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“Dead: an old woman’s: the grey sunken cunt of the world.”
The grey horror engendered by the vision of the stumbling drunk hag — echoing the milkwoman from Telemachus (in fact wearing the same clothes) — seems to be at odds with the searing orange sun in the hot blue sky here, but grey evokes Bloom’s feeling of death and desiccation. (Look at the language of these pages as well as the images, and note the number of times words associated with death, decay, greyness appear.) Grey takes us back to the “gray sweet mother” of Telemachus, but here the mother is an old woman, not a vision of fertility but an empty, dead cunt, an origin we are terrified to return to.
This feels like a shocking, obscene image, but I’d like to recall what D. H. Lawrence believed about using strong, Anglo-Saxon language: there is no substitute for letting language be powerful and grounded in the sensual, the real. The really radical vision of modernist literature, and Joyce in particular, demands that we stop pussyfooting around. Especially about sex and death: this is the culmination of a sequence of images that make a visceral connection between sex, birth, death, and the female, between desire and decay. The flesh of woman bears “the oldest, the first race,” another echo of Bloom’s origins, as is the reference to wandering and captivity, but this makes him feel horror in his own flesh.
Stephen nudges towards this in Telemachus in thinking about his mother and the milkwoman, but he doesn’t have the grounding in the sensual and the earthy — nor does he have the life experience of being a husband and a father — to really grapple with these feelings.