In Brief

In Oxen of the Sun Stephen imagines all of humankind "linked up" with its first mother, Eve, "by successive anastomosis of navelcords." An anastomosis, in medicine, is a connection between adjacent tubular structures, whether natural (e.g., capillaries), accidental (e.g., fistulas), or surgical (e.g., gastric bypass). In Stephen's imagination such connections can be both interpersonal and infinite. The umbilicus connects the vascular network of the child to the vascular network of its mother, another umbilicus connected that mother to her mother, and so on, with the logical result that all of us are still bathed in the first woman's blood.

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The language suits the context of Oxen: Stephen briefly considered pursuing a career in medicine, and now he apes the talk of Mulligan and the other young medicals, just as he appropriated Shakespeare's words in Scylla and Charybdis. But the underlying conceit is sheer fantasy. It grows out of his extravagant thoughts about omphaloskepsis and telephony in Proteus, where gaining mystical oneness with the universe means gazing into your navel, and the umbilicus becomes a phone line to Eden. Here in Oxen Stephen seems to be imagining a physiological vehicle for the Catholic doctrine of original sin: a long chain of veins and arteries explains how Eve's transgression "sold us all, seed, breed, and generation, for a penny pippin.

Tubular structures appear often in Ulysses as figures for the exchanges that occur between humanity and its physical and social environment. Molly thinks of Paul de Kock "going about with his tube from one woman to another," evoking a view of sexual intercourse as a kind of anastomosis between penetrator and penetrated. The term comes from a Greek verb meaning "to furnish with a mouth," and mouths too function as a kind of link to the world outside the self. They stand at one end of a tube through which, day after day, a human being takes in and casts out the other. In Lestrygonians Bloom thinks of a cycle that is as inexorable as it is endless: "stuffing food in one hole and out behind: food, chyle, blood, dung, earth, food: have to feed it like stoking an engine."

This chapter seems to recognize sympathies between the different piping systems in the human body. The line between ingestion and sexual exchange became blurry in the memorable kiss that took place between Molly and Bloom on Howth Head: "Ravished over her I lay, full lips full open, kissed her mouth. Yum. Softly she gave me in my mouth the seedcake warm and chewed. Mawkish pulp her mouth had mumbled sweet and sour with spittle. Joy: I ate it: joy." After Bloom thinks about the constant need to eat and excrete, he wonders whether goddesses have anuses, and then his penis becomes simultaneously a site of urination and sexual intercourse: "Dribbling a quiet message from his bladder came to go to do not to do there to do. A man and ready he drained his glass to the lees and walked, to men too they gave themselves, manly conscious, lay with men lovers, a youth enjoyed her, to the yard."

The "anastomosis of navelcords" conceit takes such thoughts in a metaphysical direction, applying the principle of interpenetration to impalpable realities no less than physical ones. Several pages later in Oxen of the Sun, one of the chapter's narrators reinforces Stephen's idea. When he cowers before the thunderclap and Bloom attempts to soothe his fears, the Bunyan-like voice says: "Heard he then in that clap the voice of the god Bringforth or, what Calmer said, a hubbub of Phenomenon? Heard? Why, he could not but hear unless he had plugged up the tube Understanding (which he had not done). For through that tube he saw that he was in the land of Phenomenon where he must for a certain one day die as he was like the rest too a passing show."

As so often in Oxen, the thought underlying the baffling verbiage is relatively straightforward: Stephen takes no comfort from Bloom's observation that thunder is only a natural phenomenon, because in such a world he too is only a natural phenomenon, doomed to vanish. But to see this highly abstract way of "Understanding" mortality as a "tube" is surpassingly strange. How is cognition like circulation, ingestion, excretion, and intercourse? To what is Stephen's mind connected? Is the exchange one-way, or reciprocal?

JH 2018
Two types of naturally occurring anastomosis between arteries and veins. Source:
Four types of surgically created anastomosis between arteries and veins. Source:
The two anastomotic organs, umbilicus and placenta, connecting the fetus to its maternal host. Source: