James Joyce, an avid reader, was also a severe and unflinching critic of the literature of his day. In his obituary in the New York Times they remarked that “conceit and arrogance were his characteristics. When he first met Yeats he remarked:
“We have met too late; you are too old to be influenced by me.””
Joyce was not just immersed in creating for himself the role and persona of artist, but found the prospect liberating from the extreme poverty and oppressive societal norms he was escaping from back home. The arrogance was both an act and somewhat real. He believed in himself and his own substantial gifts, but also was frequently faced with writers and artists from social classes far above his own. He needed to cultivate some bravado, and believed that his art would flow from living a life of freedom and unhindered artistic expression.
So he went on the offensive a bit, but his criticisms are wittily expressed and I think true to himself. He loved Ibsen and Dante and Shakespeare and was not trying to manufacture opinions about the literature of his time (or recent past) just to appear clever. He was clever! He spoke seven languages and wrote Ulysses!
In this and the following Episode, Oxen of the Sun, we have, among other things, Joyce’s commentary on literature. Here in Episode 13 a romantic interlude is depicted by a highly sentimental narrator.
We’re back at Sandymount Strand, where Stephen was brooding all the way back in Episode 3. It is now dusk and Bloom comes upon three young women, Gerty MacDowell, Edy Boardman and Cissy Caffrey out for an early evening’s excursion at the beach to watch the planned fireworks with three children in tow, the sons and brother of Cissy and Edy, respectively. Gerty is dreaming of romance. A child’s ball rolls to Bloom and he kicks it back, gaining Gerty’s attention as her day-dreams wander to him as subject and a real-life flirtation begins.
Gerty shows a bit of leg, and Bloom, in thrall as a voyeur and fantasist himself, masturbates in rhythm with the explosion of a nearby roman candle. That’s it, pretty much, but was enough to cause the banning of Ulysses in the U.S. By today’s standards, literary or otherwise, the “masturbation scene” was all fairly innocuous:
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!
The 1920 publication of the Nausica episode in the Little Review started the first trial of Ulysses as the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice initiated a prosecution under the state’s obscenity law.
“Nausicaa” was ruled obscene, the female editors of the Little Review were fined, and Ulysses was banned in the United States, preventing its full publication there for the next decade. Joyce had yet to finish writing the entire book, so later on as we move into Oxen and Circe, the triplets chapters, we get his direct commentary on the whole sanctimonious business.
Mid-way through Nausicaa, Gerty departs to find her friends. Perhaps the ejaculating Bloom was not in keeping with her fantasies. Bloom’s wandering psyche takes center page once more as they narrative shifts to his perspective as he ponders the nature of women, and thinks again of Molly’s tryst with Boylan as he delays returning home: I am a fool perhaps. He gets the plums and I the plumstones.
There is a weariness here to Bloom and he writes letters in the sand and the narrative shifts again to a third person objective as Bloom tosses the stick he was writing with into the sea.