Out of all of the chapters in James Joyce’s Ulysses, the fifteenth chapter “Circe” is arguably the most explosive. “Circe” is the longest chapter in the book and is written in the style of a theatrical play, which allows it to split from the usual stream-of-consciousness internal dialogue that is inserted throughout the rest of the book. Despite its exclusion of his first-person internal thought, “Circe” dynamically exposes the frames of desire that Leopold Bloom operates through, using hallucinatory scenes to pierce the repressive veil of shame that Bloom is so often shown to internalize throughout the book. Through the surreal chapter’s two trials of Bloom, the workings of Bloom’s desire, oscillating between a desire for proximity to the masculine ideal and a moral universal goodness, are unveiled in their full absurdity.
Extending Sigmund Freud’s link of the superego with subjective desire, French psychoanalyst-linguist Jacques Lacan, using the different but similar ethics of Immanuel Kant and the libertine the Marquis de Sade as examples, enumerated on the paradoxical quality of desire in his essay “Kant with Sade.” The Lacanian distinction between the subject of the statement and the subject of the enunciation is used in the essay to demonstrate the unconscious psychic workings of the desiring subject. The subject of the statement is the subject who consciously identifies himself in his enunciated statement, while the subject of enunciation is the true subject of the statement, whereby unconscious desire makes itself known in the statement. In “Kant with Sade,” Lacan formulates how the Kantian assertion of an autonomous moral duty based on the categorical imperative represses the subject of enunciation of this assertion, which he figures as the Marquis de Sade’s torturer-executioner. The Kantian categorical imperative treats the Other and his freedom as an end-in-itself, while the Sadian moral duty of unconditional bodily usage perverts this imperative, reducing the Other to a partial object of sexual pleasure. The unconditionality of Sadian (im)morality can be shown in Lacan’s description of Sade’s maxim that is featured in his book Philosophy in the Bedroom: “‘I have the right to enjoy your body,’ anyone can say to me, ‘and I will exercise this right without any limit to the capriciousness of the exactions I may wish to satiate with your body’” (“Kant with Sade,” 648). Both the Kantian and the Sadian duty find enjoyment through functioning as unconditional imperatives as related to the superego. If the subject does not cede to the superegoist demand of (Kantian) altruism, he will feel humiliation, and thus the superego, as the subject of enunciation, takes (Sadian) pleasure in controlling the subject of the statement. Lacan uses this similarity to expose how the superego, and its unconditional demands on desire, in actuality represses the fact of its own oscillation between these two duties in order to construct its own illusory purity. Beyond the normativity of conscious desire, then, is the center of the Lacanian drive that disturbs this oscillation of desire between Sade’s sadism and Kant’s categorical altruism. Centering Lacanian psychoanalysis is apt for a reading of Joyce’s “Circe” precisely because “Circe” ruptures this oscillation of Bloom’s desire in the same way that the Lacanian drive does for the subject’s desire. Transcending normative gender representation in order to show the truth of Leopold Bloom’s desire, a truth that has its bearings in an openness to femininity through masochism, “Circe” radically discloses how Bloom’s often-characterized altruism and his anxieties about sexuality/gender are irreducibly entangled.
The first hallucinatory trial in “Circe” begins with various accusations being thrown at Bloom by phantom figures of Dublin, such as writer Philip Beaufoy accusing Bloom of being a plagiarist “masquerading as a litterateur” (Ulysses, 374). The trial truly begins when it devolves into the mass proliferation of accusations from women centered around Bloom’s sexual misconduct. Described as Dublin’s “plebeian Don Juan” (381), Bloom is unable to defend himself amidst the ruckus of the trial, and attendees scream for the implementation of violent acts of punishment against him. Bloom’s lawyer J.J. O’Molloy defends Bloom by saying that his misbehavior is due to an “aberration of heredity” (378), thus deeming him irresponsible for his actions. This “defense” is the first of two times in “Circe” when Bloom is characterized by an expert of a profession (such as a lawyer or doctor) as abnormal behaviorally and thus biologically. The societal marking of Bloom as behaviorally “aberrant” is often shown throughout Ulysses in the covert comments from various men of Dublin speaking on the ambiguity of Bloom’s sexuality. This can be seen, for example, when, in chapter twelve, the Citizen directly demeans Denis Breen’s mental illness and rudely implies Bloom’s bisexuality when he calls Breen a “half and half” (263) in front of Bloom in chapter twelve. In this way, “Circe” continues to expand on how society mandates a normative association of bisexuality or womanliness and madness in the trials of Bloom. This oppressive societal mandate is not just external to Bloom though; it has installed itself into Bloom’s psyche, as shown in how the trials of “Circe” are depicted as hallucinatory manifestations of Bloom’s internal guilt over his contradictory desires. The anxiety of an ideal masculinity haunts Bloom throughout Ulysses, as Bloom, because of his strict altruism that is deemed feminine by much of society, eludes this ideal. But Bloom’s altruism is also distorted in “Circe” through the true anxiogenic quality of his psyche: his repressed masochism. Bloom’s masochism is shown in “Circe” to be a repressed psychic quality for the most part of the book, insofar as it unmans him and distances him irreducibly from the masculine ideal. The first sign of Bloom’s masochism in “Circe” comes when, after being threatened to be flayed alive by the Dublin court, he mutters that he “love[s] the danger” (381). This admission introduces the chapter’s focus on the truly repressed facet of Bloom’s psyche that evades the double bind of altruism and sadistic masculinity.
