Thu, 19 Nov 2020 21:51:57 GMT
Ulysses blog by Ambassador Mulhall, Episode 14, ‘Oxen of the Sun’
19 November 2020
“The excuse for parts of Ulysses is the whole of Ulysses” – Ezra Pound
Let me be frank. Reading the episode of Ulysses known as ‘Oxen of the Sun’ is a challenge and not everyone will manage it. Here’s what a leading Joyce scholar, Terence Killeen, said about it in his excellent book Ulysses Unbound: a reader’s companion to James Joyce’s Ulysses, p. 166: “’Oxen of the Sun’ is by general agreement the most difficult episode of Ulysses. For many readers, the episode’s extraordinary technique is just too much.” Yes, this episode is a bit of a beast. Joyce acknowledged that it was his book’s most difficult “both to interpret and to execute”. (Selected Letters, p. 249.)
Readers should not be surprised, or intimidated, if they find it hard work. And, allow me to whisper it: if the going gets too tough, don’t be afraid to hit the skip button or skim through these pages and move on to the remainder of the novel which confronts the reader with somewhat less formidable obstacles.
The difficulty inherent in this episode stems from the fact that it is written in a succession of prose styles that brilliantly mimic the history of English literature from the Anglo-Saxon era to the late 19th century. The episode finishes with some 20th century slang. This is an ingenious compositional ploy but it’s not for the fainthearted reader. That said, the episode can be read with pleasure as we encounter the changes in writing style even if we cannot be expected to identify the provenance of each featured style.
‘Oxen of the Sun’ is set in Dublin’s National Maternity Hospital at Holles Street. After his visit to Sandymount, Bloom, who is not yet ready to return to Molly, goes there at 10 pm to enquire about the condition of one Mrs Mina Purefoy, who has been enduring a difficult, three-day labour. At the hospital he meets a group of medical students who are carousing there.
This episode features the three characters from the novel’s opening episode, Stephen Dedalus, Buck Mulligan and the Englishman Haines (who is present as an apparition). When he makes his appearance, Haines confesses to killing Thomas Childs, the victim of a sensational turn-of-the century murder for which Childs’s brother, Samuel, was accused but acquitted. Joyce had something bordering on an obsession with this case which is mentioned more than 20 times according to the late Irish Supreme Court Justice, Adrian Hardiman, in his book Joyce in Court: James Joyce and the Law (London 2017).
Writing to his friend, Frank Budgen, Joyce explained the gynecological parallels: “Bloom is the spermatozoon, the hospital the womb, the nurse the ovum, Stephen the embryo”. (Selected Letters, pp. 251-52). The organ featured in this episode is the womb while the technique employed is, of course, embryonic. The evolution of the English language mapped in this episode equates with the growth of the fetus in the womb.
The episode begins with some Latin followed by a snatch of Anglo-Saxon: “Send us, bright one, light one, Horhorn, quickening and wombfruit.” By the time we reach its conclusion, we’re in the realms of early 20th century American slang and what one critic terms “hot-gospeller” commercialese: “The Deity ain’t no nickel dime bumshow. I put it to you that he’s on the square and a corking fine business proposition. He’s the grandest thing and don’t forget it.”
Leopold Bloom’s arrival at the hospital is recounted in medieval English with reference to his Jewish background and daylong wanderings around Dublin: “Some man that wayfaring was stood by housedoor at night’s oncoming. Of Israel’s folk was that man that on earth wandering far had fared.”
As Bloom joins the company of the revelers, we eavesdrop on an increasingly inebriated conversation between Dixon (who had previously treated Bloom for a bee sting, an incident described thus: “he was sore wounded in his breast by a spear wherewith a horrible and dreadful dragon was smitten him”), Madden, Lynch, Lenehan (whom we’ve encountered in earlier episodes), Costello, a Scottish medical student named Crotthers, and Stephen Dedalus, “who was of a wild manner when he was drunken”.
Having seen Bloom in an unusually acerbic mood in the previous episode, here he is back to being the essence of reasonableness and possessed of a somewhat ponderous intelligence laced with plenty of good sense. Bloom, “sir Leopold”, is described as “the goodliest guest that ever sat in scholars’ hall and … the very truest knight in the world.”
Although a sober Bloom is out of place in this raucous company, he remains with them out of a concern for Stephen’s welfare or, as Joyce puts in a medieval idiom, because “he bore fast friendship to sir Simon and to this his son young Stephen.” While the student drinkers indulge themselves loudly, Bloom is full of concern for those giving birth in the hospital.
