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.