The life of [Ulysses] comes first and the philosophy afterwards. Obscenity is a question of manners and conventions for ever changing. Virtuosity, if it stood alone, would soon become demoded, and philosophy too, but living character stays through whatever material is presented. – Frank Budgen
Professor Bloom is a finished example of the new womanly man. – Ulysses, p. 493
While Leopold Bloom’s interest in butts is not the first thing we learn about him in “Calypso,” it certainly plays a key role in his actions over the course of Ulysses’ fourth episode. Ulysses, among many, many other things, is an ode to butts. It was written by a man smitten with hinderparts, as revealed in Joyce’s love letters to Nora Barnacle, which describe in graphic detail his lust for her butt and its various, predictable functions. Butts are celebrated in Ulysses’ 700+ pages as both functional and sexy.
Of our two protagonists, Leopold Bloom shows a particular affinity for shapely cheeks. Bloom is so connected to butts that when he appears as Haroun al-Raschid in Stephen’s prophetic dream, one of the symbolic images Stephen recalls is, “The melon he had he held against my face. Smiled: creamfruit smell.” The image of a melon culminates in “Ithaca” when Bloom finally curls up next to Molly, head to toe, and describes how “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 melonsmellonous osculation.” A melon is not just a melon in Ulysses.
In “Calypso,” where Bloom first appears “on-screen” in Ulysses, he spends portions of the chapter ogling a woman’s rear, desiring to leave the butchershop more quickly so that he might ogle her “moving hams” more while she walks, and then later narrates himself pooping in an outhouse. In “Lestrygonians,” his thoughts wander to goddesses, gracefully dining on nectar and ambrosia, when he thinks, “And we stuffing food in one hole and out behind: food, chyle, blood, dung, earth, food: have to feed it like stoking an engine. They have no. Never looked. I’ll look today. Keeper won’t see. Bend down let something fall see if she.” Later, Buck Mulligan spies Bloom oh-so casually leaning beneath the statue of Venus Callipyge to see if her “mesial groove” is anatomically correct. In the hallucinatory atmosphere of “Circe,” Bloom, at his/her most feminine, is threatened with sexual violence by the madame Bella Cohen (now Bello), “You were a nicelooking Miriam when you clipped off your backgate hairs and lay swooning in the thing across the bed… about to be violated by [long list of people and animals].”
Sigmund Freud, a contemporary of Joyce’s, had lots of thoughts to share on butt stuff and how it impacts one’s psychology. In his 1908 article “Character and Anal Erotism,” Freud outlined how one’s childhood relationship with their anus would impact their character as an adult. Freud believed that humans universally passed through a series of developmental stages as infants and young children in which they are fixated on a certain body part. Around the age of two, he theorized, we all pass through the anal stage, in which we gain control of our bowels and become fascinated by their product. Freud also saw this as the first major power struggle of our young lives – we now have the ability to manage our own bowels, but an authority figure is trying to control where and when we void them. A child who opts to withhold their feces, who takes pleasure in holding back the sensation of releasing their bowels, is described by Freud as anal retentive. Such a person, Freud wrote, will generally be “especially orderly, parsimonious and obstinate” (emphasis Freud’s).
Before applying this analysis to Bloom, we should take a moment to consider whether or not James Joyce was swayed by Freud’s conclusions. It’s possible to find a record of Joyce’s many snarky remarks about Freud, such as when he referred to him as the Viennese Tweedle Dee to Jung’s Swiss Tweedle Dum in a letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver, but this doesn’t paint a full picture. While Joyce didn’t totally embrace psychoanalysis as a system, he didn’t totally reject its methods, such as the analysis of dreams, and free association (which Joyce referred to as inner monologue). Joyce, like Freud, was interested in revealing the symbolism of the unconscious mind.
