Esprit de corps

Esprit de corps

In Brief

Bloom's thoughts as he gazes longingly at the woman in front of the Grosvenor hotel make clear that such voyeuristic acts are not unusual for him: "Girl in Eustace street hallway Monday was it settling her garter. Her friend covering the display of esprit de corps. Well, what are you gaping at?" His pun on a common expression is also evidence that he is capable of what he elsewhere calls "wit."

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"Eustace street" crosses Temple Bar in the center of Dublin, just south of the Liffey and about half a kilometer west of where Bloom is standing in Lotus Eaters when he thinks of it. In this heavily traveled part of town, several days earlier, he saw a woman lifting up her skirt to adjust one of the garters holding up her stockings while a companion stood between her and the sidewalk shielding her from eager male stares. Judging by the final sentence—"Well, what are you gaping at?"—Bloom is not one of those well-behaved men who avert their gaze from such fortuitous displays.

The French phrase "esprit de corps" (spirit of the body) refers to the feelings of comradeship and enthusiasm that motivate members of a tight social group to come to the aid of one another. It probably originated with military units, but in English usage at least it has long been applied to any kind of group united by shared activities. (The OED quotes from Jeremy Bentham: "A particular community...such as that of divines, lawyers, merchants, etc., has its esprit de corps, its corporate affections, and other interests.") The body in question is, of course, a social one—some particular subset of the body politic—and this meaning clearly applies to the act of sisterhood that Bloom witnessed. But the body at risk of "display" was quite physical.

The ambiguity here is much like one heard in Molly's wish that her husband could explain things "the way a body can understand"—i.e., the way a person can understand, but an ordinary person grounded in the body rather than airy abstractions. Bloom's joke is a small one, but it suggests that he does not completely lack Molly's ability to make puns, which he admires in Lestrygonians: "She used to say Ben Dollard had a base barreltone voice. He has legs like barrels and you’d think he was singing into a barrel. Now, isn’t that wit.... Powerful man he was at stowing away number one Bass. Barrel of Bass. See? It all works out."

JH 2022
Detail of Woman at her Toilette, an oil painting by Niclas Lafrensen (1737-1807). Source: