Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Portrait: What is it with Stephen Dedalus and girls?

There was a punk tune in the late 1970s that is so obscure that I can't find it on You Tube. It really exists because Amazon has it. Anyway, the chorus of the song was,
Let's face it, the boy can't make it with girls
Every time I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man I think of that song. Stephen Dedalus just seems to be one of those guys who is hopeless with girls. In Chapter 2 of the novel we get a series of impressionistic sketches of Stephen having various encounters with girls. The most telling of these is his encounter with "Mercedes", a girl who doesn't exist. This is worth reading at some length.
When he had broken up this scenery, weary of its tinsel, there would come to his mind the bright picture of Marseilles, of sunny trellises, and of Mercedes.

Outside Blackrock, on the road that led to the mountains, stood a small whitewashed house in the garden of which grew many rosebushes: and in this house, he told himself, another Mercedes lived. Both on the outward and on the homeward journey he measured distance by this landmark: and in his imagination he lived through a long train of adventures, marvellous as those in the book itself, towards the close of which there appeared an image of himself, grown older and sadder, standing in a moonlit garden with Mercedes who had so many years before slighted his love, and with a sadly proud gesture of refusal, saying:

—Madam, I never eat muscatel grapes.
He has created this imaginary ideal only to reject her. And this ideal seems to be at the heart of his vision of art:
He returned to Mercedes and, as he brooded upon her image, a strange unrest crept into his blood. Sometimes a fever gathered within him and led him to rove alone in the evening along the quiet avenue. The peace of the gardens and the kindly lights in the windows poured a tender influence into his restless heart. The noise of children at play annoyed him and their silly voices made him feel, even more keenly than he had felt at Clongowes, that he was different from others. He did not want to play. He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld. He did not know where to seek it or how but a premonition which led him on told him that this image would, without any overt act of his, encounter him. They would meet quietly as if they had known each other and had made their tryst, perhaps at one of the gates or in some more secret place. They would be alone, surrounded by darkness and silence: and in that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured. He would fade into something impalpable under her eyes and then in a moment he would be transfigured. Weakness and timidity and inexperience would fall from him in that magic moment.
Regular readers will know that I don't put a lot of weight on feminist criticism but this passage aclls out for one. Notice how much responsibility this puts into the woman's hands. She has to do for Stephen what God the father did for Christ on the mountain top. What woman could meet this standard?

The answer, of course, is none. Young Stephen has an encounter with a nice girl riding home from a party on the tram but can't actually kiss her. (Joyce wouldn't appreciate this compliment, but it is a good enough scene for Meet Me in St. Louis.) But he can't kiss her even though he can clearly see that she wants to be kissed. Instead, he goes home and tries to write a poem and fails.

More importantly, Stephen wants this transformational connection to take place outside  normal social channels. The actual reality of Ireland (and "woman" and "Ireland" tend to be interchangeable in Joyce) depresses him. He can only write about an idealized Ireland from afar. He seems to feel almost the same about women except for the woman who can just come across with sex without all the social niceties and complications that get in the way.

This is a pretty standard teenage boy fantasy. What makes Stephen different, although not unique, is that he takes this typical teen boy fantasy and projects it up into the heavens. In the process, he impoverishes real women who can only pale next to the idealized woman and impoverishes Ireland which can only pale next to the ideal Ireland.

So next he goes to hookers. Only he doesn't really. The Stephen who ends up with the hooker is a bizarrely will-less creature who just gets pulled in. And notice how the hooker seems to fulfill the vision Stephen had for the imaginary Mercedes but that he wouldn't let the girl on the tram be.
With a sudden movement she bowed his head and joined her lips to his and he read the meaning of her movements in her frank uplifted eyes. It was too much for him. He closed his eyes, surrendering himself to her, body and mind, conscious of nothing in the world but the dark pressure of her softly parting lips. They pressed upon his brain as upon his lips as though they were the vehicle of a vague speech; and between them he felt an unknown and timid pressure, darker than the swoon of sin, softer than sound or odour.
Look, I'm a man and I have done my share of sexual sinning and would take back shockingly little of it but never have I seen sex as a transfiguring experience. 

The question is, Who believes this? Stephen obviously but what of Joyce? By the time we get to Ulysses, Joyce gives us a picture of Stephen the sinner which is more clearly condemnable. Stephen's refusal to kneel at the bedside of his dying mother is clearly a heinous act and his resistance to attempts to reconsider the matter are telling.

In Portrait we will also see Stephen try and face his sins and repent for them but something goes very wrong? I'll be honest, I don't know. And I haven't seen anyone else answer the question either.

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