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“Copied Out Big”: Instruction in Joyce’s Ulysses

She followed not all, a part of the whole, gave attention with interest, comprehended with surprise, with care repeated, with greater difficulty remembered, forgot with ease, with misgiving reremembered, rerepeated with error.

—James Joyce, Ulysses[1]

With these phrases, the narrator of Joyce’s “Ithaca” renders Molly Bloom’s experience of “direct instruction” (Ulysses, 562). From the perspective of her teacher, who is interested in outcomes, this experience is not a success. Molly’s insouciance and inconsistency, as recorded in the sentence above, lead the self-appointed pedagogue Leopold Bloom to adopt a “more effective” and modern approach: “[i]ndirect suggestion implicating selfinterest” (563). Joyce’s language suggests here, however, that the “direct” method proves surprisingly enabling—more so, in fact, than the updated, “implicating” alternative. The latter leads, in “Ithaca,” to an ultimately straightforward if initially perplexing consumer equation: “She disliked umbrella with rain, he liked woman with umbrella, she disliked new hat with rain, he liked woman with new hat, he bought new hat with rain, she carried umbrella with new hat” (563). Note the relative predictability of the sentence, its directness, even, “indirect suggestion” notwithstanding. It’s as if “indirect suggestion implicating self-interest” could yield only this parade of pros, cons, and commodities, this regular succession of dislikes and likes.

Fig. 1. Mechanical drawing class, c. 1899, photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

By contrast, as my epigraph suggests, “direct instruction” produces rich and strange results, both conceptual and syntactic. Such instruction, which might at first seem to demand full concentration by definition, in fact allows the student to follow “not at all,” or only in part. Like Ulysses itself, “direct instruction” affords a range of possibilities for comprehension and repetition, remembering and forgetting, reremembering and rerepeating. And the variation in the narrator’s formulations belies their obvious and joking repetitiousness. Joyce’s verbs and adverbial phrases, for instance, only belatedly and uneasily settle into the chiastic pattern toward which they tend all along, and we are invited to notice that to rerepeat is already to repeat “with error.” Here, then, “Ithaca,” Joyce’s episode, structured like a catechism, models the convergence of repetition and difference that instruction makes possible, the coexistence of past and present, memory and forgetting, recall and imagination, that it sustains.

Readers may be surprised to find such an apology for “direct instruction” in a text like Ulysses, a novel committed to radical formal innovation, written by an author who, as a young man, had forsworn instruction precisely.[2] Surely nothing could be farther from the flagrantly rule-breaking Joycean text than the rule-bound method that the narrator names “direct instruction”? Surely one main aim of “Ithaca,” in fact, is to highlight the contrast between the novel’s enlivening capaciousness, on the one hand, and the deadening constraints of the old-school catechism, on the other? Surely Joyce, like his character Bloom, abandons instruction in favor of a novel approach to the novel, one that lets us draw our own connections, revel in our own associations, and, above all, think for ourselves?

Before we can answer these questions—or just rethink our first, reflexive answers to them—we need to ask another, simpler one: what is “instruction”? In 1919, just before Joyce returned to Trieste from Zurich, the idealist philosopher and educational reformer Giovanni Gentile, later made Minister of Education under Mussolini, presented a series of lectures to Triestine schoolteachers that undertook to offer rigorous definitions of key concepts in pedagogy, including instruction. Gentile’s lectures, published during Joyce’s brief 1920 stay in Trieste as La riforma dell’educazione: Discorsi ai maestri di Trieste (The Reform of Education: Addresses to the Teachers of Trieste), took pains to distinguish true education from mere “instruction,” which, for Gentile and his followers, named a specific set of outmoded educational practices long associated with Latin class. These practices were, Gentile argued, “narrow, formal, and sterile”; they were deadening rather than enlivening, repetitive rather than allowing for innovation of any kind.[3] Indeed, they were queer, if, in Penelope Deutscher’s paraphrase of Lee Edelman, “to be queered is to have the death drive projected onto you.”[4] Education was a matter of what Edelman calls “compulsory reproduction,” and instruction posed a queer threat to this undertaking, which it thwarted. Hence the charge of sterility.[5] The prevalence of instructional practices led, Gentile argued, to the creation and persistence of a stagnant culture: “intruding with violence into the life of the spirit, instruction generates the monstrous culture that we call material, mechanical, and spiritually worthless.” Such a culture could not but be “fragmentary and inorganic,” and yet it could grow, Gentile continued: “it can grow to infinity without transforming students’ minds or merging with the process of the personality, to which it adheres extrinsically” (La riforma, 186). Such outward adherence, like Joycean “direct instruction,” could thus only be partial—in the words of the narrator in “Ithaca,” “a part of the whole.” It could forge neither whole selves nor whole nations.

Gentile therefore devised an approach to education that was inward as well as integrative and—counter-intuitively, given his political leanings—progressive.[6] This approach followed from the philosopher’s discovery of the “secret” of effective education, as disclosed in his lectures in Trieste: “that the book that is read, or the word of the teacher that is heard, must set our mind in motion and be transformed into our inner life, ceasing to be a thing . . . and being transfused into our personality” (trasferendosi nella nostra personalità) (Gentile, La riforma, 188). Gentile does not use the language of self-interest here, and his goals are spiritual rather than material. Reformed education, according to Gentile, forms personalities and minds; it does not traffic with things. In fact, Gentile finds fault with “instruction” for such traffic precisely. We would thus seem to be far indeed from the Blooms’ umbrellas and new hats. Clearly, though, the new method that Gentile advocates is nothing if not “implicating”; it shares with Joyce’s “indirect suggestion implicating self-interest” an investment in the student’s “inner life.” Whereas instruction centers on memorization and compels repetition, Gentile’s education and Joyce’s indirect suggestion alike seek transformation.

But “Ithaca” teaches us to ask: transformation to what end? And what’s lost when “direct instruction” is replaced by other, kinder and gentler, more efficient and more implicating educational techniques? This article proceeds from these questions and considers the striking answers given elsewhere in Ulysses, drawing attention to the novel’s surprising affinities with the very instructional methods that Gentile decried. I argue that, in Ulysses, instruction’s outward and outmoded forms become key resources for the kind of radical aesthetic project that they might appear to rule out, or at least to impede. I thus challenge a still-abiding tendency to locate modernism’s critical potential in its attempt to break with the past.[7] This tendency, I show, is continuous with both the ethos of other modernisms, with their Marinettian “love of progress,” and the discourse of progressive pedagogy, with its roots in Jean-Jacques Rousseau and its twentieth-century culmination in the work of John Dewey.[8] Gentile’s La riforma exemplifies the latter discourse, which takes rightist as well as radical democratic forms and which remains influential in educational theory and practice today. By contrast, Joyce’s “direct instruction” instantiates another pedagogy, one that I call counter-progressive.

By claiming that La riforma and Ulysses bear rereading alongside one another, I do not mean to suggest that Joyce drew direct inspiration—or direct instruction—from Gentile’s lectures. Surely, however, the Irish author and language teacher, residing in Italy, would have been aware of the debates that both preceded and followed the influential Discorsi.[9] These debates pitted old-school instructors—a whole old, degraded institution called “instruction”—against progressive educators equipped to usher students into modernity, to sponsor both collective innovation and individual self-realization. If at first it seems obvious that Joyce would side with the latter camp—that he would be among the moderns, not the ancients; the educators, not the instructors; the advocates of the mind in motion, not the defenders of mechanical exercise—Ulysses suggests otherwise. In “Ithaca,” but even more strikingly in “Oxen of the Sun,” Joyce recasts the old school’s forms as unlikely resources for both creativity and critique. Joyce wagers scandalously, with the Ithacan narrator and against Gentile, that “direct instruction” is strangely more enabling than the “more effective” modernized teaching that takes its place. With its enforced repetitions and formative wastes of time, instruction becomes the model for Ulysses itself.

