Oxen of Sun (Episode 14)
What’s your favorite television show? Whatever it is, you can safely assume it has been the subject of a clickbait article ranking every episode from best to worst. Ranking and rating seem to be an inevitable result of the episodic form and, with its eighteen stylistically diverse episodes, Ulysses is no exception. If you google “James Joyce Ulysses episodes ranked” you’ll find dozens of blog posts and subreddits where Joyce fans all over the world do exactly this.
While I have never taken the time to rank all eighteen episodes, I can tell you this: this year’s episode, The Oxen of the Sun, is my least favorite. For most readers there is at least one episode that overextends even Ulysses’ encyclopedic aspirations. For some it is the Sirens (XI), in which Joyce attempts to approximate music with language; for others it is Joyce’s use of the slimmest of correspondences to Homer’s Odyssey as an occasion to create a miniature of Ulysses itself in The Wandering Rocks (X). For me it is The Oxen of the Sun.
Which is not to say that The Oxen of the Sun is terrible or not worth reading—this episode has plenty of admirers and it’s easy to see why. The concept is impressively ambitious: Joyce relates Bloom’s visit to the National Maternity Hospital (he is inquiring after a woman of his acquaintance who has been in labor for three days) in nine sections that parody the development of the English language and mirror the nine months of gestation. There is no question that the chapter is a masterwork of technique. Joyce puts on a veritable clinic of literary ventriloquism, cleverly mimicking everything from medieval latin, to Milton, Defoe, Swift, and Dickens, before ending with a jumble of (then) contemporary slang.
This chapter draws its Homeric parallel from Odysseus’ visit to the Isle of the Sun where, despite his warnings, Odysseus’ men commit an unforgivable sacrilege by slaughtering the oxen of the Sun for food. Punishment quickly follows when a thunderbolt strikes the ship, killing everyone but Odysseus. As Harry Blamires explains in The New Bloomsday Book: “the general drift of the correspondence here is that that the ribald and riotous [medical] students in the Maternity Hospital commit a kind of sacrilege against the hospital’s patients who, like the Oxen of the Sun, are symbols of fertility.” (139) In a letter to a friend, Joyce (perhaps half-jokingly), described the chapter as an allegory in which “Bloom is the spermatozoon, the hospital the womb, the nurse the ovum, Stephen the embryo.”
My favorite sections of Ulysses are its most human and, for me, the Oxen of the Sun is Ulysses at its most gimmicky, making for a reading experience I find a bit sterile — ironic, given the episode’s overarching concern with fertility. Though, re-reading that last sentence, I have to wonder: wouldn’t it be typical of Joyce to craft an episode about callous medical students by deploying a technique that approximates a feeling of hospital sterility for the reader?
I have chosen this year’s excerpt not because of its source material (it is written in the manner of Thomas Malory’s Arthurian epic) but because it depicts a discussion between Bloom, Stephen, and the medical students about what should be done if, during childbirth, a choice must be made between saving the child (the official position in Catholic Ireland) or the mother. All agree that the official line should be ignored and the mother saved. The discussion moves on to related topics: contraception and abortion. Readers in 2019 may find this account of a roomful of men holding forth about birth control and abortion more familiar than they’d like.
As always, I encourage you to read along to the RTE full-cast performance of the excerpt provided here:
And sir Leopold sat with them for he bore fast friendship to sir Simon and to this his son young Stephen and for that his languor becalmed him there after longest wanderings insomuch as they feasted him for that time in the honourablest manner. Ruth red him, love led on with will to wander, loth to leave.
For they were right witty scholars. And he heard their aresouns each gen other as touching birth and righteousness, young Madden maintaining that put such case it were hard the wife to die (for so it had fallen out a matter of some year agone with a woman of Eblana in Horne’s house that now was trespassed out of this world and the self night next before her death all leeches and pothecaries had taken counsel of her case). And they said farther she should live because in the beginning they said the woman should bring forth in pain and wherefore they that were of this imagination affirmed how young Madden had said truth for he had conscience to let her die. And not few and of these was young Lynch were in doubt that the world was now right evil governed as it was never other howbeit the mean people believed it otherwise but the law nor his judges did provide no remedy. A redress God grant. This was scant said but all cried with one acclaim nay, by our Virgin Mother, the wife should live and the babe to die. In colour whereof they waxed hot upon that head what with argument and what for their drinking but the franklin Lenehan was prompt each when to pour them ale so that at the least way mirth might not lack. Then young Madden showed all the whole affair and when he said how that she was dead and how for holy religion sake by rede of palmer and bedesman and for a vow he had made to Saint Ultan of Arbraccan her goodman husband would not let her death whereby they were all wondrous grieved. To whom young Stephen had these words following, Murmur, sirs, is eke oft among lay folk. Both babe and parent now glorify their Maker, the one in limbo gloom, the other in purge fire. But, gramercy, what of those Godpossibled souls that we nightly unpossibilise, which is the sin against the Holy Ghost, Very God, Lord and Giver of Life? For, sirs, he said, our lust is brief. We are means to those small creatures within us and nature has other ends than we. Then said Dixon junior to Punch Costello wist he what ends. But he had overmuch drunken and the best word he could have of him was that he would ever dishonest a woman whoso she were or wife or maid or leman if it so fortuned him to be delivered of his spleen of lustihead. Whereat Crotthers of Alba Longa sang young Malachi’s praise of that beast the unicorn how once in the millennium he cometh by his horn the other all this while pricked forward with their jibes wherewith they did malice him, witnessing all and several by saint Foutinus his engines that he was able to do any manner of thing that lay in man to do. Thereat laughed they all right jocundly only young Stephen and sir Leopold which never durst laugh too open by reason of a strange humour which he would not bewray and also ford that he rued for her that bare whoso she might be or wheresoever. Then spoke young Stephen orgulous of mother Church that would cast him out of her bosom, of law of canons, of Lilith, patron of abortions, of bigness wrought by wind of seeds of brightness or by potency of vampires mouth to mouth or, as Virgilius saith, by the influence of the occident or by the reek of moonflower or an she lie with a woman which her man has but lain with effectu secuto, or peradventure in her bath according to the opinions of Averroes and Moses Maimonides. He said also how at the end of the second month a human soul was infused and how in all our holy mother foldeth ever souls for God’s greater glory whereas that earthly mother which was but a dam to bring forth beastly should die by canon for so saith he that holdeth the fisherman’s seal, even that blessed Peter on which rock was holy church for all ages founded. All they bachelors then asked of sir Leopold would he in like case so jeopard her person as risk life to save life. A wariness of mind he would answer as fitted all and, laying hand to jaw, he said dissembling, as his wont was, that as it was informed him, who had ever loved the art of physic as might a layman, and agreeing also with his experience of so seldom seen an accident it was good for that Mother Church belike at one blow had birth and death pence and in such sort deliverly he scaped their questions. That is truth, pardy, said Dixon, and, or I err, a pregnant word. Which hearing young Stephen was a marvellous glad man and he averred that he who stealeth from the poor lendeth to the Lord for he was of a wild manner when he was drunken and that he was now in that taking it appeared eftsoons.
But sir Leopold was passing grave maugre his word by cause he still had pity of the terrorcausing shrieking of 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 midst of the winter) and now sir Leopold that had of his body no manchild for an heir looked upon him his friend’s son and was shut up in sorrow for his forepassed happiness and as sad as he was that him failed a son of such gentle courage (for all accounted him of real parts) so grieved he also in no less measure for young Stephen for that he lived riotously with those wastrels and murdered his goods with whores.