James Joyce: Portrait
'Merica, Anthony Comstock, authorial freedom, Cait Murphey, censorship, Christopher Hitchens, Essay, Fun Home, James Joyce, Judge John M. Woolsey, Kevin Birmingham, Language, Leopold in Bloom, Les Miserables, Literature, Molly Bloom, Richard Nixon, Stephen Dedalus, The Atlantic, The Executioner's Song, The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses, translation, Ulysses, Ulysses in Chinese, United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, Wen Jieruo, Xiao Qian
Around a year ago I found myself obsessed with the novel Ulysses despite the fact that it’s now been over five years since I actually read the book. I don’t have an actual explanation for the pop-up obsession except perhaps it was because I’d been reading Fun Home, which references James Joyce often, and also Joyce in Bloom, an essay by Christopher Hitchens about the novel and it’s lasting cultural impact. There was some idea, as I had just started Grad School, that I would become a Joyce scholar, dedicating my thesis and eventual dissertation on Joyce’s book. I would also teach the novel, wearing my tweed blazers and my eccentric bow-ties. I would be the fun professor, or at the very least that weird guy who probably suffered from ED and masturbated to Woody Allen movies, though only the second part would be accurate. There’s something about Diane Keaton in Annie Hall…(*Sigh*).
Realistically my Joyce obsession was a fallacy, a fancy pants way of saying that I was deluding myself. Ulysses had been a pain to read, and often times I found myself, much like Alison Bechdel does in her graphic novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, muttering the phrase:
It’s not that at the time I didn’t recognize ANY importance of the work. Ulysses helped me grow tremendously as a writer by showing me what could be accomplished with prose, and as a reader I developed a patience and skill, but more importantly I grew a necessary strength to read long works. If there is any book as long as Ulysses I have yet to really find it. The reader may protest throwing down books like War and Peace, Don Quixote, Les Misérables, and The Executioner’s Song thus shattering my glass coffee table not mention my impression of them (won’t see you at the Christmas party Doug), but I would argue that, with the exception of possibly War and Peace, Ulysses may be shorter, but what it lacks those tomes in page count it supersedes them in density. The final 45 pages of Ulysses are nothing but eight sentences of stream of consciousness by Molly Bloom and just to put in in perspective the final 45 pages of Les Misérables describes the self-exile of Jean Valjean before his death.
Looking back at my dreams of becoming a Joyce scholar I recognized my adoration of Joyce was not so much a genuine desire to spend the rest of my life teaching his novel, but was actually more an ego trip. I enjoyed being the only person in my classes who had actually read the novel from cover to cover, but more so it was disheartening to reach class early each night, talking to my fellow English majors, and hearing from too many of them that they had not actually read any of their assignments for classes. Joyce became an opportunity to show off a little, and hopefully encourage some people to participate in conversations, though it never actually did. I might be overly harsh on myself, and since then my appreciation for the book has achieved more depth, I’ve just gotten to a point where romanticizing my past is a dangerous habit.
In my research however I did find one or two interesting articles, but it was one essay published in The Atlantic that still resonates after a year. It’s the ambition behind the story of the article that still remains impressive.
Xiao Qian, a Chinese war correspondent and a literature student, stood over the grave of James Joyce in 1946 in Zurich and mourned, “Here lies the corpse of someone who wasted his great talents writing something very unreadable.” Forty-nine years later Xiao still thinks that Joyce carried his virtuosity too far. He has earned the right to his reservations: he and his wife, Wen Jieruo, have just finished a labor that might have humbled Hercules–translating Ulysses into Chinese.
Now a reader who has ever attempted to read the novel from beginning to end most likely uttered a wretch in the back of their throat that sounds like a bullfrog’s death gurgle. The reason for this charming noise is because, as stated before, Ulysses is almost unreadable when it’s written in English.
The reason for this is Joyce’s genius.
The conflict with James Joyce was that he bought into the idea of his own genius and felt the need to demonstrate it, and the reader should not want to recognize there is nothing so threatening to human comfort as a genius wishing to wave his dick around in the air. The article Ulysses in Chinese is written by Cait Murphey, a New York writer with at least two books to her name (one about baseball the other about lawyers) who demonstrates this facet of Joyce’s personality with a brief description of the novel and Joyce’s artistic decisions in the composition:
Joyce masticates Homer’s Odyssey and spits it out in his saga of a day (June 16, 1904) in the life of two Dubliners, Leopold Bloom (Ulysses) and Stephen Dedalus (Telemachus). Penelope is represented by Bloom’s not-so-faithful wife, Molly. Ulysses does not slavishly follow the Odyssey, though each episode in the ancient tale has a counterpart in the modern one. For example, in one Homeric episode Odysseus descends to Hades, the world of the dead; in Joyce’s version Leopold Bloom–a Jew and therefore, like Odysseus, an outsider–goes to a funeral. If Homer marks the beginning of Western literature, Joyce suggested, Ulysses was its culmination. “The task I set myself technically in writing a book from eighteen different points of view and in as many styles,” he wrote to his benefactress, Harriet Shaw Weaver, “all apparently unknown or undiscovered by my fellow tradesmen, that and the nature of the legend chosen would be enough to upset anyone’s mental balance.”
Murphey’s essay does not concern itself with praising or criticizing Joyce’s artistic decisions however, for in fact Joyce has little to actually do with the meat of the essay. Murphey’s concern is with Xiao Quian and Wen Jieruo and their story of translating one of most important books published in human history. The reader may immediately question whether this was really an effort worth the time and pain. Ulysses is a book few people in their lifetimes will ever actually read, and fewer will even finish, yet despite this it continues to be translated into at least, as Murphey says, twenty different languages. Whatever magic Joyce managed to capture there is an aura that surrounds the book and Xiao and Wen are only the latest to tackle the monster.
What’s so particularly impressive about a Chinese translation is revealed in a brief history:
Much of the delay can be attributed to the antipathy of the Chinese Communists toward bourgeois liberal Western culture. Joyce’s work became caught in the Chinese government’s straitened view of literature’s role–that it should extol the morally upright deeds of workers, peasants, and soldiers. Ulysses–bawdy, irreverent, and anti-heroic–hardly suits. Nor did the Maoist cultural commissars appreciate the literary merits of Ulysses, considering it too pessimistic, subjective, and personal. And perhaps worst of all, it was not concerned nearly enough with the great theme of class struggle. Even with the end, in 1976, of the Cultural Revolution, in which China tried to purge all foreign influences (except Marxism) from the land, Xiao and Wen were confined to translating only what was deemed to be safe material, such as the work of Henry Fielding, Charles Lamb, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
So when the two were just about ready to publish their translation, Xiao took the precaution of writing a series of articles for the Chinese press describing the American trial in 1933 that established that Ulysses was not a dirty book. China would look backward, he argued, if it were to ban or censor the book six decades later. Xiao also pointed out the book’s “progressive” stance: it was anti-anti-Semitic and anti-imperialistic.
