ESSAY
Portrait of the Artist as Aesthetic Martyr
POSTED
August 4, 2014

The title of James Joyce’s first novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man indicates that it is a bildungsroman, a story of formation that describes the formative experiences of a poet who aspires to artistic greatness.

The education described is Joyce’s own. The novel recounts the failing fortunes of the Joyce family, Joyce’s early interest in the priesthood and his piety, his school and university training, his eventual exodus from Dublin for a more cosmopolitan world. But it isn’t strictly autobiographical. With an obvious allusion to Catholic sacramental theology, Stephen expresses Joyce’s poetics when he says that the goal of the artist is to “transmute the bread of daily experience.” Joyce begins from life, but it requires a kind of grace to transfigure life into art.

Stephen Daedalus is the perfect name for Joyce’s alter ego. Stephen’s life as a young artist is played out between the poles of his two names. At a couple of points in the novel, the first Christian martyr is mentioned. When Stephen walks across St Stephen’s Green in Dublin, he thinks of the significance of his name. One of his teachers urges him to pray to his namesake as he considers a future in the priesthood.

The biblical Stephen was not only a saint, but a martyr, and the fact that he was persecuted and killed for his faith is also significant. Stephen Daedalus translates martyrdom into secular terms as his understanding of his artistic vocation takes form. To be an artist is to be a martyr to the vision of art, persecuted by the uncomprehending multitude, but standing above them with eyes fixed on beauty that reveals itself from the heaven. A true artist remains faithful to his vision, even if he is slain. Stephen views himself as an aesthetic double of Christ.

“Daedalus” points in another direction. It’s different in source, a classical rather than a biblical name. But Daedalus also expresses an aspect of the artistic calling. On the title page of Portrait is a quotation from Book 8 of Metamorphoses, where Ovid writes that Daedalus “devoted his soul to unknown arts.” In Ovid’s epic, this describes Daedalus when he and his son are confined in Crete after building the labyrinth for the Minotaur. They search for a way of escape, and Daedalus, the cunning and clever artisan, hits on the idea of a set of wings affixed with wax. This enables them to soar away the prison that requires them to put their energies and intelligence to the service of Minos. Stephen Daedalus also soars, past the “nets” that would confine him, the nets of “nationality, language, and religion.”

The myth of Daedalus, though, ends badly. It begins as a story of triumphant escape, of soaring out of prison, but is ultimately a tragedy. Icarus, the son of Daedalus, in his vanity soars too high, too close to the sun, and falls into the sea. Stephen knows the story, and know where he fits. He is the son of a Daedalus, and that means that his soaring may also end with a spectacular fall and death. He too might plunge into the deep. In the novel, Stephen is as much Icarus as Daedalus. He is deeply uncomfortable around the sea, and all of his soaring flights of artistic vision end with a devastating crash to earth.

Already in Portrait, Joyce experiments narrative techniques that came to fruition in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. He leaves out transitions and connections, and gives a series of disconnected glimpses of life:

"Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. . .

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face. He was baby tuckoo.

The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt. O, the wild rose blossoms On the little green place.

He sang that song. That was his song. O, the green wothe botheth.

When you wet the bed first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the oilsheet. That had the queer smell.

His mother had a nicer smell than his father. She played on the piano the sailor's hornpipe for him to dance."

The opening pages raise a series of problems that Stephen will have to confront – parental authority, his resistance to it, shame, his interest in language – all brought out in a deft 2-page chapter that skips from one momentary impression to another, like the scattered and distracted memories of earliest childhood.

Each of the five chapters moves through a series of experiences that prepare Stephen for his role as an aesthetic martyr. At school in Clongowes, he endures bullying from other students, abuse from one of the priests, and through it comes to distrust the authority of parents and teachers. The second chapter takes place at Cork, where his father has gone to pawn the remainder of the family’s furniture to pay his debts. Stephen wanders into the red light district and has his first sexual experience with a prostitute. The overlap and tension between religious and sexual passion becomes a critical dimension of Stephen’s imagination.

The third chapter is, I think, central to Portrait and to much of Joyce’s writing. Feeling guilty and conscience-stricken after his dalliance with the prostitute, Stephen goes on a Catholic retreat, where a priest preaches a series of terrifying hell fire sermons. The sermons bring Stephen to repentance and a sense of new life, and the chapter ends with a Mass. Though this describes his “conversion,” it also contains the seeds of his ultimate rejection of the priesthood and of Catholicism.

His decision not to pursue the priesthood, recounted in the fourth chapter, is partly based on his inability to resist sexual temptation. It ends with Stephen’s beatific vision of a young woman at the seaside. She is an angel of life and light, and inspires him to make a break with the church and with family and nation and pursue artistic vocation. Sexual desire is “transmuted” into artistic and almost religious vision.  That artistic vision is laid out in the final chapter in a series of conversations. Stephen states his artistic credo in Thomistic term, but it is not an orthodox creed. It is a sexualized aesthetic creed, a replacement for the orthodoxy that he leaves behind when he leaves Ireland.

Within this linear movement is a cyclical structure that is important for understanding Joyce’s intentions. Each chapter leads up to some epiphany, usually of a secular character (except for ch 3). The epiphany is often described in mystical and theological terms. In book 1, it’s the triumph that he feels after reporting an abusive priest to the headmaster. In chapter 2, it’s the sexual encounter with the prostitute. In chapter 4, it is the vision of the “bird girl” at the sea, and in the final chapter it is Stephen’s decision to leave Ireland for the Continent.

Each of these epiphanies is immediately followed by some revelation that brings him back to earth. His triumph in reporting the priest is undercut by his discovery later that his complaint was treated as a joke by the headmaster. His sexual encounter with the prostitute is immediately followed by a description of a meal at school, which reduces the ecstasy of sex to a mere biological necessity. Communion at the retreat is followed by doubts about his ability to resist temptation, and a sense of inevitability of falling back into sexual immorality. His vision of the bird girl is followed by a description of the poverty and near-squalor of his parents’ home.

This oscillation between triumph and defeat, between soaring and fall, might be taken as a sign of the vanity of artistic aspirations. All great and high achievements come to nothing. Soar as high as you will, you’ll finally just plop unnoticed into the ocean, as in Bruegel’s painting of the myth.

That is not Joyce’s conclusion. Instead, he sees the dialectic of aspiration and failure as the artistic life. This is expressed with particular beauty in his encounter with the bird girl: “Her eyes had called him and his soul had leaped at his call. To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreated life out of life! A wild angel had appeared to him, the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life, to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory.  On and on and on and on!”

Life is error as well as discovery; it is falling and death as well as triumph and recreation. Stephen is both Daedalus soaring and falling Icarus. He is both the ecstatic mystic and the scatological pornographer. Stephen (and Joyce) believe that the artist is called to depict life in all its abundance and teeming variety, in the ecstasy intellect or sex and in the gross workings of the intestines. Joyce views these as two sides of the same thing. The scatology is ecstatic. Ultimately, the two parts of his name are brought together to express the artist’s mission. Falling is as important as soaring. The artist soars and falls, and he transcends the rabblement precisely in his ascent and descent.

Stephen rejects the Catholic priesthood, but he does so in favor of a priesthood that he considers superior. As an artistic, aesthetic Christ, he becomes a priest of life, mediating a transformed world to his readers. He translates the daily bread of experience into art, by nothing more than the sacramental magic of poetry.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House.

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