Friday, May 25, 2012

Portrait: Heresy

On a certain Tuesday the course of his triumphs was rudely broken. Mr Tate, the English master, pointed his finger at him and said bluntly:

-- This fellow has heresy in his essay.

A hush fell on the class. Mr Tate did not break it but dug with his hand between his crossed thighs while his heavily starched linen creaked about his neck and wrists. Stephen did not look up. It was a raw spring morning and his eyes were still smarting and weak. He was conscious of failure and of detection, of the squalor of his own mind and home, and felt against his neck the raw edge of his turned and jagged collar.

A short loud laugh from Mr Tate set the class more at ease.

-- Perhaps you didn't know that, he said.

-- Where? asked Stephen.

Mr Tate withdrew his delving hand and spread out the essay.

-- Here. It's about the Creator and the soul. Rrm... rrm... rrm... Ah! without a possibility of ever approaching nearer. That's heresy.

Stephen murmured:

-- I meant without a possibility of ever reaching.
It was a submission and Mr Tate, appeased, folded up the essay and passed it across to him, saying:

-- O... Ah! ever reaching. That's another story. 
The key words here are "It was a submission". A submission that appeased Mr. Tate. But does Stephen really renounce his heresy? We already know from his response to the boy who asked him if he kissed his mother that Stephen has a tendency to say the the thing his interlocutor wants to hear.

I mention this because this isn't Stephen's last brush with heresy. We get two more early in Section 3. Stephen has just thought about his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and his participation in the little office. First, a bit of explanation. The "office" is a series of prayers that all priests, nuns and monks say every day. A lot of regular Catholics say it as well. (I do.) The "little office" is an unofficial and parallel set of prayers devoted to Mary.

Okay, here is Stephen's first heretical statement:
His sin, which had covered him from the sight of God, had led him nearer to the refuge of sinners.
That's exactly backwards. In Catholic teaching, sin can make it harder for us to see God but nothing can cut us off from God's sight or his mercy.

The second bit of heresy is already appearing in the above for Stephen means Mary when he says "the refuge of sinners". As he continues,
Her eyes seemed to regard him with mild pity; her holiness, a strange light glowing faintly upon her frail flesh, did not humiliate the sinner who approached her. If ever he was impelled to cast sin from him and to repent, the impulse that moved him was the wish to be her knight. If ever his soul, reentering her dwelling shyly after the frenzy of his body's lust had spent itself, was turned towards her whose emblem is the morning star, bright and musical, telling of heaven and infusing peace, it was when her names were murmured softly by lips whereon there still lingered foul and shameful words, the savour itself of a lewd kiss. 
Mary is a saint and she is the most special saint but she remains a human being. She is not the refuge of sinners. Jesus is. Mary can help you find the refuge of sinners in her son but she cannot (the fervent wishes of a lot of misguided Catholics aside) be that refuge herself.

But this is a familiar move for Stephen. Confronted with real women, he prefers the idealize fantasy woman and gravitates between thoughts of her and prostitutes. He makes the same move with Ireland, which he likens to a woman. Again he prefers his idealized fantasy to the real thing.

The problem here is not that Stephen prefers fantasy to reality, although that is not exactly healthy. The problem is that Stephen relentlessly plays tricks in his thinking that make it impossible for any real woman, real country or real God to ever satisfy him.
It was strange too that he found an arid pleasure in following up to the end the rigid lines of the doctrines of the church and penetrating into obscure silences only to hear and feel the more deeply his own condemnation.
Is Joyce willfully constructing a character or is he haplessly loading Stephen down with his own failings? Or to put it another way, Is Stephen Dedalus just James Joyce?

I think he isn't. I think Joyce has created the character and created the flaw that goes with it. Stephen shares a lot of Joyce's failings but Joyce knows this and has some distance on it. Why do I think this? Three words: Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Section 3 opens with Stephen in the classroom thinking of sex with prostitutes while he is supposed to be working,
The equation on the page of his scribbler began to spread out a widening tail, eyed and starred like a peacock's; and when the eyes and stars of its indices had been eliminated, began slowly to fold itself together again. The indices appearing and disappearing were eyes opening and closing; the eyes opening and closing were stars being born and being quenched. The vast cycle of starry life bore his weary mind outward to its verge and inward to its centre, a distant music accompanying him outward and inward. What music? The music came nearer and he recalled the words, the words of Shelley's fragment upon the moon wandering companionless, pale for weariness. The stars began to crumble and a cloud of fine stardust fell through space.
What fragment of Shelley's? (By the way, notice the "outward and inward", does he really do both or is it all just inward?) For the answer to the Shelley question, we have to go back to section 2 and  how poor Stephen reacts when he is forced to see his father's ineffectual pride in the face of financial failure:
Stephen watched the three glasses being raised from the counter as his father and his two cronies drank to the memory of their past. An abyss of fortune or of temperament sundered him from them. His mind seemed older than theirs: it shone coldly on their strifes and happiness and regrets like a moon upon a younger earth. No life or youth stirred in him as it had stirred in them. He had known neither the pleasure of companionship with others nor the vigour of rude male health nor filial piety. Nothing stirred within his soul but a cold and cruel and loveless lust. His childhood was dead or lost and with it his soul capable of simple joys, and he was drifting amid life like the barren shell of the moon.
Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Wandering companionless...?
He repeated to himself the lines of Shelley's fragment. Its alternation of sad human ineffectiveness with vast inhuman cycles of activity chilled him, and he forgot his own human and ineffectual grieving. 
That fragment is an interesting choice for it is a lot like Stephen's "accidental" heresy of believing that he can never approach God. It is also interesting in that Shelley not only committed heresy in a pamphlet he wrote at university, he was expelled for it. Further Shelley, like Joyce, ran away from home to live with a woman. Shelley, unlike Joyce, also ran away from an existing marriage but we might say that Joyce ran away from Ireland.

Joyce is not simply turning his life into autobiography. He has created a sort of alter ego that allows him to confront his personal demons. Ultimately, I think that is a less interesting or useful project than most modernists took it to be but it is conscious on Joyce's part.

An aside for fans of Brideshead Revisisted, notice how Stephen's sin is the same as Julia's:
What did it avail to pray when he knew that his soul lusted after its own destruction? A certain pride, a certain awe, withheld him from offering to God even one prayer at night though he knew it was in God's power to take away his life while he slept and hurl his soul hellward ere he could beg for mercy. His pride in his own sin, his loveless awe of God, told him that his offence was too grievous to be atoned for in whole or in part by a false homage to the Allseeing and Allknowing. 
I don't think that is an accident. I think Waugh was answering Joyce with Brideshead which is also a portrait of an artist as a young man. And although many will regard this as heretical, I think Waugh surpasses Joyce as a novelist and that Brideshead surpasses Portrait.


  1. Why is it in the first place heretical to say 'without a possibility of ever approaching nearer'? (Finn Fordham -

    1. My first response would be, because it would make hope impossible.