The Anxious Narrator of "Oxen of the Sun"
By Paul Scwaber

This paper was presented at the 17th International Joyce Symposium in London, 2000. The material is adapted from Schwaber's 1999 book, Cast of Characters.

In the latter half of Ulysses, as this group well knows, each chapter promises strange new abundance and asks a reader to learn to read it. The words perform and frustrate, celebrate excess, demand work and ready play; and a magical story-teller presides.
His verbal dexterity amazes. He can be irritating, even burdensome. Yet he is a re-reader's joy, because time and again, with delight, surprise, and laughter, he engages one's mind, stretches it beyond its usual reach. Never other than a story-telling presence, never distinguishable as a character, he seems nonetheless to preen on his virtuosity, amplifying to an extreme a mood or attitude of one or more of the characters, juxtaposing his own prodigious prose to them, and reflexively scrutinizing both narrative and language. Telling the story, he competes with his characters while eccentrically identifying with them, all the while testing the limits of his medium and the adequacy of his readers. Perhaps all creativity enacts some degree of aggression, for it testifies to dissatisfaction with a status quo and desires to refashion it. And Modernism in the arts valorized difficulty and experiment. But the surge of radical narratives in Ulysses implies its narrator's disaffection with his own "initial" style. Reading the later chapters involves us in a psychology of restiveness, however playful the manner may be. Protean from chapter to chapter, the Ulysses narrator joins restiveness to verbal celebration and a love of mimickry to flamboyance, pride, self-consciousness, sociability, ambivalence about communicating at all, conflicted empathy for his characters, and challenge to his readers. Such perceptibly human -- and in him related -- qualities shape the story-telling and the story told. However unpredictable, knowledgeable, attractive, elusive, to say nothing of inconsiderate he may be, he counts in performance as one of us.
He is also a "he" because -- on the evidence of Chapter 14 -- gender drives his creativity. All readers of "Oxen of the Sun" recognize a tour de force, told by way of an historical sequence of rapidly changing prose styles, from Old and Middle English through the nineteenth century to a farrago of street jargons. Literary lights from Malory to Cardinal Newman and beyond are identifiable, and their signature styles and values often prove functional, illuminating aspects of the current state of the protagonists. It is a triumph of technique and cleverness. Anthony Burgess praised it as "an author's chapter," the one "of all the chapters of Ulysses [he] should most like to have written" (1965, p.156). Karen Lawrence explored it splendidly as "a pastiche of words and rhythms already written by someone else," which demonstrates the relativity of styles -- the provisional nature of any one style, any one truth. (See also French, 1976, p.171; Maddox, 1978, pp. 172, l84; Kenner, 1978, pp. 48-9; Sherry, pp. 90-91).
But there is something off-balance and inhospitable about "Oxen." Edmund Wilson thought it "too synthetic, too systematic" (1931, p. 214). S.L. Goldberg judged it "an interesting failure," explaining that "the connections between the represented and formal values can only be described as cerebral" (1965, p. 285). Marilyn French called it "the most censured chapter in Ulysses" (p. 168) and Karen Lawrence "a most exasperating chapter" (p. 125). James Maddox, Jr. noted that it antagonizes readers. My students, I find, unusually among the daunting chapters of Ulysses, address it grudgingly. Perhaps it is too time-bound, too limited by turn-of-the century taste and expectable literary knowledge to offer enough immediacy; but they seem consistently to feel more shut out than intrigued by its parade of styles. I think the problem not only temporal and cultural -- or in this instance, my own uninspired teaching -- but the chapter itself, zestful yet forbidding, obfuscating without engaging, caught in a malaise of its own.
Through a dense and ever-changing screen of language, the story continues. Bloom calls at the lying-in hospital to ask about Mrs. Purefoy, he and Stephen are in sustained contact for the first time all day, the Purefoy baby gets born, and Stephen leads the carousing group in the doctors' lounge off for more drinking, followed by a now-concerned Leopold Bloom. The clustering effect of the imitations, however, holds the characters and the situation awkwardly at bay (Burgess remarked that Stephen and Bloom "get lost in the process of glorifying an art that is supposed to be their servant"); it slights them, as if to insist on the performance itself rather than enlarge the scope of narrative to have room for all. Not that there aren't fine moments: Stephen's drunken theologizing in the mode of Renaissance divines, his Bunyanesque self-indictment for whoring, Bloom's reflections on youth and attempt to calm his anger in the manner of Burke, his rueful "There is none now to be for Leopold, what Leopold was for Rudolph" (14.1076-7) in the voice of Lamb, or his Huxleyan ruminations on evolutionary purpose in Rudy's death. And not that characterization or the unfolding story need have precedence. But there is a choked, clotted feeling pervading the chapter, a resistance or unease discernible in the behavior of just about all the males and encompassed in the narrator's exuberant inclusiveness of, dependence on, and competitiveness with the great prose writers in English.
It emerges in the ribaldry and heavy drinking of the mostly young men assembled in the doctors' lounge -- of a lying-in hospital, after all -- being noisy and loutish, telling dirty jokes, egging each other on to yet more hilarity about intercourse and pregnancy, births and misbirths. It shows in Stephen's dour contributions to the discussion of church doctrine about the infant's life taking precedence over the mother's, in his resolution "With will will we withstand, withsay" (14.311-12) and his drunken leadership; in Bloom's savage attack on himself (or the narrator turning on him) in the calumniating tone of Junius; in the Swiftian riff on the bull of Ireland; and in Mulligan's brainstroke of a fertilizing farm run by himself. Anxiety, distress, and frenzy register; and grown men -- Bloom and Dr. Dixon excepted -- act like boys before the pain and awe of childbirth. When Dixon announces the baby's birth, there "broke out at once a strife of tongues" among the young medicals and their friends:

Every phase of the situation was successively eviscerated: the prenatal repugnance of uterine brothers, the Caesarean section, posthumity with respect to the father and, that rarer form, with respect to the mother, the fratricidal case known as the Childs Murder.... the rights of primogeniture and the king's bounty touching twins and triplets, miscarriages and infanticides, simulated or dissimulated, the acardiac foetus in foetu and aprosopia due to a congestion, the agnathia of certain chinless Chinamen.... the benefits of aesthesia or twilight sleep, the prolongation of labour pains in advanced gravidancy by reason of pressure on the vein, the premature relentment of the amniotic fluid (as exemplified in the actual case) with consequent peril of sepsis to the matrix, artificial insemination by means of syringes, involution of the womb consequent upon the menopause, the problem of the perpetration of the species in the case of females impregnated by delinquent rape, that distressing manner of delivery called by the Brandenburghers Sturzgeburt, the recorded instances of multiseminal, twikindled and monstrous births conceived during the catamenic period of or consanguineous parents [etc.] (14. 942-1009).

Male anxiety romps in the huddle. But though it is general and has special point for Stephen and Bloom, the narrator's efforts circuitously display its urgent focus in him. Evoking English prose stylists and matching them -- his elaborately cultured version of the boastful "I can beat any man in the house" -- he buoys himself up as best he can, because, amazing as his creation in words is or will be, it does not equal the birth of a living child from a mortal woman. The narrator doesn't want to know that, I think, and doesn't want his readers to know it either.
His strenuous cooptation of previous prose masters epitomizes his struggle to control the situation. "Oxen," after a brief primitive chant, opens in a garbled prose that suggests the Latinate origin of what became English. Circumambiently, the section praises the Irish for establishing lying-in hospitals:

....whereby maternity was so far from all accident possibility removed that whatever care the patient in that allhardest of woman hour chiefly required and not solely for the copiously opulent but also for her who not being sufficiently moneyed scarcely and often not even scarcely could subsist valiantly and for an inconsiderable emolument was provided (14.45-9).

So before Bloom enters to Old English cadences, the narrator has assumed authorial agency and allied himself with devotion to mothers and neonates. He emerges again as the moral authority near the end, no longer even distantly associated with Bloom's, Stephen's or other characters' consciousnesses. The tones now are Dickens' and Carlyle's, but the vigorous approval of Purefoy is his:

And Doady, knock the ashes from your pipe, the seasoned briar you still fancy when the curfew rings for you (may it be the distant day!) and dout the light whereby you read in the Sacred Book for the oil too has run low, and so with a tranquil heart to bed, to rest. He knows and will call in His own good time. You too have fought the good fight and played loyally your man's part. Sir, to you my hand. Well done, thou good and faithful servant! (14.1337-43).

