Balm of Gilead

Balm of Gilead

In Brief

The "Junius"-like voice which accuses Bloom of hypocrisy for criticizing the rowdy young wankers in the hospital when he himself is guilty of substituting masturbation for conjugal bliss describes his moral pronouncements as a "balm of Gilead." This phrase refers to a biblical-era healing substance, but Joyce seems also to be slyly alluding to a late 18th century patent medicine that was produced and marketed by a hugely successful Irish-born Jewish doctor.

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Jeremiah 8:22 asks, "Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?" Jeremiah 46:11 similarly associates the substance with healing: "Go up into Gilead, and take balm, o virgin, the daughter of Egypt: in vain shalt thou use many medicines; for thou shalt not be cured." Genesis 37:25 mentions the trafficking of "spicery and balm and myrrh" from Gilead to Egypt, suggesting that it was a precious substance on the trade routes, and Ezekiel 27:17 too refers to the trade in balm. Gifford comments that trees in the mountainous Gilead region produced "a liquid resinous substance worth twice its weight in silver that was prized for its fragrance and for its medicinal virtues as a 'heal-all.'" Thornton, Johnson, and Slote all agree with this attribution.

But the relevant sentence in Oxen of the Sun sounds less suited to precious biblical essences than to an age of crass mass-marketing: "If he must dispense his balm of Gilead in nostrums and apothegms of dubious taste to restore to health a generation of unfledged profligates let his practice better consist with the doctrines that now engross him." It seems odd that the surpassingly rare product of ancient Jordanian trees—reportedly given to King Solomon by the Queen of Sheba, and to the Pharaoh by Jacob, to win influence—should be "dispensed" to cure an entire "generation." A "nostrum" usually denotes a patent medicine or quack remedy peddled by a healer of dubious credentials. And while the dubious "taste" of Bloom's advice perhaps applies in an abstract metaphorical sense to his "apothegms," it is just as reasonable to hear the sentence suggesting that his nostrums, far from possessing the exquisite fragrance of ancient balm, have the unpalatable flavor of snake oil.

So it is satisfying to discover (as I did thanks to a personal communication from Vincent Altman O'Connor following a conversation with Cork historian Ronnie Herlihy) that "Cordial Balm of Gilead" was in fact an Enlightenment-era quasi-medical nostrum manufactured in Liverpool and sold for very high prices all around the world (the U.K., Europe, America, India). Although by some accounts it contained spices from the Holy Land and even dissolved gold, it was almost certainly compounded of much less expensive ingredients. The purveyor, a doctor named Samuel Solomon, grew up in Cork, opened a shop of medical remedies in Dublin around 1768, and in 1789 moved his operation to Liverpool, where he wrote a book that was re-issued many times. Dr. Solomon became quite wealthy from sales of his bottled elixir.

A scholarly article by Gabriel Sivan, "Samuel Solomon (1745-1819): quack or entrepreneur?," Jewish Historical Studies 42 (2009): 23-51, gives a balanced account of Dr. Solomon's life, his medical credentials, his business ventures, and his shameless marketing. Near the end of the article Sivan cites Louis Hyman's The Jews of Ireland to support his belief that Joyce "knew all about" Solomon, and he quotes from Oxen of the Sun, but he offers no thoughts about how or why Joyce may have made use of this historical material.

There is a good deal more to say. The sentence quoted above does not just vaguely evoke the language of patent medicine dealers. It exactly reproduces the name of Dr. Solomon's cure-all, and virtually quotes from one of his advertisements, reproduced in the second image here. Joyce's sentence says that Bloom dispenses his nostrums and apothegms "to restore to health a generation of unfledged profligates." Solomon's ad promises to help both the young and those suffering the lasting ill effects of their youth: "Those who in an advanced life feel the consequences of youthful excess, or unfortunate youth who have brought on themselves a numerous train of evils, will, by the use of this, find themselves restored to health and strength, and all the melancholy symptoms removed, which are the general effects of such causes." 

