Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Portrait: Ellipsis

The use of ellipsis—leaving out parts of the narrative—is a feature of A Portrait of the Artist as  Young Man. That said, "ellipsis" is a misleading word. In sentences, we use an ellipsis when we are confident that the reader either does not need or will be able to fill in what is missing. If I say, "Rudolph invited the whole gang, Donner, Blitzen ..., to his party", I do so confident that you know the names of the other reindeer. That is to say, we both know how the sentence would be filled out if I did fill it out. Or else I use ellipsis confident that you will never miss what is being left out. No such assumption can be made in the case of the sort of ellipsis that Joyce uses. We can guess, of course, but I think we have to be very wary of filling in too much.

To repeat what I said a while ago about Waugh, to get Joyce you have to read only what is there and not project patterns of your own onto the text.

Here is an example of what I mean. The edition I am using features and introduction by Richard Brown whom we are told is at the University of Leeds and the author of James Joyce and Sexuality. I don't know or care enough about contemporary scholarship to know whether he is any good or not but he has enough of a reputation to have been asked to contribute an introduction. Commenting on the ellipsis between Stephen's visit to the infirmary and Christmas dinner with his family, Brown says this:
He [Stephen] is pushed into the school's 'square ditch', bringing on a bout of fever and an early return home. (Introduction to the Everyman's Library edition)
But there is no evidence in the novel to back this up. Young Stephen imagines in his fever that he might be sent home but we never find out that he is. Given that the story resumes after the ellipsis with Stephen at Christmas dinner, the more likely assumption is that he got better, stayed the rest of the term and then came home. But the important thing is that we don't know. The story is not the stuff Joyce left out but the bits he put in.

And if we pay attention to that, the thing that is going to jump out at us is that all three of the sections in book one end with a mourning for severe moral retribution. In the first, very short, section, we end with Stephen being told to apologize or an eagle will pull out his eyes by Dante. (This is a punishment not unlike the kinds that Dante the poet imagines in the Inferno.) At the end of the second section, Stephen imagines a martyr like death for himself and sees the brother mourning the death of Parnell through feverish eyes. In this third section Mr. Casey is reduced to crying for Parnell by the sever admonitions of Dante. In the final section, Stephen will triumph over an oppressor by bravely going to the rector to make his case after he was unfairly punished.

And in between there are a number of ellipsis.

We shouldn't make anything too neat out of this.

Sex, sex sex and Ireland
Since Mr. Brown has opened the subject of sexual politics, let's consider that a bit.

"Dante" apparently comes from young James Joyce's inability to say "auntie". The Dante in this story is not, as I suggested in an earlier post, his Aunt but nurse for the Dedalus children. This Christmas dinner is the first that Stephen has been allowed to sit with the adults and not with the rest of the children. Are we supposed to think of Dante the poet when we read of Dante the nurse? How could we not?

But what does she say about the sexual politics of the story? Women are very much associated with the home and with Ireland for Joyce and yet there is a disturbing misogyny that runs throughout Portrait. Women are idealized and they are demeaned. Consider the comment on Dante that Stephen makes to himself while assessing the argument he has just seen:
But why was he [Mr. Casey] then against the priests? Because Dante must be right then. But he had heard his father say that she was a spoiled nun and that she had come out of the convent in the Alleghanies when her brother had got the money from the savages for the trinkets and the chainies. 
Here we have what is perhaps the most pathetically empty moral trope of modernism: if the other side are hypocrites then we can dismiss them without having to be any better ourselves. And notice how heavily the case has been loaded here. We might sympathize with Dante if we thought she had been sent into the convent because her family were too poor to support her and then came out when the family came into some more money (a not uncommon occurrence in those days). But the story Stephen's father has told him forecloses even that possibility for empathy by letting us know the money was obtained dishonourably.

And Dante is the only woman in this book with a voice. All the other women are either domestic and emotional like his mother or whores like the women he goes to for sex later in the story. That she is an object of fear is telling.

