Flesh of a different man

Flesh of a different man

In Brief

At several points in the novel, men reach out to Stephen in efforts to guide him—often literally, with a touch. In his obvious brilliance and obvious lostness Stephen attracts paternal feelings, and, in this epic of the human body, that need for human connection often registers in physical touch, just as it does in Stephen's need for a heterosexual relationship. But not all of these overtures are welcome, and at least one makes him wonder whether the other man has homosexual designs on him. This apprehension colors his responses to Leopold Bloom, who charitably, and physically, assists Stephen at the end of Circe and again near the end of Eumaeus. In the first case, Stephen's apprehension is conveyed by seeing Bloom as a vampire. In the second, a New Testament condemnation of homosexuality lurks in his impression of "a strange kind of flesh of a different man."

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In Proteus, Stephen imagines meeting a woman who can rescue him from his loneliness: "Touch me. Soft eyes. Soft soft soft hand. I am lonely here. O, touch me soon, now. What is that word known to all men? I am quiet here alone. Sad too. Touch, touch me." When Nora Barnacle rescued James Joyce on that same stretch of beach, she touched him in a quite intimate way. Joyce has both Bloom and his wife Molly remember how magical touch can be for people first entering a sexual relationship.

Mulligan's offer of intimate, but certainly not overtly sexual, friendship is represented in Telemachus when he locks arms with Stephen and holds him for a prolonged time: "Buck Mulligan suddenly linked his arm in Stephen's and walked with him round the tower." Twelve paragraphs (or fully a page) later, readers learn that "Stephen freed his arm quietly." The verb "freed" suggests an aversive response, and Stephen's memory of Cranly a little before this—"Cranly's arm. His arm"—shows him associating this new friendship with one that carried homoerotic overtones in A Portrait. Stephen distrusts Mulligan's efforts to become his mentor ("I'm the only one that knows what you are. Why don't you trust me more?"), and he seems to detect a predatory sexuality in the offer to take control of his life. In Scylla and Charybdis, after Mulligan rhapsodizes about "the charge of pederasty brought against the bard," Stephen thinks, "Catamite."

In Nestor the old headmaster Mr. Deasy never touches his employee (although he does come running after him down the front path), but he brims with presumptuous advice that Stephen clearly has no intention of following. The pattern is repeated in Aeolus when the newspaper editor Myles Crawford lays “a nervous hand on Stephen’s shoulder”—nervous because he wants to recruit him to write for the paper. Like Mulligan, Crawford presumes to understand the reserved young writer: “You can do it. I see it in your face.” But his presumption prompts a hostile response from Stephen, who links Crawford with Father Dolan, the demented Jesuit disciplinarian who punished him unjustly in A Portrait: “See it in your face. See it in your eye. Lazy idle little schemer.”

Wandering Rocks shows a man's touch that does not create apprehension in Stephen. Almidano Artifoni resembles Mulligan and Crawford in presuming to understand the younger man: Stephen is wasting his singing talent, he says, when he could be earning some money from it. But on this occasion Stephen listens gratefully to the advice and accepts his teacher's touch without any evident unease: "His heavy hand took Stephen's firmly. Human eyes. They gazed curiously an instant and turned quickly towards a Dalkey tram."

All of these touches from older men serve as preambles to the long-delayed meeting of Stephen and Bloom in the final chapters of Ulysses. After being knocked unconscious by a British soldier at the end of Circe, Stephen groggily comes to and sees Bloom solicitously hovering over him and calling his name: "Who? Black panther. Vampire." His apparent impression that Bloom is a vampire makes sense, as the man is dressed all in black and bending over him as if to bite his neck. But Stephen has strongly associated vampirism with sexuality in Proteus and in Circe (as had everyone else since the appearance of Bram Stoker's novel), and in Scylla and Charybdis Mulligan has warned him that Bloom is "Greeker than the Greeks": "O, Kinch, thou art in peril. Get thee a breechpad." (The black panther association apparently stems from seeing the "dark back" of this man exit the library ahead of them, with the "step of a pard.")

Eumaeus shows Bloom, like Artifoni, advising Stephen to take advantage of his talent as a singer. This happens shortly after he ushers him out of the cabman's shelter and starts leading him home to Eccles Street, saying "It's not far. Lean on me" and, like Mulligan on top of the tower, linking "his left arm in Stephen's right." Stephen says "Yes" to the invitation, but “uncertainly, because he thought he felt a strange kind of flesh of a different man approach him, sinewless and wobbly and all that." The uncertainty seems, at first glance, to derive simply from Stephen becoming aware of Bloom's unprepossessing physicality: touching him reveals that he is "sinewless and wobbly." What inebriated, exhausted, and battered individual would want to lean on that kind of a guide?

But there is more to it than that. In his patented allusive manner Joyce includes in the description of Stephen's response to Bloom two words that evoke a passage in another literary text. The short epistle of Jude, which comes just before Revelation in the Christian Bible, warns against "certain men" who have "crept in unawares" to the Christian community, "ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness" (1:4). Jude reminds his readers of how God led his chosen people out of Egypt but later destroyed some who did not believe in Him, and how He cast down the rebel angels, "Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire. Likewise also these filthy dreamers defile the flesh, despise dominion, and speak evil of dignities" (1:7-8).

One can perhaps detect in this allusion an echo of Stephen's Christian apprehension about entrusting himself to the helping hand of a Jew––an anxiety that he will acknowledge in the next chapter when he chants for Bloom's edification the antisemitic ballad of little Harry Hughes. But if that worry is implied, it is only as a faint overtone to the main note of homophobia. Bloom's flesh is strange not only because he is a bit flabby but also because Stephen's radar is set on high gain for older men with designs on him, sexual or otherwise. Nowhere does the novel suggest that Bloom has any sexual interest in Stephen, though it does suggest that he has a moderately creepy interest in hooking him up with Molly and/or Milly. But after Mulligan's warning Stephen may very well be thinking this about Bloom.

A final wrinkle: if Eumaeus is narrated from something very like Bloom's point of view, then may it not also be possible that Bloom intuits this sexual apprehension in Stephen? It is inconceivable that he knows the Christian Bible well enough to recall Jude's condemnation of men "going after strange flesh"––that knowledge could only come from Stephen or from Joyce––but the language about "sinewless and wobbly" flesh could well be a projection of Bloom's unconfident consciousness. Since the prose style of the chapter hovers very close to that consciousness, it is conceivable that Bloom is feeling apologetic about his poor physical condition and at the same time dimly aware that Stephen might distrust him for another reason.

John Hunt 2024

Source: www.cbsnews.com.

John Jacob's 2012 photograph of two men in Baku, where men feel comfortable linking arms and holding hands. Source: www.flickr.com.

Sodom and Gomorrah Afire, ca. 1680 oil on canvas painting by Jacob de Wet II held in the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, Germany. Source: Wikimedia Commons.