Archive for June 2009

The Oxen of the Sun

June 16, 2009

In honor of Bloomsday, let us consider the fourteenth chapter of Ulysses, “The Oxen of the Sun.” It is a fractal image of the novel, mimicking the structure and ambitions of the larger work. Pound’s motto was “Make it new,” but even he gasped for air when he opened each package mailed from Trieste or Zurich with the latest chapter. He sent Joyce a telegram, “New style not needed in every chapter!”

Stephen Dedalus falls in with his roommate Buck Mulligan and his fellow medical students at a nursing hospital. “Deshil holles eamus Deshil holles eamus Deshil holles eamus,” begins the chapter in a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and medieval Latin. (Let us go to the right [deasil–clockwise/right] down Holles [street].”) The narrative continues through the developments of English prose style up to an American evangelist. The style, really a series of styles, is appropriate to the subject of awaiting a birth. The Homeric parallel fits because the shoptalk of the medical students dishonors the sacred event occurring next door, just as the Greeks slaughtered the sacred oxen of Apollo. Stephen has lost his faith but can still see that much.

The reader seeking an introduction to Ulysses might start here. After 87 years, the novel reads best as an encyclopedia of writing tricks. This is fitting and proper; Joyce mined Saintsbury’s  History of English Prose Rhythm (1912) in composing this chapter. No one reads Ulysses for the narrative now, if ever that was true.


The Praise of Folly, by Erasmus

June 5, 2009

This translation from the original Latin, Moriae Encomium, is in a 1993 Penguin paperback, along with the explanatory Letter to Maarten van Dorp. Erasmus displays his wide reading in Classical sources, giving example after example of the unacknowledged need for folly in human life. Throughout, Folly speaks as a goddess in her own voice.

The Encomium takes a sharp turn at midpoint and becomes a satire on contemporary Christian theology and piety. Folly stops showering examples of her necessity and blasts away at unnecessary foolishness. There is then a second turn as the last part of the work describes the necessary folly in Christian belief, echoing St. Paul: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.”

In the Letter to van Dorp, Erasmus tries to mask the obvious satire of the second part of the Encomium as harmless fun. After all, when Folly talked about sovereign pontiffs, no particular pope was named; and quotations from the Vulgate in the Church Fathers were often different from the text as it existed in his time, which showed that there had been corruptions of Jerome’s original.

Folly writes: “But, someone may say, the ears of princes are strangers to truth, and for this reason they avoid those wise men, because they fear lest someone more frank than the rest should dare to speak to them things rather true than pleasant; for so the matter is, that they don’t much care for truth. And yet this is found by experience among my fools, that not only truths but even open reproaches are heard with pleasure; so that the same thing which, if it came from a wise man’s mouth might prove a capital crime, spoken by a fool is received with delight. For truth carries with it a certain peculiar power of pleasing, if no accident fall in to give occasion of offense; which faculty the gods have given only to fools. And for the same reasons is it that women are so earnestly delighted with this kind of men, as being more propense by nature to pleasure and toys. And whatsoever they may happen to do with them, although sometimes it be of the most serious, yet they turn it to jest and laughter, as that sex was ever quick-witted, especially to color their own faults.”

Erasmus was the man in the middle, fool and wise man, Catholic and Protestant, scholar and gypsy. The Letter to van Dorp disappoints because it smudges the shiny espièglerie of the Encomium. My poor fool is dead!