The other thing that happens is that these idealized women are also a symbol for Ireland. Young Stephen, like Gabriel Conroy in "The Dead" keeps associating the woman he loves with Ireland. And like Gabriel, he only seems to be able to get really excited about ideal women at some distance as well as an ideal Ireland that is somewhat at a distance.

The love that only dares drop hints about its existence
And then there is Oscar Wilde. Here is the way Joyce opens an essay on Wilde:
Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde. These are the high-sounding titles that with youthful haughtiness he had printed on the title page of his first collection of poems, and in this proud gesture, by which he tried to achieve nobility, are the signs of his vain pretences and the fate which already awaited him. His name symbolizes him: Oscar, nephew of King Fingal and the only son of Ossian in the amorphous Celtic Odyssey, who was treacherously killed by the hand of his host as he sat at table. O'Flahertie, a savage Irish tribe whose destiny it was to assail the gates of medieval cities; a name that incited terror in peaceful men, who still recite, among the plagues, the anger of God, and the spirit of fornication, in the ancient litany of saints:'from the wild O'Flaherties, libera nos Domine". (Oscar Wilde: The Poet of 'Salomé')
The connection with Stephen Dedalus here is obvious. His fate also seems spelled out in his name—the deacon who became first Christian martyr and the builder of mazes who became entrapped in his own only to escape by some marvelous means of his own devising. But what of homosexuality?

What? Well, if we go back to the text, one of the things suggested in the final section of the first part, where Stephen is vindicated by his audacity in going to rector, is that a number of boys who are about to be expelled or punished may have been engaged in mutual masturbation. We never know for sure, it, "smugging", is just presented as a possibility. And it is further suggested that one of the boys is likely to be leniently punished for reasons that are sexual in nature.

Where does all that fit in with Joyce's rather ambivalent picture of sexuality in the home?

Note what Joyce says of Wilde's sin:
Whether he was innocent or guilty of the charges brought against him, he undoubtedly was a scapegoat. His greater crime was that he had caused a scandal in England ... But the truth is that Wilde, far from being a perverted monster who sprang from in some inexplicable way from the civilization of modern England, is the logical and inescapable product of the Anglo-Saxon college and university system, with its secrecy and restrictions.
And we can add, what Joyce was perhaps too squeamish to say, that it was also the inevitable byproduct of boys-only boarding schools such as Conglowes*. And it is deadly combination, this sexual shame that everyone shares and yet we cannot resist joining in when some convenient scapegoat is found to saddle with all our sins. Sometimes literally deadly.

Why mention this at all? Partly because Joyce keeps hinting at it in the final section of book one. But also because it parallels what happens to Parnell. Parnell's sin is like Wilde's He was not the only adulterer in Ireland and yet he was made a public scapegoat.

Final thought from the essay Joyce wrote about Wilde:
His own distinctive qualities, the qualities, perhaps, of his race—keenness, generosity, and a sexless intellect—he placed at the service of a theory of beauty which, according to him, was to bring back the Golden Age and the joy of the world's youth. But if some truth adheres to his subjective interpretations of Aristotle, to his restless thought that proceeds by sophisms rather than syllogisms, to his assimilations of natures as foreign to his as the delinquent is to the humble, at its very base is the truth inherent in the soul of Catholicism: that man cannot reach the divine heart except through that sense of separation and loss called sin.
Is that also true of Stephen Dedalus? I think yes, it is. Of course, I think that is true of everyone. But we get no genuine sense of the loss that goes with sin in this book, a point I'll come back to. It's only in Ulysses that we see Stephen aware of his loss and sin. Here we just get the sinning and not the sense of being a sinner. Being Irish, Joyce sometimes seems to only be able to think of sin in sexual terms. He's right about the Irish having sexless intellect but they also have a notion of sin that is deeply eroticized.

* It is also the inevitable byproduct of girls-only boarding schools and summer camps but that never seems to bother as much does it?

No comments:

Post a Comment