Thursday, May 31, 2012

Portrait: On Retreat

I'm not convinced that many people read section three of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with much care. I think mostly because the prospect makes them a little queasy. They know what they want to believe so they skim it looking only for clues to back that up. What they are looking for is evidence to back up an anti-Catholic view that says poor little Stephen was brutalized by a horrific priest who terrified him with visions of hell.

But there is very little evidence for that view and quite a bit of evidence for something else. Actually, there are great piles of evidence to the contrary. So much that one of the things that troubles critics is why the retreat and vision of hell is sooo long. And that is agood point because if all Joyce wanted to do was portray a cruel priest needlessly scaring children, he could have done so in much less space and have done so more effectively too.

 The biggest problem with the claim that the priest needlessly scared Stephen and his students is that no one but Stephen seems particularly worked up about it. We don't actually get much of a look at the others, this being a solipsistic little book, but what we do see suggests that they laugh it off.

Now the natural question at this point would be to ask why poor Stephen is so vulnerable. But we don't really have to ask: he is vulnerable because of his sexual pathologies.

For Stephen doesn't need to be told he has sinned. He is, on the contrary, loaded to the gills with guilt about seeing prostitutes. At the same time he has had opportunity to kiss girls he knows but is unable to carry it out. One suspects they thought him an odd little boy and quite possibly gay.

Consider, for example, the rather odd entry of "Emma" into the story. We don't know much about Emma other than her name. She hardly seems to exist outside Stephen's fevered imagination.
The image of Emma appeared before him, and under her eyes the flood of shame rushed forth anew from his heart. If she knew to what his mind had subjected her or how his brute-like lust had torn and trampled upon her innocence! Was that boyish love? Was that chivalry? Was that poetry? The sordid details of his orgies stank under his very nostrils. 
The key phrase here is "if she knew" for she doesn't know. She doesn't know of any connection between herself and Stephen for the simple reason that there isn't any. Stephen has defiled her without anything happening between them. How?  Most probably by going to prostitutes instead of living up to what her "purity" (at least as Stephen imagines it it's hard not to suspect that the actual Emma soaking her mind and panties with lust as most teen aged girls do).

But watch what happens next. Stephen moves to a  sort of Garden of Eden fantasy of he and Emma together:
In the wide land under a tender lucid evening sky, a cloud drifting westward amid a pale green sea of heaven, they stood together, children that had erred. Their error had offended deeply God's majesty though it was the error of two children ...
In some ways that makes sense but in other ways it is odd. For how did Stephen's sin against Emma (and God) become the error of two children? She has done nothing. Everything that concerns her and Stephen exists only in Stephen's imagination. Which is why, of course, it's all so flexible but it should trouble critics one hell of a lot more than it has that he makes her, and other women, into sinners so easily. Stephen has a problem with girls: he cannot imagine sex with a woman he could love and he cannot imagine love with a woman he can imagine having sex.

And it is after that little imagining of Stephen's that the Preacher brings up Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Stephen doesn't need his mind perverted by and fire and brimstone slinging preacher, he is already quite sick enough of his own volition than you.


Also of note in this section is that the Preacher brings up Satan's rejection of God:
What his sin was we cannot say. Theologians consider that it was the sin of pride, the sinful thought conceived in an instant: non serviam: I will not serve. That instant was his ruin.
Stephen himself will make that exact move later.

 Finally, we get a moment in the exact centre of the novel when Stephen tries to go to confession:
No escape. He had to confess, to speak out in words what he had done and thought, sin after sin. How? How?

—Father, I ...

The thought slid like a cold shining rapier into his tender flesh: confession. But not there in the chapel of the college. He would confess all, every sin of deed and thought, sincerely; but not there among his school companions. Far away from there in some dark place he would murmur out his own shame; and he besought God humbly not to be offended with him if he did not dare to confess in the college chapel and in utter abjection of spirit he craved forgiveness mutely of the boyish hearts about him.
Notice that it is shame holding Stephen back. He really wants to confess but he cannot do it in his own school.

Shame is not guilt. that seems to me to be the very important distinction that Stephen doesn't get. Does Joyce?

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