Portrait of Artist as Young Man

I suppose to be entirely fair to Joyce’s The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man you would have to read it within the context of its own time, but I don’t know that much about Victorian Ireland and I certainly don’t have the desire to do the background research necessary to understand that period. Needless to say, though, Victorian society had a very different view of sexuality than today’s society has, and I suspect my views on sex are actually closer to Joyce’s than they are to Victorian views.

I hate it when I find myself agreeing with a particular opinion of someone I generally disagree with. I was not happy, for instance, when I heard Paul Ryan say that if America was going to attack Syria that we ought to take out Assad, something I’d just said in my blog a few days earlier. Still, as Emerson noted, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” So it’s silly to insist that someone whose views you generally disagree with is not right when you believe he is. That said, like Joyce’s protagonist in Portrait, I generally find myself rejecting the Catholic view of sin, not just the Victorian view.

It is strangely compelling to watch the protagonist transform from the perfect Catholic student, one highly recruited by the priests, to one who rejects the cloth to pursue “the reality of experience.” Although Stephen Dedalus’ first reaction to his violent sin is the same as most people’s would be be, his contemplation of that sin seems more like that of a priest than it does of a layman.

A cold lucid indifference reigned in his soul. At his first violent sin he had felt a wave of vitality pass out of him and had feared to find his body or his soul maimed by the excess. Instead the vital wave had carried him on its bosom out of himself and back again when it receded: and no part of body or soul had been maimed but a dark peace had been established between them. The chaos in which his ardour extinguished itself was a cold indifferent knowledge of himself. He had sinned mortally not once but many times and he knew that, while he stood in danger of eternal damnation for the first sin alone, by every succeeding sin he multiplied his guilt and his punishment. His days and works and thoughts could make no atonement for him, the fountains of sanctifying grace having ceased to refresh his soul. At most, by an alms given to a beggar whose blessing he fled from, he might hope wearily to win for himself some measure of actual grace. Devotion had gone by the board. What did it avail to pray when he knew that his soul lusted after his own destruction? A certain pride, a certain awe, withheld him from offering to God even one prayer at night though he knew it was in God's power to take away his life while he slept and hurl his soul hellward ere he could beg for mercy. His pride in his own sin, his loveless awe of God, told him that his offence was too grievous to be atoned for in whole or in part by a false homage to the Allseeing and Allknowing.

Unlike a priest who I assume would only see the negative aspects of sleeping with a prostitute, Stephen feels that “no part of body or soul had been maimed but a dark peace had been established between them.” Although he is convinced that he is in “danger of eternal damnation,” he wonders if there is any reason to even pray when his soul “lusted after his own destruction.” If what you most desire in life is judged as sinful, why should you even attempt to appeal to God?

As a result of his sinning with prostitutes, Dedalus sees lust as the source of many other sins:

From the evil seed of lust all other deadly sins had sprung forth: pride in himself and contempt of others, covetousness in using money for the purchase of unlawful pleasure, envy of those whose vices he could not reach to and calumnious murmuring against the pious, gluttonous enjoyment of food, the dull glowering anger amid which he brooded upon his longing, the swamp of spiritual and bodily sloth in which his whole being had sunk.

One suspects that the Irish Catholic Church would have judged masturbation or sex with a “good” girl as sinful, perhaps even more sinful, than having sex with prostitutes. For the Church, sex seems by its very nature to be evil, unless it’s used strictly for procreation, and even then it’s questionable. Worst of all, at least as Stephen sees it, committing one sin inevitably leads to further sin, an idea also explored in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

Later, Stephen, like most youthful sinners, repents when confronted by his priest.

You are very young, my child, he said, and let me implore of you to give up that sin. It is a terrible sin. It kills the body and it kills the soul. It is the cause of many crimes and misfortunes. Give it up, my child, for God's sake. It is dishonourable and unmanly. You cannot know where that wretched habit will lead you or where it will come against you. As long as you commit that sin, my poor child, you will never be worth one farthing to God. Pray to our mother Mary to help you. She will help you, my child. Pray to Our Blessed Lady when that sin comes into your mind. I am sure you will do that, will you not? You repent of all those sins. I am sure you do. And you will promise God now that by His holy grace you will never offend Him any more by that wicked sin. You will make that solemn promise to God, will you not?

After repenting Stephen goes from one extreme to another. Relieved of his awful guilt, he revels in God’s Love.

He sat by the fire in the kitchen, not daring to speak for happiness. Till that moment he had not known how beautiful and peaceful life could be. The green square of paper pinned round the lamp cast down a tender shade. On the dresser was a plate of sausages and white pudding and on the shelf there were eggs. They would be for the breakfast in the morning after the communion in the college chapel. White pudding and eggs and sausages and cups of lea. How simple and beautiful was life after all! And life lay all before him.

Of course, any reader over the age of 15 realizes that this stage of happiness is as unrealistic as the despair he felt over his earlier sins. What’s unexpected, perhaps, is that what Stephen takes from his being forgiven by God is his belief “in the reality of love.”

But he could no longer disbelieve in the reality of love since God Himself had loved his individual soul with divine love from all eternity. Gradually, as his soul was enriched with spiritual knowledge, he saw the whole world forming one vast symmetrical expression of God's power and love. Life became a divine gift for every moment and sensation of which, were it even the sight of a single leaf hanging on the twig of a tree, his soul should praise and thank the Giver. The world for all its solid substance and complexity no longer existed for his soul save as a theorem of divine power and love and universality. So entire and unquestionable was this sense of the divine meaning in all nature granted to his soul that he could scarcely understand why it was in any way necessary that he should continue to live. Yet that was part of the divine purpose and he dared not question its use, he above all others who had sinned so deeply and so foully against the divine purpose.

The idea that God loves us and it His divine love that redeems us is standard doctrine, but Joyce seems to translate God’s love for mankind into romantic love, and, perhaps, to mere lust, depending on how you happen to interpret the novel.

When the agony of shame had passed from him he tried to raise his soul from its abject powerlessness. God and the Blessed Virgin were too far from him: God was too great and stern and the Blessed Virgin too pure and holy. But he imagined that he stood near Emma In a wide land and, humbly and in tears, bent and kissed the elbow of her sleeve.

Emma, according to Stephen, is a “real” girl, a “nice” girl, as opposed to the prostitutes he’s slept with, but she seems more like Venus, the Greek Goddess of Love, than a real girl. If you look forward a little in the novel, she might even be the “muse” that inspires him to leave the church.

In the wide land under a tender lucid evening sky, a cloud drifting westward amid a pale green sea of heaven, they stood together, children that had erred. Their error had offended deeply God's majesty though it was the error of two children, but it had not offended her whose beauty is not like earthly beauty, dangerous to look upon, but like the morning star which is its emblem, bright and musical. The eyes were not offended which she turned upon them nor reproachful. She placed their hands together, hand in hand, and said, speaking to their hearts:

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.

Emma, according to Stephen, is a “real” girl, a “nice” girl, as opposed to the prostitutes he’s slept with, but to many she seems more like Venus, the Greek Goddess of Love, than a real girl. If you look forward a little in the novel, she might even be the “muse” that inspires him to leave the church.

Though it is his love, or lust, that calls Stephen, Joyce implies that it is confession to a priest and the constant feeling of guilt that comes from that which finally drives him from the church and from God himself:

Often when he had confessed his doubts and scruples, some momentary inattention at prayer, a movement of trivial anger in his soul or a subtle wilfulness in speech or act, he was bidden by his confessor to name some sin of his past life before absolution was given him. He named it with humility and shame and repented of it once more. It humiliated and shamed him to think that he would never be freed from it wholly, however holily he might live or whatever virtues or perfections he might attain. A restless feeling of guilt would always be present with him: he would confess and repent and be absolved, confess and repent again and be absolved again, fruitlessly. Perhaps that first hasty confession wrung from him by the fear of hell had not been good? Perhaps, concerned only for his imminent doom, he had not had sincere sorrow for his sin? But the surest sign that his confession had been good and that he had had sincere sorrow for his sin Was, he knew, the amendment of his life.

