Claude Rawson is best known as a scholar of Jonathan Swift and the eighteenth century, but Rawson's has also used the savage irony of Swift's modest proposal for a series of essays which consider Swift's invocation of cannibalism in light of a longer tradition (in Anglo-Irish relations) of imputing cannibalism literally to the native Irish as a way of demonizing their "savagery" or else to implying a metaphorical cannibalism to describe the British Imperial exploitation of those native Irish. Rawson reapproaches these Swiftian subjects in a more recent essay entitled "Killing the Poor: An Anglo-Irish Theme" which examines what Rawson calls the "velleities of extermination" in a text like Swift's "Modest Proposal" (Rawson, 300). Rawson examines how Swift's ironic solution of what to do with the poor of Ireland (eat them as food) undergoes, in various later iterations by Anglo-Irish writers including Shaw and Wilde, transformation into a rhetorically glib willingness to entertain the complicated and anxious notion of eliminating poverty by merely exterminating poor people. Rawson adduces to this Joyce's Swiftian declaration that "Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow," even though he is careful to keep Joyce out of his larger discussion, for the sound reason that Joyce was the opposite of "Anglo-Irish," which implies Protestantism. But Joyce opens up whole new dimensions to the Swiftian cannibal theme in literature precisely because he welcomes in the nervous and queasy aspects of allegations of cannibal behavior -- including the most obvious one, which Rawson inexplicably does not mention, which is the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation. Transubstantiation holds that the Eucharistic wafer is, quite literally -- and also sacramentally, which is why this issue matters in terms of defining Protestant deviations from Roman Catholic theology, as Joyce knew -- transfigured into the body of Christ during the mass. The chief Protestant objection has been that the idea is both fanciful and disgusting. But it raises a fundamental religious question well-known to Joyce, and indeed to an Anglo-Irish clergyman like Swift, who like most Protestants rejected the idea. Although Anthony Burgess points out that Bloom's attention in "Laestrygonians" dwells on "gormandizing priests…and…nuns frying everything in the best butter" (Burgess 121) Burgess declines to interpret any further the potential religious content in this chapter. But it seems obvious to me that in some sense the whole "Laestrygonians" chapter is presented by Joyce as a kind of Eucharistic analogue. Simply put, I propose that if -- on some interpretive level -- Ulysses follows the structure of a Catholic mass (as to some degree Buck Mulligan's deliberately impious announcement at the start of the novel, "Introibo ad altare Dei," is intended by Joyce seriously -- then the "Laestrygonians" episode is logically the moment of communion. It is also, therefore, Joyce's chance to dwell on the cannibalism that Homer's Lestrygonians and Dublin's Roman Catholics may have in common after all -- and Joyce's chance to redefine what the sacramental miracle really is within the act of communion.
We must begin by understanding the Homeric analogue to Joyce's episode. Homer's Odyssey offers up in Book Ten the Classical episode of the Laestrygonians -- a tribe who welcome in Odysseus and his men, then turn out to be interested mostly in turning their guests into lunch -- primarily, it seems, to define cannibalism almost as an intrinsically shocking act. In Homer, cannibalism is used to dramatize the horror of culture-clash: it relies on a frankly primitive sense of appropriate guest-host relations being violated by the ultimate primitive violation of one's person, an act which in today's society could only be the result of famine or extreme isolation (on a lifeboat or at the site of a remote airplane crash). I emphasize as Rawson does the visceral sense of the transgressiveness of the cannibal act -- its monstrosity -- this because in Homer the episode of the Laestrygonians bears some similarities to the episode of the Cyclops: both are human-eating humanoids of a monstrous size. The Cyclops is singled out as more particularly monstrous than the Laestrygonians for two factors: his hideous appearance and his solitary nature. The Laestrygonians are by contrast a whole tribe, and it seems more obviously that what Homer is dramatizing is a culture clash: one does not need recourse to Levi-Strauss to realize that one way cultural differences is most obviously registered is dietary. For Joyce, the dietary and cultural differences between Homer's Odysseus and the Laestrygonians seem much wider than those between Leopold Bloom and the various Dubliners who manage to disgust him over the course of this chapter. This, I think, gives Joyce his chief link with the Homeric source material: the Homeric foe was a tribe of cannibals, as Odysseus belatedly discovers. What Joyce know but Bloom does not is that thanks to the doctrine of Transubstantiation the ordinary Catholics of Dublin can suddenly play the cannibal role for Leopold Bloom's odyssey, as the very sight of people eating at the Burton restaurant seems to nauseate him instinctively. Burgess accurately calls this moment "one of the most realistic evocations of disgust at the act of eating that literature has ever given us" (Burgess 123). Yet I would argue that Leopold Bloom's lunch hour is, in a sense, the secular communion that he takes alongside his fellow Dubliners: for this reason, Joyce offers numerous teasing hints in this chapter that we are meant to be thinking about eating in a way that suggests both religious issues (such as religiously-imposed dietary taboos) as well as specifically incarnated bodily issues (such as the visceral and profoundly physical experiences, such as disgust, or hearing a reminder of one's wife's infidelities in the idle chatter of one's luncheon-mate.
Richard Ellmann notes in Ulysses on the Liffey that Joyce's "Laestrygonians" episode consists, in terms of dramatic action, primarily in Leopold Bloom's decision to order a cheese sandwich for lunch, because he has suddenly come to find the idea of eating meat disgusting -- Ellmann refers to the episode as "Bloom's dark night of the body" (Ellmann 78). Ellmann is content to describe the moment in the abstract, without unpacking the rather horrible flight of associations:
Potted meats. What is home without Plumtree's potted meat? Incomplete. What a stupid ad! Under the obituary notices they stuck it. All up a plumtree. Dignam's potted meat. Cannibals would with lemon and rice. White missionary too salty. Like pickled pork. (140)
All in one moment, death (Dignam's potted meat, the corpse which has just been packed in a box and placed underground in the previous episode) and sex (the "abode of bliss" from the Plumtree's ad drags in the horrible thought of Molly's infidelity with Blazes Boylan, due to be occurring in short order) are yoked together, and Bloom seems revolted by the very idea of the people eating. while at the same time Bloom encounters two poetical vegetarians, and is forced to confront, mentally, their doctrine. Here Bloom basically understands it in terms of eastern religions that urge vegetarianism upon their adherents, specifically Hinduism:
Coming from the vegetarian. Only wegebobbles and fruit. Don't eat a beefsteak. If you do the eyes of that cow will pursue you through all eternity (136).
But there is also the way in which Joyce assuredly knows that, in the Greek Classical tradition, the ideas of Pythagoras famously espoused two seemingly Hindu religious tenets (vegetarianism and metempsychosis), which Bloom himself reminds us of when he finds occasion to recollect, twice, in this episode his wife's mispronunciation of "metempsychosis" earlier that morning. Ellmann notes that, intellectually, Joyce had a specific fascination with the Renaissance philosopher Giordano Bruno, who was burnt at the stake by the Inquisition chiefly for the heresy of believing in metempsychosis. Joyce was drawn to write about Bruno repeatedly, but he would have known very well that Bruno's understanding of metempsychosis and Pythagoreanism would be chiefly mediated by Book XV of Ovid's Metamorphoses, in which the spirit of Pythagoras himself is mystically summoned up and made by the poet to deliver a sort of Pythagorean Sermon on the Mount, in which the basic spiritual principles, including metempsychosis and vegetarianism. The contemporary Irish writer George Russell (AE) who is glimpsed by Bloom in this chapter, had along with Yeats done a lot to publicize a sort of Pythagoreanly-inspired pagan mysticism: Bloom seems inspired to recollect that Russell is "poetical" by the fact that he is coming out of a vegetarian restaurant. Because Bruno's revival of Pythagoras came with a revived interest in metampsychosis, I think we can safely see that Joyce is covertly alluding to Bruno here.
But I also think that the terms which Joyce in his essay on Bruno uses to describe Bruno's philosophy -- "by turns rationalist and mystic, theistic and pantheistic" (Occasional 93) -- could be applied to Joyce's own methods in this chapter. Joyce is pursuing his own quasi-religious belief in the sanctity of art -- one which I hope to demonstrate positions itself not as atheistic but more inclined towards Giordano Bruno's…