The Desire of the Senses: Sexual Chemistry and Biology in Nausicaa


Illustration by Henri Matisse in the 1935 edition of Ulysses, by James Joyce.

by Tomoé Hill

Wait. Hm. Hm. Yes. That’s her perfume. Why she waved her hand. I leave you this to think of me when I’m far away on the pillow. What is it? Heliotrope? No, Hyacinth? Hm. Roses, I think. She’d like scent of that kind. Sweet and cheap: soon sour. Why Molly likes opoponax. Suits her with a little jessamine mixed. Her high notes and her low notes. At the dance night she met him, dance of the hours. Heat brought it out. She was wearing her black and it had the perfume of the time before. Good conductor, is it? Or bad? Light too. Suppose there’s some connection. For instance if you go into a cellar where it’s dark. Mysterious thing too. Why did I smell it only now? Took its time in coming like herself, slow but sure. Suppose it’s ever so many millions of tiny grains blown across. Yes, it is. Because those spice islands, Cinghalese this morning, smell them leagues off. Tell you what it is. It’s like a fine veil or web they have all over the skin, fine like what do you call it gossamer and they’re always spinning it out of them, fine as anything, rainbow colours without knowing it. Clings to everything she takes off. Vamp of her stockings. Warm shoe. Stays. Drawers: little kick, taking them off. Byby till next time. Also the cat likes to sniff in her shift on the bed. Know her smell in a thousand. Bathwater too. Reminds me of strawberries and cream. Wonder where it is really. There or the armpits or under the neck. Because you get it out of all holes and corners. Hyacinth perfume made of oil or ether or something. Muskrat. Bag under their tails one grain pour off odour for years. Dogs at each other behind. Good evening. Evening. How do you sniff? Hm. Hm. Very well, thank you. Animals go by that. Yes now, look at it that way. We’re the same. Some women for instance warn you off when they have their period. Come near. Then get a hogo you could hang your hat on. Like what? Potted herrings gone stale or. Boof! Please keep off the grass.

Perhaps they get a man smell off us. What though? Cigary gloves Long John had on his desk the other. Breath? What you eat and drink gives that. No. Mansmell, I mean. Must be connected with that because priests that are supposed to be are different. Women buzz round it like flies round treacle. Railed off the altar get on to it at any cost. The tree of forbidden priest. O father, will you? Let me be the first to. That diffuses itself all through the body, permeates. Source of life and it’s extremely curious the smell. Celery sauce. Let me.

—James Joyce, Ulysses

As a scent obsessive, these lines from the “Nausicaa” chapter in Ulysses represent much more than they might seem: his memories and musings aren’t just a rich, if casual, internal character dialogue, but one that reveals just how sexually driven the senses are as well as the chemical and biological aspects that underlie attraction.

The opening references Gerty and contrasts her with Molly in floral scents—what kind of a woman each is to Bloom: trying to identify the perfume that wafts from the handkerchief she waves to him, he considers first heliotrope and hyacinth. The first has a soft, almond-like scent while the second is sweet and delicate, overall casting Gerty as the innocent in love, almost fragile—this olfactory fragility translating to the physical as well by means of her lame foot. When he then almost positively identifies it as rose, she is representative of a sexual interlude: almost Bovary-esque (the image of the rose early on reflects Emma’s innocent romantic fantasies, while her burning of Turkish pastilles later show her irretrievably drowning in her sensual excesses), overblown in its romantic dreams, but “soon sour”—easily dismissed, forgotten. But Bloom has taken the time to think of Gerty in light of her scent, spent as he is; her rose may be cheap, but his mind luxuriates in it nevertheless.

In comparison, Molly is her complete opposite. Opoponax and jessamine (jasmine) are both heady and rich. The former has a distinctively Oriental feel in terms of perfumery—in terms of classical Orientalism, the harem and odalisque imagery: the creature of pure sexual pleasure. Jasmine, on the other hand, belongs to the category of indolic flowers. Indoles are an aromatic compound that also occur in faeces, hence these particular flowers giving off a faecal scent (lilac, honeysuckle, and orange blossom are also indolic. It is especially interesting to note the latter, since it represents virginity and innocence as a traditional bridal flower.) Not everyone recognises this—or necessarily makes the connection. Often the brain simply registers this note as rich, earthy or even carnal. But all these descriptives apply to Molly: she understand her own sexuality perfectly and revels in it.

Bloom understands, though perhaps on a lesser level. When he refers to “her high notes and her low notes,” the olfactory translation can be seen as opoponax representing the divine, or ‘higher’ woman: it is a gum resin, also known as sweet myrrh—and that myrrh as well as frankincense have religious connotations needs no explanation. As we are already familiar with Bloom as a man of the senses at this early point, it is easy enough to recognise the appeal of jasmine for him; this is Molly’s ‘lower,’ or baser/sexual self, rich and primal. Through this particular scent profile of his characters, Joyce reveals his own proclivity: in his letters to Nora he repeats his fantasies regarding the anal as well as the faecal: “buy whorish drawers, love, and be sure you sprinkle the legs of them with some nice sent (sic) and also discolour them just a little behind.” The ripe, hypnotic scent of jasmine to him must have been an immediate reminder of Nora and sex.

