Posted in Literature
November 9, 2018

A Cathartic Manifesto: Corporeality in James Joyce, Part 2 (Tim Royan)

The following is the second part in a two-part installment. The first part can be found here

The fact that Bloom implements a diseased prostitute’s body, “medically…speaking,” to launch into an argument against dualism obviously mirrors Joyce’s implementation of the human body for the exact same reason, as well as the scientific motivations for doing so. What is more interesting about this section is that, by Stephen linking dualism to religion at the outset of the debate, we are treated to another motivation for Joyce to reclaim the human body – not only have Freud and Nietzsche’s endeavors overturned dualism, but in doing so, they have undermined the authority of religion. This allows Bloom to say that

it is one thing for instance to invent those rays Röntgen did, or the telescope …The same applies to the laws, for example, of a farreaching natural phenomenon such as electricity but it’s a horse of quite another colour to say you believe in the existence of a supernatural God.

In spite of the confusing court-room language (more on that later) and lack of scientific accuracy on Bloom’s part, this reflects the idea that modern science and philosophy have overturned old authoritative scripture as a model for human existence in the same way that Joyce is seeking to overturn outmoded forms of literature, which also no longer accurately reflect humanity. This is another aspect of Joyce’s writing that is particularly modernist, as Childs points out, since “Modernism was the first secular literature” (55).

And lest one be tempted to take Stephen’s arguments in favor of dualism seriously, in the “Proteus” episode, he had already expressed an anti-dualist leaning in invoking subjective idealism – the idea that nothing exists except minds, which is basically the opposite of the materialism expressed by Bloom, but is still not dualistic – by referencing the Aristotelian notion of the “ineluctable modality of the visible” (29).

There is a certain irony to this attack on religion in light of “The Holy Office,” however, since Joyce himself is “hazarding extremes of heterodoxy.” The difference is, unlike the insular mysticism of the Irish literary revival, Joyce is willing to grind down any source material for his machinations and his particular form of heterodoxy is not derived from a rehashing of the past, but rather a reimagining of it.

A particularly striking example of using the body to attack religion’s inability to accurately describe the human experience can be found in the “Ithaca” episode, when Stephen and Bloom are urinating, and each are considering the “invisible audible collateral organ” of the other (575). Bloom’s considerations are another example of taking the individual experience and universalizing it, as he reflects with curiosity upon “the problems of irritability tumescence, rigidity, reactivity dimension, sanitariness, pilosity,” which all serve to support the notion that Joyce’s implementations of such subject matter serve to better express the universal experience of, in this case, micturition and of the relation everyone has to their own physicality. Indeed, the very fact that what is usually a private experience is being shared by the two and each are reflecting upon the other’s experience is an example of this.

Stephen’s particular considerations on the matter, however, have to do with assumptions made about Bloom’s penis based on the religion of its owner:

the problem of the sacerdotal integrity of Jesus circumcised…and the problem as to whether the divine prepuce…were deserving of simple hyperduly or of the fourth degree of latria accorded to the abscission of such divine excrescences as hair and toenails (575).

This is another way for Joyce to prove that religion does a poor job of explaining reality, while also being a humorous way for him to attack the absurdity of religious doctrines. By having Stephen make the erroneous assumption that Bloom is circumcised (which, as readers of the “Nausicaa” episode are already aware, is not the case), Joyce quite literally gives an example of religion failing to describe humanity.

The speculation on the “divine prepuce” of Jesus would seem an absurd thing for Stephen to be thinking about, but this is grounded in years of religious speculation on the subject. Joyce, in his notes for this section, had apparently shown a high level of interest in circumcision, especially as it related to religion (even titling the particular page “Jesus”), excerpting a large section of an anti-Catholic treatise written by Alphons Victor Müller about the very problem of Jesus’ foreskin and the various “relics” purporting to be the prepuce of the divine.

By reimagining such esoteric, anti-clerical literature in this episode, Joyce again becomes the metaphorical Aquinas he promises to be in “The Holy Office,” drawing from such variegated source material, as well as exhibiting a complete irreverence for archaic authorities that purport to describe humanity but fail in their mission to do so. This not only proves why incorporating the body is so essential to Joyce’s literary endeavors, but also begins to explain why breaking the taboos surrounding such matters is equally essential: if the old authorities on the human experience fail, then it is necessary to challenge that authority as one seeks to construct a working model for describing the human condition.

Irreverence for authority, especially religious authority, is another aspect of Joyce’s writing that makes it quintessentially modernist and is also a major component of how and why modernism broke with the conventions of the Victorian era that preceded it. Childs writes in his book concerning modernism that “if Victorian literature was concerned with morality, Modernist writing was concerned with aesthetics,” expressing the fact that modernists “did not view ethics as superior to art, seeing the latter instead as the highest form of human achievement” (19).

