Contemporary interpretations of James Joyce’s modernist opus Ulysses often foreground the novel’s concerns with paternity and sonhood; however, as the thirteenth chapter of the novel, “Nausicaa,” reveals, the spectre of an absent femininity haunts the novel profoundly. “Nausicaa,”eponymously titled after the princess in Homer’s Odyssey, progresses the novel’s Homerian thematic focus on mourning narratively. This thematic continuity is nonetheless slightly disturbed by the chapter’s status as the novel’s first sustained depiction of the conscious thought of a female character. “Nausicaa” is sectionally structured in its exploration of femininity firstly through an examination of the divided psyche of the young Irish girl Gerty Macdowall, and then with Leopold Bloom’s post-ejaculative contemplation of the nature of Woman. The one thread that psychically binds both portions of the chapter is its approximately 200 allusions to the Virgin Mary. Through a psychoanalytic lens, this intermediate term of mariolatry offers Ulysses a reflection on how femininity, as connected with the image of the Mother, subjects the feminine and masculine subject to parallel, though dissimilar, ways of constructing (sexual) desire, and thus ways of mourning the lost object(s) of the past.
Ulysses’ narrative, following the Homerian motif of mourning as part of the novel’s allegiance to the structure of Odyssey, is deeply interested in how its two male protagonists, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, attempt to overcome their grief over lost familial objects. With relation to the event of familial death, Bloom has lost his father and his eleven-day old son, while Dedalus has lost his mother. But, coextensively, Bloom has psychically lost a connection with his adulterous wife Molly, while Dedalus has abandoned his family, including his father Simon, who is living in poverty. From a perfunctory examination, the novel seems to highlight the dialectics of paternity and sonhood; however, both Ulysses and psychoanalytic interpretation acknowledge that the primordial loss of the Mother results in the most traumatic grief. Disavowed by the castrated child, yet manifesting an absence that results in lifelong mourning, the loss of the Mother is a loss that structures subjectivity as such. French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan details in his extension of the Freudian stages of psychosexual development how the dyadic relationship between the child and the Mother becomes disrupted once the Father enters the kinship relation, thus enabling the child to recognize that he is not the object of the Mother’s desire. This simultaneously produces a subjective aggressive jealousy towards the all-powerful Father, as further explicated in Freud’s “Totem and Taboo,” and a mimetic relationship with the perceived (though fictional) sexual prowess of the Father who has “obtained” the lost Mother. Thus, the feminine (M)other is “always addressed by man on the side of the maternal phantom” (Cristiana Cimino, “The Kiss of the Panther-Woman”), which is the phallic object-cause of desire, and is unreachable as such. In his merging of structural linguistics with Freudian analysis, Lacan affiliates the Father’s (illusory) phallus with the universalized presupposition of present linguistic meaning in speech. The universalization of the category of Woman is thus a nonexistent status in an innately phallocentric society: Woman is only always the (mourned) Mother in the unconscious. It makes sense, then, that the question of (the desire of) the absent Woman, unconsciously figured as the Mother, is the question that Ulysses’ characters disavow constantly and yet keep returning to, never able to coherently speak on it.
Returning to “Nausicaa,” the absence of the Woman reverberates even in how Joyce writes Gerty’s perspective versus how he writes Bloom’s. Gerty’s perspective, as the first prolonged description of the psychic life of a female in Ulysses, emerges through third-person narration, as contrary to the frequent first-person angle of Bloom’s portion of the chapter. This difference troubles the veracity of the representation of Gerty’s consciousness, and returns to the question of if there is any way to articulate the Woman separately from the vantage of a phallocentric society. For example, while intimate points of Gerty’s life are exhaustively detailed in the third-person, the occasional intrusive phrase, such as the masculinist question asking “[w]hy have women such eyes of witchery?” (286), oftentimes appears and muddles the presupposed autonomy of Gerty in detailing her own desire, in contradistinction to Bloom. Taking this into account, it is still obvious that the provocative play of seeing and being seen, without spoken contact, between Gerty and Bloom indicates a similar sexual enjoyment both characters receive when framing each other in their sexual fantasies, albeit in divergent ways. What makes this oscillation of optic fantasies intriguing is that, on the side of both Gerty and Bloom, they are situated regarding the unstable status of femininity. Bloom gazes at Gerty as the innocent Irish girl that still retains a part of herself that represents a “[h]ot little devil all the same” (301). Gerty, interestingly, takes a parallel enjoyment in her sexual fantasy through envisioning herself as the “womanly woman…. [who can] make [Bloom] forget the memory of the past” (293-294), while additionally being aroused by the prospect of “rais[ing] the devil in him” (295). Bloom’s desire for Gerty is composed by directly petrifying her as an object of desire; juxtapositionally, Gerty’s sexual fantasy speaks to how her arousal is not caused by (the image of) Bloom himself, but instead by the self-reflexive image of her two seemingly contradictory roles in his fantasy, one of which is able to (maternally) assist Bloom through his mourning of the past, and the other of which sexually arouses him. Gerty’s sexual fantasy is irreversibly tied to an unconscious recognition of her teetering role as the other in Bloom’s gaze, while Bloom derives pleasure only through his voyeurism pointed at the feminine other. Both the masculine and feminine subjects in “Nausicaa” thus situate their desires with respect to the dual image of the Mother, who is the initiator of maternal care and is the object of (phallic) desire. Gerty’s more self-referential mode of enjoyment, however, indicates a difference in her relation to feminine desire (and the image of the Mother) that perplexes Bloom, threatening the (illusory) security of his masculine image.
Feminine sexual desire is thus unable to be conceptualized in the phallocentric foundations of, what the narrator/Gerty comically classifies as, “the conventions of Society with a big ess” (299). The psychic locus of phallocentrism is the same for both masculine and feminine subjects, both of whom are subjectivized under the function of psychic castration. This is why Gerty struggles with, and yet derives pleasure all the more from, her (societally) contradictory desires to be both the sweet maternal figure and the erotic spark that causes Bloom to “literally worship at her shrine” (296) through his passionate gaze. These are the paradoxical positions placed on the constructed category of Woman as such; however, as can be derived from the latter quote, the feminine (M)other is associated with a feminine phallic authority that mandates a male reverence. “Nausicaa” associates the feminine phallus with the “intercessory power [of the Virgin Mary] that it was not recorded in any age that those who implored her powerful protection were ever abandoned by her” (292). One of the first references to the Virgin Mary in the chapter is when it is described that Gerty’s mourned love interest Reggy Wylie is a Protestant, a fact that the narrator/Gerty quickly glides over by evoking her allegiance to Catholicism, mentioning that “of course [she] knew Who came first and after Him the Blessed Virgin and then Saint Joseph” (287). So the Virgin Mary is firstly referenced as the figure Gerty must admire, constituting the religious cut between her lost object of desire and herself. The ideological sanctioning of mariolatry is furthermore emphasized by the chapter’s interruptive descriptions of a Catholic temperance group praying to the Virgin Mary near Sandymount Strand. The veneration of Mary by the temperance group, then, is associated with a conformity to Catholicism, but also to the obsessive adulation of a feminine protection “almost maddening in its sweetness” (295). The latter association is, obviously, a parallel description to how Gerty views her erotic framing in the gaze of Bloom, the gaze that worships her. In this striking identificatory move, Joyce critiques a mariolatry founded on the asexual purity of immaculate conception, which he writes on earlier in the novel, through Stephen Dedalus, as the myth that “the cunning Italian intellect flung to the mob of Europe” (170). The passionate veneration of the Virgin Mary, the Abrahamic Mother par excellence, is far from being attached to her purity; instead, it is irreparably bonded to an erotic hysteria appositional to the function of the (fundamentally lost) maternal figure.
