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Ulysses: At least read the rude bits of the ‘dirtiest thing ever written’

The impression of James Joyce as a gleeful muck-raker was only intensified by the novel

In the midst of the dream-like Circe episode of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom finds himself confronted by “THE SINS OF THE PAST” in the back room of a brothel on what is now Dublin’s Railway Street.

Figured as a chorus of scandalised voices, they accuse him of a litany of misdemeanours, including (but by no means limited to) graffitiing messages in public toilets “offering his nuptial partner to all strongmembered males”; encouraging “a nocturnal strumpet to deposit fecal and other matter in an unsanitary outhouse”; and telephoning “unspeakable messages” to a Miss Dunn of D’Olier Street while “presenting himself indecently to the instrument in the callbox”.

Attired in a “frock of punishment” and straddled by a burly dominatrix, he is ordered to account for himself: “Say! What was the most revolting piece of obscenity in all your career of crime? Go the whole hog. Puke it out! Be candid for once.”

As even this brief sample illustrates, James Joyce was a man who needed little encouragement to be candid. However, as the playfully self-indicting tone of this passage makes clear, Joyce was as aware as anyone that his willingness to “go the whole hog” could lead his work to be branded unsanitary, indecent, and, in the case of Ulysses, criminally obscene.

A century on from its publication, few literary texts are as highly regarded as Ulysses. Yet the novel’s reputation remains inextricably linked with its perceived capacity to shock. When introducing Ulysses to new readers, whether in a university lecture theatre or an article such as this one, it is customary to begin by noting its status as a succès de scandale: a novel so eye-watering that it was banned in the United States before it had even been issued in book form.

This begs several questions: Is Ulysses “dirty”? If so, in what ways and why? How did the impression of filthiness shape the novel’s reception? And, 100 years on, what questions does the novel continue to raise about notions of “dirt” and “purity” and their social, cultural and political ramifications?

So, is Ulysses a dirty book? Well, it depends what you mean by “dirty”.

Joyce catalogues and celebrates the full expressive range of his partner's fundament, boasting of his capacity to recognise her signature emissions even 'in a roomful of farting women'

If, as the anthropologist Mary Douglas (quoting William James) put it, “dirt” is whatever a given culture perceives to be “matter out of place”, then Ulysses certainly abounds in it: a blackened potato, discovered in a trouser pocket by the wandering hand of a sex worker (who mistakes it for a syphilitic chancre). An abstruse conversation about aesthetic philosophy, conducted in the middle of Dublin’s red-light district (“Pornosophical philotheology. Metaphysics in Mecklenburgh street!”). The contents of a workman’s bladder, unceremoniously released into a bucket of porter (later spotted in the hands of King Edward the Seventh, himself out of place – albeit very much at home – in the seedy back-streets of “nighttown”). These and myriad other objects, ideas and individuals circulate and (commodiously) recirculate throughout Ulysses, invariably winding up where they apparently shouldn’t belong, with often hilarious and “filthy” results.

Not purely academic

In the course of triangulating all this “matter out of place”, the novel asks pressing questions about the logic of that “belonging”. Which kinds of experience, modes of expression and categories of person are deemed “dirty” or contaminating? By whom? And on what basis?

What made these question so compelling for Joyce? Several aspects of his temperament and background seem relevant.

Most obviously, as even a cursory glance at the much-memed NSFW letters Joyce sent to his life partner and eventual wife, Nora Barnacle, will confirm, Joyce’s appreciation for filth was by no means purely academic.

Written in December 1909, while Joyce was in Dublin as part of a venture to establish the city’s first cinema and Nora was in Trieste looking after the children, the infamous correspondence offers a sustained insight into the author’s erotic imagination and its internal logic.

Like much of Joyce’s writing, the letters are structured around a juxtaposition of the spiritual and the fleshly, the elevated and the debased, the sacred and the profane.

In the space of a single sentence Joyce moves from praying “to the spirit of eternal beauty and tenderness” he finds mirrored in his beloved’s eyes, to declaring his intention to “fling [her] down” on her “soft belly” and “fuck [her] up behind, like a hog riding a sow”, “glorying in the very stink and sweat that rises from [her] arse”.

As this reference to the rich bouquet of Nora’s posterior suggests, the sound, scent and texture of human flatulence have seldom been as vividly evoked or systematically taxonomised as they are in Joyce’s letters of this period.

From “big fat fellows” and “long windy ones” to “quick little merry cracks” and “tiny little naughty farties ending in a long gush”, Joyce catalogues and celebrates the full expressive range of his partner’s fundament, boasting of his capacity to recognise her signature emissions even “in a roomful of farting women”.

At the same time, alongside this eroticised desire to juxtapose the “dirty” and the “clean” (if only to collapse or transgress the apparent opposition between them), Joyce also possessed a deep aversion to hypocrisy, particularly where the much-vaunted “purity” of the Irish was concerned.

