In 1920 James Joyce wrote to his artist friend Frank Budgen that the "idea" of the self-reflexively literary and rhetorically experimental "Oxen of the Sun" episode of Ulysses was "the crime committed against fecundity by sterilizing the act of coition." In The History of Sexuality Michel Foucault grounds his analyses of the production and deployment of modernity's discourse on sexuality in the "micropractices" of power relations that focus on sex, in the polymorphous management, administration, policing, and control of the discourse of sex—a discourse (or, rather, a multiplicity of discourses) that exists in the very space of power and as the means of the exercise of power. Foucault claims that the emergence of "population" as an economic and political problem is one of the great innovations in the techniques of power during the eighteenth century; at the heart of this economic and political problem of population, he argues, is sex: "it was necessary to analyze the birthrate, the age of marriage, the legitimate and illegitimate births, the precocity and frequency of sexual relations, the ways of making them fertile or sterile, the effects of unmarried life or of the prohibitions, the impact of contraceptive practices. . . ." To focus on sexuality is to control the population.
Claiming with Foucault that the work of literature is "the product of countless rhetorical pressures and currents," Mary Lowe-Evans traces in Crimes Against Fecundity the rhetoric of historical, political, and social texts concerning population control that produce the rhetoric of certain literary texts, Joyce's texts, in order to argue that the pressures exerted to change radically the size or constitution of a given division of the population are most often rhetorical. Lowe-Evans concentrates on the Irish emigration from the Great Famine (circa 1845-1851) through the early 1900s and on the international birth control movement from 1876 through the first three decades of the twentieth century: the insistence of the Roman Catholic Church on reproduction as a religious issue, its legitimacy determined by an institution appointed by God; the challenge to the Church by the works of Thomas Robert Malthus ("Essay on Population," first published in 1798) and the neo-Malthusians on reproduction as a political-economic issue, its legality determined by the public.
The Famine in Ireland in 1845-1851, Lowe-Evans argues, is the event whose discourse was most influential in acting as an "author-function" for late nineteenth-and twentieth-century Irish texts: the nadir of Irish history that through the rhetoric surrounding it shaped Irish political, economic, social, religious, and artistic beliefs and practices into the twentieth century—indeed, ensured that some of the conditions that produced the Famine would continue to prevail. That the causes of the Irish Famine were largely artificial, that the Famine was "allowed to happen in order to carry out currently accepted laws" of population control that had become givens in Western laissez-faire economic philosophy, makes the study of the rhetoric surrounding the Famine—its ideological justifications, the testimonies of the sufferers and of those who observed the suffering—necessary to comprehend the [End Page 270] discourses that followed in its wake. Joyce makes use of the rhetoric of Famine emigration to defend his own (self-styled) "self-exile," a departure clearly in the tradition of emigration. His essay, "Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages," for example, describes Ireland in the conventional Famine metaphor as a "poor, anaemic, almost lifeless body" to which its one master gives orders and its other master administers last rites. But he justifies his emigration—what post-Famine rhetoric metaphorizes as "bloodletting"—by arguing: "No one who has any self-respect stays in Ireland, but flees afar as though from a country that has undergone the visitation of an angered Jove."
Lowe-Evans claims that Joyce and his canon have become a prototype of the...