“On the doorstep he felt in his hip pocket for the latchkey. Not there. In the trousers I left off. Must get it. Potato I have. Creaky wardrobe. No use disturbing her.” Ulysses, p. 57
The episodes “Calypso” and “Telemachus” correspond roughly to the same point in Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus’ day – 8:00 A.M., breakfast hour. The beginning of their stories overlap in many ways, including that both Stephen and Bloom leave home that morning without their key. Stephen’s is “usurped” by Buck Mulligan, while Bloom’s is absentmindedly forgotten. A relatable mistake to most folks – he changes his trousers for a funeral, but neglects to transfer all the contents, leaving his latchkey in the other pair. However, he is unwilling to go back upstairs and disturb a dozing Molly, and so he leaves to buy his kidney without the latchkey to the front door of his Ithaca. However, Bloom idiosyncratically remembers a seemingly odd and insignificant item – a shriveled, black potato. A peculiar and impractical object to carry in a pocket it would seem, but Bloom thinks as he leaves for Dlugacz’s “Potato I have.” Why in the world would a grown man carry a dried-out, old spud in his pocket?
Bloom refers to his potato as an heirloom and a talisman in, while Stuart Gilbert referred to it as a “mascot.” It might more appropriately be termed an amulet, an object charged with protective power. The potato reveals its presence in Bloom’s pocket when he needs protection from a passing Blazes Boylan in “The Lestrygonians” and against violence, drunkenness and immorality in “Circe.” It’s often likened to the moly Odysseus carries in The Odyssey to resist the witch Circe’s magic, protecting Bloom against Nighttown’s malign influence until it is taken from him by Zoe the prostitute. Early on in “Circe,” for instance, the potato protects Bloom from being flattened by a passing trolley. Thus spake Bloom, “On the hands down. Insure against street accident too. The Providential. (He feels his trouser pocket.) Poor mamma’s panacea.”
“Poor mama’s panacea” indeed. We learn in “Circe” that the potato was given to Bloom by his late mother Ellen as “Preservative against Plague and Pestilence.” Bloom informs us in the same episode that “Sir Walter Raleigh brought from the new world that potato… a killer of pestilence by absorption.…” In “Oxen of the Sun,” the potato also gets a shoutout as “Spud against the rheumatiz”. In Bloom’s era, carrying a dried potato was indeed a folk remedy against rheumatism. Take for instance the following passage from an 1899 book entitled Plant and Animal Lore:
“I have myself known of more than one intelligent person trying, half in jest, half in earnest, this popular charm for the cure of rheumatism. Sometimes the same potato is carried for years in the pocket of a rheumatic person. Naturally, as the potato dries, it grows hard. Many believe this is owing to the absorption of the disease. As the potato becomes stiff and hard, it is supposed the muscles or joints of the sufferer will grow pliable and limber.” [emphasis mine]
(You can see images of University of Oxford’s collection of Victorian therapeutic potatoes here.)
I don’t know that James Joyce read Plant and Animal Lore, but there are so many details here that match Bloom’s potato. It is described in “Circe” as “a hard black shrivelled potato,” and he has, in fact, kept it in his pocket for years. The word “absorption” really jumps out to me here, as it is the same word that Bloom uses when describing Sir Walter Raleigh’s potatoes – “a killer of pestilence by absorption.” “Absorption” feels like the kind of science-y term that Bloom would be drawn to, even when describing a practice totally unsupported by science. There’s no indication in Ulysses that Bloom is suffering from rheumatism, but he dutifully carries its remedy anyway. His potato is indeed a panacea, then, protecting him from a variety of non-specific, mostly non-medical, threats (such as trolleys). If not rheumatism, what does ail our dear Mr. Bloom?
Potatoes have been associated with fertility since ancient times in the Andes. This symbolism carried on after potatoes were established as a staple crop in Europe, in part because population booms tended to follow potato cultivation. This isn’t necessarily because of any aphrodisiacal qualities of the humble spud (though I suppose there is something sexy about a well-prepared potato), but because they are a particularly nutritious root vegetable, allowing peasant farmers to nourish themselves more wholly and, as a result, have more children.