The strategy worked. Published last year, with no interference, the first edition of the three-volume translation sold out its 85,000 copies; a second and a third edition were rushed into print. “We publishers had to be brave to take this kind of risk,” says Li Jingduan, the editor of Yilin Publishing House, in Nanjing. “I never imagined this book would be so welcomed by the Chinese reader.” Considering the price–about $15, or roughly a week’s wages for a high school teacher in China–the sales are phenomenal, and the couple have become modest celebrities. They keep clippings about their work in two thick albums in their book-cluttered four-room apartment near Tiananmen Square, and clearly enjoy the fuss. Wen positively purrs as she recalls a book-signing in Shanghai that attracted a thousand readers. “Five police officers had to come to keep order,” she says. “Very excellent.” The story made the front pages of Shanghai’s newspapers.
Xiao and Wen both have traumatic personal memories of times when China was not nearly so accommodating, and see their translation as a major advance for China’s cultural life. “I feel that this translation of Ulysses signifies that China at last has opened herself not only in technology and science but also in literature,” Xiao says.
It’s difficult to truly appreciate, for those of us living in the Western Hemisphere in the twenty-first century, how powerful is the freedom to enter our local bookstores, what few remain in these dark days, and purchase any book that we want regardless of our political opinion. I don’t intend to make this essay a nauseatingly preachy rant about “’Merica” and “freedom” and all that jazz which was a movie starring Roy Schrieder that delivered, though only the first hour. Americans have a rather conflicted relationship with their civil liberties for always there is the balance of what “I can do” and what “I should do.” While many appreciate their rights, some exercise them simply for the sake of exercising them. Marilyn Mansion can wipe his ass with the American flag and the NRA can walk around with automatic rifles strapped to their backs, whether or not they should is up for debate, though, the reader may want to walk carefully with that NRA guy because he’s a crazy-ass white guy with guns while Mansion is currently just an engorged pumpkin with bad skin. Just sayin. This attitude of possessing rights to behavior and actions tends to foster a solipsism, to the point, few recognize the real violations of censorship that actively remove those liberties.
The case of China only fuels this idea because in the last two decades, at least since Nixon opened up diplomatic relations with the nation (one of the man’s few positive achievements though even that’s up for debate), China has assumed the boogeyman status. It’s China that will steal American jobs. It’s China that will bankrupt America. It’s China who will infect American children with communist ideals. And, of course, it’s China, with their sour record of human rights violations, that will censor books.
The problem with this, as is so often the case with Americans, the real history is ignored. Before book burnings had become something only priests with silly mustaches did to the Koran, there was a real existence of censorship in the United States. The Postal Service, an institution now just a daily dimming shadow of its once great figure, once controlled and exercised the “morality” of the public, for ultimately it was the post office that moved and shipped about reading material, therefore they possessed the right to censor any and all works deemed “obscene.”
Kevin Birmingham in his book, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, describes this power before telling his reader of a character by the name of Anthony Comstock:
The history of U.S. Censorship regime began in earnest in 1873, when Anthony Comstock bordered a train to Washington D.C., with a draft of a new federal law in his pocket and a satchel filled with the dirtiest pornography. Comstock was the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and because he understood the power of words, he understood the power of the Post office.
Comstock wanted the government to ban not just immoral books and pictures but also circulars and advertisements—everything that kept pornographers in business. A book like Lord K’s Rapes and Seductions wasn’t the only problem. They had to outlaw the catalog listing the book for sale and newspapers printing the ads that told people where to find it. The law also had to ban contraception and abortion related articles—birth control, after all, was part of the same avaricious business of lust. Pharmacists and smut peddlers profited from the same fantasy of sin without consequences. (111-2).
Comstocks ideas were eventually accepted by then President Ulysses S. Grant (marvelous coincidence aside) and the Postal Service, alongside police, were given tremendous power, perhaps a little too much:
This federal patchwork of obscenity laws had perverse effects. A man was free to visit a brothel, but if he wrote a story about visiting a brothel he could go to prison—immoral words became more punishable than immoral acts. An office clerk who mailed an obscene book faced a heavier sentence than the book’s author, publisher and seller because the Comstock Act wasn’t about raiding bookshops. It was about raiding the nation’s most powerful distribution network. (113).
Censorship was not invented by Communists, but Americans have an enormous capacity for self-bullshitting that this brief history is necessary before I continue.
Xiao and Wen struggle was a twofold effort, not only because of the political realities they face in their country, but also for the real obstacle that is Joyce’s writing which Murphey explains using several examples:
Translating Joyce is no party game in any language, of course. Even a simple sentence like “And going forth, he met Butterly” presents dangers. In fact in the book Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus meet no one named Butterly. Mulligan, Stephen’s roommate, is just tossing off a clever remark as he and Stephen leave their residence south of Dublin. He is referring, crudely, as is his wont, to the biblical description of Peter after his betrayal of Jesus: “and going forth, he wept bitterly.” In English the allusion is obvious enough. In German, though, after much cogitation, the thought has been put this way: they went forth “und weinte Buttermilch“–or “and wept buttermilk.” In Chinese it is translated for sound: they “went out and met Ba Teli,” meaning “to hope earnestly-special-inside,” but in context signaling a group of foreign sounds. Well, okay: the reader is clued in that the phrase is more than it seems. But a lot is lost in translation.
She goes on noting the complications of the Chinese language:
Many languages at least share the Roman alphabet, and therefore, to varying degrees, a common corpus of sounds. The name Leopold Bloom looks and sounds much the same from Dublin to Detroit, from Harare to Hanoi.
Enter China and the rules change. To begin with, there are only 404 possible phonetic combinations in Mandarin, far fewer than in English. Wordplay is inevitably distorted. And Chinese is ideographic, not alphabetic; “home,” for example, is represented by a stylized picture that has traditionally been interpreted to be a pig beneath a roof. Ulysses is not pictorial but aural, and comes alive most vividly when read aloud.
To make things more difficult, Chinese is a tonal language. In Mandarin, the official national tongue, there are four possible tones to each sound: high level, rising, falling rising, and falling. The tones make a difference. For a crude example of the sounds, consider using the word “Ma” in these different contexts: “Oh, Ma!” in surprised anger at seeing your mother where she shouldn’t be, “Oh, Ma!” in exasperation, “Ma” in sober conversation, and “Oh, it’s Maaa” in warning at an unexpected phone call from the matriarch. In Chinese, tones change the meaning of a word, not just the emphasis. The four tones for “ma” mean, respectively, “mother,” “hemp,” “horse,” and “to curse.” (A fifth tone for “ma,” which is actually atonal, turns a sentence into a question.)
There are a number of obstacles that plagued Xiao and Wen but it does little good to quote by quote, every single one for that would deprive the reader the opportunity to read the essay and understand the significance of their labors. Murphey does not accomplish great things in terms of prose in Ulysses in Chinese, but looking back at this article that doesn’t matter. It could be said that her essay was just journalism and so her job is merely to convey the events, the who-what-when-where-how-why of any seasoned journalist or historian, but for myself there’s a deeper meaning behind taking the time to looking at Xiao and Wen.
