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  • “Portals of Discovery” or “An Immorality in Three Orgasms”? How Ulysses Stopped Being Too Queer to Queer
  • Margot G. Backus (bio)

Anyway my humble opinion is that if I put down a bucket into my own soul’s well, sexual department, I draw up Griffith’s and Ibsen’s and Skeffington’s and Bernard Vaughan’s and St. Aloysius’ and Shelley’s and Renan’s water along with my own. And I am going to do that in my novel [Ulysses] and plank the bucket down before the shades and substances above mentioned to see how they like it: and if they don’t like it I can’t help them. I am nauseated by their lying drivel about pure men and pure women and spiritual love and love for ever: blatant lying in the face of the truth.

james joyce, letter to stanislaus joyce, 13 nov. 1906; (selected letters 129–30)


In 1990, in Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Sedgwick observed that while there were many canonical authors whose writings we were, at that time, prepared to accept as in some sense queer, there were others, especially James Joyce, to whose writing any application of the term queer could only be greeted with astonished disbelief. “But . . . Joyce?” she imagines scandalized literary critics gasping, presumably clutching our collective décolletage (53). To be sure, Sedgwick was making this point en route to claiming all modern writing as queer theory’s legitimate province. Indeed, in this very passage she is pointing out the simultaneous canonical centrality and “almost infinite elasticity . . . of the list of authors about whom one might [productively] think to ask . . . [how their [End Page 97] work has been shaped by] the structure, function, historical surround of same-sex love” (53). She is, in fact, arguing that “no one can know in advance where the limits of a gay-centered inquiry are to be drawn” (53). Sedgwick was both calling attention to, and simultaneously calling into question the role in literary criticism of what Michael Warner would, in 1991, term heteronormativity (xxi). Thus, during this 1990–91 watershed period, literary critics were just beginning to question the collective, moral/epistemological assumptions about human sexuality underpinning our heretofore unexamined knowledge of which texts are and are not about non-heteronormative, or queer, acts and desires. Up to the early to mid-1990s, the critical lens that heteronormativity invisibly sustains, which Sedgwick terms “the epistemology of the closet,” rendered any attempts rigorously to challenge such a priori assumptions self-evidently ridiculous, hilarious, gauche, irresponsible, or monstrous.1 This essay undertakes to explore the distinction between how Ulysses is read now, and how it was or could have been read in the pre-Epistemology period. As we shall see, prior to the mid-1990s, any public mention of the novel’s representation of anything queer— which Hailey Taylor has usefully defined as any sexual identity, desire, or activity “that doesn’t exhibit cis-heteronormative potential for tangible or monetary (re)production”— could only have been viewed as calling attention to a ferocious or scabrously uproarious attack leveled by Joyce against some superlatively immoral person or vice, or as the product of a shameful and disqualifying misreading.

Because Joyce’s corpus, most notably Ulysses, so exuberantly overflows with transgressive sexual acts, fantasies, and desires, it is hard to reconstruct, only three decades on, how, in 1990, James Joyce could possibly have been seen as particularly resistant to queer readings. Still, there it is: Sedgwick cites Joyce as the culminating item in an accelerating, increasingly breathless, panicky list of modernist authors to whom, she implies, virtually all literary critics would agree, queer perspectives could or could not have a possible application (“Proust, Musil, Kafka, Cather, but . . . Mann? James, but . . . Lawrence? Eliot? but Joyce?”).2 Nonetheless, the queer critical lens to which Sedgwick’s magisterial Epistemology contributed, and the full consolidation of which it effectively heralded had, by 1995, already made possible enough queer readings of Joyce to fill the [End Page 98] James Joyce Quarterly special issue that the issue’s editor, Joseph Valente, would subsequently expand into the groundbreaking edited collection, Quare Joyce (1998). In the collection’s introduction, “Joyce’s (Sexual...


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