Both sentences sound as if they are euphemistically referring to harms incurred by the raging hormones of youth. Solomon did indeed target people who engaged in the compensatory sexual pleasures available to "unfledged profligates," Joyce's sly term for people with more desires than opportunities for performance. Sivan observes that, along with sufferers of other ailments, the elixir "was also 'recommended to boys, young men and those who in the prime of life feel the consequences of a secret vice [i.e. masturbation], too frequent among youth, especially in the great Schools.'... Solomon knew how to play on the sexual fears of young men and women and conceived a devastating sales pitch" (35).

With his usual uncanny genius, Joyce appears to have found a small detail that ties together numerous threads in this section of Oxen of the Sun. Solomon's balm hails from a time roughly contemporary with the satiric style being employed in the chapter. (If Gifford is correct in associating the voice with that of the pseudonymous "Junius," then we are in the late 1760s and early 1770s. Dr. Solomon began selling medical remedies in the late 1760s and launched the Cordial Balm of Gilead in 1796.) The balm purported to cure evils arising from ungratified sexual desire—a perfect metaphor for Bloom's criticism of the young men's rowdy talk. And the dispenser of the nostrum was Jewish.

Of all the stylistic experiments in Oxen, the Junius section is the only one to indulge anti-Semitic sentiments. It begins by asking, "But with what fitness, let it be asked of the noble lord, his patron, has this alien, whom the concession of a gracious prince has admitted to civic rights, constituted himself the lord paramount of our internal polity?" One can hear in this sentence the same considerations that lead Mr. Deasy in Nestor to claim that Ireland has never persecuted the Jews "because she never let them in" (a claim belied by the fact that in 1174 King Henry II assigned possession and protection of the Jews in Ireland to one of his Anglo-Norman lords), and that lead Bloom in Eumaeus to observe that "Spain decayed when the inquisition hounded the jews out and England prospered when Cromwell, an uncommonly able ruffian who in other respects has much to answer for, imported them."

The use of the word "stranger" at several points in Oxen suggests that Mulligan and perhaps others in the hospital lounge, rather than viewing Bloom as an outwardly successful middle-aged man from whom they might learn something, regard his ethnicity with suspicion. What better way for a savage satirist of the late 18th century to convey this distrust than to characterize Bloom as a rich physician who peddles fraudulent medicines because he is, after all, only "a dirty jew"? (The words appear in Bloom's thoughts about Reuben J. Dodd in Lestrygonians.)

The Oxen passage brings balm back from Liverpool to ancient Palestine with a second mention one sentence later by remarking that Bloom, "this new exponent of morals and healer of ills," is "at his best an exotic tree which, when rooted in its native orient, throve and flourished and was abundant in balm but, transplanted to a clime more temperate, its roots have lost their quondam vigour while the stuff that comes away from it is stagnant, acid, and inoperative." Jews, in other words, should stay in their own country. And while Jewish balm may have been quite the thing in its time, the adulterated European version is a poor substitute.

JH 2018
Portrait of Samuel Solomon, M.D. taken from a painting by I. Steel, held in the Liverpool Central Records Office and photographed by Arnold Lewis. Solomon's  hand rests on his book A Guide to Health, or advice to both Sexes in Nervous and Consumptive Complaints (1796); beneath the portrait is a spurious coat of arms. Source: Gabriel Sivan, "Samuel Solomon."
Photograph by Arnold Lewis of a January 1799 advertisement held in the Liverpool Central Records Office. Source: Gabriel Sivan, "Samuel Solomon."
Two Balm of Gilead bottles, embossed to deter fraudulent imitators, held in the Jeremy M. Kemp collection, York. Source: Gabriel Sivan, "Samuel Solomon."
Another advertisement published in the 7 November 1805 issue of the London Times. Source: Gabriel Sivan, "Samuel Solomon."