LETTING RIP: THE PRIMAL SCENE, THE VEIL AND EXCRETA IN JOYCE AND FREUD
Sergei Pankajev, the young Russian known to Freud as the Wolf Man, to his own dreaming mind as 'Espe' or SP, and to Derrida, via a dirty picture of a sodomitic Plato and Socrates, as the PS or postcript to all philosophy--Sergei Pankajev first manifests his neurosis in an act of sacrilegious linguistic inversion. Born on the 24th of December by the Russian Calendar and the 6th of January by ours--the days of Christ's birth and epiphany respectively--he's so pious as a child that he makes endless signs of the cross and kisses the holy pictures hanging in his room. Yet at the same time he finds his head invaded by a blasphemous tendency that makes him think 'God--shit'. This inversion extends to colour his perceptual relation with the outside world: 'he was,' writes Freud, 'tormented by the obsession of having to think of the Holy Trinity whenever he saw three heaps of horse-dung or other excrement lying in the road.' Although the piety will fade, the excremental aspect of Pankajev's neurosis will remain with him forever: his adult life will be characterised physically by a fraught bowel regime involving daily enemas and mentally by a network of neuroses revolving largely, if Freud is to be believed, around anal eroticism.
Joyce, it seems, could have joined Sergei on the doctor's couch and saved them both money (which, as Freud would have told them, is shit too). Not only are his two major works mired in the language of excreta --of dung and urine, waterclosets, commodes, sewers, 'clotted hinderparts', 'soiled goods' and 'slopperish matter', 'nappy spattees', 'pip poo pat' of 'bulgar...bowels' and so on--but this obsessive excremental register seems to cling blasphemously to the underbelly of its opposite--that is, to the language and procedure of religious devotion. In the middle of his parody of mass that kicks off Ulysses, Buck Mulligan quick-changes from priest to military doctor, peeping at an imaginary stool sample floating in what he's up to now presented as an altar-bowl and, covering it quickly up again, sends the sick man (or horse) who made it back to barracks before mutating back to priest once more. At roughly the same time Bloom quasi-votively bows his head under the low lintel as he enters his outhouse to perform the act of defecation that will retroactively see him hailed as 'Moses, Moses, King of the Jews' who 'wiped his arse on the Daily News.' At the outset of Finnegans Wake the books of Genesis and Exodus become urinary and colonic tracts and Christ the salmon turns into a big brown trout, a 'brontocihthyian' thunderfish or turd floating in a stream mingling with 'piddle'. In this light, the Eucharistic consumption scenes, complete with grace, that run concurrently throughout the same passage become gross feasts of coprophagia that make Bloom's devouring of urine-scented fowl innards look tame by comparison.
What's going on here? Is Joyce angrily trying to neutralise the piousness of his adolescence by profaning the very cross he used to kiss? Or is he simply being a Sergei Pankajev in print, playing out his neuroses on the page? Perhaps a bit of both--but beyond these and more interestingly I think, his writing in these instances manages to fill the double meaning of what his contemporary Georges Bataille understands by the term 'sacred'. For Bataille as for Freud, what is sacer is at once both consecrated and unclean, godly and disgusting. It is agios: holy and soiled. What is expelled, cast out, excreted is divine: shit and god are given birth to by the same social digestive mechanisms. This anthropological insight forms the basis of an understanding of the tragic that's perhaps closer than Nietzsche's to the origins of tragedy--closer, certainly, to its etymological roots in the word tragos, the sacrificial goat whose driving out cleanses the polis of its sins. Eliding the words alter and altar, Bataille writes:
the term 'alteration' has the double interest of expressing a partial decomposition analogous to that of corpses and at the same time the passage to a perfectly heterogeneous state corresponding to what the Protestant Professor Otto calls the wholly other, which is to say, the sacred, realised by example in a ghost.'
We'll come back to ghosts and corpses--but let's first remind ourselves that Finnegans Wake announces itself at the outset as a tragedy, a tale of agios and tragos and collective sin: 'What then agentlike brought about that tragoady thundersday this municipal sin business?' HCE, the 'blackguardise[d] whitestone ever hurtled out of heaven', is repeatedly rejected and expelled--as, of course, are Bloom, the unclean foreign body in a pure catholic land, and Joyce himself, self-ejected into the leaky commode of Dublin bay and thence onwards to Europe Minor. But neither Joyce nor Bataille confine themselves to making (or scoring) anthropological, religious or autobiographical points. For both, these open out into wider, more elaborate deliberations on the nature of language and thought that, ultimately (I'd say), orchestrate themselves around the issue of matter and materiality.
