James Joyce and the Modernist Mouth

28 February 2022

Annie Williams, Trinity College Dublin

Modernism was an experiment in what the mouth could do. Modernist literature, in particular, was invested in the creative potentialities of food, sex, and language. These experiments were accompanied, and indeed prompted, by pioneering scientific advancements in genetics and salivary diagnostics. This is a productive lens through which to read James Joyce’s perennial protagonist, Stephen Dedalus. Stephen is rarely very good with his mouth. In both A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Ulysses (1922), he flaunts a sporadic reluctance to speak, spit, or kiss. This can be attributed to his hydrophobia, and subsequent unease with bathing and bodily fluids, and his crises of selfhood, as he attempts to ‘fly by those nets’ of nationality, language, and religion.[1] It can also, however, be rooted in these scientific developments: developments that inform the pervasive link between saliva and Catholicism in Joyce’s oeuvre. In this sense, we can establish a link between Stephen’s crises of self-expression and his pathophysiological problems with saliva.

The twentieth century was heralded as the “modern age” of salivary diagnostics.[2] Increasingly, physiologists found that oral health was indicative of functional disorders elsewhere in the body.[3] A particularly significant development during this period was the popularisation of Gregor Mendel’s Laws of Heredity: the theory that characteristics – both recessive and dominant – are passed down generationally. This theory, popularised by William Bateson in the early 1900s, signalled the advent of genetics. These advancements can be detected in Portrait. In one of Stephen’s sardonic debates with his classmates at University College Dublin, Temple asks a rather pertinent question: ‘do you believe in the law of heredity?’.[4] Although Cranly’s response is characteristically derisive – ‘are you drunk or what are you or what are you trying to say?’ – this line suggests that Joyce is actively responding to the popularisation of Mendelian Inheritance.[5] Crucially, in the context of physiologists’ increasing dependence on oral diagnosis, this indicates that Stephen is beginning to conceive of his health and his genetic identity as bearing some relationship with his mouth.

This idea sheds light on Stephen’s first sexual encounter. As he stands, ‘silent’, in the embrace of a young woman, his eyes fill with ‘tears of joy and relief’.[6] However, ‘his lips would not bend to kiss her’.[7] This moment is often read as indicative of his Catholic guilt, as Stephen attempts to resist the ‘swoon of sin’.[8] This argument is enriched when we think more specifically about Stephen’s saliva. In Christian theology, according to Graham Twelftree, ‘the words of a holy man convey his sacred power’, and thus ‘some of that power may linger in the place from whence he speaks, and hence also in his saliva and breath’.[9] This hypothesis supports Peter Goodrich’s argument that, in both secular and theological traditions, a kiss has ‘the power both to express and to effect the union of souls’: ‘in the exchange of breath that takes place in kissing, two souls would intermingle and unite’.[10] This, Goodrich writes, is why kissing has historically been ‘deemed an act of incontinence’ by the Church and thus ‘subject[ed] to sanction’.[11] These ideas are evident in Stephen’s understanding that a kiss would signify ‘surrendering himself to her, body and mind’.[12] His hesitation to kiss the young woman, however, is also indicative of the explicit and pervasive link between saliva and Catholic guilt in Joyce’s oeuvre. The production of – or failure to produce – saliva has been associated with guilt since the birth of Christianity. One of the earliest known methods of salivary diagnostics dictated that struggling to swallow was indicative of a guilty conscience: a ‘folktale phenomenon’ that, according to Kalu and Ezinne Ogbureke, stemmed the agelong pathophysiological concept that ‘an acutely innate feeling of guilt […] has as one of its cardinal physical signs […] reduced saliva production and dry mouth’.[13] Stephen, fittingly, sustains pathophysiological problems with his saliva throughout Joyce’s work.

In both Portrait and Ulysses, Stephen suffers from oral dysfunctions, alternately hesitating to speak, swallow, and kiss. One of saliva’s primary functions is to coat the oral mucosa during speech. However, Stephen, time and time again, cannot ‘spit… out’ the words he needs.[14] A notable example occurs during his religious retreat at Belvedere College. Plagued by his own transgressions, he senses his ‘speech thickening and wandering and failing […] the breath, the poor breath, the poor helpless human spirit, sobbing and sighing, gurgling and rattling in the throat’.[15] This moment exemplifies how his crises of religious guilt determine his saliva production. Indeed, his association of saliva with Catholicism can be rooted specifically in his relatives’ infamous Christmas Day dispute. At the dinner table, Mr Casey reveals that he recently spat in the eye of an elderly Catholic woman who heckled him about Parnell’s extramarital affair. Dante, incensed by this anecdote, cries that she ‘will defend my church and my religion when it is insulted and spit on by renegade Catholics’.[16] In both of these instances, spitting is coded as blasphemous, prompting Stephen to conclude that ‘it was not nice about the spit’.[17] This conclusion is sustained when, during the course of the meal, Dante declines Mr Dedalus’ sauceboat, covering her plate with her hands and saying ‘no, thanks’.[18] Here, Stephen learns to associate Catholic piety with the devout and dry-mouthed Dante, who refuses gravy on her indigestible dinner. These associations inform Stephen’s first sexual encounter, contextualising his initial disinclination to kiss the young woman.

