Very little perceptive

Very little perceptive

In Brief

New Style. (In this chapter of changing literary styles, each distinct section will be flagged with a note of this type describing the sources, properties, and purposes of a new mode of literary language.) "Universally that person's acumen is esteemed very little perceptive...ever irrevocably enjoined": the first real prose in Oxen of the Sun, after the ritualistic triune chants, has a monstrously longwinded, indirect, and obscure style. If one makes the effort to wrest some sense from these two torturous sentences (and there is enjoyable mental exercise to be had in doing so), their gist seems fairly simple: God wants human beings to procreate, an imperative that Ireland has long honored, but now some un-"perceptive" people have forgotten their heritage. Though the message is uncomplicated, getting at it through the strange vocabulary and syntax feels like crawling through a thicket. Joyce suggested that this paragraph, the first of a succession of prose stylings designed to mimic the development of English prose, was inspired by Latin writings that predated the development of English.

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In a letter to his friend Frank Budgen on 20 March 1920, Joyce reported that he was "working hard at Oxen of the Sun, the idea being the crime committed against fecundity by sterilizing the act of coition." The chapter, he wrote, would parallel the stages of human embryonic development and "the periods of faunal evolution in general" by presenting an historically arranged sequence of English prose styles, "introduced by a Sallustian-Tacitean prelude (the unfertilized ovum)." The paragraph discussed here appears to constitute the prelude he was talking about. Sallust (86-ca. 35 BCE) and Tacitus (ca. 56-ca. 120 AD) were Roman historians. Why Joyce should have looked to these ancient, non-English writers as he began recapitulating the historical development of English prose is a mystery, though Tacitus did write extensively about the Germanic peoples who later settled in Britain, and some people think he may have been a Celt.

Nor is it at all clear (to this poor Latinist, at least) how the prose of the two historians could have inspired Joyce to compose the magnificently involuted gobbledygook of his first paragraph. Tacitus wrote clearly and sparely. Even when his sentences are lengthened by subordinate clauses and parallel verbs, his aim is always to describe a situation as economically and directly as possible. Sallust was known for unusual diction (obsolete or rarely used words, innovative phrasings, nonstandard spellings, strange conjunctions and verb endings, neologisms), but he too preferred brevity to Ciceronian ornateness.

Gifford supposes that the paragraph is an "imitation" of Sallust and Tacitus, which seems hard to fathom, though he qualifies the claim by affirming Stuart Gilbert's observation that the prose sounds like a literal translation from Latin, "without Anglicization of word usage and syntax." That much seems plausible. The long sentences, with their disjointed clauses, looping parenthetical phrases, and bafflingly arranged modifiers, do feel like a poor translator's effort to adapt the syntax of Latin to an uninflected language. One tiny example: "the honourable by ancestors transmitted customs" places words in an order that Latin case declensions can accommodate but that wreaks havoc with English syntax. We would instead say, "the honorable customs transmitted by our ancestors."

The passage's use of obscure Latinate words where others would better convey meaning to an English-speaker—acumen, sapience, proliferent, benefaction, exhortator, and so on—likewise suggests an effort to approximate the effect of reading some kind of Latin. Several totally unfamiliar Latinate words may even suggest neologism and archaism in the manner of Sallust: "omnipollent" means "all-powerful" (pollens, from polleo, "I am strong"), and "lutulent" means "muddy, turbid, thick" (lutulentus, from lutum, "mud"). Gifford identifies "irrevecund" as a rare Latinate word meaning "immodest." 

The paragraph's core assertions, wrapped within webs of misdirection that Joyce evidently labored hard to weave, seem to be somewhat as follows: In "no exterior splendour" (no outward manifestation?) is the "prosperity of a nation more efficaciously asserted" (economic wellbeing should result in population increase? improvement in citizens' lives?) than in its ways of showing "solicitude" (care) for the condition of pregnancy, which is "omnipollent nature's incorrupted benefaction." The "evangel" (good tidings) of God's holy book gives us both "command and promise" to be fruitful and multiply, and so the "reiteratedly procreating function" (making babies not just once, but repeatedly) is "ever irrevocably enjoined" upon us. In the past, our "nation excellently commenced" a tradition of respecting this imperative (by having large families? by honoring pregnant women?), and it is to be hoped that these "honourable by ancestors transmitted customs" will be perpetuated in the future. But some people today have an "acumen" (intellectual keenness) that is not very "perceptive." Lacking in "sapience" (wise understanding) of what, rightly understood, requires "veneration," these "inilluminated" ones do not see that every good citizen must join in the cultural project, becoming "the exhortator and admonisher" of his fellow citizens (urging them to carry on the old wholesome traditions, and reproving those who do not).

