Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 19, 2010

Ulysses, by James Joyce (Disordered thoughts of an amateur #14)

Chapter 14: Oxen of the Sun

The Spouse has gone ballooning over the Hunter Valley this morning and there was no better cure for my mild anxiety than the intense concentration required to make sense of Oxen of the Sun. It is difficult, no doubt about it, but once I had surrendered to its rhythms and patterns it became easier. The early passages are written in archaic forms of language, some of which I recognised from little bits of Old English from my university days, and others which I guessed might be Gaelic or something Joyce has made up, some onomatopoeic fancy of his which might make sense if I could read it aloud in an Irish accent instead of an English one. Some of the language seemed reminiscent of those old morality or Jacobean plays like The Revenger’s Tragedy; Childe Harold/Leopold made an appearance – and I thought (wrongly) that chivalric references to dragons and spears were from Spenser’s Faerie Queene. I noticed a reference to Shakespeare’s second best bed (p524) which I know is mentioned in his Will, but the pastiche in Oxen of the Sun is not at all like the parodies in Cyclops where a reasonably well-read person can recognise the genre. For even if I were to dig my Faerie Queene off its shelf at home I would need to read and re-read it and then read it again, and still I probably would be none the wiser. Nope, this is tricky stuff that only scholars can play around with, and they’d better have tenure because they’ll be at it for a good long while.

Does it matter? No, not really. This is a chapter that’s best enjoyed by simply reading it, having a chuckle if you recognise an allusion, congratulating yourself if you manage to figure out what’s happening, and using some sort of crib afterwards to confirm that your understanding of events is more or less correct.

I confess to a rather childish sense of triumph when – about a third of the way through the chapter – I finally put the book aside and consulted Carlin and Evans, to discover that I had made sense of most of it somehow. Once I’d worked out that Bloom was visiting Mrs Purefoy of the very long labour in a maternity hospital, I suspected that (in the schema of the novel) if the organ of the body was the womb and birth was imminent, then Joyce was probably parodying the birth of various literary styles. The scene itself reminded me of a visit I once made to a public maternity hospital where a very large and noisy Italian family were dominating the room, their boisterous laughter echoing across the corridors and intimidating other smaller families into dismayed silence. Indeed I thought at first that Bloom then left the hospital and was back in a bar, with Lenehan drawing drinks for a crowd of young men, (Bloom surreptitiously pouring his drink into someone else’s glass), for there was so much chaotic conversation and noise it never entered my head that it could still be in the hospital, especially since much of it seemed to be a (rather tactless) philosophical discussion about the ethics of a difficult childbirth and whether the child or the mother’s life should be saved if a choice has to be made.

It was this confusion that made me abandon my ambition to read the whole chapter ‘cold’. I consulted Carlin and Evans because I couldn’t remember what Homer’s Oxen of the Sun episode was about and it seemed to me that the oafish behaviour of Stephen and the Lads was more reminiscent of boars than mild-mannered oxen.

To paraphrase the Homeric events, Odysseus and the Lads chance upon the island of the Sun God Helios, and giving in to temptation, they butcher and eat his divine oxen. This was a remarkably foolish thing to do, because Circe and Tiresius had warned them not to do it and you’d think that the boys would have learned not to provoke gods by now, but no, Lads will be Laddish and they push off from the island with full bellies and the enmity of one very angry Lampote who dobs them in to Daddy, who is, you guessed it, Zeus of the punitive disposition. A thunderbolt or two later and and all the Lads are dead, with Circe and Tiresius no doubt saying I told you so from down in Hades. Odysseus, lashed to the mast of the boat, drifts helplessly back the way he came through Scylla and Charybdis until cast up on Calypso’s island, where sexual slavery is his fate for many years.

Just as well I checked these Homerics out because I would have had no hope of figuring it out by myself – and would have missed entirely the significance of the thunderstorm,

the ‘black crack of noise in the street here, alack, bawled, back. Loud on left Thor thundered: in anger awful the hammerhurler’. (p515)

For the gods of Dublin are not best pleased by the laddish lads at Mrs Purefoy’s lying-in. They make their displeasure known with a storm that soaks Mulligan (p527) when he arrives at the hospital and is still pouring down when (to the relief of the harassed nurses no doubt) the young men finally repair to Burke’s ‘establishment’ to party on. The rain ‘drenches the fleece’ of Theodore Purefoy (p555) -is he, – father of nine (I think) – the one condemned to sexual slavery perhaps?