In many ways I envy them. They possessed a strength that I didn’t have when looking to the future of my graduate school career. I enjoy the story of Ulysses, I understand the artistic choices as well as anyone can, and I adore the legends and folklore that surround this novel…but not enough to dedicate my life to it, or at least ten or more years of my life to it. Looking then to Xiao and Wen I see two people who accomplished an impressive feat, and contributed an enormous gift to their culture and society.
In my paperback copy of the book there is the final statement made by Judge John M. Woolsey who decided the fate of Ulysses in America:
“Ulysses” is not an easy book to read or to understand. But there has been much written about it, and in order properly to approach the consideration of it it is advisable to read a number of other books which have now become its satellites. The study of “Ulysses” is, therefore, a heavy task.
In writing “Ulysses,” Joyce sought to make a serious experiment in a new, if not wholly novel, literary genre. He takes persons of the lower middle class living in Dublin in 1904 and seeks, not only to describe what they did on a certain day early in June of that year as they went about the city bent on their usual occupations, but also to tell what many of them thought about the while.
Joyce 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 a plastic palimpsest, 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. He shows how each of these impressions affects the life and behavior of the character which he is describing.
If the point of art is to recognize the feelings and thoughts of other human beings, whether they be of different sexes, genders, races, and nationalities, then Ulysses in Chinese is more than just one article published in The Atlantic. It’s a testament to what art should be, and what it should encourage us to be. Art should not be easy, nor should it aspire for best seller lists and four star reviews. Books should, first and foremost, aim to capture the impressions of human beings that read them, so much so that, even if they are almost unreadable, and their reader’s drop an occasional “what the fuck?” like I did, they still resonate in the reader’s mind long after they have been read.
Xiao Quan and Wen Jieruo have given their culture and their nation a gift, and the reader of Ulysses in Chinese will recognize it.
I’ve included a link to the original article by Murphey below:
I’ve also included a link to the Court Decision made by Woolsey if the reader is interested in his full remarks:
Anyone interested in the essay Joyce in Bloom can follow the link below:
Andy Warhol, Capitalism, Essay, Eve Arnold, femnism, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Gloria Steinem, I Was a Playboy Bunny, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn Monroe: The Woman Who Died Too Soon, Mass consumerism, Reading, Sense of Self, Sexual Rhetoric, Some Like it Hot, Tony Curtis, Ulysses
I always felt like a pedophile walking into Icing at Claire’s, but my wife wanted to look at ear rings, and when wife talks, husband listens. The reason for my discomfort is apparent to any fully grown man that enters this store. From wall to wall the mass produced, over priced, cheap jewelry is designed to adorn the body of a young girl between the ages of six to sixteen. Between the Tween bop music that blares ad nauseum, to the wall to wall mirrors that reflect back a figure of human sadness to be caught in this space, the souls mourns and the “Y” chromosome tries desperately to rip itself from your body.
This is hyperbole, but the sad fact is there’s a nugget of truth to it.
What really bothered me about the store, and numerous other retail establishments, is the proliferation of Marilyn Monroe. Since Andy Warhol diminished art, and made us realize how hollow the mass produced object is, while at the same time lifting up its mundane to sacred meaning, corporations have coupled with ad men to sell us a rhetoric that matches our understanding of our minds, hearts, desires, and dreams. What little girl doesn’t want to be Marilyn Monroe? She was gorgeous. She was famous. She was the queen of Hollywood staring in such movies as…well, okay you don’t actually know any of the movies she starred in, but you for sure know she was a movie star. She was also a model and an icon. We’re not sure what she was an icon for, but dammit she looks great on your cell phone cover, and your purse, and your t-shirt that tells us to “keep calm,” and your backpack, you school spiral, your three ring binder, your earrings, your wrist band, your tote bags, your hanging wall clock, the poster on your wall that says “Star!”, your…well, I’m sure we can find something to put her face on. Her beautiful, unbothered face, that reminds you you’re a Marilyn Monroe, and you’re gorgeous, and you’re saying something wearing her beautiful face so close to your person.
If my sarcasm isn’t apparent, I apologize, it’s the weakness of the medium. Maybe a Meme will help.
There we are. Tommy Boy always helps.
Having the parents I did, I knew who Marilyn Monroe was. I’d watched her often as a kid when my parents put on the movie Some Like it Hot. If you’ve never seen the movie, two jazz players (Tony Curtis & Jack Lemmon when they young studs) see a hit by the mob and disguise themselves as women to hide in an all girl band. Tony Curtis falls in love with the leader singer, a blonde named Sugar whose desperate to fall in love with a rich millionaire and escape her troubles in life. My initial impression of the woman then, was of a gorgeous blonde who was trying to make something of herself, who was tired of being screwed by life. The tragedy of this part was, as I was to find out later, that Marilyn wasn’t really acting in that film, she was behaving.
Thus I lead into Gloria Steinem.
One of my prized possessions is signed, hardback copy of her book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. True it was somebody else’s copy, so the autograph reads “To Dee,” but you’re missing the point. I had become aware of her work through my little sister. Taking an Honors freshman course, her teachers assigned the students Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents and to follow that up they read Steinem’s stunningly hilarious essay What if Freud were Phyllis: Or, The Watergate of the Western World. I won’t lie, I was interested, I had become more and more aware of Steinem because of her essay I Was a Playboy Bunny, and so I loved the chance to actually read the woman. I remember laughing so hard I actually had to put the essay down a few dozen times just to catch my breath. So when the chance to buy a hardback book came my way, you bet your ass I snatched it up.
Out of many of the wonderful essays, there was one I most recently read entitled Marilyn Monroe: The Woman Who Died Too Soon that struck me as being tremendously important for those of us living in the age where most of us are so tired of the icon, the fetish that we wouldn’t mind the woman dying again. Steinem reflects upon her experience of Marilyn as a young woman:
But I walked out on Marilyn Monroe. I remember her on the screen, huge as a colossal doll, mincing and whispering and simply hoping her way into casual vulnerability. Watching her, I felt angry, even humiliated, but I didn’t understand why. (233).
Though she does come to a kind of conclusion later when she writes:
Perhaps it was the uncertainty in the eyes of this big, blonde child-woman; the terrible desire for approval that made her different from Jane Russell. How dare she expose the neediness that so many women feel, but try so hard to hide? How dare she, a movie star, be just as unconfident as I was? (233).
This might be misconstrued by some as some mild form of Jealousy, but the only people who would honestly believe that are morons, the kind of people that protest that the Zune is a viable form of media interface and that the cubs honestly have a chance of winning a game next season. It’s difficult for a man to truly appreciate the level of confidence that women are expected to possess and manifest on a day by day basis given all the shit we put them through. It’s difficult enough for many women just to try and find a satisfying acceptance of their own body type, given the constant media pressure as well as by men whose desire remains fixated on the glamorous deceptions sold by Victoria’s Secret and Hollywood films. Yet here it is in just a few sentences. Few tween girls would probably understand Steinem’s confession however, because, as was noted before, the image of Marilyn many receive on a day by day basis is one of constant glamour and confidence.
Marilyn was a sex symbol, she was, after all, the very first woman to pose for Playboy. Now I suppose the reader understands what comes next. We get it, there’s something creepy about little girls wanting to be a sex symbol.
