The Books: “Ulysses” – the Oxen of the Sun episode (James Joyce)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

Episode 1: The Telemachus Episode
Episode 2: The Nestor Episode
Episode 3: The Proteus episode

Episode 4: The Calypso Episode
Episode 5: The Lotus Eaters Episode
Episode 6: The Hades Episode
Episode 7: The Aeolus Episode
Episode 8: The Lestrygonians Episode
Episode 9: The Scylla and Charybdis Episode
Episode 10: The Wandering Rocks Episode
Episode 11: The Sirens Episode
Episode 12: The Cyclops Episode
Episode 13: The Nausicaa Episode
Episode 14: The Oxen of the Sun Episode
Episode 15: The Circe Episode

Episode 16: The Eumaeus Episode
Episode 17: The Ithaca Episode

Gotta be honest. The Oxen of the Sun episode is the only episode in the chapter that I actually don’t feel qualified to read. It seems beyond me. Like much of Finnegans Wake is beyond me, just because I am not a (cunning) linguist – and I do not know the derivations of words (or, not ALL of them anyway!) … and I feel like if I DID, maybe I would “see” more. The Oxen of the Sun is tough. It is hard. I had to force myself to keep going. Eventually, a vague “plot” emerged – but the language itself was such a barrier, for me … to even see what was going on on the simplest level. (Naturally, that is Joyce’s whole point – which I’ll get to in a minute) Very early on in Oxen of the Sun, I realized: Nope. 98% of this is going over my head. No idea. My dad gave me some clues as to what Joyce was up to (which, again, I’ll talk about it a minute) … and, to me, knowing what Joyce was up to has NEVER been more crucial than with Oxen of the Sun. But still: I still didn’t feel “qualified” … I knew that most of Joyce’s cleverness was way over my head on this one.

I’ll just tell the bare bones of the plot of this chapter – because seriously, the plot is the least important thing going on in Oxen of the Sun.

Leopold Bloom has thought, a couple times through his day, about Mina Purefoy – the wife of a friend, who has been in labor at the National Maternity Hospital for three days. Bloom is concerned about her, wonders how on earth she is bearing it, amazed at the ferocity and animal-like endurance of women. It’s now about 10 o’clock at night … Bloom has finished his walk on the beach, and now heads back to the center of town. He plans on stopping by the hospital – where he knows his friend will be – to see how he (and she, of course) are doing. When he arrives, he sees that he was not the only one with that idea, and the waiting room is full of many of the characters we have seen throughout the day. And: Stephen Dedalus is one of them. At last: the two are in the same space. Dedalus has been out drinking with his buddies, and they are all rowdy, and loud – making jokes about everything, puns, whatever – being kind of annoying, actually. Bloom realizes, somehow, that Dedalus is a bit lost – there’s a recognition thing that goes on for Bloom here, even though he does not really know Stephen (his eavesdropping on Stephen’s “lecture” about Shakespeare in the library notwithstanding). He thinks Stephen’s hanging out with the wrong crowd, basically – and needs some guidance. He decides to join Stephen’s group – in order to keep an eye on him. A very fatherly thing to do. And Bloom would know, since he knows Simon Dedalus (Stephen’s father) – as well as having overheard Stephen’s discourse on Hamlet, the fatherless prince of Denmark – that Stephen really needs a father. Mulligan and Stephen get into some kind of scuffle – and Stephen hurts his hand. The baby is born. All is well. Bloom and Dedalus walk out onto the street (all of Stephen’s friends have headed off to “Nighttown” – the red light district of Dublin … and there’s a thunderstorm. Stephen literally cowers in fear. (Joyce was immobilized by thunderstorms, hiding, trembling – they completely undid him.) Stephen, who made a big show of not believing in God earlier in the book – seems to suddenly fear the wrath of God (Stephen, too, throughout the book, is haunted by the fact that he refused to pray at his dying mother’s bedside. He would not get on his knees before a God he did not believe. But that choice haunts him. Mulligan teases him about it. It’s obviously something Stephen cannot forgive himself for.)

Okay. So that’s what happens. But man, the FORM Joyce chooses is the most challenging in the book. More than any other episode, it predicts where he will go in Finnegans Wake.

Let’s look at it.

Because it takes place in a maternity hospital (and Dublin, at that time, had awesome facilities for women giving birth … for such a poor country, their maternity hospitals were excellent): we can probably guess what bodily function correlates to this episode. So because of that: he has structured the episode in nine sections. You can feel how the language changes from section to section. The nine months of gestation for a human baby. The development of the fetus into a baby. Things fusing, merging, separating … that whole speeded-up film you saw in Health class of development: that’s what Joyce is doing in the language here. It begins on the simplest level and grows more and more complex (naturally. This makes sense.) So keep that in mind when you read the episode. Even if you’re like: “DUDE. This is gibberish!” It’s actually not.

