Hugh Kenner, “The School of Old Aquinas”, Dublin’s Joyce (London: Chatto & Windus 1955) [Chap. 9] - Extracts

Chap. 9: “The School of Old Aquinas”

No other modern artist has been son fortunate as Joyce in being born where everything he needed was in suspended animation around him. Mr Pound had to go to classical China, [135], Mr. Eliot to symbolist France, for what the Dubliner possessed at his elbow. It needed laborious resuscitation, however. As he received it at school from the Dublin clerics, the thought of Aristotle and St. Thomas was little more than a stockpile of terminology. That his college paper expounding an “applied Aquinas” aesthetic should have been unintelligible and faintly heretical to his professors was only to be expected; they didn’t think of philosophic thought as the articulation of a world but as the recitation of a formula. (pp.135-36.)


To inform the phrases and definitions pickled in Jesuit textbooks with such a creative spirit as had once animated them was for Joyce a release both from Dublin intellectual deadness and from romantic art. Art was always, for him, a job of [136] reanimating the given; so was the speculative work that preceded art. St. Thomas underwent a comparable reanimation some time afterwards, in the work of Jacques Maritain, and what Joyce at twenty-one or twenty-two was putting into his notebooks coincides closely with what Maritain expounds in Art et Scolastique. The young Dubliner’s is probably the first reasoned aesthetic on Aristotelian principles since the ages when none was needed.

What was formulated for his own use, however, was never written out as a treatise. Of the speculative work undertaken in Paris and Pola in 1903 and 1904, recorded in notebooks at which his biographer gives us no more than a peep, certain portions were written up in dialogue form for incorporation in the autobiographical work which became A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It is only by accident that we have the discarded Stephen Hero version; and by the time he came to rewrite the Portrait Joyce had decided to make its central figure a futile alter ego rather than a self-image, and revised the doctrinal exposition to suit. In the Portrait exposition, correct so far as it goes, has [sic] omissions dangerous for the reader interested in Aquinas rather than in Stephen. The absence of the crucial doctrine of epiphanies, and the soft-pedalling of the location of pulchrum and ens, emphasize Stephen’s highly subjective bent; a technically-minded reader might conclude, as Joyce meant him to, that Stephen’s aesthetic is not Thomist at all but neo-Platonist. Ulysses, which neither Stephen nor any extrapolation of Stephen could have written, was expected by Joyce to clinch this point. Fortunately, we need not proceed on the unbuttressed assumption that Joyce knew both his own mind and the philosophical orientations he was talking about; there is plenty of evidence.

[Ftn. The chief texts are located as follows: Paris Notebook (1903): Gorman, III-iii. Pola Notebook (1904): Gorman V-ii. Epiphanies: Stephen Hero, 211/188. The dialogue in Chapter V of the Portrait is supplemented by six or seven passages in Stephen Hero] (pp.136-37.)

Joyce’s rejection of the notion that in speaking of claritas St. Thomas had in mind ‘symbolism or idealism, the supreme quality of beauty being a light from some other world, the idea of which the matter was but the shadow, the reality of which it was but the symbol’ (P249/242), is aimed against the sort of [137] neo-platonism represented by Yeats’s ‘Dreams [sic for Words] alone are certain good’. Every theory of aesthetics depends on a theory of knowledge. It is radically impossible to understand what Joyce is talking about from the standpoint of the post-Kantian conviction that the mind imposes intelligibility upon things. That is the root of the very romantic egoism from which he was liberating himself.

[Quotes Stephen to Cranly in A Portrait: ‘The first step in the direction of truth is to understand the frame and scope of the intellect itself .... the same attribute cannot at the same time and in the same connexion belong and not belong to the same subject.’ P244/236.]

That is, the line that joins the Principle of Contradiction to the Metaphysics is the backbone of the De Anima, and everything else depends on the De Anima. Perceiver, thing perceived, and perception belong alike to a world of irreducible existences. Thsi statement has nothing in common with the Cartesian confrontation of an intelligible world articulated by the intellect and an opaque world reported by the senss; nor with the Romantic transposition of this dichotomy, a concupiscible phantom-world of poesy and a tyrannical world of fact (that was the dichotomy Yeats never solved, despite the toughness of articulation his later phantom-world took on).

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“Signatures” and Signate Matter
The mind, then, literally knows things; it extracts intelligible species from things; it does not make its intelligible forms; it does not construct, acting on hints from the senses, its diagrammatic intelligible simulacra of things; it does not content itself with a Kantian metaphysic of things-as-they-appear, in contradistinction to supposedly unknowable things-as-they-are.

The classical account of the mode of knowledge postulated by Joyce is in the Summa Theologica, Part I, questions 84 to 88. Fundamental to this account is the so-called hylomorphic doctrine [Ftn. hylos-morphos [in Gk.]; see Jacques Maritain, Introduction to Philosophy, pp.167-68] that created things are composed of signate matter plus substantial form. Signate matter is matter on which, so to speak, a signature has been impressed, as in Dante’s repeated simile of wax and seal (Hence “Signatures of all things I am [139] here to read” [...]) (pp.138-39.)


In things, this matter is joined to substantial form. Substantial form is the principle of determination and so of intelligibility: the internal principle which determines the very being of corporeal substances.

The artist who understands this, and believes it, is in a position to control any perception whatever. The trodden down boot-heel of an old woman at prayer will image the spiritual condition of a civilisation, if he beliveds in it sufficiently to set it down untampered. If he is interested in the boot-heel only as a token of his own sense of disgust, what will come off the page will be not a civilization but, precisely, his own sense of disgust. [Ftn. Hence Joyce’s advice to critic, ‘... not to look for a message but to approach the temper which has made the work, an old woman praying, or a young man fastening his shoe, and to see what is there well done and how much it signifies.’ James Clarence Mangan, 1902; Gorman, II-v.] The book will be fundamentally about [139] himself. (p.139-40.)


Neither are things intrinsically opaque to the understanding, nor are they mere material signs related to abstract intelligibles as a thumb-print to a thunk or a cookie to a cookie-cutter. The active intellect was held to extract from the phantasms formed by senses the intelligible species of the object being perceived: of this particular penciol or chair, not of writing instruments or furniture. Knowledge is neither of ideas nor of categories but of things. Categories come after knowledge. Ideas are not objects of konwledge, but means of knowledge; not things, but means of contemplating the thing in its rich singularity. (p.140.)

[Ftn. ref. to Maritain, Formal Logic [NY: Sheed & Ward 1946], ix, 300p. pp.17-19 ... for a preliminary grasp of Joycean-scholastic vs. post-Cartesian epistemologies, the statement in the text about the concept as means, not object, of knowledge is sufficiently accurate]

That it is things which achieve epiphany under the artist’s alchemical power, and not his own soul which he manifests, cannot be too much insisted upon: “The artist who could disentangle the subtle soul of the image from its mesh of defining circumstances most exactly and re-embody it in circumstances chosen as the most exact for its new office, he was the supreme artist. [S78/66]. (p.141.)

That is now Joyce in Stephen Hero distinguishes, in avoiding “spiritual anarchy”, the “classical style” from the “romantic temper”. The latter is

“and insecure, unsatisfied, impatient tempper, which sees no fit abode here for its ideals and choses therefore to behold them under insensible figures ..”

On the contrary, the classical style “... is the syllogism of art, the only legitimate process from one world to another”. (The conclusion of a syllogism is not added to but virtually in the premises.)

“The classical temper ... every midnful of limitatiosn, chooses rather to bend upon these present things and so to work upon them and [140] fashion them that the quick intelligence may go beyond them to their meaning which is still unuttered.” [S78/66.]

That it is things which achieve epiphany under the artist’s alchemical power, and not his own soul which he manifests, cannot be too much insisted upon.

the artist who could disentangle the subtle soul of the imae from its mesh of defining circumstances most exactly and re-embody it in circumstances chosen as the most exact for its new office, he was the supreme artist.

Locke and Romanticism
[This section is devoted to Locke’s separation between Judgement and Wit, and Addison’s aesthetic rashly based on it; references to Blake and Swift as anti-Lockeans serve to forge a connection between the mentality of Bloom and Locke, making Ulysses a satire on the mechanical conception of “Human Understanding”]

The confused and obscure, of course, soon came to be identified with the poetical; that was the use of Longinus to the eighteenth century. Blake before Locke’s ideaas had become very much modified, accuratley diagnosed the boundless as supremely unineresting; but it was 250 years before thought accelerated into sterile extensions, with its concomitant [142] emotional specture, received definitive embodiment in the person of Leopold Bloom.

Swift, of course, performed a similar diagnosis, though his point has been missed. Gulliver’s Travels are those of a Bloom; he is immensely impressed by the measurements of everything, and interested in gathering tangible souvenirs.

[Bloom’s notions of literary composition are analogous to those of the inventers of the Lagado machine: quotes “he hungry famished gull / Flaps o’er the waters dull” / That is how poets write, the similar sounds. But then Shakespeare has no rhymes: blank verse. The flow of language it is. The thoughts. Solemn.” U150/141]

There is at one level a parody of Stephen’s speculations in the previous chapter about mouth-south and the personified rhymes of Dante U136/129. At another level it is a fair digest of five hudnred respectable “appreciations” of Shakespeare. Bloom’s elliptical speculations contain hundreds of condensed presidential adddresses, Atlantic Monthly articiles, sociological surveys, doctoral theses, &c. As for solemnity as the major criterion of art, we have only to return to Addison: Spectator 418 contains some relevant relmarks. As usual, Addison is most Bloom-like when he is most decorously rational.

This rattling around of superficially similar notions in the head (Locke’s “wit” and the behaviourist’s “free association”) may be said to be the Lockean model for the poetic preocess. Since Joyce was to spend the greater part of his life protraying this process going on, it was important for him to focus it as an aesthetic datum, not an aesthetic mode.


The Epiphany
The supposition of more than one commentator that St. Thoma defines claritas as “having a bright colour”, and that Joyce has chosen to suppress this in order ot claim his authority for a subtler theory (Stephen indeed calls the connotation of claritas vague, and the term inexact) is symptomatic of outr of the mind from the senses. As for the not uncommon notion that “art meant little to St. Thomas in any but a very concrete, obvious way”, we have Stephen’s reminder that St. Thomas was the poeet of Pange lingua, and the Rev. Walter J. Ong’s fascinating analysis of the metaphysical wit of that and other Thomistic poems. [‘Wit and Mystery: A Revaluation in Mediaevl Latin Hymnody’, in Speculum, XIII, 3, 316-20.] Father Ong’s essay is required reading for students of Finnegans Wake: “Who knows? - said Stephen smiling. - Perhaps Aquinas would understand me better than you.” P246/238. [...; 145]


[Quotes “This is the moment which I call epiphany. ... The object achieves its epiphany.” S213/190.]

The object achieves its epiphany. What the scrutinizer comes to know is the thing itself in its irreducible otherness: oter than himself, other than all other things. Its meaning is discoverable only within itself; it does not function as seed-crysta to jell a private configuration of thought.

[Quotes: “He told Cranly that the clock of the Ballast Office was capable of an epiphany .... it is just i this epiphany I find the third, the supreme quality of beauty.” SH211/188.]

Bloom’s intense gaze at a bottle-label, durig which he was “recollecting two or three private transactins of his own” U410/398, is quite the opposite of the contemplation of a thing in its quiddity; Buck Mulligan’s comment on this spectacle describes with surprising exactness the antitype of the epiphany:

“Warily, Malachi whispered, a druid silence. His soul is far away. It is painful perhaps to be awakened from a vision as to be born. Any object, intensely regarded, may be the gate of access to the incorruptible aeon of the gods.” [U409/398.]