To read this way is to be schooled by queer theory, which teaches us how and why to accept the charges that we might be tempted or socially urged to refuse, beginning with the charge of queerness itself. This is why I turn to queer theory in my effort to understand what I take to be Joyce’s affirmation of instruction’s very negativity. Against progressive educators’ insistence that students leave the past behind in the name of ease, inwardness, independence, and identity, “Oxen” looks to outmoded and outward scholastic forms, and in the process the text sets readers to work. Joyce’s detractors, who have deeply resented the episode’s difficulty, its allusiveness, and the sense of limitation that it imposes, have seen “Oxen” as distilling the worst—the most pedantic, punishing, and self-monumentalizing—qualities of Ulysses.[10] These readers have repeated progressive education’s demand that learning be made easy—a demand that Joyce both flagrantly violates and pointedly acknowledges. For although “Oxen” reverts to the old school’s methods and reproduces—in order to repurpose—its constraints, the episode also gestures toward the free and easy education that it refuses. Buck Mulligan becomes this reformed education’s advocate; the narrator in “Oxen” becomes its counter-progressive opponent. Finding in Walter Pater a model of weight-bearing transmission—effortful, rather than easy—Joyce contrasts Mulligan’s understanding of aesthetic education with his own arduous literary cum pedagogical project. “Oxen” thus affirms what Mulligan and many right-thinking readers of Ulysses would deny or downplay: the past that weighs heavily and is compulsorily repeated, imitated, altered, laboriously copied out again. At the same time, the episode suggests that it is the old school, not the new, that shelters queer forms of life.

His Swaddling Bands

Scenes of instruction early in Ulysses set the stage for Joyce’s handling of “the studious” in “Oxen” and its effort to enforce studiousness (344). These scenes begin with “Nestor,” Ulysses’s second episode, set in the school where Stephen works as a teacher. Here, during class, Stephen lets his thoughts wander as his students badly mangle Roman history and barely manage to recite lines from Milton’s Lycidas. After the lesson ends, a slow learner named Cyril Sargent stays behind, “showing an open copybook” to Stephen (23). “Ugly and futile,” Cyril needs help (23). He has been told to copy out math problems whose solutions he does not understand. For his part, Stephen thinks of the boy’s dead mother, his own, and mother love more generally: “Amor matris: subjective and objective genitive. With her weak blood and whey-sour milk she had fed him and hid from sight of others his swaddlingbands” (23). It’s typical of the overeducated Stephen to translate lived and carnal relations into grammatical terms. What matters most here, however, is that his doing so marks the scene of teaching as missing the mother who nevertheless remains in attendance if only as a memory or a thought.

Like the “legend” or inscription “Fœtus” that the younger Stephen encounters in an empty anatomy theater in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “Amor matris” emphasizes the absence of the very figure that it conjures.[11] The phrase names the dead mother in a dead language, but it also highlights this language’s particular amenability to formal analysis. For the phrase immediately triggers Stephen’s grammatical gloss, and this gloss just as immediately registers the formal study that Stephen has undergone. Even more than the Latin phrase itself, “subjective and objective genitive” sounds like it comes from another teacher, or from a textbook. It thus encodes the past in a different way from the phrase that it accompanies; the Latin phrase points not only to two different kinds or valences of mother love, but also to the scholastic contexts in which this love, abstracted from any particular mother or child, becomes an object of study.

All the while, Cyril continues to copy out his sums. Beautifully drawing attention to the sum, the Latin “I am,” secreted in these sums, Barry McCrea has read “Nestor” as a tale of two modes of transmission, one genealogical, the other queer. McCrea stresses Stephen’s determination to graduate from the scene “of perfect reproduction, of copying, of writing out again,” and he aligns such rote reproduction with Stephen’s employer, the headmaster Deasy.[12] Deasy, who has given Cyril the assignment that he completes under Stephen’s distracted watch, engages in both copying and collecting, and McCrea argues that both processes stand for “pointless accumulation,” “offering no possibility of . . . transformation,” only an endless repetition of the same. For McCrea, both Stephen and Ulysses move away from these processes until they arrive at “Ithaca,” which represents the culmination of the progressive growth that the novel charts. By this account, Ulysses counterintuitively comes home by running away: “nongenetic genealogies,” or queer intergenerational relations, “usurp paternity and marriage by offering a grid on which to plot the protagonists’ positions and changing but consistent identities across time (the sum of their sums, but not from a copybook)” (McCrea, In the Company, 142). Bloom and Stephen are, for McCrea, “not from a copybook,” or no longer from one, because by the time they reach “Ithaca,” they have forged a bond outside kinship and conjugality and a pair of identities that adds up to more than an assigned sum.

But in an important sense, the catechism of “Ithaca” represents a continuation, rather than an overcoming, of the copying-out first imagined in “Nestor.” For all its undeniable humor and its endless scope and creativity, as a protracted if patently impossible text for memorization, the catechism remains a copybook. It retains even while it radically reworks the form of the “treatise for instruction” whose answers are to be reproduced in a rote fashion: a catechism’s answers are emphatically not adapted to suit the styles of individual worshippers, but repeated verbatim under the sign of the impersonal sum of someone else.[13] Thus even while Ulysses seems increasingly to privilege spontaneous over learned and “deficient” over compliant forms—to lead inexorably toward Molly’s “more than once cover[ing] a sheet of paper with signs and hieroglyphics which she stated were Greek and Irish and Hebrew characters”—the distinction between copying and transformation never becomes definitive (562).[14]

Neither, for that matter, does the difference between reproductive and queer relations that McCrea identifies, finding in the latter alternatives to the “perfect reproduction” of the same.[15] “Oxen of the Sun” begins by enacting the impossibility of this very sameness, exposing the difference that inevitably overtakes the effort to sustain “semblables” (Joyce, Ulysses, 314). And yet “Oxen” relies programmatically on repetition, as Joyce devises forms of repetition that are not strictly reproductive but that still refer to reproductive functions and to the techniques that McCrea associates with “perfect reproduction.” These are also the techniques of instruction. Joyce’s engagement with the old school as the site of displaced “Amor matris” thus also opens onto a reading of the strange persistence of the reproductive in Ulysses, and of the repetitive and copied-out in the queer. This is the reading that I undertake here, returning to “Oxen.”

Labors of Pedagogy

Joyce meant for the phases of gestation and birth to organize the form of “Oxen.” His aim in writing the episode was, as he wrote to Frank Budgen and as almost all commentaries on the episode begin by repeating, to map the “progression” of English prose styles onto “the natural stages of development in the embryo and the periods of faunal evolution in general,” in a series of strained parallels that only further strained credulity the further they extended, becoming so many Joycean stretch marks: “Bloom is the spermatozoon, the hospital the womb, the nurse the ovum, Stephen the embryo.”[16] If, as his detractors complain, the author makes heavy weather of the Homeric analogies in Ulysses as a whole, in “Oxen” he belabors his analogical procedure to the breaking point.

Leo Bersani raises this objection, among others, in his essay “Against Ulysses.” Here Bersani argues that, far from being subversive, Joyce’s novel stages a reactionary reconsolidation of cultural “authority,” and that “Oxen” advances this agenda with particular shamelessness:

Consider “Oxen of the Sun,” which may be the most difficult and the most accessible episode of the novel. Once we have identified all the referents in this virtuoso pastiche of prose styles from Sallust to modern slang, what else does the episode give us?  How does its language enact its sense? While the narrator is engaging in this stylistic tour de force, several of the characters—including Bloom and Stephen—are sitting around drinking and talking in a maternity hospital, where Mrs. Purefoy is going through the final moments of a long, hard labor. With some help from a letter Joyce wrote to Frank Budgen as he was working on “Oxen of the Sun,” critics have proposed a series of parallels between the evolution of English prose and (1) biological gestation and birth, (2) the development of the embryonic artist’s prose style, (3) faunal evolution, and (4) Stephen’s rebirth as an artist. The episode may be the most extraordinary example in the history of literature of meaning unrelated to the experience of reading and to the work of writing.[17]

It’s strange that Bersani, elsewhere a champion of willed readerly as well as writerly poverty, here equates “the experience of reading” with the production, or the consumption, of “sense,” as if there could be nothing instructive about language that does not enact meaning.[18] For Bersani, the bookish Ulysses, whose politics are distilled in “Oxen,” instead burdens its readers all the heaviest baggage of the oppressive “cultural inheritance” that it not only leaves intact, but also actively preserves. But this is still to remain wedded to the programmatic statements that Joyce made to Budgen, and thus to consolidate, if only unwittingly, the authorial “control” whose exercise Bersani wants to contest (“Against Ulysses,” 169). In fact, the parallels listed in Joyce’s letter to Budgen are eclipsed in “the experience of reading” through which “Oxen” interpellates its reader as pupil.

