I read Ulysses over seven days in 2010. I had just finished my first year in graduate school in New York, and for that week in May all I did was read Ulysses. I didn’t have many friends, I didn’t go out, I was lonely, my roommate went home for the summer, so I stayed up reading Joyce.
I didn’t read the Gifford annotations, and often I barely knew what was happening. I did, however, understand this part, about a quarter of the way through the book: Leopold Bloom sits in Davy Byrne’s pub, eating “with relish of disgust” a Gorgonzola cheese and mustard sandwich. As he’s washing the food bits down with a glass of burgundy, he remembers the moment he proposed to his wife, Molly, at Howth Head:
Ravished over her I lay, full lips full open, kissed her mouth. Yum. Softly she gave me in my mouth the seedcake warm and chewed. Mawkish pulp her mouth had mumbled sweetsour of her spittle. Joy: I ate it: joy. Young life, her lips that gave me pouting. Soft warm sticky gumjelly lips. Flowers her eyes were, take me, willing eyes. Pebbles fell. She lay still. A goat. No-one. High on Ben Howth rhododendrons a nannygoat walking surefooted, dropping currants. Screened under ferns she laughed warmfolded. Wildly I lay on her, kissed her: eyes, her lips, her stretched neck beating, woman’s breasts full in her blouse of nun’s veiling, fat nipples upright. Hot I tongued her. She kissed me. I was kissed. All yielding she tossed my hair. Kissed, she kissed me.
I couldn’t believe it. It was one of the most beautiful passages I’d ever read.
Because this is Joyce, it’s worth going over the details. The fact that Bloom and Molly are alone, the location of Howth Head (if you don’t know what it looks like, please look up pictures), that’s all very storybook romantic, but what makes this passage is the messiness of it. A goat is shitting right next to them, for heaven’s sake. And the kiss itself: Molly pushes a seedcake, which she has partially masticated, into Bloom’s mouth with her tongue, and he tastes her spittle and the stickiness of her lips. In a book about the momentous and the mundane, this passage is an intersection of both. It’s a moment that’s completely full. It’s a moment that’s alive, wriggling like a tongue.
Writing about Ulysses is kind of like increasing the world’s pollution. At this point, there’s so much about the book it’s difficult to tell what of it matters, and how much. It all sort of cancels itself out. In fact, there’s so much personal writing about the book on top of all the straightforward criticism that at this point even writing about your own feeling and reaction to Ulysses feels extraneous and unnecessary. Didn’t someone already say exactly what you want to say in much better words? And so how do you write about the seedcake kiss, one of the most famous moments in one of the most famous novels ever written? Thirty years ago, twenty years ago, ten years ago, didn’t some other guy in his early twenties move to the East Village and feel the pleasure of his loneliness and stay up late at night in his apartment and plow through Joyce, get to the seedcake kiss and feel the beauty of the writing positively blank out his brain, causing him to stop and reread it over and over again until he could just begin to understand why he found it so beautiful, but not for too long because he still had ten episodes to go, though he underlined it in his copy, and a month, a year later, after he’d finished the book and had read a few other books, flip through until he found it, and then read it again?
Joyce returns to the kiss 500 pages later, saving it for the final 39 lines of the entire book. By giving us how Molly remembers the kiss, the messiness propagates: “My God after that long kiss I near lost my breath… and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldnt answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didnt know of.” Molly thinks of sleepy donkeys slipping, thousand-year-old castles, half-open wineshops at night, castanets, the sea, figtrees in the Alameda gardens. The seedcake kiss isn’t a representation, it’s the part of a life that we have no name for, it’s something just as important as goat currants and tired donkeys, it’s fertile potential and the thing we want more of, it’s all we have, it’s a splendid, beguiling fluke.
And then this:
and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
The Kiss is a bimonthly series curated by Brian Turner.
The Kiss: Intimacies from Writers is available from Norton in February 2018.