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Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

March, 1958

THE PERCEPTIONS OF JAMES JOYCE

An American of Irish antecedents, John V. Kelleher has become an authority on Irish history and the Irish mind in the years of study that have brought him to his present professorship at Harvard.

by John V. Kelleher

If the day should come that I walk into the classroom, unfurl my opening lecture on Joyce; and find at the end of the hour that I had as well been talking about Alfred Lord Tennyson, I shall not be unduly surprised. No writer's original fame lasts forever with the young. Joyce has already had an unusually long run with them; and though their interest shows no present signs of weakening, when it does fail it will likely fail suddenly. Everything in literature has its term, and, if worthy, its renewal. That the rediscovery of Joyce will occur, with full fanfare, within a generation after his rejection, may be taken as certain. However, that will be no affair of mine.

Meanwhile, I predict with confidence that when the rest of Joyce's books pass into temporary disfavor A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man will go on being read, possibly as much as ever, by youths from eighteen to twenty-two. They will read it and recommend it to one another just as lads their age do now, and for the same reasons. That is, they will read it primarily as useful and reassuring revelation--not as literature, for they will be blind to its irony and its wonderful engineering, the qualities Joyce most labored to give it. They will use it as a magic mirror: as boys of thirteen use Huckleberry Finn and as sixteen-going-on-seventeen looks into the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam for graceful corroboration of its own grim apprehension of The Meaning of Life. I should think it doubtful that Joyce had these readers in mind when he wrote the book, any more than Fitzgerald foresaw for his nearly original poem its permanent audience of callow fatalists; but, like it or not, this is part of his achievement.

Joyce did complain that readers tended to forget the last four words of the title. He could have remarked, too, that the book was not the Self-Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. All too often it is read as if it were so named. Then the author himself is belabored for the sins and the more than occasional priggishness of his hero, or, conversely, is credited with having possessed in youth the same astonishing clarity of purpose and action.

Either assumption is unjust to Joyce. True, Stephen Dedalus is endowed with a personal history quite similar to his creator's; his experiences are modeled on those Joyce himself suffered or enjoyed at that age; and as Joyce, writing the book, is the mature artist, so Stephen is a representation of the artist-by-nature as he discovers his vocation, defines his creed, and sets forth to practice it. There, I think, close resemblance ends. Joyce's life happened to him as everyone's life happens--at all hours and seasons, any old way, with chronic inconvenience. Stephen's existence, though presented in rich detail, is at once the product and the illustration of deliberate composition in terms of a consciously created aesthetic.

I remember that when I first encountered Stephen Dedalus I was twenty and I wondered how Joyce could have known so much about me. That is what I mean by the sort of reading the book will continue to get, whatever literary fashion may decree. Perhaps about the third reading it dawned on me that Stephen was, after all, a bit of a prig; and to that extent I no longer identified myself with him. (How could I?) Quite a while later I perceived that Joyce knew that Stephen was a prig; that, indeed, he looked on Stephen with quite an ironic eye. So then I understood. At least I did until I had to observe that the author's glance was not one of unmixed irony. There was compassion in it too, as well as a sort of tender, humorous pride. By this time I was lecturing on Joyce, and I was having a terrible time with the book. I could not coordinate what I had to say about it; and the students; as their papers showed, were mostly wondering how Joyce could have known so much about them--which was fortunate, for the lectures made very little sense, and it was well that the victims had their own discoveries to distract them.

The trouble was, I was trying to examine separate parts of the book separately. There aren't any separate parts. One might as well attempt to study a man's gestures by pulling off his arm and dissecting it. The book is all of a piece, one organic whole. It is, as it were, written backwards and forwards and sideways and in depth, all at once. A score of premises is laid down in the first twenty-odd pages. From these, with deliberate and unobtrusive engineering, everything else is developed in the most natural-looking way possible. The same words or the same basic images in which the premise was expressed are used over and over again, development usually being measured by the variations of context in which they occur or by new combinations of these identifying words and images.

Described that way, the technique sounds dry as dust. Just some more damned symbolism. Unfortunately I can only suggest the vitality of Joyce's method by illustrating it, and in so short a compass as this essay I can get an illustration only by dissecting it from its text. A curiously uncooperative man he always was.

One early premise is the conjunction of red and green. Stephen, as a baby, has a song:

O, the wild rose blossoms
On the little green place.

He sang that song. That was his song.

O, the green wothe botheth.


The song is an old sentimental favorite, Lily Dale. The second line ought to be "On the little green grave," but this is a song taught to a very small child and so for grave is substituted the neutral place. What counts, however, is that as he sings it he confuses red and green into one image, the green rose.

On the next page the colors are still in proximity but are now separate.

"Dante [his grandaunt] had two brushes in her press. The brush with the maroon velvet back was for Michael Davitt and the brush with the green velvet back was for Parnell."

A little later in the chapter the child, now at boarding school, is coming down with a fever and finds it hard to study. He looks at his geography where there is a picture of the earth amid clouds, which another boy, not he, had colored with crayons.

"He...looked wearily at the green round earth in the middle of the maroon clouds. He wondered which was right, to be for the green or for the maroon, because Dante had ripped the green velvet back off the brush that was for Parnell one day with her scissors and had told him that Parnell was a bad man. He wondered if they were arguing at home about that. That was called politics. There were two sides in it: Dante was on one side and his father and Mr. Casey were on the other side but his mother and Uncle Charles were on no side."

He remembers the song, too. "But you could not have a green rose. But perhaps someplace in the world you could."

At night, sick and very lonely, he dreams of going home for Christmas; and home is all in terms of a conjunction of green and red.

"There were lanterns in the hall of his father's house and ropes of green branches. There were holly and ivy round the pierglass and holly and ivy, green and red, twined round the chandeliers. There were red holly and green ivy round the old portraits on the walls. Holly and ivy for him and for Christmas."

This simple union of red and green--say, of emotion and vitality, though that hardly expresses the whole meaning--is realized once more, for the last time, at the beginning of the famous Christmas dinner episode.

"A great fire, banked high and red, flamed in the grate and under the ivy twined branches of the chandelier the Christmas table was spread."

But from there out, only the red of passion and the black of grief. The argument over Parnell and the bishops cannot be avoided or hushed. Dante, aflame with outraged pietism and heartburn, and the dark-faced Mr. Casey have it out uncontrollably. When Dante stamps from the room shouting, "Devil out of hell! We won! We crushed him to death! Fiend!", the household, like Ireland itself, is split asunder, the soldierly Casey is weeping for his "dead king," all color is crushed out of the scene--and, though the reader, caught up by the wild emotionality, is not likely to remember, confidence in custom has been broken too. Before the argument, Stephen had been thinking how

"when dinner was ended the big plum pudding would be carried in, studded with peeled almonds and sprigs of holly, with bluish fire running around it and a little green flag flying from the top."

The pudding is never brought in. Stephen will never see Ireland happily on top of its own world. Till the book reaches its climax, red and green remain apart. The dominant combination is red, black, and white: a false one for Stephen whether betokened by a red-faced priest with his white collar and black garb or by the dark hair and rosy complexion and white dress of E.C., the wrong girl for him. Meanwhile, half a dozen other themes are being developed through color, the most important being the white, gold, blue, and ivory of the Blessed Virgin to whom Stephen offers a dry and profitless devotion. The same four colors, though never all at once, indicate the image of beauty he must find among mortal women.

The book has five chapters. The first four chronicle Stephen's search for his true identity. As the very first sentence informs us, he is not truly of the family into which he was born--there he is "baby tuckoo," the cuckoo's fledgling in the cowbird's nest. He tries to find himself through obedience, through disobedience, through the family, through dream, through precocious sexuality, and finally and most earnestly through rigorous piety. Each attempt fails. He only learns in recurrent weariness and despair that he is not this, not that. Then suddenly, a little after he has refused to be trapped by vanity into falsely admitting a vocation for the priesthood, freedom possesses him. Freedom and expectation. He wanders out onto the strand at the north side of the river mouth where presentiment had long since warned him he would meet his love. Bond after bond falls away from him. Weariness is banished. Joyfully he feels his final separation from all that does not truly and wholly pertain to himself. He knows with absolute certainty that he is approaching his destiny in the "wild heart of life." Suddenly, too, color--all significant color--is around him, every hue transformed, red to russet and green to emerald. Almost on that instant he meets his Muse.

"A girl stood before him in midstream: alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane's and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh. Her thighs, fuller and softhued as ivory, were bared almost to the hips where the white fringes of her drawers were like feathering of soft white down. Her slate-blue skirts were kilted boldly about her waist and dovetailed behind her. Her bosom was as a bird's, soft and slight, slight and soft as the breast of some dark-plumaged dove. But her long fair hair was girlish: and girlish, and touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, her face."

They look at each other without speaking. Then the girl withdraws her glance and begins to stir the water with her foot

"hither and thither, hither and thither: and a faint flame trembled on her cheek.

Heavenly God! cried Stephen's soul, in an outburst of profane joy."

