(GJ) Canto IXXX (p. 11, ll. 1-9).

Tie My girdle for me and bind up this hair in any simple knot.

If you have been reading this blog, you may remember another mention of Beatrice Cenci by Dante in The Divine Comedy. In this canto, Joyce uses a quote from Shelley’s tragedy The Cenci. Shelley’s play focuses on the abuse of a daughter and men’s treachery in all life’s stations. Beatrice also suffers when male-controlled institutions function in an autonomically callous way.

Count Francesco Cenci was the cruelest of men. Having raped his daughter, Beatrice, he dispatched two sons to face starvation in the Pyrennes. Cenci then held a banquet celebrating their deaths. Ultimately, a plot unfolded among Beatrice, her brother, her lover (the celibate but lustful and dishonest priest Orsino), and her stepmother. After an unsuccessful plea for help to family and friends, the conspirators hired assassins to kill Count Cenci. The killers failed twice, once from ill-timing and a second time due to cowardice. The Pope condemns all the conspirators to death, not to punish Cenci’s murder but to dissuade patricides. In a final disappointment, even Beatrice’s brother and stepmother denied involvement in her plot. Her father, her community, her family, her Church, her lover (who alone escapes in disguise), and even the ineffectual murderers all betrayed Beatrice.

“How is any of this relevant to Joyce’s obsession for Amalia Popper?” you ask. As Amalia precedes Joyce down a corridor, a tendril of her braid comes undone. Joyce may have found this accidental dishevelment alluring. The unbinding of the hair suggests that a woman is open to an exclusive attachment. This accident might appeal to Joyce’s baser desires. The Bible includes the following passage:

And the priest shall set the woman before the Lord and unbind the hair of the woman’s head and place in her hands the grain offering of remembrance, which is the grain offering of jealousy…. (Numbers 5:18)

The braid is also emblematic of a woman’s class, status, and competence. The mistress of a household intervenes to place finishing touches on household furnishings, decorations, and foods. Her hairstyle and attire are selected for her to be a partner in the management of the household. There was a taint of subservience in Joyce’s nature, and a masterful woman (like Bella Cohen) might also appeal to him. 

Finally, the Cenci women have bonded over mutual grooming. Nothing like shared braiding of another’s hair was known to the world of men. This ritual might fascinate Joyce, who will ultimately create the essential feminine character in Molly Bloom.

don ward September 10, 2020

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