James Joyce

I have a Crow to Pluck

have a crow to pluck (bone to pick) with James Joyce.

has been credited with writing the greatest short story of the Twentieth
Century, “The Dead,” one of a collection of tales he compiled under
the title, “The Dubliners.” “The Dead” is also recognized
as one of the first and best examples of modernist
fiction, when writers began to use characters to look inward into themselves
rather than out at the world.

don’t panic, or worse, yawn. I’m not
going to lead you through a class of Modern Fiction .101. It’s just, there is
something about “The Dead” that always rubs me wrong, despite that
it’s a marvelous story, on its face so simple and yet fraught with wry humor
and symbolism. After many years I recently reread it and, sure enough, it still
leaves me a tad irritated.

story revolves around a social gathering that takes place years before the
Irish rebellion hosted by three spinster ladies who are the queen bees of the
Dublin musical scene. Included in the company are locally known musicians, an
up-and-coming operatic tenor, an Irish nationalist and a token Protestant.

master of ceremonies is the nephew of two of the ladies, and cousin to the
other, Gabriel Conroy. Gabriel is portrayed as a nice enough guy by Joyce, but
a bit of a stuffed shirt, a music critic who feels his education and world outlook
elevate him intellectually several notches above the rest of the company. He
frets his speech/toast that he has prepared for the evening will go over their

the end of the story, Joyce arranges to have the wind taken out of Gabriel’s
sails, his ego deflated and his sense of place in the world utterly unmoored,
and in a way equally poignant and, I think, cruel.

is in a static, lackluster marriage with Gretta, a simple girl from the West of
Ireland, with whom he shared – he thought – an exuberant, lustful courting and
nascent wedlock, until children came along and ambition became his main focus.

the party ends, he catches sight of Gretta at the top of a stairway, stock
still, in what he sees as a classic pose, such as a goddess rendered in a Greek
sculpture. She is rapt, listening to the tenor’s rendition of a popular Irish

vision ignites in Gabriel a long dormant passion. He wants nothing more than to
hurry her to the hotel room he’s booked for the evening, a night away from home
and the kids. His heart swells with memories of the romance he experienced with
Gretta in their youth.

in their room, he’s watching her undress, and it’s all he can do to keep
himself from pouncing on her. He makes his overture, but he is rejected. She
just can’t … she’s too upset. The song that had so enraptured her was one a
young boy from her girlhood used to sing to her. His name was Michael and, she
sobs, he died out of love for her.

is at once amazed and angry. Gretta has never once told him of her previous
relationship. He begins to interrogate her and she explains that Michael was a
“delicate” young man, a euphemism for tuberculin. The night before
she was to leave her home in Galway to move to Dublin, she found him standing
outside her yard in the pouring rain. A week later, in Dublin, she learned he
had died.

then cries herself to sleep, leaving her husband alone to contemplate life and
his place in it. An epiphany shatters his illusions about himself and life. He
realizes he has never inflamed the passions of Gretta, nor any woman, as the
dead Michael had. He finds himself envying the sickly young fellow now long

Gabriel’s shortcomings, his arrogance is a mild sort. He’s not a bad guy. In
the moments before his wife’s revelation, he was bursting with love and lust
for her, only to have that proverbial bucket of ice water poured over his

uses Gabriel’s story as a metaphor for Ireland at the time. He was impatient
for his homeland to get on with modernizing, but it was held back by quaint
tradition and notions. It seems contradictory then, that he uses Gabriel, who
looks outside of Ireland, for example taking his holidays on the continent.
Still, he’s also in a sort of stasis, benighted by notions of class and culture.

those are the greater themes. I’m not so much affected by what he is supposed
to stand for, than as a sympathetic character who has just had his heart broken
to pieces.

perhaps that has always been the problem I’ve had with great literature. The BIG IDEAS never mattered as much as the small
and very human characters who make their way between them.

The Value of Voyeurism: Perusing Erotic Letters from the Past

By Donna George Storey

It’s a deliciously “dirty” job, but a writer of historical erotic fiction has to do it. As part of my ongoing research for my novel, I’ve been reading the romantic and erotic correspondence of couples whose private letters have been published due to their literary and/or historic value. Sometimes both sides of the correspondence have been preserved, but this is rare. Intimate letters tended to be destroyed by at least one of the partners; more often it is the man’s that survive. If the woman’s do, frequently the racier portions are missing, no doubt for modesty’s sake. Still, many fascinating examples of both lovers’ seductive words remain for our curious modern eyes to enjoy.

Napoleon and Josephine, Thomas Jefferson and Maria Cosgrove, Mabel Loomis Todd and Austin Dickinson, Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan, Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie, Maud Hart and Delos Lovelace, my voyeur’s list may grow further still as I continue my research. But I doubt new examples will challenge my main conclusion: Romantic love and sexual passion are timeless human experiences. Of course there are references to split drawers and dressing gowns in these letters, but the words and emotions truly transcend any particular time and place.

