Episode (Chapter) 14 of Ulysses, Oxen of the Sun, is one of those ideas that sounded better in theory than in practice. I'm pretty sure all authors struggle with these. It comes right before a crazy-frenetic chapter that I'm excited to finish and talk about, but this one was a struggle.
On a very basic level, without the usual mythological references and literary timeline modeling, gives us the first time Bloom and Stephen Dedalus speak to each other in the novel. They cross paths many times, and Bloom knows Stephen's father, but this is their first actual encounter. Bloom goes to the hospital to look in on the friend who has been in labor for three days. During this time there Dedalus and his friends have the kind of spirited discussion about issues of morality and ethics concerning birth that only men in their 20s who have never had to make decisions about people they care about can have. Seriously, I don't always care much for Stephen.
However, that wasn't enough for Joyce. Oh, no. He decided to use this chapter as a homage to the many styles of writing that come from his own literary heritage, from medieval religious texts all the way through to present day pentecostal revival (or is it just advertising? hard to tell) style. I might mention that unless this is pointed out to you, it is impossible to know that this is what he is doing. He had to spell it out to his own peers, and there are several letters that have lasted that allow current scholars to understand it. Would it have been obvious if he hadn't ever done this? I'm not sure. In some ways, by this point in the novel, the reader has to have already given him or herself over to the wave of sometimes-ridiculous, sometimes-nonsensical, sometimes-baffling patterns. I think it is even harder when you're listening.
It makes me think of my experience reading Moby Dick, actually, when I'd be reading along about Ishmael and his Polynesian bunkmate, when all of the sudden Melville would throw in a chapter on whale biology or the history of the harpoon. I question my experience as a reader. Is this greatness? Is this what makes it a classic? Or do books get categorized this way because people assume that something they struggle to read makes it "good?" It is as if James Joyce wanted to encapsulate everything he loves about Irish history, mythology, current events in religion and politics, and his own education into one novel, while also writing in a way that nobody else ever have. Well James, you win!
I'm finally into "Circe," which is supposed to be the pinnacle of the entire work.