Unclean loins

In Brief

Stephen recalls church teaching about female sexuality when he thinks in Telemachus of "woman's unclean loins, of man's flesh made not in God's likeness, the serpent's prey," and again in Proteus when he thinks of Eve's "Womb of sin." Thornton notes the reference to passages in Leviticus that describe women’s genitals as being “unclean” during menstruation and childbirth. The other details come from the creation myth in Genesis.

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Leviticus expresses rank revulsion at sexuality, abominating all the “discharges” of the human body as equivalent to contagious diseases, and reserving particular horror for the leaky female vessel. (Chapter 15 makes especially engrossing reading.) Misogynistic traditions in medieval Christianity, when Catholic doctrine was being formed, perpetuated these ancient taboos and joined them with condemnations of Eve.

Stephen’s willingness to repeat these slurs is moderately appalling: however ignorant of female psychology he may have been in A Portrait, he was never misogynistic until now. But he is very much a product of the Irish Catholic church, the most fiercely body-hating of all European churches. A Portrait shows his precocious sexual blooming, his pious attempts to subdue every urge of his physical nature, and his final choice of sexuality over religion. But the process is dialectical rather than binary, and Ulysses finds him seeking sexual happiness with a mind a mind still full of Catholic habits.

[2012] Joyce's own trajectory was not much different. It was not until he met Nora Barnacle that he began to find his way out of the Catholic association of sexuality with sin. Louis Menand writes, in "Silence, Exile, and Punning" (The New Yorker, July 2, 2012), that when Nora went out walking with him on June 6, 1904, and gave him a hand job, Jim was awestruck." Joyce had known only prostitutes and proper middle-class girls. Nora was something new, an ordinary woman who treated him as an ordinary man. The moral simplicity of what happened between them seems to have stunned him. It was elemental, a gratuitous act of loving that had not involved flattery or deceit, and that was unaccompanied by shame or guilt. That simplicity became the basis of their relationship."

JH 2011

"The Woman The Man The Serpent" (1911), by John Byam Liston Shaw. Byam Shaw, as he was known, was a British painter born in India. Source: Wikimedia Commons.