Cascara sagrada

Cascara sagrada

In Brief

Joyce's realistic depiction of Bloom's bowel movement in Calypso includes one vividly personal detail: an ongoing struggle with "constipation." He credits his deliverance from this ailment on June 16 to consumption of a popular herbal laxative, "cascara sagrada."

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As he sits reading Philip Beaufoy's story in Tit-Bits, Bloom holds back, "yielding but resisting." Halfway through the story, "his last resistance yielding, he allowed his bowels to ease themselves quietly as he read, reading still patiently, that slight constipation of yesterday quite gone. Hope it's not too big bring on piles again. No, just right. So. Ah! Costive. One tabloid of cascara sagrada." "Costive" is a less familiar form of "constipated," derived ultimately from the same Latin root. The placement of the word in Bloom's thoughts suggests that he may be recalling language from an advertisement or from the label on a bottle of pills.

Cascara sagrada, Spanish for "sacred bark," refers to the dried and pulverized bark of an understory buckthorn tree, Rhamnus purshiana, that is native to the northwestern United States and British Columbia. Chemicals in the bark stimulate peristalsis very effectively by increasing water retention in the colon, a fact which Native American tribes in the area have exploited for centuries. Spaniards exploring the area in the 1600s tried it for themselves and bestowed the honorific name. An American pharmaceutical company, Parke-Davis, began marketing the powdered bark in the 1870s and was soon exporting it to Europe. It was extremely popular in the early 20th century and remains so today, though the US Food and Drug Administration in 2002 banned its use in over-the-counter laxatives.

The properties of this herbal laxative fit well with Joyce's account of Bloom's peristalsis, but he adds one puzzling detail: "that slight constipation of yesterday quite gone. Hope it's not too big bring on piles again." Piles are hemorrhoids, but what is "it"? Although hemorrhoids can be caused by straining to overcome "constipation," this can hardly be the reference, since Bloom is reflecting on the fact that it is "quite gone." Another possibilility is the dosage of cascara sagrada ("one tabloid") he has taken: because of its potentially violent effects, the drug is contraindicated for people with hemorrhoids. But the most likely explanation is the bowel movement itself. If it is too big the delicate blood vessels in his rectum and anus may suffer.

JH 2017
Shredded cascara sagrada bark posed against the leaves and berries of the buckthorn tree. Source:
Bottle of cascara sagrada, production date unknown, in the compressed "tabloid" form trademarked by Burroughs Wellcome, a London company established in 1880 by two American pharmaceutical salesmen. Source: