A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) [Definitive Text; Cape Edn. 1968; rep. 1991]: some extracts & remarks

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- There are two sides to it; By thinking about things you could understand them; every boy had a different way of walking. [14]


 Stephen discovers early - what every child learns in practice and every adult knows in potential - that reality is not resolvable to a single rule, a single method and a sinlge existence in spite of the urgings of his own egoism and the ethical and doctrinal instruction of parents and teachers. The fullest implications of this idea are to be found in drama and the novel, where the essential separateness of individuals (their “otherness”) is chaptered by the very form of dialogic discourse. The stylistic method of A Portrait is a logical extension of this, applying “otherness” and difference to the phases in the development of the individual himself.

- She too wants me to catch hold of her, he thought. That’s why she came with me to the tram. I could easily catch hold of her when she comes up to my step: nobody is looking. I could easily catch hold of her and kiss her. / But he did neither: and when he was sitting alone in the deserted tram he tore his ticket into shreds and stared gloomily at the corrugated footboard. [78-9; cf., SH65]


 In these sentences Joyce captures one of the peculiar mortifications of adolescent (and perhaps) all life between the genders; the moment of shaming failure that arises because the barrier of good behaviour has not been breeched in response to instinctual desire. The episode, an undramatic, internal yet vital moment of realisation, is one of those which Joyce transferred directly from the fraft novel Stephen Hero. It explores the idea of “otherness” in a new and stressful context: that of sexual attraction. In it, the adolescent boy discovers the intuition that the other has desires corresponding to his own but which, because of his own timidity, he is unable to treat as the basis of action.

- The terror of sleep fascinated his mind as he watched the silent country or heard from time to time his father’s deep breathing or sudden sleepy movement. The neighbourhood of sleeping minds filled him with strange dread, as though they could harm him, and he prayed that day might come quickly. [99]


 Stephen has travelled to Cork with his father, who is selling off the remainder of his property and has met with his old cronies from the hey-day of his career as a young ‘buck’ and bon vivant. The adolescent is sensitive to the meaning of his father’s journey and begins to feel a separation from him in circumstances that make him look faintly pitiable. Deprived of the habitual protection of the paternal figure, he suddenly feels exposed to the fact of “otherness” in a peculiarly acute form - perhaps typical of train-travel - where it is not simply the existence of other minds, but their subsistence as separate worlds of consciousness locked in their own subconscious realities and unregarding of him or the external world. In this episode Joyce has broached the problem of subjectivism which would generate, in his writing, the ‘interior monologue’ of Ulysses and the dream-language of Finnegans Wake.

- Eve yielded to the wiles of the archtempter. She ate the apple and gave it to Adam who had not the moral courage to resist her. The poison tongue of Satan had done its work. They fell. [134]


 The priest who preaches at the Religious Retreat rehearses the familiar story of the Garden of Eden and, in so doing, suggests that the underlying problem of our existence is a simple ethical question of obedience and disobedience to the dictates of a patriarchal God. What is perhaps most remarkable about this episode is the large proportion of the novel that it occupies. The sermons may be exactly like those which Joyce heard at school but in fact he copied them from a pamphlet which he acquired at a book-stall in Rome which briefly working there an an uncongenial job as a translator in a bank.

 For Stephen, with some ‘mortal sins’ on his soul connected with the brothels of the city - in fact, Joyce did not discovered this form of indulgence until a couple of years later but it suited him to compound two periods in his novel - the sermons are sufficiently terrifying to force him to adopt a regime of extreme pity and self-mortification. But he is shortly to react against this as well, recognising that the whole conception of ‘soul’ as an abject principle susceptible to crime and punishment in the way described is base and unworthy, as well as being ugly and deficient in intellectual foundation. Instead of this, he will follow the path of many of his contemporaries (though not often in Ireland) in setting up art as his religion.