The first trial of “Circe” ends with the societally “aberrant” Bloom being saved by the ghost of Paddy Dignam, who, transformed into a dog “[b]y metempsychosis” (386), proffers the court a validation of Bloom’s alibi that Bloom attended Dignam’s funeral. Bloom, in his “aberrancy,” can only be defended from a literal or social death by the dead itself, an impossible defense that demonstrates the extent of heteronormative society’s sadistic oppression of those that it conceives of as differing from the masculine ideal. “Circe”’s second trial of Bloom begins not immediately with a sadistic trial of death, but instead with a political fantasy in which Bloom is venerated as “the most serene and potent and very puissant ruler of [Dublin]” (393). Newly revered as the “world’s greatest reformer” (392), Bloom claims Dublin as “the golden city which is to be” (395) under his rule and, when a man suddenly contests his rule, he enacts “[t]he instantaneous deaths of many powerful enemies, graziers, members of parliament, [and] members of standing committees” (396). Following this performance of political sadism, Bloom launches into a humanist speech, calling for the instantiation of “[f]ree money, free rent, free love and a free lay church in a free lay state” (399). The exaltation of Bloom ends with a mass suicide where “[m]any most attractive and enthusiastic women…commit suicide” (401). This political fantasy thus merges Bloom’s humanist altruism and his desire to be in proximity to the sadistic power of the masculine ideal in order to finally posit himself as finally accepted, and even worshiped, by Dublin. Soon after this fantastic rally, though, the second trial of Bloom begins. A dissident describes Bloom as a “fiendish libertine from his earliest years” (Ibid), leading to the creation of a large lynch mob, which once again leads Bloom to have to find himself defense. Just as in the first trial, a professional, this time the sex specialist Dr. Malachi Mulligan, is called on to testify on Bloom’s lack of responsibility for his actions. This time, Dr. Mulligan, as opposed to the lawyer O’Molloy, directly deems Bloom “bisexually abnormal” (402). Bloom’s sexual “abnormality” becomes a gender “abnormality” when Dr. Mulligan is corroborated by another doctor who calls Bloom “a finished example of the new womanly man,” furthermore calling Bloom’s moral nature “simple and lovable” (403). Then, in a striking move, “Circe” completely transcends normative gender representation in the second trial by transforming Bloom into a pregnant woman who “bears eight male yellow and white children” (Ibid). And, even more shockingly, Bloom voices his enjoyment of this transformation, exclaiming how he “so want[s] to be a mother” (Ibid). The second trial of “Circe” thus begins with a masculinist fantasy of sadistic power and ends with Bloom’s masochistic identificatory relationship with femininity. In the trials of “Circe,” Bloom’s masochism, a repressed desire beyond normative conscious desire, perturbs the desiring oscillation between sadism and altruism that Lacan describes as the function of the demanding superego in “Kant with Sade.” The second trial in particular reflects how Kantian altruism can be inflected with the pleasure of Sadian sadism in the form of extreme political power, which is furthermore linked with the masculine ideal. But, undergoing a transgendered transformation in the second trial, Bloom’s untraditional (and masochistic) openness to the experience of femininity becomes separated from Lacan’s described dual forms of repressive unconditional duty. The masochism of the first trial gives way to a more pure masochism in the second trial whereby Bloom can finally accept the impossibility of a masculine ideal, and thus (in fantasy and in reality) can live more authentically.
The conclusion of “Circe,” though it seems not to be connected to Bloom’s feminine masochism, actually does speak to Bloom’s openness to the repressed femininity of the psyche. Seeing the changeling apparition of his dead son Rudy as he looks down on a prostrate Stephen Dedalus, Bloom has to decide between the continued mourning of his son, feeding the monstrous trauma inhabiting his psyche, or the accepted loss of his son, perhaps to be aided by becoming the mentor, or supplanting the dead mother/lost father, of Stephen. In the end he chooses the latter, shedding the despair over what Michael Ullman calls “not-Rudy” and coming to accept the void of subjectivity that the subject encounters when mourning lost objects of love. This is not a simple rejection of the void and Otherness of subjectivity, but instead what Lacanian psychoanalyst Cristiana Cimino would connect with the feminine position as “an extreme openness between oneself and the world” (“The Kiss of the Panther-Woman”). Accepting loss and recognizing the impossibility of simply overpowering or rejecting it, “lovelorn longlost lugubru Booloohoom” (Ulysses, 354) finally chooses to open himself up to Otherness and loss, thus (in Lacanian terms) repositioning himself in feminine terms.