This scent-hypnosis affects Bloom in the form of memory, specifically recalling Molly’s first meeting with Boylan at the ballet. The heat of her skin amplifying the flower and resin that remain on her dress from a previous wearing, carnality acting as a blatant lightning rod for attraction. He admits to himself the mystery of the ability of a scent to creep from the depths of memory and then immediately overwhelm you with vivid details; much like Molly’s sexual nature. Scent’s power is its invisibility: he likens it to the drift of exotic spices on the wind from islands travelling particle by particle until you are suddenly enveloped; a clinging veil indistinguishable from skin—not quite mentioning the obvious allusion to female spiders and the deadly allure of a dew embellished web. Scent on a woman regardless of type, a Molly or a Gerty, gives her an almost predatory allure: all parts are made to capture.

At this point the line between artificial (anything not emanating from the body) and bodily scent become blurred: “clings to everything she takes off”. It is said that you cannot smell your own scent. This is true (although perhaps only meant if you are in a normal state, not sweating or overheated), in that you can’t press your nose against your skin and pick it up. It is always maddeningly on the peripheries, elusive in that you can only grasp it via things other than yourself. But traces are left everywhere: as Bloom notes, on clothes, but on lovers as well. Boylan must not be far behind the mental striptease he pictures of Molly’s garments, shed one by one. “Byby till next time” (to the lover). We are no less animal than the cat here: scent is one of the most comforting, familiar and arousing things about the people we love and lust after.

There is a playful shift from the cat to Molly: on wondering what part of the body the strawberries and cream scent from her bathwater originates from, it is too enjoyable to imagine Joyce’s mind making the connection of cat and the charming vulgarity ‘pussy’ by having Bloom mention “there”. “Know her scent in a thousand”? Yes, he would. Bloom’s sexual instinct is right in noting the neck, armpits and between the legs— they are the most highly scented and distinct in terms of attraction. Joyce now follows this by mentioning hyacinth perfume and the gathering of muskrat scent in back to back sentences. This is particularly interesting as I’d read an Alma annotated edition that referred to the former sentence as having to do with synthetic perfumery coming into production at the time. However, given the context of the bath line, it is just as likely this can be interpreted as a reference to scent extraction (which I will explain below), as the Alma notes do not explain the usage of the word ‘oil’ in the sentence, only ‘ether’. Both words apply to extraction, as does the sentence on musk.

There are different methods of gathering and extraction in perfumery depending on the material. With animal material (musk, civet—when they were still natural in perfume, as they would have been then), oil naturally secreted into the pouch or pod is then chemically extracted. With flowers, there are several different methods. Amongst these (explained in very brief terms here), there is solvent extraction, using solvents such as petroleum ether or dimethyl ether; enfleurage, which involves pouring fat or oil over the flowers (logically, these make more sense applied to the hyacinth sentence), scent is released into the material, which is then extracted with alcohol; and steam distillation, where boiling water steam is forced through the flowers—the aromatic condensation is then separated. Molly is simply undergoing the latter by means of the bath, and Bloom wonders which part of her flower yields this particular aroma.

Back to the idea of animal attraction, the dogs using scent as greeting: who is friendly, who to keep away from. But here it is the exploration of what would be considered taboo by human standards. “We’re the same” says Bloom. The scent of menstrual blood as a warning to men to stay away isn’t an unusual concept of sexual repulsion (used here not as a term of disgust, but of biological rebuff), but interestingly ‘hogo’ has variances in its definition. Out of five definitions, only two referred to it as unpleasant—the rest merely defined it as a ‘strong’ or ‘high’ scent. Indeed, its French origin, haut-goût, means ‘high flavour’ or ‘slight taint of decay’—a reference to food. What Bloom neglects to mention is that most women may have encountered, perhaps embarrassingly, is that dogs are attracted to the high scent of blood at that time. Maybe it was too much for even Joyce to have to explain that particular animal-human crossover attraction—but it is most likely as simple as dogs just having a highly developed sense of smell. That said, we already know his taboo fascination for the faecal: it would be no more a stretch to now imagine male sexual interest in a menstruating female.

Bloom’s musing on the supposed great forbidden sexual attraction of priests to women isn’t quite the hoary old stereotype it first appears to be. The obvious reading of “source of life … celery sauce” is correct—a reference to semen, but it is based in biology, not fantasy. The spicy, high-pitched celery-like scent (and taste) noted indicates the presence of androstenone—a steroid present in male sweat as well as semen—which acts as a pheromone, explaining why women sense it as permeating the entire body. It is worth noting as well that an ovulating female will be more likely to be aware of the presence of these, so perhaps now we may insert a wink here to the idea of irresistible priest. While it may be fantasy that priests are seen as more possessed of this, it may also not be. A diet consisting largely of androstenone-rich foods (celery and parsnip amongst them) would easily account for it, so while Bloom stop short at thinking food and drink are only connected with the scent of one’s breath, it actually applies to the body in entirety.

This desirability comes full circle from the idea of haut-gôut and menstruation: high levels of androstenone are present in some pork products when the male pigs are not castrated. ‘Boar taint,’ as it is known, is the strong taste/smell that results. So while these things may be considered offensive, taste and scent preferences are purely individual. What Ulysses shows so well and perfectly condenses in the lines above, is the complex layout of the connectivity of desire—and that we are all its conductors and receptors.