This is important for understanding the need for a systematic violation of taboos in Joyce, since, in order to break from the dominant mode of literature that preceded his writing – indeed, a form of authority in itself – Joyce needs to not just reject the morality of the Victorian era, but also openly defy it. This is achieved through what Childs refers to as “a new literature that was rebellious, questioning, doubtful and introspective, but confident and even aggressive in its aesthetic conviction” (19).

In his attacks on religion, as well as his many flirtations with taboo, Joyce both undermines the assumed source of morality in Victorian society and shatters these conventional restraints on literature by writing about topics that would have previously been considered “immoral.” This is another way in which Joyce lives up to the promise of the catharsis in “The Holy Office,” a means to purge literature from the ethical constraints that had so thoroughly stagnated its progress. Joyce’s rebellious violations of taboo in Ulysses are reminiscent of the epigrammatic injunction in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray that “there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.”

However, Joyce takes it a step further by refusing to even self-referentially address the ethical implications of Ulysses’ content, preferring to simply remove itself from such considerations and freely violate taboo as a means to accurately represent its aesthetic virtue, which – as has been repeated multiple times – is its ability to accurately represent the human experience.

Joyce’s taboo-violations also challenge authority in a much more pragmatic fashion. Throughout Ulysses, adultery is a major theme: Bloom’s masochistic, fantasy pen-pal relationship and Molly’s actual consummated infidelity with Blaze Boylan being the prime examples. What is particularly fascinating is the association of adultery with the failure of authority, as well as its direct connection to censorship.

Throughout the novel, there are repeated mentions of Charles Stewart Parnell, the nationalist political leader revered as a sort of savior of Ireland by many of the Irish population. Simon Dedalus’ belief that “Parnell would come back from the grave,” even in jest, is an example of such deification. This reverence for Parnell continued until a divorce court case exposed salacious details, including his fathering of 3 illegitimate children, and of an extramarital affair that ruined his political career and disillusioned an entire generation of the Irish people (133).

What is particularly telling about the treatment of Parnell throughout Ulysses is that, in a way that mirrors other aspects in the novel of disillusionment with religious, political and literary authorities, the way Parnell’s fall from grace is depicted is such that a private taboo becomes a topic for the general public. This is a real, historical event that provides an example of why the private experiences of the individual need to be represented in Joyce’s writing and why it is of interest to the public.

Beyond that, though, and what is particularly pragmatic about Joyce’s implementation of infidelity, is that the seedy manner in which divorce-court journalists exposed these details to the public was perfectly acceptable by the moral standards of the day and not subject to censorship, while Joyce’s use of the material would have, in prior years (another example of Victorian moral obsession), been found unacceptable and censored.

In an article in James Joyce Quarterly, “The Simple Case of Adultery,” Barbara Leckie reveals that the “composition of ‘Eumaeus’” reflects “the culture of censorship in the context of which Joyce wrote the episode and the English divorce-court journalism to which Joyce’s representations of adultery are indebted.” This was a literary manifestation of the fact that “Joyce had difficulty reconciling the lax treatment of journalistic accounts of sexuality with the strict and legally sanctioned scrutiny of novelistic accounts of sexuality” (730-731).

Joyce’s repeated violations of taboo do not merely attack supposed moral and spiritual authorities, but the legal system that would seek to enforce the Victorian literary morality. This invocation of the language of divorce-court journalism here is particularly pragmatic, since, as we shall see, Joyce himself would have an encounter with that very system and “Eumaeus” can be seen as a preemptory prophylactic against the hypocrisy of the censorship laws of the day.

Another interesting aspect of this episode is that it makes the repeated use in Ulysses of individual experiences that expand into a universal, societal experience collapse in on itself. This can be seen when Bloom reflects “upon the historic story [of Parnell] which had aroused extraordinary interest at the time when the facts, to make matters worse, were made public with the usual affectionate letters that passed between them full of sweet nothings,” a quote Leckie also invokes for a different purpose in her article (528-529).

This has the effect of applying the private-made-public aspects of the Parnell case back to the individual, since Bloom’s – in the guise of “Henry,” to protect against a repeat of history – own infidelity is centered on letters of a similar nature (61). Joyce’s attack on censorship is purposely centered on the fallibility and hypocrisy of moral authorities and the interplay between the private and public aspects of the human experience, while also prognosticating a real-world demonstration of this hypocrisy in practice.

Joyce’s preemptive strike on censorship and his view of himself in “The Holy Office” as “self-doomed” in his quest to advance literature was vindicated by the obscenity trials surrounding the publication of Ulysses. In the “Nausicaa” episode, Joyce once again violates taboos and explores the functions of the human body – in this case, the dysfunction of the human body – by having the scene begin in the thoughts of a lame woman, Gerty MacDowell, and switch to Bloom, masturbating to her while on a beach. When published in the serial The Little Review, this episode was enough to get Joyce charged with obscenity from the American “Vice Society.”

