(GJ) Canto XXXV (p.12, ll.17-29).

A symphony of smells

From the opera house loge, Joyce looks down onto the seats of the mezzanine and orchestra. Like a hunter in a blind stalking prey, he is ensconced here for the vantage point it offers to observe Amalia Popper. The loge is unparalleled for stalker seating. The distance gives an excuse for using an opera-glass. With glasses, he can scrutinize his obsession but without drawing undue attention to himself. 

Joyce reacted to optical stimuli in his writing, although he didn’t greatly appreciate visual art, which attempted to communicate ideas without the benefit of either words or other symbols like musical notes. Other commentary says he did not artistically label smells as pleasant or unpleasant as his readers would. In “Armpits and melons: An Olfactory Reading of James Joyce,” Frances Devlin-Glass observes that Joyce’s use of smell accelerates as his art develops, nearly absent from Dubliners, but essential to plot and images by the time he crafts Ulysses. Between these major works lies A Portrait. There Joyce made a few but critical uses of smell — incense and brimstone, as pointed out by Devlin-Glass but also the earthy odor of the bird girl. Personally, Joyce developed a strange pleasure from scents that would turn away most noses. In this canto, Joyce blends pleasant and unpleasant olfactory sensations deliberately, placing side-by-side the smells of armpits and pomander balls (“nozzled oranges”), myrrh and flatulence, and the somehow distinguishable smells of married and unmarried women. We could presume his preference would be for the available ones like Amalia Popper.

The Loggione’s Symphony of Smells

copyright (c) don ward, 2020

The presence of opoponax or bisabolol is a particularly interesting observation by the poet. Two different classes of opoponax exist, one is scented myrrh. That class of the compound may have been brought to the Christ-child by the Magi from Ethiopia. Myrrh is used in the creation of perfume but also as a pain-killer and used in embalming fluid.

Joyce shares that Signoria Popper is scentless. She artificially announces herself with the musk of the furs she robes in. The combination of perfume with Amalia’s natural scent does not attract Joyce; she has no natural scent. The opoponax might instead serve to neutralize the distractions of the smells surrounding his perch in the sweat and garlic balcony. Its purpose might otherwise be to dull the pain of Pining Jim, who aches for his Lady Love.

There is something macabre about Joyce’s love for his child-student. The prose poem paraded past us “a pale white face,” “cobwebbed handwriting,” eyes failing in darkness (“Dark love, dark longing.”), “dark-blooded molluscs,” ghosts in the mirror, the Jewish cemetery, the demon Mephistopheles, the juggernaut that crushes onlookers, the strewn bodies in Hedda Gabbler and Hamlet, a gargoyled church, the execution of Beatrice Cenci, and the heroine’s near-death under the surgeon’s knife. This is an unusual love poem.

There is an undercurrent of darkness in Giacomo. Is Death calling to Joyce or for Amalia? Miss Popper dressed in green that becomes moss, “the hair of graves.” This love turns away from light, becoming a dark and hidden obsession. Joyce’s prose poem becomes a Poe’s poem with good reason to mask the smell of death. 

don ward September 29, 2020

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