Gender Expression in Ulysses: A personal essay, by Peter Kiernan

“If he had smiled why would he have smiled? To reflect that each one who enters imagines himself to be the first to enter whereas he is always the last term of a preceding series even if the first term of a succeeding one, each imagining himself to be first, last, only and alone, whereas he is neither first nor last nor only nor alone in a series originating in and repeated to infinity.1


That European literature has relied, especially in the modern period (1700 – 1950, arbitrarily, these matters are always of advanced arbitrariness), on women as readers, sources of financial support, sources of intellectual support, darkly; patrons of never gifts.

Is it Harriet Weaver or the Salons which you would like to speak of? Or perhaps Stein? Johanna Schopenhauer recollected in self-contained minor tragoady with son. Breakfast of Schopenhauers in the early day of this essay. Breakfast being the pessimist’s meal. Which, as a pessimist, I rarely partake of (question, was Johanna, between Goethe and son, any sort of pessimist, or have I just exactly flung the son back on top of her?). Martha McTier? Arguably if I sharpen-broaden the vision a little; Beatrice, Dido, and Helen crane out.

It is good to be more specific and not simply talk of the contribution to culture; talk of the writing in particular. Then it can be separated, the women and the female perspective and the latter taken as a key feature of the stylistic development of the novel, particularly in the modern writers Flaubert, James, and Woolf. To argue that critically one must separate women from an artificially constructed and vitally shared, however reluctant the admission, femininity. This artificial femininity providing the novelistic virtues of which many of the novelists of the twentieth century were utterly ashamed; distance, observation, detachment, something like poise.

Virtues which men can recover for themselves if and only if they wear dresses or become writers (there is another kind of poise, an asexual poise2).

To point out that the literature relied on the unmarked use of women’s labour, as labourers in what was feminine, to create and sustain the distance which was the facility for novelistic invention (excluding, as it seems one always must, Balzac). To argue that it was the acquisition on the part of the novelist of the female perspective as a good, as a warranted point of view in the society, that facilitated literary invention. Then to point out the bind of the woman writer in modern Europe was, taking Eliot for exemplar, to inhabit oneself twice over. First to acquire femininity through womanhood and second to acquire it again, and distinctly, through the coldness of writing. Sold back to oneself.

There is then the separate issue of the relationship between women themselves and this artificial femininity which as a point of view is for sale, is denied but is public.

The female perspective then as the concealed wealth of the modern novel (that novel which does not have, at root, Don Quixote) acquired at no price because denied public character.


That Ulysses, far from resembling a bawdy declaration of frank maleness, actively problematizes the indebtedness of literature to the disenfranchisement of women in the form of the provision through that disenfranchisement of a neutral perspective on things.

Bawdy, frank maleness is that where a discussion is subtle he suddenly stands up, and speaks clearly and truthfully, what no one else will say, but actually is simply unsubtle non-contributor. Naturally however infinitely subtle discussion is as abject, getting nowhere.

That Ulysses poses the question of how gendered authors and non-gendered authors can use gendered perspectives as points of view for writing while already being related to them in life. The incomplete answer is; at a cost.

The evidence:

(1): Dilly Dedalus. Dilly appears at at least two points in Ulysses, in two scenes in the Wandering Rocks episode. In the first scene she waits on money from her father which she gets, after some force and play, for “a glass of milk . . . and a bun3. In the second scene she is found by Stephen Dedalus using the same money to buy a French primer. The discussion between Stephen and Dilly is short and affecting. Dilly wants to learn French, Stephen is multilingual, Dilly is trapped with her father, Stephen is not, both are impoverished, but only Stephen is offered a way out, past, famously, nets. The scene is reminiscent of a story in Dubliners (Eveline) where a young woman fails to leave Dublin, with a sailor-lover, for South America, and remains instead with her domineering father. A gendered and circumstantial reversal of Joyce’s flight, with Nora, from Ireland. Gendered conditions enable Stephen as they disable Dilly. Stephen connects her (Dilly) with his mother when “She is drowning. Agenbite. Save her. Agenbite. All against us. She will drown me with her, eyes and hair . . . Agenbite of inwit . . . Misery!”. Dilly has “my [his] eyes”4. The drowning is an assertion of the paradoxical threat of Stephen to himself which is only resolved by the dissolution of burden affected by the introduction of gendered difference (an action that reproduces the dissolution of identity burden affected by Stephen’s refusal to pray for his mother). Stephen’s neutrality is carved out of Dilly’s [his mother’s] femininity which is in turn alienated from them when it becomes his, when it becomes his intellectual neutrality (a neutrality which Dilly can re-purchase for herself, somewhat shamefully).

(2): The Circe episode. Much to write about here so I won’t. One reading is Bloom objectifies / fetishizes womanhood and seeks to claim it for himself. Keeping this reading somewhat; Bloom already has it for himself in recognizing the unmarked or concealed contribution of women to social life, he does not need to acquire it fetishistically. His guilt at this free possession manifests itself as an equally free acting out of that possession. The much debated ‘turning oneself into a woman’ clause, transphobic, has a fetishistic character only in a constructed circumstance of contrasted masculinity and femininity which calls out to the social historical situation of that possession. It is not intrinsically fetishistic to ‘act like a woman’ (how could it be?!) – the fetishistic aspect exists only where the artificial conflict of masculine and feminine type is intentionally and self-consciously maintained. It is simple category error to mistake what is going in the case of the transgender for this conflict; is Bloom then a fetishist? In one sense labeling a fetishist does not do much because the conflict is uniquely artificially and self-consciously maintained, what then to it is label discouragement? Bloom’s guilt may express itself fetishistically, and this may be meaningful, but that doesn’t make the guilt itself intrinsically fetishistic. The wrong move is to think that those who do this are engaged in unconscious attempts at the possession of a feminine perspective or constitution. Femininity should not, because of its relationship to exploitation, become a double-ordered symbol, licitly possessed by those who are ‘legitimately women’ and illicitly possessed by those who are not. The sexual energy they take to the feminine does not originate in the feminine but in a pre-existing and unrelated (to the actions of the fetish) situation in themselves. The feminine remains something artificial which they are in a position to exploit.

(3): Molly Bloom. Pages and pages. Simply. Molly Bloom’s ‘yes’ is an inscrutable affirmation of the roundness of the relationship between proposed neutrality and indistinct neutrality. Proposed neutrality is the object that is proposed to take on the aspect of neutrality by voluntary suppression of the fact that it is (and so is not neutral). Indistinct neutrality is the indistinct neutrality of all those things which are, which while they exemplify in character understanding of one another do not thereby occupy a position of neutrality relative to one another. Molly Bloom’s affirmation is an affirmation of how her proposed neutrality turns back onto her ultimate indistinct neutrality and this presages the circular themes of Finnegans Wake.


Indistinct neutrality is the Davidsonian buffer5; anyone of any identity background insofar as they propose themselves examples of public speech are made subject to the strong conditions which enable that speech and are drafted, by that strength, into a commonality of perspective which deprives their speech not of ‘difference’ but rather of the hint of differentiality, a capacity to differentiate oneself in that speech. Their speech becomes the proof at once and surface indication at once of their belonging absolutely to a neutrality the character of which is difficult to draw but which asserts itself in any and every rationalization of linguistic communication. The voice of difference, if it wishes to achieve, in the plainest sense of achieve, a sense devoid of re-contextualization, that voice necessarily surrenders its claim to an embodiment of a viewpoint different in precisely this sense; that it could not have been expressed by any other. In such a case difference in public speech must be understood as a difference over that, in dispute of that which is true. A familiar debate around what is the case and not an articulation of the mediate relationship of such and such’s being the case to that individuum for which such and such is the case.

There is however a little Wittgenstein, in little, model shorts asleep in this buffer – what an angel and if only I had his legs – for the path of indistinct neutrality is circular, it returns, as it is returned to from, proposed neutrality. That is ‘difference’ understood in relation to the Davidsonian position is either the richness of what it is possible to claim is true or it is the impossible embedded difference of speech (a difference within the articulate character of language). This second difference is not really comprehensible. It disappears over the hill of its own name. The difference then, which cannot exist, is hard to comprehend as properly ruled out of the account of language because it does not exist. It is not construable from within what the language gives to us. This is perhaps one point of poverty in the Davidsonian attack on cultural relativism.

Even the use of the term ‘difference’ in this case has Joycean overtones; if the above position is taken as true then critical talk of difference itself is a kind of fetishistic destruction of it just as Bloom’s reflection on femininity is conditioned, unwittingly to him, by his possession of it as a social good. The difference which some want to claim in their own voices is one that it is automatically crushed by the conditional character of public speech. This conditionality itself however is rooted in the possession, for the language, of certain goods; it is the form of public speech which is to be understood and not the indeed life of it.

Davidson’s position is perhaps unclear on this. Language is conditioned most clearly in his work by truth but it can attain a richness in the variety of truth-claims that there are for that language. What it is ambiguous is the way in which certain concerns put that language together. Perhaps all the concerns are there, in some modal augmentation of the Davidsonian position. Perhaps however certain forms of concern deliberately limit the scope of those truth-claims and do so by appeal to the very way in which certain concerns constitute the language in deed. Could it be the case that certain truth-claims can be made if and only if certain concerns are oriented in the language-culture first? Their structural relation to the language (their being possible in the broadest sense from what is given, simply, of the language) is not altered, but their structural relationship to reality is. This is to say that truth-claims in the language do not simply range over the world of states of affairs (of things in relation to one another) in a relationship of denotation but range over the modally rigid (the changing, morphological) parts of that world of states of affairs as grasped by an individual subject (so that denotation is a subject of the language and not the indivisible essence of it). An avoidance of romantic (and German!) morphology6 can be affected by stating that it is not the structural character of the world, considered as a whole, that changes, but the structural character of the world as a relationship between objective and subjective life.

A simple way of putting this would be that for any individual any claim is accessible, but not all at any one point in time. At one point in time all claims are accessible for all individuals but not all claims can be made by any individual.

Should only x speak of x? No. For the position is not that there is privileged access to certain parts of the language on the basis of difference that is cultural, gendered and so on, but that for any conversation no one individual represents all possible places in that conversation so that the one difference, actual, in the immediate constitution of the language, is mapped onto the other, proposed difference, that of the culture, gender, race, sexuality and so on so that it becomes difficult not to read the one instantly for the other. Precisely however what must be traced is the one (the actual difference) and not the other (the proposed difference, proposed neutrality).

Difficulties of communication that are rooted in difference that is constitutive of the language are overcome through proposing the neutrality of a group denoted differently in the language. Their neutrality does the work, in the vanishing of their mediate and linguistic situation of difference, of engendering the public in life so that the public becomes a part of the state, a part of the actual space in which life goes on as opposed to, what it was, an impression of a mediation of language perspectives. Naturally the latter is not so desirable, and the former more so, but not by much. The only solution that comes to me, sadly, is that the public be understood as accessible on the basis of the proposal of one’s own situation of mediate and linguistic difference as neutral.


We are in real danger, I think, of repeating this narrative of lost gendered labour in today’s literature. For cisgendered authors are, to some extent, using intersex, agender, genderqueer and transgender voices as concealed points of reference for their own ‘gender free’ writing. Not in the sense that they include characters who are intersex, agender and so on but in the sense that they unconsciously think through these positions as neutral perspectives on cisgendered life.