This interpellation begins with the episode’s first, Latinate paragraphs, which require readers to engage in a sort of reverse translation—minimally, to grasp that Joyce’s English sentences are being modeled after Sallust’s Latin periods.[19] Even this minimal, provisional grasp presupposes some sense of what the original periods sound like. Only armed with this sense—or with a commentary—is it possible to begin to parse Joyce’s English. The practice of reverse translation, recommended for the “making of Latines” in the English-speaking world since Roger Ascham’s sixteenth-century teachers’ manual The Scholemaster, is already scholastic in its provenance—that is, already instructional in Gentile’s disparaging sense.[20] But “Oxen” becomes increasingly scholastic as it proceeds, even while it also continues Joyce’s engagement with maternity in earlier episodes, including “Nestor.” The form that this engagement takes in “Oxen” scandalizes Bersani, because it looks to him like a repudiation of the feminine as such. Joyce, however, complicates this contrast between male otium and female reproductive labor. For while Stephen may find “a refuge from his labours of pedagogy” in the Holles Street hospital, here Joyce’s pedagogical labor is intensified (Ulysses, 341).

Critics have noted that, together with the many primary source texts whose styles it imitates, “Oxen” parodies the literary anthologies of Joyce’s day. “[I]ntended mainly for the use of young students” rather than adult readers, these texts tended to make history into a matter of linear progression and organic development, with prose “specimens” leading from the fourteenth century to “the present day” or to the recent past in which the present was readily recognizable.[21] Even when the compilers of these anthologies prescribed “attentive toil” in reading, their chronologically arranged selections unfolded more or less seamlessly, with only authors’ names and birth and death dates, and the titles of these authors’ works, coming between selections.[22] Although Joyce also consulted more explanatory and editorializing literary histories, he took the humbler extract-collections as models for “Oxen.”[23] These provided the episode with its scaffolding, and what results is a sort of abbreviated anthology of prose styles, one from which the informational signposts have been removed and above which a narrative and allegorical overlay has been added. Again: “Bloom is the spermatozoon, the hospital the womb, the nurse the ovum, Stephen the embryo.”

This, Joyce said, was his conceit. Recent readings have emphasized, however, that Joyce complicated this approach by using the tropes of progress and development against themselves, as in the episode’s introductory paragraphs, which undercut the continuity that they pretend to exhort and “traduc[e]” the productivity that they might at first seem to celebrate (Ulysses, 314). Indeed, Joyce substitutes a “profoundly anachronistic method” for the anthologists’ confidently forward-looking procedure, and in this way, ruins the succession of styles that he claimed to have recreated (Spoo, “The Language,” 147).[24] The episode’s prose keeps getting ahead of itself, and, conversely, having advanced in literary history, “Oxen” stylistically and even linguistically regresses—most spectacularly when Latin punctuates the episode’s concluding “afterbirth,” made up mainly of slang and ersatz ad copy: “Silentium! Get a spurt on” (Ulysses, 346). Joyce accounted for another kind of relapse in the text by pointing to a source in the animal world: “The double-thudding Anglo-Saxon motive recurs from time to time . . . to give the sense of the hoofs of oxen” (quoted in Ellmann, James Joyce, 475).

This kind of repetition or backward-looking motif is in keeping with Stephen’s stated interest in recasting developmental advance as “retrogressive metamorphosis,” an interest that Stephen shares with both Bloom and Joyce himself (Ulysses, 322). The intimate relation of this interest to the backward forms of instruction has not yet been critically recognized. This is perhaps because “Oxen” does not appear to thematize the school—at least not as explicitly as it thematizes sexuality, on the one hand, and history, on the other. “Oxen” has fittingly become a focal point for scholars interested in Joyce’s handling of each of these themes.[25] Yet, as Hugh Kenner’s notes, “student-talk” makes up the episode’s “chief material.”[26] More importantly still, the transposition and transcription of this talk into a series of painstakingly learned styles constitutes the episode’s demanding method.

Demanding, I mean, both for Joyce—who claimed to be engaged in his own “long, hard labor” while writing the episode, which gave him more trouble and caused him more pain than any he had previously composed—and for the reader (Ellmann, James Joyce, 476). Harriet Shaw Weaver, one of the first to respond to “Oxen,” wrote to Joyce that “the reading of it is like being taken the rounds of hell.”[27] Subsequent generations of readers, including Bersani, have concurred—that is, when they have not given in to the understandable temptation to bypass the episode altogether. For there is indeed something hellish, or punishing at the very least, about the experience of reading “Oxen,” which, for all its humor, impedes forward movement at every turn.

Sending us back to school very late in the day on which Ulysses takes place—it is already 10:00 pm—“Oxen” also blocks our path to “Circe” and its more pleasurable punishments, not with unbroken monotony, but rather by taking us through circuitous, repetitious “rounds.”[28] The episode thus makes the past perceptible as dead weight. It makes the past, more precisely, into a pensum not finally assimilable to meaning.[29] A pensum—whose name derives, like the Latin verb pensare, to think, from pendere, to weigh—is a scholastic punishment that often takes the form of text copied out, paradigmatically, lines of poetry.[30] Chris Ackerley gives a more capacious definition: “pensums: in the parlance of the Public School, the fagging, detentions, lines, and small senseless demands that so intrude upon time. It was Flaubert’s term,” Ackerley adds, “for the chore of writing Madame Bovary.”[31] It seems fitting, then, that in the opening scene of Flaubert’s novel, a Headmaster assigns two pensums: “Five hundred lines for the entire class,” and, for the “new boy” Charles Bovary, “the verb ridiculus sum” to be copied out twenty times.[32] Joyce reprises this scene of punishment explicitly in Portrait, when the flustered Father Arnall singles out a student who wrongly claims that “the noun mare” “has no plural,” then fumes: “Copy out your themes again the rest of you” (Portrait, 39–40). So, too, does “Oxen” revisit Bovary’s “ridiculus sum.”

And a ridiculous sum of styles is indeed the result, for the pastiches in “Oxen” keep exposing the absurdity of their models. If Joyce, or his narrator in “Oxen,” undertakes to complete a pensum, then he doesn’t complete it well; instead, like a student doing impressions of his teachers throughout detention, he remains defiant. Browne, he says, in so many words, is a bore, and Burke a mere windbag. But I would argue that critical attention to Joyce’s subversions of textual authority has tended to obscure the episode’s procedures modeled on the pensum.

Attending to these makes it possible to recognize that “Oxen” indeed seeks to administer “direct instruction” (Joyce, Ulysses, 562). Joyce locates unspent, unsuspected potentials in the very instructional methods that Gentile, like Rousseau and Dewey, sought to clear away. The reformers’ efforts to dispense with such residual forms, to sanitize and streamline education, is closely if surprisingly related to the setting of “Oxen”: the maternity hospital. In this narrative context, the episode’s “technic”—the stylistic tour-de-force that stages “Embryonic Development,” according to the Linati Schema—serves ironically to underscore the sterility of the narrator’s discourse. This discourse’s tendency to “traduc[e]” there where producing is loudly called for is also its manifest failure to reproduce itself, as each style keeps spilling over into other styles that are not its “semblables” (314).

Yet inasmuch as they are modeled on the styles of others, the styles in “Oxen” do reproduce. Or at the very least they gesture—for all their obvious and parodic imperfection—toward what McCrea calls “perfect reproduction” (In the Company, 113). For each paragraph in “Oxen” is the product of a process distinct from but crucially related to the reproduction that happens in Holles Street, “in the high sunbright wellbuilt fair home of mothers when, ostensibly far gone and reproductitive, it is come by her
thereto to lie in, her term up” (Joyce, Ulysses, 315). Here the Joycean neologism “reproductitive” condenses the relation-in-distinction that I am trying to describe. Not quite reproductive, but not quite not, “reproductitive” stops short of the episode’s would-be Anglo Saxon “double thudding” but engages in the same phonemic stuttering that will lead, in this same sentence, to “thereto to.” At the same time, though, “reproductitive” also does more than stutter, since it mimics the form of the frequentative, a verbal inflection that signals “the frequent repetition of an action.”[33] In Latin, frequentatives rely on the addition of a –t or –it to a verb’s simple form, as when canare (to sing) becomes cantare (to keep singing); dicere (to say) becomes dictare (to dictate); or agere (to do or drive) becomes agitare (to put into motion, and here the frequentative is retained in the English “agitate”). The insertion of these same letters into “Oxen”’s Latinate English not only draws attention to the dead language latent in the living; Joyce’s archaizing neologism also describes the work of Joycean instruction itself.

