Bonnie Roos, "The Joyce of Eating: Feast, Famine and the Humble Potato in Ulysses" (2006)

[Source: ‘The Joyce of Eating: Feast, Famine and the Humble Potato in Ulysses; or, Holy Moly!: Is that a potato in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?’ [paper in available - online; accessed 22.04.2021; also publ. in Hungry Words: Image of Famine in the Irish Canon, ed. George Cusack & Sarah Judith Goss (Irish Academic Press 2006)]


Epigraph: “[W]e really are all hungry and when we are hungry we are all very quarrelsome” James Joyce, “The Dead,” 1909 [sic err.]

As Christine Kinealy points out, one of the impediments of representing the Famine with historical accuracy was that the more unpleasant truths about the Famine [had] to be confronted and not avoided. For example, the ships that left Ireland laden with food during the Fam-ine were doing so largely for the financial benefit of Irish merchants and traders. The large farmers who benefited from the availability and sale of cheap land toward the latter end of the Famine were also Irish and, sometimes, Catholic. ... Corruption, stealing, hoarding, and even cannibalism are part of the darker reality of the Famine years, and should not be forgotten in an attempt to make the Fam-ine a simplistic morality tale about the “goodies” (the Irish people en masse) and the “baddies” (the whole of the British people). (248, her italics; Roos, p.4.)

Given such horror, as Terry Eagleton characterizes it, Irish writing “is marked by a hiatus between the experience it has to re¬cord, and the conventions available for articulating it. How are those conventions to take the measure of a dislocated, fantasy-ridden so¬ciety in which truth is elusive and history itself reads like some penny dreadful?” (224; Roos 4.

Eagleton suggests more precisely that “[t]here is indeed a literature of the Famine. [. . .] But it is in neither sense of the word a major literature. There is a handful of novels and a body of poems, but few truly distinguished works. Where is the Famine in the literature of the Revival?” he asks, “Where is it in Joyce?” (13; Roos 5).

The students ask for a ’ghoststory’. (Nestor) - viz.,

— Tell us a story, sir.
— Oh, do, sir, a ghoststory. [30]

Roos reads Deasy’s foot and mouth letter as a reprise of Dr David Moore’s in the lead up to the Famine. “I remember the famine. Do you know that the orange lodges agitated for repeal of the union twenty years before O’Connell did or before the prelates of your communion denounced him as a demagogue? You fenians forget some things” (31). Roos, p.15.

Woodham-Smith writes: “This theory, usually termed laissez faire, let people do as they think best, insisted that in the economic sphere individuals should be allowed to pursue their own in-terests and asserted that the Government should interfere as little as possible. [...] The influence of laissez faire on the treatment of Ireland during the famine is impossible to exaggerate. Almost without exception the high officials and politicians responsible for Ireland were fervent believers in non-interference by Government, and the behaviour of the British authorities only becomes explicable when their fanatical belief in private enterprise and their suspicions of any actions which might be considered Government intervention are borne in mind” (54). Roos 18.

Andrew Gibson, who observes, “the phantasmagoric imagery in “Circe” is not primarily an example of modern irra¬tionalism (expressionist, surrealist). It is a literalization of the outlandish incongruities produced by and within a colonial culture” (193). Roos, 22.

Roos: Like Homer’s Odysseus, Joyce’s Bloom also possesses his moly and his masculinity, in the form of a potato he carries around in his pocket. Indeed, the very Irish Famine that Stephen seeks, in the form of this black, shriveled potato, Bloom’s key, and our key to the text, is right where a key should be. Perhaps needless to say, Bloom’s manhood is also well-placed. But Bloom does not recognize or admit his moly for what it is. (p.23.)

