The Books: “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (James Joyce)

Next book on my adult fiction shelves:

PortraitArtist.jpgA Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – by James Joyce. Now I’ll excerpt from Chapter 5 – the last chapter.

Stephen is at university now. His family is poverty-struck and really struggling. Life is squalid and bleak. But Stephen’s life of the mind is now taking off (taking flight). Fascinating stuff – there are long sections of this chapter that are conversation – a dialogue … between Stephen and various others … this is also something new, in terms of the style of the book. Stephen has been a child, and then a young man – mainly concerned with his interior life … but now in Chapter 5, we start to see him emerge as a social being. Someone separated from the pack, yet of the pack. It is no mistake that Joyce brings in Irish politics in the last chapter. Stephen has successfully disengaged from religion, from familiy – in order to follow his own star. Now comes the biggie – separation from country. The university is in a fever of Irish politics, his Irish friends (and even the faculty) trying to get everyone involved in the cause. Stephen resists. He gets a lot of flak for this. Is he not Irish? Why does he not join up? In a final break, Stephen drops out of his Irish language class. Now because this is Joyce we’re talking about, things are not quite that simple. The chapter is a swirl of activity and conversation. Stephen, having left the religious discipline he had set for himself, now turns his mind to thoughts of beauty and art. He talks with a friend about Aristotle and Aquinas – one of the longest sections of the chapter. What did both of these men have to say about aesthetics. It is Stephen’s version of a sermon – the mirror-image of the sermon in Chapter 3. And on the flipside of Stephen’s disenchantment with Irish nationalism (and nationalism in general) and anything political – anything that requires you to sign a petition, and join the ranks … on the flipside of all of that is Stephen’s realization that English, the language, is a borrowed speech for him … Irish is not his speech either, regardless of the fact that his ancestors spoke it. But English is not “his”. This is shown in the most famous episode of the book, that I have referenced before – I call it “the tundish scene” – and that will be my excerpt – although all of Stephen’s thoughts on Aristotle and Aquinas are so awesome that I yearned to post that one as well. But you’ll just have to read the book to see the whole thing put together.

In this, the last chapter, Stephen begins to separate himself from the pack, in every way possible. He thinks poets – because that is what he now believes he is – should not be of this world. They certainly can’t waste their time taking Irish language classes and signing petitions. They need to turn their attention to other things, like aesthetics, what is truth, beauty … In order to do that, the ties that bind them – language, culture, religion, family – must be sundered. However (and I think this is important) – you never get the sense that Stephen Dedalus is a loner. Or a gloomy weirdo. His conversations with his friends here are lively, topic-driven … Socratic in nature. His friends treat him with fondness, as though he is a little bit wacko, but they certainly want to know his thoughts on things. Dedalus IS a part of the community – at the university, in his family, in Dublin – and we get that sense in Chapter 5 more so than in any other chapter. It’s alive with dialogue, conversation, back and forth. But Stephen’s thought process becomes more and more introspective – he is truly wrestling with himself, here. And other things – the pull of conformity, the pull of meaningless pursuits (Irish language) … Stephen tells a friend that he feels his new motto might have to be “I will not serve”. He will not serve anything that is imposed on him from the outside. Irish politics, Irish language, Catholic Church, even now his education (especially with the scene below, where the dean of students reveals his lack of knowledge about something that is pretty much self-evident) – Stephen will not serve. He begins to realize that he is going to have to drop out of the university, in order to pursue his art. He’s really breaking free (Joyce’s relentless picture of how conformist and rigid Dublin is is really important to remember any time you read Joyce). A friend teases him about his lack of religious faith. Stephen doesn’t want to go to Easter mass, and his mother is all upset about it. Stephen doesn’t believe anymore. He’s done with all that. And yet having broken free from that leaves him with a sense of emptiness, and loneliness that is quite profound.

