“Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist.”― René Magritte
Perceiving the world through a single lens is painfully limited, yet intensely poetic: the objectivity of mundane events coalesces with surreal metaphors. For instance, the fireplace can easily transform into a raging sea, “The fire rose and fell on the wall. It was like waves. Someone had put coal on and he heard voices. They were talking. It was the noise of the waves. Or the waves were talking among themselves as they rose and fell” (Chapter I). In turn, these “fiery” waves become reminiscent of the “never-ending storm of darkness” (Chapter III) encircling the sinners in the underworld. Consequently, the novel resembles a surreal painting, one of René Magritte’s bizarre masterpieces representing familiar things in an uncanny way by putting them into a different light.
While Joyce is praised for the scintillating linguistic conundrums, examined in “Ulysses” and “Finnegans Wake,“ Magritte is widely known for his controversial artworks, depicting The Treachery of Images (La Trahison des Images). His artworks represent symbolic warnings that human eyes can be the most outrageous liars, ruthlessly manipulated by the infinite power of language. Although these geniuses have never crossed paths, a modern Irish artist, Robert Ballagh, depicted their imaginary meeting in Dublin. The picture features René presenting James with a copper sphere, a recurring symbol in Magritte’s paintings, as a tribute to Joyce’s exceptional literary discoveries, which have often centred around Ireland’s capital city. Doubtlessly, the passion for art is not the only thing that united these outstanding men. Both of them explored various philosophical themes, such as the everlasting concepts of beauty, love, and death, through their artistic endeavours.
“Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.”― Edgar Allan Poe
Moreover, Joyce and Magritte incorporated evocative metaphors and subtle allusions into their masterpieces, thus attempting to convey the so-called Mystery of the Ordinary, a well-celebrated theme among the modernist community. For instance, La Reproduction Interdite, the painting chosen as the headpiece of this review, despite its seeming visual simplicity and familiarity, not only plays with the viewers’ expectations by substituting a reflection of the man’s face with a ‘reproduction’ of his back but also references the artist’s favourite work of fiction. Taking a closer look, one may discern the title of the book on the mantelpiece: Les aventures d’Arthur Gordon Pym (The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym), written by Edgar Allan Poe. Its main character, a South Pole explorer, who is desperately trying to convince the reader that he and his adventures are real, adds another layer to the painting’s complexity. This unsettling artwork was first exhibited under two-way mirrors, so that the viewers could see it magically appearing out of thin air, like a phantom, when the lights behind the picture were turned on.
Similarly, Joyce’s Portrait is merely a masterful delusion, which never quite captures the essence of its protagonist. Instead, it replaces the three-dimensional image seen through the eyes of others with a subjective reflection observed by the artist himself – through the prism of religion, poetry, and folklore – notably the Ancient Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus. It should come as no surprise that even the most sophisticated mirror always conceals the truth. Therefore, the solipsistic point of view simultaneously magnifies the impression made by Joyce’s work and shatters it to pieces, creating wholeness which bursts into fragments, as soon as one looks away.