A considerable portion of this message can be summed up in the immortal words of Monty Python: "Every sperm is sacred, / Every sperm is great. / When a sperm is wasted, / God gets quite irate." The theme of divine anger at the taking of life, prompted by Homer's story of Odysseus' men killing the cattle of Helios, starts here and continues throughout Oxen of the Sun. The relevance of this message to the drama acted out in the maternity hospital—where drunken and blasphemous young atheists raucously celebrate sexual license while a poor woman suffers through an excruciatingly prolonged labor—is quite clear. The connection to Sallust and Tacitus, however, feels extremely tenuous. Could Joyce, as he continued working on Oxen, possibly have found some medieval Latin text better suited to his purposes than the Roman historians? Such a text, if one were found, might conceivably account not only for the ungainly prose but also for the Christian messaging.

Joyce wrote in a letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver that Oxen of the Sun contained "nine circles of development," and Robert Janusko has observed that he worked in nine notebooks corresponding to the nine months of gestation. But it remains an open question whether the finished chapter creates such an effect with anything approaching the dense specificity of its echoes of English prose writers, and critics who have labored to associate the various literary styles with the stages of pregnancy seldom agree with one another on the particulars. Some styles do suggest phases of organic development, however, and nowhere is this more evident than at the beginning of the chapter. Joyce's notion that his Sallustian prelude would correspond to "the unfertilized ovum" seems as good an explanation as any for its inchoate form.

The sprawling shapelessness was clearly part of his design. The long final section of Oxen rivals the first one in inchoate obscurity (though in no other way), and in the letter to Weaver Joyce called these challenging sections "the headpiece and tailpiece of opposite chaos." Some critics have associated the final section with an "afterbirth"—the placental remains of the developmental process—or with the inarticulate cries of a newborn baby. The opening style gives the impression of prose that has the potential to be intelligible, but has not yet realized its destiny.

My notes on the strange succession of styles in Oxen will not wade very far into echoes of pregnancy, embryonic development, and animal evolution. They will focus largely on Joyce's echoes of various writers of prose. Here too, though, a caveat is in order, since the chapter's different sections, insofar as one can clearly distinguish them, do not allude to, imitate, or parody those writers in any tidy way. Sometimes Joyce appears to have drawn on multiple writers from a given historical epoch, playfully aping the style of a period rather than a person. And sometimes tidbits that he gleaned from writers of different historical eras jump the bounds of periodicity and appear out of place, reflecting perhaps simply his freedom to write as he pleased, drawing on the words and phrases that were teeming in his brain after immersing himself in a huge variety of English prose styles.

Joyce was not so much imitating particular authors and works as weaving a pastiche of loosely historical styles in response to an anthology of literary examples and an analytic treatise that richly quotes such examples. As Weldon Thornton observes in Allusions in Ulysses, that method makes discussion of literary allusions problematic: "This episode poses unique problems for an allusion study, since its style echoes and recapitulates various English styles from Anglo-Saxon literature to modern slang and evangelical oratory, and since Joyce apparently used certain books on English style and literary history as sources for some of the material in the episode. Thus the line between an allusion to a specific work and a parody of a period style is difficult to trace, as is the difference between an allusion to a certain work and Joyce's use of a source that may have included that work" (323).

When Thornton was writing, Robert Janusko was simultaneously studying the process by which Joyce leafed through his anthologies, recorded phrases from various authors on notesheets, and deployed his borrowings in stylistic pastiches. This indirect engagement with other prose writers resulted in countless echoes that Thornton could not easily or in good conscience cite as allusions, but it did produce nearly three dozen striking, quirky literary style-portraits that together vividly evoke the historical development of English prose. My chosen task, aided by Janusko's genetic research, is to try to show how Joyce's little prose poems both engage with earlier English writing and advance his own narrative aims. If these notes also manage to suggest how much fun Joyce was having with the possibilities of English prose, and to communicate some of that playful joy to readers, my work will be complete.

JH 2021
Portrait of Sallust in Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493. Source:
1902 photographic facsimile by Henricus Rostagno of a page from Tacitus' Annals copied by a monk in the 11th century. Source: Wikimedia Commons.