Naked, in a womb

In Brief

Bloom's fantasy of floating "naked, in a womb of warmth," admirably illustrated by Frank Budgen in the image accompanying this note, expresses a deep-seated desire which Joyce once declared in a letter to Nora—the desire to return to an original state of human existence. It also culminates a strain of imagery that runs throughout Lotus Eaters—images of comforting cups, tubs, pots, and other containers that contribute to the mood of drugged contentment in the chapter.

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On 5 September 1909 Joyce wrote to Nora, "O that I could nestle in your womb like a child born of your flesh and blood, be fed by your blood, sleep in the warm secret gloom of your body!" The impulse goes beyond sexual adoration, into an essentially mystical longing to return to a time before self-consciousness, when the child felt perfectly one with its mother, perfectly safe, nourished, and content. It recurs in Ithaca, when Bloom falls asleep in the posture of "the childman weary, the manchild in the womb." Budgen's drawing, with its egg-shaped uterus of a bathtub, captures this floating tranquility of the wombed manchild. Bloom, like Joyce, associates uterine envelopment with the "happy warmth" that for him is a kind of metaphysical condition of life itself.

The tub at the end of Lotus Eaters continues a long line of earlier images. In the caption to his photograph of the font of holy water in St. Andrew's church, William York Tindall observes that "This font is only one of the many vessels in a chapter of pots and tubs. Consider Plumtree's Potted Meat and the Gold Cup race. After all, the symbol of the Lotus-eating chapter is the Eucharist and that comes in chalice and ciborium. Eucharistic Bloom sits, at last, in a tub" (90). Tindall is correct about this pervasive patterning in the chapter. Pots and tubs, no less than drugs, may be judged a defining leitmotif of Lotus Eaters, comparable to the hearts of Hades, the winds of Aeolus, and the foods of Lestrygonians.

In addition to chalices of holy wine, ciboria of communion wafers, tubs of bathing water, pots of processed meat, and vaginal Cups welcoming phallic Sceptres, Lotus Eaters features the comforting Dead Sea on which bathers float like leaves, the feedbags of the horses at the cabstand, the jar carrying "lovely cool water" on the head of the biblical Martha, the paper goblet that Bloom thinks he must take with him to the Phoenix Park races, the pints, quarts, gallons, and barrels of slopping, churning porter whose value he tries to calculate, the "neat square" of newspaper sheets in which he lodges his lemon soap, the "alabaster lilypots" in which the chemist stores his ingredients and the mortar in which he grinds them, the remembered "Fleshpots of Egypt," and the poster showing a "cyclist doubled up like a cod in a pot."

Most of these images, perhaps all of them in one way or another, contribute to the sense of drug-like contentment that fills Bloom's consciousness as he imagines soaking in a bathtub at the end of the chapter. Sexual hunger and the torturing anguish of Molly's adultery dissipate as he contemplates his "limp father of thousands, a languid floating flower." His floating penis and his "navel, bud of flesh," lift him out of his tired body into the body of another, the universal mother. Beneath all of our dreams of safety, comfort, and fulfillment lies the primal basin, the original memory of floating in our mothers' wombs.

JH 2019
Frank Budgen's illustration of The Lotus Eaters, in James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses (Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, 1934).