James Joyce, Leo Taxil, blasphemy, Baphomet, Ulysses, Paris

La Vie de Léo Taxil

—Qui vous a mis dans cette fichue position?

—c’est le pigeon, Joseph.

To listen to a discussion of this topic, check out the podcast episode here.

Midway though “Proteus,” Stephen reminisces on his time as a medical student in Paris. Amongst those reminiscences, two names are nestled. First, on page 41 (Vintage International Edition):

But he must send me La Vie de Jesus by M. Leo Taxil. Lent it to his friend.

And later (pgs. 43, 50):

And Monsieur Drumont, gentleman journalist.

There’s not indication in the text of the link connecting these two men – Léo Taxil and Édouard Drumont. Though they have become obscure in the 21st century, their public personas likely shaped the worldview of a young Stephen Dedalus (and James Joyce).

lavi 2
La Vie de Jésus, by Léo Taxil

Léo Taxil may well be one of the most interesting late-19th century figures that you’ve never heard of. Knowing even a few details of his biography makes it clear why Stephen/Joyce would be attracted to his work. Marie Joseph Gabriel Antoine Jogand-Pagès (Léo Taxil was a nom de plume) was a Jesuit-educated writer who lost his faith at a young age. He had a flare for comedic blasphemy, and no target was too grand. Since he also possessed a very casual relationship with the truth, he’s often called a muckraker or yellow journalist, which Taxil wore as a badge of honor, referring to himself as “the arch-liar of the period.”

Taxil used his flair for falsehood to ridicule powerful members of French society, most notably the Catholic Church, penning anticlerical and (sometimes) pornographic novels such as The Secret Loves of Pope Pius IX, which lead to accusations of libel. Other great titles include The Holy Pornographers: Confession and Confessors  and The Pope’s Mistresses. Hilarious pornography aside, he also wrote satirical retellings of Bible stories, with the goal of demythologizing the life of Christ. This included La Vie de Jésus, which portrays Joseph as a cuckolded dupe. When he finds out his virgin wife is pregnant, Joseph asks, “Who put you in this lousy position?” She replies, “It was the pigeon, Joseph,” highlighting the absurdity of such a conversation. The mockery of it! The pigeon (or dove) is a traditional symbol of the Holy Spirit, which in this case is both sent by and actually is the same as God the Father in order to impregnate Mary with Himself in the form of God the Son, who is also Himself (don’t think about it too much).

The Annunciation, Girolamo da Santacroce, c. 1540

Taxil’s blasphemous comedy does tend towards a Gogartian giddy rudeness. There is a striking similarity between this bit of dialogue (which is quoted in French in the text of Ulysses) and Buck Mulligan’s “The Ballad of Joking Jesus” we heard at breakfast. Mulligan’s poem opens with the lines, “I’m the queerest young fellow that ever you heard. My mother’s a jew, my father’s a bird.” Lest you think that Joyce plagiarized the work of Taxil to write “The Ballad of Joking Jesus,” keep in mind that he cribbed “The Ballad” from Oliver St John Gogarty.

The Mysteries of Freemasonery, by Léo Taxil

Taxil’s pornographic pope period ended abruptly in the mid-1880’s when he re-converted to Catholicism. He turned his sights away from the Church and focused squarely on Freemasonry as his next target. After publishing a four-volume history of Freemasonry, Taxil joined forces with Dr. Karl Hacks to write a book by the title of The Devil in the Nineteenth Century, which told the story of a woman named Diana Vaughan. Her story breathlessly recounted the tale of her membership in a break-away Freemason group called the Palladian Order who practiced a variety of shocking practices such as orgies and devil worship, your standard Satanic Panic kind of stuff. Diana, amongst other things, was the betrothed of the demon Asmodeus, who at one point flew her to Mars (and much later hung out with Alan Moore).  

By 1897, the press and the Church were growing impatient with Taxil who, for over a decade,  had continually produced increasingly radical tales about Diana, but not Diana herself. Taxil called a press conference, rented a large hall in Paris and asked everyone to check their umbrellas and walking sticks at the door. He walked out on stage and said (in paraphrase), “Suck it, nerds! I was Diana Vaughan all along! Also, I still hate Catholicism! PSYCH!” He confessed to making up the entire story and said the Church and press made it easy because they gobbled up every new detail he concocted. Diana Vaughan was the name of Taxil’s typist, and Karl Hacks was not only a hack, but also Taxil. They were so eager to believe that Taxil had found Jesus and to slander the Freemasons that they were willing dupes, worse than the guy who believed a pigeon impregnated his wife. These rich and powerful men were done in by their own petty bigotries, more willing to believe a living woman had traveled to Mars at the behest of a demon than a noted liar was lying to them for over a decade.

