The following is the first of a two-part series.
James Joyce, throughout his literary career, repeatedly implements descriptions of the human body and its functions as a thematic device through which to explore other, more grandiose literary topics. In the process, he utilizes an almost routine breaking of taboos that are often mundane to explore these subjects.
This is an essential characteristic of Joyce’s project: rather than merely producing an affect of shock in the reader or an aura of rebelliousness around his writing, Joyce’s contemplations on the human body, as well as his bold, repeated flirtations with what many of his contemporaries would – and, quite literally did – charge as obscenity, are techniques integral to the advancement of a new unique and forward-looking literary movement, namely modernism.
In order to understand exactly how and why this is the case, one can refer to Joyce’s 1904 poem, “The Holy Office,” a sort of literary manifesto that declares the lofty ambitions of his writing, in which he titles himself with a total disregard for any semblance of humility, “Katharsis-Purgative.” This was the necessary enema to what he saw as the stagnating effect of the regressive literary movements of his Irish contemporaries. Indeed, perhaps his most iconic novel, Ulysses, can be seen as a realization of the literary goals expounded in “The Holy Office,” a new methodology for Irish literature, which incorporates the corporeal and violates taboos as an essential part of its form.
“The Holy Office” is a declaration of intent to circumvent literary convention and taboos, an argument for why this is a necessary endeavor, and is also a poem that – through its fecal conceit and bawdy imagery – actually succeeds in demonstrating this, itself. Its opening sees Joyce christen himself as the champion of a new form of literary expression in the form of a laxative of enlightenment: “Myself unto myself will give / This name, Katharsis-Purgative” (1-2). This, he claims he can accomplish through, amongst other things, “Bringing to tavern and brothel / The mind of witty Aristotle” (4-5).
These lines immediately set up two very important elements of the poem and Joyce’s writing as a whole. First, the use of the metaphor of a human bodily function is a great example of the body in Joyce’s writing and, with the purgative pun on “catharsis,” a glimpse into the necessity of implementing such visceral concerns. The constipation he seeks to alleviate is that of the Irish literary revival he sees as especially “backed-up,” particularly the works as W.B. Yeats and A.E. Russel. Joyce lambasts Yeats and Russel as writers purporting to take risks with their literature, while actually hiding safely in their homes and behind the historical, cultural mysticism which they implement: “For every true-born mysticist / A Dante is, unprejudiced, / Who safe at ingle-nook, by proxy, / Hazards extremes of heterodoxy” (16-18).
The main point here is that the Irish literary revival is a self-insulating movement, stagnantly preferring to deal with old Irish-mysticism over modern humanity, over the real world, and over outside literary influence. This point Joyce makes clear when he later compares himself to Aquinas, the writer which largely reintroduced the study of classical literature to Christianized Europe. This is why Joyce must become the “the self-doomed, unafraid” martyr, providing much needed movement in the bowels of the Irish literary culture: “Thus I relieve their timid arses, / Perform my office of Katharsis” (48-49; 75-79).
The earlier reference to bringing Aristotle to tavern and brothel is in a similar vein: a declaration that literature should address the realities of modern society, which insular, esoteric mysticism, tempered by literary xenophobia, is powerless to do. What is needed is an incorporation of modern humanity, complete with its corporeal processes and its vices, which is evident in the scatological humor in this poem, as well as being a recurring theme in later works such as Ulysses.
With the mission statement of “The Holy Office” already codified, when Joyce writes Ulysses, he can implement the human body in a larger variety of contexts and address the larger concerns that the Irish literary revival had failed to. Early on in Ulysses, Joyce makes a nod to “The Holy Office” by inverting its contents, while still adhering to its goals, in a scene when Leopold Bloom reads his own form of literary laxative:
Asquat on the cuckstool he folded out his paper, turning its pages…Midway, his last resistance yielding, he allowed his bowels to ease themselves quietly as he read, reading still patiently that slight constipation of yesterday quite gone… So. Ah! Costive. One tabloid of cascara sagrada (53).
This inversion of “The Holy Office,” where rather than a bowel movement metaphor for literature, there is instead a literary metaphor for a bowel movement. This is important because – although again he is mocking other forms of writing, in this case the tabloid “Titbits” – it marks the shift in the exact goal of the description of a bodily function: Joyce can now apply the same scatological, taboo-violating imagery for a new literary form prognosticated in “The Holy Office.”
