“Beauty expressed by the artist cannot awaken in us an emotion which is kinetic or a sensation which is physical. It awakens, or ought to awaken, or induces, or ought to induce, an aesthetic stasis, an ideal pity or an ideal terror, a stasis called forth, prolonged, and at last dissolved by what I call the rhythm of beauty (195).”
So says Stephen Dedalus in his discussion on aesthetics with Lynch. This quote is interesting enough, as it expresses the aesthetic tradition of Ancient Greece, but it can also be read as an insight into Joyce, as it contains the root of those innovations that made his art modern and differentiated his way of writing.
Maybe this is the point from where an analysis of Joycean craft can start.
Previous readers of The Portrait have traced Joyce’s obsession with words, with language. Stephen, the central character has an evolving relation with words. First, words are for him mere noises with which he sometimes feels unfamiliar (eg to kiss) as he cannot grasp their meaning entirely:
“he shut and opened the flaps of his ears. Then he heard the noise of the refectory every time he opened the flaps of his ears. It made a roar like a train at night. And when he closed the flaps the roar was shut off like a train going into a tunnel"
"All the people. Welcome home, Stephen! Noises of welcome. Noises…”
From this perception of a speech which seems inarticulate, Stephen’s mind evolves to the level at which he has an acute awareness of words as entities, as beautiful sounds. Imagining his death sermon he feels: “He wanted to cry quietly, but not for himself: for the words, so beautiful and sad, like music.” The subject is defined here by means of his relationship with language. Even the crises that he undergoes are expressed eloquently in language. For example Father Arnall’s sermon on Hell is grasped from a personal, inner experience of sin. I would go further and add: the subject/person that narrates becomes language. His understanding of language shapes his life-narrative. By using language in order to speak about an identity inside language Joyce creates a kind of meta-narrative psychoanalytical fiction. Language shapes his hero’s experiences back and forth. Even if he is not old enough to understand the speech of the grown ups, by remembering he sometimes will. “…he’ll remember all this when he grows up, said Dante hotly – the language he heard against God and religion and priests in his own home.” By this time the boy begins to understand that there is a powerful relationship between words and human feelings/self/identity.
“Mr Casey, freeing his arms from his holders, suddenly bowed his head on his hands with a sob of pain.
- Poor Parnell! he cried loudly. My dead king!
He sobbed loudly and bitterly.
Stephen, raising his terror-stricken face, saw that his father's eyes were full of tears.”
Mr. Casey’s words cause his father’s reaction, which is shocking for the boy as he sees the force at work but cannot understand it completely. Up to the end of his formation, the end of the novel, he will master this acquired speech – the English language.
The growing understanding of language is paralleled by a growing isolation, an imposed exile that the artist follows in order to detach himself in the end from all the “nets” that are flung at him to stop him from flying. All that has already been constructed by the (Irish) people is a maze which, in Joyce’s view, has to be avoided. Only by doing so can the artist be true to himself, be the first cause of his art, shape both his art and self so as to reach a god-like way of expression.
Joyce’s goal in his art becomes more apparent: to achieve a stasis, an aesthetic paralysis (a state of contemplation) by depicting in his work an abundant kinesis. The most kinetic and the least perceived subject of the human existence is The Mind. In his novels Joyce depicts the changing levels, modes and moods of someone’s mind. And indeed the subject matter of his Portrait is the development of the mind or, if you want, someone’s mind seen as a changing aesthetic object. This mind is that of an ideal self – the author himself, dissolved in his work: “The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”
It seems that Joycean texts were able, like the prototype of the artist, to be elusive. The post-structuralist critique acknowledges this elusion that Joyce’s fiction has played upon several critical attempts. This is because the text doesn’t have a clearly defined subject, which would have imposed some limits and provided unity in the act of interpretation. Let us remember that Stephen Dedalus is a translation, both a split self and a forming new identity (Et ignotas animum dimittit in artes/And he sets his mind to unknown arts). As the motto from Ovid’s Metamorphoses says, reaching deeper strata of symbolism and possible reading keys, the author/the artist lets himself create after a yet unknown craft. The artist (Stephen) and Joyce himself experiment. This craft will ensure the author’s flee from the labyrinth (his own book), (or, in more accurate cultural terms: a reshaping of the labyrinth) paralleling that of Daedalus and Stephen himself.
Sunday Times "There is nothing more vivid or beautiful in all Joyce's writing. It has the searing clarity of truth but is rich with myth and symbol"
Samuel Beckett "Joyce's work is not about the thing - it is the thing itself"
Jorge Louis Borges "Admirable"