By heaven, Theodore Purefoy, thou hast done a doughty deed and no botch! Thou art, I vow, the remarkablest progenitor barring none in this chafferin allincluding most farraginous chronicle. Astounding! In her lay a Godframed Godgiven preformed possibility which thou has fructified with thy modicum of man's work. Cleave to her! Serve! Toil on, labour like a very bandog and led scholarment and all Malthusiasts go hang. Thou art all their daddies, Theodore. ... Copulation without population! No, say I! Herod's slaughter of the innocents were the truer name. (14.1407-23).

This praise has its oddity, because throughout Ulysses the narrator has been intrigued not by moral exemplars but by complex and interesting persons. Why the sudden zeal? Stanley Sultan stresses the chapter's censure of wild youth for showing no interest in marriage and families and in their talk and behavior slaughtering the cattle of the sun (1964, pp. 277-301). He takes the Carlyle passage to be Joyce's view. Karen Lawrence counters that Carlylean certainty, however appropriate in context, represents only one moment among many, that no style or its attendant values can claim definitiveness (pp. 136-7). Since I agree with both -- though I prefer to leave Joyce out of it and respond to the psychology of the narrator -- I would add the significance of timing. Immediately after lauding Purefoy's "doughty deed," as Stephen leads the group to Burke's for more drinks, the narrator's own strife of tongues erupts in the rush of incomprehensible street jargon that ends the chapter. The child's birth unhinged the young men in the doctor's lounge and now, though he makes a last-ditch effort through moral stridency, the story-teller. Birthing defeats him. He cannot match it, not with the best male help in the world. Like Bloom spotting Boylan on Kildare Street, he is routed -- though again like Bloom, not for long.
Whatever competitive anxiety of influence about precursor writers he may feel (Bloom, 1974), he faces down in successive feats of echoing. The deeper stress has to do not with previous authors but with the limits of his and their creativity. Although here he, in a sense, like Stephen consolidates around male authors, he does not share Stephen's wish to transcend mortal life for a verbal world without end. Ulysses throughout stresses the physicality of life and death -- as it does again in the praise of Purefoy as a father and husband:

Dost envy Darby Dullman there with his Joan? A canting jay and a rheumeyed curdog is all their progeny. Pshaw, I tell thee! He is a mule, a dead gasteropod, without vim or stamina, not worth a cracked kreutzer. Copulation without poulation! No, say I! Herod's slaughter of the innocents were the truer name. Vegetables, forsooth, and sterile cohabitation! Give her beefsteaks, red, raw, bleeding! She is a hoary pandemonium of ills, enlarged glands, mumps, quinsy, bunions, hayfever, bedsores, ringworm, floating kidney, Derbyshire neck, warts, bilious attacks, gallstones, cold feet, varicose veins. A truce to threnes and trentals and jeremies and all such cogenital defunctive music! Twenty years of it, regret them not. With thee it was not as with many that will and would and wait and never - do. Thou sawest thy America, thy lifetask, and dist charge to cover like the transpontine bison (14.1419-31).

Mina Purefoy's array of symptoms might indicate that Theodore has been bison indeed to his wife. One might wonder about the cheerleader also; but the human body and all its functions are inextricably part of this story-teller's purview. He accepts creatural life, as Stephen does not.
Presenting the Purefoy baby's birth rattles him, however, and the next chapter plunges into dream logic, expressionist drama, and the night, a world of primary process, where day-residues displace freely. Readers note a surge of quotations from earlier chapters and considerable seepage between the characters -- Bloom, for example, thinking words of Stephen's or the narrator's he could not have heard. Hugh Kenner (1980, p. 112), and William Chace (1991, p. 894) describe "the mind of the book" dreaming and thus repeating with a difference. Karen Lawrence writes of "the dream of the text" (pp. 151-152). My own sense is that the performative narrator, shaken badly in "Oxen," recovers in "Circe" by way of the protective manner of dreams -- the guardians of sleep in Freud's formulation (1900, p. 233). Proceeding with the story, tuned in anew to his characters, and resuming in expressionist drama his narrative experimentation, he gets back to descriptively precise and vivid articulation and distributes earlier lines and phrases from the book as he likes. They are his, after all. Reclaiming his handiwork, he reminds himself and and his readers of all his art has done and can do. That will suffice.

--Copyright 1999, Paul Schwaber/Yale University Press

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