I have amended my life, have I not? he asked himself.

The reader realizes Stephen hasn’t amended his life and that he’s unwilling to spend his life feeling guilty for committing “sins” for wanting to experience all of life. In fact, it is this constant sense of guilt at having to confess his sins that seems to drive him from the church.

… His destiny was to be elusive of social or religious orders. The wisdom of the priest’s appeal did not touch him to the quick. He was destined to learn his own wisdom apart from others or to learn the wisdom of others himself wandering among the snares of the world.

The snares of the world were its ways of sin. He would fall. He had not yet fallen but he would fall silently, in an instant. Not to fall was too hard, too hard: and he felt the silent lapse of his soul, as it would be at some instant to come, falling, falling but not yet fallen, still unfallen but about to fall.

Although he seems to accept the Church’s belief that he is a sinner and is doomed to fall, he prefers to live his life “unfallen but about to fall,” more Icarus than Daedalus, refusing to be bound by the prison of the church.

In an interesting essay, Neil Murphyargues that

Stephen’s reinterpretation of Catholicism by way of his Daedalian aspirations becomes the source of his eventual artistic spiritual redemption, while the vocational life of the Jesuits is depicted as a life of physical deprivation and denial of vitality. For Stephen, the religious life in effect becomes a sin against life.

As you might guess from reading this blog, I have way too many monastic inclinations to accept that view, but I cannot deny my own view of sin and confession is probably closer to Joyce’s view than it is to the Catholic Church’s view. I’m sure I’ve made my share of mistakes in life and I’ve done things I’ve regretted later, but instead of feeling guilt over what I’ve done I used those mistakes as motivation to do better in the future. I suspect that what I consider the worst mistakes I’ve made in my life are not what the Church would consider the greatest sins, and what the Church would likely consider a sin I don’t even consider a major “mistake.”

3 thoughts on “Portrait of Artist as Young Man

  1. I’m glad you got to this post, I’ve been looking out for it. The novel for me is profoundly ambiguous and unresolved in many ways, steeped in the sacramental imagination even though Joyce rejected that sacramentalism throughout his life. And the concept of ‘sin’ is the most intense state of consciousness examined in Portrait.

    You mention the tension between prostitutes and the Virgin, the unapproachability of the good girl Emma — what did you make of the girl seen in the epiphany, the young girl like a waterbird standing in the shallows, a sight lit up with new meaning for Stephen as he ponders his vocation?

    An aside — I wonder if you noticed this passage. The retreat that so influences Stephen and the school ethos is Ignatian and has some parallels with certain Buddhist practices, especially as regards detachment from the dynamics of craving and aversion. This paragraph interested me especially from Chapter 4 because it is so similar to accounts of periods spent in forest monasteries and that Eastern mortification of the senses:

    “Each of his senses was brought under a rigorous discipline. In order to mortify the sense of sight he made it his rule to walk in the street with downcast eyes, glancing neither to right nor left and never behind him. His eyes shunned every encounter with the eyes of women. From time to time also he balked them by a sudden effort of the will, as by lifting them suddenly in the middle of an unfinished sentence and closing the book. …. But it was to the mortification of touch he brought the most assiduous ingenuity of inventiveness. He never consciously changed his position in bed, sat in the most uncomfortable positions, suffered patiently every itch and pain, kept away from the fire, remained on his knees all through the mass except at the gospels, left part of his neck and face undried so that air might sting them and, whenever he was not saying his beads, carried his arms stiffly at his sides like a runner and never in his pockets or clasped behind him.”

    • I thought Emma and the girl seen in the epiphany had actually become one. They both seem to symbolize love, or,at least, mortal love, neither of which he sees as attainable.

      Right now I don’t have access to my notes, but I’ll try to get back to this entry when I do have.

  2. It’s not the belief of the Church that we’re “doomed to fall.” Joyce writes “not to fall is too hard, too hard.” Well, this is why we have the sacraments. We’re all called to holiness. The fact that we have saints shows us that we don’t have to fall.

What do you think?