The answer of course is no.
HOWEVER, there is something creepy about men wanting little girls to idolize a sex symbol. Steinem notes how this status managed to limit Marilyn in her life when she writes:
By the time I saw her again, I was a respectful student watching the celebrated members of the Actors Studio do scenes from what seemed to me very impressive and highbrow plays. […] She was a student, too, a pupil of Lee Strasburg, leader of the Actor’s Studio and American guru of the Stanislavski method, but her status as a movie star and sex symbol seemed to keep her from being taken seriously even there. She was allowed to observe, but not to do scenes. (234).
Very few women escape the status of sex-pot goddess, because men tend to be the ones handling the strings and organizations that could change their image into something more. They don’t want to let go of that sex-symbol, because as long as they can keep a woman in their minds as such, they control her rhetoric, her meaning to the world. Steinem notes the tragedies in her life and seems to come to a final summation:
Most of all, we wonder if the support and friendship of other women could have helped. Her early experiences of men were not good. She was the illegitimate daughter of a man who would not even contribute for her baby clothes; her mother’s earliest memory of her own father, Marilyn’s grandfather, was his smashing a pet kitten against the fireplace in a fit of anger; Marilyn herself said she was sexually attacked by a foster father while still a child; and she was married off at sixteen because another foster family could not take care of her. Yet she was forced always to depend for her security on the goodwill and recognition of men; even to be interpreted by them in writing because she feared that sexual competition made women dislike her. Even if they had wanted to, the women in her lie did not have the power to protect her. In films, photographs, and books, even after her death as well as before, she has been mainly seen through men’s eyes. (238).
This is what always bothered me, and still continues to bother me about the mass production of Marilyn Monroe in bulk products. The image, the identity of a woman conflicted with her struggle between her body and mind is completely wiped away, as little girls frolic to a man made image of glamorous female selfhood.
This leads me to my final point, and two important pictures.
On my wall for years was a page ripped out of a magazine from Architectural digest that I still own and will never part with. It was an old rerun of a special Celebrity homes edition that covered celebrities from Sinatra, John Wayne, to even, and I bet you didn’t see this coming but I know in fact that you did, Marilyn Monroe. I’ve provided the image here. You’ll note Marilyn does not face the camera, she’s not wearing an expensive gown, she’s not even smiling. Instead she’s sitting on her bed reading a book, while behind her is a shelf filled with books, one of which is Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot by the way, and on her walls are works of art, several of which are selections from Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel and private drawings.
Why have you never seen this photo before? Because it’s not glamorous, and reading is dull as dirt. At least that’s what people tell me.
The second image is one I have heard of but only recently discovered. Many of the “glamorous” photos that have solidified the archetype of Marilyn Monroe were done by a photographer by the name of Eve Arnold. Over the course of her career she made many beautiful portraits of the woman, but one stands not only myself but also for Arnold as well. Like the first I have provided it here. You’ll note that this image of Marilyn is not sexy, or glamorous, or even exciting, but it does still you for a moment because it is the image of a figure you don’t recognize for its pensive nature. Arnold herself describes the picture, and the meaning it had to her own life:
We worked on a beach on Long Island. She was visiting Norman Rosten the poet…. I asked her what she was reading when I went to pick her up (I was trying to get an idea of how she spent her time). She said she kept Ulysses in her car and had been reading it for a long time. She said she loved the sound of it and would read it aloud to herself to try to make sense of it — but she found it hard going. She couldn’t read it consecutively. When we stopped at a local playground to photograph she got out the book and started to read while I loaded the film. So, of course, I photographed her. It was always a collaborative effort of photographer and subject where she was concerned — but almost more her input.
I can’t imagine there are many tween-age girls in existence that would admire Marilyn for reading Ulysses since many wouldn’t even know what Ulysses is. And even if they learned they probably wouldn’t care, they’d wonder why the girl on their purse and bedazzled cell phone cover would read a boring almost unreadable book.
But here’s my question, and I don’t give a good goddamn if I sound pretentious, pompous, or feminist when I ask it: why shouldn’t young women idolize intelligent women? Or at least those that try to better themselves by reading?
These two images seem of profound importance in my mind, because they are images of a woman that aren’t slapped on the cover of purses, cell phone covers, tote bags, lipsticks bodies, etc. That may be due to the fact that these images disrupt the glamorous dream many people are trying to sell. Looking at Marilyn reading a book disrupts the identification. You don’t read books, because the people who read books aren’t famous or pretty. They don’t live the life you think you’re going to have or want to live. Beneath all the glitter and smiles, Marilyn shines through in these two images, that many women will live their entire lives and never see.
And there I suppose leads me back to that feeling of discomfort. There so much flash to the world of identity and selfhood that we’re selling to young women. That men are selling to young women. How can we expect young girls to grow up past the glamour of sex and fame, if we never show them that once the flash and cash has diminished, all they’ve really bought is a cheap coin purse made in Taiwan, with a picture of a woman on the cover they don’t even really know.
Below I’ve included a few links to articles that describe the life of Marilyn Monroe and her cultural impact. One of them is the Arnold piece I cited before, the second is a piece from Vanity Fair, and the third and final one is another essay written by Gloria Steinem. I hope you enjoy.
Banned Books, Book Review, censorship, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, John Quinn, Kevin Birmingham, Lesbianism, Literature, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, Modernity, Paris, Politics, Sexuality, Sylvia Beach, T.S. Eliot, The Little Review, The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses, Ulysses
A book about James Joyce’s Ulysses had damn well better be interesting, and far more readable than Ulysses itself. In the case of The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham I’m happy to say both are the case.
There was a point about a year ago where I planned to have my entire future revolving around the novel Ulysses. I planned to undergo an independent study entirely dedicated to the book, my master’s level thesis was going to be about the novel and my eventual PhD program and subsequent years as a teacher would be devoted to teaching the novel. However sanity got the best of me and now I am just moderately fond of the book. Birmingham’s historic/cultural chronicle came to me as a Christmas present since, during my Ulysses high, I gathered every possible resource about the book I could. However, once the high died down, and grad school really began, the book rested on my shelf only to be picked up again once I had started a nice long break.
Birmingham is dealing with a difficult subject, not because of Joyce’s work, but more because of the academic cult following that surrounds the heavy tome. He notes in the Epilogue:
There are roughly three hundred books and more than three thousand scholarly articles devoted, partly or entirely, to Ulysses, and about fifty of those books have been written in the past ten years.
Birmingham reveals the precarious position he has placed himself in, for not only is this work his first published book, it is a book that hundreds of PhD’s across the globe will have to read and assess to determine whether he has accomplished a sound academic achievement. For my two cents, did I really just type that, I believe The Most Dangerous Book, does a damn good job.