To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate out of life! [177]

Stephen’s interview with the Dean of Studies at Belvedere College, in which the Jesuit headmaster inquires whether he has felt a religious vocation and virtually offers him a place in the priesthood, serves as a turning-point in his development at which he choices the life of the free spirit and the artist over the ‘order of Melchisedec (i.e., the Biblical term for the rabbinical priesthood). He emerges from this interview with a sense that his trajectory through sin and salvation has been only to launch him into a deeper sense of the irreducible richness of life - a notion which implicitly aligns him with the ‘Non Serviam’ of fallen Satan rather than the authority of the Catholic hierarchy and the obedience that it requires of its faithful. At this juncture he attains a stage of awareness the human personality can only attain fulfilment through a rejection of rules and morality and by embracing experience in its essential freedom.

- His mind when wearied of its search for the essence of beauty amid the spectral words of Aristotle and Aquinas turned for its pleasure to the dainty songs of the Elizabethans. [200]


 Henceforth he embarks on an aesthetic (and more particularly, a literary) odyssey which ends with his becoming the “artist” of the title. He becomes fascinated with the lyrics of the Elizabethans which Joyce would so successfully imitate in the poems of Chamber Music (1907), his first published work. But he also begins private philosophical research in two authors whom his Jesuit educators dealt with in the course of their educational programme. The difference in Joyce’s interpretation of these classical figures - one the founder of analytic philosophy in ancient Greece and the other a medieval theologian who applied Aristotle’s theory to the Christian purposes of Christian doctrine (and was for centuries the accepted embodiment of Catholic philosophical orthodoxy) - is that he reads their sentences are explanations of the nature of ‘aesthetic perception’, a matter about which they cared very little. For Thomas Aquinas, beauty was a property of the Trinity, and that was what he meant when he wrote the sentence that Stephen quotes as follows: ad pulchritudinem tria requiruntur: integritas , consonantia, claritas. (Summa Theologica; note however that the original sentence was much longer; see infra.)

- He heard a confused music within him as of memories and names which he was almost conscious of but could not capture … and from each receding thrill of nebulous music there fell always one longdrawn calling note, piercing like a star the dusk of silence. Again! Again! Again! A voice from beyond the world was calling. [196]


 In a climactic episode set on Dollymount Strand (N. Dublin), Joyce stage-manages a form of baptism for Stephen Dedalus when he encounters a young woman paddling on the flat beach in mild summer air. It is a moment of sexual and aesthetic jubilation in which he greets ‘the fair courts of life’ in typically literary terms; but it is also an artful parody of the Baptism of Jesus at the River Jordan in the Gospels - the occasion on which the Holy Spirit descended over him and a voice was heard to say, ‘This is my Beloved Son in Whom I am well blessed.’

 It is that phrase, ‘a voice from beyond the world’, which most exactly imitates the narrative in the Gospel According to St. Matthew: ‘And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son [...]’ (Matt., 3,17.) Informed by this sense of his special mission, the young man advances through the neightened glry of the morning with a renewed certainty of his artistic mission:


- On and on and on he strode, crying to greet the life that had cried to him. [196]


 With a daring that borders on blasphemy, Joyce suggests that the artist is the redeemer of his world - co-opting the role of the religious Saviour. The idea has a good pedigree: Thomas Carlyle had compared prophets, messiahs and poets in his “Lectures on Heros and Hero-Worship”, given in 1840 and long admired As a young man, Joyce knew them well and constantly echoed phrases from them.

- What did it mean? … a hawklike man flying sunward above the sea, a prophecy of the end he had been born to serve and had been following through the mists of childhood … a symbol of the artist [192]


 The idea of “special election” in A Portrait is conveyed by means of ecstatic language mixed with definite echoes of the biblical narrative, others connected with the theology of transubstantiation and related ideas of resurrection and salvation. E.g., What were they now but cerements shaken from the body of death … the linen of the grave? [193]. More specifically, Stephen/Joyce sees himself as espousing what he calls ‘the priesthood of the eternal imagination’. Empowered by this, he will be capable of ‘forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being.’

 He would, in other words, perform the same office that the Catholic priest performs in relation to the Eucharist, except that he would do so in the context of aesthetic (and more precisely literary) creation. That Joyce himself was thinking in these pseudo-religious terms we know from the record in his brother’s diary which tells us that he spoke of transforming ‘the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own’ while a student in Dublin. (Stanislaus Joyce, My Brother’s Keeper, 1957, p.116.) 

