The Oxen of the Sun

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.

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