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  • Obscene HungersEating and Enjoying Nightwood and Ulysses
  • Elizabeth Blake

Then she began to bark also, crawling after him—barking in a fit of laughter, obscene and touching.

Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

It is from a horror of life that Miss Barnes’ work springs, and her book, it is to be carefully noted, is no more for general and indiscriminate reading than is Mr. Joyce’s Ulysses. It is sometimes obscene, though never pornographic.

Graham Greene, “Fiction Chronicle”

One of T.S. Eliot’s primary concerns, in his capacity as Djuna Barnes’s editor, was that Nightwood would be, as Ulysses was, called obscene, tried, and banned. This fear is reflected in both his introduction to the novel and his editorial changes, which include the suggestion—discarded before publication but attested in the manuscripts—that the word “obscene” be replaced with “unclean” in the novel’s final pages (186). That this substitution did not make it into print suggests the inadequacy of Eliot’s replacement, which fails to account for the allure of obscenity, reducing it to something that arouses repugnance, rather than desire. Yet obscenity, as Graham Greene makes clear in his review of Nightwood, arouses more than just bodily desire. By distinguishing obscenity from pornography, Greene posits a meaningful distinction between two oft-conflated terms; his implication is, contrary to contemporary usage, that obscene literature can be good literature. Following this insight, I read both Nightwood and Ulysses as obscene novels in order to develop a positive concept of obscenity that acknowledges the complexity of this slippery concept and articulates its appeal. Obscenity, I argue, is constituted by the depiction and arousal of desire, whether that desire be erotic, readerly, or gustatory. I locate a sense of possibility in the textual depiction and production of desire, allowing hunger to limn desire in order to demonstrate how certain forms of obscenity can teach, as Freud puts it, the lesson of “carpe diem,” rather than focusing on how or why other, more explicit, forms of obscenity have been suppressed. Elizabeth Ladenson claims that “we are titillated by the idea of dangerous literature—especially [End Page 153] the idea of a classic like Madame Bovary as dangerous—precisely because literature no longer poses any danger” (xvi), but I want to suggest that reading for the obscenity in canonical texts might reveal the dangers that literature still can and does pose.

Hunger itself can be a source of very real danger. The dangers of starvation were quite familiar to both Joyce, who wrote in the wake of the Irish Potato Famine,1 and Barnes, who had submitted to a voluntary forcible feeding for a magazine article designed to draw attention to the hunger strikes of the British suffragettes.2 Nonetheless, this kind of hunger is not my topic. If it is possible that, as Julieann Ulin claims, “Bloom reappropriates the potato physically and psychologically,” turning it from a symbol of deprivation into a personal talisman, I argue that Bloom also reappropriates the experience of hunger, showing that even in the wake of the historical atrocity that was the potato famine, the desire to eat can feel good (56). If hunger itself does not always feel good in Nightwood, it is nonetheless structured by desire, rather than deprivation. Despite the link Jane Marcus suggests between Robin Vote and the suffragettes, Robin is ravenous rather than self-abnegating (187). Her hunger is, like Bloom’s, the kind that Roland Barthes describes as a form of “predictive imagination” that encompasses “the entire memory of previous pleasures” and enables the hungry subject to stitch together an imagined scene of future pleasure (Reading 264). Hunger is an experience of sensation simultaneously remembered, imagined, desired, and deferred; even as hunger is a bodily sensation itself, it is also felt as the conspicuous lack of another bodily sensation. To be hungry is not to be eating; it is to want to eat.

This kind of hunger offers a useful way of thinking about obscenity because it is a type of desire that evokes the possibility of visceral and counternormative pleasures without inciting—at least in the twentieth century—the editorial or juridical censor. The feeling of hunger, Freud claims in...