Birmingham’s book is not the work of a PhD attempting to determine whether or not Ulysses’ prose does not satisfy a similar metric scale in the Circe chapter of the Original Odyssey, nor does it try to argue that Joyce’s work shares similar symbolic strategies to Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols. All that the book tries to accomplish, all this it does, is place Ulysses into the cultural time period and try to demonstrate how it was written, how it was published, how the public and government reacted to the text, and how the work influenced the intelligentsia and zeitgeist. The strongest aspect of the book however, is that it is written for a layman. Birmingham does not suppose that his reader has already tackled that monster of a book and so he attempts to explain how the book is operating, citing passage frequently so his reader is able to understand the oddity and beauty of the text.
Anyone that hasn’t read Ulysses, or even has no intention to do so, should at least read Birmingham’s book so that they may understand how it has permanently altered our society and culture. As I’ve written about in a previous essay, Ulysses permanently changed what was possible in narratives through its persistent unapologetic description of the bodily functions. Birmingham is able to contextualize the scandal of such actions through solid historical fact without boring his audience:
The history of the U.S. censorship regime began in earnest in 1873, when Anthony Comstock boarded a train to Washington D.C., with a draft of a federal law in his pocket and a satchel filled with his dirtiest pornography. (111).
As one continues Birmingham provides a brief history of Comstock and how he shaped one of the, if such a word is permissible, greatest censorship campaigns in American history. So much so that we learn the Post office became the central power figure in censoring, not just Ulysses but any book or magazine that was deemed “obscene” by the organization.
This review will be brief and I’ll add just a few more interesting facts to inspire enough curiosity. Birmingham’s book is not centered on Joyce himself, while the man does occupy plenty of territory; Joyce himself is only one of the players in the larger performance that is the publishing of Ulysses. The character of Ezra Pound at first seems to be the real rock star of the story, for it was Pound who believed and fought for Joyce, connecting him to well connected publishers and getting his works sent into the magazine in America that initially published the book. Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, the head publishers of The Little Review star in several chapters, and their starving selves assume a real pathos as you observe their dedication to art. Sylvia Beach, the woman who founded Shakespeare & Company, pops in and out of the story only to be snubbed by Joyce after she has been the first publisher to print the book in its entirety. It should be noted homosexuality played a large part in the writing of Ulysses; the last three women mentioned were all homosexuals. John Quinn is a man you’ve most likely never heard of, but he was responsible for most of Ulysses’s legal defense and financial backer, not to mention being one of the first American art collectors to recognize the works of a little painter called Picasso, you might have heard of him, I think he did the paintings with lilies. (I hope at least ONE art student gets that joke). And alongside Joyce are other writers of the period. T.S. Eliot marveled at Ulysses, while Virginia Wolf wobbled between despising the book and taking enough inspiration from it to write Mrs. Dalloway. Ernest Hemmingway makes a brief appearance as a smuggler, taking copies of the book into America, and F. Scott. Fitzgerald appears for a split second as an obsessive fanboy, drawing Joyce at a dinner party and then almost throwing himself off a balcony to impress the man. Joyce’s response is priceless by the way: “That young man must be mad, […] I’m afraid he’ll do himself some injury” (222).
It’s a temptation every time I write a review for a book to cite quote after quote to demonstrate, to prove to the invisible hordes of people on the internet that happen to pass through this blog, that a book is not just worth your time, it’s an eye opening experience to shake your very conception of reality. The Most Dangerous Book follows the same method I have tried to accomplish in this blog: to make the great works of literature attainable and precious to everyone who has a moment to listen. You’ll most likely never get through Ulysses, or even get to the book in your lifetime, but at the very least Birmingham’s book is able to dig into the importance of the novel and not bore his reader. And that’s all you could ever ask for in a book about a book that’s damn near impossible to read.
I’ll end with a quote:
He had a point. Narratives are the way we make sense of the world. We parcel existence into events and string them into cause-and-effect sequences. The chemist comparing controls and variables and the child scalded by a hot stove are both understanding the world through narrative. Novels are important because they turn the basic conceptual framework into an art form. A beautiful narrative arc reassures us that the baffling events around us are meaningful—and this is why Ulysses appeared to be an instrument of chaos, an anarchist bomb. To disrupt the narrative was to disrupt the narrative method was to disrupt the order of things. Joyce, it seemed, wasn’t devoted to reality. He appeared to be sweeping it away.
If you were a modernist—if you believed the order of things was already gone—you thought differently. T.S. Eliot defended Ulysses by objecting to its critics’ premise. Life in the age of world war was no longer amenable to the narrative method, and yet Ulysses showed us that narratives weren’t the only way to create order. Existence could be layered. Instead of a sequence, the world was an epiphany. Instead of a tradition, civilization was a day. The chaos of modernity demanded a new conceptual method to make sense of the contemporary world, to make life possible for art. And that is what Ulysses gave us. (226-7).
The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses is available at Amazon, and wherever books are sold locally.
Birmingham, Kevin. The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses.
New York: The Penguin Press, 2014. Print.
I’ve included a link to a review of this book by Slate in case my own effort here isn’t enough to convince you of the merits of Birmingham’s book. Enjoy:
Banned Book Week, Banned Books, body humor, Dav Pilkey, Essay, excrement, God's Little Acre, James Joyce, Jessica Roake, Literature, Mark Twain, One Nation, The Adventures of Captain Underpants, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ulysses, Underpants
Recently I received the opportunity to read a banned book. I’m fortunate enough to attend a university in which Banned Book Week is not only a vital activity, but also a yearly one. Along with a basic introduction from librarians, as well as displays in the library following the history and practice of censorship, there is the opportunity to be filmed reading banned books. Last year I was unfortunate to discover that Banned Book had passed without my knowing and so the chance to raise a middle finger to censorship was denied to me. This year I was determined to remind censorship to go fuck itself, and so I arrived at the table ten minutes before anyone else showed up with my copy of Ulysses in tow. I was the first person of the week to read book, as per my pre-meditation. I sat before the camera and once I was given the signal began to read. After two minutes I received the signal to wrap up and so I finished. I’ve included a link below to YouTube in case you would care to watch. I’m not sure why you would, but if you feel so inclined here it is. I’ve also added a clip from two years ago when I was able to read the book God’s Little Acre.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=du-9_ClGoas (God’s Little Acre)
I felt proud in this moment for I had denied the censor the chance to stifle my voice, as well as the voice of Joyce. This was my choice.
Now the selection of Ulysses is in part due to a recent fascination I’ve had with the author and his work. Regular readers of this blog will understand this. I approached the table with a firm dedication in mind to read Ulysses or else Catch-22. What a conundrum. In fact I had brought along three books, in case I had been outmaneuvered and someone had beaten me to the punch of actually reading first. Struggling already with three different books in mind I recognized a cart of readily prepared “offensive material” and discovered a forgotten tome. Resting in the stack was a copy of The Adventures of Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey. At once I had a conflict of interest. It may surprise some, but when I was younger I had some problems with actually reading. I enjoyed films such as the Pagemaster and television programs like Wishbone that encouraged reading, but Super Mario Bros and Legend of Zelda had a way of sneaking into my day and stealing most of my attention(though in my defense I was an avid reader of Calvin and Hobbes and remain so to this day). However, about the time I reached the fourth grade I discovered a book that instilled, devotion is too pale a word so intense passion for reading will have to suffice. Captain Underpants became my entire reading life. It began with the first tome followed by the attack of The Talking Toilets, The Alien Lunch Ladies, the threat of Professor Poopy Pants, and the books continued to collect until I had a respectable library. Picking the book up the morning of my reading I read the first two chapters in a heartbeat and at once I was conflicted. I chose Ulysses in the end because it seemed unlikely anyone would bring their own copy of the book, and the novel is just too important not to be read.