Joyce, as a writer, is an absolute materialist. Over the neoplatonism of A.E., his trite assertion that 'Art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences', he champions Stephen's Aristotelian materialism of the now, the here, the art of forms and form. Against vague cosmic and chthonic mysticism he pits Bloom's vision of spinning gasballs:-- 'Gas, then solid: then world: then cold: then dead shell drifting around, frozen rock'--and of 'entomological organic existences concealed in cavities of the earth, beneath removable stones, in hives and mounds, of microbes, germs, bacteria, bacilli, spermatozoa.' This should not lead us into thinking that Joyce's materialism is an empirical one. On the contrary, it is what Bataille would call a 'base materialism'. For Bataille, the positivist materialism of science or the dialectical materialism of Marxism are nothing more than Christianity in disguise, and a philosophy grounded in them remains an idealist one. Against crypto-Platonic versions of 'form' he proposes 'the formless', or l'Informe. L'Informe, Bataille writes,
is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world [déclasser--i.e. lower in class and declassify], generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.
Bataille's short passage holds the key to understanding (or beginning to understand) not only Joyce's materialism but also his excremental sensibility. For excreta are more than shit and urine: they are snot, phlegm, vomit, bile and blood as well. They are whatever is excessive, spilling over, leaking, training, dragging or trascining--be it trailing navelcords or the 'strandentwining cable of all flesh' that leads back not to immaculate conception but to an overswollen belly, 'buckler of taut vellum'. Stephen, walking on the beach, is walking through l'Informe, affording it no rights, crushing it everywhere:
His boots trod again a damp crackling mass, razorshells, squeaking pebbles, that on the unnumbered pebbles beats, wood sieved by the shipworm, lost Armada.
He is crushing it and yet not dominating it. Indeed, it threatens to drag him into its base plane:
Unwholesome sandflats waited to suck his treading soles, breathing upward sewage breath, a pocket of seaweed smouldered in seafire under a midden of man's ashes.
Slippery, treacherous, it won't sit still for him or let itself be pinned down, enumerated, mathematically frock-coated. It is déclassé and declassified. It moves, not from one place to another, but rather in a way that Yves-Alain Bois, writing on Bataille, describes with the term 'pulsation'. 'Pulsation,' he writes,
involves an endless beat that punctures the disembodied self-closure of pure visuality and incites an irruption of the carnal... Once the unified visual field is agitated by a shake-up that irremediably punctures the screen of its formality and populates it with organs, there is 'pulsation.'
Stephen's beach is one in which the visual field has been punctured by an irruption of the carnal. It is spattered with organs, a diaphane in bodies: bladderwrack, sockets, swaying arms, a redpanting tongue, a bloated carcass, 'bag of corpsegas sopping in foul brine'. Deleuze and Guattari, explaining that their famous 'Body without Organs' is in fact a body with too many, proliferating so fast that it has to slew them off, invoke William Burroughs's description of The Vigilante locked up in a Nut House specially designed for the containment of ghosts:
The physical changes were slow at first, then jumped forward in black klunks, falling through his slack tissue, washing away the human lines... In his place of total darkness mouth and eyes are one organ that leaps forward to snap with transparent teeth... sex organs sprout everywhere... rectums open, defecate and close...
Here, in Burroughs and in Joyce, is base materialism in full, pulsing action, a movement of 'alteration' and declassing or declassification in which matter takes on the aspect both of the partially decomposed corpse and of excreta, so much so that the two eventually merge together: 'dead breaths I living breathe, tread dead dust, devour a urinous offal from all dead.' Cut to Bloom, who devours a urinous offal from all dead before going off to watch 'HOW,' as Joyce announces in capital letters 'A GREAT DAILY ORGAN IS TURNED OUT.'