An illustration from one of Taxil’s books depicting a freemason “ritual” involving the deity Baphomet.

Though Taxil’s hoax was fully refuted by Taxil himself in the 1890’s, its legacy lingers to this day. Various evangelical Christians still oppose Freemasonry as a Satanic cult. Major figures in the 20th century such as Pat Robertson and Jack Chick have used details invented by Taxil to denounce the Freemasons, despite the fact that they are totally false. The Catholic Church, for its part, chose to move on quickly from Taxil’s hoax. Taxil is listed at the bottom of a long entry called “Imposters” in the Catholic encyclopedia, where he is described as “one of the most blasphemous and obscene of the anti-clerical writers in France.”

It’s easy to see why Young Joyce would relate to Taxil. His biography is an obvious mirror to the youth of both Joyce and Dedalus, echoing the young Artist’s declaration of “non serviam.” The use of blasphemous humor is found throughout Ulysses. In this exchange in “Proteus,” Stephen recalls Patrice Egan passing him a copy of La Vie de Jésus, revealing the kind of anti-clerical, intellectual connections he was making on the continent. He keenly feels the injustice of being pulled away from that life and being marooned in the Martello Tower with Mulligan and Haines back in Ireland. Mulligan’s blasphemy is, after all, not the blasphemy of the romantic.

Taxil’s influence on Joyce does not end there. In addition to tackling the Catholic Church, Taxil publicly opposed anti-semitism, which was widespread in France during the late 19th century. During his faux recommitment to Catholicism, Taxil took aim at a prominent journalist named Édouard Drumont. Drumont’s accomplishments included helping found the Anti-semitic League of France and an anti-semitic newspaper called La Libre Parole, and writing an 1886 book called Jewish France in which he laid out his claims that the Jews were destroying France.

Léo Taxil

It’s not clear what sparked Taxil’s attack on Drumont particularly, but it was no less fervent than his other efforts. Taxil testified in court that Drumont had claimed that he wanted to murder all of France’s Jews. Taxil’s testimony was thrown out because he was considered an unreliable source and a known pornographer. Not to be discouraged, Taxil took a new approach and wrote a book in 1890 called Édouard Drumont: A Psychological Study which revealed that Drumont also hated Catholics as much as he hated Jews.  In the end, Taxil’s arguments did not move public opinion, and Drumont was allowed to go on being prominently anti-semitic, reaching his zenith a few years after as he used his platform to fan the flames of the infamous Dreyfus Affair.

Joyce arrived in Paris in late 1901 as the Dreyfus Affair was roiling France, mere months after Anatole France (admired by Joyce) had given a rousing eulogy at the funeral of Émile Zola, whose article “J’Accuse”, defending Alfred Dreyfus, had landed him in legal trouble. Richard Ellmann speculates, and I agree, that witnessing writers use their public platform to defend a beleaguered Jewish man must have struck Young Joyce as heroic and showed him the true power of the written word.

We know already that Stephen rejects the anti-semitic worldview of Mr. Deasy, but that he has a shallow understanding of Jewish culture based on his time in Paris. Joyce doesn’t openly condemn Drumont in the text of Ulysses, but the juxtaposition with Taxil’s name makes me think that Joyce was well aware of their connection and that he knew this journalist was no gentleman. It shows that those elevated as “gentlemen” often turn out to be scoundrels while the liars are sometimes the better truth-tellers.

Further Reading:

Davison, N.R. (1998). James Joyce, Ulysses and the construction of Jewish identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/y2msrq44

de Hoyos, A., & Morris, S.B. (2010). Is it true what they say about freemasonery? New York: M. Evans.  Retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/y43m54ml

Ellmann, R. (1959). James Joyce. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gopnik, A. (2009, Sept. 21). Trial of the Century. The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/09/28/trial-of-the-century

Greer, J.M. (2006). Palladian Order. In The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies. New York: Harper Element.

Magalaner, M. (1956). Labyrinthine motif: James Joyce and Leo Taxil. Modern Fiction Studies, 2(4), 167-182. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/26273108

Reizbaum, M. (1999). James Joyce’s Judaic Other. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/y4sxxtlv

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2 thoughts on “La Vie de Léo Taxil

  1. Hi, just wanted to say how much I am actually learning from your posts – this one was particularly insightful and I really appreciate how much research must go into producing this sort of post. I hadn’t realised how well read Joyce actually was – he was a real polymath – and this post, and others like it, are just so helpful to me I’m approaching Ulysses. Thanks.


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