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Typhoid Turnips and Crooked Cucumbers: Theosophy in Ulysses

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 8, Number 1, January 2001
pp. 77-97 | 10.1353/mod.2001.0009

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Modernism/Modernity 8.1 (2001) 77-97

I got hold of the first two volumes of The Secret Doctrine and read steadily through it, so many pages a day, in the most favourable conditions for such study . . . . Though I understood so little yet, the bigness, strangeness, newness of the subject matter, the virility of the style, the curiosity it awoke in me, held my interest without flagging.

Gretta Cousins's memoirs give a disconcerting account of her honeymoon. She confesses how she found "bigness, strangeness, newness" and even "virility" from Helena Petrovna Blavatsky's best-selling introduction to theosophy, The Secret Doctrine, rather than from a more conventional source. As though anticipating readerly raised eyebrows at this substitution of that most fashionable of Edwardian religious faiths for more usual nuptial pleasures, Gretta explained how "providential" it was that spiritual matters preoccupied her during a time of crisis. She grew "white and thin" during her first year of marriage, not, as friends suspected, on account of her vegetarianism, but rather due to "problems of adjustment to the revelation that marriage had brought me as to the physical basis of sex":

Every child I looked at called to my mind the shocking circumstance that brought about its existence. My new knowledge, though I was lovingly safeguarded from it, made me ashamed of humanity, and ashamed for it. I found myself looking on men and women as degraded by this demand of nature. Something in me revolted then, and has ever since protested against certain of the techniques of nature concerned with sex. Nor will I, and many men and women of like nature, including my husband, be sanctified, purified and redeemed, life after life, until the evolution of form has substituted some more artistic way of continuance of the race. [WTT, 108-09]

On June 15th 1904, and at several other occasions during that significant month, James Joyce stayed with Gretta Cousins and her husband James, interspersing evenings with them with his courtship of Nora Barnacle. The couple were established friends of Joyce, Gretta a talented pianist and graduate of the Royal university and James a poet and playwright active in the Literary Revival. To Gretta, Joyce was "a favourite of mine though he was reputed to be a 'bad boy,'" and she "delighted in his lovely tenor voice especially when I accompanied some of his Irish songs with nobody but ourselves to hear in our little drawing room" (WTT, 106). The affection was only partly reciprocated. Joyce was unable to stomach the couple's proselytising of theosophy, chastity, and vegetarianism and fled, grumbling of indigestion resulting from "a typhoid turnip." However, Joyce's discontent with the Cousins was grounded in more than culinary differences. Gretta Cousins's revulsion from "certain of the techniques of nature concerned with sex" exemplifed a theosophical somatophobia viewed with predictable ridicule and suspicion by the young Joyce, a self-proclaimed sexual radical. "Scylla and Charybdis," the ninth episode of Ulysses, performs a deeply subversive assault upon these sexual ideologies. "Scylla" assembles before Stephen a captive audience of Dublin theosophists, yet the chapter also groans with innuendo and sexual excess. This essay will explore this tension, documenting how Joyce discloses the fault lines permeating theosophy's celebration of chastity through a network of intertextual references which recover a buried, latent sexuality.

Theosophy was in tune with contemporary social purity campaigns to impose a single moral standard of sexual continence and self-restraint. Converts were implored to "obtain the power to control their desires," to resist the surrender of "the divine nature to the animal nature": celibacy was recommended as having "superior advantages for meditation and study," whilst "marital continence" permitted "the union of the male spirit with the female soul." Disciples, known as "chelas," were expected to remain celibate whilst seeking the path to enlightenment. Many theosophists were also dedicated social purists. For Charlotte Despard, the pioneering purity feminist Josephine Butler introduced "the close connection between the women's movement and the spiritual awakening which marked the closing decades of the last century." Helena Blavatsky's companion Isabel Cooper-Oakley was a prominent campaigner for the Social Purity Alliance. W. T. Stead, whose "Maiden Tribute of Modern...

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