All those words

All those words

In Brief

Bloom likes to write love letters with dirty words in them—as did his creator (though in later life Joyce was notably prudish in society, refusing to countenance conversational obscenities). Ulysses is sparing in its use of dirty words, but even when they are tactfully omitted, their absent presence opens windows onto unseen worlds.

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In Penelope Molly thinks of a letter that Bloom wrote when he was courting her, and how troublesomely it mixed sex up with social niceties: "then he wrote me that letter with all those words in it how could he have the face to any woman after his company manners making it so awkward after when we met asking me have I offended you with my eyelids down of course he saw I wasnt he had a few brains not like that other fool Henny Doyle he was always breaking or tearing something in the charades I hate an unlucky man and if I knew what it meant of course I had to say no for form sake dont understand you I said and wasnt it natural so it is of course it used to be written up with a picture of a womans on that wall in Gibraltar with that word I couldnt find anywhere only for children seeing it too young then writing every morning a letter sometimes twice a day I liked the way he made love then." One of the words next to the obscene drawing in Gibraltar seems to have sent her in search of its meaning, and by the time she met Bloom she was neither ignorant of nor offended by such words. But even now she prefers not to use them: "the picture of a womans on that wall."

In Lotus Eaters Bloom has started a correspondence with a woman who calls herself Martha Clifford, and he fears that she will probably not have written him back because he "Went too far last time." But she has written back: "I am awfully angry with you. I do wish I could punish you for that. I called you naughty boy because I do not like that other world. Please tell me what is the real meaning of that word? Are you not happy in your home you poor little naughty boy?" Martha's "other world" is clearly a slip for "other word," probably the word whose meaning she asks in the next sentence of her letter. But the slip suggests that she may not like to think about that other world of carnal desire that the world of polite society manages to repress.

But letters like this can also open up worlds of romantic feeling. Molly wishes that Boylan had the capacity to write such letters: "I wish somebody would write me a loveletter his wasnt much and I told him he could write what he liked yours ever Hugh Boylan in old Madrid silly women believe love is sighing I am dying still if he wrote it I suppose thered be some truth in it true or no it fills up your whole day and life always something to think about every moment and see it all round you like a new world."

In Bloom's mind the phrase "other world" acquires still another meaning. At the end of Hades, having brooded at length on death and religious consolations, he thinks, "There is another world after death named hell. I do not like that other world she wrote. No more do I. Plenty to see and hear and feel yet. Feel live warm beings near you. Let them sleep in their maggoty beds. They are not going to get me this innings. Warm beds: warm fullblooded life." Martha's phrase calls up all the claims of philosophers and theologians that a truer world lies somewhere beyond this one. Molly, who is religious, may dream of a life free of such burdens as menstruation: "O this nuisance of a thing I hope theyll have something better for us in the other world." But Bloom is content to take life in the body for truth.

JH 2013
Cover of Ellen Sussman's Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex (Bloomsbury USA, 2008).
The stairway to heaven. Source: