June 16, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
In honor of James Joyce, I’ve spent Bloomsday carrying around a pair of doll’s underpants. I encourage all Joyce enthusiasts to do the same.
Doll underpants figure in Ulysses as a signifier in Leopold and Molly’s courtship—they’re what the critic David Cotter terms “a fetish charged with a tension between extremes.” As Molly Bloom recollects, she gave Leopold just such a talisman after one of their first dates:
so now there you are like it or lump it he thinks nothing can happen without him knowing he hadnt an idea about my mother till we were engaged otherwise hed never have got me so cheap as he did he was lo times worse himself anyhow begging me to give him a tiny bit cut off my drawers that was the evening coming along Kenilworth square he kissed me in the eye of my glove and I had to take it off asking me questions is it permitted to enquire the shape of my bedroom so I let him keep it as if I forgot it to think of me when I saw him slip it into his pocket of course hes mad on the subject of drawers thats plain to be seen always skeezing at those brazenfaced things on the bicycles with their skirts blowing up to their navels even when Milly and I were out with him at the open air fete that one in the cream muslin standing right against the sun so he could see every atom she had on when he saw me from behind following in the rain I saw him before he saw me however standing at the corner of the Harolds cross road with a new raincoat on him with the muffler in the Zingari colours to show off his complexion and the brown hat looking slyboots as usual what was he doing there where hed no business they can go and get whatever they like from anything at all with a skirt on it and were not to ask any questions but they want to know where were you where are you going I could feel him coming along skulking after me his eyes on my neck he had been keeping away from the house he felt it was getting too warm for him so I halfturned and stopped then he pestered me to say yes till I took off my glove slowly watching him he said my openwork sleeves were too cold for the rain anything for an excuse to put his hand anear me drawers drawers the whole blessed time till I promised to give him the pair off my doll to carry about in his waistcoat pocket
Writing in James Joyce & the Perverse Ideal, Cotter observes,
That this fetish is underpants suggests that it represents the immanence and physicality of women. That it is a doll’s underpants stresses the fetish as an imaginative token of woman as generic object of desire, the ideal ego resexualized.
It’s no secret that this particular signifier was drawn from life. In the typically authoritative words of my favorite book, The Secret Sex Lives of Famous People, Joyce “was a true underwear fetishist, and even carried a pair of doll’s panties in his pocket.”
Adds Harold Bloom in his James Joyce, the author “had a longtime fascination with women’s underwear; he kept a pair of doll’s panties in his pocket, often providing café entertainment by putting two fingers in them and walking then seductively toward a friend.”
This is clearly the ideal way to celebrate Bloomsday. But it takes work. I daresay in interwar Dublin one could simply go around picking up doll underpants on every corner, that un petit slip could be found in the average Parisian toy shop. Nowadays, it’s a trickier matter.
I think of myself as someone with a relatively well-stocked doll closet. But when I opened my miniature trunk to investigate the underthings on offer, I found that those little slatterns, Carol Channing and Sadie Dollhead, had been prancing around without panties for the entire time I’ve known them. There was a small girdle, true, a half slip, an undershirt, but nothing to protect their asexual plastic modesty. I tried wresting a sort of cotton diaper-cover from a baby doll, but they barely fit in the pocket of my shorts—any suggestive sashaying was completely out of the question.
Here’s what to do if you want to feel creepy: go into a series of toy stores on the Upper West Side and paw through doll clothes looking for tiny underpants. If you really want to up the ante, ask a suspicious clerk about it. Extra points if there are small children in the vicinity. It’s all much more in the spirit of Bloomsday, I fancy, than some costumed pub crawl.
At length, I found in my closet a tiny pair of bloomers that I sewed when I was ten for a doll called Tasha Tudor. I stripped her, pocketed them, hied myself to Zabar’s Café, bought some whitefish and a bagel, settled myself at the communal table, and slipped the little drawers onto my fingers. They walked seductively toward the only other occupants—an elderly woman in a wheelchair, eating a piece of cherry strudel, and her nurse. Neither seemed to notice. “To learn one must be humble. But life is the great teacher.”