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Composting Composition: Joyce’s Cosmic Shit and the Art of Detritus

Related topics:

Creation and Making
Ingestion and Excretion
Irish History Transformed
Language and Linguistics

If the purpose of a novel is to tell a story, then Ulysses could have been written in well under a hundred pages, during which a man would leave his house in the morning without his key, attend a funeral, a birth, a library, and a brothel, meet a similarly keyless man, and return home with his new acquaintance to his unfaithful wife. This is the story of the novel; everything else—the catalogues, the musings, the stylistic indulgences—is just waste. Of course, with such a mundane plot, it is through this "waste" that the text becomes interesting, astoundingly complex, and, as any reader knows, incredibly frustrating. Beyond its metaphoric presence as a narrative device, waste features heavily in the novel in its many literal physical forms. Indeed, Ulysses is a feast of the abject. Joyce treats us to the very sights, sounds, and smells that modern western society has long begged us to ignore: from urine, to corpses, to rotting cheese, to of course, shit. The human aversion to waste that Joyce's "cloacal obsession" highlights is both natural and irrational; we fear the process of decay and death, yet it is the inevitable condition of all living things. Thus, Joyce uses waste to mediate the material reality of individual existence with the universal flows by which it is carried and eventually subsumed. By confronting the baseness of existence, the dirty details of the body, and all that is rendered detritus by time, Joyce replants decay into the cycle of growth and elimination into the cycle of production, elevating the waste of Ulysses to a level of epic and cosmic significance.

In a review of Ulysses for the The New Republic, H.G. Wells declared that James Joyce had a "cloacal obsession," and his word choice is apt in describing the novel's treatment of waste as flow. A cloaca is a sewer or privy, but takes as its root the Latin verb cluo, meaning "to cleanse." Indeed, though we tend to think of it as the dregs of life, in Ulysses waste circulates constantly through bodies, whether of flesh, water, land, or pipes. Joyce's shit does not heap, it streams.

No character revels more in the flux of waste than Leopold Bloom, whose introduction in "Calypso" proceeds with the alimentary grace of a bowel movement. We begin with a nod to ingestion, the "inner organs of beasts and fowls" that Bloom eats "with relish" (U 4.1). Bloom leaves to get his breakfast, returns to prepare and eat it, then retires to the privy for a pleasant elimination. En route he considers his garden and the different types of manure that would make it grow more lushly, then goes to produce some of his own. Throughout the novel, Bloom's mind moves with this same digestive regularity; he absorbs the sights, sounds, and smells of Dublin, and his thoughts flow naturally from his senses. Moreover, Bloom reasons with exceptional balance, and he cannot think of one thing without at least considering its opposite. As the narrator of "Cyclops" so aptly says, Bloom's equanimous outlook can unnerve in its refusal to stay still, in its constant ebb and flow of "but don't you see? and but on the other hand" (U 12.514-15). Often, his thoughts revolt and refresh in equal measure: at Paddy Dignam's funeral, Bloom ponders death as a cannibalistic cycle of nature, in which a "fat corpse" is "invaluable for [a] fruit garden" (U 6.772), mere "ordinary meat" for the rats that feed on it (U 6.981-2). However, while Bloom's refusal to sentimentalize death renders base and grotesque a ceremony meant for solemnity, it also imaginatively resurrects Dignam from death's finality. Rather than resigning Dignam to an afterlife of the soul, Bloom reintegrates him into the soil. He sees that "in the midst of death we are in life. Both ends meet," and finds resurrection in the cellular turnover of decay, through which one can "live for ever practically" (U 6.759-820).

Bloom's comfort with the waste and flows of everyday life stands in stark contrast to the discomfort of Stephen, who is mired in his own head. He is in the prime of life but haunted by his mother's death, an artist halted by his inability to produce creatively, and an Aesthete who attempts to understand and perfect the material world through symbols only to see them "disintegrate in the face of life" (Harkness 124). Ironically, Stephen's attempt to avoid the baseness and decay of the material world causes him to waste his life and his talent. This is exemplified by Stephen's hydrophobia: he sees flowing water and the sea as "tides of filth" (qtd. In Brienza 120), yet his refusal to bathe and drink water make him, in admittedly unkind terms, a dirty alcoholic. He "[distrusts] aquacities of thought and language" (U 11.240), and thus he is stagnant. Susan Brienza points out that Stephen is at his most creative in the aquatic environment of "Proteus" (U 3), where his walk by the sea inspires him to compose a poem, after which he urinates. In recognizing that "streams of water are bodily fluids, are words themselves—the stuff of life," Stephen has, if only in this episode, discovered the link between art and the material world (Brienza 118). Where before his aesthetic orthodoxy made waste profane, he is able to produce art only when he recognizes that "elimination means creation rather than sin" (121).