But the OTHER thing Joyce is doing … (since the development of the baby moves it from unthinking tiny amoeba to a being with consciousness and the potential for great complex thinking … ) is – along with the 9 months of human pregnancy – moving us through the 9 phases/developments of the English language. Another kind of gestation. Joyce was obsessed with language (obviously). You have to be able to make it through the kind of Beowulf-ish sections … and then suddenly segue into a Gothic melodrama language … It’s tough going. Just saying. And because I am not familiar with how the English language developed – I mean, I basically know: Chaucer! Shakespeare! … I could only guess at what he was doing half the time. The beginning of the episode is written in what almost sounds like Latin. It’s English, but it doesn’t sound like English. Then there’s Old English. And language imitating John Bunyan. Language imitating Charles Lamb (who wrote essays about childhood: so Joyce uses him as the model for Bloom’s going back into the past, thinking about his childhood, and other things). Again, you’d have to even know who the hell Charles Lamb WAS to get what Joyce is up to. (I looked all this up as I read the chapter. And thankfully, my own personal library is extensive enough – with poetry going back to medieval times, that I could look stuff up if I needed to. And, uhm, yeah. I did.) And then … moving on thru the episode … we go through an Arthurian section, a sort of Guinevere and Lancelot-type language – courtly, formal, we see knights and forests, etc. (But we’re always still in the Maternity hospital – let’s not forget that. Joyce turns Bloom into a knight, basically … showing up on a courtly visit. Etc.) Once the baby is born, we move into sentimental cooing language, reminiscent of some of Dickens. The mother and babe, idealized, perfect, happy (unrealistic), etc. So we’re getting at least closer to our own age, the language is getting a bit more recognizable. No more of this Beowulf Everyman shit!! Joyce is making fun of the idealized view of women and childbirth – he knew it was a lot of work, and blood, and howling, and sometimes horror. So the “oh, the baby coos at the mother’s breast” language of the 1800s is his way of making fun of it. Then, later, we move into the 19th century Gothic melodrama style – Mulligan telling the story of Haines and the black panther (which will be a recurring image for Joyce – it shows up again in Finnegans Wake. As Mulligan talks – listen to the language: “Which of us did not feel his flesh creep?” “In vain! His spectre stalks me. Dope is my only hope … Ah! Destruction! The black panther!” Melodrama. Late 19th century – moving towards the 20th century now. And the episode ends – with all the men heading off to Nighttown – and the language at the end of the episode is all Dublin slang, nearly incomprehensible. Like Cockney slang. It is English, but it is another language entirely. The modern day: with its fracturing, its messiness … the grand sweep of the history of the English language being lost in the shuffle. Joyce was obsessed with derivations. Tracing puns/jokes/words back into antiquity – trying to dig deeper meaning out of everything. You know … when you know that the word “disaster” has, as its Latin derivation, the two words: “dis” meaning “separation from” and “aster” meaning “stars” … it gives you a whole new understanding of what disaster really means. Joyce took stuff like that to a whole other level, twisting and turning himself down into the ground, looking for more, grubbing around for more meaning, tracing slang back to Beowulf. What is this English language? What is it? The slang at the end of Oxen of the Sun, in a way, is prophetic. The breakdown of culture and language that has continued apace through the 20th century. The connection to the past severed, leaving the Dublin youths rambling around, talking in ugly slang.

Anyway, it’s a rigorous episode. Don’t give up.

Just know that Joyce is doing three things:
1. Describing Bloom and Dedalus’ meeting, at last.
2. Taking us thru the 9 months of pregnancy
3. Taking us thru the 9 phases of development in the English language – past to present

Oh, and actually: he’s doing 4 things. Because he’s also making connections, of course, with The Odyssey. In The Oxen of the Sun episode in The Odyssey – Odysseus’ men kill the cattle of the sun god Helios. (The first couple paragraphs of “Oxen of the Sun” calls upon the sun god, in numerous puns. Look for them.) Helios is pissed and kills them all, except for Odysseus. In Ulysses we know (because lots of people have been talking about it all day) – that the cattle in Ireland are suffering from foot and mouth disease. The cows are going to be slaughtered in England. Lots of brou-haha about this.

On even another level (sorry, it’s just endless): Joyce uses this episode to contemplate life and death. Birth. The process of birth. The forming of life. The episode takes place in a hospital, a sterile environment. Dedalus and his buddies make ribald jokes about sex, which Bloom does not appreciate. Buck Mulligan, especially, seems to trumpet the joys of sex without love, or commitment. Casual sex, I guess you’d say. Joyce didn’t “believe” in birth control – he didn’t think you should get in the way of life. So Mulligan’s joking is seen as in poor taste (Joyce has been gunning for Mulligan from the beginning) – and there are tons of jokes/puns about condoms (look for all of them! Even in the Beowulf sections! Condoms are everywhere in this chapter about birth. And let’s not forget: Ireland is a Catholic country. Birth control is a huge hot-topic there – and continues to be so.) Preventing life was against nature, Joyce thought. He had complex feelings about masturbation, too – which we saw in the last episode – and it comes up again here. Bloom “wasted” his seed on himself … seen as (also) a big no-no. Jesus, you can’t please any of these people, can you.

Nobody’s the lead in Oxen of the Sun. There is no “point of view” – we aren’t with Bloom, or with Stephen. We are somewhere else. We follow the development in the womb, and we also follow the development of the English language – from something simple and rough to something overwrought and complex – to something fracturing apart into slang.

And that’s what’s happening here. It’s rigorous, make no mistake. And most of it, like I said, I wasn’t even qualified to understand. Brilliant, though – you can feel the brilliance. Joyce is so far beyond any of his contemporaries in what he is attempting here … it is not wholly successful, but that matters not at all. Because the attempt is STILL so far beyond what anyone has ever accomplished before or since. It’s breathtaking. It’s like listening to The Goldberg Variations. At first the theme is clear, you can hear it. Then it disappears … but no, it doesn’t. It is still there. Just in reverse. Or a third down. Or in the left hand. Until finally … it re-emerges as what we recognize from the start. It has gone through a morphing process – and only a very very good ear (one who knows what to look for) could hear it, as it changes. “Oh … that’s the theme … there it is. It sounds nothing like it did in the beginning … but that’s it.”

Joyce is on that level here.

Okay, so here’s an excerpt. I’m gonna choose an excerpt that starts in Joyce’s Old English – and we can watch as it morphs into the chivalrous medieval English.

EXCERPT FROM Ulysses (The Gabler Edition) – by James Joyce – the Oxen of the Sun episode

Before born babe bliss had. Within womb won he worship. Whatever in that one case done commodiously done was. A couch by midwives attended with wholesome food reposeful cleanest swaddles as though forthbringing were now done and by wise foresight set: but to this no less of what drugs there is need and surgical implements which are pertaining to her case not omitting aspect of all very distracting spectacles in various latitudes by our terrestrial orb offered together with images, divine and human, the cogitation of which by sejunct females is to tumescence conducive or eases issue in the high sunbright wellbuilt fair home of mothers when, ostensibly far gone and reproductitive, it is come by her thereto to lie in, her term up.

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. Stark ruth of man his errand that him lone led till that house.

Of that house A. Horne is lord. Seventy beds keeps he there teeming mothers are wont that they lie for to thole and bring forth bairns hale so God’s angel to Mary quoth. Watchers they there walk, white sisters in ward sleepless. Smarts they still sickness soothing: in twelve moons thrice an hundred. Truest bedthanes they twain are, for Horne holding wariest ward.

In ward wary the watcher hearing come that man mild-hearted eft rising with swire ywimpled to him her gate wide undid. Lo, levin leaping lightens in eyeblink Ireland’s westward welkin! Full she dread that God the Wreaker all mankind would fordo with water for his evil sins. Christ’s rood made she on breastbone and him drew that he would rathe infare under her thatch. That man her will wotting worthful went in Horne’s house.

Loth to irk in Horne’s hall hat holding the seeker stood. On her stow he ere was living with dear wife and lovesome daughter that then over land and seafloor nine year had long outwandered. Once her in townhithe meeting he to her bow had not doffed. Her to forgive now he craved with good ground of her allowed that that of him swiftseen face, hers, so young then had looked. Light swift her eyes kindled, bloom of blushes his word winning.

As her eyes then ongot his weeds swart therefor sorrow she feared. Glad after she was that ere adread was. Her he asked if O’Hare Doctor tidings sent from far coast and she with grameful sigh him answered that O’Hare Doctor in heaven was. Sad was the man that word to hear that him so heavied in bowels ruthful. All she there told him, ruing death for friend so young, algate sore unwilling God’s rightwiseness to withsay. She said that he had a fair sweet death through God His goodness with masspriest to be shriven, holy housel and sick men’s oil to his limbs. The man then right earnest asked the nun of which death the dead man was died and the nun answered him and said that he was died in Mona island through bellycrab three year agone come Childermas and she prayed to God the Allruthful to have his dear soul in his undeathliness. He heard her sad words, in held hat sad staring. So stood they there both awhile in wanhope, sorrowing one with other.

