Let there be life

Let there be life

In Brief

Figure of speech. Having just begun his tale of two Dublin spinsters, Stephen cheers himself on with an echo of the biblical creation story: "On now. Dare it. Let there be life." In his catalogue of rhetorical terms Robert Seidman labels this allusion a parody, which seems problematic since parody is a literary device seldom used in rhetoric. But Stephen's sentence does not resemble the usual literary parody: rather than making the style of Genesis laughable, it transfers the weight of its subject matter to his present circumstance. As such it can perhaps be called a rhetorical device, if not one treated in the classical handbooks.

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Parody (the Greek paroidia means something like "mock-song") humorously apes the style of a known text, typically by exaggerating its distinctive features. Joyce fell in love with the device while writing Ulysses. After toying with it in earlier chapters (e.g., Buck Mulligan's mocking imitation of John Millicent Synge's dialogue in Scylla and Charybdis), he embarked on sustained passages of parody in episodes 12-14 (Cyclops, Nausicaa, Oxen of the Sun) and 17 (Ithaca). These chapters recreate preexisting styles with so much delight, inventiveness, and sympathy that their purpose clearly is not simply to demean. But they never abandon the spirit of laughable too-muchness.

Stephen's brief "Let there be life" feels different. If he is mocking anyone, it must be himself for presuming to rival the divine act of creation. But the context ("On now. Dare it") suggests that he is not engaged in his usual caustic self-criticism. Here at the end of Aeolus Stephen tries to break out of his sterile self-involvement by composing a fictive narrative. His subject matter––quite new––is Dublin, and his challenge is to make two invented characters come to life. If he succeeds he will be on the road to becoming the author of Ulysses. Rather than making light of the Judeo-Christian creation narrative, the allusion to Genesis encourages him in this herculean task of creating a city: "Dublin. I have much, much to learn."

Biblical language is also aped when J. J. O'Molloy says, "Sufficient for the day is the newspaper thereof," echoing Jesus' "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" (Matthew 6:34). Again, this echo does not seem calculated to mock the style of the gospel. It certainly can be called a parody, but the sardonic edge is directed at newspapers.

Perhaps parody of a more conventional sort is at work when an odd narrative voice breaks into Aeolus with language reminiscent of several novels by Charles Dickens: "I have often thought since on looking back over that strange time..." Even there, though, the intent seems less to laugh at existing fiction than to envision the possibility of writing Ulysses.

John Hunt 2023
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The O'Connell Bridge seen from the quays. Source: depositphotos.com.