Garry Leonard, ‘Molly Bloom’s “Lifestyle”: The Performative as Normative’, in Molly Blooms: A Polylogue [&c.] (1994)

Bibliographical details: Garry Leonard, ‘Molly Bloom’s “Lifestyle”: The Performative as Normative’, in Molly Blooms: A Polylogue on “Penelope” and Cultural Studies, ed. Richard Pearce (Wisconsin UP 1994), pp.196-234.


Ireland’s colonial position relative to the British Empire makes the adoption of a “lifestyle” particularly dramatic. Developing a “lifestyle” is simply not possible for a citizen in any economy where one’s income must “all go in food and rent” [viz., “sure you cant get on in this world without style all going in food and rent when I get it Ill lash it around I tell you in fine style”, U18.466-68]; and yet, with absentee British landlords and economic restrictions on Irish Catholics, this was the sort of economy Ireland had up until the early twentieth century. [...] Significantly, the so-called Celtic Twilight-championed by Yeats and rejected by Joyce-resisted [...] commercial colonization by going in search of the perfectly uncommodified peasant - one whose “own style” would in no way reflect a British “lifestyle,” and one whose “heritage” would be incapable of being translated into a “market” by England. But as the project by Haines demonstrates, even the clever sayings of those Irish folk who have never heard of Plumtree’s Potted Meat is, if marketed correctly, a saleable commodity. The search for the Irish peasant that Haines is conducting is the commercial equivalent of Yeats’s and Lady Gregory’s more nationalistic project (and [...] a deliberate juxtaposition of the two projects on Joyce’s part). Where Yeats would hold back the introduction of “commodity culture” into Ireland, [198] Joyce sees such a plan as impossible, self-delusional, and even selfish given that Yeats has no use for the sort of “trinkets” mass marketing and mass production make possible for the lower class. And yet, if Yeats has no patience with the vulgar trinkets of mass production, clearly they delight a character like Maria in Joyce’s short story “Clay”: “She took out her purse with the silver clasps and read again the words A Present from Belfast. She was very fond of that purse. (Dubliners, Corrected Edn , ed. Robert Scholes, 1967, p.100).

Baudrillard has defined consumption in the twentieth century not as the quantity of one’s possessions, or the insatiable urge to gratify specific desires with specific commodities, but rather the organization of all these commodities - both inside the home and outside in the street - into a complex semiotic message that signifies the “life” we imagine we are living. One of Lacan’s central premises is that desire is based on a permanent lack within the mythical construction of the subject’s “self”, and this lack requires the subject to move from word to word - from signifier to signifier - in the vain hope of finding an original signified to authenticate the (spurious) self-originating autonomy of his of her “identity”. Although Baudrillard’s theory of desire bears some resemblance to that of Lacan, he speaks of the “language”of things as well as words. For Baudrillard, the objects and desires strategically integrated by a consumer are signifiers that constitute a language of commodities that can be understood - by oneself in conjunction with others - as a “lifestyle”. The language of things is publicized and made sacred by the ceremony of advertising, and this permits the “personalization” of commodities into the private prayer of an individual’s immediate environment (an environment that, paradoxically, seeks to e1icit a “global response” even while claiming to be “personal”).

[...] When Gallaher refers to Little Chandler’s act of marrying as “putting your head in a sack”, he [199] is attacking Little Chandler’s lifestyle, and belittling it in relation to his own apparently boundless ability to consume and be consumed: “Everything in Paris is gay…. They believe in enjoying life they’ve a great feeling for the Irish there. When they heard I was from Ireland they were ready to eat me, man…. There’s no woman like the Parisienne - for style, for go” (Dubliners, p.77; emphasis added). Both Molly and Gallaher link the word “style” to a verb phrase in an attemp to show the relationship of “style” to the dynamic, theatrical, and in creasingly spectacular process of “life” and not merely to the static image of unstylish consumption where “all” goes “for food and rent”. Gallaher struggles just as much as Molly does to describe something not adequately designated in the outmoded word “style”.

