Joyce's Portrait of the Artist III
Bill Long 11/25/08
Embracing the Calling of the Artist
Joyce's Portrait of the Artist rings true for anyone who sees him/herself as an artist for several reasons but principally because Joyce recognizes both the various 'tugs' at the soul of one who would be an artist and the freedom the artist ultimately seeks. An artist wants to improve the lot of humanity through his/her vision of beauty. But there are other equally compelling ways to do this--perhaps through a religious calling or other service to people. Yet the one who longs for artistic presentation, through word or hand, must work through the cacophony of competing voices to hear the calling of the voice within--that calling which liberates and ennobles. The very name of the main character in Portrait (Stephen Daedalus) foreshadows an artistic career--in imitation of the classical artificer, the one who shaped the labyrinth and then the wings with which he and his son could escape captivity.
The "Tugs" on the Soul
Stephen doesn't discover his artistic call as writer right away. Chapter One narrates his childhood and the variety of forces shaping him in Ireland in the 1880s-1890s. Then as a young man, in ch. 2, as so often is the case for the artist, Stephen descends into regions of confusion, self-loathing, judgmentalism and withdrawal from others while finding no satisfaction for his soul or clarity for his life.
"Pride and hope and desire like crushed herbs in his heart sent up vapours of maddening incense before the eyes of his mind. He strode down the hill amid the tumult of suddenrisen vapours of wounded pride and fallen hope and baffled desire. They streamed upwards before his anguished eyes in dense and maddening fumes and passed away above him till at last the air was clear and cold again," p. 91.
The intensity of his bafflement then becomes the context in which to understand ch. 3, which focuses on a two-day religious retreat attended by Stephen and the other boys. Reading ch. 3 is difficult, not because the concepts are abstruse, but because they are so harsh. Joyce portrays the boys as subject to theological threatenings and fulminations which were designed to break the spirit and lead to docile obedience to the will of the Church. Stephen, for one, was strongly affected by these exhortations and so, in ch. 4, he decides upon a religious vocation. He will mortify all the senses by depriving them of the peculiar pleasure they bring to life. For example, to mortify the sense of smell he makes sure not that he spends his time ingesting pleasant odors but that he inhale the most noxious fumes. To mortify his sense of touch, he positions his body in the most awkward positions and then doesn't 'rescue' himself or seek comfort. His dedication becomes so intense and flawless that one of the priests visits Stephen to ask him to consider the priesthood as his vocation. But ultimately he cannot make that commitment. Interestingly, one reason he knows this life wouldn't "work" for him is through the senses---this time the sense of smell. The odor of the refectory, the chapter house, the monastery, the church simplyi is not life-giving to him. Much more welcoming is the normally offensive odor of rotting cabbage or garbage.
The Longing for Freedom
But just because he realizes that he won't be pursuing a Church vocation doesn't mean that it is clear what he will pursue. Thus, the last half of ch. 4 is crucial in revealing the gradual dawning of the sense that the artist's calling is the only life for him. Joyce presents this so skillfully. Stephen discovers his freedom when he is by the seashore and sees birds in flight. The text runs:
"Now, at the name of the fabulous artificer (i.e., Daedalus), he seemed to hear the noise of dim waves and to see a winged form flying above the waves and slowly climbing the air. What did it mean? Was it a quaint device opening a page of some medieval book of prophecies and symbols, a hawklike man flying sunward above the sea, a prophecy of the end he had been born to serve and had been following through the mists of childhod and boyhood, a symbol of the artist forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being?," p. 183.
Joyce's prose takes wing along with the soul of Stephen:
"His heart trembled; his breath came faster and a wild spirit passed over his limbs as though he were soaring sunward. His heart trembled in an ecstasy of fear and his soul was in flight," Ibid.
Stephen is here experiencing true conversion, in contrast to the fear-based conviction in ch. 3. The conversion to being an artist is an ache and a longing:
"His throat ached with a desire to cry aloud, the cry of a hawk or eagle on high, to cry piercingly of his deliverance to the winds," p. 184.
But what did it all mean? It is one thing to have a riveting experience of the Other or the Holy or the soaring call; it is another thing to be able to articulate the specific content of this feeling.
"This was the call of life to his soul not the dull gross voice of the world of duties and despair, not the inhuman voice that had called him to the pale service of the altar. An instant of wild flight had delivered him..." Ibid.
He was fully alive. It was as if his soul had risen from the grave of boyhood. What would he do?
"He would create proudly out of the freedom and power of his soul, as the great artificer whose name he bore, a living thing, new and beautiful, impalpable, imperishable."
Then, he sees a girl...