The big excitement in this chapter is that at last (at last!) we have the meeting of Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. I was quite some way into the chapter before I found out that the setting is not a ward, but rather the Common Hall of the National Maternity Hospital (in Halles St, p550) which explains how it comes about that there is a full-scale party going on in a hospital. We can assume, perhaps, that the goings-on of Stephen and his puerile mates were so commonplace that the hospital wisely decided to set aside a large waiting room for the purpose, and this is where the long-awaited meeting takes place.

What a let-down it is! If they say anything to each other it is lost in the hubbub. Declan Kiberd in my Introduction tells me that Bloom, exhausted by his long day and not following the conversation very well, (and who could, eh?) asks Stephen about a fragment of Italian overheard, and Stephen responds dismissively by telling him that they’re just arguing about money. Well, I missed this on my first reading, and couldn’t find it in a second effort. I trust Mr Kiberd to be right, and I’m a bit cross with myself about this, but I suspect that it was intentional on JJ’s part and I must be one of many.

For what it’s worth, this is my summary of what happens…

Bloom arrives at the hospital to visit Mrs Purefoy, who’s been in labour for two days. We heard about her before (in Hades?) and Bloom showed his sensitive side by being solicitous about her and the sufferings of women in childbirth in general. There’s a rowdy party in full swing, with guests Lynch, Lenehan, Punch Costello, Stephen and others, and Dixon – who turns out to be the doctor attending Mrs Purfoy, somewhat belatedly responding to a call for help after the baby is actually born (p531), and presiding at the ‘ceremony of the afterbirth in the presence of the secretary of state for domestic affairs and the members of the privy council’ (p536) – presumably the matron and midwives who attended her.

In the manner of many a drunken gathering, the conversation is chaotic – and not just because Joyce is playing around with the development of literary styles, an aspect of this chapter that I mostly ignored for reasons explained above. (If I did recognise what I thought was an allusion I was mostly wrong. I thought that the land of ‘Believe on Me’ (p517) was from the Pilgrims Progress, but it is more likely from Swift. I noticed references to a journal and some dates on p518 so got Samuel Pepys’ diary right, but even though I’ve read Paradise Lost twice and loved it I failed completely at finding any Milton as I read. And Dickens? Where was he??)

Anyway, things get very noisy and the nurse comes in to tick the young men off but of course they take no notice. They abandon their tacky discussion about the philosophical issues of childbirth and contraception, and Punch Costello tells a tall story about an Irish bull that takes over all Ireland and has his own language. This is obviously an allusion to the British occupation (John Bull), their imposition of English and the demise of Irish Gaelic, as evidenced by the milkwoman’s ignorance of her own language back in the Martello Tower (Chapter 1).

Amidst the general bawdiness and vulgarity, Bloom again does not belong. As he spies Stephen in the melee he muses about his dead son Rudy who lived only eleven days (p510).

But sir Leopold was passing grave maugre his word by cause he still had pity of the terrorcausing shrieking shrill women in their labour and as he was minded of his good lady Marion that had borne him an only manchild which on his eleventh day on live had died and no man of art could save so dark is destiny. And she was wondrous stricken of heart for that evil hap and for his burial did him on a fair corselet of lamb’s wool, the flower of the flock, lest he might perish utterly and lie akeled (for it was then about the middle of the winter) and now sir Leopold that had of his body no manchild for an heir looked upon him his friend’s son [that’s Stephen!] and was shut up in sorrow for his forepassed happiness. (p510)

But the rest of them have no such restraint and as Carlin and Evans say, ‘like Odysseus’ men, they lack respect for the sacred inhabitants of the place‘ (and serves them right if they catch cold from the soaking they subsequently get in the downpour). Someone asks Stephen why he’s abandoned his plans to be a churchman in favour of a writing career (he seems to have had something published) and the storm erupts. Bloom, oblivious to the fact that nobody’s really interested, explains the phenomenon of thunder, and then there’s a rowdy lot of nonsense about Papal Bulls, especially from Mulligan who is just as crass as he was in Chapter One. Their guffaws bring the nurse in again to demand quiet and Bloom’s disapproval grows. The booze flows, Mulligan tells another story, the doc departs to belatedly tend to Mrs Purefoy and then the mob sets off for further drinks elsewhere.

