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Happy Bloomsday!  The entirety of James Joyce’s great magnum opus Ulysses takes place on one day, June 16th, 1904.  Thus June 16th is forever celebrated as sacred to Joyce enthusiasts (and to those who esteem the English language and the Irish people).

If you have ever tried to write about Ulysses, you will recognize that it is problematic to grapple with the great tome since it touches deeply on most aspects of Western history, art, science, culture, law, and letters (to say nothing of the fundamental social and existential dilemmas which lie at the heart of both the novel and human endeavors).  As in life, these themes are tangled together in such a way that pulling at any thread disgorges a mass of seemingly disconnected narrative and philosophical threads which are actually a single thread…which is everything. Good luck writing a pithy blog post about THAT.

Fortunately there is a miniature odyssey within the greater book which we can concentrate on.  It is even appropriate to this year of desperate washing…and the tiny story does indeed echo the novel’s great theme of pleasure (and human beings’ secret lifetime pursuit thereof…even as they desperately and performatively pretend to be engaged in loftier pursuits).

In Chapter 5 (“Lotus Eaters”) The book’s hero Bloom is killing time before a funeral.  He reads an amorous letter from a secret correspondent, ducks into a church to listen to a bit of Catholic mass, and stops at the chemist’s to order some lotion for his wife.  While at the shop he spontaneously purchases a bar of lemon soap while he thinks about drugs, baths, and flesh.

The clunky bar of lemon soap goes with Bloom the rest of the day (and it is some day!).  He wraps it in a newspaper. He sits on it uncomfortably at the funeral.  He moves it from his hip pocket to his handkerchief pocket as he escapes the underworld the cemetery.  At lunch he fumbles through his pocket and comes across it and moves it to another pocket. Later, at the tavern, it becomes wet (from sweat or potables?) and he is concerned that he smells like lemons.  At sunset, after his…episode… on the beach Bloom worries about his failure to go back and collect his wife’s lotion and pay the four pence he owes for the soap.

At the novel’s climax in the “Circe” chapter, the soap exploits the crazed magical transmogrifications of the bordello to temporarily gain the power of speech. It ascends to the apex of heaven as the sun (complete with the freckled visage of the pharmacist):

BLOOM: I was just going back for that lotion whitewax, orangeflower water. Shop closes early on Thursday. But the first thing in the morning. (He pats divers pockets.) This moving kidney. Ah!

(He points to the south, then to the east. A cake of new clean lemon soap arises, diffusing light and perfume.)

THE SOAP:

We’re a capital couple are Bloom and I.
He brightens the earth. I polish the sky.

(The freckled face of Sweny, the druggist, appears in the disc of the soapsun.)

The soap even gets opened and used for handwashing in Bloom’s elegiac penultimate chapter which explains everything with diagrammatic clinical precision (indeed we learn that this is ” a partially consumed tablet of Barrington’s lemonflavoured soap, to which paper still adhered, (bought thirteen hours previously for fourpence and still unpaid for).” Molly even thinks about soap in her own chapter (as a young woman, she had her own trademark Albion milk and sulphur soap which Bloom had used to wash ink off his hands as a courting pretext.

That’s some journey for a little bar of soap! But why am I writing about this? Why did Joyce write about this?  As you can imagine critics have come up with various answers.

Marxist literary critics even assigned a central role to the bar of soap. In their telling, capitalist society fetishizes commodities in such a way that  take on a meaning greater than human life.  They might be on to something: if you look this soap up on the internet, you will find many opportunities to buy a bar for yourself long before you find essays like this one which discuss what the soap’s journey means.

Yet in obsessing about the cruel goad which we have made for ourselves with labor, the Marxists miss the beguiling carrot which draws us onwards.  The soap is a little pleasure.  It was purchased because of its delightful smell, and even though it is always in the way, Bloom keeps it with him, moving it from pocket to pocket and worrying about it.

Bloom’s perspectives about his little bar of soap are always changing.  He worries about how it makes others perceive him. He worries about paying for it.  It is uncomfortable at points…and yet

…the soap has a use value.  It dissolves in order to make you clean. It speaks to the sacred and transformative pleasure of bathing (which is as central a theme in The Odyssey as it is in Ulysses). More to the point, the soap represents an idea of private & luxurious pleasure (Bloom fantasizes about the perfect bath as he buys it at the chemist’s shop).  Ulysses privileges us with a glimpse into peoples’ secret hidden minds, and although we find lofty questions of being and non-being there, we also find lots of little private side quests for self-gratification and secret fantasies which can, for a moment shine like the sun in the firmament before being moved to another pocket, or forgotten, or occasioning very slight social anxiety.  The quest for the truth of people’s hearts is slippery and convoluted!

 

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