Here, then, the Virgin's colors and green and red, the strand of seaweed and the flame upon the cheek, are fused with the bird imagery that continues throughout the book from "baby tuckoo" on the first page to Dedalus, the winged artificer, who is evoked in the final sentence. The whole thus created is greater than the sum of its parts and has a new and greater meaning. Stephen's joy when he recognizes that meaning must be profane. The identity, the vocation, and the destiny here revealed to him are those of the artist. They demand a dedication as absolute as that of the priest--directed, however, not to the sacred and infinite, but to that sensual reality which is the artist's sole material. Now all that remains for Stephen to do is to free himself in actuality, work out the theology of his devotion, and after that, well, everything--with no flinching or excuses. It will be lucky for him that he has had at least this one moment of undiminished exultation.

I chose color for my illustration because, though it is much more elaborate khan I have managed to indicate, it is the simplest continuing imagery in the book and because it is resolved. Other images convey more and are harder to follow, especially those based on abstract concepts like sphericity, extension, or systole and diastole (whether as the ebb and flow of tides, or the lengthening and shortening of lines in the solution of an algebraic problem, or a reaching out to infinity and a swift instinctive recurrence to self). Nearly as difficult are pair-words like "difference" and "indifference," or the notion of the "bounding line," or what seems mere natural description like the falling of rain or light, or the smell of turf smoke, or mist and vapors rising, or, in every instance, the moon. The very aesthetic that Stephen outlines to his sounding board, Lynch of the withered soul, employs a vocabulary already saturated with meaning from repeated use. When he says

"The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails,"

we may note that fingernails have been pared before--and will be again, as in Ulysses where Bloom looks out of the funeral coach, sees his wife's seducer, and looks at his own nails to see if they are pared, which they are.

This way of writing--I suppose we shall have to call it symbolism, though the word has been beaten shapeless--is, I believe, Joyce's natural and most central method. It antedates the Portrait. There are hints of it in the first story in Dubliners; and in the last, "The Dead," where the ubiquitous Mr. Brown is Death himself, it has already become systematic. At the same time, symbolism is never Joyce's sole method; it is always employed in conjunction with means which, though they receive reinforcement from it, are themselves self-sustaining.

Thus the Portrait functions well enough simply as a naturalistic novel. It was meant to. The book has several levels, each with a workable meaning of its own; and yet, since the containing form is the same for all levels, each meaning necessarily relates to the one overall statement. The irony that we remarked before depends on this. In the final chapter we have Stephen theorizing a little too positively about what he has not yet actually tried. This is his priggishness which, if honesty is to be complete, is inescapably part of the statement too. Proudly Stephen declares what qualities--fortitude, discipline, detachment-- characterize the true, and the very rare, artist. The novel, telling his story so intricately and simply, is the proof of those qualities. And the proof itself is a measure of how far Stephen has yet to travel, through how much discouragement and pain, before he can practice what he so confidently preaches. Again let us remember that this is not Stephen's self portrait. When the book is written Stephen no longer exists.

Still, does even this achievement justify so much complexity? Or as the question is more usually put, has Joyce the right to demand so much of the reader? The answer, I think, is that he demands no more than the serious artist normally expects is due his work. All that he wrote can be validly appreciated as what it outwardly appears to be because it is what it outwardly appears, as well as much else. His short stories, his play, his novels are all true specimens. As a matter of fact, he was aggrieved that readers, probing worriedly for deeper significances, should so consistently miss what lay on the surface. He pointed out in exasperation that Ulysses was, after all, a funny book. It is indeed. And if the reader gets the symbolic meanings but misses the fun, he has missed a good third of what the author was at pains to provide. Again, if the reader exploits the symbolism only for its meaning and fails to grasp its structural function, he has missed the deepest pleasure of all, the apprehension of pure form purely realized.

Not that such form is always achieved. The Portrait is Joyce's one perfected work, evenly sustained and controlled from end to end by a talent in calm dominion over its theme, its instruments, and itself. The books that followed were quite different. Joyce saw no point in doing the same job twice. In Ulysses he attempted much more, succeeded with more, and, I feel, produced a book spotted with failure. Finnegans Wake, in which he tried to encompass nearly all that he considered humanly applicable reality, succeeded almost beyond imagination and failed frequently and flatly. In neither case is the success contradicted by the failure which it outweighs quantitatively and morally--not to mention that the success could not be, and was not, predictable, being wholly novel.

The quantity and novelty of Joyce's achievement are obvious. Its moral quality is not so readily agreed on. Critics in a surprising variety have spoken as if the indifference Joyce enjoins upon the artist continues, with him, into a callous indifferentism toward all moral value. Some of his warmest admirers have sadly admitted his gamin irresponsibility and have sought cause or extenuation for it in the unideal circumstances of his life. A more frequent charge is "emptiness of content."