This episode is examined in Walter Kendrick’s “The Corruption of Gerty Macdowell,” in James Joyce Quarterly, where Kendrick argues that the very criterion by which obscenity is judged is purposely being inverted by Joyce (the ability for a young woman to access materials that have the ability to “corrupt” her) (414). This, Kendrick argues, is evident since “Gerty Macdowell enters Ulysses already ruined, not by obscenity but by the kind of magazine fiction that is intended specifically for young women like her.”

Additionally, Bloom’s masturbation is induced by her when she “uses her body to seduce and debauch him,” which sees “Bloom responding just like a ruined young woman” and masturbating (415). This inversion of a fabled test for obscenity, as Kendrick points out in these lines, is the ultimate realization of Joyce’s mission statement in “The Holy Office.”

The corrupt mind of Gerty MacDowell is paralleled by the dysfunction of her body, which is another example of Freudian psychopathology and Joyce’s anti-dualist sentiments. In Joyce’s eyes, this is an attack on what is a weaker and intellectually dangerous form of literature – one which can cause much more psychological damage while evading censorship – while the taboo-violating masturbation scene actually sees Joyce being charged with obscenity and becoming the martyr he expects to be.

Both of these things are also a more distilled version of the corporeal processes needed to move literature forward and a rejection of literature that stagnates, like the magazines that Gerty reads. Joyce, seemingly cognizant of the very trial this episode would incite, purposely martyrs himself here as a means to display the need for incorporating the corporeal and routinely violating taboos.

The effect of the constant need to universalize individual experience that all of these examples achieve, in order to more accurately represent humanity and constantly undermine outdated forms of political, social, spiritual and literary authority actually goes beyond what “The Holy Office” sets as its goal: Joyce does not merely move Irish literature forward but all literature. In his essay “Beyond Dublin: Joyce and Modernism,” in the Journal of Modern Literature, Morton Levitt points out that “we read Joyce because he left Dublin behind him, because he became at last a universal author, the greatest and most influential of modern novelists, eponymous hero of the age: the Modernist Age might more tellingly be labeled the Age of James Joyce” (387).

This is because Ulysses incorporates, with such precise detail, the mundane experiences of the individual considered taboo, the science that revolutionized the “modern” view of humanity and the physicality of existence and experience. It rejected the failed, authoritative methods that imprecisely described what it is to be human, and, as Morton argues,

his ability not just to perceive a changing world but, in doing so, to help bring it into existence and to give it solidity. No artist of the twentieth century…has had – continues to have – such an effect on our lives. Moving beyond the particularities of Dublin within his lifetime, he has enabled us to perceive the universal potential within each of our lives (394).

Joyce, in moving “beyond Dublin” – both in his own influence and influences he chose to masticate and digest for his own body of work – beyond Irish literature, beyond anything that had come before, revolutionized society as he simultaneously found a better method for cataloguing the individual’s interaction with it. By universalizing the individual, he manages to universalize his writing; the effect of his art is not limited by geography, religious and moral scruples or political and legal restrictions.

“The Holy Office” is Joyce’s manifesto and Ulysses repeatedly becomes the application of its doctrine. In all cases, the use of bodily function – or dysfunction, as the case may be – and human anatomy provides a more accurate representation of humanity’s place in the world that surrounds them, as well as reclaiming literature’s purpose to be forward-looking and progress with humanity and scientific understandings of its motivations and experiences. Violating taboos is necessary because the authorities of the old-guard that had created such moral impediments had created an ethos that didn’t just see literature stagnated, but human progress itself.

Implementing the body is necessary because life exists confined inside a corporeal form, its functions and processes are the majority of humanity’s experience, with everyday experience defined by the workings of the body. Indeed, the mind, soul, spirit, whatever one chooses to call it, is itself is a function of the body, a phenomenon arising from the workings of our corporeal form. Joyce’s goal throughout his work is to reclaim the body’s importance from an abstracted view of it as merely a vessel.

Likewise, Joyce’s related violations of taboo address such an odd abstraction, removing the reticence displayed in literature to address the mundane experiences which make up such a large portion of the overall experience of being human and rejecting any authority that would attempt to claim otherwise.

Joyce’s reclamation of the body is the reclamation of the individual as the most important component of society at large, a declaration that individual experience is what matters most. Joyce’s body of work serves to prove that the body matters. Finally, Joyce’s willingness to grind up any source material and look past the confines of Ireland make him more than the Aquinas he promised to be for Ireland, influencing the whole world and defining modernism with his work.

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

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