No hair there

In Brief

The Greek goddesses of Lestrygonians, who sup on ambrosia ("drinking electricity") and thus may not need an anus, return in Circe as the ostensibly asexual Nymph who judges Bloom's carnal transgressions: "We immortals, as you saw today, have not such a place and no hair there either. We are stone cold and pure. We eat electric light." The Nymph's words suggest that when Bloom inspected a statue in the National Museum his theory about anal orifices was confirmed and a new thought entered his mind: goddesses have no pubic hair. This may echo one of the celebrated curiosities of Victorian culture, John Ruskin's disastrous aestheticizing of the female midsection.

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England's great 19th century art critic (The Stones of Venice, Modern Painters I-IV, The Seven Lamps of Architecture) had a single very unhappy marriage. On his wedding night in 1848 Ruskin found his wife's body so repulsive that he could not perform as expected. He does not seem to have suffered from latent homosexuality. He anticipated his wedding night with the gusto typical of heterosexual males, writing Effie to say that the thought of seeing her naked prompted unspeakable urges: "That little undress bit! Ah—my sweet Lady—What naughty thoughts had I …" Something about Effie's actual body, though, strangled his visual fancies in their crib. During annulment proceedings six years later he said, "It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it."

The precise "circumstances" that chilled Ruskin's ardor may never be known, but clearly they had to do with how Effie's "person," i.e. her body, was "formed." She wrote to her father that John had pled "various reasons" for not wanting to have sex with her, but that he "finally this last year told me his true reason," that "he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April." What unimagined feature of women's bodies did Ruskin behold for the first time that night? Starting with Mary Lutyens, an early Ruskin biographer, most people have assumed it was pubic hair, though alternative explanations have been advanced. (Menstruation is only barely plausible: most young men know that women bleed. Disfiguring skin disease seems still less likely: that affliction would not be common to all "women." Unattractive odor could explain such a strong reaction, but it does not square with Effie's mention of "what he saw.")

The usual view, that Ruskin thought women have no hair between their legs, can cite for a cause the fact that he was accustomed to gazing on classical statues. (In addition to the originals he no doubt viewed in Italian and French museums, countless Victorian rooms were decorated with cheap reproductions.) The syllogistic chain of ideas thus attributed to Ruskin—classical statues depict ideal female beauty; those statues have no pubic hair; ergo, beautiful women lack pubic hair—accounts well for Bloom's thoughts. But if Bloom wishes to transcend the messiness of genital hair he has not let it stop him as it stopped Ruskin. And he ultimately rejects the idealizing impulse in Circe, attacking the supposedly suprasexual Nymph as merely presexual: "If there were only ethereal where would you all be, postulants and novices? Shy but willing like an ass pissing." The stage directions too attack her impersonation of purity: "Sacrilege! To attempt my virtue! (A large moist stain appears on her robe.) Sully my innocence! You are not fit to touch the garment of a pure woman."

The aestheticizing impulse that reputedly infected the fantasies of one famous Victorian has been hilariously reproduced in another Irish novel, this one set in Ruskin's era. In J. G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), which is about the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, two inexperienced young men, Harry and Fleury, are intrigued with a young woman named Lucy whose honor has been compromised. Chapter 16 directs the reader's attention away from any sexual acts that Lucy may have committed to the worst offense that another young woman, Louise, can imagine. Louise supposes that Lucy "allowed, perhaps even encouraged, certain things to be done to her by a man; she had perhaps allowed her clothes to be fumbled with and disarranged . . . she might even perhaps, for all Louise knew, have been seen naked by him." It distresses Louise "That a man (let us not call him a gentleman) should have been permitted to view that sacred collection of bulges, gaps, tufts of hair and rounded fleshy slopes." Exposing this "delightfully shaped body" to the gaze of males represents "a betrayal of her sex."

The erotic charge that characterizes Louise's imagination of the male gaze certainly attaches to Harry and Fleury, but it becomes clear that their visual images do not include "tufts of hair." In chapter 22, the young men experience a version of Ruskin's wedding night when a black cloud of beetles called cockchafers invades a room where Lucy is entertaining visitors at tea, landing on everyone in the room but especially Lucy. She leaps to her feet and furiously beats at the insects, which cling to her everywhere and crawl into every available opening. In a frenzy she pulls off all of her clothes, but still more insects land on her, falling off in clumps as their weight accumulates. Harry and Fleury, shocked at "the unfortunate turn the tea party had taken," watch as "an effervescent mass detached itself from one of her breasts, which was revealed to be the shape of a plump carp, then from one of her diamond knee-caps, then an ebony avalanche thundered from her spine down over her buttocks, then from some other part of her." The brief exposures give the young men "a faint, flickering image of Lucy's delightful nakedness," and the erotic spectacle is distinctly aesthetic: watching it, Fleury dreams up the idea of "a series of daguerrotypes which would give the impression of movement."

Lucy becomes paralyzed with fear. The men hesitate to touch her, but when she faints they decide to act. Tearing the boards off a Bible to use as blades, they scrape the black crawling mass from her backside and then begin on her front. As they expose swaths of white flesh, they discover that Lucy's body is "remarkably like the statues of young women they had seen . . . like, for instance, the Collector's plaster cast of Andromeda Exposed to the Monster, though, of course, without any chains. Indeed, Fleury felt quite like a sculptor as he worked away and he thought that it must feel something like this to carve an object of beauty out of the primeval rock. He became quite carried away as with dexterous strokes he carved a particularly exquisite right breast and set to work on the delicate fluting of the ribs."

But it turns out that statues have not prepared the young men for what they will find between Lucy's legs. She has hair there, and "this caused them a bit of surprise at first. It was not something that had ever occurred to them as possible, likely, or even desirable." Having scraped at it to no effect, Harry asks, "D'you think this is supposed to be here?" Fleury, who "had never seen anything like it on a statue," says, "That's odd. . . . Better leave it, anyway, for the time being. We can always come back to it later when we've done the rest."

JH 2020
 4th century BCE torso of Aphrodite in the style of Praxiteles, held in the Louvre, Paris. Source: www.louvre.fr.
 Albumen carte-de-visite (visiting-card size) photographic portrait of John Ruskin made in 1863 by W. & D. Downey, held in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
 Thomas Richmond's 1851 oil on board portrait of Euphemia (Effie) Gray, held in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Daniel Chester French's sculpture of Andromeda (chains fettering the left wrist are not seen from this angle), displayed at Chesterwood in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Source: www.pinterest.com.