In Brief

When Bloom thinks that the tea-colored Bath of the Nymph over his bed looks like Molly—"Not unlike her with her hair down: slimmer"—he echoes the comparison that Odysseus makes between Calypso and Penelope. In contests with goddesses, women do not triumph, and as the novel progresses Bloom meditates intensely on how the longing for an ideal beauty clashes with real-life, embodied desire.

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When Calypso has received her orders from Hermes and told Odysseus that he may leave, she cannot let go of the feeling that she must be more attractive than Penelope. And Odysseus, ever the tactful tactician, agrees:

"And anyway, I know my body is
better than hers is. I am taller too.
Mortals can never rival the immortals
in beauty."

                   So Odysseus, with tact,
said "Do not be enraged at me, great goddess.
You are quite right. I know my modest wife
Penelope could never match your beauty.
She is a human; you are deathless, ageless.
But even so, I want to go back home,
and every day I hope that day will come."

All of this exchange is implicit, though mostly unvoiced, in Bloom's single thought that the nymph on his bedroom wall is "slimmer" than Molly. The objective picture he gets of a woman approaching middle age (as opposed to his many ardent memories of her when she was younger) do not inspire lustful worship: "He looked calmly down on her bulk and between her large soft bubs, sloping within her nightdress like a shegoat's udder." He thinks in Circe that "She put on nine pounds after weaning." In Penelope Molly too thinks that she has gotten a bit heavy: "my belly is a bit too big Ill have to knock off the stout at dinner." And she too thinks that the nymph may outdo her a little: "would I be like that bath of the nymph with my hair down yes only shes younger."

Representations of beautiful Greek goddesses are, of course, efforts to stop time, arresting the physical blossoming of female loveliness at its young-adult peak before bellies and haunches swell and breasts sag. But Bloom thinks of them also as aspiring to transcend the limitations of the body altogether. In Lestrygonians he balances his gloomy thoughts about food with a fantasy of eating incorporeally: "Shapely goddesses, Venus, Juno: curves the world admires. . . . Quaffing nectar at mess with gods golden dishes, all ambrosial. Not like a tanner lunch we have, boiled mutton, carrots and turnips, bottle of Allsop. Nectar imagine it drinking electricity: gods' food. Lovely forms of woman sculped Junonian. Immortal lovely. And we stuffing food in one hole and out behind: food, chyle, blood, dung, earth, food: have to feed it like stoking an engine."

In Circe this longing for "Immortal lovely" bodies is answered when "Out of her oakframe a nymph with hair unbound, lightly clad in teabrown artcolours, descends" and speaks to Bloom. The Nymph acknowledges his adoration: "You bore me away, framed me in oak and tinsel, set me above your marriage couch. Unseen, one summer eve, you kissed me in four places. And with loving pencil you shaded my eyes, my bosom and my shame." Bloom reaffirms his longing: "Your classic curves, beautiful immortal, I was glad to look on you, to praise you, a thing of beauty, almost to pray." But she soon makes clear that human sexuality is abhorrent to her, even while she invites his gaze: "(Loftily.) We immortals, as you saw today, have not such a place and no hair there either. We are stonecold and pure. We eat electric light. (She arches her body in lascivious crispation, placing her forefinger in her mouth.)" In reply, Bloom rejects her purported purity as simply pre-sexual posturing: "If there were only ethereal where would you all be, postulants and novices? Shy but willing like an ass pissing."

Joyce's novel thus completes a circuit from physical desire to spiritual aspiration and back to physical desire. The effect is similar to that achieved in Shakespeare's famous sonnet 130, which plays on Petrarchan literary similes rather than Hellenic visual arts. The temporal element in Joyce's investigation of sexual desire also evokes Homer's poem, since nearly two decades have passed since Odysseus last saw his wife. When he says that Penelope's beauty would pale before Calypso's, he surely must be wondering how much it has declined in his absence.

John Hunt 2017
The Toilette of Venus, 1873 oil on canvas painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, held in the National Museum of Fine Arts, Buenos Aires. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Bewegungsstudie (Study of Motion), photograph ca. 1927 by Rudoph Koppitz. Source: Wikimedia Commons.