“for to wollpimsolff, puddywhuck”1
Even before our current critical attention to the body and its rites of hygiene, the incident in the Wake of Private Buckley shooting a Russian general during the Crimean War, when the latter had offended Mother Earth—and Ireland—by wiping himself with a handful of turf, was thought to loom quite large in the work as a whole.2 Intimately connected to the very physiological circumstances under which Joyce wrote and to the critical environment of contemporaries in which this writing progressed, the scene is his response to the charge that the Wake was in more than one sense the waste of his talent. Recent scholarly inquiry into Joyce and disease, and earlier anecdotal testimony, from Samuel Beckett among others, allows us to see the Joyce of later years, suffering from incontinence among numerous others ailments, in a quandary not dissimilar to the general’s.3 When private need overcomes one in public, what does one do?
Joyce and Rabelais are often paired in broad statements about the carnival of life, the complexity and vitality of the human body, the exuberance of language, lexical catalogues and accumulations, word-play, and the like. And Joseph Collins, in a double-edged review of Ulysses, said, “It will immortalize its author with the same certainty that Gargantua and Pantagruel immortalized Rabelais.”4 Closer textual correspondences, in two such sprawling literary corpora, have seldom been pursued. But Joyce, whose private library included the work of Rabelais,5 would have recalled that the French author had addressed the everyday problem of finding [End Page 146] aids for personal hygiene in almost scientific fashion through the precocious Gargantua, in Chapter 12 of La vie trés horrifique du grand Gargantua pére de Pantagruel. The work is attributed to M. Alcofribas, an anagram that contains both François and Rabelais (save the n, for which we have M.), which Joyce is sure to have appreciated.
It should be recalled that Leopold Bloom brought Thomas Urquhart’s 1694 English translation of Rabelais home to Molly. Her distaste over an apparent euphemism in the account of Gargamelle giving birth to Gargantua after over-eating and drinking recalls a keyword from Urquhart that will find an important echo in the Wake:
. . . like some of those books he brings me the works of Master Francois Somebody supposed to be priest about a child born out of her ear because her bumgut fell out a nice word for any priest to write and her a—e as if any fool wouldn’t know what that meant. . . .(18:487–91)
Defecation is here linked to birth, creation.
To return to the child Gargantua, the relevant chapter title, which illustrates the mock seriousness that informs the work as a whole, is “Comment Grandgousier congneut l’esperit merveilleux de Gargantua a` l’invention d’un torchecul.”6 Grandgousier is husband of Gargamelle and father of the precocious Gargantua, who has just turned five. With the rapid fall in lexical register so often employed by Joyce in the course of a sentence, this might, none too freely, be translated as “How Grandgousier recognized the marvelous intelligence of Gargantua through his discovery of an arse-wipe.” Because Molly’s recall of “bumgut” implies that Joyce had access to, and recalled, Urquhart, it is of interest to see how a Scot a century and a half after Rabelais dealt with the “kicker” at the end of the title: torchecul (< torcher “wipe” + cul “ass”). Urquhart writes: “How Gargantua’s wonderful understanding became known to his father Grandgousier, by the invention of a torchecul, or wipe-breech.”7
Grandgousier, returning from a military campaign, asks his son whether his nurses have kept him neat and clean. The precocious Gargantua replies: “J’ay . . . par longue et curieuse experience inventé un moyen de me torcher le cul, le plus royal, le plus seigneurial, le plus excellent, le plus expedient que jamais feut veu” (“Through long and applied experimentation I have discovered a means to wipe my bum, the most regal, the most lordly, the most excellent, the most expedient that has ever been seen”). [End Page 147] The typical Rabelaisian catalogue that...