Smut. James Joyce’s Ulysses first entered popular consciousness not as a literary masterpiece nor even as an obscure experimental novel but as smut, indecent and obscene. Even before the completed version of Ulysses appeared in book form in 1922 its reputation as pornography was already established. This was due to the publication, in 1920, of this year’s episode (Nausicaa) in the Little Review, a then little-known American literary magazine that published the work of modernist luminaries like Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and William Carlos Williams. The publication of the Nausicaa episode resulted in more than a decade of trials, convictions, challenges, book-burning, and, finally, an historic ruling that changed the face of publishing in the United States.
The Nausicaa episode takes its name from the beautiful Phaeacian princess in Book VI of Homer’s Odyssey who cares for the shipwrecked Odysseus after finding him washed up on the beach. Despite their evident mutual attraction, Odysseus is faithful to his wife, Penelope. In the final moments of what some consider the earliest example of unrequited love in literature, Nausicaa tells Odysseus to “remember me, for to me first thou owest the price of thy life.”
In the thirteenth episode of Ulysses we are introduced to Joyce’s Nausicaa: Gertrude “Gerty” Macdowell, one of three young women spending the early evening of June 16, 1904 at the beach watching a baby and twin four year old boys. Gerty is an attractive twenty-one year old with an active imagination and a burgeoning understanding of the effect her good looks have on both men and other women (she suspects her friends of being envious). The first half of the episode focuses on Gerty, detailing her thoughts in a narrative voice modeled after the precious, sentimental writing of romance magazines:
Had kind fate but willed her to be born a gentlewoman of high degree in her own right and had she only received the benefit of a good education Gerty Macdowell might easily have held her own beside any lady in the land and have seen herself exquisitely gowned with jewels on her brow and patrician suitors at her feet vying with one another to pay their devoirs to her. Mayhap it was this, the love that might have been, that lent to her softly featured face at whiles a look, tense with suppressed meaning, that imparted a strange yearning tendency to the beautiful eyes a charm few could resist.
As she sits with her friends fantasizing about suitors and marriage, Gerty becomes aware that she has an admirer, a man (whom the reader soon recognizes as Leopold Bloom, recently escaped from the violence of the Cyclops episode) sitting among some nearby rocks: “Yes, it was her he was looking at and there was meaning in his look. His eyes burned into her as though they would search her through and through, read her very soul.” Gerty enjoys the attention, casting Bloom as that most romantic of figures: the mysterious stranger. Their wordless flirtation escalates until it erupts in a crescendo of mock-orgasmic narration as Gerty leans back, giving Bloom a view of her undergarments while he masturbates in his pants.
When it appeared in the Little Review, Nausicaa immediately sparked controvsery among subscribers, one of whom condemned the episode as “damnable hellish filth from the gutter of a human mind born and bred in contamination.” Still, the episode would likely have remained a small-scale controversy were it not for the fact that a copy was delivered, apparently by mistake, to a teenage girl in New York. Scandalized by what his daughter had been sent, the girl’s father went to the authorities. Charges were filed against the Little Review’s editors, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap. At issue was the episode’s violation of The Comstock Act, a law passed in 1873 that criminalized the distribution by US mail of “every obscene, lewd, or lascivious, and every filthy book, pamphlet, picture, paper, letter, writing, print, or other publication of an indecent character.” Since the word “obscene” was (and remains) vague, the authorities were were given a standard for determining what constituted obscenity, the Hicklin Rule. That standard was ridiculously low, defining as obscene any work that might “deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences.” In other words, if a judge ruled that a publication contained a single word or phrase likely to corrupt a hypothetical individual who was easily corrupted, the entire work could be banned.
In the midst of the controversy an editorial appeared in the Little Review written by one of its co-editors, Jane Heap, in which she remarked upon the irony that they were being prosecuted for corrupting the thoughts of a young girl by “printing the thoughts in a young girl’s mind.” To Heap the chapter was no more than an honest and beautiful depiction of human life. The courts disagreed until until 1934 when Judge John Munro Woolsey finally lifted the ban on Ulysses, ruling that the Hicklin Rule was an unjust standard for determining what constituted an obscene work. In his historic decision Judge Woolsey wrote: “The words which are criticized as dirty are old Saxon words known to almost all men and, I venture, to many women, and would be naturally and habitually used by the types of folk whose life, physical and mental, Joyce is seeking to describe.” Or, as Jane Heap more acerbically put it in her editorial fourteen years earlier: “To a mind somewhat used to life Mr Joyce’s chapter seems to be a record of the simplest, most unpreventable, most unfocused sex thoughts possible in a richly-constructed, unashamed human being. Mr Joyce is not teaching early Egyptian perversions nor inventing new ones. Girls lean back everywhere . . .”