It may in fact be true that ‘everyone is trans’ in the sense that every gender identity can be constructed as any other, but it also true that not everyone and in fact only very specific people live outside of cisgender identity. Until we have a material way of understanding our ability to grasp one another in respect of difference and thereby preserve a public life that is not threatening we have to be careful to make sure that we do not end up using trans identities as free labour in literature and more broadly in thought. Irigaray, for example, in her famous evocation of sexual difference, can in many senses only avoid criticism of her dualistic account of femininity and masculinity by using the concealed labour of trans and intersex identities which precisely have no possible figuration in her account (their exclusion is a necessary consequence of the construction of the masculine and feminine itself). They both provide the neutrality which permits a perspectival assertion of a sexual difference which no one individual member of either sex can properly posit and they organize the language of masculinity and femininity on the basis of their denotation as ‘deep’ parts of the what the language ranges over.

This is not to say that Irigaray is obviously wrong, but that she is right insofar as the dilemma which confronts us is no identity distinctions or identity distinctions on the basis of really asserted difference, a difference assertable only through something else, something that is proposed neutral from out of what there is.

The writer’s declaration of herself as theoretically or ‘in the act of writing’, intersex, trans could be literally true, the language might actually work on the possibility of a and trans prefixed positions of identity, but in that case our indebtedness is not only more obvious but is also more problematic; that is if literary activity relies on a gender fluidity or ambiguity with direct relevance to a philosophy of transgender experience then it is unclear how literary activity can reconcile engagement in this activity with the possibility of literary voices who are of this activity. The move in the culture could be from an indebtedness to the concealed labour of women to an indebtedness to the concealed labour of first women and then agender, intersex, and transgender identities. A new age, as they say, of literary expression, potentially liberated from sexist concerns, may inevitably found itself thereby on the the exploitation of agender, intersex, and transgender people. Their becoming the very material of a liberated feminist rationality.


“If he had smiled why would he have smiled? To reflect that each one who enters imagines himself to be the first to enter whereas he is always the last term of a preceding series even if the first term of a succeeding one, each imagining himself to be first, last, only and alone, whereas he is neither first nor last nor only nor alone in a series originating in and repeated to infinity.7


Why don’t I offer you something from my life?


The pleasure of the contemporary audience in seeking out something sufficiently plain the inoffensiveness of which must be ideal: previously inoffensiveness was avoidance of topic in a life that simply suppressed the topical in favour of the life that, in the imagination, successfully avoided it. Presently inoffensiveness has transformed into the ideal absence of the topical which will be affected by the work of others and ourselves. The topical however itself, something which comes before our interest anomalously and the relation of which to our most basic and hardened beliefs is opaque . . .

The suffering of a particular life which offers nothing but the pretense to the action of empathy for others; like reminding an ox of the way it used to be to fields; the animal of leisure, who succeeds the animal of work, is still living the dream of the animal of work and so that leisure is still the leisure that tired limbs imagine. Those tired limbs must be somewhere, perhaps they are the extended memories of those claiming, in their passage before us, and we are some of them, that we being weak, to be oppressed, and who are oppressed, but do not have the full technology of their claims there to.


If I told you something from my life you’d only eat it, like all readers, until it had a centre. That is the peculiar way that readers eat.


Biographical facts are read, presently, as political facts. Faces are read, in observation, like psalters. The psalters of current faces twist us alive.


If I tell you something about me it will only make that thing as if it had not happened.

1Ulysses, p863, Penguin.

2Most of what I will argue here applies, I think, to asexual identities also as exploitable points of neutrality for allosexual writers, but I will keep the scope of this essay to gender and sex.

3Ulysses, p306, Penguin.

4Ulysses, p313, Penguin.

5I am speaking here of the philosopher Donald Davidson, for a quick introduction to the position I badly sketch out here and attribute to him see ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme’ or for a longer introduction ‘Truth and Predication’.

6As in Goethe, Hegel.

7Ulysses, p863, Penguin.

Read the rest of the Feminism Series here.

Peter Kiernan is an Irish writer and philosopher who lives in Chicago. He has published previously with the Honest Ulsterman and the Bohemyth. Thoughts on this article in particular are very welcome at

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