Joyce Restyles The Times

"Vegetarians" Editorial

"Vegetarians" Editorial

Letter to the Editor by "F.R.C.S."

F.R.C.S. Letter

On Monday, September 19, 1898, The Times (London) printed an editorial on the topic of “Vegetarians.” (This editorial will be referred to as “the editorial” throughout this essay.) The editorial, written from the dominant perspective of the time (i.e., the British perspective), is a commentary on vegetarianism and is, for the most part, disparaging. On Monday, September 26, 1898, The Times printed a letter, under the title “Vegetarians,” in response to the editorial. (This letter, written by “F.R.C.S.”, will be referred to as either “the F.R.C.S. letter” or simply “the letter” throughout this essay.) The F.R.C.S. letter sympathizes with the editorial’s views on vegetarianism and takes issue with those (in particular an earlier letter writer named “E.B.”; see Works Cited) who would criticize such views. The editorial and the letter not only have similarly negative views toward vegetarianism, they also employ a similar style of commentary, which can be characterized as formal and verbose. In contrast, Leopold Bloom’s style of commentary on vegetarianism in the “Lestrygonians” episode of Ulysses is informal and succinct. In “Lestrygonians,” through the concise observations of Bloom, James Joyce enters the discourse on vegetarianism and parodies verbose styles of commentary (of which the editorial and the letter are representative) by reducing the commentary itself to the smaller language units (e.g., a word, a phrase, or a sequence of words or phrases) of its essential comment or comments. In using this style of reduction in an episode where food is at the forefront, Joyce is also equating language to food, and suggesting that both can be made more readily understood or digestible when reduced to a more manageable size or portion.

In the schema for Ulysses that he provided to Stuart Gilbert in 1921, Joyce lists the technique for “Lestrygonians” as “Peristaltic.” The New Oxford American Dictionary defines peristalsis as “the involuntary constriction and relaxation of the muscles of the intestine or another canal, creating wavelike movements that push the contents of the canal forward.” Just as Bloom’s wanderings in “Lestrygonians” “[resemble] the progress of a particle across the gastrointestinal tract” (Yared 470) and imitate a linear peristalsis, the analysis in this essay will take a similar approach. The editorial and the F.R.C.S. letter will be used as the base texts, and in the course of reading sequentially through their commentary, Bloom’s comments will be introduced in order to show Joyce’s parody of style. It is also important to establish that Joyce was in fact aware, at least in part, of the discourse on vegetarianism in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries. Marguerite M. Regan addresses this in her essay entitled “‘Weggebobbles and Fruit’: Bloom’s Vegetarian Impulses,” in which she cites Joyce’s “familiarity with one of the standard ideas propagated in the vegetarian canon: the idea that meat-eating aroused aggression and war” and also provides an excerpt from a review in which Joyce discusses vegetarianism (Regan 466-467).

"Few things are more curious..." (Screenshot 1)

"Few things are more curious..."

George William Russell ("A.E.")

George William Russel ("A.E.")

The editorial opens with the following:

"Few things are more curious, or have been less elucidated by scientific inquiry, than the subject of the natural history, or perhaps we might say the physiology, of faddism. The world contains a large number of people… who are worthy of respect in the ordinary relations of life… but who make a parade of differing from the great majority of their fellow creatures…" (“Few things…” 7).

It is clear from the outset that the editorial is going to portray vegetarianism in a negative light (n.b., the word “faddism” or “faddist” in the editorial is synonymous with “vegetarianism” or “vegetarian”); and the ellipses used here are necessary, as this passage is actually much longer (120 words). The central comment of the passage is that, at least according to the editorial, vegetarians are “curious” and have a tendency to “make a parade of differing” from the rest of society. In fact, the central comment can be condensed into two essential language units: the adjective “curious” and the phrase “make a parade of differing.” In “Lestrygonians,” Bloom encounters two vegetarians (George William Russell [“A.E.”] and a lady, who “might be” Lizzie Twigg) and Joyce shows how this specific comment about the “curiousness” and “celebrated difference” of vegetarians can be reduced to something more succinct: “His [Bloom’s] eyes followed the high figure [Russell] in homespun, beard and bicycle, a listening woman at his side. Coming from the vegetarian [i.e., a vegetarian restaurant; see Gifford 173]” (Joyce 136, 533-534). The phrase “high figure” connotes an elevated status (figuratively and, as Russell is on a bike, literally) and suggests pomposity, while the combination of homespun clothing—which is read as unusual (again, see Gifford 173)—a beard, and a bicycle do come across as a curious image. Adding to the curiosity is the fact that vegetarian restaurants were rare in Ireland at the time (only 2 were in operation in 1898 [Regan 464]). In this scene, Russell, the strangely attired man on the bicycle, is literally on parade before Bloom’s eyes, and Joyce captures—in just 21 words—the idea of the vegetarian as both “curious” and one who “makes a parade of differing.”

"Few things are more curious..." (Screenshot 2)

"'Vegetarians' are divided..."

Further along in the editorial, the idea of classification in vegetarianism is addressed:

"‘Vegetarians’ are divided, we believe, into two great sects, with smaller subdivisions known only to the elect. A point of fundamental difference turns upon the admissibility of animal products other than flesh, such as milk and eggs; and the consumers of these things, being otherwise vegetarians, are known, we understand, in the dialect of the society as ‘Vems’; while the strict or absolute vegetarians are ‘Vegs.’ One section calls itself ‘Edenic,’ and dispenses with cooking, so as to render obsolete one of the oldest and most widely recognized points of difference between man and the lower animals" (“Few things…” 7).

This passage from the editorial succeeds—in 97 words—in making the comment that vegetarians (at least in 1898) are classified as either “Vems,” “Vegs,” or “Edenic.” Joyce, on the other hand, reduces his classification of vegetarians to two words: “Nutarians” and “Fruitarians” (Joyce 136, 539). It is Joyce’s choice of words that allows him to do so, as the dietary philosophies of “Nutarians” and “Fruitarians” are evident on the face of the very words themselves. Granted, the formality of the editorial necessitates more detail and a true sentence format, but Joyce shows that a style of reduction—not necessarily to the extent that he employs—is effective in conveying the fundamental point of an argument or a commentary.

Let it not escape our attention that “Lestrygonians” is an episode, foremost, about food and drink, and that the verb “reduce” has its own connotations within cooking and—as Burgundy figures in the episode as well—winemaking. In the context of cooking, to “reduce” something—a sauce, for example—is, essentially, to diminish its quantity so as to enhance its quality. Joyce’s style of reduction in “Lestrygonians” can be understood in this cooking context. By reducing an entire commentary to its single and fundamental comment (e.g., that vegetarians are “curious”), Joyce is in fact diminishing quantity, and enhancing—or at least maintaining—quality. In the context of winemaking, to employ a “reductionist” technique is to limit, as much as possible, oxygen from the process of winemaking itself. Clearly, Joyce’s economy of language (in the two examples given thus far, as well as throughout the episode) adheres to such a technique of limited oxygen expenditure. Thus, Joyce’s parody of the editorial’s style through reduction can also be seen as an indictment of commentaries like the editorial for their excessive expenditure of “hot air,” as it were.

"Few things are more curious..." (Screenshot 3)

"The vegetarian nations, perhaps..."

F.R.C.S. Letter Screenshot

"'E.B.' tells us, perhaps..."

The last and most substantial comments contained in the editorial address the questions of vegetarian intelligence and accomplishment. The F.R.C.S. letter is also relevant to these comments, as it deals entirely with vegetarian intellectuality. A portion of the editorial’s comment—it is far too long to list here in its entirety—reads as follows: 

"The vegetarian nations, perhaps not as a consequence of their diet, but unquestionably as a matter of fact, have either never attained or have failed to preserve a position among the ruling peoples of the earth; and the Vegetarian Society, if that be its proper appellation, has not yet, so far as we have been able to ascertain, been a nursery of discoverers, of explorers, of philosophers, of authors, or of statesmen. It has appeared to consist, so far, of very commonplace people, and to have put forth none but commonplace ideas" (“Few things…” 7).

The F.R.C.S. letter, after citing the findings of a “Dr. Carpenter” on the subject of the vegetarian diet, ends with a continuation of this intellectual attack on vegetarianism:

"‘E.B.’ [a prior critic of the editorial] tells us, perhaps a little boastfully, that vegetarianism is not to be destroyed by ridicule. He may be right. Has he ever considered that a high power of resistance to destructive agencies is eminently characteristic of the lowest classes of living organisms? May not the vitality of erroneous opinions be in some respects analogous to that of the spores of disease-producing bacteria?" (F.R.C.S. 10).