This year’s excerpt begins with Gerty and her friends enjoying some fireworks on the beach and includes the section that excited so much attention. As usual, I’ve included an audio clip of the excerpt from the 1982 RTÉ full-cast production of Ulysses. The best way to appreciate the music of Joyce’s writing is to hear it read aloud:
—It’s fireworks, Cissy Caffrey said.
And they all ran down the strand to see over the houses and the church, helterskelter, Edy with the pushcar with baby Boardman in it and Cissy holding Tommy and Jacky by the hand so they wouldn’t fall running.
—Come on, Gerty, Cissy called. It’s the bazaar fireworks.
But Gerty was adamant. She had no intention of being at their beck and call. If they could run like rossies she could sit so she said she could see from where she was. The eyes that were fastened upon her set her pulses tingling. She looked at him a moment, meeting his glance, and a light broke in upon her. Whitehot passion was in that face, passion silent as the grave, and it had made her his. At last they were left alone without the others to pry and pass remarks and she knew he could be trusted to the death, steadfast, a sterling man, a man of inflexible honour to his fingertips. His hands and face were working and a tremor went over her. She leaned back far to look up where the fireworks were and she caught her knee in her hands so as not to fall back looking up and there was no one to see only him and her when she revealed all her graceful beautifully shaped legs like that, supply soft and delicately rounded, and she seemed to hear the panting of his heart, his hoarse breathing, because she knew about the passion of men like that, hot-blooded, because Bertha Supple told her once in dead secret and made her swear she’d never about the gentleman lodger that was staying with them out of the Congested Districts Board that had pictures cut out of papers of those skirtdancers and highkickers and she said he used to do something not very nice that you could imagine sometimes in the bed. But this was altogether different from a thing like that because there was all the difference because she could almost feel him draw her face to his and the first quick hot touch of his handsome lips. Besides there was absolution so long as you didn’t do the other thing before being married and there ought to be women priests that would understand without your telling out and Cissy Caffrey too sometimes had that dreamy kind of dreamy look in her eyes so that she too, my dear, and Winny Rippingham so mad about actors’ photographs and besides it was on account of that other thing coming on the way it did.
And Jacky Caffrey shouted to look, there was another and she leaned back and the garters were blue to match on account of the transparent and they all saw it and shouted to look, look there it was and she leaned back ever so far to see the fireworks and something queer was flying about through the air, a soft thing to and fro, dark. And she saw a long Roman candle going up over the trees up, up, and, in the tense hush, they were all breathless with excitement as it went higher and higher and she had to lean back more and more to look up after it, high, high, almost out of sight, and her face was suffused with a divine, an entrancing blush from straining back and he could see her other things too, nainsook knickers, the fabric that caresses the skin, better than those other pettiwidth, the green, four and eleven, on account of being white and she let him and she saw that he saw and then it went so high it went out of sight a moment and she was trembling in every limb from being bent so far back he had a full view high up above her knee no-one ever not even on the swing or wading and she wasn’t ashamed and he wasn’t either to look in that immodest way like that because he couldn’t resist the sight of the wondrous revealment half offered like those skirt-dancers behaving so immodest before gentlemen looking and he kept on looking, looking. She would fain have cried to him chokingly, held out her snowy slender arms to him to come, to feel his lips laid on her white brow the cry of a young girl’s love, a little strangled cry, wrung from her, that cry that has rung through the ages. And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O!O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lively! O so soft, sweet, soft!
Then all melted away dewily in the grey air: all was silent. Ah! She glanced at him as she bent forward quickly, a pathetic little glance of piteous protest, of shy reproach under which he coloured like a girl. He was leaning back against the rock behind. Leopold Bloom (for it is he) stands silent, with bowed head before those young guileless eyes. What a brute he had been! At it again? A fair unsullied soul had called to him and, wretch that he was, how had he answered? An utter cad he had been. He of all men! But there was an infinite store of mercy in those eyes, for him too a word of pardon even though he had erred and sinned and wandered. Should a girl tell? No, a thousand times no. That was their secret, only theirs, alone in the hiding twilight and there was none to know or tell save the little bat that flew so softly through the evening to and fro and little bats don’t tell.
Cissy Caffrey whistled, imitating the boys in the football field to show what a great person she was: and then she cried:
—Gerty! Gerty! We’re going. Come on. We can see from farther up.
Gerty had an idea, one of love’s little ruses. She slipped a hand into her kerchief pocket and took out the wadding and waved in reply of course without letting him and then slipped it back. Wonder if he’s too far to. She rose. Was it goodbye? No. She had to go but they would meet again, there, and she would dream of that till then, tomorrow, of her dream of yester eve. She drew herself up to her full height. Their souls bet in a last lingering glance and the eyes that reached her heart, full of a strange shining, hung enraptured on her sweet flowerlike face. She half smiled at him wanly, a sweet forgiving smile, a smile that verged on tears, and then they parted.