 Since he is after all a Catholic boy from Dublin in the 1890s, he cannot help mixing his sense of spiritual exaltation with the doctrinal theory of the religion in his he has been raised (this, indeed, is the hallmark - and ultimately the limitation - of Stephen Dedalus’s aesthetic thinking)

- A world, a glimmer, or a flower? Glimmering and trembling, trembling and unfolding, a breaking light, an opening flower, it spread in endless succession to itself, braking in full crimson and unfolding and fading to palest rose, leaf by leaf and wave of light by wave of light, flooding all the heavens with its soft flushes, every flush deeper than other. [197]


 At the same time, Stephen - like Joyce - adheres to the heated lyrical rhythms and vocabulary that a generation of English “aesthetes” including famously Oscar Wilde had learned from the Oxford don Walter Pater in his epilogue to The Renaissance (1878), who had encouraged the young men in his circle to ‘burn with a hard, gemlike flame’. This was a philosophy which, like Joyce’s, filled the void left by religious agnosticism in a material age - though Joyce was untouched by the disillusionment with industrialism which is the mark of those thinkers. Nevertheless, he adopted and brought to perfection the incantatory tone of Pater’s idea of aesthetic exaltation.

Are you not weary of ardent ways,
Lure of the fallen seraphim?
Tell no more of enchanted days.


Your eyes have set man’s heart ablaze
And you have had your will of him.
Are you not weary of ardent ways?


And still you hold out longing gaze
With langorous look and lavish limb!
Are you not weary of ardent ways?

Tell no more of enchanted days. [254-55]

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 A second effect of the so-called “fin de siècle” style and procedure on Stephen’s state of mind is the production of verses in the form of a “Vilanelle of the Temptress” which combines sexual frustration - experienced in the early morning hours when the young man finds himself ‘all dewy wet’, whatever that implies - with quaesi-religious adultation.

 But these ‘ardent verses’ - as Joyce calls them in Stephen Hero - verses are the product of one side of his mind only. With the other, he is working out a rational position for himself

 As to the object of this ambiguous form of poetical homage, she is the same girl with whom the young boy experienced his sexual uncertainties earlier in the novel. In A Portrait, she appears only under her initials, “E.C.”. In the draft-novel Stephen Hero, she is called Emma Clery. (In real life she was probably Margaret Cleary, an attractive and intelligent contemporary of Joyce’s at University College, Dublin.) He still remembers her as she was earlier, and still imagines that she is calling for that gesture which he was unable to supply during the episode on the tram:


- At certain instants her eyes seem about to trust him but he waited in vain. She passed now dancing lightly across his memory as she had been that night at the carnival ball, her white dress a little lifted, a white spray nodding in her hair. [250]


 Not surprisingly, Stephen experiences an attack of jealousy when he finds that she is willing to hang on every word of the young priest she meets on the library steps rather than to listen to his poetic out-pourings. In Stephen Hero, he invites her to share ‘one mad night of love’ with him, to which she answers, ‘You are mad, I think’. In A Portrait, his jealousy leads him to complain inwardly at the fact that:

- she would unveil her soul’s shy nakedness, to one who was but schooled in the discharging of the formal rite rather than to him, a priest of the eternal imagination. [252]

- The last words of Davin’s story sang in his memory and the figure of the woman in the story stood forth reflected in other figures of the peasant women whom he had seen standing in the doorways at Clane as the college cars drove by, as a type of her race and of his own, a batlike soul waking to the consciousness of itself in darkness and secrecy and loneliness and, through the eyes and voice and gesture of a woman without guile, calling the stranger to her bed. [204]


 The young Joyce was so wrought up by events of this kind that he turned a story told to him by his friend George Clancy - Davin in the novels, and in real life shot dead by the Black and Tans while Mayor of Limerick in 1921 - into a parable of Irish womanhood, locked in a authoritarian sexual morality that prevented them giving their love to young men - or condemned them to marriage with old ones for the sake of sharing in their agricultural property. Davin has told a tale of how, on his return from a hurling match he found himself walking at night past a cottage when a young woman invited him in to rest with her breasts exposed - obviously suggesting other ideas about the respite available in her home. He hurried on. (Joyce, presumably, would have done otherwise.)

