God is not a Saint (Dieu n’est pas un saint); La Clairvoyance. René Magritte, 1936.
Man in a Bowler Hat, 1964; The Large Family (La Grande Famille), 1963. René Magritte.
“Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race…”James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Chapter V)
Toward the novel’s finale, Stephen envisions Ireland as a prison from which he must escape to preserve his creative identity: “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets” (Chapter V). Notice how flying becomes essential to Stephen’s idea of artistic expression and self-development. Here, the symbolical birds met by the meticulous readers throughout the novel, reveal not only Stephen’s desire for freedom but also the unfathomable urge to create, to ascend above others through art. After all, one of the most significant revelations in the life of this aspiring artist happened when he saw an image of pure, though mortal, beauty. Unsurprisingly, the aforementioned “beauty” was a girl: “She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful sea bird” (Chapter IV).
It is particularly curious that Stephen’s description of the young lady not only overflows with comparisons to various bird species, such as “her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s” but also feeds on glaring sexualization. The subject’s face becomes visible at the very end, preceded by “her thighs, fuller and soft-hued as ivory <…> bared almost to the hips.” The acknowledgement that the girl had “suffered his gaze” does not diminish the brutality of voyeuristic objectification. Despite the lyricism of this passage, it reveals that young Dedalus’ enchantment with physical beauty still outshines the spiritual attraction, so to say. Unable to see through the thick curtain of the corporeal realm, Stephen risks flying too close to the sun and drown amidst the turmoil of life, like his mythical counterpart. Regardless of the consequences, Icarus escapes from the Labyrinth of his homeland, praying for the “old father, old artificer” to bless his artistic endeavours.
Integritas, Consonantia, Claritas
(Clockwise) The Great War (La Grande Guerre Date), 1964. Beautiful Language (Le Beau Langage), 1952. The Land of Fire (La terre de feu), 1947. René Magritte.
“We should not be afraid of sunlight just because it has almost always served to illuminate a miserable world. With new, appealing lines, sirens, doors, ghosts, gods, trees, all of the objects of the mind will be restored to intense life in bright light in the isolation of the mental universe.”~ René Magritte
As Magritte pointed out, “With new, appealing lines, sirens, doors, ghosts, gods, trees, all of the objects of the mind will be restored to intense life in bright light in the isolation of the mental universe.” In quite a similar manner, Joyce had breathed new life in the conventions of English literature by creating a “mental universe” of his own. While the foundation of the novel is built upon the traditional ground, Joyce’s unusual stylistic approach had set “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” apart from its contemporaries. Take, for example, Stephen’s veneration of Thomas Aquinas, and his conception of beauty based on three elements: (Integritas, Consonantia, Claritas – Wholeness, Harmony, Radiance). Even though these principles have existed for centuries, the young artist rediscovers them, attaching new meanings to each, thus accentuating his flamboyant individualism:
“I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning” (Chapter V).
Although he had always despised the traditionalism of Tennyson’s poetry, Stephen’s idealistic motto “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!” is reminiscent of the line “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” concluding (what an ironic gesture from Joyce, or, perhaps, a thought-out hint devised for the most attentive readers?) Lord Alfred’s epic poem “Ulysses.” Therefore, if you are ready for uncovering the multitudinous layers of intertextual allusions, as well as undergoing a spiritual awakening, Joyce’s novel will embrace you amiably, albeit with a hint of pretentiousness, which would be almost insufferable without a trace of scarce, yet poignant self-irony.