Symbolism and the Fact of Matter: History, Politics, Journalism, and Waste in James Joyce’s Ulysses

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Kirby Gamsby


Joyce uses excrement in Ulysses (1922) not only to bridge the gap between literature and reality, but as a gateway to history as waste, journalism as irrelevant, and the politics that influences them both. Critic Valérie Bénéjam says that looking at feces through a symbolic lens is problematic because it takes away from the physicality of the act. Joyce is able to convey both the reality and the symbolism attached to the expulsion of human waste. Leopold Bloom’s trip to the bathroom breaks down a barrier between what can and cannot be written about in literature. Instead of writing about fecal matter in a satirical or overtly humorous way, this particular bowel movement possesses a frankness about the body and its function that was unheard of in the 1920s and even now is considered impolite. Joyce’s ability to layer frankness and history, and journalism and politics comes from his need to create the “new now” as opposed to the news of the now. Rather than printing titbits, he carefully constructs the new now using the thought by thought stream of consciousness of Bloom and the nutritious bits of history, leaving the waste behind.

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