The possibility of epiphanies depends on the composite structure of things, signate matter plus substantial form. Mulligan is parodying the doctrines of Blake, Æ, and the theosophists, depending on a contrary metaphysic, in which the gratuitous plurality of the sensible world conceals a monistic comprehensive insight, “the incorruptible aeon of the gods”, or Blake’s world seen in a grain of sand. It doesn’t much matter what object you select, since you look through it rather than at it. [Lengthy footnote quoting relevant quaestiones from Summa Theol. which ‘offer technical refutation, on the basis of the only metaphysical in whic the theory of epiphanies is meaningful, of a position with which Joyce is often confused.’] Hence one’s feeling that Blake’s symbolic wheels are turning in a medium offering little resistance. As his intelligible structure exists behind or beyond the particulars in which it is perceived, so it fails of radical engagement with the images, rhythms, and analogies by which it is communicated. The latter become not foci of contemplation but modes of persuasion: not ideograms but enthymemes. Hence Joyce rejected a Blakean reading of claritas [...] (p.146.)


Epiphany and the Intuition of Being
The artist isn’t a metaphysician, nor the metaphysician an artist; but both work in the same way, toward a vision that isn’t the less comprehensive for being coloured by their respective intentions. The epiphany is the reward of intense contemplation; not a tranced stare, but precisely the active groping of a spiritual eye seeking to adjust its focus to what is there: precisely like the experience of trying to grasp a poem. The reward is not an “insight” but a grasp of the whole. Though Maritain’s precise account of the metaphysician’s “intuition of being” isn’t oriented toward artistic reproduction, it parallels exactly Joyce’s account of the artist seeking to lay hold on his subject [quotes Maritain, Introduction to Metaphysics, III (q.p.)] (pp.146-47.)

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The Words on the Page

There are plenty of ways of faking vivid prose, when the discipline that makes possible this close engagement of images hasn’t been undergone. Mr. Gilbert has pointed out verbal usages of Oscar Wilde’s that resemble those of Ulysses: “A rose shook in her blood, and shadowed her cheeks. Quick blood parted the petals of: her lips.” When Joyce read The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1906 (oddly enough, in an Italian translation) he saw at once that the felicities were ways of evading, not presenting, the material. Wilde’s wish “to put himself before the world”, Joyce reported in a letter to his brother, caused him to crowd the book with “lies and epigrams” through reluctance to raise the real motifs of the plot to a surface scummed by irridescent prose. “But it is not very difficult to read between the lines.” [Gorman, VI-iii] The fanciest writing in Ulysses is in touch with the subject, with some level of abstraction or of glamour that Dublin has imposed upon banality.

“At each slow satiny heaving bosom’s wave (her heaving embon) red, rose rose slowly, sank red rose. Heartbeats her breath: breath that is life. And all the tiny tiny fernfoils trembled of maidenhair.” U281/271.

This isn’t Wildean sensuous plush display, though it uses, similar techniques. It is Bloom, with the aid of quotations, sentimentalizing a barmaid.

The peculiarity of Joyce’s undertaking is that the phenomena he grasps before seeking appropriate words are themselves so largely linguistic. A city full of haunted talk, littered with hulks of public rhetoric, required the setting in motion by the artist of words more than of persons. Though in Chamber Music the aesthetic operations had been performed on love-songs rather than on lovers, Joyce didn’t develop the implications of this in the first cycle as clearly as in the second. The progressive effacement of the writer, from lyric through epic into drama, from Chamber Music to Exiles, leaves behind a [150] drama of actors, and what is epiphanized in Exiles is an aloneness in which they speak words while making no contact with one another. The comparable progression from the Portrait to Finnegans Wake leaves behind a drama of daftly autonomous words, language, not persons, in action, convoluting in a void of non-communication, but, by virtue of its tentacular contacts with things and traditions, richly epiphanic of the fragmented mind of Europe.

