Joyce in 100 Objects: Bloom’s Potato
“Talisman no.1” “Talisman no.2” “Talisman no. 3” “Talisman no. 4”
57x48cm watercolor paintings by Eoin Mac Lochlainn
Exhibited at “Olives, Oysters, and Oranges,” Olivier Cornet Gallery, June 13-30, 2019
In Ireland, the potato is connected irrevocably with the Great Famine of 1845-49, and yet, in Ulysses, Bloom’s potato seems, at first, to hold merely sentimental and personal talismanic significance, protecting him, for example, from being run over on the tram tracks in the beginning of “Circe” (U 15.200-02).
Thus, we might ask, along with critics struck by the surplus of food and drink in Joyce’s work, “[w]here is [the Famine] in Joyce?”(1). Recently, critics have responded to this question by pointing to the ways in which Joyce deals with the Famine not through “manifest content” but by “auditing” the forgetfulness and silence surrounding that unparalleled trauma (2).
With this insight in mind, and especially if we can see the nightmarish sequence of events in “Circe” as an enactment of colonial and capitalist power dynamics, then, perhaps, Bloom’s relinquishment of the potato to Zoe in this episode and his later reclamation of it might signify the loss and recovery of historical memory. “There is a memory attached to it” (U 15.3520), Bloom explains to Zoe, when he asks her to return the potato, and so too does Joyce seem to suggest that, attached to the common potato, is a memory of the Famine and, more specifically, a memory of Ireland’s betrayal at the hands of imperial power, which memory, like a talisman, must be retained collectively and activated if Ireland is not to remain subjugated.
Today, drawing on Joyce’s example, Irish artists keep the memory of the Famine alive through the humble potato. Eoin Mac Lochlainn, for example, made a series of watercolor potato paintings for a culinary themed exhibit at Dublin’s Olivier Cornet Gallery during the 2019 Bloomsday Festival. The variations in contour and coloring among Mac Lochlainn’s mottled spuds speak to the way Joyce, too, took an ordinary potato and, setting it on its course through Dublin in Bloom’s pocket on June 16, 1904, allowed us to see its multiple valences, calling to memory, through various cultural and literary associations, the vegetable’s blighted and all-important history within the context of Irish colonial politics, economics, and culture.
Post by Laurel Taylor
1. See Terry Eagleton, Heathcliff and the Great Hunger: Studies in Irish Culture (London: Verso, 1995), pp. 13.
2. See Mary Burke, “Forgotten Remembrances: The 6 January ‘Women’s Christmas’ (Nollaig na mBan) and the 6 January 1839 ‘Night of the Big Wind’ (Oiche na Gaoithe Moire) in ‘The Dead,’” JJQ 54 (Spring 2017), 263. Also, see Bonnie Roos, “The Joyce of Eating: Feast, Famine, and the Humble Potato in Ulysses,” Hungry Words: Images of Famine in the Irish Famine, ed. George Cusack and Sarah Goss (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2006), pp. 159-96.