The iterative frequentative “reproductitive” indicates the way in which Joyce at once reinscribes his text within and distances it from the reproductive process that it thematizes. Supplementing the reproductive—in the Derridean sense, both adding to and supplanting, both requiring and replacing it—the “reproductitive” organizes “Oxen”; it becomes the sign under which the episode unfolds.[34] Ostensibly gathering to worship at the altar of biological reproduction, Joyce’s “studious” characters—and even more so his readers—end up engaging in another set of rituals (Ulysses, 344). These belong to the school rather than the maternity ward, and this makes their recurrence in “Oxen” that much more striking. For Joyce has the forward-looking medical institution—guarantor of the “reiteratedly procreating function ever irrevocably enjoined” by Genesis and the nation alike—shelter the more frequent and backward form of reiteration that inheres in the techniques of the old school (314). These techniques enjoin not increase and multiplication, but going back over what has gone before.

Midway through the episode, Bloom reflects on this distinction as he considers the schoolboy humor of the medical students in the maternity ward: “Singular, communed the guest with himself, . . . that the puerperal dormitory and the dissecting theatre should be the seminaries of such frivolity” (334). “Such frivolity” may be another name for the “crime committed against fecundity” that Joyce said “Oxen” was to illustrate: “Am working hard at Oxen of the Sun, the idea being the crime committed against fecundity by sterilizing the act of coition” (Ellmann, James Joyce, 475). But rather than simply sterilizing, “Oxen” makes writing “reproductitive.”

Embryo Philosophers

Given Joyce’s hard work and sustained if impious adherence to his stylistic sources, I have been arguing that “Oxen”’s “most conspicuous practice” is, in fact, copying out, not “writing back.” If the Gestalt of the text’s styles is defiant, as Gibson and others contend, their individual instances—the stylistic episodes within the narrative episode—remain derivative. To say this is not to deny the inventiveness of the episode as a whole; it is instead to specify that this inventiveness remains inseparable from imitation, just as the narrative of “Oxen” is impossible to disentangle from its obtrusive stylistic presentation—even while the two, style and narrative substance, never quite sync up. Far from being a mere, decorative overlay or distraction, the stylistic pastiches in “Oxen” constitute its defining feature and insinuate its argument. Countering the progressive stipulation that we should—together with the idea that we ever could—get out from under the past, Joyce insists in this way that repeated and formative, frequent and “reproductitive” returns to it remain indispensable.

Long since sustained by the old school and reenacted in “Oxen,” such returns are precisely what progressive education recasts as obsolete in order to leave it behind. Yet at the same time, the discourse of educational reform beginning with Rousseau and continuing well past Joyce’s day also recasts itself as reproductive: time and again, reformers pretend to forswear the repetition of the past for the sake of fertility. For progressive educators, later called developmentalists, traditional education and the Latin class that is its emblem thus become sterilizing. Cultural contraceptives, these old institutions are held responsible for broad collective stagnation, for national failures to innovate. [35] But they also stand accused more pointedly of what Joyce, framing “Oxen,” calls “crime[s] committed against fecundity.” Rousseau’s Émile, for instance, links bad education to declining birth rates, and Dewey sees such education as evolutionarily redundant. For both thinkers and their reform-minded followers, the old school thus thwarts the procreation it should serve; it separates itself, and its students, from the reproduction with which it should coincide.

In these progressive educational theories, reproduction importantly refers not to the maintenance of the same. Rather it names a process of continual improvement, whether social or evolutionary or both, as in Dewey. Reproduction becomes the optimization rather than the mere preservation of life, as in the ideology that Edelman will call “reproductive futurism” (No Future, 3). Consider the logic of the impassioned defense of breastfeeding that opens Émile, where Rousseau argues that nursing lays the foundation for an education properly realigned with nature. Indeed, the author at times even gives readers to understand that breastfeeding suffices to constitute this education, is capable on its own of bringing about thoroughgoing reform: “let mothers deign to nurse their children, morals will reform themselves, nature’s sentiments will be awakened in every heart, the state will be repeopled.”[36] Repopulated, that is, by newly moral, newly natural, “lively and animated” men, women, and children. For Rousseau, reform, which begins at home, thus means innovation first and foremost. It also rules out repetition by definition, as Émile will proceed to explain. Émile’s first pages at first seem to advocate a return to a past state of affairs, to a time when women were mothers. Plainly, however, these pages instantiate Rousseau’s “archeoteleological concept of nature,” according to which the return to origins and the achievement of destiny coincide (Derrida, Of Grammatology, 198). And here telos trumps arche, just as reform trumps recurrence: “Thus from the correction of this single abuse,” Rousseau writes, referring to mothers’ reliance on wet nurses, “would soon result a general reform; nature would soon have reclaimed all her rights” (Émile, 46; translation modified). The “all” tips the reformer’s hand: Rousseau has in mind the wholesale restoration of a nature not only prior to culture, but also after it. Fully reproductive, the nature that has “reclaimed all her rights” will have left culture and its props behind.

At the same time, though, Rousseau makes his Émile the purveyor of a system of acculturation continuous with nature as origin and end. Addressed to mothers, the treatise proposes an educational method based on mother love—and this even though remarkably “Émile is an orphan” (52). Therefore, no dead language, no scholastic abstraction—nothing like Joyce’s “Amor matris: subjective and objective genitive”—can come between the pupil and his teacher, who “inherit[s] all [parental] rights” (52). This twist—that an orphan models the ideal reception of teaching as naturalized mother love—already complicates the philosopher’s claims about breastfeeding.[37] But these complications do not trouble Rousseau, determined as he is to re-imagine education as liberation.[38] “All our practices are only subjection, impediment, and constraint,” he laments of actually existing schools. These cannot but lead to “sad and sterile childhood[s]” (Émile, 42, 112). For this reason, Émile does away with the cultural baggage in which “Oxen” revels: reverse translations, anthologies, pensums. Instead, the treatise thoroughly integrates the nursery, the schoolroom, and the natural world, in the interest of fertilizing there where the old school sterilizes.

The Rousseauist legacy persisted  in Joyce’s day, with biology supplanting nature as a gauge of the good in right-thinking educational theories as well as in theories of purity and population.[39] Dewey’s Democracy and Education vividly attests to nature’s replacement by biology in the discourse of educational reform. First published in 1916, the year of Portrait’s release, Dewey’s text responds critically to Rousseau but seeks, like Émile, to refute theories that define “education as recapitulation and retrospection,” as repetition and recall, as imitation.[40] Dewey argues that these theories rely on a faulty understanding of evolution: far from necessitating the “retraversal” of stages previously surpassed in phylogeny, individual development according to Dewey in fact benefits from increasingly “short-circuited growth,” which streamlines ontogeny. For Dewey, progressive education takes its cue precisely from such streamlining; this makes it possible to eliminate unnecessary “retraversing,” whereas conservative educational models deliberately retain such tendencies. Dewey thinks that these lead to wasteful expenditures of energy—recall Ackerley’s “fagging, detentions, lines, and small senseless demands that so intrude upon time”—for students whose growth is thereby stunted.

Dewey’s appeal to embryonic development in this context is especially instructive when it is read alongside “Oxen”’s rendition of the same process. Here is Dewey:

Embryonic growth of the human infant preserves, without doubt, some of the traits of lower forms of life. But in no respect is it a strict traversing of past stages. If there were any strict ‘law’ of repetition, evolutionary development would clearly not have taken place. Each new generation would simply have repeated its predecessors’ existence. Development, in short, has taken place by the entrance of short-cuts and alterations in the prior scheme of growth. And this suggests that the aim of education is to facilitate such short-circuited growth. The great advantage of immaturity, educationally speaking, is that it enables us to emancipate the young from the need of dwelling in an outgrown past. The business of education is rather to liberate the young from reviving and retraversing the past than to lead them to a recapitulation of it. . . . A biologist has said: “The history of development in different animals. . . . offers to us. . . . a serious of ingenious, determined, varied but more or less unsuccessful efforts to escape from the necessity of recapitulating and to substitute for the ancestral method a more direct method.” Surely it would be foolish if education did not deliberately attempt to facilitate similar efforts in conscious experience so that they become increasingly successful. (Democracy and Education, 79)

By a barely detectable sleight of hand, the philosopher concludes this passage by outbidding the evolutionary biology to which he appeals. “A biologist has said,” Dewey admits, that animal development bears witness to many “‘more or less unsuccessful efforts to escape,’” to go without recapitulation after having outgrown it. But the stress here, in the sentence Dewey quotes, falls on failure, not success. This is where progressive education, defined as emancipation, comes in: sponsoring “short-circuited growth,” such education looks to biology for inspiration, but it parts ways with natural science at a crucial juncture, for it spares students the labor of recapitulation, of repetition. In this way, it succeeds where evolution falls short.[41] The growing student’s efforts are “similar” to those of the developing animal, but “increasingly successful” and so less beholden to the repetitive rhythms of animal life. Progressive education thus improves even on embryonic growth.

Ease, moreover, marks the passage from the old school to the new. Dewey does not go so far as to suggest that progressive education will liberate students from work as well as from “reviving and retraversing the past.” But he clearly implies that a heavy burden is lifted when the latter processes go the way of ancestral methods. Meaning now accrues to the education thus streamlined, which becomes power-enhancing rather than pensum-like, intrinsically rewarding rather than a long series of imposed chores: “We thus reach a technical definition of education: It is that reconstruction or reorganization of experience which adds to the meaning of experience, and which increases the ability to direct the course of subsequent experience” (83).

If “Oxen” indeed seems to create “short-cuts and alterations in the prior scheme of growth” of English prose as it condenses whole epochs into mere paragraphs, these paragraphs are anything but facile. Laborious and long, they are instead modeled on a set of scholastic chores, on the copying-out of past styles liable to be felt as impositions, hindering rather than helping the reader to advance. In order to advance at all, this reader must be willing to go without—to lose, rather than gain in, meaning—as Bersani complains. But if we recognize that what Bersani calls “the work of writing” and “experience of reading” alike in “Oxen” return to the old school’s rituals—which, as rituals, privilege practice over signification—then it becomes possible to reassess the Joycean text, which programmatically puts us through motions without positing, as does Dewey, that a surplus of meaning will result (“Against Ulysses,” 172).[42] 

Indeed, “Oxen” creates—and satirically exaggerates—tension between the terms that progressive education works to reconcile. Joyce belabors the seam that Rousseau, Dewey, and Gentile will away in their effort seamlessly to integrate language and sense, transmission and reproduction, culture and biology. “Oxen” instead insists on the divide between these terms. This divide, Joyce suggests, is insuperable but not, for all that, static or sterile. After all, it generates the text of “Oxen” itself, born from the relation-in-distinction, the contact and collision between the labor-intensive maternity ward and what Bloom calls the “seminar[y] of . . . frivolity” (Joyce, Ulysses, 334).

This remains a “relation-in-distinction” because although “Oxen” avoids the agonizing scene of birth—although, again, we only hear about Mina Purefoy’s labor secondhand—this labor is transposed as Joyce sets himself and his reader to work, often agonizingly. Against progressive education’s tendency to foreclose labor, to make education a matter of freedom and facilitation, “Oxen” makes labor central and even indispensable to the experience of reading. Joyce thus implies that if reproduction and education, maternity and imposed scholastic exercise, share anything, it is their status as an “ordeal of . . . duress” (333). This is not to suggest that the two kinds of labor, maternal and textual, are the same. On the contrary, the “reproductitive” is precisely not coextensive with the reproductive. But both are laborious. Rendering the instruction that is an ordeal, Joyce denies the Deweyan and Rousseauist claim that hard labor in education is both obsolete and avoidable. To do this, though, he needs a language not comprised of “household word[s]” (331).

Manner of Oxenford

At a key moment in “Oxen,” Joyce invites readers to see the absurdity that marks attempts to deny the divide between education and reproduction. During a discussion of infant mortality’s causes and possible cures, the ever-campy Buck Mulligan proposes to redecorate the “puerperal dormitory” so thoroughly as to make it into a school centered on “Kalipedia,” or the study of beauty:

Kalipedia, he prophesied, would soon be generally adopted and all the graces of life, genuinely good music, agreeable literature, light philosophy, instructive pictures, plastercast reproductions of the classical statues such as Venus and Apollo, artistic coloured photographs of prize babies, all these little attentions would enable ladies who were in a particular condition to
pass the intervening months in a most enjoyable manner. (342)

The model for this new school would seem to be classical, or at least in keeping with a received understanding of Paterian classicism. But the style being imitated here is that of the Darwinian Thomas Henry Huxley, and Mulligan presents his vision of a future academy as the antidote to an unhealthy and under-reproductive modernity. Forward-thinking, not really backward-looking, “Kalipedia” serves to remedy an age in need of airing out. Before his prophecy, Mulligan blames infant death and the deterioration of Irish stock on “the sanitary conditions” that result from the inhalation of “the bacteria which lurk in dust”:

These factors, he alleged, and the revolting spectacles offered by our streets, hideous publicity posters, religious ministers of all denominations, mutilated soldiers and sailors, exposed scorbutic cardrivers, the suspended carcases of dead animals, paranoic bachelors and unfructified duennas – these, he said, were accountable for any and every fallingoff in the calibre of the race. (341-42)

Mulligan thus gives voice to a view that renders classicism and progress compatible, calling for revival without recapitulation, optimization of “the race” rather than repetitive traffic with the dead and “suspended.” He is a queer character, to be sure, but one evidently co-opted at this point into reproductive futurism. Queerness comes to reside elsewhere—in the old school—as the detritus of progressive discourses like Dewey’s reappears in Mulligan’s sanitizing speech, instructively. For to clear away this detritus in order to create the conditions under which “prize babies” may become models—to do this, as Mulligan proposes, is to dictate “increasingly successful” fructification, freed from the ways of “the lower forms of life” (Democracy and Education, 79).

Since these are the ways that Ulysses itself has followed at least since Bloom’s first appearance together with his cat and beloved “beasts and fowls,” this moment in “Oxen” constitutes a joke at Mulligan’s expense (Joyce, Ulysses, 45). “A onelegged sailor” appears in “Wandering Rocks,” prompting Father Conmee to think, “but not for long, of soldiers and sailors whose legs had been shot off by cannonballs” (180). The butcher shop in the earlier “Lestrygonians” is, of course, full of “the suspended carcases of dead animals,” which themselves recall “the bloated carcass of a dog” that appears briefly in “Proteus” (37). Stephen, as that early episode attests, is himself a “paranoic bachelor,” and we gather in “Nausicaa” that the limping Gerty MacDowell may go on to become an “unfructified duenna” by choice. All of the “factors” that Mulligan blames for “fallingsoff” and that “Kalipedia” therefore pretends to leave behind have thus figured elsewhere in the novel, whose earlier episodes Mulligan recapitulates—ironically, given his call for an education-during-reproduction that would do away with redundancy. This is also a call for the streamlining of education along Deweyan lines: its integration with reproduction and subsumption by evolution defined as advance, a progressive process that outbids even the evolution “desiderated by the late ingenious Mr Darwin” (333). In this sense, Mulligan’s prophecy for “Kalipedia” remains consistent with his own earlier “project”: “to set up a national fertilising farm” (329). The farm and the school alike maximize fertility. Both places make procreation into progress, into the adaptive and efficient “short-circuited growth” that Dewey celebrates. 

Technologies of cultural, rather than biological, reproduction also appear in Mulligan’s fantasy hospital cum school, where “prize babies” are shown in “artistic coloured photographs,” and Venus and Apollo appear as “plastercast reproductions.” As in the “light philosophy” to be assigned, the past is rendered weightless in Mulligan’s ideal maternal world, where everything has been translated into commercialese, becoming graceful, “genuinely good,” “agreeable,” “light,” “most enjoyable.” This is education as facilitation indeed: even while mothers-to-be become students in Mulligan’s vision, they are spared the scholarly labors that Joyce’s readers undergo, to say nothing of Joyce’s own “labours of pedagogy” (341). Labor has given way to ease for this lying-in under “Kalipedia,” during which history repeats itself only as Muzak.

