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  • Tracking the Oxen 1
  • John Gordon (bio)

Probably most readers’ least favorite chapter of Ulysses, “Oxen of the Sun” has long been cited as flagrant evidence for the commonest charge against James Joyce, that his work was written for professors to interpret rather than for people to read. The problem is not in the action, which as usual in Ulysses is straightforward enough: gathered in the waiting-room of a maternity hospital, a group of medical students and various friends and hangers-on hold an improptu drinking-party, while upstairs a difficult delivery is taking place; near the end, they head off to a local pub just before closing-time; throughout, they are accompanied uneasily by Leopold Bloom, who feels solicitous first toward the woman in labor and then toward Stephen Dedalus, also present. The problem is what Joyce did with this action, as outlined in his famous letter on the chapter’s composition. “The Technique,” he said, is “nineparted episode without divisions,” reproducing in serial pastiches nothing less than a chronologoical history of English prose, from its Latin and Anglo-Saxon roots through dozens of distinct voices—Malory, Bunyan, Swift, Pater, among others—to the “frightful jumble” of modern slangs. All of this is “also linked back at each part subtly with some foregoing episode of the day and, besides this, with the natural stages of development in the embryo and the periods of faunal evolution in general.” And, oh yes: “Bloom is the spermatozoon, the hospital the womb, the nurse the ovum, Stephen the embryo.” 2

Taking up the challenge, the professors—to be honest about it, we professors 3 —have gone to work at tracking down these multiple “stages” and the ways in which they seem to be linked with other stages on other levels. Some of these studies agree in their essential findings, and some do not, but, consciously or not, one assumption that all of them advance is that [End Page 349] “Oxen of the Sun” is basically a big puzzle, a dedalian labyrinth of Minotaurian monstrosity, in which “Technique” is so close to being the only matter that counts that talk of “action” is almost always bound to be quaint, beside the point. Supporting this assumption is another, one curiously similar to what in the annals of medical theory is remembered as the law of the distribution of vital forces, viz, that any organism has only so much vitality to be expended in its development, that what goes into, for instance, horns cannot go into, for instance, brains. If Joyce expended all this energy on formal surface, runs the assumption, he cannot have much left over to attend to his story. And, for the same reason that Bach did not write program music, Joyce certainly would not have given much thought to matching technique with event: when, for instance, the voice of Swift enters the narrative, it is not because the action has suddenly become conducive to Augustan satire but because the author’s chronological scheme calls for that voice.

This argument is certainly plausible and in its way comforting, if only because it impliclty assures us that Joyce could not do everything. However, it is, I believe, demonstrably wrong. Joyce may not have had much to do with program music, but he was crazy about opera, in which music is always expressively aligned with action. And as I have argued elsewhere, 4 each of the voices that emerges throughout the chapter does so for reasons recognizably determined by narrative events—Swift, for instance, because the carousing students have just launched into an elaborate political parody made to order for the author of The Tale of a Tub.

In one sequence in particular, the two paragraphs of the “De Quincey” voice (1078–1093), 5 what might grandly be called phenomenological determinants are so fully and intricately involved with the writing on the page that not recognizing them means missing almost everything. What is happening in these paragraphs is not, or not only, that Joyce is doing his De Quincey turn and that Bloom is accordingly made to experience appropriately druggy visions. What is happening is that the inner world of Leopold Bloom’s buried...

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pp. 349-357
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