James Joyce’s brother Stanislaus wrote, “[My brother] regarded psychology, which he was then studying, as the basis of philosophy, and words in the hands of an artist as the medium of paramount importance for a right understanding of the inmost life of the soul. The revelation of that inmost life was, my brother firmly believed, the poet’s high office….” We can see the fingerprints of this belief in Ulysses and other Joycean works in the emphasis placed on dreams and epiphanies and in the way seemingly random, innocuous thoughts lead to deeper conclusions and revelations (see: all of “Proteus”).
While Joyce found Freud’s system of symbolism a bit too rigid, he never said on the record that he thought Freud was wrong, just that Freud’s ideas had already been expressed better by the likes of Giordano Bruno, Giambattista Vico and the Catholic Church. He once surprised his friend Ettore Schmitz by dismissing psychoanalysis, saying, “Well, if we need it, let us keep to confession.” Nonetheless, it’s clear that Freudian ideas found their way into Joyce’s writing. Joyce’s friend Frank Budgen explained, “It has often been said of Joyce that he was greatly influenced by psychoanalysis in the composition of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. If by that is meant that he made use of the jargon of that science when it suited the purpose of his fiction, or made use of its practical analytical devices as when Bloom commits [a Freudian slip] the point holds good. But if it is meant that he adopted the theory and followed the practice of psychoanalysis in his work as did the Dadaists and the Surrealists, nothing could be further from the truth…. Joyce was always impatient and contemptuously silent when [psycholanalysis] was talked about as both an all-sufficient [world view] and a source and law for artistic production.”
There is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to passages about Bloom that can be interpreted from a Freudian point of view, so for now I’m going to restrict my discussion to the “Calypso” episode, but this is a topic I can easily return to in the future. Recalling Freud’s three characteristics of an anal retentive person – orderliness, parsimony and obstinacy – they are all easily idenitified in Bloom in his introductory episode.
Bloom is orderly, making sure Molly’s breakfast is prepared just so, “Another slice of bread and butter: three, four: right. She didn’t like her plate full.” If we extend the idea of orderliness to encompass cleanliness or neatness, we see Bloom’s appreciation of these qualities, even in the dirtiest of situations. “Mulch of dung. Best thing to clean ladies’ kid gloves. Dirty cleans.” Bloom’s desire for order overflows during “Lestrygonians” as he seeks refuge from the sloppy cacophony of The Burton for the tidy confines of the “moral pub,” Davy Byrne’s.
Though I don’t know if I’d call him parsimonious (excessively frugal), Bloom is certainly preoccupied with money and economics. Spending time in Bloom’s head allows the reader to learn the cost of many of the small things he encounters throughout the day, everything from the expense of visiting Milly in Mullingar (maybe he could get a press pass and go for free?) to the exact prize money for publishing a story in Titbits (three pounds thirteen and six). Freud’s anal retentive qualities are all related to control, whether through keeping one’s space tidy and organized or controling the flow of their money. There are aspects of Bloom’s life that have spun totally out of his control. Focusing on something controllable like finance and economics (the art of “Calypso”) allows him to keep his mind calm as he navigates his daily duties.
Obstinacy, or stubbornness, is the attempt to maintain control when an outside force is trying to upset the established order, for better or worse. Bloom doesn’t strike me as a particularly stubborn man, but obstinacy can also mean sticking to a course of action beyond reason. In Bloom’s case, obstinacy can be seen in his denial of Molly’s infidelity. He knows what is going on between Blazes Boylan and Molly, but continually snaps his mind away every time it gets too close to that awful truth. Why doesn’t Bloom confront Molly or leave her altogether? It’s in part because he’s obstinately dug his heels in and refuses to move, regardless of what insult or indignity is flung his way. In “Calypso,” a letter addressed in Boylan’s bold handwriting to “Mrs Marion Bloom” arrives at the Blooms’ door. Back in 1904, such a letter customarily would be addressed to “Mrs Leopold Bloom.” Boylan isn’t being a feminist here – he’s consciously erasing Leopold from the equation as he reaches out to Molly. Bloom marks the insult but then hand-delivers the letter to Molly who quickly stuffs it beneath her pillow. She reads it at her leisure while Bloom is downstairs making her just-so breakfast.
So, we can confidently conclude that Bloom fits Freud’s anal retentive strereotype. Bloom’s anal fixation extends beyond a few personality quirks, however. We know that “melons” are Bloom’s code word for “butt,” more specifically Molly’s. While perusing the prospectus for Agendath Netaim, Bloom notices the planter’s company is offering to sell “Orangegroves and immense melonfields north of Jaffa” (emphasis mine). Through a bit of free association, this leads Bloom to reminisce about his friend Citron (sharing his name with a citrus fruit) and the nights the Blooms spent socialising with him, “Molly in Citron’s basketchair. Nice to hold, cool waxen fruit, hold in the hand, lift it to the nostrils and smell the perfume. Like that, heavy, sweet, wild perfume.” While citrons are lovely, waxen, and sweet-smelling, we can surmise Bloom is daydreaming about Molly’s melons this whole time.
To get completely literal, we don’t have to guess about Bloom’s relationship to his own defecation because he narrates it for us at the end of “Calypso.” As he sits down in the jakes (or outhouse), he eases into his morning poo with the thought, ““No great hurry. Keep it a bit.” (emphasis mine) He is explicitly thinking that he can hold his poo a bit as he sits there. This scene comes right on the heels of Bloom reading Milly’s letter in which she mentions being smitten with the student Bannon, as well as thinking of Mr. Boylan when she heard the song “Seaside Girls.” The letter left Bloom contemplating what I assume is any father’s least favorite topic – his teen daughter’s burgeoning sexuality. He knows that trying to slow her down is impossible, “Prevent. Useless: can’t move.” What he can control though is the flow of his own poo. He can’t keep Milly or Molly at bay, but he can keep his own poo in just a little before giving in:
Quietly he read, restraining himself, the first column and, yielding but resisting, 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 bring on piles again. No, just right. So. Ah! Costive one tabloid of cascara sagrada.
Bloom describes his defecation in the delicate, precise language he used to consider the various businesses in his neighborhood as we walked to Dlugacz’s to buy his kidney. Joyce does a masterful job here of folding Bloom’s assessment of the Titbits story into his assessment of his regularity. This description is consciously about Titbits, while its subsconscious is all poo, orderly but obstinate:
It did not move or touch him but it was something quick and neat…. He read on seated calm above his own rising smell. Neat certainly…. Begins and ends morally.
Freud believed that the qualities of anal retentiveness could be identified in adult homosexual men. Now is as good a time as any to point out that many of Freud’s assumptions were just that – assumptions based on his own opinions and experiences rather than evidence gained through the scientific method. It seems Freud’s conclusion here is based in stereotype and homophobia. I bring it up here because Joyce identified Bloom as having homosexual qualities, saying to Budgen, “You seen an undercurrent of homosexuality in Bloom… and no doubt you are right.” This remark was made in the context of Budgen wondering why Bloom didn’t intervene in Molly’s affair. Bloom is often portrayed as effeminate and nebbish, a stereotype of Jewish men as well as gay men. Joyce gave Bloom these characteristics as a way of depicting his alienation among the bolder, brasher men of Dublin, but that is only part of the story. Joyce saw these qualities in himself as well, seeing himself as a “womanly” man rather than a manly man. Bloom’s anal focus is an aspect of the mix of stereotype and Joyce’s self image that make up Bloom’s personality.
Bloom is associated with “receptive” sexuality throughout Ulysses, and since he doesn’t have a vagina, the focus shifts to his anus, subtly at first and then not subtly at all by the time we reach “Circe.” In “Calypso,” as Bloom waits in line to buy his kidney, he simultaneously lusts after the woman in front of him with the “vigorous hips” and Dlugacz’s last kidney. As she leaves, he imagines her canoodling in an alley with an off-duty police officer. She leaves the shop, but the sexual charge remains. Bloom pays for the kidney, and “his hand accepted the moist tender gland and slid it into his sidepocket.” It doesn’t take a Freudian to read between the lines there. Notice the pronouns: his hand, his sidepocket. After this “insertion” occurs, Bloom’s mind eases and turns again to thoughts of Agendath Netaim, nostalgia and darker things.