Joyce returns us to a fetid beach early in Finnegans Wake, a 'plage' on which, as Mutt says: 'Countlessness of livestories have netherfallen... flick as flowflakes... all tombed to the mound, isges to isges, erde from erde'--to which Jute replies: ''Stench!' Here, too, is base materialism; here, too, everything is déclassé, brought down, 'netherfallen' in a Dublin which has turned into a garbagecan with 'wurrums everyside'. But this 'Durblin' is not only 'sworming'--it is also legible. The Dungtarf, clompturf or Load Allmarshy is also a 'claybook', an 'allaphbed' in which lie 'curios of signs' which the 'abcedminded' may 'rede'--a page as well as a plage. Stephen's beach is also legible, full of 'signatures... coloured signs... language tide and wind have silted here.' And not only are these accretions, secretions and excretions legible--they're articulate too. Waves form 'herds of seamorse'. Urine speaks, 'a fourworded wavespeech', 'Uropoetic' (as Stephen will call it in Chapter Fifteen); in the Wake it flows in 'tricky trochees'. Defecation, in the Wake, turns into literary composition too: Jarl van Houther 'ordurd and his thick spch spck... And that was the first peace of illiterative porthery in all the flamend floody flatuous world.'
The excremental writer figure, of course, returns in Chapter Seven in the form of Shem, who is both a reader and a writer of crap, effluvia, detritus--déclassé matter that, as Bataille says, has got itself squashed everywhere, like spit or a worm. His depraved Wombles' den is 'literatured with burst loveletters, telltale stories, stickyback snaps, doubtful eggshells... alphybettyformed verbage... quashed tomatoes, messes of mottage... imeffible tries at speech unsyllabled... seedy ejaculations... blashpematory spits ... worms of snot'. For his ink he uses his own shit and urine mixed up in a funeral urn. For his page, like Melville's Queequeg, he uses his own body: there'll be no platonic hierarchy, no distance, no perspective in this claybook, clayself or claybookself--it will be, to use another of Deleuze and Guattari's favourite terms, 'haptic'--close-up, material. Its contents, 'not protected by copriright', will be neither proprietorial nor proper--rather, they'll lower and declassify language itself, 'wipe alley english speeker, multaphoniaksically spuking, off the face of the erse.' Beckett understood what Joyce was doing. As he explained while he was still having it dictated to him (taking it down under ordurs), Joyce's writing resembles nothing: it is that thing itself. In it 'form is content, content is form'--or, as Bataille would call it, formless, a base material language that is both the reading and the writing of l'Informe.
I want to return for a moment to Sergei Pankajev, in order to pick up on an image closely linked to his anality, which is the image of the veil. Born with a caul around his head (a silken, enveloping membrane that's a rare by-product of afterbirth), Pankajev felt as he grew up 'that for him the world was hidden in a veil, or that he was cut off from the world by a veil. This veil,' Freud continues, 'was torn only at one moment--when, after an enema, the contents of the bowel left the intestinal canal'--that is, when he excretes. Stephen, breathing the sand's 'sewage breath', contemplates the 'veil of space'; then he relieves himself into a pool. Veil-like imagery accompanies the morning ablution session of Chapter One as well: weaving, twining cords, clouds covering the sun, secrets and 'bitter mystery'. Veils come to the fore in Chapter Fifteen: Bloom is depicted as a baby with a caul before being given the 'passtouch of secret monitor' and led into a room whose chandelier's light is veiled by 'a shade of mauve tissue paper'. Soon afterward the hours weave and arabesque by under veils. Then Stephen's dead mother appears 'in torn bridal veil', a 'green rill of bile trickling from the side of her mouth,' to utter a silent word--and Stephen shouts (what else?) 'Shite!' before tearing the tissue paper as he smashes the chandelier and declaims his two-word literary manifesto: 'Non Serviam'. Bloom's coat rips as they run out; moments earlier he's said 'Let everything rip', an utterance which consolidates the many rips and R.I.P.'s and Rip van Winkles scattered round the novel as a whole.
Related to but slightly different from the image of the veil is that of the screen. There's one in the brothel's fireplace and another formed by the 'screen of rollerblind' in Bloom and Molly's bedroom onto which 'the light of a paraffin oil lamp with oblique shade' is projected. This screen denotes for Bloom 'the mystery of an invisible attractive person,' that is, Molly. Looking up at it from street level, Bloom and Stephen urinate.
