A case for Portrait - Revisiting James Joyce Part 2
Stephen grows restless with his decadent life. Father Arnall's hellfire sermon draws his sensibilities on the incursions into the realms of sin and redemption. The contemplations on sin, death, confession and deliverance reveal a quest for a personal god who can restore the beauty and purity of his world. Here he is ruminating on God's majesty and its manifestation in the imagery of Emma, his partner in sin and a vision of biblical deluge:
"-- Take hands, Stephen and Emma. It is a beautiful evening now in heaven. You have erred but you are always my children. It is one heart that loves another heart. Take hands together, my dear children, and you will be happy together and your hearts will love each other.
The chapel was flooded by the dull scarlet light that filtered through the lowered blinds; and through the fissure between the last blind and the sash a shaft of wan light entered like a spear and touched the embossed brasses of the candlesticks upon the altar that gleamed like the battle-worn mail armor of angels.
Rain was falling on the chapel, on the garden, on the college. It would rain for ever, noiselessly. The water would rise inch by inch, covering the grass and shrubs, covering the trees and houses, covering the monuments and the mountain tops. All life would be choked off, noiselessly: birds, men, elephants, pigs, and children: noiselessly floating corpses amid the litter of the wreckage of the world. Forty days and forty nights the rain would fall till the waters covered the face of the earth."
The prose unleashes scores of images as if they were musical notes with spatial awareness of the landscape, chapel's damp light, clouds that gathered above and the rain. I read somewhere that Joyce was a tenor of rare talent.
Noticing the piety and talents in Stephen, the director of the school suggests him to take up priesthood. Caught between the choice and a growing awareness of his true self, Stephen begins to recognise his desire for freedom and the craving for aesthetics of life. He recollects how repulsive the stale odor in the corridors of Clongowes for him and unbearable, the unyielding and obscure questions of catholic doctrines. He accepts the life of imperfection and the smaller joys that are denied in the rigors of religious regimen and canonical penances.
"The faint dour stink of rotted cabbages came towards him from the kitchen gardens on the rising ground above the river. He smiled to think that it was this disorder, the misrule and confusion of his father's house and the stagnation of vegetable life, which was to win the day in his soul."
Stephen passes a turning point a little while before joining the university. He sets off to the seashore and witnesses the mirth of school chums swimming and then the vision of the winged Greek god Dedalus escaping from his prison island. His imagination soared at the spectacular sight of a girl wading in the ocean and his soul cried in an outburst of "profane" joy. For a moment he defied the strangleholds of faith and touched the freedom of spirit. He acquires great faith in the power of creativity and the eternal beauty of seemingly ephemeral objects.
"Her image had passed into his soul for ever and no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy. Her eyes had called him and his soul had leaped at the call. To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate 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!
He halted suddenly and heard his heart in the silence. How far had he walked? What hour was it?
There was no human figure near him nor any sound borne to him over the air. But the tide was near the turn and already the day was on the wane. He turned landward and ran towards the shore and, running up the sloping beach, reckless of the sharp shingle, found a sandy nook amid a ring of tufted sandknolls and lay down there that the peace and silence of the evening might still the riot of his blood.
He felt above him the vast indifferent dome and the calm processes of the heavenly bodies; and the earth beneath him, the earth that had borne him, had taken him to her breast.
He closed his eyes in the languor of sleep..."
Joyce introduced the imagery of Greek myth to suggest Stephen’s premonitions of Ireland as the Prison Island and exile. This is followed by the revelation of his artistic self and the freedom that came along with it when he felt the exhilaration of watching the girl swim and being engrossed in the beauty and harmony of the moment. He is no longer holding back on the profanity of such joys anymore
We will see a sober and determined Stephen later on. He does not let himself hurt when his father refers to him as "lazy bitch of a brother”. He would not be cowed down by McCann over his petition or swayed by Irish nationalism and politics. He finds college insipid and uninspiring. He explains his theory on the aesthetics that delineates some of the major thoughts in the modern age such as definitions of Kinetic and static arts; lyrical, epic and dramatic forms of art and his views on dramatic art as the most uplifting, rhythm of beauty etc. It is not just Lynch who benefited; it must be the reader who is following Stephen’s intellectual tour-de-force avidly.
The consummation of Stephen's persona and self-expression soon follows when he meets Emma and settles down to write the poem that he couldn't write ten years ago. But he never shows it to anyone. Stephen develops friendship with Cranley and confides everything to him and asks Cranly's advice. Stephen and Cranly have a long conversation about religion, politics, family, and Ireland. Stephen admits, under Cranly's intelligent questioning, that sometimes he fears that the Catholic Church is right and he'll be damned and sent to hell. But he still must choose as he will choose. He realizes with sadness that after he leaves Ireland his friendship with Cranly will come to an end; he accepts that he may be alone. He must be independent. He is not afraid to be alone. He is not afraid of making a mistake, even if that mistake sends him to hell.
We follow Stephen in exile through his diary:
"April 15. Met her today point blank in Grafton Street. The crowd brought us together. We both stopped. She asked me why I never came, said she had heard all sorts of stories about me. This was only to gain time. Asked me was I writing poems? About whom? I asked her. This confused her more and I felt sorry and mean. Turned off that valve at once and opened the spiritual-heroic refrigerating apparatus, invented and patented in all countries by Dante Alighieri. Talked rapidly of myself and my plans. In the midst of it unluckily I made a sudden gesture of a revolutionary nature. I must have looked like a fellow throwing a handful of peas into the air. People began to look at us. She shook hands a moment after and, in going away, said she hoped I would do what I said.
April 26. Mother is putting my new secondhand clothes in order. She prays now, she says, that I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels. Amen. So be it. 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.
April 27. Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.
You cannot read the book in one go, even though it is relatively skinny. You would have to revisit midway or on a random imagery or a composition that Joyce indulged you in. In all these you would realize the brave and firm convictions of Stephen Dedalus who grew up to become James Joyce. He lived in exile somewhere in Trieste which is no more than a windswept crossroad in Europe.
I chanced upon this book and the charmed world of Stephen. Revisiting after so long is like recreating the life and times with hope and innocence.