By the end of the chapter – the writing changes completely – and we get a series of Stephen’s journal entries. No more outside narrator. We now hear Stephen’s voice. He’s spent the entire chapter pondering other voices: Aristotle, Aquinas – there’s a lot of Yeats too – he’s searching for something, looking for himself in their words … as all artists do … but by the end of the book, he is now ready to write in his own voice. It’s clunky. The journal entries are kind of jagged, unfinished, you’re not sure what’s going on … it’s a TOTAL BREAK with the feeling of the rest of the ENTIRE BOOK … it feels amateurish … and it is. But that’s Joyce’s point. We all have to start somewhere. And Stephen is starting. He, like his namesake, is building his wings to get out. It is through language – borrowed or not – that he will get out. And it is all well and good to while away the days pondering Aquinas and aesthetics … but the point really is to just START. And so he does.

The book ends in an unfinished manner … we don’t know what will happen … we know Stephen is gearing up for exile, he mentions it … but the journal entries now stand for an entire life. The narrator is gone. We are now inside a human being.

The perfect launching-pad for Ulysses which takes, as its main journey, what it is actually like, moment to moment to moment, to be alive … how the soul looks out through the eyes, and what it sees, and what it experiences.

But first: below is “the tundish scene”. Stephen keeps trying to talk to the dean in a larger context, metaphorical. But the dean is earthbound … and stays connected to material things – a disappointment, because he is a Jesuit. Stephen basically here begins to ‘coach’ the dean in how to think, and how to talk about esthetics. The dean isn’t really getting it, though – Stephen has to chide him. “I’m talking about another kind of lamp, sir.” Could it be that he had ever looked to the priesthood as a vocation? How could he have? There is no glory to God here. Stephen is still enough of a Catholic (you never really leave that church) to be upset about that. He truly does try to engage the dean in a spiritual conversation – only not about God, but about art and beauty. The dean is not up to it.

And then comes “the tundish” moment. The dean is an “English convert”. He has never heard the word “tundish”. He acts astonished by the word. Stephen, an Irishman – even though he has refused to sign the petitions, and refuses to get all heated up in politics – is filled with a revelation. He thinks: “– 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 acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.”

Ouch. But what a revelation to make.

It’s really “the tundish” that starts it all. Not the event of the conversation with the priest – but the word itself.

EXCERPT FROM A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – by James Joyce – Chapter 5

It was too late to go upstairs to the French class. He crossed the hall and took the corridor to the left which led to the physics theatre. The corridor was dark and silent but not unwatchful. Why did he feel that it was not unwatchful? Was it because he had heard that in Buck Whaley’s time there was a secret staircase there? Or was the jesuit house extra-territorial and was he walking among aliens? The Ireland of Tone and of Parnell seemed to have receded in space.

He opened the door of the theatre and halted in the chilly grey light that struggled through the dusty windows. A figure was crouching before the large grate and by its leanness and greyness he knew that it was the dean of studies lighting the fire. Stephen closed the door quietly and approached the fireplace.

— Good morning, sir! Can I help you?

The priest looked up quickly and said:

— One moment now, Mr Dedalus, and you will see. There is an art in lighting a fire. We have the liberal arts and we have the useful arts. This is one of the useful arts.

— I will try to learn it, said Stephen.

— Not too much coal, said the dean, working briskly at his task, that is one of the secrets.

He produced four candle-butts from the side-pockets of his soutane and placed them deftly among the coals and twisted papers. Stephen watched him in silence. Kneeling thus on the flagstone to kindle the fire and busied with the disposition of his wisps of paper and candle-butts he seemed more than ever a humble server making ready the place of sacrifice in an empty temple, a levite of the Lord. Like a levite’s robe of plain linen the faded worn soutane draped the kneeling figure of one whom the canonicals or the bell-bordered ephod would irk and trouble. His very body had waxed old in lowly service of the Lord – in tending the fire upon the altar, in bearing tidings secretly, in waiting upon worldlings, in striking swiftly when bidden – and yet had remained ungraced by aught of saintly or of prelatic beauty. Nay, his very soul had waxed old in that service without growing towards light and beauty or spreading abroad a sweet odour of her sanctity – a mortified will no more responsive to the thrill of its obedience than was to the thrill of love or combat his ageing body, spare and sinewy, greyed with a silver-pointed down.