Captain Underpants, much like Leopold Bloom when his own book was first published, has in recent times become a figure of controversy. In fact, the slim tome that constitutes the first volume of the multi-part series is the most banned book in America as of this writing. Consider that statement for a moment. A book designed for children about a superhero who runs around in underwear has been banned more than Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, Invisible Man, Fahrenheit 451, and the list goes on and on.
Any steady reader of this blog may begin to question why I would waste my time concerned over a book that appears, upon examination of the plot, anything but literary. Two young boys by the name of George and Harold are tricksters who enjoy making comic books about a superhero named Captain Underpants. While not making these comic books they are re-arranging sign lettering into jokes about smelly armpits and peeing on rugs (and no, that is not a Big Lebowski reference). The teachers at their school are tyrannical bullies that enjoy punishing students with homework or else torturing them with homework assignments, the worst of all is Principle Krupp. George and Harold pull off the ultimate prank by ruining the State Football championship by filling the marching Bands instruments with soap, the cheerleader’s pom-poms with pepper, and finally in an almost orgasmic dénouement they fill the football with helium sending it miles into the air after it is kicked. Of course Krupp manages to catch them in the act and blackmails them until George and Harold decide enough is enough and they hypnotize him with the 3-D Hypno Ring (a call back to parents who remember such ads in the back of magazines and comic books that promised opportunities of X-ray glasses and Superman Muscle kits). Taking back the power from Krupp they decide to have a little fun and convince the man that he is really Captain Underpants. Krupp bounds heroically from the school however and the boy, fearing for the man but mostly fearing for their own skins (they are kids after all, or perhaps human beings is more fair) they pursue him until they find themselves caught up in the plot of the nefarious Dr. Diaper, a dwarfish man with razor sharp teeth who plans with to blow up the moon with his Laser Matic 2000 and take over the world.
I believe this is enough to get my point across.
The Adventures of Captain Underpants is certainly not a masterwork of literary achievement, but the book was good enough to make me want to pick up books when I was George and Harold’s age. As was stated before despite my near obsession with reading I was actually not much of a reader as a child. I enjoyed Calvin and Hobbes, but beyond that I found reading to be a chore. The text books I was required to pick up for school promised only cold facts and reinforcement of the idea that I was JUST a child. The Adventures of Captain Underpants appears into the narrative of my life rather mysteriously. I believe it was at the school book fair that I discovered the first volume, or perhaps it was Barnes & Noble? I can’t remember. What I do remember was the impact that it made. While I did not manage to hypnotize my teacher, I did manage to collect the second, third, fourth, and fifth books as they were published and bought by my parents who were thrilled that I was reading anything and not simply trying to beat the sixth castle on Super Mario World (for the record I have beat it, but I still cannot get past the eighth castle). In hindsight however I understand why the book at first appears to be so threatening to the established quo.
Jessica Roake, in her essay One Nation, Underpants examines the novel excellently when she says:
The teachers are the real villains here: narrow-minded, cruel idiots who taunt George and Harold, throw parties upon their suspensions, and generally delight in punishing children. They are Roald Dahl’s evil adults, but even more broadly-drawn; like Dahl, Pilkey does not sugarcoat the unfairness of childhood or the petty tyrannies of adults on power trips. At Jerome Horwitz Elementary, drawn from Pilkey’s own childhood experience, teachers punish creativity and praise blind obedience. They force the students to obey soul-crushing rules, oppose independent thought, and feed them poisonous cafeteria food and aggressively mind-numbing lessons.
This gross caricature of the villainous teacher may not be appreciated by the underpaid, overworked educators who toil thanklessly to educate the nation’s children–I don’t know any teachers who actually relish the pain of children the way Pilkey’s do (except the gym teachers of my youth). But with all due respect to the dedicated teachers (and none to the gym teacher), so what? Any teacher/student power dynamic is tipped in the adult’s favor, and children need to feel like someone understands the fundamental unfairness of their world. Pilkey may be overly hard on teachers, but there can sometimes be nothing harder than a terrible teacher for a struggling kid.
And anyway, Pilkey, like Dahl, does not demand that his youthful protagonists be better than the adults who torment them. The boys sabotage the work of their fellow students (“nerds” come in for an unsettling amount of scorn from the usually underdog-rooting Pilkey) and often cross the line from pranksters to genuine terrors. Pilkey, though, is defiant in his refusal to judge the boys as anything other than good, rowdy kids ill-served by an authoritarian education system intent on medicating them into submission. Pilkey was just such a kid, and on his website writes, “I had a pretty tough time in school. I’ve always had reading problems, and I didn’t learn the same way that most of the kids in my class learned (being severely hyperactive didn’t help much, either). I was discouraged a lot, and sometimes I felt like a total failure.”
In this way I believe it is not that far off the mark to compare Captain Underpants to Leopold Bloom and Huckleberry Finn, for all three protagonists have inspired a sense of revulsion in the cruel who despise their honesty, and a refuge for those who appreciate just that.
Bloom, as I have stated in a previous essay, is a carnal being and bracingly frank. Describing the “smell of his wife” while eying the young woman on the beach that he will soon enough rub-one-out to he says:
Clings to everything she takes off. Vamp of her stockings. Warm shoe. Strays. Drawers: little knick, taking them off. Byby till next time. Also the cat likes to sniff in her shift on the bed. Knows her smell in a thousand. Bathwater too. Reminds me of Strawberries and cream. Wonder where it is really. There or the armpits or under the neck. Because you get it out of all holes and corners.
While this is hardly sling-shotting a fake dog turd under Dr. Diaper’s butt to distract him, the impact of this line could not be underestimated. Smells in the more classical or Victorian presentation would only ever be positive when referring to a man’s wife. While Bloom is not negating his wife’s particular aroma, every image presented is not necessarily flattering. “Holes and corners” would have been scandalous to an audience unaccustomed to such bracing honesty. And if my reader will indulge me I shall recite a passage I have noted before, because it is the best damn example I have:
Quietly he read, restraining himself, the first column and, yielding but resisting, began the second. 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. Hope it’s not too big to bring on piles again. No, just right. So. Ah! […] He read on, seated calm above his own rising smell.
Bloom’s content dumps however have not inspired the same level of ferocity as Huck Finn’s free moving lips. I have begun reading the book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn recently, slowly however. Grad School is a mean bitch that eats your life one precious day at a time (worth every second). Now I had begun my reading of the book with the understanding the text was loaded with racial slurs that was indefensible and employed only for the sake of providing white men the excuse to employ that pathetic rhetoric devise of “I’m not a racist…but.” However, upon beginning the actual text I was reminded of my usual appreciation of Twain. The story is often sold to us as a harrowing allegory of possession and racism in humanity, when in fact it is simply the narration of a fourteen year old boy who possess little luck in life. Huck Finn has an abusive Pa who reappears in his life once Huck has discovered gold in the previous text of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (a book which I will admit I don’t care too much for). Huck, wanting not to hurt the man he should have every reason to despise, fakes his own death and escapes to the River where he encounters Jim, a run-away slave who is blamed for his death.
