That person's acumen

That person's acumen

In Brief

New Style. "Universally that person's acumen . . . ever irrevocably enjoined?": In this paragraph of two long and nearly impenetrable sentences Gifford hears "An imitation of the Latin prose styles of the Roman historians Sallust (86-34 B.C.) and Tacitus (c. 55-120 A.D.). The manner of this passage suggests a literal translation, without Anglicization of word usage and syntax." Despite its unreadability, the paragraph adds more layers to the associations of divinity and fertility laid down in the first three paragraphs.

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After the strange but rousing incantation that frames the entry to Oxen of the Sun, these two mind-choking sentences clog the entrance, threatening to bar the reader's progress beyond the first page. Their thought, though, does not seem highly complex. Impatient readers can pluck some kernels of meaning from the whirling linguistic chaff and move on, while those with more interest in how words are strung together to make syntactic structures can derive some pleasure, or at least mental exercise, from trying to piece together the architecture of disjointed clauses, long parenthetical phrases, and bafflingly arranged modifiers, perhaps even admiring the perverse ingenuity by which Joyce has twisted English into a semblance of a highly inflected language.

The narrator's core assertions, wrapped within dense webs of misdirection, seem to be somewhat as follows: In "no exterior splendour" (i.e., in no other manifestation of economic wellbeing?) is the "prosperity of a nation more efficaciously asserted" than in its ways of showing "solicitude" for the condition of pregnancy, which is nature's great blessing. The "evangel" of God's holy book gives us both "command and promise" to be fruitful and multiply, and so the "reiteratedly procreating function" is "ever irrevocably enjoined" upon us. In the past, our "nation excellently commenced" a tradition of respecting this imperative (by making lots of babies? by honoring pregnant women? by founding maternity hospitals?), and it is to be hoped that these excellent customs transmitted by our ancestors ("the honourable by ancestors transmitted customs") will be perpetuated in the future. But some people today seem to have an "acumen" that is not very "perceptive." Lacking in "sapience," "ignorant of that which," rightly understood, requires "veneration," these "unilluminated" 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.

God wants us to make babies, then, and he doesn't look kindly on those who make light of this sacred responsibility. The relevance of this message to the drama being acted out in the maternity hospital —where a drunken crew of blasphemous young atheists is raucously celebrating sex, while a poor woman suffering through an excruciatingly prolonged labor lies within earshot —is quite evident. The tone of prophetically inspired chastisement that this narrator comically directs at his characters will be revisited in several later stylistic sections of the episode.

Latin or Latin-derived vocabulary compounds the difficulty of reading this paragraph. Gifford glosses several totally unfamiliar words: "omnipollent" = powerful, from Latin pollens; "lutulent" = muddy, turbid, thick; "irrevecund" = immodest.

JH 2014
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, Codex Mediceus 68 II fol. 38 r. Source: Wikimedia Commons.