The fact that Stephen conceptualises this kiss as ‘surrendering himself to her’ is crucial.[19] This line suggests that his hesitation is informed not only by his religious guilt, but also by his emerging understanding of genetics. Stephen is characterised by his crises of selfhood. His perception of a kiss as a surrender, therefore, indicates a latent curiosity in the possibility that his genetic code bears some relationship to his mouth. A kiss would necessitate the sharing, or ‘surrendering’, of this genetic code, complicating his existing identity crisis. This idea is substantiated by early twentieth century scrutiny of the biological composition of saliva. Saliva, as noted in a 1923 edition of The Dental Register, ‘is composed of about 99.5 per cent water’.[20] It can therefore be read through Astrida Neimanis’ theory that water, more than any other element, ‘both connects us and makes us different’.[21] A kiss, through this lens, subjects Stephen to an ‘interpermeation’ of bodily waters, in which the reciprocal exchange of saliva facilitates this process of ‘becoming’ different.[22] Stephen, notoriously, is hydrophobic: ‘hating partial contact by immersion or total by submersion in cold water’.[23] Again, this is often linked to his childhood experiences at the Jesuit school, Clongowes, where he is shouldered into the ‘cold slimy water’ of a square ditch.[24] However, a closer reading of Stephen’s saliva suggests that his hydrophobia can also be rooted in this fear of sharing or surrendering his sense of self. A kiss, according to Catholic doctrine, would constitute a ‘union of souls’.[25] A kiss, according to hydrofeminist phenomenology, would constitute an ‘interpermeation’ of bodies.[26] In either sense, a kiss would complicate Stephen’s sense of identity, enabling us to root his pathophysiological problems with saliva in his crises of selfhood.

Image credit: Plate 2, figure 1 from Jones QUAIN’s The viscera of the human body (1840) showing the anatomy of the mouth. Image from Special Collections & Archives, the University of Liverpool.


[1] James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Hertfordshire: Granada, 1977), p.184.

[2] Kalu Ogbureke and Ezinne Ogbureke, ‘The History of Salivary Diagnostics’, Salivary Proteomics (2015), 17-32 <https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-662-45399-5_2&gt;

[3] Samuel Fenwick, The Saliva as a Test for Functional Disorders of the Liver (London: J. & A. Churchill, 1887).

[4] Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, p. 208.

[5] Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, p. 208.

[6] Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, p. 92.

[7] Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, p. 94.

[8] Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, p. 94.

[9] Quoted in: John D. Thomas, Great Expectorations: The Cultural History of Saliva from Jesus Christ to Iggy Pop (Chicago: Strayhorn Press, 2012). Kindle eBook.

[10] Peter Goodrich, ‘The Laws of Love: Literature, History and the Governance of Kissing’, New York University Review of Law & Social Change, 24 (1998), pp. 214-224.

[11] Goodrich, ‘The Laws of Love: Literature, History and the Governance of Kissing’, p. 213.

[12] Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, p. 94.

[13] Ogbureke and Ogbureke, ‘The History of Salivary Diagnostics’.

[14] James Joyce, Ulysses (New York: Random House, 1986), p. 38.

[15] Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, p. 103.

[16] Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, p. 32.

[17] Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, p. 34.

[18] Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, p. 29.

[19] Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, p. 94.

[20] J. H. Kauffmann, ‘The Properties and Functions of Saliva’, The Dental Register (1923), p. 359.

[21] Astrida Neimanis, ‘Posthuman Gestationality: Luce Irigaray and Water’s Queer Repetitions’, in Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), p. 99.

[22] Neimanis, ‘Posthuman Gestationality: Luce Irigaray and Water’s Queer Repetitions’, pp. 93-95.

[23] James Joyce, Ulysses, p. 550.

[24] Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, p. 10.

[25] Goodrich, ‘The Laws of Love: Literature, History and the Governance of Kissing’, p. 224.

[26] Neimanis, ‘Posthuman Gestationality: Luce Irigaray and Water’s Queer Repetitions’, p. 95.

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