We can take Bloom’s potato as a pocket-sized fertility totem, then. Fertility is something the Blooms struggle with because they haven’t had much sex since their infant son Rudy died. Leopold’s inability to produce a son has become an enormous psychological burden on him and Molly, causing the rift in their marriage. The potato might serve as a nagging reminder of Bloom’s self-imposed infertility, an heirloom of his defeated masculinity. However, I tend to think that rather than absorbing rheumatism from his joints, perhaps the potato absorbs the guilt, shame and humiliation that Bloom carries over his perceived inadequacy as a husband and a man. It shelters him from the hard truths of his life.
The potato as fertility totem is most clear in “Circe,” where Bloom meets a sex worker named Zoe. She flirts with him, asking about the “hard chancre” in his trousers. (Is that a potato, Mr. Bloom, or are you just happy to see me?) Bloom tells her it’s just his potato, calling it “a talisman. Heirloom.” She asks if she can have the potato. Bloom gives it to her, and “she puts the potato greedily into a pocket, then links his arm, cuddling him with supple warmth.” Then pandemonium for Bloom, more or less. Bloom finally asks for the potato to be returned, explaining, “It is nothing, but still a relic of poor mamma…. There is a memory attached to it. I should like to have it.”
Though he has found himself in a brothel, Bloom seems disconnected from and uninterested in the usual sorts of things that go on there. This could be a sign of his passive, even feminine, nature or his refusal to take revenge against Molly’s infidelity. It would seem, though, that Bloom’s potato takes one for the team here. His little fertility symbol passes from him to Zoe, is concealed upon her person for a time and then returned in a symbolic sex act. The potato has protected Bloom from danger – betraying Molly physically or contracting God-knows-what kind of disease. By regaining control of his potato, and by extension his sexuality, Bloom is able to do one of the most heroic and manly things he does the whole day – delivering Stephen from evil in Nighttown.
The potato also serves as a link to Bloom’s Jewish heritage. In Gifford and Seidman’s famous annotation of Ulysses, the potato is identified as, “A talisman, symbolic of the continuity of life and, in Jewish tradition, a central dish in the ritual meal after a funeral.” However, it’s unclear where this reference originated, and the annotators do not reveal their source. Joyce scholar Hugh Kenner suggests instead that Bloom’s potato acts as a mezuzah for Dublin’s least observant Jew. A mezuzah is a bit of parchment containing the text of Deuteronomy 6:4–9 and 11:13–21, enclosed in a decorative case and nailed to the doorpost of Jewish homes.
Bloom takes a moment to contemplate the mezuzah in “Nausicaa”, though he confuses them with tefillin: “And the tephilim no what’s this they call it poor papa’s father had on his door to touch. That brought us out of the land of Egypt and into the house of bondage. Something in all those superstitions because when you go out never know what dangers.” Jews traditionally touch the mezuzah as they cross over the threshold. Bloom does the same with his potato as he passes through his doorway to buy his breakfast kidney: “On the doorstep he felt in his hip pocket for the latchkey. Not there. In the trousers I left off. Must get it. Potato I have.” We learn, then, that while Bloom has a scientific, analytical mind, he is not totally averse to superstitions. Bloom is too areligious to attach a mezuzah to his door, or to even remember what it’s called, and doesn’t seek the blessing from God that it might offer. But again, while he forgets his latchkey, he remembers to carry his potato and instinctively touches it for whatever magic protection it might bestow.
Potatoes were not always highly regarded as a foodstuff, despite their nutritional content. They were viewed with suspicion as a member of the deadly nightshade family. For others, potatoes were just a bit too blasphemous. Scottish Presbyterians, for example, initially refused to grow or eat potatoes because they aren’t mentioned in the Bible. A few lean years eventually changed their minds. As their cultivation became widespread in Europe, potatoes were simply dismissed as peasant food. European Jews also turned to potatoes in times of need during food shortages in the 19th century, consuming potatoes at a higher rate than Gentiles. Even though potatoes were viewed as lowly food, the Jews already occupied a low social position, so they embraced the potato, qualities shared with the Irish. The potato’s lowly status also has a religious component. Pricier wheat can be baked into bread, which can be consecrated and transubstantiated into the body of Christ through the ritual of the Catholic Mass. The potato is unable to share such an exalted position, and thus metaphysically remains a meal fit for a peasant.