The dean rested back on his hunkers and watched the sticks catch. Stephen, to fill the silence, said:

— I am sure I could not light a fire.

— You are an artist, are you not, Mr Dedalus? said the dean, glancing up and blinking his pale eyes. The object of the artist is the creation of the beautiful. What the beautiful is is another question.

He rubbed his hands slowly and drily over the difficulty.

— Can you solve that question now? he asked.

— Aquinas, answered Stephen, says pulcra sunt quae visa placent.

— This fire before us, said the dean, will be pleasing to the eye. Will it therefore be beautiful?

— In so far as it is apprehended by the sight, which I suppose means here esthetic intellection, it will be beautiful. But Aquinas also says Bonum est in quod tendit appetitus. In so far as it satisfies the animal craving for warmth fire is a good. In hell, however, it is an evil.

— Quite so, said the dean, you have certainly hit the nail on the head.

He rose nimbly and went towards the door, set it ajar and said:

— A draught is said to be a help in these matters.

As he came back to the hearth, limping slightly but with a brisk step, Stephen saw the silent soul of a jesuit look out at him from the pale loveless eyes. Like Ignatius he was lame but in his eyes burned no spark of Ignatius’s enthusiasm. Even the legendary craft of the company, a craft subtler and more secret than its fabled books of secret subtle wisdom, had not fired his soul with the energy of apostleship. It seemed as if he used the shifts and lore and cunning of the world, as bidden to do, for the greater glory of God, without joy in their handling or hatred of that in them which was evil but turning them, with a firm gesture of obedience back upon themselves and for all this silent service it seemed as if he loved not at all the master and little, if at all, the ends he served. Similiter atque senis baculus, he was, as the founder would have had him, like a staff in an old man’s hand, to be leaned on in the road at nightfall or in stress of weather, to lie with a lady’s nosegay on a garden seat, to be raised in menace.

The dean returned to the hearth and began to stroke his chin.

— When may we expect to have something from you on the esthetic question? he asked.

— From me! said Stephen in astonishment. I stumble on an idea once a fortnight if I am lucky.

— These questions are very profound, Mr Dedalus, said the dean. It is like looking down from the cliffs of Moher into the depths. Many go down into the depths and never come up. Only the trained diver can go down into those depths and explore them and come to the surface again.

— If you mean speculation, sir, said Stephen, I also am sure that there is no such thing as free thinking inasmuch as all thinking must be bound by its own laws.

— Ha!

— For my purpose I can work on at present by the light of one or two ideas of Aristotle and Aquinas.

— I see. I quite see your point.

— I need them only for my own use and guidance until I have done something for myself by their light. If the lamp smokes or smells I shall try to trim it. If it does not give light enough I shall sell it and buy another.

— Epictetus also had a lamp, said the dean, which was sold for a fancy price after his death. It was the lamp he wrote his philosophical dissertations by. You know Epictetus?

— An old gentleman, said Stephen coarsely, who said that the soul is very like a bucketful of water.

— He tells us in his homely way, the dean went on, that he put an iron lamp before a statue of one of the gods and that a thief stole the lamp. What did the philosopher do? He reflected that it was in the character of a thief to steal and determined to buy an earthen lamp next day instead of the iron lamp.

A smell of molten tallow came up from the dean’s candle butts and fused itself in Stephen’s consciousness with the jingle of the words, bucket and lamp and lamp and bucket. The priest’s voice, too, had a hard jingling tone. Stephen’s mind halted by instinct, checked by the strange tone and the imagery and by the priest’s face which seemed like an unlit lamp or a reflector hung in a false focus. What lay behind it or within it? A dull torpor of the soul or the dullness of the thundercloud, charged with intellection and capable of the gloom of God?

— I meant a different kind of lamp, sir, said Stephen.

— Undoubtedly, said the dean.

— One difficulty, said Stephen, in esthetic discussion is to know whether words are being used according to the literary tradition or according to the tradition of the marketplace. I remember a sentence of Newman’s in which he says of the Blessed Virgin that she was detained in the full company of the saints. The use of the word in the marketplace is quite different. I hope I am not detaining you.

— Not in the least, said the dean politely.

