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Joyce’s Vagina Dentata: Irish Nationalism and the Colonial Dilemma of Manhood
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In Edgar Degas’s Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando (1879) we see a dark-skinned woman suspended in midair on a rope secured by her teeth. Placed in a position of a commercial display, she is an eroticized and exoticized object of public consumption, in a way also resembling a lynched figure, since the rope extends upward, and her head seems to be thrust backward. Marilyn Brown’s essay “Miss La La’s Teeth” discusses the painting “within a broader visual practice of social masquerade, ranging from depictions of minstrelsy to those of interracial performance, in which racial difference was simultaneously represented and obfuscated by the white gaze.” However, as Brown notices in her groundbreaking study of the picture, the assumed strength of Miss La La’s teeth also points to something else: the threat she may pose to a vulnerable man who could be entrapped by her redoubtable jaw. If the popular assumption that Degas was impotent and celibate is true, then the powerful toothed mouth of Miss La La possibly reveals not only “a stereotypical colonial object for male modernist self-projection” but also Degas’s fear of female organs and castration. The trope of exoticized and demonic women equipped with menacing powers, especially the power of castration, has been alive not only in European painting but also in North and South American folklore, Indian mythology, Irish legends, and Modernist literature. Recall Joseph Conrad’s dark voracious female representing Africa and numerous other Modernist (and pre-Modernist) tropes of the devouring mother to observe a certain pattern, a connection between the myth of a menacing female and endangered masculinity and—I’d like to add—collective national identity as well. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to make any universalist claims about anxieties relating to female sexuality, I will look at a localized example of a phallogocentric imagining of one nation—Ireland—in James Joyce’s fiction. Although Vincent Cheng, Enda Duffy, Jolanta Wawrzycka, Joseph Valente, Kimberly Devlin, and others have published excellent scholarship on either nationalism or gender in Joyce, I believe that we can grasp the assumptions and sentiments about Irish society in Joyce’s texts more fully, in their complexity and paradox, when we look at issues of gender and nation as contrapuntal, interdependent elements.

The nationalist ethos in turn-of-the-century Europe linked emasculation and deformation with ethnic otherness, and James Joyce—a writer who moved among Dublin, Paris, Trieste, and other major cultural centers—soaked in the popular representations of women and ethnic others in literature and art, which included Degas’s paintings of sharp-toothed circus women and hooknosed Jews. Joyce himself explores the intersections among male-centered institutions, sexual performance, and performance of ethnic identities, and he links the problem of biopolitics of gendered body parts to the mythos of soon-to-be independent Ireland. He recognizes the subaltern characters—that is, in early-twentieth-century Ireland, women and ethnic others—as threatening not only to the perceived racial purity of a nation but also to a particular kind of masculinity inscribed within the mythos of Ireland: masculinity synonymous with domination, control, virility, and heteronormativity. The purveyors of the nationalist narratives linking valiant and virile masculinity with Irish identity cast the other as voracious, lying in wait to pounce upon the nation’s manhood. Joyce recognizes this trope in nationalist narratives and redeploys it, sometimes mockingly, in his own descriptions of the subaltern. However, he also counteraccuses this nationalist mythos by describing Ireland itself as an all-devouring, dangerous parasite. Ulysses thus presents a rather uncivil dialogue, accusations and counteraccusations, at the core of which is an unmistakable connection between the feminine and the threat of loss. For Irish nationalists it is the loss of purity and order; for artists it is the loss of productive artistic inspiration.

In Ulysses Joyce gives us a confluence of contentious issues, from parochial bigotry toward women and Jews to musings on artistic autonomy, national belonging, and adultery. Leopold Bloom (a Jewish canvasser in Catholic Ireland), Molly Bloom (his unfaithful wife), and Stephen Dedalus (a would-be artist who rejects the Catholic dogma) are all semiconsciously implicated in a...

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