Metonymically associated with the Virgin Mary, then, Gerty self-reflexively enjoys the imagined double image of her position as the “[r]efuge of sinners” and as the “[c]omfortress of the afflicted” (294). As the “[r]efuge of sinners,” Gerty imagines herself caring for Bloom, thus ridding him of his mourned “sins” of the past. As the “[c]omfortress of the afflicted,” however, Gerty desires to provide a sexual comfort to Bloom, a (both literally and figuratively) masturbatory relief that Bloom gives “much thanks” (305) to her for. In both ways, Gerty functions like the Virgin Mary, the signifier exposed in this chapter as being far removed from the sexual purity of immaculate conception, which, for historical reference, was a Roman Catholic concept that only began to be taught in 1854, approximately 68 years before the publication of Ulysses in its entirety. After masturbating to his fantasmatic image of Gerty, Bloom’s extended post-ejaculative diatribe on the nature of Woman reveals the impossibility of this nature to be articulated, and thus its nonexistence in the phallocentric linguistic order. Bloom is characterized throughout the novel as being admirably adherent to reason and knowledge, contrasting with the reckless insensibility associated with other characters, such as the Citizen who attempts to assault him in the twelfth chapter. When it comes to his ceaseless insecurity regarding women, however, Bloom repetitively fails to procure any comprehension. For example, when describing women’s interactions with each other, he contemptuously derides women “kissing and whispering secrets about nothing” (302). Shortly after this derision, though, he expresses a deep insecurity in his inability to know what it was that his wife Molly “[s]aw…in [him]” (Ibid). Bloom must defend himself against the unknowable feminine desire that threatens his attainment of phallic mastery by denying the existence of meaningful feminine desire, disparaging spoken feminine desire as “nothing.” Nevertheless, this unknowability primes the female as the repetitively unreachable object of desire, and the bodily “relief” that Bloom thanks Gerty for providing him simultaneously “[d]rain[s] all the manhood out of [him]” (308). Alternating between the threat of castration and sexual catharsis, the unutterable Woman exceeds the epistemology of phallocentrism. While Gerty does not (and cannot) consciously wield knowledge of pure feminine desire, as a feminine subject she situates herself closer to this feminine obscurity than Bloom. Bloom views the (feminine) other as the radical alterity against his male subjectivity, but Gerty regards the (feminine) other as immanent to her own subjectivity, despite the inability to acquire any conscious knowledge of the feminine. Paradoxically, this disparity in common outlooks emphasizes how, as Lacanian scholar Alenka Zupančič writes on, for the female “[t]he nonexistence of the Other is itself inscribed into the Other” (What is Sex?, 53). This explains why Gerty’s sexual fantasy on Sandymount Strand is framed self-reflexively: she enjoys herself being seen as the feminine Other, and thus unconsciously knows her position as the impenetrable female, and yet is unable to posit her fantasy without reference to the male gaze, and hence cannot harbor any existent knowledge of female desire in the phallocentric world.
Both Bloom and Gerty still mourn for their respective lost objects of desire, but the one psychically lost object that neither have ever had, nor will ever attain, is the coherence of their selfhoods. They are both removed from the Mother and her incomprehensible desire, and are subjected to the law of the unobtainable phallic authority of language that refuses a clear articulation of their identities. This fundamental loss, displaced onto various objects of desire that are inevitably lost themselves, is the ground that both the masculine and feminine subject must disavow and yet comply with. What Joyce recognized is that, despite this similitude of psychic castration, the male and female operate in differently structured realms of conscious (sexual) desire. Much of Ulysses, including “Nausicaa,” may erase Woman from the domain of (phallic) articulability, but this is only insofar as it understands the inevitable absence of the feminine (M)other. By repetitively conjuring the mythic signifier of the Virgin Mary, “Nausicaa” exemplifies this shared structural lack between the gendered positions that nonetheless constitute their different psychic approaches to desire, sexual enjoyment, and thus to mourning the absent Mother herself.