For those who are really keen to explore the literary styles parodied in oxen of the Sun, I include here a copy-and-paste from Carlin and Evans (and once again would be grateful to anyone who can provide contact details for them so that I can get permission to do it).

Stylistically, this is one of the densest chapters. It begins with a primitive invocation, moves through (symbolically) nine stages of the development of the English language (which parallel the nine months of pregnancy), and ends in a chaos of Dublin slang, student witticisms, an evangelist’s speech and nonsense — a sort of chronological synopsis of the English language and a sustained metaphor of the process of gestation…..

… In the style of the 15th century, for example, Bloom’s bee sting and treatment becomes “a spear wherewith a horrible and dreadful dragon was smitten him for which he did do make a salve of volatile salt and chrism…”

The line-numbers and opening words of each stylistic imitation are given below:

  • 1-6: “Deshil Holles…” primitive incantations.
  • 7-32: “Universally that person’s…” Latin prose style of the Roman historians Sallust and Tacitus.
  • 33-59: “It is not why therefore…” mediaeval Latin prose chronicles.
  • 60-106: “Before born babe bliss had…” Anglo-Saxon alliterative prose.
  • 107-22: “Therefore, everyman…” Middle English prose.
  • 123-66: “And whiles they spake…” imitates the C14th Travels of Sir John Mandeville.
  • 167-276: “This meanwhile this good…” C15th style of Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur.
  • 277-333: “About that present time…” Elizabethan prose chronicles.
  • 334-428: “To be short this passage…” C16th-C17th Latinate prose styles of Milton, Richard Hooker, Sir Thomas Browne.
  • 429-73: “But was Boasthard’s…” Jon Bunyan.
  • 474-528: “So Thursday sixteenth…” C17th diarists John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys.
  • 529-81: “With this came up…” Daniel Defoe.
  • 581-650: “An Irish bull in…” Jonathan Swift.
  • 651-737: “Our worthy acquaintance…” C18th essayists Joseph Addison and Richard Steele.
  • 738-98: “Here the listener who…” Laurence Sterne.
  • 799-844: “Amid the general vacant…” Oliver Goldsmith.
  • 845-79: “To revert to Mr Bloom…” Edmund Burke.
  • 880-904: “Accordingly he broke his mind…” Richard Sheridan.
  • -41: “But with what fitness…” C18th style of the satirist Junius.
  • 942-1009: “The news was imparted…” Edward Gibbon.
  • 1010-37: “But Malchias’ tale…”Horace Walpole (gothic horror).
  • 1038-77: “What is the age…” late C18th essayist Charles Lamb.
  • 1078-1109: “The voices blend and fuse…” C19th romantic Thomas De Quincey.
  • 1110-73: “Francis was reminding…” Walter Savage Landor.
  • 1174-1222: “However, as a matter of fact…” English essayist and historian Thomas Babington Macaulay.
  • 1223-1309: “It had better be stated…” Thomas Henry Huxley.
  • 1310-43: “Meanwhile the skill…” Charles Dickens.
  • 1344-55: “There are sins or…” John Henry Cardinal Newman.
  • 1356-78: “The stranger still regarded…” Walter Pater.
  • 1379-90: “Mark this father…” John Ruskin.
  • 1391-1439: “Burke’s! Outflings my lord…” Thomas Carlyle.
  • 1440 onwards: “All off for a buster…” the style disintegrates into a range of dialects and doggerel.

Onward to Circe!

Links to my disordered thoughts for other chapters are below. NB Page references to anything before Chapter 11 are to my 1979 Penguin, and after that are to my Penguin 2000 reprint.

  • Intro  
  • Chapters 1,2,3  (Telemachus, Nestor, Proteus)
  • Chapter 4   (Calypso)
  • Chapter 5   (The Lotus Eaters)
  • Chapter 6   (Hades)
  • Chapter 7   (Aeolus)
  • Chapter 8   (Lestrygonians)
  • Chapter 9    (Scylla and Charybdis) 
  • Chapter 10  (Wandering Rocks) 
  • Chapter 11  (Sirens)
  • Chapter 12  (Cyclops)
  • Chapter 13   (Nausicaa)
  • Chapter 14   (Oxen of the Sun)
  • Chapter 15   (Circe)
  • Chapter 16   (Eumaeus)
  • Chapter 17   (Ithaca)
  • Chapter 18   (Penelope)

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