Today, February 2nd, is the 135th birthday of famed Irish author James Joyce. A man who, on his 50th birthday, received a big blue cake, decorated as a copy of his novel Ulysses—and responded in kind:
Accipite et manducate ex hoc omnes: Hoc est enim corpus meum.
[Take and eat you all of this, for this is my body.]
This was par for the course for Joyce, whose works are peppered with blasphemous appropriations of scripture and sacrament—I mean, come on, the first sentence of Ulysses is a parody of a Catholic mass. It’s only appropriate that we celebrate his birthday by taking a look at many of the modernists who followed in Joyce’s footsteps, with a list of seven of the best—and most blasphemous—pieces of literature of the 1920s.
1. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
It only makes sense that we’d kick off this list with one of the most famous novels of the 20th Century by the birthday boy himself. In an early review of Ulysses, a critic said that the novel contained “not only the description but the commission of sin against the Holy Ghost.” Not entirely untrue as, in addition to the aforementioned Catholic mass parody, Ulysses also includes a hallucinatory Black Mass and concludes with the famous profane soliloquy of Molly Bloom, who gains ultimate redemption despite her adulterous ways.
2. The Lost Lunar Baedeker Poems by Mina Loy (1923)
Mina Loy did not shy away from bold topics in her poetry, including such subjects as prostitution, menstruation, destitution, and suicide. The third poem in Lunar Baedeker directly praises Ulysses as “the word made flesh / and feeding upon itself / with erudite fangs.” Not far off from Joyce’s own brazen approach to religious matters, on the very first page of Lunar Baedeker a “silver Lucifer” beckons readers to partake of forbidden fruit (“cocaine in cornucopia”) and forbidden bodies (“adolescent thighs”), with the book closing with a Nativity parody that elevates procreation over Creation. However, one of the most widely recognized moments of blasphemy is in her poem “Love Songs,” in which a carnal communion is imagined, where two lovers come together “at the profane communion table,” spilling sacramental wine “on promiscuous lips.”
3. Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli by Ronald Firbank (1926)
Ronald Firbank was an innovative English novelist whose novels consisted largely of dialogue, with references to religion, social-climbing and sexuality. Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli starts with the Cardinal christening a week-old police dog with white minthe (“a christening—and not a child’s.”) in his cathedral (“‘And thus being cleansed and purified, I do call thee “Crack!'”). The puppy then devotes the rest of the occasion to “incestuous frolics” with its father, and the novel ends with His Eminence dying of a heart attack while chasing, naked, a choirboy around the aisles.
4. Ladies Almanack by Djuna Barnes (1928)
Djuna Barnes is best known for her 1936 novel Nightwood, which ends in a sacrilegious rite that replaces God with a dog. But her first work had just as much blasphemy and a lot more fun. Ladies Almanack (or Ladies Almanack: showing their Signs and their Tides; their Moons and their Changes; the Seasons as it is with them; their Eclipses and Equinoxes; as well as a full Record of diurnal and nocturnal Distempers, written & illustrated by a lady of fashion) is about a predominantly lesbian social circle centering on writer Natalie Clifford Barney’s salon in Paris. It is written in an archaic style with Barnes’s own illustrations, and features fictional versions of Mina Loy and of Radclyffe Hall, (who we’ll learn more about in just a moment). The title’s protagonist is Saint Evangeline Musset, a larger-than-life prophet of lesbianism; whose parables drip with double entendres. “I come,” she proclaims, “to give you Word.” After her death, Musset’s tongue is miraculously resurrected, in fiery form, to pleasure each of her female 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.”
5. The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (1928)
As promised, it’s time to learn about Radclyffe Hall, an English poet and author whose famous work The Well of Loneliness has become a groundbreaking work in lesbian literature. Like Ladies Almanack, this controversial novel also combines Christian symbolism with lesbian themes. Protagonist Stephen Gordon believes “that in some queer way she was Jesus,” and she yearns to “give light to them that sit in darkness.” British courts suppressed the novel on the grounds of obscenity. Hall’s most vocal critic James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express newspaper, launched a campaign against the work, saying that he “would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.” Douglas had also earlier rallied against the “appalling and revolting blasphemies” of Joyce’s Ulysses.
6. Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille (1928)
While this is a list of titles that contain blasphemous words and imagery, Story of the Eye may be the most extreme. This novella details the increasingly bizarre sexual perversions of a pair of teenage lovers. The final chapters include a suicide and an orgy in a cathedral, a remarkably lewd parody of a Catholic Mass. In a postscript, Bataille revealed that the main female character may have been partially inspired by his own mother, who suffered from bipolar disorder, while the narrator’s father is also a representation of his own unhappy paternal relationship.
7. The Escaped Cock by D.H. Lawrence (1929)
The Escaped Cock is a short novel English novelist D.H. Lawrence wrote after visiting some Etruscan tombs with his friend, a trip that encouraged the author to reflect upon death and myths of resurrection. In this revision of the story of Christ, the recently crucified Jesus wakes in his tomb to overwhelming feelings of regret and resentment. However, he finds redemption in the form of an alluring woman who tends to his wounds and introduces him to the mysteries of sexual pleasure.
Happy Birthday, James Joyce!
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Featured image via Djuna Barnes