A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, aesthetics, applied Aquinas, Aquinas, art, Catholicism, Daedalus, Icarus, Ireland, James Joyce, Jesuits, Keats, kinetic art, Lamia, Literature, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Parnell, poetry, politics, Rai, religion, review, Roberto Benigni, Romanticism, science, static art, Stephen Dedalus, Vieni Via Con Me
“Wolsey died in Leicester Abbey
Where the abbots buried him.
Canker is a disease of plants,
Cancer one of animals.”
This little ditty is from ‘Doctor Cornwell’s Spelling Book’; a book which, as its title suggests, is there for young children to learn their spelling. However, already at a tender age, Stephen Dedalus – the Artist and protagonist of the novel – acts in the spirit of his (sur)namesake and, like the Ovid’s narration of the myth of Icarus and Daedalus, he ‘flies above’ the literal and the common. For Dedalus, “they were like poetry but they were only sentences to learn the spelling from”.
This is Stephen’s constant predicament in the real world that Ireland presented to him. This is the world of Charles Stuart Parnell, Bishop Lanigan and Terence Bellew MacManus. For this reason, Stephen famously supplicates: “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead”. Stephen’s affiliation with a higher power seems to form part and parcel with his artistic sensibility, and it can be understood in Stephen’s
contemplation of the priestly vocation. Like the priest, the artist ‘transubstantiates’ the mundane into the divine; and therefore, one can understand the lure of this life for Stephen. What is perhaps slightly perplexing is the role that the hell-fire sermon of the Jesuit plays in the narrative structure. Dragging on for several pages, this fervent sermon successfully reaches its aim of leading all the boys to confession. However, it can be taxing on the reader and it can also be too unattractive a diversion from the main plot. Having said this, by the end of it, I felt so immersed in the supernatural world it conjures up that that the resulting effect was almost one of being purged by the language itself.
Rather less explicitly, this novel also deals with the relationship between the Artist and Science. Stephen’s teacher is trying to teach his students the difference “between elliptical and ellipsoidal”. As objective and emotionally-clean as this subject might appear, Stephen still transforms it into the stuff that springboards transcendence. Whilst religion allows him to soar into the uppermost Artistic plane, science (ironically enough, some might say) only opens up the religious level for him to elevate his imagination to. “Smoke went up from the whole earth, from the vapoury oceans, smoke of her praise. The earth was like a swinging swaying censer, a ball of incense, an ellipsoidal fall.” Nevertheless, I tend to agree with one of the points Roberto Benigni made on Vieni Via Con Me (Rai Tre – 8 Nov, 2010) in which he states “Nulla è più scientifico della fantasia.” – i.e. nothing is more scientific than fantasy.
Interestingly, the constant dialectic of science and “cold philosophy” (as Keats puts it in Lamia) is presented in the novel when Stephen expatiates his views on Art. However, this method of explanation appears to be mocked and undermined in a rather tongue-in-cheek manner.
“– You say that art must not excite desire, said Lynch. I told you that one day I wrote my name in pencil on the backside of the Venus of Praxiteles in the Museum. Was that not desire?
— I speak of normal natures, said Stephen. You also told me that when you were a boy in that charming carmelite school you ate pieces of dried cowdung.”
This explanatory section on Art highlights the decisive and visionary nature of the paradoxically subjective Artist, who will not bargain for anything less than he or she believes in. Stephen makes a case for “static” art that is able to keep the mind “arrested and raised above desire and loating” – unlike “improper art”, which is also “kinetic”. In harmony with religion and science, Stephen dubs this way of life “applied Aquinas”.
True to the mythological figure and his Art, Dedalus explains: “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.” However, taking into consideration that Joyce presents the Artist as the product in situ of the dialectic between Art and Religion, Art and Science, and Art and Art itself; the final emphatic declaration of Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn is perhaps more applicable to the message of the novel:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.