In addition to employing waste flow as an aesthetic trope, Joyce also uses it to tie Ulysses into the historicity of Dublin. Like Stephen, Joyce is faced with the task of mediating "between word and world," of reconciling the fact that "the work of art is both deeply implicated in the historic moment and asserts a critical difference from it" (Freedman 853). Ariela Freedman argues that Joyce uses water and waste flow to assert that "nothing comes from nothing" in art and in life (864). She points to the passage in "Ithaca" where the question "Did it flow?" is answered by tracing the water's route back through the pipes and to its reservoir of origin (U 17.163-82). Joyce uses history much in the same way, constantly exploring the literary and social lineages from which his narrative flows. Consider "Oxen of the Sun" (U 14), wherein the ardor of labor is mirrored by the birth of the Western canon. Though Ulysses is a modernist text unlike any that preceded it, it could not exist without the body of work from which it departs. Though Joyce's elaborately sourced text often seems filled with narrative waste, it is this waste that allows the text to transcend its aesthetic singularity. Just as water magically flowing from the tap would deny the reality of its source, so too would a modernist novel that failed to acknowledge its predecessors.

When waste transcends, the process is not seamless. Though Ulysses uses waste to blur the distinction between the material and the universal, elimination and creation, it is crucial that Joyce nevertheless relies on this distinction to imaginatively transcend it. In other words, for Joyce's shit to enter the cosmos, it has to stink first. In his work on social attitudes surrounding excrement, Stephen Greenblatt finds that disgust is less a natural reaction to filth than it is a cultural tool, a conditioned response in which individual and group identities are founded on "points of perceived difference" by which one differentiates oneself from an "other" (3). Greenblatt and others point to the celebration of the grotesque in Francois Rabelais, famously studied by Mikhail Bakhtin, as a gleeful antidote to the unnatural societal repression of waste.

However, in her survey of the "excremental visions" that informed Joyce's work, Kelly Anspaugh pushes against this wholly positive discourse on waste. Though most contemporary Joyce criticism posits his cloacal obsession as an optimistic Rabelaisian attempt to liberate the body with its functions, Anspaugh argues that Joyce "consistently thematizes the trouble...of coprophilic tendencies" and "underscores the dark side of excrementality" (6). She refers to Julia Kristeva's notion of the abject, defined as a "jettisoned object [which] is radically excluded" and thus "draws [one] toward the place where meaning collapses" (Anspaugh 7). Just as disgust is a necessary tool for cultural individuation, so too does Joyce need to problematize the abject in order to sublimate it into the universal. As an author, Joyce acts as the "deject," or the subject who willfully attaches himself to the abject in order to accomplish this sublimation. The author, then, does not create by conjuring, but by building something new out of the world's detritus, an alchemy of digestion. In "Proteus" (U 3) Stephen is able to create only after he acknowledges the surrounding weight of history and decay, which become Stephen's material from which to create: "He makes the dead weight of decay and of the past into his 'steppingstones' out of the houses of decay themselves" (Caraher 200). Anspaugh stresses, however, that Joyce was deeply ambivalent to the possibility of such transcendence, and his attempts to achieve it are just as often stricken with doubt. In "Oxen of the Sun," for example, the narrative is able to extract itself from the waste of history only to descend into the chaos of the present (U 14).

Indeed, it would be decidedly un-Joycean to use his cloacal obsession to neatly relieve the very anxiety of decay that it represents. We can see the entropy of form not only in the physical and historical waste of the narrative, but also in the decomposition of language itself. Henry Staten finds that the novel parallels the decay of language and of the body to mimetically enact how composition and decomposition are simultaneous processes. Staten presents onomatopoeia as a figure for "the abyss into which mimesis falls" (381), whereby the singular mark of an object, the Aristotelian eidos, or what Joyce calls "the [signature] of all things," is rendered into language (U 3.2). Consider the novel's famous "Mrkgnao," which both approximates a cat's noise far more accurately than the standard "meow," and calls attention to the ludicrousness of this attempt (U 4.32). In order to imitate the "phenomenal form" of sound, the onomatopoeic project must arrest and deconstruct that form (382). Thus, in trying to achieve autonomy from the medium of language, onomatopoeia reasserts its limitations. Like the soul, sound and thought are without tangible form, and thus must surrender their spontaneity to a vital substance in order to be legible. In other words, the "ineluctable modality" of the universal is embodiment, and the decay of perception (U 3.1, et al).