A professor of mine discussed a portion of the novel during a meeting in her office hours, and I later learned she had written a paper over the section entitled “the Story of Sollermun’”. In it the former slave Jim discusses the passage in the Bible in which Solomon proposes to cut the child in half. Jim says:
“Who? Me? Go ‘long. Doan’ talk to me ‘bout yo’ pints. I reck’n I knows sense when I sees it; en dey ain’ no sense in sich doin’s as dat. De ‘spute warn’t ‘bout a half a chile, de ‘spute was ‘bout a whole chile; en de man dat think he kin settle a ‘spute ‘bout a whole chile wid a half a chile doan’ know enough to come in out’n de rain. Doan’ talk to me ‘bout Sollermun, Huck, I knows him by de back.”
“But I tell you you don’t get the point.”
“Blame de point! I reck’n I knows what I knows. En mine you, de real pint is down furder—it’s down deeper. It lays in de way Sollermun was raised. You take a man dat’s got on’y one or two chillen; is dat man gwyne to be waseful o’ chillen? No, he ain’t; hecan’t ‘ford it. He know how to value ‘em. But you take a man dat’s
got ‘bout five million chillen runnin’ roun’ de house, en it’s diffunt. He as soon chop a chile in two as a cat. Dey’s plenty mo’. Achile er two, mo’ er less, warn’t no consekens to Sollermun, dad fatch him!”
I never see such a nigger. If he got a notion in his head once, there warn’t no getting it out again. He was the most down on Solomon of any nigger I ever see. So I went to talking about other kings, and let Solomon slide.
Before you continue, ask yourself a question. Did you really listen to Jim, or were you just waiting for the word nigger to pop up?
So I return to the issue of a banned book and the necessity of reading them. We should encourage the reading of banned books, because they eliminate confirmation bias, the psychological condition that enforces negative or positive opinions despite the coincidence or logical correlation between two points. People searching for racism in Huck’s behavior will obviously find it once they observe the word they are looking for, but they have missed the forest for the trees. While Jim is referred to as nigger by Huck, Twain, through Jim, has observed the condition of slave ownership. It is impossible to truly love something if it is bounteous. Much like Midas would come to loathe or become apathetic to gold, so Solomon grew to children, so too many people would grow to “niggers.” Because many of the richer landholders would be able to afford great quantities of slaves, they could afford the apathy toward the sadism and injustice that could occur on their plantation. Here begins a fascinating conversation about the travesty that is the slavery institution (and before anyone suggests that slavery is over and done with the World Cup of 2022 will be held in Qatar, which is a modern day slave state).
Though we may be uncomfortable with the ideas expressed by Huck, that is no reason to abandon the conversation altogether. Both Huck, and Bloom, and yes, even Captain Underpants all have perspectives of life and humanity that need to be observed. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, like Much of Twain’s books, begins with a notice by the author which reads:
PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be pros-
ecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; per-
sons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR,
Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.
So it does in The Adventures of Captain Underpants, however Pilkey is a little more accommodating:
Sturgeon General’s Warning
Some material in this book may be considered offensive by people who don’t wear underwear.
Reading a banned book is a rewarding and depressing experience, because you are quick to discover that the books will only make you laugh, or, perhaps even worse, they will make you think.
I have included a link to the rest of the article which I would highly advise, for it is beautifully written and the most intelligent defense of the book I have yet to read.
Arundhati Roy, authorial freedom, Christopher Hitchens, Essay, excrement, farting, Freedom, Irish Writers, James Joyce, Johnathan Franzen, Joyce in Bloom, Leopold Bloom, Literature, Sensuality, The God of Small Things, Ulysses
I find it fitting and hilarious that the passage of Ulysses in which Leopold Bloom empties his bowels while reading the paper happens to occur on page 69 of my personal paperback copy of the novel. Had Joyce lived to see our current age of sexual punnage I have no doubt such a fact would have pleased him all the more.
I will not lie, the novel is difficult to read. In fact to this day it is rated one of the three books PhD’s are supposed to lie the most about actually reading (followed by Moby Dick, which I have read, and Finnegan’s Wake, which I have yet to sit down and read, though I most certainly want to). The real power of Ulysses cannot, in my experience, be felt by simply sitting down and reading it as one would read any other novel. The diction alone almost competes with such an effort. Instead I have found that sampling the text a few pages at a time infects the reader with a sense of the real potential of what language can accomplish when given reign to simply explore. But back to the potty talk.
The critique of Joyce that often rings the second loudest (for the call of “what the fuck is this crap?” resounds as persistently as a Sunday Church bell) is Joyce’s frank carnality in his text. A sample of the novel proves this:
Quietly he read, restraining himself, the first column and, yielding but resisting, began the second. 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. Hope it’s not too big to bring on piles again. No, just right. So. Ah! […] He read on, seated calm above his own rising smell.
On a side note, this scene of honest defecation actually caused some conflict of interest for T.S. Eliot while composing his masterpiece The Waste Land, for in it was reference to urination, but let us remain focused upon Joyce’s contribution to “Fine Literature.” The honest presentation of carnal satisfaction through depositing feces is a human moment. We all shit, and the ability of a writer to present something so commonplace and re-invent it is the surest sign of ability. But the carnality does not stop there. Bloom’s sexual eccentricity becomes forefront as he masturbates on a public beach, attends a Turkish bathhouse where his penis is described as hanging limp like a flower, he visits a brothel with the hero of Joyce’s previous efforts Stephen Daedelus, he dines on kidneys, and, to quote his wife Molly the symbolic Persephone of the piece, enjoys kissing his wife’s rump.
Without sitting down to actually read the novel, this summary of actions may lead someone to believe the original misconception that Ulysses was somehow pornographic. The original publication was banned in America for this reason, which seems to remind us all that Americans weren’t really reading even back in the 1920s. Ulysses cannot be pornography for no pornographer takes the same level of dedication to create defamiliarization (for those unfamiliar with Literary theory this is the practice of describing an object or action in such a way that it seems new to us the reader). Observe Joyce’s description of Bloom kissing his wife’s bottom:
He kissed the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump, on each plump melonous hemisphere, in their mellow yellow furrow, with obscure prolonged provocative melons mellonous osculation.
The visible signs of postsatisfaction?
A silent contemplation: a tentative velation: a gradual abasement: a solicitous aversion: a proximate erection.
What followed this silent action?
Somnolent invocation, less somnolent recognition, incipient excitation, catechetical interrogation.
