- Culture, Anarchy, and the Politics of Modernist Style in Joyce’s “Oxen of the Sun”
When it comes to style, there seem to be at least two modernisms to choose from. On the one hand, there is the modernism that celebrates an author’s distinctive vision in the form of a trademark style. As an exalted assembly of literary personalities, this modernism may include such figures as Woolf, Hemingway and Faulkner; for the author in each case finds in a unique artistic style the means for resisting and partly redeeming the mundane, or brutal, or fallen world of modernity. 1 On the other hand, there is the modernism that seems to undermine the authorial self by questioning the very notion of owning an individual style. Rather than promote a characteristic way of looking at the world, the author here either undershoots or overshoots the mark, in the first case pursuing (as do Eliot and Beckett) something like an impersonal art of self-extinction, or in the second case pursuing (as do Nabokov and Pound) an art where the author is dispersed among a multitude of impersonated voices.
“What is James Joyce’s style?” When Terry Eagleton recently asked this question, 2 he was of course being rhetorical: as we all know, Joyce is reputed to be a master stylist and very much belongs on the side of impersonality, refusing to commit himself to a style of his own. 3 [End Page 195] Though I will not dispute this reputation, I believe that by inquiring into Joyce’s use of stylistic impersonality we may better understand how modernist literature, far from being the monolithic literary category it is sometimes characterized as today, could accommodate such contradictory extremes of self-expression and self-negation. To be more specific, I think we can look to chapter 14 of Joyce’s Ulysses, the “Oxen of the Sun,” to find out what is at stake when an author early in this century chooses either to develop or evade a characteristic literary style. As we will see, the significance of this short text lies in what it has to say about Victorian England, on one side of modernism, and about postmodernity on the other.
“Oxen” is perhaps best known for its display of Joyce’s mastery at appropriating and parodying the styles of a number of famous authors. In this chapter, Leopold Bloom pays a visit to Mrs. Purefoy at the National Maternity Hospital; but while he and the other characters await the birth of the Purefoy child, Joyce is busy passing their conversation through a procession of prose styles that run the gamut of English literary history from Old English to Carlyle. This peculiar experiment in style, as Joyce critics quickly realized, is informed by the two-tiered structure of biological recapitulation, which provided the leading account in the nineteenth century of the mechanics behind evolution and biological inheritance. According to Ernst Haeckel’s biogenetic law—but also as any schoolboy of Joyce’s day would tell you—ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny; such a formula construes the individual’s process of maturation in the present as a restaging, at an accelerated pace, of the developmental progress that its race or species has passed through in the past. 4 In Joyce’s hands, Haeckel’s biogenetic law becomes a handy metaphor for recasting the progress of literary history in terms of the organic development of the embryo; for even as the Purefoy child (ontogeny) is readying for birth in the chapter, so is English prose (phylogeny) evolving across time. And here we see how Joyce’s investment in recapitulation supports his status as a master stylist. According to the teleological outlook of the biogenetic law, the latest expression of a species is able to build upon the achievements of its ancestors because it has recapitulated their progress as its own; but no less does Joyce in “Oxen” seem to advance himself as a writer by mastering—at once encompassing and surpassing—the stylistic procession of previous English literary history. As Anthony [End Page 196] Burgess writes (with apparent envy) of Joyce’s text: “it is a fulfilment of every author’s egotistical desire not...