The editorial claims that the vegetarian movement has contributed nothing to “intellectual” fields of study, and the F.R.C.S. letter derisively equates the vegetarian, first, to a cockroach, and second, to a malignant bacteria. Yet, both take the “more is better” approach to the wording of their disparagement; instead of concisely stating their essential comment—that vegetarians are unintellectual pedestrians—outright, they choose to (or, perhaps, must) adhere to the style of formal verbosity. Although Bloom does not agree that vegetarians are intellectually inferior, he articulates his comment on the matter in a more direct manner: “Those literary etherial people they are all. Dreamy, cloudy, symbolistic. Esthetes they are” (Joyce 136, 543-544). Although there is a mild tone of ridicule in Bloom’s words, there is also a hint of jealousy: Bloom seems to admire the ability of the vegetarian to be “etherial” and “dreamy.” He goes on to propose that it is the vegetarian diet itself that “produces the like waves of the brain the poetical” (544-545). And a few lines later, his jealous admiration is further emphasized by his own attempt at poetry: “The dreamy cloudy gull / Waves o’er the waters dull” (549-550). Ultimately, later in the episode, Bloom concludes that “there’s a lot in that vegetarian fine flavour of things” (140, 720). Joyce's style, again, favors the brevity of giving commentary through the quick thoughts and direct observations of Bloom over the prolixity of the entire commentary itself.

In comparing the editorial and the F.R.C.S. letter to Bloom’s commentary in “Lestrygonians,” it is clear that all three are discussing similar issues within the contemporary discourse on vegetarianism. What is also clear is that the style of Joyce’s language differs from that of the editorial and the letter, which is certainly to be expected, given the difference in both genre and medium between The Times and Ulysses. This essay does not suggest that, in writing Ulysses,Joyce made use of these two texts from The Times in particular, but rather that, in the “Lestrygonians” episode of the book, he simply engages with the topic they address. The intention of this essay has not been to make value judgements on different styles of writing—for the styles of formal verbosity and informal succinctness both have their place—but rather to illustrate how, in “Lestrygonians,” Joyce parodies the style in which the editorial and the letter were written in order to demonstrate that the lowest common denominator of a commentary can suffice for conveying its message. It is also important to realize the significance in Joyce’s employing of a style of reduction in an episode where hunger and thirst dominate the thematic structure. The placement of this style within “Lestrygonians” shows how Joyce’s treatment of language is akin to the treatment of food and drink—not only techniques within cooking and winemaking, but also, most importantly, the act of eating itself. By masticating the style of verbosity, Joyce reduces language to a style that—like Bloom’s light vegetarian lunch of cheese and Burgundy—is more digestible.

Additional Items of Relevance

Works Cited

E.B. “The Vegetarians.” Letters to the Editor. The Times (London, England) 21 Sep. 1898: 10. The Times Digital Archive 1785-1985 (Gale). Web. 11 Oct. 2014.

“Few things are more curious, or have been less…” Editorial. The Times (London, England) 19 Sep. 1898: 7. The Times Digital Archive 1785-1985 (Gale). Web. 11 Oct. 2014.

F.R.C.S. “Vegetarians.” Letter to the Editor. The Times (London, England) 26 Sep. 1898: 10. The Times Digital Archive 1785-1985 (Gale). Web. 11 Oct. 2014.

Gifford, Don, and Seidman, Robert J. Ulysses Annotated. 2nd ed. California: University of California Press, 2008. Print.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. Hans Walter Gabler, Wolfhard Steppe, and Claus Melchior, eds. New York: Random House, 1986. Print.

Regan, Marguerite M. “‘Weggebobbles and Fruit’: Bloom’s Vegetarian Impulses.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 51.4 (2009): 463-475. Project Muse. Web. 6 Oct. 2014.

Yared, Aida. “Eating and Digesting ‘Lestrygonians’: A Physiological Model of Reading.” James Joyce Quarterly 46.3-4 (2009): 469-479. Project Muse. Web. 25 Sep. 2014.

Joyce Restyles The Times