 The sexualised narrative of the young country-woman and the stranger is one that stands at the centre of the cultural politics of the Irish literary revival. In The Twisting of the Rope (1901), Douglas Hyde told a tale in which the stranger is expelled by the community when he attempts to lure the young woman to join his and Yeats it for the stage as well as embodying the male character Michael Robartes in his own lyric art as an image of the wandering poet - a devotee of ‘impassioned gravity’ and the ‘vigorous thigh’ (“Michael Robartes and the Dancer”). Thus Hyde’s version is censorious and expulsive; Yeats’s is jubilant and invasive. John Millington Synge, a real-life migrant in the Gaelic communities of Wicklow and the West of Ireland, made his own version of the trope of the willing housekeeper and the stranger in The Shadow of the Glen (1903) in which the woman chooses the tramp over her aged farmer-husband saying, ‘you’ve fine words and ‘tis with you I’ll go.’ In this argument, Joyce was clearly on the same libertarian side as Synge.

- The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine. I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acqquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language. [ 215]


Stephen’s remark about his ‘soul’ fretting in the shadow of the English language - or, more precisely, the English of the English - are often taken as a primary statement of the principles of linguistic anti-colonialism in Ireland, but it probably did not have this significance or value for Joyce himself. (The most amusing version of this often-repeated nationalist interpretation is probably the allusion to the Feast of the Holy Tundish in Seamus Heaney’s 1984 longer poem “Station Island” which is half-way to a refutation of it by virtue of the comical turn of phrase.) What it does mean is that language is always in some degree an artificial medium and a medium subject to scrutiny in a way that for a native speaker it could never be. In this fact a great deal of the origins and power of the Irish literary revival can be glimpsed.

 Joyce did not participate in any active way in the independence movement of 1900s and years after, and was out of Ireland when Gaelic-League and Sinn Féin enthusiasm spilled over into armed rebellion in the Easter Rising. Although a Home Ruler and a moderate supporter of Sinn Féin separatism, he was disillusioned with Irish politics and society and considered Irish-Ireland to be poisoned by reactionary thinking and by the ‘pap of race hatred’ (Letter to Stanislaus Joyce, 25 Sept. 1906; Letters, Vol. 2, Viking 1966, pp.164-68, p.167.) Writing from Trieste, he knew whereof he spoke while, back in Ireland, the idea that the Gaelic Revival might trigger a spate of racism in the country was barely understood. The idea of ethnic difference was, in any case, broadly subsumed in more widespread feeling of sectarian animosity toward ‘Protestant’ England. Yet it also produced the anti-Jewish riot - or so-called pogrom - lead by Fr. Richard Creagh of Limerick in 1904, at which date many many respectable citizens and writers (such as Arthur Griffith and Oliver St John Gogarty happily aired their own anti-semitic opinions.)

 At the same time, Joyce had a highly developed sense of the linguistic discontinuities of the Irish world and in particular the fact that the use of the English language in some sense prevented Irish people from representing their reality to themselves. In part his meaning was that they lacked the command of English to do so and hence he spoke of the failure to understand the difference between the meaning of words ‘in the marketplace’ and in the ‘literary tradition’ - as his autobiographical counterpart complains in Stephen Hero. Those words spoken inwardly after the Dean of Studies has disputed the word ‘tundish’ with Stephen in A Portrait may certain be taken to mean that the Irishman is in some degree alienated by the necessity to use English but it also points to a more generalised disquiet about language and reality which, in essence, is a creative tremor and not inherent a bad thing.

 Stephen, at any rate, turns about the Dean with good-natured rage in the diary entries at the end o the novel when he says: ‘Damn the Dean of Studies! Tundish is a good old English word!’ having researched it in his dictionary. At a further range, howevevr, Joyce’s stylistic innovations - and the fact that he rejected the use of a polite authorial voice - the conventional vehicle of accepted opinion in English fiction - can be seen as a reaction to the hegemony of English language and cultural in Irish socierty and therefore a first step towards anti-imperialism in all postcolonial literatures which take English (paradoxically enough) as their medium.

