these respects a prototype for Leopold Bloom). In 1906 Joyce wrote to his brother Stanislaus: “I have a new story for Dubliners in my head. It deals with Mr Hunter.” In a letter written shortly afterwards he mentioned its title: “I thought of beginning my story Ulysses but I have too many cares at present.” Three months later he had abandoned the idea, writing: “Ulysses never got any forrader than its title.” The incident with Hunter was only written up later, in Ulysses itself, in a passage at the end of episode fifteen in which Bloom rescues Dedalus “in orthodox Samaritan fashion” from a fight. The idea of Ulysses as symbolic hero — and as a title — was therefore present as early as 1906.

Not all of the stories are so ponderous. Here’s Marshall Mcluhan’s The Medium is the Massage:

Massage? Shouldn’t that be “message”? Well, yes, it should. When the book came back from the typesetter there was a misprint in the title. According to his son Eric, McLuhan took one look at it and exclaimed, “Leave it alone! It’s great, and right on target!”.

It was a typical McLuhan strategy. The phrase “the medium is the message”; – coined by McLuhan in the early 60s and denoting the way new media such as film and television had by their very nature begun to manipulate the way ideas were conceived and received - was already a cliché by the time the book came out in 1967, and McLuhan must have welcomed the chance to ring the changes on it. As Eric writes on the Marshall McLuhan website: “Now there are possible four readings for the last word of the title, all of them accurate: ‘Message’ and ‘Mess Age,’ ‘Massage’ and ‘Mass Age.’”

Posted June 22, 2009 at 9:54 | Comments (1) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Recommended


Glad you enjoyed it. The blog is still going, and I've just started a new one, with, I hope, some interesting ideas. If you feel like having a look please do - it deals with the alternative literary productions of well-known writers and it's at
Many thanks!

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