Stephen Dedalus and Shelley

The more I thought about Joyce’s A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man the more it occurred to me that I might have loved this book had I read it as a high school student or as a freshman or sophomore in college. In those years the Romantic Poets had considerable appeal, and I idealized women almost as much as I idealized my own place in the universe. I‘m sure some of my fellow students perceived me as a sarcastic nerd. It goes without saying that I was also trying to balance my lust against opposing goals like every other teenager who’s ever been born. In other words, I would have loved the novel because it would have confirmed my misconceptions of the world, or at least what I now see as misconceptions.

The novel is a brutally honest portrayal of Stephen Dedalus, “James Joyce's literary alter ego, appearing as the protagonist and anti-hero of his first, semi-autobiographical novel of artistic existence ...” (at least if we are to believe Wikipedia [and many other sources]). If I had read this novel before I read Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, I would have wondered if Salinger had been inspired by it, though I certainly prefer Joyce’s book to Salinger’s. Even as a teenager I didn’t particularly like Catcher in the Rye, even then perceiving Holden Caulfield as a self-indulgent, whiney twit who saw himself as superior to those around him. Though I’m not particularly fond of Stephen Dadalus, I certainly identify more with him than with Holden.

I ended up majoring in English because I thought literature gave me insights into life I couldn’t find anywhere else. I must still feel that way, or I wouldn’t spend so much time reading poetry and novels. (Though I have to admit nowadays I’d usually rather be outside walking than inside reading.) As a high school senior I identified with Jude the Obscure and felt “The Darkling Thrush” came as close as anything I’d ever read to summarizing my ameliorative philosophy of life. No one else I knew had ever read Thomas Hardy, or showed the least interest in doing so. (Though that had never even occurred to me until I sat down to write this paragraph.)

That probably accounts for why I found it delightful when Stephen identifies his personal crisis with lines from Shelley’s poetry:

Stephen watched the three glasses being raised from the counter as his father and his two cronies drank to the memory of their past. An abyss of fortune or of temperament sundered him from them. His mind seemed older than theirs: it shone coldly on their strifes and happiness and regrets like a moon upon a younger earth. No life or youth stirred in him as it had stirred in them. He had known neither the pleasure of companionship with others nor the vigour of rude male health nor filial piety. Nothing stirred within his soul but a cold and cruel and loveless lust. His childhood was dead or lost and with it his soul capable of simple joys, and he was drifting amid life like the barren shell of the moon.

Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Wandering companionless . . . ?

He repeated to himself the lines of Shelley's fragment. It’s alternation of sad human ineffectualness with vast inhuman cycles of activity chilled him, and he forgot his own human and ineffectual grieving.

It is an apt metaphor to summarize Stephen’s feelings, especially when you look at the whole second stanza of Shelley’s “The Moon:”

Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Wandering companionless
Among the stars that have a different birth,
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?

Alienated from his classmates and family, particularly his father, Stephen is unable to find joy in his life, unable to find anything worth holding on to.

Frustrated in his “love” for Emma, he turns to the red-light district to satisfy his “cold and cruel and loveless lust”:

He would follow a devious course up and down the streets, circling always nearer and nearer in a tremor of fear and joy, until his feet led him suddenly round a dark corner. The whores would be just coming out of their houses making ready for the night, yawning lazily after their sleep and settling the hairpins in their clusters of hair. He would pass by them calmly waiting for a sudden movement of his own will or a sudden call to his sinloving soul from their soft perfumed flesh. Yet as he prowled in quest of that call, his senses, stultified only by his desire, would note keenly all that wounded or shamed them; his eyes, a ring of porter froth on a clothless table or a photograph of two soldiers standing to attention or a gaudy playbill; his ears, the drawling jargon of greeting:

—Hello, Bertie, any good in your mind?

bore his weary mind outward to its verge and inward to its centre, a distant music accompanying him outward and inward. What music? The music came nearer and he recalled the words, the words of Shelley's fragment upon the moon wandering companionless, pale for weariness. The stars began to crumble and a cloud of fine Stardust fell through space.