 In A Portrait he recognised that the language would have to be made again to express the experience of the Irish artist - or ‘the conscious of [his] race’ as he alternately puts it - though that sentence speaks less of rescuing Irish consciousness from the thrall of English language and installing an ethical awareness in the Irish mind which Stephen thinks that the Irish actually lack due to their slavish obedience to the Roman Church. He does not however suggest using different language than English, still less Irish; instead he seems to recognised that English would remain the characteristic language of Irishmen and women. What did happen in his own relation to the English language is that he increasingly disregarded the idea of a ‘proper’ standard of expression; indeed, virtually from the start he began to interrogate the standard form of English words in an inherently neologising way. (In ‘Proteus” we meet Stephen ‘almosting it’. The Gaelic League wanted to mend the National Language by substituting Irish for English but it remains a question today whether they succeeded, and for whom. Patently, the Israelis succeeded better and the question might well be asked why, or why not?


- Plato, I believe, said that beauty is the splendour of truth. I don’t think that it has a meaning, but that the true and the beautiful are akin. Truth is beheld by the intellect which is appeased by the most satisfying relations of the intelligible; beauty is beheld by the imagination which is appeased by the most satisfying relations of the sensible. [236]

 Joyce’s method of procedure was not to attempt to recuperate the ‘native’ culture of his country but to construct by ratiocination a self-grounded aesthetic philosophy that would serve him as the foundations of his art. He was determined to do this, as he said, fearless, unfellowed and alone - alternately, he would espouse ‘silence, exile and cunning’ as his only weapons.

 The actual substance of his aesthetic philosophising in the fifth chapter of A Portrait is difficult to understand and harder still to admire. The difficulty stems from the heterodox and eccentric nature of his sources - Aristotle and Aquinas; Plato and Shelley - but also from the veiled nature of his intellectual intentions. He purports to be investigating the qualities of beauty but in fact he is thinking about the perception of truth - that is to say, the manner in which an artist can capture and convey the “whatness” of experience.

  In addition, some of the intellectual connections that he makes are more intuitive than explicit; and, in the end, Joyce was not a very adept philosopher; but his record of his thinking is extraordinarily rich in philosophical and aesthetic suggestions for the future of literature - a future that he would embody in the experimental forms of Dubliners, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake. He seems to recognise the limitations of his own thinking - or, more precisely, his own stage of development as an artist, when he says:

- So far as this line of aesthetic philosophy extends, Aquinas will carry me all along the line. When we come to the phenomena of artistic conception, artistic gestation and artistic reproduction, I require a new terminology and a new personal experience. [238]


 (It is hardly surprising that he should do so since this sentence was written fully ten years after the events described and several years after he had realised that it his theory was in itself of no great practical utility for the literary artist.) [ See Epiphany ]

- What did it mean? Was it a quaint device opening a page of some medieval book or prophecies and symbols, a hawklike man flying sunward above the sea, a prophecy of the end he had been born to serve and had been following through the mists of childhood and boyhood … [192]


 Obviously, the young Joyce could not always be sure of his ‘vocation’ as an artist and, at best, was bound to regard it as an exercise in the ‘ineradicable egoism which he afterwards was to call his redeemer’ (as he wrote in Stephen Hero).

- Welcome, O Life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.


 If there is any essential plot in A Portrait, it is the stages by which the young artist attains to certainty of this kind, though his present-tense experience is often one of uncertainty and confusion - as, presumable, with all of us.  It is this that makes him tolerable as a character and not, merely, the ‘supreme prig’ that Joyce calls him in Finnegans Wake. Hence, in A Portrait we are told of Stephen: His thinking was a dusk of doubt and self-mistrust lit up at moments by the lightnings of intuition, but lightnings of so clear a splendour that in those moments the world perished about his fee as it if had been fire consumed. [200]

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