For Gallaher, “style” somehow implies “go” just as Molly envisions a “style” as something that will allow her to lash it around”. What action does Gallaher wish to signify with “go”? To what action does Molly’s pronoun “it” refer? Rather than the static image of style as the cut of a dress, this active, spectacular, and dramatic style - a style with “go” that can be “lashed around” - refers to the pre-scripted and carefully directed life style where “happiness” is performed daily for both a real and an imagined audience. When Little Chandler goes home, his final crisis of feeling “trapped” is brought on not by a particular thought or a particular person, but by the language of the objects that surround him. The furniture has a “pretty” style which he now finds “mean,” perhaps because the word “go” - in Gallaher’s dynamic sense of this term - is not in the vocabulary of his furniture’s “language”: “He found something mean in the pretty furniture which he had bought for his house on the hire system…. A dull resentment against his life awoke within him. Could he not escape from his little house? Was it too late for him to try to live bravely like Gallaher? … There was the furniture still to be paid for” (Dubliners, p.83, emphasis added). Little Chandler’s resentment of his “life” is indistinguishable from his resentment of his furniture. He has bought a “lifestyle” on credit and now, spiritually bankrupt, he cannot abandon it because it, like the furniture, “is still to be paid for”. The average Anglo-lrish domestic economy can purchase a basic “style” on an installment plan, but they are very far from the periodic pleasure of 9ashing it around”. Gallaher’s insulting description of a married man as one who “puts his head in a sack” refers to a diminished capacity to see and be seen through the execution of a commodity-based performance of the “style” of one’s “life”.

Not unlike Molly, Little Gallaher attempts to alter the depressing [200] discourse of his “mean” lifestyle by making a “new” purchase: “How he had suffered that day, waiting at the shop door until the shop was empty, standing at his ease while the girl piled ladies’ blouses before him … striving to hide his blushes as he left the shop …” (Dubliners, p.82). This is a purchase not determined by the specific style of the blouse (presumably, in his embarrassed haste, he simply plucks one from the pile) but by his vague yearning for some variation in his life, a variation that perhaps might be inaugurated by a “new” erotic encounter with his wife. Or, to restate my point using Gallaher’s jargon, he rnade his purchase not for style, but for go - not as a simple and single purchase, but as a concerted effort to buy an escape route to a “brave” life: “Annie kissed him and said it was very pretty and stylish … she was delighted with it, especially with the make of the sleeves …” (Dubliners, p.83). His wife Annie, however, responds to the purchase strictly by observing the particular cut of the blouse-“style” in the more traditional and static sense-and also by professing horror that he has paid too much for what is, after all, just a shirt. Her reaction transforms Little Chandler’s purchase from a magical attempt at transcendance (not unlike what the boy of “Araby” also attempts relative to Mangan’s sister) to a pedestrian example of someone having failed to barter properly for a “necessary” item. Annie further domesticates any erotic component of the purchase by declaring the blouse, like their furniture, is “pretty”. Annie misses her cue, and Little Chandler’s purchase, with its vaguely articulated erotic component leads, both literally and figuratively, to an anticlimax. (pp.198-201.)

Works cited [sel.]
Lawrence Birken, Consuming Desire: Sexual Science and the Emergence of a Culture of Abundance 1871-1914 (Cornell UP 1988).
M. R. Booth, Victorian Spectacular Theatre 1850-1910 (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1981).
Rachel Bowlby, Just Looking; Consumer Culture in Dreiser, Gissing and Zola (NY: Methuen 1985).
Regina Gagnier, Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public (Stanford UP 1986).
Cheryl Herr, Joyce's Anatomy of Culture (Illinois UP 1986).
Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (NY: Norton & Co. 1981).
Thomas Richards, The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle 1851-1914 (Stanford UP 1990).
Rosalind H. Williams, Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth-century France (LA: California UP 1982).

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