Cloacal obsession

In Brief

Professor MacHugh's reference in Aeolus to the "cloacal obsession" of the Romans and the English delivers a thunderous backhand smash to a charge lobbed at Joyce by H. G. Wells in 1917. Wells coined this phrase in a review essay that, while mostly quite generous to Joyce, also frankly expressed English prejudices against Irish Catholics. Joyce's adoption of the phrase responds to these prejudices by reversing their values: taking excessive interest in coarse bodily functions, he suggests, is far less contemptible than repressing them out of consciousness altogether.

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In a review of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man published in both the 24 February 1917 issue of The Nation and the 10 March 1917 issue of The New Republic, the famous English writer (his four best-known works of science fiction were published from 1895 to 1898, and starting in 1921 he was nominated four times for a Nobel prize) lavishly celebrated the young Irishman's novel: "Its claim to be literature is as good as the claim of the last book of Gulliver's Travels. . . . The technique is startling, but on the whole it succeeds. Like so many Irish writers from Sterne to Shaw, Mr. Joyce is a bold experimentalist with paragraph and punctuation. He breaks away from scene to scene without a hint of the change of time and place; at the end he passes suddenly from the third person to the first; he uses no inverted commas to mark off his speeches. . . . One conversation in this book is a superb success, the one in which Mr. Dedalus carves the Christmas turkey; I write with all due deliberation that Sterne himself could not have done it better. . . . One believes in Stephen Dedalus as one believes in few characters in fiction."

High praise, though salted with a few reservations. But Wells appreciated Joyce's writing in part because it so skillfully portrayed the obsessions of a backward people: "Like some of the best novels in the world it is the story of an education; it is by far the most living and convincing picture that exists of an Irish Catholic upbringing. . . . The interest of the book depends entirely upon its quintessential and unfailing reality. . . . And the peculiar lie of the interest for the intelligent reader is the convincing revelation it makes of the limitations of a great mass of Irishmen. Mr. Joyce tells us unsparingly of the adolescence of this youngster under conditions that have passed almost altogether out of English life. There is an immense shyness, a profound secrecy, about matters of sex, with its inevitable accompaniment of nightmare revelations and furtive scribblings in unpleasant places, and there is a living belief in a real hell."

Wells sounds much like Haines, who assents in Wandering Rocks to Mulligan's explanation of how Stephen became so addled: "They drove his wits astray . . . by visions of hell." He resembles Haines too in his inability to imagine why "these bright-green young people across the Channel" would not wish to make common cause with the good-hearted English Liberals laboring to help them: "everyone in this Dublin story, every human being, accepts as a matter of course, as a thing in nature like the sky and the sea, that the English are to be hated. There is no discrimination in that hatred, there is no gleam of recognition that a considerable number of Englishmen have displayed a very earnest disposition to put matters right with Ireland, there is an absolute absence of any idea of a discussed settlement, any notion of helping the slow-witted Englishman in his three-cornered puzzle between North and South. It is just hate, a cant cultivated to the pitch of monomania, an ungenerous violent direction of the mind. That is the political atmosphere in which Stephen Dedalus grows up, and in which his essentially responsive mind orients itself." Wells feared that this unreasonably militant Irish nationalism would "play into the hands of the Tories" in the British Parliament, threatening social reform and provoking violent repression.

On all these matters of religion, sexuality, and politics Wells sees Joyce as simply giving an accurate representation of Ireland's benighted culture. But on one point he faults Joyce's own proclivities: "It is no good trying to minimize a characteristic that seems to be deliberately obtruded. Like Swift and another living Irish writer, Mr. Joyce has a cloacal obsession. He would bring back into the general picture of life aspects which modern drainage and modern decorum have taken out of ordinary intercourse and conversation. Coarse, unfamiliar words are scattered about the book unpleasantly, and it may seem to many, needlessly. If the reader is squeamish upon these matters, then there is nothing for it but to shun this book. . . . But that is by the way. The value of Mr. Joyce's book has little to do with its incidental unsanitary condition."

In hindsight it seems incredible that Wells should have beheld the horror of Joyce's gutter-mind merely from reading A Portrait, which is positively virginal compared to the flood of obscenity that would soon arrive on the pages of Ulysses. But he is objecting to "words," and to the bodily functions that those words name. He is not bothered by just any kind of corporeality. When Stephen records his lack of aversion to strong smells, and takes comfort in the odor of "horse piss and rotted straw," Wells absolves Joyce of any "deliberate offense," reflecting that different human beings have different sensory inclinations. But the limits of his tolerance are exceeded when the novel refers to things that "modern drainage" has made inconspicuous. These realities, he says, are "deliberately obtruded" in A Portrait. The word comes from roots meaning "to push towards," and it conveys not only Joyce's pushy offensiveness but also the cultivated Englishman's dislike of anything pushed out of the human body. One can only imagine Wells' disgust when he read Ulysses, which not only mentions urination, defecation, ejaculation, menstruation, expectoration, eructation, and nose-picking but shows most of those things happening in real time. It is known that he did not much care for the book.

Wells objects to Joyce's "cloacal obsession" with substances that should be flushed out of sight rather than pondered. In modern metaphorical usage the word designates the anal cavities in birds and fish into which intestinal, urinary, and genital discharges all flow, but in their original Latin signification cloacae were sewers. With his characteristic linguistic precision Joyce turned Wells' phrase back on him by giving it to a classical scholar who prefers the ancient Greeks to the Romans: "— What was their civilisation? Vast, I allow: but vile. Cloacae: sewers. The Jews in the wilderness and on the mountaintop said: It is meet to be here. Let us build an altar to Jehovah. The Roman, like the Englishman who follows in his footsteps, brought to every new shore on which he set his foot (on our shore he never set it) only his cloacal obsession. He gazed about him in his toga and he said: It is meet to be here. Let us construct a watercloset."

It is sometimes said that the Romans invented only one thing: concrete. They took their mythology, literature, philosophy, rhetoric, sculpture, architecture, and music from the Greeks but were supremely innovative in building roads, bridges, piers, fountains, aqueducts, toilets, sewers, and torture-theaters. Professor MacHugh suggests that this indicates a certain spiritual poverty, and through him Joyce indicts the repressiveness of the English, who fancy themselves superior not only to other nations but even to the bodies into which they are born. People who pretend never to have heard certain "Coarse, unfamiliar words," or to care much about the daily realities to which those words refer, have an "obsession" as crippling as any they despise in their neighbors across the Irish Sea.

JH 2020
1920 photographic portrait of H. G. Wells by George Charles Beresford, held in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The Cloaca Maxima, a large sewer system dating to Etruscan times in ancient Rome. Source:
A Roman watercloset of the 2nd century AD, its toilets facing water-filled troughs where patrons could dip the cloth-covered sticks that did the work of toilet paper. Source: