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“They Like it Because No-one Can Hear”: A Derridean Reading of Joyce’s Floral Language in “Lotus Eaters”

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 45, Number 2, Winter 2008
pp. 348-356 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0061

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As A. Walton Litz and a number of more recent critics have pointed out, Joyce heavily elaborated the “[l]anguage of flowers” in his manuscript additions to “Lotus Eaters” (U 5.261).1 Ramón Saldívar argues that Joyce uses floral metaphors to express Bloom’s unspeakable thoughts, which “emerge into the light of language . . . for it is precisely the work of metaphor to disguise the impropriety of the literal signified behind the transforming mask of the figural signifier.”2 Jacqueline F. Eastman also explains a number of floral metaphors, tracing them back to popular Victorian floral dictionaries.3 In this way, according to Saldívar, “Bloom’s expressions of sexual desire, of love for a departed son, of nostalgia for a past time of sensual wholeness can only be spoken through an indirection which names something else as a preoccupation of the mind” (400). While discussing floral imagery in Joyce’s works, Claudine Raynaud notes that the process of letter-exchange, conducted in the language of flowers, also should not be overlooked.4 This essay considers the floral topos at the center of the psychological interaction between Leopold Bloom and Martha Clifford that occurs in their correspondence. This interaction, however, cannot adequately be explored without asking “[w]ho are the letters for?” (U 4.249)—the sender or the receiver? To answer this question, I invoke the Derridean “postal principle” of envois.5 For Jacques Derrida, the word envois—“to dispatch” or “to send off”—describes the way senders express their desire under the stamp of the pleasure principle. Postality remains open in order to keep the desire in circulation, with the result that no letter ever truly arrives at its destination. Shuttling “between postes, or relay stations, along a psychosexual trajectory of desire that creates ‘correspondences’ between its subject of address (an absent beloved) and the form of address (a postcard),”6envois describes two systems joined by writing: the “system of desire” and the “system of the postal service.” An engagement with Derrida’s text helps us understand the role of the sender (Martha) and the receiver (Bloom) in “Lotus Eaters,” as well as the relationship between the author (Joyce) and the reader.

Though Joyce was hardly unusual in identifying flowers with women or erotic love, he is one of the few writers to condense the consecrated and the blasphemous in such floral imagery. The title “Lotus Eaters,” for instance, conveys both divine and secular significations. To most Hindus and Buddhists, the lotus is the symbol of spiritual fulfillment, for it “rises out of darkness to blossom in full sunlight” and is uncontaminated by the grubby world below.7 John Henry Ingram writes, “The Egyptians consecrated the flower of the lotus to the sun, their God of eloquence, and represented the dawn of the day by a youth seated upon its blossom” (215). Like the rose, however, as Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant note, the lotus also exerts a sensual, erotic meaning: “The lotus is pre-eminently the archetypal sexual organ or vulva, pledge of the continuity of birth and rebirth” (617). Conversant with the multivalent meaning of flowers, Joyce here allies two important experiences in human life: religion and sexuality.

Joyce demonstrates his considerable knowledge of the “language of flowers” as he dramatizes the erotic flirtation between Bloom and Martha. The secret language that he draws upon originated in the Orient and was introduced to the West in the eighteenth century by two European travelers, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Aubrey de la Mottraye. Beverly Seaton and Jack Goody provide full accounts of that symbolic language, sélam, and its development in literary history.8 According to their studies, travelers brought sélam—a communication system in which objects, tied up in a scarf or handkerchief, construct a message—into the West after journeys to Turkey. In fact, sélam is not the kind of secret code that Montagu and de la Mottraye romanticized. It was merely a harem game, as Joseph Freiherr von Hammer-Purgstall informs us, invented by women to pass the time (although the objects they exchanged were not confined to flowers).9 The report of the sélam game in Montagu...

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