Mulligan, then, has awoken from Stephen’s nightmare, and the future he beholds in “Oxen” is all sweetness and light. We have seen, by contrast, that, despite its humor, “Oxen” puts up punishing resistance palpable as weight. Indeed, the language of weight recurs in critical responses to the episode. Christopher Ames, for instance, recasts Edmund Wilson’s charge of “dead weight” as praise, and writes that in “Oxen” Joyce develops “strategies for transforming the oppressive weight of literary tradition into a creative source” (“Modernist Canon,” 391).[43] John Gordon writes of “Oxen” as “onerous” and Robert Spoo, for his part, thinks of the episode’s styles as exerting “pressure” (“Obeying the Boss,” 249; “The Language,” 147). Spoo also notes that etymologically “nightmare” has “‘the sense of . . . crushing weight on the breast.’” Joyce’s critics have tended to suggest that Ulysses ultimately sheds this weight, and have seen “Oxen” as the place in the novel where the burden of the past is both acknowledged and, progressively, cast off, with Joyce “registering the laughter of minds freeing themselves from historical bondage” (Gibson, “An Irish Bull,” 169). But this optimistic account forgets the abiding nightmarishness of the Joycean text: a nighmarishness that, in “Oxen,” takes the form of stylistic and scholastic encumbrance.[44]

Pointedly, Joyce uses such dead weight to narrate a scene of birth, thus underscoring the contrast between Mulligan’s ideal, classicizing academy for “Kalipedia,” and the old-school “seminar[y]” that is “Oxen” (Ulysses, 334). Whereas the former does away with dust, “dead animals,” and all that it opposes to optimal fertility, “Oxen,” like “Hades,” lets such miscellaneous dead, ugly, and futile matter in, circulating cultural and material waste while also activating less-than-optimal affects like boredom and frustration. And the contrast between “Oxen”’s old and Mulligan’s new school is further consolidated when Joyce reaches the era of aestheticism in the chronology of his episode’s prose styles. For precisely where we might expect a further send-up of Mulligan’s preciosity—in Joyce’s pastiche of Pater—we get another scene altogether instead: a “‘Nativity’ scene” less reproductive than “reproductitive.”[45]

Here Bloom recognizes Stephen, whom he had seen years before, when Stephen was still a boy, accompanied by his mother. Recognition then gives way to a recollection rendered in vintage Paterisms (Joyce, Ulysses, 344). The pastiche is as appreciative as it is irreverent, as docile as it is defiant. On the one hand, it brings out the laughable affectation always latent in Pater’s mannerisms, heightening the pathos in his pathetic fallacies, as when the narrator points “yonder about that grey urn where the water moves at times in thoughtful irrigation” (344). But on the other hand, Joyce evinces a tolerance of and even a tenderness for Pater’s stylistic tics: his arch hesitations and hedges; his archaisms, over the top though these may be; the grating of words derived from Anglo-Saxon against longer, Latinate ones, as recommended in Pater’s own “Style.”[46] And that Joyce’s appreciation results from painstaking study is shown by the passages that he copied out from Pater in one of his Trieste notebooks.[47] Here Joyce transcribed a series of passages from Pater’s Marius the Epicurean and the stories collected in Imaginary Portraits. The transcriptions date from 1919 and 1920, years that included the composition of “Oxen,” and they are surprisingly scrupulous.

These transcriptions show that although Joyce pokes fun at Pater, he has taken time and pains to learn his style intimately so as to imitate it. And the resulting pastiche underscores the contrast between Mulligan’s aestheticist paradise, his school-sanitarium, and the very different version of aestheticism that Joyce’s narrator reprises as he picks up on Pater’s commitment to the “combining forces of life and death” (Marius, 209). Far from being all sweetness and light, like Mulligan’s Kalipedia, Pater’s prose makes room for “weak people”; for “misshapen features”; for “the dwindled body” of a king’s corpse (Imaginary, 67; Marius, 282; Imaginary, 69). Indeed, in Joyce’s Pater, sovereigns and subjects alike keep being brought down, or falling off. In Marius, for instance, a plague descends on Rome, and wolves, “led by the carrion scent,” devour the bodies claimed by disease (Marius, 153). These are precisely the kinds of sights, scents, and descents banished from the republic of “Kalipedia.”[48] Mulligan’s “most enjoyable manner” of educating mothers thus contrasts markedly with Pater’s mannerism, and the latter, surprisingly, turns out to be truer to the life that includes death, the life that interests both Bloom and Stephen.

This makes their encounter under the sign of Pater overdetermined rather than arbitrary. The Paterian context of their reunion not only highlights the preoccupation with death and decay that Stephen and Bloom share; it also inscribes recapitulation into the novel’s central relationship. For just as Stephen’s frown in the narrative present repeats his expression from his childish past, so Joyce’s rendering of the past’s return is the product of his going back over Pater. Pace Dewey, then, neither Joyce’s characters nor his readers have been freed from “retraversing” “the outgrown past.”

To be sure, all of the styles of “Oxen” embody obsolesced pasts not left behind. But the past that Pater embodies is, elsewhere in Ulysses, expressly associated with pedagogy, and with a particular old school. Bloom’s encounter with Stephen in the Holles Street Maternity Hospital follows two previous missed connections: one in the newspaper office in “Aeolus” and another at the National Library in “Scylla and Charybdis.” In the latter episode, Mulligan sees Bloom and thinks that he is heavily cruising Stephen: “He looked upon you to lust after you. . . . O, Kinch, thou art in peril. Get thee a breechpad. // Manner of Oxenford” (Joyce, Ulysses, 179). That last phrase looks forward to “Oxen,” but it also refers to a whole late Victorian proto-gay subculture, in which Pater figured prominently.[49] The appearance of Pater’s manner in “Oxen” thus constitutes a reappearance in this sense as well: Pater turns “Oxen” into “Oxenford.”

Before “Oxen,” Stephen has been told to cover his ass when Bloom’s around, but it is in fact his face that attracts Bloom’s attention and awakens his memory. Still, the Oxonian possibility first proposed by Mulligan never fully goes away. Neither do the props and “remains” that Pater multiplies in the encumbered descriptions that Joyce copies out, then recapitulates (Imaginary, 69). These Paterian passages “copied out big” register the history whose weight cannot simply be shed: the past at once evolutionary and imperial, linguistic and political, that progressive education would have us bypass and thus deny, free us from “retraversing,” exempt us from copying out (Joyce, Ulysses, 328).[50] Far from liberating us from all that the discourse of progressive education would have us leave behind, Joycean instruction keeps us in surprisingly close touch with what Dewey calls “the lower forms of life.” In “Oxen,” at Oxenford, these forms include not only Homeric oxen, but also Paterian “queerities” (Ulysses, 325). Joyce looks to these “queerities,” in fact, to counter “Kalipedia,” with its sublimations and fructifying stipulations. And it is this affirmation of queerness—or of the queerness of instruction’s very negativity—that distinguishes Joyce’s approach in “Oxen” and Ulysses from, say, T. S. Eliot’s modernist classicism. It is not, then, to be clear, the old school as such that Joyce seeks to affirm. It is instead a particular, queer version of this school, one associated with though not at all exclusive to Pater, whose potential he recognizes and whose queerness “Oxen” lets us see instructively.

Gathering those who are not strictly reproductive, “Oxen” is also queer if by “queer” we mean, with Edelman, at odds with identity. For here copying out becomes a way of changing, not remaining the same. Joyce thus lets us complicate Edelman’s recent definition of education as “compulsory reproduction” (“Learning Nothing,” 129). Although “Oxen” toys with compulsion and traffics in both reproductive themes and repetitive forms, what results is not the kind of “[g]ood education” that Edelman has in mind (129). What results is not, that is, in this article’s terms, the kind of education that progressive reformers from Rousseau to Dewey advocate and align consistently with reproduction. Counter-progressive and “reproductitive,” “Oxen” instead delivers something closer to instruction in Gentile’s sense. Such instruction is already “bad education,” not least because it makes identification (without identity) into a matter of endless alteration through imitation—an imitation that, for Joyce, is unavoidably laborious.[51]

Whereas the progressive school enjoins us to be ourselves and only ourselves—just as Émile is “entirely for himself”—the old school re-imagined in “Oxen” makes alternatives available, perhaps against all odds (Émile, 39). Requiring the “retraversing” of the past that progressive education forswears but that “Oxen” enforces, like the “direct instruction” that is its model, Joycean instruction also requires the self “to traverse not itself” (Ulysses, 412). This much Rousseau already knew: “The foundation of imitation among us comes from the desire always to be transported out of ourselves. If I succeed in my enterprise, Emile surely will not have this desire. We must, therefore, give up the apparent good which imitation can produce” (Émile, 104). But what if this desire were intractable? What if imitation were prior to, even constitutive of, desire? Then the student could no longer be “entirely for himself.” He could no longer stand alone. Instead, like the “underbred” Joyce requiring his exegetes, or Ulysses leaning on its schemas, or the reader of “Oxen,” an anti-Émile, endlessly consulting source-texts and commentaries without ever understanding clearly, he would remain dependent.[52] To the last, when it came to progress, he would remain behind.


