Thursday, May 5, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter Fourteen: Oxen of the Sun

[Link to previous chapters here]

Let me me briefly summarize how I've gotten through Ulysses to this point. After constantly checking endnotes as I read through the first two or three chapters, I decided to try my best to simply power through each episode, note what confused me, then look up those things afterward. When I get a bit lost in the plot (which happens multiple times per chapter, save the more straightforward Nausicaa episode), I will -- and I refuse to be ashamed about this -- turn to Sparknotes. More recently, I've found meticulously outlined plot summaries here that have proved incredibly helpful. I read the explanatory notes for each chapter and occasionally branch out even further for information about what it all means, usually to Sheila O'Malley's posts on the book, since it was her enthusiasm for Joyce that finally motivated me to take the plunge into the author's work. Her writing on the chapters is, from what I've seen so far, insightful but conversational, perfectly capturing what I think Joyce did with his book: finding a human way to get across its big ideas. Whenever I get well and truly stuck, I immediately defer to her.

I did not make it one full page into the Oxen of the Sun chapter without running to all my little safehouses looking for clues, answers, ANYTHING to help me. What in the Sam Hill was going on? Even when I sorted out some basic facts, such as the chapter being set in a hospital and revolving around the idea of birth in physical and lingual terms, I still could not proceed. This is by leaps and bounds the hardest chapter of the book yet, and I pray it gets no harder from here. I don't mean to make Sheila out to be the be-all, end-all expert on Joyce, but when she opened her own post on the chapter with an acknowledgment of the difficulty of the chapter, I wondered what hope I had. Hell, Joyce himself acknowledged this was the hardest chapter to read. I am not even remotely surprised that it follows what was certainly the easiest episode to that point, one so intuitive and straightforward I never had to look at notes to figure out what was going on.

I don't want to give off the impression that anything I've written on Ulysses to this point is definitive or even all that confident. I've relied so much on other readings because it's so hard to pick up exactly what's going on that I don't even consider my Ulysses posts reviews (hence why I referred to my plans to chart my trip through the book as a "reading diary"). But I've at least tried to pick up on what Joyce is doing and make sense of it through my own set of references and outlooks. Here, I just need to try to sort it out.

So, basically, what Joyce is doing here is presenting a condensed history of the English language. Framed like the nine months of a pregnancy, the book moves through stylistic shifts across paragraph breaks. First, it's a literal translation of Latin, then it moves into old English and alliterative Anglo-Saxon, then slowly up the chain until it becomes more legible. But Joyce never takes the easy route. He's already expounded upon Shakespeare, so we don't get any passages that slip into the Bard's style, nor do we tackle the older English through Beowulf or Chaucer. In some cases, even when I read notes and summaries I didn't get a full picture. I distinctly remember asking "Who the hell is Charles Lamb?" to no one in particular as I drifted over to Wikipedia for the eighth time.

If I can offer one piece of advice to anyone else reading this chapter for the first time, it's this: read as much of it as you can out loud. I'd read several people who noted that all Joyce's work can be read aloud (apparently it's the only way you can even begin to power through Finnegans Wake), and when I got bogged down so soon here, I gave it a shot. Now, I stumbled and skipped words entirely, but this helped immeasurably. I still don't even begin to get a handle on the prose until about halfway in, but reading it let me capture the flow and keep moving. That is the most important thing I've learned about reading this book: don't stop.

So Joyce starts with the immediate formation of the egg, presenting just enough variations from the Latin to suggest a minor shift in genetic makeup before moving up the developmental chain through fragments of emerging origins and etymological roots until at last it gets into more modern styles like Romanticism and the text feels full, like the belly of a woman on the cusp of giving birth. Joyce sets this against a real birth, the arduous delivery of Mrs. Purefoy, mentioned earlier to a concerned Bloom. Joyce occasionally parodies the celebratory view of birth among men who don't have to experience the pain, pain that wracks women no matter how good the facilities she goes to are (and Joyce devotes a paragraph to praising the National Maternity Hospital with sincerity). We've all had to watch those horrifying videos of women giving birth that dispel any romantic qualities about what is a messy, bloody act that killed numerous women. Joyce mocks the men in the waiting room drinking and reveling as a a woman truly fights for her life and that of another, but he does find some humor in comparing this fitful, dangerous process as analogous to the development of language.

Oh, by the way, Stephen and Leopold meet in this chapter. That is honestly how Joyce structures it. Finally, goddamn finally, the two meet, but Joyce is so busy, you know, summarizing the entire English language that he casually mentions them being in the same room and interacting. Imagine if Odysseus and Telemachus just kind of met and chatted about sport. Imagine if, instead of that timeless reveal of Harry Lime in The Third Man, Carol Reed just cut from the lead-up to Welles and Cotton conversing. It may be the funniest joke yet in the book, a deflated climax that reminds us that this is all just a snapshot of life, not the epic journey upon which it is based with tongue firmly in cheek.

However, Joyce wastes no time showing how the two view each other. Bloom looks upon Stephen with affection, and when his thoughts turn to his dead son Rudy, he counters that depression with consideration for Stephen's own free-fall without even realizing what he's doing. Stephen, plastered with ale and, later, absinthe, argues with the other men in attendance over birth matters. They argue about whether to save the mother or the child in the event of complications (the prose describing this appropriately being from archaic and barbaric times) and Stephen attacks the convoluted teachings of the Church for introducing these warped moral questions, something that clearly aligns him with Bloom, who by and large sits in the corner quietly as the full-blood Irish Catholics carry on with their drinking and shouting. But Stephen betrays his lingering ties to the Church when he fears that a thunderclap is God's warning for his blasphemy, and it's up to Bloom to pacify him.

Slowly, and without much in the way of direct conversation between the two, Bloom and Stephen move away from the others and unify. Joyce emphasizes not only the age difference but the ethnic split that keeps Bloom away from the young men: as Stephen hands out another round of drinks, the ale becomes a sort of Communion, and Bloom's sobriety doubles as his inability to partake in the sacrament as a Jew. But Stephen is struggling against the bonds he can't break, and Bloom starts to undo a few of the knots for him. He wants to help Stephen, wants him to stop wasting money on drink and whores. Bloom looks at the others with disdain, and Joyce's contempt for the feckless, loutish Irishmen comes to the fore. Bloom and Stephen think of Mrs. Purefoy's pain and the issues of birth, but the others just make jokes and display a wanton disregard for propriety as they joke about casual sex and prophylactics (I counted six condom jokes and I'm told there are some in the early sections I couldn't comprehend).

It is around this time that Joyce slams on the brakes and goes after Bloom for this hypocrisy, as if he's not really writing the character and cannot believe what the man just revealed. The narration shifts to brutal satire abruptly as it calls out Bloom for morally chastising the young men for joking about sex not for procreation when he hasn't come inside his wife in 10 years, when he only just woke up from a nap from jacking off to a teenager in public. Where does he get the nerve?

That's Joyce for you: he never lets a character get away with himself for long, and he will not let the reader forget that, however good a force in Stephen's life Bloom may be, the man is still just a man and is subject to the same flaws, manipulative streaks and self-blindness as the rest of us. When he decides to tag along with Stephen and Lynch to the red-light district at the end to keep an eye on the lad, it's not entirely clear if he might not pick up a prostitute as well.

I did not understand whole swaths of this chapter, but what I at least know what Joyce was doing in general terms and I think it's genius. After the initial slog of obscure lingual roots, the chapter becomes clearer, then comes the end and the whole thing devolves into pidgin English and slang. Sheila compared this chapter to Bach's Goldberg Variations, which is a brilliantly lucid way to look at it: a language has common themes, but the more it adds on, the more it incorporates from other languages and deconstructs/reconstructs existing ideas, the less the original theme can be heard. But it's still there, in some form or fashion, even when it's moved so far away from the starting ideas it's practically another composition. I'm reminded of an interview Jonathan Ross did with Stephen Fry (one of the great lovers of language of our time) wherein the host complained about text-message speak and slang, only for Fry, that most stereotypically bright and proper chap, calmly pointed out that all language uses portmanteau and simplification and that commonly accepted words like "meld" are itself a combination of other words. Joyce is showing that even the most broken, common form of English, spoken by those supposedly desecrating the language by carving it up, are still locked in to all the styles that came before it. Even a genius like Joyce has a fondness for the most ridiculous slang. It's all language, and it's all wonderful.

1 comment:

  1. I'm really glad to find your post! Just this morning after several days I managed to finish "Oxen of the Sun" (Chapter 14 of Ulysses). I thought I had things figured out, especially coming off the heels of Nausicaa. However, "Oxen" came at me hard. Like you, I've referenced guides (physical and online), and they've been so valuable. I enjoyed reading your summary!