The tentacular complexity of language is as offensive to the rationalist as is the irreducible existence of things; it should not surprise us that the principles of an orderly synthetic language were first outlined in 1629 by Descartes himself. Unlike the inventors of Volapuk and Esperanto, Joyce wasn’t offended by the makeshifts of daily intercourse. He was too interested in the real. He saw clearly that for his almost anthropological purposes a word is a “thing” (not to be confused with the notion that the word “horse” is a horse).

A word is a rich ontological object; its exegesis leads us towards the semanticist’s “referents” (the things it calls to mind, and to which, for practical purposes, it is firmly attached), towards contexts of usage (Mr. Empson notes a nascent conflict in “The cat sat on the mat”, in that it might come out of a fairy-story or out of a spelling-book), towards the historical perspectives telescoped in its etymology, towards the social matrix or matrices in which it takes its place. One may find literal, allegorical, anagogical, and tropological senses in a single word; the poet juxtaposing words is setting whole worlds of meaning in vivid analogical tension. Flaubert and the Symbolists recovered much of this. Mallarmdé noted in Paget’s fashion that the sensuous integument of a word, its “signate matter” is inseparable from its “meaning”: “Ces mots comptent également par leur son et pour leur signification qui sont intimement liés d’après tout ce que nous savons sur les origines du langage”; and contrived a poem - Un Coup de Dés (1897) exploiting the position of a word above or below another, or in relation to the white paper, or hung at the end of a line out over void, or nestled in the heart of a closely-printed passage - which whatever its limitations is perhaps the Michelson-Morley experiment of contemporary literature.


Epiphany and allegory
Once language comes alive allegory returns. It went out of literature at the same timeas existential metaphor, and for the same reasons. When a word is conceived as a geometrical point set in linear relation with other points, an allegorical meaning becomes something superimposed by the writer on a literal meaning by a sort of desperate artifice. Exegesis can skim it off and exhibit it as a separate object, buth nothing can rehabilitate its integrity. It incurs Locke’s severest strictures on the accidental juxtapositions of wit. (p.152.)

Ultimately, for Joyce, all the “meanings” are on the page. A complex integritas has been seized and transferred. Things are not talked about, they happen in prose. Appropriate exegesis does not consist in transposing the allegorical to the propostional, but in detaield apprehension of the rich concrete particularity of what has been placed before our eyes. [Gives example of Bloom’s ‘lonely last sardine of summer’] (p.154.)

[Sect. - “Tragedy and Integritas”:] The death of Aristotle’s man, like Joyce’s girl, isn’t, that is, an intelligible event, though it can be accounted for. (p.155.)


That everything dovetails in Ulysses doesn’t constitute its consonantia, nor confer its integritas; that everything dovetails is an ingredient of its irony. Ulysses is an epiphany of the self-contained, explicabale world of mechanism; and it is a prison and an inferno.

Thus Stephen’s speculations on causality are relevant to Joyce’s elaborate use of efficient causes to weave an iron net around the protagonists. (p.155.)


Every detail of Joyce’s aesthetic speculation is oriented towards the epiphany - toward the criterion of intelligibility. The artifact is a supremely intelligible object. The plot, when employed, has ontological consistency, not merely the rationalistic consistency whcih it may or may not exhibit but which the fortuitous always exhibits. The real plot of Finnegans Wake is the emergence of light, imaged by the daybreak at the end of the chapel windows; the gradual subsumption of particulars into an intelligible order; so is the plot of a story of Dubliners. (p.156.)


Such an aesthetic idea desiderates the possession by the reader as by the artist of a trained and unified sensibility which will not be swerved from contemplative vigiliance by emotional irrelevance, neither moved by the graveyard rat in Ulysses to disgust, nor by Mrs. Bloom’s concupiscence. (p.157.)

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