One wonders briefly how many sweaty palmed readers opened the pages of Ulysses hoping to discover orgies and sticky sentences but instead found only a modern masterpiece of prose that left even academics stumped. Observe the presentation again of Molly’s ass. “Mellow yellow smellow melons of her her rump,” is more Dr. Seus than it is Jesse Jane. Joyce’s carnality is wrapped in poetry of prose that has yet to be truly mastered or re-imitated by anyone in the twentieth or twenty-first century.
Very well you say, but so what? I don’t understand why I should care about a book that’s just about un-readable, even to literary critics. More to the point, why should I care about bodily functions?
I believe I shall allow another to speak first before I answer this question. Christopher Hitchens elaborated upon this carnality in language with his essay Joyce in Bloom when he says:
Talking of lubrication…for all its soaring, Ulysses repeatedly comes back to earth in the earthiest sense, and reminds us that natural functions and decay and sexual frustrations are part of the common lot. Here Joyce’s childishness about potty humor and playing with yourself was an enormous help to him. We are familiar now with the idea of “interior monologue” and “stream of consciousness,” but nobody before Joyce has shown us a man—Bloom—partly planning his day around his hand jobs.
As per usual, Mr. Hitchens’s pen speaks truth with efficient tact. Ulysses rocked the literary world because of its honest use of what I prefer to recognize as “sensual
honesty.” Joyce freely shows Leopold Bloom masturbating in public and dumping in order to accurately reflect the human condition to reassert reality through their sensuous activity.
Before you protest further allow me to ask you a few questions. Please answer honestly. How do you feel as voiding your bowels? Have you ever orgasmed? What is your overall sensation as releasing a fart? Is there anything better than fried chicken? How many times do you lick your lips after eating a bag full of chips? These should be adequate for my argument. If you answered honestly to all of these questions there should be a general conclusion that each of these actions bring you some kind of closure through satisfaction. It is not intellectual inquiry; it’s just doing what feels good. Our mind registers such feeling without dedicating much more thought than is necessary because they are purely part of the body experience.
Literature before Joyce had acknowledged sexual activity but only through labyrinthine language that left everything suggested or symbolic. As for daily constitutions there was no mention, period. Joyce’s effort in Ulysses then is to strip away that language and show human beings on a more sensual plane. Some may suggest that this eliminates the escapist aspect of literature but I do not believe this. Escapism is not simply about car chases, bubble-boobed bimbos in halter tops, and Skittles. Escapism, at its core, is about leaving your perception of reality and experiencing someone else’s view of the world. Joyce most certainly accomplishes this. More importantly, he totally recreates literature to allow writers to explore and understand the more basic sensual impulses of humanity affording readers the chance to observe every aspect of humanity.
If the efforts of Joyce are not enough perhaps another example is necessary. Arundhati Roy’s sole book The God of Small Things, tends to experiment with language as much as Joyce (though some might suggest that Roy at attempts to be understood which is moderately fair), and much like Joyce Roy is free in her use of body imagery to examine corruption and humanity:
Ammu coughed up a wad of phlegm into her handkerchief and showed it to Rahel. “You must always check it,” she whispered hoarsely, as though phlegm was an Arithmetic answer sheet that had to be revised before it was handed in “When it’s white, it means it isn’t ripe. When it’s yellow and has a rotten smell, it’s ripe and ready to be coughed out. Phlegm is like fruit. Ripe or raw. You have to be able to tell.
One can almost taste the phlegm as it works its way up the throat. The way it clings to the roof of the mouth leaving a thin membrane of flavor upon the tongue. Roy’s novel has been received with some controversy in her native land of India for her frank portrayal of the corruption that plagues her country, whether it be the external influence of foreign nations or else the internal vise of the caste system which leaves numerous individuals with no potential to escape the horridness of their cultural situation. Roy’s effort to incorporate sensuality in her novel can be attributed more to her desire to reveal corruption than to make an honest statement about sensuality in general. It is not my effort to damn her for this, but instead to reveal the honesty of prose. Such a description would be thought unheard of in a novel by Austen, Dickens, Hardy, or any of the great masters of the past. Even more freely tongued authors such as Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Twain, or Woolf would be averse to describe such a raw moment of corporeality. This is because even today honest demonstrations of excrement offend us.
Perhaps the only modern exception to this that springs to mind is the novel Freedom by Johnathan Franzen. Most recently the book, as well as the author, has been praised as the last real effort of an American to produce the definitive novel (whatever that truly means) and in many ways I must agree with them. Tracking the progress of a family from the East coast we come into contact with the son Joey who swallows his wedding ring and is forced to eventually retrieve it. Franzen is unsparing as he is excellent.
Although he, like all people, secretly enjoyed the smell of his own farts, the smell of his shit was something else. It was so bad it seemed evil in a moral way. He poked one of the softer turds with the fork, trying to rotate it and examine its underside, but it bent and began to crumble, clouding the water brown, and he saw that this business of a fork had been a wishful fantasy. […]He had no choice but to lift out each turd and run it through his fingers. […] He retched once, drily, and got to work, pushing his fingers into the soft and body-warm and surprisingly lightweight log of excrement.
Franzen’s moment of sensuality retains that discretion towards excrement that will remain rigid, for many good reasons, but the honesty of presenting such a scene is dependent upon an original foundation. Were it not for Joyce, such a moment would not be experienced in text and in some ways, enjoyed by modern audiences. We are horrified by what is described, but by this point poop has become so much a part of our public consciousness we are willing to allow authors to use it in plot devices, as long we see it as a serious character developing moment.
Our body is not perfect, and in fact it seems to enjoy tormenting us with cramps, odors, and general pains that leave us scampering after the shattered remnants of our dignity. Our society does not seem to object to praising and celebrating the various sexual reactions our body may generate, but should any attempt to laugh or examine fecal material and “potty humor” they are treated with hostility. Biologically it makes, feces is ridden with harmful bacteria, not to mention various nematodes that may infect and spread should they enter one of our numerous orifices. However as I reminded my reader before, the sensual satisfaction derived from, for lack of a better phrase, “dropping a deuce” is a psychologically sound form of closure. It feels good to release. Those who object most to these kind of presentations of sensual satisfaction usually tend to be those who derive the most enjoyment from them and are uncomfortable acknowledging such satisfactions. Literature such as Ulysses, The God of Small Things, and Freedom then are necessary, for they open the doorway to conversations about the human body. Literature at its core is designed to make us unfamiliar with the world we know and re-create it so that we come to new understanding of our own reality.
I’m told it’s always best to end it with a joke, but instead I will conclude with a poem:
A fart can be quiet,
A fart can be loud,
Some leave a powerful,
A fart can be short,
Or a fart can be long,
Some farts have been known,
To sound just like a song.
A fart can create
A most-curious medley,
A fart can be harmless,
Or silent, but deadly.
A fart can occur
In a number of places,
And leave everyone
With strange looks on their faces.
From wide-open prairies,
To small elevators,
A fart will find all of us
Sooner or later.
So be not afraid
Of the invisible gas,
For always remember,
That farts, too, shall pass.
Not quite to the level of Joyce himself, but as the song suggests our body’s woes and highs are not to be dwelled on severely but merely to be experienced. Laugh it off and move on; otherwise you’ll just be another poophead who can’t take a joke.