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James Joyce and the Perverse Ideal (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 45, Number 1, Fall 2007
pp. 159-163 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0033

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

David Cotter's ambitious and packed study, James Joyce and the Perverse Ideal, seeks to explore "sexual perversity" by looking at Bloom's masochism (1). The book opens with the following assertion:

The elements of sexual masochism in Joyce are typically either ignored or disdained: they make us feel uncomfortable. Although sexuality is recognized to be at the center of Joyce's work, criticism has addressed this topic from a safe distance, and often with overtones of voyeurism or condescension. When criticism has addressed the topic of sexuality in Joyce, it has tended to focus on the ideological significance of his sexual attitudes, rather than on the nature of the sexuality that he has presented.

(1)

The author sees Ulysses as "the story of a mild man who for ten years has chosen to masturbate rather than have penetrative sex with his wife, whom he finds very sexy," and he finds it "strange" that there has been "an abiding reluctance to concede that sexual masochism runs like a core through the center of Joyce, and is the impetus of his writing" (1). A quick glance at the endnotes and bibliography confirms that Joycean literature on the subject of sexuality appears to have been, indeed, consulted. The author's contention is that "Bloom's masochism is not an anomaly, or an arbitrary obscurity, but an illustration of the extreme implications of an equation that is the bedrock of Joyce's writing" (5). Yet, it is only in the concluding chapter of this book that the thesis of the study is articulated most precisely.

Initially, the author sees Bloom's sexuality as "typical of a variation of sexual masochism" (5), and, although he finds it difficult to define "sexual masochism" as a cultural phenomenon, he looks for models of Bloom's perversity in the brothels, fetish clubs, and pornographic subcultures of Joyce's time. Bloom's is the "masochism of the cuckold," a type that relies on sexual humiliation and shame (6). Some dozen pages are devoted to the sociological exploration of sexual perversity in relation to Joyce's work, and Cotter's terms are contextualized thoroughly by the works of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Sigmund Freud, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Leo Bersani, and Jonathan Dollimore, to name the main "framers" of Cotter's framework. Missing, however, is a sustained discussion of texts by Joycean theorists of sexuality, though the works of Frances L. Restuccia, Richard Brown, Joseph Valente, Sheldon Brivic, Colleen Lamos, and Jean Kimball are dutifully evoked.1 Over the years, studies by those and many other Joyceans have offered thorough discussions of various sexualities and sexual dynamics in Joyce. Cotter's argument, however, is that masochism as a psychosexual trait "inverts and overrides Joyce's other sexualities" (20); masochistic sexuality depends on "the inversion, or subversion, of a pre-existent sexuality, or of a multiplicity of normative sexual drives. The study of masochism in Joyce reveals a self that is spurious, paradoxical, parodic and subversive" (221). Cotter focuses on such manifestations of sexual masochism in Joyce as flagellomania (as expounded in Ian Gibson's The English Vice2), forced feminization, the sexualization of shame, and the sexualization of alienation, and readers are offered some excellent, if at times derivative, readings of masochistic economies he identifies in Joyce's characters.

In chapter 1, entitled "The Cracked Looking-Glass," the author explores Joyce's presentation of sexuality through the psychology of masochism and various theories of its causes, among them the inversion of repression of sexuality (to sexualize that which was denied); Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex (and its dismissal by Cotter and Deleuze); the dynamics of melancholia; and Deleuze and Guattari's ideas of schizophrenic sexuality.3 Working from both the Freudian concept of sexuality (such as eros instinct and death instinct) and Deleuze and Guattari's Jungian belief that "all psychic energy is libidinal" (they write, "Everywhere you have libido as machine energy"—323), Cotter declares that "Joyce sets up a number of antithetical pairs in his work, and draws out the tension between them" (30, 36). Fair enough, but it is by working from Joyce's texts that Cotter demonstrates his critical skills as he...



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