Rather than attempting to transcend waste by exalting or ignoring it, Ulysses bogs itself down in the muck of materiality. In a piece appropriately titled "Mired in the Universal," Evan Horowitz argues that Ulysses becomes the "meeting-place of the mundane and the transcendent" by immersing itself in the particulars and "bare materiality" of life in Dublin (870). Think of the discovery of the atom and later, subatomic particles, which shed new light on the universal nature of all matter by reducing it to its barest elements. The modernist text works much the same way; by dissolving a perceived whole into a disorder of arbitrary parts, the novel achieves universality. To illustrate this device, Horowitz focuses on two catalogues in Ulysses: the first, Bloom's wondrous, page-long ode to water in "Ithaca" (U 17.183-228), and the second a list of Irish heroes in "Cyclops" (U 12.176-199). The former is a "catalog of catalogs," one which works by "piling things up until they cease to seem like things" (878). It is only in skimming the chaos that we divine the list's greater organizing principle. Though in answering what Bloom loves about water, the catalog straightforwardly lists first "its universality," the list achieves this universality only through its subsequent deluge of elements (U 17.185).

However, Horowitz points out that Joyce's catalogues can also work in the opposite way, against comprehensiveness. He cites the "Cyclops" list, which sabotages its purported category of "Irish heroes" by including many ridiculous non-Irish and non-heroic figures, to illustrate how particulars can just as often remain formless and chaotic if they seem to lack any meaningful category. Where the deluge of water's forms pointed to its universality, the list of great Irish heroes collapses into a pile of names. By showing how dense catalogues of the ordinary can either "explode into the universal" or "[implode] into nothingness" (Horowitz 879-80), Joyce achieves the alchemy of modernism, wherein a text can both "court chaos and produce totality" (884).

In Ulysses, the rot of death is the stuff of life. When Leopold Bloom shits, he is not merely eliminating waste; he is participating in the cycle of growth and decay, through which the singular individual is dissolved back into the cosmic chaos from which he grew. When Stephen Dedalus pees on Sandymount Beach, he bridges the aesthetic gap to join the flow of history and the creative process. And when James Joyce writes a 700-page novel about a single mundane day in the lives of a washed-up hydrophobe, a middle-aged coprophile, and his farty, supine wife, he is not wasting his ink. Rather, he is composing a modernist text from the compost heap of existence. Joyce recognizes that his project, like the material world, cannot be at once a thing and everything; complete transcendence of materiality also demands a complete surrender of thingness. Nevertheless, though Joyce may never see his shit reach the cosmos, he is able to glimpse its universality flowing, stinking, molding, and growing upward from the earth in which it is planted.

Citations and Related Sources

Anspaugh, Kelly. "Ulysses Upon Ajax? Joyce, Harington, and the Question of ‘Cloacal Imperialism’." South Atlantic Review 60, no. 2 (May 1, 1995): 11–29.
Brienza, Susan. "Krapping Out: Images of Flow and Elimination as Creation in Joyce and Beckett." Re: Joyce’n Beckett. Ed. Phyllis Carey and Ed Jewinski. New York: Fordham UP (1992): 117–46
Caraher, Brian G. "A Question of Genre: Generic Experimentation, Self-Composition, and the Problem of Egoism in Ulysses." ELH 54, no. 1 (April 1, 1987): 183–214.
Freedman, Ariela. "Did It Flow?: Bridging Aesthetics and History in Joyce’s Ulysses." Modernism/modernity 13, no. 1 (2006): 853–868.
Greenblatt, Stephen. "Filthy Rites." Daedalus 111, no. 3 (July 1, 1982): 1–16.
Harkness, Marguerite. The Aesthetics of Dedalus and Bloom. Cranbury, NJ: Bucknell University Press, 1984.
Horowitz, Evan Cory. "Ulysses: Mired in the Universal." Modernism/modernity 13, no. 1 (2006): 869–887.
Staten, Henry. "The Decomposing Form of Joyce’s Ulysses." PMLA 112, no. 3 (May 1, 1997): 380–392.

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