What a stange mixture of the erotic and the mundane. Considering Stephen is the star pupil in a Catholic school, “a sudden call to his sinloving soul from their soft perfumed flesh” comes as a jarring reminder of just how schizophrenic his life has become, and the irony is underlined by the whore’s calling out “any good in your mind?”

Unfortunately, Joyce starts to lose me on that poetic last sentence, “The stars began to crumble and a cloud of fine Stardust fell through space.” Normally that would be the author, not the character commenting on his state of mind. If it’s Stephen thinking, it would fit his character because it’s hard not to feel he is being overly dramatic, overreacting tf the kinds of problems every teen faces. I can’t help but think it’s Joyce, though, and it’s far too “poetic,” in the bad sense, for my taste.

There are far too many examples of that kind of hyperbole in the novel for me to rank it as one of the ten best novels of the 20th century, examples like this:

The dull light fell more faintly upon the page whereon another equation began to unfold itself slowly and to spread abroad its widening tail. It was his own soul going forth to experience, unfolding itself sin by sin, spreading abroad the balefire of its burning stars and folding back upon itself, fading slowly, quenching its own lights and fires. They were quenched: and the cold darkness filled chaos.

These lines seem almost Miltonic, and Stephen, no matter how brilliant he might be, is no Lucifer about to lose Paradise. He’s a young man who has just “sinned” and in doing so has begun to discover what it means to be a man.

Of course, my dislike for these kinds of passages may say more about my taste in literature than about Joyce’s novel. I prefer content over style. It’s an ongoing argument I’ve had with my literary friends. I would be perfectly happy if I could be completely caught up in the story, focused on character’s actions or thoughts, totally unaware that there’s even a writer involved in the process. Metaphorically speaking, I hate watching movies where the camera shakes and you end up paying more attention to the poor camera work than to the story itself. The last thing I want is to be constantly reminded is how brilliant the author is.

2 thoughts on “Stephen Dedalus and Shelley

  1. I felt the same as a near classmate and almost neighbor to you in those days…especially when I read Pound’s aphorism that literature is “News that stays new.” But gradually other wisdom showed up like the detritus we find on the beaches of Puget Sound at low tide. One example is the anecdote my wife —a first grade teacher–brought home Friday, of a boy who knocked over her pencil jar by accident (he is mildly autistic) and began weeping uncontrollably at his mistake. Another boy rushed over, patted him on the shoulder and said, “Its OK Stephen..we ALL break things. You’l be alright.” On the playground Thursday a different boy stopped running abruptly, raised his hand to the back of his head, stroked it, and said to my wife, “You know, my hair back there is really smooth.” These vignettes happen constantly and even if they offer me not quotable sentences, they assure me that Robert Grudin (The Grace of Great Things) is no more profound than the child in Australia who wrote 40 years ago: “The stars were three-penny bits. The sea was making a sound like a silk dress.” That’s a quote from a favorite book, MIracles, I once used to teach freshman to re-learn their own voices.
    Out of the classroom 35 years now, I find similar moments daily when a grandson’s makes faces at me or a colleague muffs a sentence and makes accidental beauty. I am not ready to swear to this, but suspect that literature (still a treasure cave to me) is only one vein…and all the other sources of joy work fine, too. I am thinking of a guy who raved about a 92 Pontiac to me over his beer last night….and another guy who was oohing and aahing at a well-made flyrod, and my mother-in-law raving about the view of the moon from her deck. Your love of haiku makes me believe you agree, and that poetry in general is our gesture at collecting what almost everyone notices whether they speak of it or not. Which calls to mind the great wisdom of the madman Blake: “He who kisses the Joy as it flies//lives in Eternity’s sunrise.”

    • Sometimes I think that poets or authors just help us to see more clearly the wisdom we’ve already gathered from our lives, which would certainly include what we’ve learned from the people we live our lives with.

What do you think?