We are exposed to a discussion of the ethics of childbirth, especially the rights of the mother as against those of the child in the womb. If a choice needed to be made between the life of the mother and the child, “all cried with one acclaim nay, by our Virgin Mother, the wife should live and the babe to die.” Only Stephen, although a religious sceptic, dissents from this view, arguing that “those Godpossibled souls we nightly impossibilise” represents a “sin against the Holy Ghost, Very God, Lords and Giver of Life”. He maintains that “at the end of the second month a human soul was infused”. Stephen is, of course, showing off his skill as an intellectual contrarian, confident of his ability to win any argument. Asked for his opinion, Bloom characteristically sits on the fence, “dissembling as his wont was.” In keeping with his anti-clerical bent, he observes that the Church benefits financially from both birth and death.
This discussion causes Bloom to brood on the birth of his son, Rudy, and his death eleven days later, whom “no man of art could save so dark is destiny.” The loss of his son troubles Bloom throughout the day. Here he is described as a man that “had of his body no manchild for an heir” and as “shut up in sorrow for his forepassed happiness”. Bloom develops a paternalistic attitude towards Stephen which is first manifested here – “so grieved he also .. for young Stephen for that he had lived riotously with those wastrels and murdered his goods with whores.” Bloom’s burgeoning engagement with Stephen becomes one of the key themes of the novel’s closing episodes.
There is a key sentence in this episode when Stephen in his most imperious mode pronounces that: “In woman’s womb word is made flesh but in the spirit of the maker all flesh that passes becomes the word that shall not pass away.” Here Joyce turns Catholic theology on its head by asserting the eternal veracity of the word in the hands of a great writer. Artistic creativity becomes the ultimate purpose of procreation.
Discussion of a foot and mouth outbreak gives rise to an extended, humorous discussion about bulls. The main focus is on the Papal Bull, Laudabiliter, issued by Pope Adrian IV in 1155, which was used by King Henry II to justify English rule in Ireland. Pope Adrian, who was born Nicholas Breakspear, is the only Englishman ever to occupy the Papacy. Thus in ‘Oxen of the Sun’, we read about “farmer Nicholas, the bravest cattle breeder of them all”. Ireland’s contested past is never far from the minds of the characters in Ulysses.
The company is enlivened by the arrival of Buck Mulligan whose larger-than-life presence will be recalled from the opening episode of the novel and from a number of subsequent appearances. Mulligan is accompanied by his friend Alec Bannon who speaks of a young woman in Mullingar, “a skittish heifer, big of her age and beef to the heel.” This ungenerous reference is to Bloom’s daughter, Milly, who we have learned in earlier episodes is working in Mullingar.
The rakish Buck Mulligan jokes that he planned to set himself up as a Fertiliser and Incubator, thus devoting himself to “the noblest task for which our bodily organism has been framed”. With an egalitarian flourish, he pledged that “the poorest kitchen wench no less than the opulent lady of fashion … would find in him their man.”
There is a description of Bloom’s character which helps us understand the kind of Everyman he is:- “being of a wary ascendancy .. he had enjoined his heart to repress all motions of a rising choler and, by intercepting them with the readiest precaution, foster within his breast that plenitude of sufferance which base minds jeer at ..”. In plainer language, Bloom is seen as a wary individual who avoids the temptation to be angry, and cultivates a tolerant outlook. That is laudable condition. This passage, by the way, is said to be written in the style of the 18th century Irish political philosopher and politician Edmund Burke.
Eventually, the word emerges that Mrs Purefoy has at last given birth. This happy news ushers in some fine writing including a parody of Carlyle:- “The air without is impregnated with rainbow moisture, life essence celestial, glistering on Dublin stone there under starshiny coelum”. In June 1999 when I was Consul General in Edinburgh, I organised a Bloomsday at which Scottish novelist, Alastair Gray, author of Lanark, delivered a memorable rendition of this section in his rich Scottish accent, thus illustrating Joyce’s mastery of the various prose styles featured in ‘Oxen of the Sun’.
When Stephen calls on his companions to move to a nearby pub, the language becomes more like that which Joyce would employ in Finnegans Wake, erratic and difficult to make sense of. For example, a reference to “two Ardilauns” only means something if you know that Lord Ardilaun was one of the owners of Dublin’s Guinness brewery.
The chapter ends with Stephen heading for Dublin’s nighttown “to seek the kips where shady Mary is’, with a sober Bloom (“the johnny in the black duds”; Bloom is still wearing the clothes he wore to attend Paddy Dignam’s funeral) on his trail, determined to play a paternal role by watching over Stephen during his sojourn in nighttown.
What is the purpose of this episode aside from an excuse to brandish Joyce’s literary virtuosity? For me, it is all about birth. Bloom takes us into a maternity hospital where, as babies are being born in other parts of the building, we witness the birth of a new relationship between Bloom and Stephen, a father without a son of his own who meets a young man for whom be can become a father figure.
We now move on to a 140-page episode, ‘Circe’, written in the form of a play. The variety and literary diversity of Ulysses is ocean deep but, after the rigours of ‘Oxen of the Sun’, we’re still swimming above water.
Daniel Mulhall in Ireland’s Ambassador to the United States of America
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