Leave it to my hands

Leave it to my hands

In Brief

When the honorable Judge John M. Woolsey absolved Ulysses of pornographic intent, finding that it seeks to accurately represent human consciousness ("his locale," after all, "was Celtic and his season Spring") and that "nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac," he charitably overlooked certain steamy passages of narration. One of the most egregious occurs in Sirens: "On the smooth jutting beerpull laid Lydia hand, lightly, plumply, leave it to my hands. All lost in pity for croppy. Fro, to: to, fro: over the polished knob (she knows his eyes, my eyes, her eyes) her thumb and finger passed in pity: passed, repassed and, gently touching, then slid so smoothly, slowly down, a cool firm white enamel baton protruding through their sliding ring." This is pretty good pornographic writing—suggestive of graphic action, not merely suggestive or merely graphic; evocative of various kinds of physical pleasure, emotional involvement, and desire; palatable to both genders.

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Of course, Joyce's sentences do represent the contents of human consciousness, and to anyone who dislikes pornography their artistic merit might possibly be defended on those grounds. But such an argument would never have flown in his time, and the fact that the humans involved are female would only have heightened the ire of that era's pervasive morality police, if they had been good enough readers to suspect the passage of a dark design. The chapter that most excited their outrage, Nausicaa, did so not only by making a respectable young woman the object of a lascivious male gaze but also by making her a willing, and more or less witting, participant in the excitement.

The same is true here, where the bold flirtation that the barmaids have been carrying on with the customers, the admiring gazes that they have been receiving from them, the maternal pity that Lydia Douce feels for the croppy boy ("Because their wombs," Bloom thinks), and the sense of danger the song gives her ("Thrilled she listened, bending in sympathy to hear"), all feed into the suggestive action that she performs. Bloom looks at her "Blank face" and thinks, "Virgin should say: or fingered only," but, as with Gerty MacDowell two chapters later, lack of conscious awareness does not imply lack of desire.

In the musical theme-and-variations manner characteristic of Sirens, this passage cunningly repeats something that Lydia said much earlier in the episode and imbues it with lustful coloration. Recently returned from a vacation at the beach, Miss Douce has asked Miss Kennedy,

     — Am I awfully sunburnt?
     Miss bronze unbloused her neck.
      — No, said Miss Kennedy. It gets brown after. Did you try the borax with the cherry laurel water?
      Miss Douce halfstood to see her skin askance in the barmirror gildedlettered where hock and claret glasses shimmered and in their midst a shell.
     — And leave it to my hands, she said.
     — Try it with the glycerine, Miss Kennedy advised.

Hands that tend to her own body may also tend to a man's. As Joyce replied to a young admirer in Zurich who asked, "May I kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses?": "No, it did lots of other things too."

JH 2020
Bronze by Gold, Richard Hamilton's 1987 engraving and aquatint print (five plates, 23 colors). Source: Hamilton, Imaging James Joyce's Ulysses.