If an artist is to be judged by the positiveness of his advice on politics, quotidian morality, education, or what have you, Joyce does not rank very high. There is, however, the possibility that his silence on these matters may have been due to modesty. As an artist he was anything but modest--he simply regarded himself as the best of the age--but I see little in his work to indicate that he felt that the gift of expression carried with it the duty to express quotable judgments on what he knew no more about than the next man. And there are times, as when I read Yeats on government or Shaw on child-rearing, when I think Joyce's reticence is rather commendable.

Often, though, it is a painful reticence. He was past master of the confessorial technique that confesses nothing because it blabs too much. He could rarely permit himself to write simply from the heart, though when he did--as in the ending of Finnegans Wake or in the poem, "Ecce Puer," on his father's death and his grandson's birth--a most poignant power was released. Such passages give the lie to his usual affectation of wearing his heart up his sleeve. Why, then, the affectation? Partly, perhaps, because his artistic discipline was primarily late nineteenth century, art for art's sake, absolute subordination of subject to form, and because his subject was usually his own, often bitterly unhappy experience. What impelled him, I think, to choose and continue such a discipline was not just his artistic proclivities or the fact that he grew up in a cultural province where that view of art and the artist was still high fashion, but rather that he had a very Irish nature (counter to another Irish nature) that instinctively chose mockery if the alternative was tears. It is useless to observe that tears might often have been better for his health or that there are many places in his work where open emotion could have been admitted without loss of integrity. He was what he was. He hated what he called the "whine" in Irish poetry. When he noticed the impulsive tear and smile mingled in Ireland's eye his instinct was to give it a rough wipe. He did his best to keep his own eye dry in public. If he sometimes succeeded all too well, that was only what he intended.

We must be careful not to confuse that innate stoicism with despair. He is not a comforting writer. He seems to have viewed life as a sort of epic drama composed of details almost indifferently tragic and farcical and acted by involuntary comedians, of whom he was himself one. If so, he could stand it and, when opportunity offered, enjoy it. There is one condition that holds true in art as in politics: you can't ask favors from a man who wants none for himself.

When Yeats declared in the Irish Senate that Joyce had "an heroic mind," he made an understanding estimate. Joyce's heroism was partly this toughness and partly that his mind drove continually beyond itself in an ever-widening effort to define, through appropriate means, its own perceptions. The nature of those perceptions can be seen clearly in the Portrait: secret relationships impalpable yet vitally communicative, sensed as existing between man and man, age and age, world and man, and, of course, between word and word. Most of them could be expressed only indirectly through symbol, for they are very curious relationships. Few are obvious. A lot of them would never occur to the reader independently; and after Joyce has pointed them out they still don't occur. Some like the endless punning upon mere sound in Finnegans Wake, can only be judged trivial and compulsive. Yet, time and again, just as the mind is about to turn away from some dull obscurity, one discovers that the artist has turned the trick, the commonest clay of experience made magically luminous with fresh meaning and oldest sympathy. And suddenly all the individual strands of technique and attitude subsumed in Joyce's approach to his subject are seen moving together like muscles working under the skin, and the impact is multiple and one. We perceive what the adjective "organic" is supposed to indicate in a work of art.

His failure is heroic too, a tremendous try that doesn't come off. There is no mistaking it when it happens. Often enough when his skill fails, his taste fails with it, as in those godawful gooey embarrassing soliloquies of the girl Isobel in Finnegans Wake or, again in the Wake, in long, long passages where ingenuity, mistaking itself for humor, produces the most intricate tedium achieved by non-Marxist man. But, turn the page, and you are back in the midst of magic and delight. Many a grave writer who never loses control cannot promise you that. To reveal the wonders of the great deep involves the risk of going overboard.

Stop in them where one will, subtract from them what one will, by any measure Joyce's works are those of a very big writer. Even the most narcissistic youth looking into the Portrait as his own must realize at last that the mirror owes something to its maker. Yet I discover that it can be long before one realizes whence Joyce's bigness derives. The source is indicated in his recently published letters. For the most part these annotate what his formal writings have amply documented: his courage, independence, humor, honor, and his curiousness, for he was a very curious man. They also demonstrate, for the first time fully, how deeply seated was his possession of his virtues. The proof is in the letters he wrote to his only daughter when she was sinking into insanity, letters so compounded of easy fun and mortal agony and iron control that only the fun shows. Let any of us try that on for size. He was, it seems, a big man too.


Copyright © 1958 by John V. Kelleher. All rights reserved.
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