— No, no, said Stephen, smiling, I mean —

— Yes, yes; I see, said the dean quickly, I quite catch the point: detain.

He thrust forward his under jaw and uttered a dry short cough.

— To return to the lamp, he said, the feeding of it is also a nice problem. You must choose the pure oil and you must be careful when you pour it in not to overflow it, not to pour in more than the funnel can hold.

— What funnel? asked Stephen.

— The funnel through which you pour the oil into your lamp.

— That? said Stephen. Is that called a funnel? Is it not a tundish?

— What is a tundish?

— That. Thefunnel.

— Is that called a tundish in Ireland? asked the dean. I never heard the word in my life.

— It is called a tundish in Lower Drumcondra, said Stephen, laughing, where they speak the best English.

— A tundish, said the dean reflectively. That is a most interesting word. I must look that word up. Upon my word I must.

His courtesy of manner rang a little false and Stephen looked at the English convert with the same eyes as the elder brother in the parable may have turned on the prodigal. A humble follower in the wake of clamorous conversions, a poor Englishman in Ireland, he seemed to have entered on the stage of jesuit history when that strange play of intrigue and suffering and envy and struggle and indignity had been all but given through – a late-comer, a tardy spirit. From what had he set out? Perhaps he had been born and bred among serious dissenters, seeing salvation in Jesus only and abhorring the vain pomps of the establishment. Had he felt the need of an implicit faith amid the welter of sectarianism and the jargon of its turbulent schisms, six principle men, peculiar people, seed and snake baptists, supralapsarian dogmatists? Had he found the true church all of a sudden in winding up to the end like a reel of cotton some fine-spun line of reasoning upon insufflation on the imposition of hands or the procession of the Holy Ghost? Or had Lord Christ touched him and bidden him follow, like that disciple who had sat at the receipt of custom, as he sat by the door of some zinc-roofed chapel, yawning and telling over his church pence?

The dean repeated the word yet again.

— Tundish! Well now, that is interesting!

— The question you asked me a moment ago seems to me more interesting. What is that beauty which the artist struggles to express from lumps of earth, said Stephen coldly.

The little word seemed to have turned a rapier point of his sensitiveness against this courteous and vigilant foe. He felt with a smart of dejection that the man to whom he was speaking was a countryman of Ben Jonson. He thought:

— 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 acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.

— And to distinguish between the beautiful and the sublime, the dean added, to distinguish between moral beauty and material beauty. And to inquire what kind of beauty is proper to each of the various arts. These are some interesting points we might take up.

Stephen, disheartened suddenly by the dean’s firm, dry tone, was silent; and through the silence a distant noise of many boots and confused voices came up the staircase.

— In pursuing these speculations, said the dean conclusively, there is, however, the danger of perishing of inanition. First you must take your degree. Set that before you as your first aim. Then, little by little, you will see your way. I mean in every sense, your way in life and in thinking. It may be uphill pedalling at first. Take Mr Moonan. He was a long time before he got to the top. But he got there.

— I may not have his talent, said Stephen quietly.

— You never know, said the dean brightly. We never can say what is in us. I most certainly should not be despondent. Per aspera ad astra.

He left the hearth quickly and went towards the landing to oversee the arrival of the first arts’ class.

Leaning against the fireplace Stephen heard him greet briskly and impartially every Student of the class and could almost see the frank smiles of the coarser students. A desolating pity began to fall like dew upon his easily embittered heart for this faithful serving-man of the knightly Loyola, for this half-brother of the clergy, more venal than they in speech, more steadfast of soul than they, one whom he would never call his ghostly father; and he thought how this man and his companions had earned the name of worldlings at the hands not of the unworldly only but of the worldly also for having pleaded, during all their history, at the bar of God’s justice for the souls of the lax and the lukewarm and the prudent.

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1 Response to The Books: “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (James Joyce)

  1. Today in history: February 2nd

    Two things happened on today in history: February 2, 1882: James Joyce was born in Rathgar. February 2, 1922: Joyce’s Ulysses was published by Shakespeare & Co. James Joyce had already written a collection of short stories (Dubliners – excerpt…

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