Venus

In Brief

Bloom thinks of Greek goddesses, and particularly statues of Venus, as embodying the objects of male desire in ideal proportions. One statue associated with his delectation, in Scylla and Charybdis, is "Venus Kallipyge," whose name means Venus of the Beautiful Buttocks—or, in contemporary American parlance, Venus with the Nice Ass. Mulligan names this work after he encounters Bloom gazing at the backside of a plaster reproduction in the National Museum of Ireland. Thoughts of ancient statuary figure at several other points in the novel, collectively suggesting a different aesthetic than the one propounded by Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

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In 1904 the National Museum, located across a courtyard from the externally identical National Library, displayed 77 plaster casts of famous Greek and Roman statues in its entrance rotunda. One of these plaster reproductions was of some imitative version of Praxiteles' Venus, a very famous lost work of the 4th century BC in which the goddess modestly covers her private parts with her right hand. It seems that the museum also displayed a copy of the Venus Callipyge or Kallipygos, a less demure work from the 1st or 2nd century BC in the which the goddess lifts her tunic to give the audience a good view of her buttocks.

In "'Museum With Those Goddesses': Bloom and the Dublin Plaster Casts," Dublin James Joyce Journal 2 (2009): 24-38, Fintan Cullen observes that "On the evidence of a contemporaneous photograph from the William Lawrence studio of the interior display in the Dublin Museum’s rotunda, the placement of the cast against the wall of the rotunda would not have allowed Bloom much room in which to explore what Mulligan, a medical student, refers to as her ‘mesial groove’ (she is seen in the back row of the display of casts, with her left arm raised)." Nevertheless, the novel asks us to imagine Bloom squinting between the goddess's buttocks to see if the sculptor has bothered to include an anus.

His quest originates in Lestrygonians, when he thinks about the differences between mortal and divine diets: "Shapely goddesses, Venus, Juno: curves the world admires. Can see them library museum standing in the round hall, naked goddesses. . . . 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. They have no. Never looked. I'll look today. Keeper won't see. Bend down let something fall see if she."

At the end of Oxen of the Sun someone in the crush of the bar crowd, quite possibly Stephen Dedalus, mentions "Venus Pandemos," another avatar of the goddess whose name means Venus of All the People. Aphrodite Pandemos was sometimes seen as the goddess of all Greece, but she was also the goddess of sexual delights and prostitution, as opposed to the "heavenly" Aphrodite Urania—and so the lusty young man's remark seems to anticipate coming adventures in the red light district. Venus Pandemos and her sister of the beautiful buttocks are mentioned together in Circe, as Bloom "explains to those near him his schemes for social regeneration. All agree with him. The keeper of the Kildare Street Museum appears, dragging a lorry on which are the shaking statues of several naked goddesses, Venus Callipyge, Venus Pandemos, Venus Metempsychosis, and plaster figures, also naked, representing the new nine muses."

In advocating for "social regeneration" through appreciation of classical sculpture, Bloom finds common cause with Buck Mulligan's program of "Hellenising" Ireland. In Oxen of the Sun, these two men of science discuss infant mortality and Mulligan envisions a role for statuary in promoting the health of expectant mothers and their babies: "Kalipedia, he prophesied, would soon be generally adopted and all the graces of life, genuinely good music, agreeable literature, light philosophy, instructive pictures, plastercast reproductions of the classical statues such as Venus and Apollo, artistic coloured photographs of prize babies, all these little attentions would enable ladies who were in a particular condition to pass the intervening months in a most enjoyable manner."

Bloom himself owns "an image of Narcissus purchased by auction from P. A. Wren, 9 Bachelor's Walk (Ithaca)"—a "little statue," Bello notes, that "you carried home in the rain for art for art's sake" (Circe). Bloom derives no prurient pleasures from this male statue, but his wife does: "those fine young men I could see down in Margate strand bathing place from the side of the rock standing up in the sun naked like a God or something and then plunging into the sea with them why arent all men like that thered be some consolation for a woman like that lovely little statue he bought I  could look at him all day long curly head and his shoulders his finger up for you to listen theres real beauty and poetry for you I  often felt I wanted to kiss him all over also his lovely young cock there so simple I wouldnt mind taking him in my mouth if nobody was looking as if it was asking you to suck it so clean and white he looks with his boyish face." Somewhere in the course of this reverie the small statue merges in Molly's mind with Stephen Dedalus.

The sexual desire that these statues excite in Bloom, Stephen, and Molly, together with Bloom's desire to imitate the standards of male beauty embodied in Eugen Sandow's exercises, make clear that by the time Joyce wrote his "epic of the body" he had reconsidered some of the aesthetic ideas voiced by Stephen in A Portrait. In part 5 of that work, Stephen tells Lynch that the emotions excited by art should be "static," i.e. not moving one to action. The "desire and loathing" excited by pornographic or didactic works are "unesthetic emotions not only because they are kinetic in character but also because they are not more than physical."

A lusty Lynch plays the devil's advocate: "You say that art must not excite desire, said Lynch. I told you that one day I wrote my name in pencil on the backside of the Venus of Praxitiles in the Museum. Was that not desire?" Stephen dismisses this reaction: "your flesh responded to the stimulus of a naked statue but it was, I say, simply a reflect action of the nerves." He advocates instead an Aquinian understanding of beauty as "the splendor of truth," and uses Darwin as a straw man to debunk the notion that the beauty men see in women can be explained solely by desire for "the propagation of the species." Lynch professes himself convinced when Stephen ridicules the idea that "you admired the great flanks of Venus because you felt that she would bear you burly offspring and admired her great breasts because you felt that she would give good milk to her children and yours."

By the time he wrote Ulysses Joyce clearly had thought better of Stephen's overly neat dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual. The statues in the mature novel engage characters' emotions in much more kinetic ways. In this connection it is worth mentioning that Praxitiles' lost Venus, which would have been painted, was reportedly so extraordinarily mimetic that, despite its modest pose and its function as a sacred temple statue, it aroused some ancient Greek men. Section 15 of the Erotes (a Greek dialogue written in the time of the Roman empire) tells the story of a young man who broke into the temple at night, "embraced" the statue (to use Molly's language), and left a stain on it.

JH 2017
Venus Callipyge or Aphrodite Kallipygos, a white marble statue from the 1st or 2nd century BCE, in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples. Photograph uploaded by Enzo1940, 2007. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
4th century BC statue of Narcissus by Praxiteles, held in the MuseoMuseo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples. Source: pixgood.com.
Eugen Sandow in a pose imitating The Dying Gaul, a Roman copy of a lost Hellenistic statue, in 1912. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Engraved reproduction of an ancient coin from Knidos displaying the lost Aphrodite of Knidos by Praxitiles, from Paul Carus' Venus of Milo: An Archaeological Study of Woman (1916). Source: Wikimedia Commons.