[1] James Joyce, Ulysses: The Corrected Text, ed. Hans Walter Gabler et al. (New York: Vintage, 1986), 562.

[2] In his early essay “Drama and Life” (1900), Joyce rejects the claim “that the drama should have special ethical aims, . . . that it should instruct, elevate, and amuse.” James Joyce, “Drama and Life,” in Occasional, Critical, and Political Writing, ed. Kevin Barry (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 23–29, 26.

[3] Giovanni Gentile, La riforma dell’educazione: Discorsi ai maestri di Trieste (Bari: Laterza, 1920), 186. All translations of Gentile are my own.

[4] Penelope Deutscher, Foucault’s Futures: A Critique of Reproductive Reason (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 44; Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 30.

[5] Lee Edelman, “Learning Nothing: Bad Education,” differences 28, no. 1 (2017): 124–73; 129.

[6] This assertion may at first seem jarring and implausible, but the “irony” of the fascist philosopher’s promotion of progressive educational ideals has not gone unnoticed by educational historians. Madan Sarup, for instance, writes: “It is an interesting irony that the reforms, though carried out by a fascist government, tended towards the ‘liberalization’ of education. Accounts of the principles underlying [Gentile’s] reforms read like summaries of progressive educational theory, what we would now call ‘child-centered’ ideas.” “Education and Social Change: The Work of Gramsci,” in Marxism/Structuralism/Education: Theoretical Developments in the Sociology of Education (New York: Routledge, 1983), 129–44, 133. See also Eden K. McLean, Mussolini’s Children: Race and Elementary Education in Fascist Italy (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018), 27.

[7] I build on recent works that likewise challenge this critical tendency, including Jennifer Scappettone, Killing the Moonlight: Modernism in Venice (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), which shows that “the residual Venetian forms that appear to constitute hindrances to both modernization and high-modernist invention become the materials of experimental salvage” in a range of Anglo-American and Italian modernist works (41). See also Barry McCrea, Languages of the Night: Minor Languages and the Literary Imagination in Twentieth-Century Ireland and Europe (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015) and Louise Hornby, Still Modernism: Photography, Literature, Film (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[8] For Marinetti’s affirmation of the futurist “love of progress, of freedom,” see F. T. Marinetti, Democrazia futurista: Dinamismo politico (Milan: Facchi, 1919), 211. For another characterization of the “dominant critical model in modernist studies” as in keeping with “Futurism’s dictates,” and for a critique of this tendency in the field, see Hornby, Still Modernism, 8–9. The definitions of “progressive pedagogy” and “progressive education” are contested. Here I define these terms broadly and consider diverse educational theories and practices “progressive.” I do this not to elide the differences between, say, Rousseau, Gentile, and Dewey. My aim is instead to draw attention to the premises, priorities, and polemical targets that their various approaches share. All present themselves, for instance, as modernizing and humanizing alternatives to an old school whose methods are characterized as mechanical, rote, repetitive, uncreative, constraining, and deadening. Frances Ferguson’s account of early progressive educational theory identifies several other key continuities. This education, Ferguson writes, “presented itself as a staged progress for the individual but also for knowledge in general. It continually limned education as an initiation into the process of extending knowledge past what it had been; and, in the process, it created generations as forceful entities that would not so much carry the knowledge of their predecessors but would render it obsolete.” See “The Sublime and Education: Educational Rationalization/Sublime Reason,” Romantic Circles, Praxis Series, August, 2010. Ferguson’s last point especially informs my treatment of progressive education in what follows.

[9] For a sense of the reach of Gentile’s text, see Donald T. Torchiana, “‘Among School Children’ and the Education of the Irish Spirit,” in In Excited Reverie: A Centenary Tribute to William Butler Yeats, ed. A. Norman Jeffares and K. G. W. Cross (London: Macmillan, 1965), 123–50. Torchiana discusses Yeats’s admiration for Gentile and his support for Irish attempts to imitate Gentilean reforms. Yeats relied on an English translation of La riforma whose publication postdates Ulysses, but in Trieste Joyce would have enjoyed earlier and less mediated access to Gentile’s published lectures and the debates in which they participated (132). On Joyce’s language teaching, see Elizabeth Switaj, James Joyce’s Teaching Life and Methods: Language and Pedagogy in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake (New York: Palgrave, 2016).

[10] For an opposing reading of the novel, one that stresses not Ulysses’s difficulty but its accessibility and even appeal to ordinary readers precisely, see Declan Kiberd, Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece (New York: Norton, 2009).

[11] James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ed. Jeri Johnson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 75.

[12] Barry McCrea, In the Company of Strangers: Family and Narrative in Dickens, Conan Doyle, Joyce, and Proust (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 113.

[13] OED, s.v. “catechism.”

[14] Switaj offers a reading of what she calls “The Pedagogical Ulysses” along these lines. See James Joyce’s Teaching Life and Methods, 75–113.

[15] For a critique of queer repudiations of kinship, see Elizabeth A. Povinelli, The Empire of Love: Toward a Theory of Intimacy, Genealogy, and Carnality (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).

[16] Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 475.

[17] Leo Bersani, “Against Ulysses,” in The Culture of Redemption (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 155–78, 169, 172.

[18] See, for instance, Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, Arts of Impoverishment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).

[19] In James Joyce’s Teaching Life and Methods, Switaj notes that in his language teaching Joyce eschewed “the focus on grammar and translation” that characterized more traditional approaches  (16). “Joyce’s rejection of grammar-translation methods,” Switaj concludes, “suggests a judgment on the methods of most of his teachers that is borne out in the often unflattering depictions of learning and teaching in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (17). But “Oxen,” whose first paragraphs require translation, compels us to recognize that Joyce’s response to “the methods of his teachers” was considerably more dialectical than Switaj here suggests.

[20] Philip Kerr, “Reverse Translation,” in Translation and Own-Language Activities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 75. In “Hermeneutics of Suspicion: Nativism, Nationalism, and the Language Question in ‘Oxen of the Sun,’” James Joyce Quarterly 25, no. 2/3 (1998): 349–71, Mary C. King cites a remarkable account of “how the repression of the Irish language and continuation of education through illegal hedge schools ‘led to the curious situation where a landlord would address a tenant in English, only to be answered in Greek or Latin’” (369n9). King contends that Latin therefore “became . . . a substitute mediated or displaced ‘mother’ tongue”—where the substitutions, mediations, displacements, and quotation marks seem to make the mother tongue into something else altogether (353). Indeed, Joyce’s Latin is everywhere associated with church and school, marked as institutional rather than familial from the first and therefore distinct from the mother tongue. “Oxen” at once heightens and undoes this distinction by reverting to Latin in the context of the maternity ward. On why such a distinction cannot be hard and fast, see Barbara Johnson’s account of the mother as teacher and the mother tongue as “acquired speech” in A Portrait’s sense (159). Barbara Johnson, “The Poet’s Mother,” in Mother Tongues: Sexuality, Trials, Motherhood, Translation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 65–93, especially 66.

[21] William Peacock, Preface to English Prose from Mandeville to Ruskin, ed. William Peacock (London: Grant Richards, 1903), v.

[22] Andrew Lang, Preface to An Anthology of English Prose (1332 to 1740), ed. Annie Barnett and Lucy Dale (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1912), vii.

[23] Humbler, but not without immodest pretentions. Robert Spoo notes that despite their apparent innocuousness, literary compilations like those on which Joyce relied were in fact technologies of progressive history. See “The Language of Literary History: ‘Oxen of the Sun,’ ‘Circe,’ and Beyond,” in James Joyce and the Language of History: Dedalus’s Nightmare (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 135–62, 138. Andrew Gibson similarly calls Peacock’s selections “nationalistic, militaristic, enthusiastically royalist, class-based, and antidemocratic,” in “An Irish Bull in an English China Shop: ‘Oxen of the Sun,’” in Joyce’s Revenge: History, Politics, and Aesthetics in Ulysses (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 150–82, 175–76.