At this particular moment in the novel, however, the goal is somewhat simplistic, yet still an extremely important one to differentiate his literature from that of his contemporaries. Joyce is writing an epic from a single day in a human life and, to better convey the realities of everyday life, Joyce implements something that humans experience day-in, day-out (well, one hopes). In this way, Joyce violates taboos surrounding literature addressing what in reality is one of the more mundane events in every human’s life. This suggests that Joyce’s intent is not to shock or titillate (though, one imagines Joyce wouldn’t mind this occurring), but to merely represent the human experience accurately.
As an early realization in Ulysses of the literary upheaval announced in “The Holy Office,” this scene immediately defines Joyce’s revolution as an intrinsically modernist one. In his book Modernism: The New Critical Idiom, Peter Childs explains that
modernism is associated with attempts to render human subjectivity in ways more real than realism: to represent consciousness, perception, emotion, meaning and the individual’s relation to society through interior monologue [and] stream of consciousness (3).
In incorporating the private thoughts of Bloom while he is defecating, not only is Joyce becoming “more real than realism” with such a candid depiction of an every day event that previous literature had considered taboo, but, in doing so, he is also creating a hyper focus on an individual’s experience of the world. The everyday event of going to the toilet almost defines individual experience – a recurring event in one’s life almost always experienced alone.
Also, Bloom’s engagement with popular culture, in the form of “Titbits,” which mirrors his bathroom exertions, helps to highlight both the individual’s separation from and interaction with society. The fact that he ends up wiping with a scrap of the tabloid seems to be Joyce again unabashedly declaring his project as superior to other forms of literature and implementing such imagery to show what he saw as the only use for such lesser modes of writing.
As Childs points out, modernism “was frequently and unashamedly elitist…and also emphasized that culture had changed,” which is evident in this section as well as in the bold declaration of “The Holy Office” (19). When applied – as we’ll see again and again – the catharsis Joyce feels that the literary world needs, and the techniques he implements to achieve this, are uniquely modernist and are the reasons why he is considered one of the prime architects of the form.
Violations of mundane taboos are also implemented for a more intense scrutiny of the human experience within Ulysses. In the “Cyclops” section, when the patrons of the tavern start “talking about capital punishment” and claim that “there’s one thing it hasn’t a deterrent effect on…The poor bugger’s tool that’s being hanged” (248). Bloom shows interest in the subject, educating the others that “that can be explained by science” and offering
medical evidence to the effect that the instantaneous fracture of the cervical vertebrae…according to the best approved tradition of medical science be calculated to inevitably produce in the human subject a violent ganglionic stimulus of the nerve centers of the genital apparatus (248).
Here, a bodily function, which itself – especially in the context of death – could be considered taboo to write about, is dealt with via an extremely clinical and scientific treatment by Bloom. Examining this section in his essay, “Erotic Hangings in ‘Cyclops,’” Jeffrey Meyers explains that Joyce was drawing upon accounts of real-life hanging events (Thomas More and Walter Raleigh) and other “esoteric reading[s]” on the subject of erotic asphyxia. Meyers concludes that “Joyce makes reality seem fantastic, mixes tragedy with comedy, and uses the erotic aspects of hanging as a disturbing counterpoint to Bloom’s passionate concern about the suffering of mankind,” which Bloom had expressed earlier in the episode in conveying the persecution of his race (346-348).
Meyers correctly identifies the usage of such sexual deviance, both as a method of injecting a form of realism that had only rarely been mentioned in prior literature and as a method for fusing many different literary genres cohesively within the episode. Yet, in merging the scientific accuracy of the subject matter and the choice of an overly specific and rare form of sexual deviancy (one which deals with fringes of the human experience), Joyce is again clarifying the goals espoused in “The Holy Office,” and fittingly bringing these complex ideas into a tavern.
If Joyce’s rejection of the Irish literary revival is based on his need to include the human rather than the mystical and his belief that literature should look to as many outside sources as possible, then his inclusion of this particular form of a human bodily function (drawn from an esoteric taboo-violating practice), the diversity of the source material, and, as Meyers noted, his ability to make reality fantastical all serve to advance literature into the future. In particular, the scientific accuracy clarifies this mode of writing as a better way of understanding reality – just like the scientific method – which is equipped to deal with just as lofty and fantastical issues as the predecessors Joyce seeks to distinguish himself from.
The scientific impetus to document the fringes of human experience is another key component of modernism, since modernism was, in part, a response to scientific developments in the latter half of the 19th century. This response challenged the accepted models of human evolution and behavior, which, in turn, overthrew existing literary expressions of humanity’s place in the world. Childs devotes a whole chapter of his book to these developments, but for our purposes, his discussion on Freud and his fellow psychology-pioneering contemporaries is perhaps the most relevant to Joyce’s implementation of the human body and its functions.
Childs describes the “increased level of inquiry at the turn of the century into the workings of the mind and its relation to society” by Freud et. al. as leading to the time period being “marked by a hunger for interpretation, and an urge to decode societies, minds and personalities.” On the other hand, Freudian belief
that every individual developed an unconscious which would affect their behavior… was echoed in the intense interest the Modernists took in the drives, obsessions and compulsions motivating ordinary people (48-49; 53).
The emphasis on clinical scientific discourse about bodily functions, in conjunction with source material derived from bizarre psychopathology, is a direct manifestation of the increased interest of the time on such psychological concerns. It reflects the belief that, as humanity can be better explained by science, literature must also do more to address the human experience.
With this in mind, the denizens of the tavern can be seen as the old model, merely tittering in a juvenile manner at the taboo subject matter (and, to emphasize the point, Joyce delivers this scene through a clichéd narrative employed by one of the patrons in yet another dig at the language of lesser literature). Bloom, on the other hand, can be seen as the psychologically-informed symbol of progress, keen to analyze and decode the phenomenon and, like Joyce in “The Holy Office,” to “bring the mind of witty Aristotle” to the tavern.
Freud’s greatest impact on Ulysses, however, is that he (along with Nietzsche) helped to overturn the previous notion of dualism, which is the primary reason that representations of the human body are so essential to Joyce’s writing. In an article in European Joyce Studies, titled “Body Words,” Richard Brown explains that the materialist paradigm advanced by Nietzsche and Freud
undermined the Cartesian split between body and mind, emphatically disrupting the hierarchical paradigm by which the body is discursively construed as an other to consciousness in so much enlightenment rationalist thought. In so doing it produced a crisis of representation in the arts that frequently surfaces as a crisis in mimesis and in the representation of the body (110).
Brown goes on to link this to the “Penelope” episode, claiming that “whilst Molly, as some complain, is in some ways physically confined to her bedroom, in others she ranges expansively across wide physical spaces around Dublin and even around her distant but significant other location in the Gibraltar of memory.” Furthermore, “it seems given as an aspect of Molly’s psychology for her to make an insistent demonstrative display of the location, the ‘where’ of her body,” as the memory of physical sensation define the experience of location as much – if not more so – than memories of thoughts (114-115).
This is important because it ties together both the need for underlying psychological motivation as well as the collapse of the Cartesian duality within Joyce. Brown seems to partially miss the point, which is odd, since he opens his essay documenting all the evidence for it before abruptly steering away to a much more complex linguistic argument. However, Brown implies that this psychology, this inseparability of the physical from the mental, is particular to Molly.
Joyce’s anti-Cartesian sentiments are not presented as outliers in Ulysses, but exemplify an individual experience universalized. This is again linked to bodily functions in the “Penelope” episode when Molly begins menstruating and thinks “yes that thing has come upon me.” Reflecting on her individual experience, Molly immediately proceeds to tie this bodily function to the experience of over half of the population: “God knows there’s always something wrong with us 5 days every 3 or 4 weeks” (630).
This is reminiscent of the intent of the scene with Bloom on the toilet as a mundane taboo to write about that creates tension between individual experience and society at large. The odd idiom she uses here, “wouldn’t that pester the soul out of a body,” becomes more telling of the motivation for reclaiming the human body, since that is exactly what a materialist, anti-dualist view of the body does: pesters the soul out of a body (630). Throughout the novel, one finds that the body is inseparable from the mind, and that the locus of an individual’s experience results from the necessary simultaneity of interaction of both body and mind with the world, since the latter is merely an emergent phenomenon rising from the operations of the former.
Another, more explicit link between representations of the human body and anti-dualist sentiments in Ulysses can be found in the “Eumaus” episode when discourse between Stephen and Bloom jumps directly from the body to soul and allows them to discuss dualism directly. Commenting on a streetwalker, Bloom remarks, “it beats me…medically I am speaking, how a wretched creature like that from the Lock Hospital, reeking with disease, can be barefaced enough to solicit.” Steven responds that, “in this country people sell much more than she ever had and do a roaring trade. Fear not them that sell the body but have not power to buy the soul,” bastardizing a quote from the Book of Matthew (514-515). The pair then engages in a debate about the soul, with Bloom coming out on the side of materialism:
You, as a good catholic, he observed, talking of body and soul, believe in the soul. Or do you mean the intelligence, the brainpower as such, as distinct from any outside object, the table, let us say, that cup? I believe in that myself because it has been explained by competent men as the convolutions of the grey matter. Otherwise we would never have such inventions as X rays, for instance (515).
Tim Royan is currently pursuing an MA in Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He received a BA in English from the University of California, Berkeley. He worked as a script writer for the stop-motion animation, The Nug Nation.