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Collector of Prepuces: Foreskins in Ulysses

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 2, Winter 2007
pp. 345-352 | 10.1353/jjq.2007.0039

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Buck Mulligan's reference in "Telemachus" to God as the collector of prepuces may not be much more than a blasphemous joke (U 1.394), but circumcision was a theme that we can now document Joyce having been interested in while he was writing Ulysses. In one of the new Ulysses notebooks in the National Library of Ireland, we find, under the title "Jesus" and among notes from at least one other source, a number of references to the Catholic veneration of Christ's foreskin, a theme that was prominent in the work of Protestant writers such as John Calvin and in the anticlerical writers of the Enlightenment such as John Locke and Voltaire. The brief notes on the foreskin of Jesus were all taken out of a short book written by Alphons Victor Müller under the title Die "hochheilige Vorhaut Christi" im Kult und in der Theologie der Papstkirche and published in Berlin in 1907. The study, written by a Dominican historian who had converted to Protestantism and become an anti-Catholic propagandist, left only one trace in the text of Ulysses in a place where a reference to circumcision is most obvious. In "Ithaca," just before the two men observe the falling star and part, Stephen and his host urinate together in Bloom's garden. This activity gives them occasion to reflect on each other's "invisible audible collateral organ" (U 17.1200). Characteristically on his part, Bloom reflects on Stephen's more youthful member, but he also, correctly as the readers of Ulysses know, questions the latter's general health and hygiene. Stephen's thoughts, on the other hand, are just as characteristically impersonal. While Bloom mistakenly assumes that Stephen is an observant Catholic, Stephen is reminded of the fact that, as a Jew, Bloom must be circumcised, which readers of "Nausicaa" know is not the case. The thought of circumcision leads Stephen far from an Eccles Street backyard:

the problem of the sacerdotal integrity of Jesus circumcised (1 January, holiday of obligation to hear mass and abstain from unnecessary servile work) and the problem as to whether the divine prepuce, the carnal bridal ring of the holy Roman catholic apostolic church, conserved in Calcata, were deserving of simple hyperduly or of the fourth degree of latria accorded to the abscission of such divine excrescences as hair and toenails.

(U 17.1203-09)

That Joyce based this section on Müller's book is clear, for those elements from the notes that he used here were struck out in red crayon in the Dublin copybook.

More complex is the question of why Joyce noted down the extracts from Müller's book in the first place: what possible relevance could this book have for the Ulysses project? In the case of the sources for the Finnegans Wake notebooks, Vincent Deane, Daniel Ferrer, and I have demonstrated that in the later part of Joyce's career nearly anything could be grist to his mill: from advertisements and newspaper reports to books on anthropology, mathematics, and philosophy. Nearly every written source could be mined for words and ideas that were later, sometimes much later, incorporated into the text of "Work in Progress." Yet it is still possible to discern in the notebooks of the 1920s and 1930s certain patterns of note-taking, especially for those notebooks that date from a period when Joyce was working on specific episodes of Finnegans Wake.

The Ulysses notebooks, insofar as they have been studied by Phillip F. Herring and others, reveal more similarities with the more systematic use of notebooks as receptacles of thematically related materials. The notes from Müller's book appear on a page that has "Jesus" as a title, and they are followed by related materials taken from an as yet unidentified source. It seems evident that, at least at some moment of his planning the book, Joyce thought that materials on Jesus were relevant, and there are indications that both Stephen and Bloom were to have characteristics of Christ.

One possibility is that anti-Catholic writings such as Müller's were to provide an important subtext in the novel. Without being aware of each other's...

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