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Reading James Joyce Without a Gun to My Head Part II

July 23, 2011

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.


  1. Stephen sounds pretty interesting. I like that he’s an observer, and yet he’s so driven by descriptions of Hell that he tries to stop himself from observing…only to discover that by doing that, he’s depriving himself of…well, himself, basically.
    This really makes me want to read the book! I like the language in the excerpts you used.

  2. The book starts out with Stephen as a child and Joyce does a good job writing from that point of view. In some ways its an easier read than “Ulysses” but I would recommend finding a web page that explains the references after you’ve read it.

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