Most of all these letters prove that people in olden times–even prominent, “respectable” people–did enjoy sex, as much as the guardians of moral order would like to erase such evidence.

On that note, I must mention one unwitting member of this immortal erotic letter-writing tribe, a man named Godfrey Lowell Cabot, who was mentioned in a number of works I’ve consulted on sexuality in nineteenth-century America including The Humble Little Condom: A History and Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America. Mr. Cabot was from a very distinguished Boston family and a member of that city’s Watch and Ward, a group of gentlemen who reviewed pornographic images and writings in order to censor them for the good of the community. While protecting the lower orders from lustful thoughts and deeds in his public role, Mr. Cabot himself was the author of a number of intense sexual fantasies written in letters to his wife, Minnie. These letters are certainly the most transgressive (not to say “sickest”) of my sample—“dreams” wherein Mr. Cabot urinated in his wife’s mouth or was swallowed whole by her, his entire body pleasurably lodged inside hers. Of course, he wrote these fantasies in German, so perhaps that made them less obscene by Mr. Cabot’s measure. One does wonder if Minnie, reportedly a social climbing snob who complained of her husband’s incessant sexual demands, bothered to get out the German dictionary or was fluent enough to understand the “dreams” without such an effort.

In any case, there are some who question whether modern readers should intrude on a private, intimate correspondence by an otherwise respected historical figure. Perhaps they worry that the dignity of the personage and of the very value system that elevates great men over the rest of us will be compromised. Mr. Cabot is an excellent argument for openness because it benefits us all to know how hypocritical the guardians of public morals can be.

But most of the time, reading sexy love letters from the past is just plain fun.

My favorite example of historical love and lust comes in the letters James Joyce wrote to his common-law wife Nora while he was away on a long business trip in Dublin. The letters date from December 1909 and only appeared in print in Richard Ellmann’s Selected Letters of James Joyce (1975). Thanks to the Internet, we can read some of the letters in one form or another. I think they’re well worth reading for the boyish, uninhibited pleasure the letters convey. Joyce is not editing himself for public consumption, he is revealing his fantasies and desires to the woman he loves. Many call them “dirty,” but I would characterize them as “sincere.” Occasionally Joyce worries his “fuckbird” will find his fantasies perverted, a nice touch of reality, but although her replies have not survived, it is obvious she was a passionate partner in the exchange and not just doing it to keep him away from Dublin’s brothels.

However, rather like the controversial tampon scene in Fifty Shades of Grey, James Joyce’s “dirty” letters draw disgust for one natural physiological aspect in particular–his obvious joy in his partner’s farts during intercourse.

“You had an arse full of farts that night, darling, and I fucked them out of you, big fat fellows, long windy ones, quick little merry cracks and a lot of tiny little naughty farties ending in a long gush from your hole. It is wonderful to fuck a farting woman when every fuck drives one out of her.” (Excerpted from December 8, 1909)

A goodly number of online commentators are really grossed out by this (they are less vocal about Joyce’s delight in the image of Nora masturbating while she defecates, but perhaps that one was too much to tackle in a public forum). Surely anyone who’s read Ulysses–and haven’t we all?–could have guessed that Joyce is a butt guy:

“He kissed the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump, on each plump melonous hemisphere, in their mellow yellow furrow, with obscure prolonged provocative melonsmellonous osculation.” (“Ithaca” chapter, Ulysses)

And dare I suggest that anyone who has experienced heterosexual intercourse knows that the insertion of a rigid penis into the woman’s pelvic region results in the passing of gas on occasion? Joyce’s celebration of his lover’s farts during intimacy could be seen as endearing, an unconditional acceptance of her body and all of its qualities in the throes of passion.

In American Taboo: The Forbidden Words, Unspoken Rules, and Secret Morality of Popular Culture, Lauren Rosewarne contends that farts and fart jokes are allowable in low humor genres and as a way to portray male characters as unrefined and undisciplined. However farts invariably decrease the sexual attractiveness of women. Desirable women simply never fart, although they are supposed to endure with patience the farts of their male partners. Above all, one is never supposed to couple a towering god of twentieth-century literature such as James Joyce with something as crude as farting.

Now, if you find farts during sex disgusting and unspeakable, that’s fine. One should be no more judged for that reaction than the opposite preference. But I’d also suggest that this glimpse into other couples’ intimate lives does give us a chance to acknowledge how sex and the taboo are closely linked. Rather than recoiling in disgust, why not wonder at the variety of humanity’s sweet perversity? And be grateful to these lovers whose words show us we are all connected through time in our erotic desires?

Write on!

Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman and a collection of short
stories, Mammoth
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey
. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com
or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor

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