Another example from “Lestrygonians”: Bloom recalls a sexual encounter he and Molly had on Howth. Molly has a mouth full of seedcake, “Mawkish pulp her mouth had mumbled sweet and sour with spittle. Joy: I ate it: joy.” And then, “Hot I tongued her. She kissed me. I was kissed.” So, we see Molly transferring seedcake (symbolic semen) into the receptive mouth of Leopold. Notice the shifting voice in the sentences from the second excerpt. They begin with “I,” Leopold in an active role and then shift to passive voice and receptive role, “I was kissed.”
While Bloom’s passivity in dealing with Molly’s affair does cause him pain, taking on a more traditionally “feminine” role sexually does not afflict him. I don’t get the impression that Bloom is experiencing any moral qualms about his sexual interests or Molly’s more dominant role. Portraying Bloom, the man of the house, meticulously preparing his wife breakfast was surprising to readers at the time Ulysses was written in a way that I think it no longer is. In 2020, men’s roles in society have shifted just as women’s have, and gender roles have become increasingly blurred around the edges. Men who enjoy sexual submission, sexually powerful women, and the enjoyment of anal sex, regardless of sexual orientation, don’t always lead to shock and pearl-clutching to the degree they once did, at least among the younger generations.
Richard Ellmann, as paraphrased by Joseph Allen Boone, felt that Joyce used Bloom to deny and reject machismo and to construct a fully-formed hero that reflected his identity as a “womanly” man (Joyce’s term), a quality that set him apart from the masses. This outsider status is reinforced in Bloom’s untraditional sexual interests. Gerald Doherty wrote that the anus is at “the hinterland of the body politic,” and sexual acts that involve non-genital receptive body parts (the mouth, the anus) are representative of displacement and exile from society, both common themes throughout Joyce’s work. Oral and anal sex may be seen as degrading or oppressive acts, representing a loss of control and power. The receptive acts are traditionally associated with weakness or taboo – dominated women, or gay men. Inviting readers inside the mind of a male character who takes pleasure in supposedly female sexuality is quite subversive. In the 21st century, we can fall into the trap of believing all people in the past fall into a limited set of categories, thinking that back in the day “men were men,” but humans were just as varied and unpredictable in 1904 as they are now. Joyce wanted to see himself represented on the page – a feminine heterosexual man with interests outside the rather limited array of acceptable sexual practices.
Open exploration of sexuality and gender was a feature of the modernist style overall. Despite the openness of the period, wider acceptance of a novel like Ulysses was a hard fought battle, even in literary circles. In the early 20th century, speaking directly about the body, particularly its sexual and excretory functions, was incredibly taboo and simply not done in polite society. While proofreading “Calypso” for its publication in The Little Review, Ezra Pound urged that the scene of Leopold Bloom in the outhouse be obscured in an effort to “clean up” Ulysses for their readership. Ulysses was a “problem” not just because of its frankness about the body, but because it doesn’t draw clear delineations between its functions. It allows body parts to take on multiple functions – the anus can be a source of pleasure or pure utilitarian function or both. Such blurred lines were shocking to readers in 1922, and I suspect, to plenty in 2020. To me, the fact that Ulysses is so bold is what brings me back to this book again and again. It’s a book about weirdos written by a weirdo, and as a 21st century weirdo, it speaks to me. James Joyce set out to write a book that encompassed the whole of humanity, and I think he achieved it, top to bottom.
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Image source for Butt Bridge
Image source for Venus Callipygos in Naples
Image source for Perseus with the Head of Medusa