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Reading James Joyce Without a Gun to My Head Part II

For somebody that spends a lot of time inside his own head, Stephen can be a pretty sense-oriented kind of guy.  When he is steeped in his sinful ways he becomes something of a sensualist…very gut-oriented and appetite driven.

He hoped there would be stew for dinner, turnips and carrots and bruised potatoes and fat mutton pieces to be ladled out in thick peppered flour-fattened sauce. Stuff it into you, his belly counseled him.

He even finds his senses become acutely tuned to the darkened, sordid alleyways that he travels in.  It’s as if becoming a sex addict gives you super senses.

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:

Then again,  maybe this exposure to the senses is what makes him vulnerable to a good old fire and brimstone sermon.  The description he is force-fed is very sensory-based:

Consider then what must be the foulness of the air of hell. Imagine some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing in the grave, a jelly-like mass of liquid corruption. Imagine such a corpse a prey to flames, devoured by the fire of burning brimstone and giving off dense choking fumes of nauseous loathsome decomposition. And then imagine this sickening stench, multiplied a millionfold and a millionfold again from the millions upon millions of fetid carcasses massed together in the reeking darkness, a huge and rotting human fungus.

That’s pretty graphic for the turn of the century.   The description is enough to make a sensualist like Stephen repent out of fright.  Interestingly enough, Stephen tries to mollify his senses as part of his reformation.

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 gright nor left and never behind him. His eyes shunned every encounter with the eyes of women….To mortify his hearing he exerted no control over his voice which was then breaking, neither sang nor whistled, and made no attempt to flee from noises which caused him painful nervous irritation….

But Stephen is at heart an observer.  In the end, he cannot cut himself off from his observations of the world, nor can he suppress the feelings and inspirations that they instill within him. Even while he is considering joining the clergy, his interest leans towards being a deacon and standing off to the side of the mass, rather than acting as the celebrant and the center of attention.

Stephen is neither a raw, visceral sensualist nor an ascetic. He can neither give himself over to his senses nor cut himself off from the rest of the world.  Rather, he is an aesthetic…an observer of the world….one who watches and interprets rather than participates in the world around them.

Maybe that’s why Stephen’s theory about art requires the artist to stand away from their creation “paring his nails”.  For Stephen, the heart of creating is bringing forth a work that is completely separate from oneself.  The artist may spring a creation out of their being, but at the end of the day, they stand apart and aloof from their work.  It’s as if an artist has to divest himself of the work entirely, as if being connected to it will invalidate the act of creation in some way.

For myself I can say that no matter how close you feel to something you’ve created, what you create eventually has a life of its.  People will impress their own impressions on the work, and in the end it is no longer about you, but rather about what people find reflected in your artwork.



Reading James Joyce Without a Gun to my Head Part 1

Pick pack pock puck. The sound of the cricket bats and for me the sound of Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”.

I first encountered Joyce in a college intro lit class, and while I can’t honestly say I understood him at the time, I can certainly say I appreciated what he was doing.  I don’t know if it was the pressures of academic life or my own need to impress my professors, or simply the fact that I was simply a kid at the time, but when I read Joyce now it’s as if the words run easier.  I’m not so desperate to find something important as I am to simply read for the sake of reading, and being allowed to proceed at my own pace without a deadline certainly makes it easier to appreciate the details.  I’m much more content to write about literature without the proverbial gun to my head, and much more willing to share my thoughts with the world at large, so long as I’m not being graded.

What strikes me the most regarding the initial chapters is the way Joyce can stay firmly seated inside his protagonists’ head.  There is a masterful sense of control in the way he writes the childhood of Stephen Deadalus, using age appropriate language except when conveying dialogue he witnesses.  Stephen’s way of looking at the world, of making connections and sorting out the confusing subtleties of language and meaning is very child-like.  I suppose that’s why the story resonates with me so much.  I remember wondering whether there was any appropriate answer to a bully’s questioning taunts and finding out that there really wasn’t one.  I can remember being profoundly mystified by the rituals of the church, and wondering why my parents got so worked up about that invisible activity known as politics.  There was so much I took for granted as a child that I openly question as an adult.  It is that willing acceptance, that puzzlement, and that terrible underlying fear that there may not be any answer at all that occupies much of the childhood experience.

On top of all of the thinking and experiencing there is also the inherent violence that pervades so much of childhood.  As a child of his times, Stephen is under constant threat of violence, from classmates and from the system of corporal punishment at his school, and even from the threat of damnation itself.  It is the sound of the cricket bats that seems to haunt his steps…the same sound of getting pushed into a pool of brackish water, or of a rod striking an open palm, or even the rhythmic chant of ‘ever-never’ that is supposed to mark time in Hell.  A good deal of Stephen’s psyche is formed on a need to escape punishment.  He escapes from illness by falling into a false reverie of death, he attempts to gain vindication for a wrongful beating at the hands of the prefect, and he is driven by a fearful description of Hell to a confession and and attempt at spiritual redemption.

Stephen’s story can be seen as one of escape, of fleeing from brutality and grossness into something else that he is still trying to comprehend.  The early stages of his development are all false escapes: a false death, a false vindication, and a false redemption. It’s easy to understand what he is fleeing from, but what he is fleeing to remains to be seen in the later chapters.