This set-up is reprised in Book Three, Chapter Four of Finnegans Wake, in which a drawn blind and a lighted lamp kick off a sequence that it's almost impossible to imagine doesn't owe something to Freud's case history. The Wolf Man's 'primal scene', Freud tells us, occurs when, as a small child, he soils himself while sleeping and, crying, wakes up his parents, who then clean him, put him back to bed and, imagining him asleep again, copulate in front of him. They do it in the a tergo position, the father entering the mother from behind and, to the child's mind at least, through her anal passage. This is the origin of Sergei's anal eroticism. In the Wake 3.4, this scene replays: the parents, woken from bed by the crying of a child who has either wet or soiled himself, first comfort him then, asking each other 'Is he asleep?' ('Li ne dormis?'), copulate. They're also clearly doing it a tergo: 'You notice it,' Joyce tells us, 'in that rereway because the male entail partially eclipses the femecovert.' It may even be anal: as the syntax breaks down we get phrases such as 'With his soddering iron... Will you peddle in my bog ... And he sod her in Iarland...' The child is peeping, captivated. So, too, thanks to the lamp and blind, is the polis at large. 'Gauze off heaven!' Joyce exclaims. 'Vision... the sight entrancing... How shagsome all and beastful... Casting such shadows to Persia's blind... The man in the street can see the coming event... It will be known through all Urania soon...'
This scene brings to a climax the many preceding scenes in which defecation, micturation, copulation and voyeurism have danced around each other in mutating, quasi-repeating patterns. It seems to, if not solve things in the manner of a psychoanalytical detective, at least let flow, or pass, a whole new cycle, allowing the writer to speculate about a 'togethergush of stillandbutallyouknow... a complex matter of pure form'. It is a primal, vital, originary moment: 'he begottom,' we're told; 'Let us wherefore, tearing ages, presently preposterose a snatchvote of thanksalot to the huskiest coaxing experimenter that ever gave his best hand into chancerisk.' Once again, the veil of time is torn and what emerges, with the force of an epiphany, is a vision of declassified togethergush, a matter of pure form: shit, writing, world.
Follow the figure of tearing, ripping, back to Ulysses, and you'll find these tangoing with one another too. Bloom rips the back issue of Titbits on the toilet and imagines he might be a writer; Stephen tears Deasy's text to scrawl down his vampire poem in which, as Burroughs puts it, mouth and eyes become one organ that leaps forward to snap with transparent teeth. ('Was he short taken?' asks the editor of Deasy, noticing the rip.) Did Burroughs, creator of The Man who Taught his Asshole to Speak, really pioneer the literary cut-up? Isn't the pile of ripped newspaper sheets that he and Brion Gysin would re-order, hoping to see beyond the pre-recorded universe's veil, already sitting on the Butcher's counter as Bloom buys his kidney? Doesn't Bloom carry his Keye cutting around town? 'Queen Anne is dead. Published by authority in the year one thousand and. Demesne situate in the townland of Rosenallis, barony of Tinnanhinch. To all whom it may concern schedule pursuant to statute showing return of number of mules and jennets exported from Ballina. Nature notes. Cartoons.' This is a cut-up, a togethergush of stillandbutallyouknow, a matter of pure form. And Ulysses is modernism's P.S.--that is, both its primal scene and post-script, or, to use another metaphor, the screen on which it becomes fully visible.
Joyce, the pious teenager who decided that he wouldn't serve and ripped the purple tissue to become a scatalogical writer, a husky coaxing experimenter, never left the notion of epiphany behind. If his work is sacrilegious, it is sacred too, as any epiphanic work must be. It is what Lynch calls 'pornosophical philotheology', and its epiphanies unveil not divine truth but rather the primal scene of matter--in matter, as matter. They don't try to contain it like a frockcoat: they are more like leaking commodes, or the stuff that leaks from them. What does Stephen's visit to the beach leave in its wake, his wholly other (as Bataille would call it) offering? Dry snot carefully laid on a ledge of rock. For the rest, as Stephen says, let look who will.
© Tom McCarthy, 2004
|volume 5, issue 1, 2004|