When, in 1907, Joyce learned that his frenemy Oliver St John Gogarty had composed an article for Sinn Féin in which he denounced the British army as “more than half leprous with venereal excess”, Joyce was incensed. “Why,” he demanded in a letter to his brother, did nobody “compile statistics of ‘venereal excess’ from Dublin hospitals?” “The Irish consider England a sink: but,” Joyce retorted, “if cleanliness be important in this matter, what is Ireland?”

Had Joyce had access to the (admittedly limited) statistics, he would have seen his conviction borne out. Between 1900 and 1910, the Westmoreland Lock – the city’s only dedicated venereal disease hospital – played host to 1,202 women, while fully 3 per cent of consultations at Sir Patrick Dun’s dispensary between 1904 and 1908 concerned syphilis and gonorrhoea.

As these examples suggest, in the first decades of the 20th century, “Dear, Dirty Dublin” more than lived up to its name, and Joyce was perhaps uniquely equipped to document it.

Fascinating filth

What impact did this fascination with filth have on Joyce’s reputation and the reception of Ulysses?

While the letters to Nora were not published until 1975, Joyce’s passion for human excreta did not escape the notice of his literary peers, often informing the metaphors and analogies they used to characterise his work.

Reviewing A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in 1917, HG Wells influentially diagnosed Joyce with a “cloacal obsession”, emphasising the younger author’s desire to “bring back into the general picture of life aspects which modern drainage” had removed from circulation.

This impression of Joyce as a gleeful muck-raker was only intensified by the appearance of Ulysses.

Even DH Lawrence, whose Lady Chatterley’s Lover rivals Joyce’s novel for the title of the most scandalous book of the 1920s, found himself unable to stomach what he termed Joyce’s “olla putrida” (rotten pot): “Nothing but old fags and cabbage-stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest, stewed in the juice of deliberate, journalistic dirty-mindedness.”

In Lawrence’s view, the “last part” of Ulysses – Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy – was “the dirtiest, most indecent, obscene thing ever written”.

Sections of Ulysses once vaunted for their iconoclastic challenge to conservative sexual mores are now being scrutinised for their unbalanced power dynamics

Best known for its lack of punctuation and its rising succession of orgasmic affirmations (the Os and Yes-es which provide its internal structure), Penelope offers Molly’s earthy reflections on an array of traditionally “unspeakable” topics, from the uncomfortable girth of her singing manager and paramour, Hugh “Blazes” Boylan, (“that tremendous big red brute of a thing he has”), to the onset of her period (“O patience above its pouring out of me like the sea”).

The British legal establishment shared Lawrence’s opinion of Penelope. Like many readers before and since, confronted with a copy of the novel, the director of public prosecutions declared that he had “neither the time” nor “the inclination” to read Ulysses in its entirety, and turned immediately to its final chapter. Disgusted by what he found there (“a great deal of unmitigated filth” narrated by “a more or less illiterate vulgar woman”), he concluded that it should be suppressed without the publicity of a trial.

In making this determination, the DPP took his cue from a precedent set across the Atlantic, where the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice had successfully brought a case against the editors of the Little Review, the queer radicals Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, for publishing a section of the Nausicaa episode in which Bloom brings himself to climax on Sandymount Strand while watching a young woman called Gerty MacDowell lean back to expose herself. In February 1921, a court of special sessions fined the two women $100 (about €1,300 today) and prohibited them from publishing any more of Ulysses – a de-facto ban on the novel as a whole that would remain in effect until 1933.

Male gaze

In the light of this context, it is tempting to present the voyage of Ulysses from vilified “matter out of place” to valorised literary artefact as an uncomplicated triumph for free expression and progressive values, but certain caveats are necessary.

Feminist scholarship has long been divided on whether Molly’s monologue represents an exemplary instance of écriture feminine – a liberated and labile form of writing, grounded in women’s embodied experience and erotic drives – or a patronising and self-congratulatory feat of misogynistic ventriloquism.

Whatever one's perspective, it is clear that Joyce's writing continues to raise challenging questions about the representation of desire and the limits of the sayable

More recently, sections of Ulysses once vaunted for their iconoclastic challenge to conservative sexual mores are now being scrutinised for their unbalanced power dynamics and indulgence of the male gaze.

While Nausicaa may no longer be held to possess the power to “corrupt and deprave” the minds of those who read it, many readers are raising justifiable questions about the extent to which an episode in which a middle-aged man publicly masturbates while looking up a teenager’s skirt should be taken as the template for a liberated or liberating sexual politics.

Whatever one’s perspective, it is clear that Joyce’s writing continues to raise challenging questions about the representation of desire and the limits of the sayable.

Asking Nora to excuse the content of one of his letters in 1909, Joyce explained: “Some of it is ugly, obscene and bestial, some of it is pure and holy and spiritual: all of it is myself.”

The same might be said of Ulysses.

In its fascination not only with the apparently elevated, but also the seemingly debased, and its willingness to interrogate how and why we distinguish between the two, Ulysses remains one of the most rewardingly “dirty” books of all time.

So, as the novel enters its 100th year, why not “go the whole hog”? Or, at the very least, just leaf through the dirty bits. You won’t regret it.

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