Bloom is not immune to potato prejudice. We see it in his thoughts as he considers a bedraggled Dilly Dedalus in “Lestrygonians,” imagining her subsisting on a diet of “potatoes and marge, marge and potatoes.” While there’s no debate that the Dedalus children are undernourished, it’s clear enough that it wasn’t only the poorest Dubliners who ate potatoes. Bloom hears an order for “roasted and mash” in the Burton before he is driven out in disgust. In “Sirens,” Bloom himself orders (but doesn’t eat) his own mashed potatoes – “in liver gravy Bloom mashed mashed potatoes.” The Burton and the Ormond are streets ahead of the mou en civet that Stephen recalls choking down in Paris; these are restaurants where the middle class dine on creamy, delicious mashed potatoes.
Of course, the potato has played a large role both materially and symbolically in the history of Ireland. Prior to the Famine of the 1840’s, the potato was not just a staple crop of the Irish peasant, but the only crop that tenant farmers grew. This monoculture was mandated by the colonial government in part because potatoes are exceptionally nutritious and fairly cheap to grow. Growing potatoes meant that tenant farmers would produce higher yields for less money, and this larger output meant that landlords could raise their rents as well. One reason the Famine was so devastating was that potatoes were the only crop being grown throughout much of Ireland and one of the only things that peasant farmers had to eat. The nutrient-rich potato that had sustained the Irish economy and a growing population was also the cause of massive depopulation due to both starvation and emigration. The potato, then, acts as a symbol of betrayal, as well as the Famine.
One must wonder at the cognitive dissonance of carrying a potato as a protector against pestilence in a country devastated in living memory by potato blight and famine. In “Nestor”, Mr. Deasy told Stephen straight out, “I remember the famine.” Bloom’s mother Ellen would have been alive during the Famine, as well. The distance in years between 1904 and the worst of the Famine is a similar distance between 2020 and the Kennedy assassination, to put it in American terms. Bloom’s generation are the children of Famine survivors, so it is likely his heirloom potato held a different significance for his mother. His potato is described as shrivelled and black. While therapeutic potatoes tended to shrivel as they dried out, they didn’t necessarily turn black. The potatoes destroyed by the blight in the 1840’s did turn black and rotten, however. A black potato holds a strong connection to the Famine, then.
It’s possible that Ellen Bloom carried the potato as not only a panacea, but also as a grim symbol of the famine years or as a symbol of the survival of the Irish people despite so much hardship. Perhaps it stood as a protector against another famine. In any case, Leopold Bloom has a much more sentimental attachment to his desiccated talisman. “It is nothing, but still a relic of poor mamma,” he says in “Circe.” “There is a memory attached to it. I should like to have it.” The use of the term “relic” is interesting as Catholic relics are often small pieces of the bodies of saints, often thought to have curative powers. Still, it’s a sanitized relic, lacking in spiritual potency but rich in memory. The potato could be a relic of the body of Mother Ireland, but I think for Bloom it just reminds him of Mom. Grappling with the grim reality of the nightmare of history may be the only way to break free from its influence, though neither Bloom nor Stephen accomplish this on June 16th. At the microcosmic level, directly addressing and working through the “nightmare” of the Blooms’ marriage is the way to begin healing their relationship, but neither is ready to take a step in that direction.
The potato is lowly, humble and unassuming, not totally different from Mr. Bloom in some ways. It’s dismissed as common and brushed aside by fancy people, but its deeper qualities make it the glue that holds society together. The potato’s ancestors, like Bloom’s, came from abroad and made a home in Ireland. I suppose it’s fitting then that our Irish-Jewish Everyman should use a potato as a mezuzah. While it can occupy lofty symbolic perches throughout Ulysses, to Bloom, the potato is a personal symbol rather than a greater, cultural symbol. Whether or not it holds curative powers or can absorb the nightmare of history, it represents to Bloom something that even children can understand – amor matris, a mother’s love.
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