[24] See also, on “Oxen” as “anti-textbook,” Christopher Ames, “The Modernist Canon Narrative: Woolf’s Between the Acts and Joyce’s ‘Oxen of the Sun,’” Twentieth Century Literature 37, no. 4 (1991): 390–404; and as “anti-anthology,” Gibson, “An Irish Bull,” 173, 182.

[25] See, on sexuality and reproduction, Richard Brown, “Copulation without Population,” James Joyce and Sexuality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 63–78; and Mary Lowe-Evans, Crimes Against Fecundity: James Joyce and Population Control (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1989); and, on history, see Gibson, “An Irish Bull,” and Spoo, “The Language of Literary History.” Recent queer readings like McCrea’s in In the Company of Strangers and David Kurnick’s, in “Joyce Unperformed,” in Empty Houses: Theatrical Failure and the Novel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 183–91, have tended to avoid the episode, perhaps owing to its apparent focus on reproductive, rather than queer, forms of sexuality. The essays collected in Joseph Valente, ed., Quare Joyce (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2000) mention “Oxen” only in passing.

[26] Hugh Kenner, Joyce’s Voices (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 91.

[27] Quoted in Maud Ellmann, “Ulysses: Changing into an Animal,” Field Day Review 2 (2006): 74 – 93, 79.

[28] On “Circe” as utopian telos and place of polymorphous perversion, see Kurnick, “Joyce Unperformed.”

[29] The word “pensum” appears once in Ulysses, when, in “Circe,” Bloom sees in passing “youthful scholars grappling with their pensums” (377). See also Samuel Beckett, Molloy, in Samuel Beckett: The Grove Centenary Edition, Vol. 2: Novels (New York: Grove Press, 2006), 1–170, 27, where “the remnants of a pensum one day got by heart and long forgotten” figure the narrator’s predicament.

[30] But that the punishment is also a privilege is what Virginia Woolf suggests in Jacob’s Room (1922). Here is “Miss Julia Hedge, the feminist,” who looks at Jacob across the library table: “When her books came she applied herself to her gigantic labours, but perceived . . .  how composedly, unconcernedly, and with every consideration the male readers applied themselves to theirs. That young man for example. What had he got to do except copy out poetry? And she must study statistics”; in Jacob’s Room, ed. Sue Roe (London: Penguin, 1992), 91–92.

[31] C. J. Ackerley, Demented Particulars: The Annotated Murphy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 114.

[32] Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary: Provincial Ways, trans. Lydia Davis (New York: Viking, 2010), 5.

[33] OED, s.v. “frequentative.” The word “frequentative” also appears in Ulysses (554).

[34] On the supplement, see Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997),144–45. For a reading of the episode that instead affirms the reproductive, and finds in “Oxen” “the triumph” of “paternal values” and a celebration of “successful fertilization,” see John Gordon, “Obeying the Boss in ‘Oxen of the Sun,’” ELH 58.1 (1991): 233–59, 244, 249.

[35] J. E. Stone names Rousseau and Dewey as key proponents of developmentalism, which for Stone “refers to a broad doctrine that presumes ‘natural’ ontogenesis to be optimal,” in “Developmentalism: An Obscure but Pervasive Restriction on Educational Improvement,” Education Policy Analysis Archives 4, no. 8 (1996): 1–30, 5. For another treatment of the relationship between Rousseau and Dewey, more attentive to the differences than to the similarities between the two thinkers’ views, see William J. Reese, “The Origins of Progressive Education,” History of Education Quarterly 41, no. 1 (2001): 1–24.

[36] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile, or On Education, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1979), 46.

[37] Incidentally, it also lands him in gender trouble (Émile, 37–38). By contrast, Joyce lays stress on a certain “manful[ness]” required to give birth in the first place (Ulysses, 343). Here “manfully” undermines, even while it underscores, the woman’s relegation to the status of helpmeet or afterthought. Compare the “modicum of man’s work” mentioned elsewhere in the episode (345).

[38] But see Émile, 120. For a study of the contradictions that this imaginative effort entails, see Diane Berrett Brown, “The Constraints of Liberty at the Scene of Instruction,” in Rousseau and Freedom, ed. Christie McDonald and Stanley Hoffmann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 159–73.

[39] On the processes by which reproduction was both “sexualized and biologized,” see Alys Eve Weinbaum, Wayward Reproductions: Genealogies of Race and Nation in Transatlantic Modern Thought (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 2.

[40] John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (1916, rpt. Dehli: Aakar, 2004), 78. For Rousseau’s critique of imitation and recall, see Book II in Émile, especially 104–13.

[41] But on the key place of “recapitulation theory” in the formation of progressive educational ideals, see Thomas D. Fallace, Race and the Origins of Progressive Education, 1880-1929 (New York: Teachers College Press, 2015).

[42] On ritual in this sense, see Talal Asad, “Toward a Genealogy of the Concept of Ritual,” in Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 55–79.

[43] Edmund Wilson, “James Joyce,” in Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870–1930 (New York: Norton, 1931), 216–17.

[44] On this nightmarishness, see, for instance, David Lloyd, “The Medieval Still: Postcolonial Temporalities in Joyce,” in Irish Times: Temporalities of Modernity (Dublin: Field Day, 2008), 73–100, 94; Roberto Harari, How James Joyce Made His Name, trans. Luke Thurston (New York: Other Press, 2002), 276–77; and James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village,” Notes of a Native Son (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1984), 159–75, 162–63.

[45] Harry Blamires, The New Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through Ulysses, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge 1996), 126; Gordon, “Obeying the Boss,” 242.

[46] Walter Pater, “Style,” in Appreciations, with an Essay on Style (London: Macmillan, 1901), 5–38.

[47] James Joyce, Trieste Notebook, James Joyce Collection, MS VIII.B.4v-7r, State University of New York, University at Buffalo Libraries. Further citations from these transcriptions are given by page numbers in the source texts: Walter Pater, Imaginary Portraits (London: Macmillan, 1910), and Marius the Epicurean, ed. Michael Levey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).. To my knowledge, Joyce’s transcriptions of Pater have not been analyzed in previous studies of “Oxen” and its sources. For an overview of these sources, see, Robert Janusko, The Sources and Structures of James Joyce’s “Oxen” (Epping, UK: Bowker, 1983).

[48] See Leela Gandhi, The Common Cause: Postcolonial Ethics and the Practice of Democracy, 1900–1955 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2014), especially Chapter 2, “On Descent: Stories from the Gurus of Modern India,” 55–92.

[49] On this subculture, see Linda Dowling, Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994); on Pater’s place in it, see especially chapter 3, “The Socratic Eros,” 67–103. 

[50] The phrase “copied out big” appears in an especially dense passage late in “Oxen” that I cannot discuss in detail here. In this passage, one “lord Harry,” hoping to learn Latin, “bought a grammar of the bull’s language, . . . but he could never learn a word of it except the first personal pronoun which he copied out big and got off by heart” (328). I have focused on the copying out rather than the getting off, but the latter technique—recitation—is equally important to Joyce’s ongoing engagement with instruction. Whereas Rousseau stipulates that Émile should “never learn anything by heart,” phrases learned by heart and lines recited recur in Joyce’s work starting with Dubliners, ed. Jeri Johnson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), e.g. 6, 16–17, 54, 103–05, 141, and (Émile, 112). See also Stephen’s listening in on adult conversations in A Portrait: “Words which he did not understand he said over and over to himself till he had learned them by heart: and through them he had glimpses of the real world about him” (43).

[51] On identification in this sense, see Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, The Freudian Subject, trans. Catherine Porter (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988). Lacanian accounts might characterize Joyce’s procedure as a matter of symbolic constraint rather than identification, which is more often associated with the imaginary. On symbolic constraint, see Tracy McNulty, Wrestling with the Angel: Experiments in Symbolic Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

[52] On Joyce as “underbred,” see Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary, Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. Leonard Woolf (New York: Harcourt, 1954), 48. On consulting source-texts and commentaries, compare Jean-Michel Rabaté’s claim that Joyce’s pedagogy aims at the creation of a collective readership and an “expanding archive,” in James Joyce and the Politics of Egoism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 196. For a counter-argument that finds in Joyce confirmation of the value of being self-taught, see Patrick McGee, “Joyce’s Pedagogy: Ulysses and Finnegans Wake,” in Coping with Joyce: Essays from the Copenhagen Symposium, ed. Morris Beja and Shari Benstock (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1989), 206–19.