James Joyce had a thing about birthdays. With some difficulty, he contrived to have Ulysses published on his 40th birthday, and to receive the first copy of Finnegans Wake just in time for his 57th birthday. The day itself was typically crowned by a gala dinner party; at his 50th birthday, he was presented with a big blue cake, decorated as a copy of Ulysses—which moved the author to intone, in the language of the Catholic Mass:
Accipite et manducate ex hoc omnes: Hoc est enim corpus meum.
(Take and eat you all of this, for this is my body.)
That irreverent gesture befits the spirit of Joyce’s novels, suffused as they are with blasphemous appropriations of scripture and sacrament. It speaks also to the work of his fellow modernists, many directly influenced by Joyce, who were often driven by a similar urge to make art from the language and forms of blasphemy.
So however else you may be spending Joyce’s birthday this year—it’s his 135th—consider cozying up with one of the highly irreverent books described below. Drawn from modernism’s heyday in the 1920s, these profiles in profanation all speak to the powerful allure of blasphemy for modernist writers, Joyce foremost among them.
Ulysses by James Joyce(1922):
One contemporary reviewer cautioned readers that Ulysses contained “not only the description but the commission of sin against the Holy Ghost.” That sounds hyperbolic, perhaps, until one reflects that this most canonical of modernist texts begins with a mock-Communion—presided over by Buck Mulligan, the book’s blasphemer-in-chief—then climaxes with a phantasmagoric Black Mass and concludes with the famously profane soliloquy of Molly Bloom, whose flesh and word fulfill the novel’s brazenly Eucharistic ambitions. (“Don’t you think,” Joyce would ask, “there is a certain resemblance between the mystery of the Mass and what I am trying to do?”)
Lunar Baedeker by Mina Loy (1923):
The third poem in this volume describes Ulysses, with admiration, as “the word made flesh / and feeding upon itself / with erudite fangs.” Loy’s own poetry often achieves much the same effect. On page one of Lunar Baedeker, for instance, a “silver Lucifer” beckons readers to partake of forbidden fruit (“cocaine in cornucopia”) and forbidden bodies (“adolescent thighs”); the book closes with a parodic Nativity that elevates procreation over Creation. But the most indelible image here is the carnal communion imagined in “Love Songs,” where two lovers couple “at the profane communion table,” spilling sacramental wine “on promiscuous lips.”
Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli by Ronald Firbank (1926):
The madcap opening pages of this novel depict “a christening—and not a child’s.” In fact the object of the priest’s attentions is a week-old police dog who is presently anointed, not with holy water, but with white menthe. (“Sticky stuff,” an onlooker later recalls.) The puppy devotes the rest of this solemn occasion to “incestuous frolics” with its father, while from above them “a choir-boy let fall a little white spit.” “Dear child,” the narrator reflects, “as if that would part them!”
Ladies Almanack by Djuna Barnes (1928):
Barnes is best known for her 1936 novel Nightwood, which culminates in a sacrilegious rite that replaces God with dog. But the earlier Ladies Almanack is a lot more fun. It also features fictional versions of Mina Loy (“Patience Scalpel”) and of Radclyffe Hall, who authored the next item on our list. The book’s real heroine, though, is Saint Evangeline Musset, the larger-than-life prophet of lesbianism; her parables drip with double entendres. “I come,” she proclaims, “to give you Word,” and her lingual facility exceeds the merely rhetorical. After her death, Musset’s tongue is miraculous resurrected, in fiery form, to pleasure each of her disciples one last time: a bawdy reenactment of Acts 2:3, where the Holy Spirit descends on the Apostles in “tongues like as of fire.”
The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (1928):
Like Ladies Almanack, this controversial novel combines Christian symbolism with lesbian themes—but to rather more lugubrious effect. The “stigmata” of the homosexual, Hall writes, are “verily the wounds of One nailed to a cross.” Accordingly, protagonist Stephen Gordon believes “that in some queer way she was Jesus”; she yearns to “give light to them that sit in darkness.” British courts suppressed the novel on the grounds of obscenity; meanwhile an anonymously published satire, The Sink of Solitude (1928), not only skewered Hall herself but also called for England’s blasphemy laws to be enforced against Hall’s most vocal critic, James Douglas: the same Sunday Express editor who had earlier railed against the “appalling and revolting blasphemies” of Joyce’s Ulysses.
Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille (1928):
This one isn’t for everybody, but those who make it to the final chapters will find there an orgy in a cathedral, an enucleated eyeball, and a remarkably lewd parody of the Mass.
The Escaped Cock by H. Lawrence (1929):
In this revision of the Christ myth, the recently crucified Jesus wakes in his tomb to overwhelming feelings of regret and resentment. He’s had a raw deal, he now realizes. But he finds his own redemption when he meets an alluring woman who tends to his wounds and, more importantly, initiates him into the mysteries of sexual pleasure. In what may be the most unwittingly comical moments in the canon of modern blasphemy, Lawrence replaces the Resurrection with, in effect, the Erection: “He crouched to her, and he felt the blaze of his manhood and his power rise up in his loins, magnificent. ‘I am risen!'”
Featured image credit: Memorial tablet at the statue of James Joyce in Trieste by Rilegator, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.