Monday, 5 September 2011

Ulysses Support Group: Oxen of the Sun

Thank goodness we had the foresight to organise some sustenance for this meeting (thanks to James at The Salamander) - this was one of the longest and widest ranging discussions thus far. Not surprising really, given that even Joyce himself describes this section as the most difficult episode (although characteristically, he leaves it ambiguous as to whether he is talking about the subject matter, the interpretation or the writing process itself).

So, here we have nine sections, taking place at the maternity hospital in Dublin, just as the latest addition to the Purefoy clan comes into the world, two days overdue. Each sub-section simultaneously represents a month in the gestation period, and a historic literary style - beginning with the alliterative Anglo Saxon poetic form. We had an extensive debate as to how successful Joyce was in employing these different historical forms....was he deliberately parodying?; was he in earnest?; did he succeed or fail?

There were a fair few other circles to dance around in. The section is representative of the episode in the Odyssey where Odysseus' men kill sacred bulls and feast in spite of a specific warning not to do so. We saw culled livestock everywhere: how Kerry herds are to be slaughtered to control the outbreak of foot and mouth that is raging (and the practice of dairy calves being culled anyway as part of the milk production process); the way in which the Catholic women have their spirit and health sapped through serial pregnancies; the fact that the 'sacred cow' of childbirth is taken out of the control of women by patriarchs, the possible lampooning of ancient literary styles...

Bloom avoids being drawn into a discussion with the medical students in the common room bar of the hospital (Stephen Dedalus and his cohorts) about the biological rationale for some pregnancies being successful and others failing. Again, we are reminded of Bloom's own tragedy - that of losing his baby son. There is a stark contrast between the theoretical discussion of the students, their slow descent into inebriation, and the physical reality of childbirth taking place metres away. Devoid of emotion, their discussions might be described as intelligent but they are a long way from being truly informed in the way that Bloom is.

Everyone around the table agreed that this was the most difficult section to read. Sentences had to be read and reread so that their meaning could be unpicked. The allusions to restoration comedies, the diaries of Pepys, the poetry of Milton et al came thick and fast and were overwhelming if you weren't an English Literature graduate of the time (apparently, there is a single tome that Joyce uses as a template for his dizzying array of references).

This led to another lengthy discussion about how the creation of new life was perhaps the most inscrutable of questions for any author to tackle and that perhaps Joyce was being intentionally difficult to reflect his subject matter. There was also much talk as to whether evolutionary theory was being applied to language (Joyce's epic being the evolutionary product of all that had gone before) or whether it was an argument for recycling being the engine of creation (Joyce borrows, but then makes new). In the text, there is a reference to Paddy Dignam lying in the cemetery at the same time as new life is emerging from the same building blocks of atoms. As if to completely sideline this debate, the section ends with drunken slang. After all the high faluting stylistics that preceded it, the directness and urgency of the language shows itself to be a much better and easily understood mode of communication!

Once you get started on creation, of course, there are no definite conclusions. Suffice to say that we had a pretty good go at encompassing all the major points - including the relative size of the barnacle's reproductive organs (impressive) and different cultural attitudes to the status of women (French politicians featured prominently) once 'men' had debunked the myth of childbirth with science.

The next section is too huge to attempt in one meeting, so we have decided to split 'Circe' into two. We will be meeting on Tuesday the 20th September to discuss up to p492 in the OUP edition - or the line 'Cardinal sin. Monks of the screw.' for those with other editions. Hmmm....more barnacle facts beckon, methinks.

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