In tracing the role of the potato in this chapter, “Circe” thereby becomes an examination of the causes of the Famine, which – oddly enough – Joyce attributes not only to the English, but in part, to patriarchy. It is also an examination of the absence of Irish writing about the Famine, which Joyce also attributes to the rhetoric of patriarchy. (Roos, 23). /

If he were honest with himself, Bloom would recognize that his mother’s reason for carrying the potato has to do with her experience of the Famine. But, as we have seen in “Nestor,” though Bloom possesses the answer, he does not understand the problem. Instead, Bloom’s pocket, with its competing clean, idealizing “Godly” soap and dirty, rotten potato is nearly iden¬tical to his mother’s pockets with potato and Agnus Dei – another repetition of history – but with one important difference: Bloom associates the potato with a sentimental, idealized memory of his mother, rather than the Famine. Even when he carries a conspicuous, palpable sign of the Famine in his pocket on a daily basis, Bloom sanitizes this distasteful memory. So Bloom sees the potato as a good-luck charm from his mother, a moly in every sense of Homer’s use of the term, but fails to recognize how it actually opposes the Circean loss of memory. To (heroically) admit the true reason his mother kept the potato, he would hold the key to Ireland’s future, Ireland’s “pan[a]cea” in the very thing it wants to “Throwaway,” (or, as Molly advocates, “Nevertell” (448)) Roos. 27

Zoe: How’s the nuts?
Bloom: Off side. Curiously they are on the right. Heavier I suppose. One in a million my tai¬lor, Mesias, says.
Zoe: (In sudden alarm.) You’ve a hard chancre.
Bloom: Not likely.
Zoe: I feel it. (Her hand slides into his left trouser pocket and brings out a hard black shrivelled potato. She regards it and Bloom with dumb moist lips.)
Bloom: A talisman. Heirloom.
Zoe: For Zoe? For keeps? For being so nice, eh? (She puts the potato greedily into a pocket, then links his arm, cuddling him with supple warmth. He smiles uneas¬ily. Slowly, note by note, oriental music is played. He gazes in the tawny crystal of her eyes, ringed with kohol. His smile softens.)
Zoe: You’ll know me the next time. (476)

Ulysses - Bloom: Sir Walter Raleigh brought from the new world that potato and that weed [tobacco], the one a killer of pestilence by absorption, the other a poisoner of the ear, eye, heart, memory, will, understanding. That is to say, he brought the poison a hundred years before another person whose name I forget brought the food. Suicide. Lies. All our habits. Why look at our public life! (478).

Daniel O’Connell, Woodham-Smith writes, despite his “lawyer’s respect for the law” and “horror of armed rebellion,” “gave up a brilliant career at the bar to devote his life to Ireland. Adopted by a Catholic uncle [. . .] a fluent speaker of the Irish language, with a magnificent voice and presence, a quick wit, a superb gift of invective, and a flamboyance his enemies called vulgarity, he was nicknamed ‘Swaggering Dan”. Self-government, not separation from England, was O’Connell’s aim; and he cherished a romantic admiration for Queen Victoria, ‘the darling little queen” (Woodham-Smith, Cecil. The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849. London: Penguin Books, 1991, p.16. Roos, 31.)

Stephen is wracked with guilt about women, especially his mother, who like him remained loyal to a Christian system that oppressed her. So internalized was her religion that when she might have told him of her love for him, Mary Dedalus could speak only of prayer in her final words with her son. Instead, she dies starving and voiceless:

Quotes: (Stephen’s mother, emaciated, rises stark through the floor in leper grey with a wreath of faded orange blossoms and a torn bridal veil, her face worn and nose-less, green with grave mould. Her hair is scant and lank. She fixes her bluecircled hollow eyesockets on Stephen and opens her toothless mouth uttering a silent word. A choir of virgins and confessors sing voicelessly.) (579)

Her “bluecircled hollow eyesockets” and “emaciated” appearance is not merely of one who is ill, but one who is hungry. (Roos, 44)

See also
Bonnie Roos, ‘James Joyce’s “The Dead” and Bret Harte’s Gabriel Conroy’: The Nature of the Feast’, in The Yale Review of Criticism, 15:1 (Johns Hopkins UP 2002), pp.99-126. The article appears in the same issue as Kevin Whelan’s ‘The Memories of “The Dead”’ (pp.59-97). [Available at - online; accessed 20.04.201.]
Bonnie Roos, "James Joyce’s Ulysses: Vampires, ‘Fake News’, and the Approaching Global Environmental Hunger Crisis", in Green Matters: Ecocultural Functions of Literature, ed. Maria Löschnigg and Melanie Braunecker [Nature, Culture and Literature ser., Vol. 15] (Brill 2019), pp.109–28.

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