Therefore, everyman, look to that last end that is thy death and the dust that gripeth on every man that is born of woman for as he came naked forth from his mother’s womb so naked shall he wend him at the last for to go as he came.

The man that was come into the house then spoke to the nursingwoman and he asked her how it fared with the woman that lay there in childbed. The nursingwoman answered him and said that that woman was in throes now full three days and that it would be a hard birth unneth to bear but that now in a little it would be. She said thereto that she had seen many births of women but never was none so hard as was that woman’s birth. Then she set it forth all to him that time was had lived nigh that house. The man hearkened to her words for he felt with wonder women’s woe in the travail that they have of motherhood and he wondered to look on her face that was a young face for any man to see but yet was she left after long years a handmaid. Nine twelve bloodflows chiding her childless.

And whiles they spake the door of the castle was opened and there nighed them a mickle noise as of many that sat there at meat. And there came against the place as they stood a young learning knight yclept Dixon. And the traveller Leopold was couth to him sithen it had happed that they had had ado each with other in the house of misericord where this learning knight lay by cause the traveller Leopold came there to be healed for he was sore wounded in his breast by a spear wherewith a horrible and dreadful dragon was smitten him for which he did do make a salve of volatile salt and chrism as much as he might suffice. And he said now that he should go into that castle for to make merry with them that were there. And the traveller Leopold said that he should go otherwhither for he was a man of cautels and a subtle. Also the lady was of his avis and reproved the learning knight though she trowed well that the traveller had said thing that was false for his subtility. But the learning knight would not hear say nay nor do her mandement ne have him in aught contrarious to his list and he said how it was a marvellous castle. And the traveller Leopold went into the castle for to rest him for a space being sore of limb after many marches environing in divers lands and sometimes venery.

And in the castle was set a board that was of the birchwood of Finlandy and it was upheld by four dwarfmen of that country but they durst not move for enchantment. And on this board were frightful swords and knives that are made in a great cavern by swinking demons out of white flames that they fix in the horns of buffalos and stags that there abound marvellously. And there were vessels that are wrought by magic of Mahound out of seasand and the air by a warlock with his breath that he blares into them like to bubbles. And full fair cheer and rich was on the board that no wight could devise a fuller ne richer. And there was a vat of silver that was moved by craft to open in the which lay strange fishes withouten heads though misbelieving men nie that this be possible thing without they see it natheless they are so. And these fishes lie in an oily water brought there from Portugal land because of the fatness that therein is like to the juices of the olive press. And also it was marvel to see in that castle how by magic they make a compost out of fecund wheat kidneys out of Chaldee that by aid of certain angry spirits that they do into it swells up wondrously like to a vast mountain. And they teach the serpents there to entwine themselves up on long sticks out of the ground and of the scales of these serpents they brew out a brewage like to mead.

And the learning knight let pour for childe Leopold a draught and halp thereto the while all they that were there drank every each. And childe Leopold did up his beaver for to pleasure him and took apertly somewhat in amity for he never drank no manner of mead which he then put by and anon full privily he voided the more part in his neighbour glass and his neighbour wist not of his wile. And he sat down in that castle with them for to rest him there awhile. Thanked be Almighty God.

This meanwhile this good sister stood by the door and begged them at the reverence of Jesu our alther liege lord to leave their wassailing for there was above one quick with child a gentle dame, whose time hied fast. Sir Leopold heard on the upfloor cry on high and he wondered what cry that it was whether of child or woman and I marvel, said he, that it be not come or now. Meseems it dureth overlong. And he was ware and saw a franklin that hight Lenehan on that side the table that was older than any of the tother and for that they both were knights virtuous in the one emprise and eke by cause that he was elder he spoke to him full gently. But, said he, or it be long too she will bring forth by God His bounty and have joy of her childing for she hath waited marvellous long. And the franklin that had drunken said, Expecting each moment to be her next. Also he took the cup that stood tofore him for him needed never none asking nor desiring of him to drink and, Now drink, said he, fully delectably, and he quaffed as far as he might to their both’s health for he was a passing good man of his lustiness. And sir Leopold that was the goodliest guest that ever sat in scholars’ hall and that was the meekest man and the kindest that ever laid husbandly hand under hen and that was the very truest knight of the world one that ever did minion service to lady gentle pledged him courtly in the cup. Woman’s woe with wonder pondering.

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