XY: I’m going to ask you a very intimate question as we lie here recovering from our delightful exertions, my XX … have you read Ulysses? Be honest.
XX: Of course! Well, the naughty bits anyway. I’m teasing—I have read it, and more importantly, I adore it.
XY: Everyone knows the ending: ‘yes I said yes I will Yes.’ Romantic, certainly, but I’ve always heard those as rather orgasmic yeses. Molly Bloom, lying in bed head-to-foot with her husband Leopold after a very long day, remembering how he proposed to her among the rhododendrons on Howth Head. Earlier, though, she is thinking about her afternoon with her lover, the raffish Blazes Boylan, replaying the sex they had: ‘the 2nd time tickling me behind with his finger I was coming for about 5 minutes with my legs round him … I wanted to shout out all sorts of things’. Molly has a very sensual view of the world, as did Joyce himself – I know you’ve read his delightfully filthy letters to his wife Nora so I don’t have to tell you, do I XX?
XX: I am quite au fait with Joyce and Nora’s letters, darling. In many ways they are interchangeable with Molly and Bloom, in their unashamed, voracious delight in sex and the possibilities of arousal—the memory attached to them—in everyday things. It’s a beautiful sub-narrative of sex that runs through Ulysses. When I realised it, I read it again just to read it in that context.
XY: The book certainly caused a bit of a stir in the 1920s – French publisher and all that. I’ve heard it was never officially banned in Ireland, though you had to buy it under the counter when it was available at all. I’m surprised the censors found any sex in that vast mountain of words! But then you and I did. What is your favourite episode? Circe? Penelope?
XX: Nausicaa, without a doubt. Sex and scent are so much a part of me, that Bloom’s musings on Molly’s perfume, opoponax and jessamine (jasmine) suiting her ‘high notes and her low notes … [h]eat brought it out’ seem like utter truths. It takes a certain kind of sensual observation to associate the animal and elevated aspects of someone with particular fragrances. That kind of person understands the language of desire. Bloom goes from lemon soap to heady flowers, dogs sniffing each other to Molly’s dirty bathwater, infused with her specific intimate scent. Each is a memory that leads to another, his internal exploration making me think of my own. You don’t write that unless you are obsessed with it yourself. And Joyce was: you only have to read in his letters where he wants to smell Nora’s dirty underpants, her ass and cunt, to know it. To revel in each other’s bodies on that olfactory level is a magical thing.
XY: And then of course Nausicaa is the famous masturbation-on-the-beach episode. Bloom watching Gerty MacDowell watching the fireworks above them, her skirts rising higher as she leans back and reveals all to the stranger, both of them growing more and more excited: ‘She leaned back far to look up where the fireworks were and she caught her knee in her hands so as not to fall back looking up and there was no one to see only him and her …’ She seems to come then, uttering ‘a little strangled cry’. Bloom comes too, semen bursting forth in time with the fireworks—it’s one of the most beautiful orgasms in all of literature, don’t you think?
then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lively! O so soft, sweet, soft!
XX: I think Ulysses must have been considered risqué because it was so honest about the sexual lives of ordinary people: sex was voyeurism, masturbation, afternoon lovers, dirty thoughts and dirty books, arousing scents. It wasn’t polite, was it? Therefore, it was scandalous! But Ulysses shows us what sex is and should be, how people actually do it and think about it—how we think about it, darling—it saturates everything, and subtly colours every day of our lives.
XY: I love it when you speak in such grand phrases, XX—come here and let me tickle your behind.
XX: Then let me draw you down to me, like Molly, so you can ‘feel my breasts all perfume’ … O yes, XY, yes.
Image: Tomoé Hill