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When The Wild Rose Blossoms: The Epiphany in Joyce's Portrait

Posted May 6th, 2011 at 01:46 PM by Gile na Gile
Updated May 30th, 2011 at 04:06 AM by Gile na Gile

On the symbolic level, Stephen, the central character in the Portrait of the Artist, is of course Daedalus, the great artificer who must escape the labyrinth that is Dublin, while in other readings he is a type of proto-martyr, a messianic figure who must suffer at the hands of those who misunderstand him but who will eventually prevail. Alternatively he may be viewed as the victim of what Greville Fulke once described as; "this wearisome condition of humanity, begotten under one law to another bound" though ostensibly and at the most basic level he is the artist who strives for freedom of expression. Stephen is however also portrayed as the victim of his own sensitivity, or more particularly his youth; a bondage which only time can release him from.

The first section of the Portrait adumbrates the winding passages of the labyrinth from which Daedalus must escape. His first contact with religion is associated with fear as Dante's inferno awaits those who do not 'apologise' or as he will later learn; "confess confess!". Later on, political argument over the death of Parnell and the subsequent split among Irish nationalists spoils the long awaited Christmas dinner while back in Clongowes he is embarrassed when Wells has asked him does he kiss his mother before going to bed. As Stephen grows older his awareness of the constraints of religion, nationality and the family increase as the walls of the labyrinth become more resolved, focused, smothering and concretised. His situation is that of the constrained Romantic or as Emile Rousseau observed; "L'homme est nee libre, et partout il est dans les fens" (Man is born free and everywhere he is bound in chains). When the symbolic Daedalus finally achieves liberation on the strand at Dollymount it is preceded by the vision; "of a hawk like man flying sunward above the sea".

We first become aware of the possibility of a parallel on the life of Christ in the scene where Stephen suffers at the hands of Heron, Nash and Boland. Here, he is bound to be "scourged", or rather, lashed with a cabbage stump as his tormentors try to procure a confession and make him relinquish his faith - in Byron. Like all martyrs, Stephen it seems, must suffer at the hands of others. Throughout the Portrait Stephen has a prophetic sense of destiny; "in secret he began to make ready for the great part which he felt awaited him, the nature of which he only dimly apprehended" (58). He also seems to have a prophetic awareness of the moment this will happen, believing it will be a religious experience; "In that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured" (60).
On Dollymount Strand we can liken his sensuous muse Mercedes to John the Baptist standing in the waters of Jordan as when during Stephen's transfiguration the bathers cry out until his own ancient name which will be shed is called for;

- Stephaneforos!

From this moment he is transformed and no longer unsure of the nature of his calling. There was a lust of wandering in his feet that burned to set out for "the ends of the earth". In the next chapter we find Stephen doggedly preaching his doctrine. There are in fact twelve students mentioned in the University section neatly paralleling the count of the Apostles. In the opening of the chapter the language echoes that of the gospels; "fill out the place for me to wash", he commands. He then "allowed" his mother, now in the role of Mary Magdalen, "to scrub his neck and root into the folds of his ears". while his talk with Cranly before he emigrates to Paris parallels that of Christ with Paul during the Last Supper. Cranly, the most faithful and attentive of his friends he alone will listen to Stephen before he embarks on a new life and finally, to honour his calling, he must, like Christ, reject his mother, whose "mutterings" offended and threatened him.

There is another less figurative struggle for freedom which in cultural terms arises from the fundamental cleavage between the natural and social aspects of the personality. One could again quote Rousseau but E.M. Forster's damning indictment of Leonard Bast in Howard's End is equally illuminating; "He gave up the glory of the animal for a top hat and tails and a set of ideas". For Stephen, the nets which he speaks of - nationality, language and religion - must be flown past, not only for his integrity as an artist but as a human being. He must escape those moulding influences which seek to blandise, conform, dehumanise and ultimately cripple his spirit. During the retreat Stephen felt his "soul was fattening and congealing into a gross grease". Wracked with guilt, he believes himself bound for an eternity of suffering for masturbating and being with prostitutes; in short, responding to natural biological urges.

Again, the scene in Dollymount brings to an end his guilt as Mercedes; "lifted her skirt without shame or wantonness". To him, the promise of this spectacle is the epitome of the free life. In the following chapter Davin relates how he could have slept with a peasant woman but he rejected her entreaties. Stephen instead viewed her; "as a type of her race and his own, a bat-like soul waking to the consciousness of itself in darkness and secrecy and loneliness". Just like Stephen's muse on the strand, she represents a time in the not too distant future where people can express themselves openly and freely without shame or guilt.

However, the novel's main focus is on the growth of the artist's mind. Most of the first twenty pages focus on the emotional, intellectual and aesthetic consciousness of the young Stephen. The first page alone draws attention to all the senses. "He had a hairy face" (sight), "It is warm than it gets cold" (touch), "The oilsheet had a queer smell" (smell), "Uncle Charles and Dante clapped" (sound) and "Dante gave him a cachou" (taste). We also have a growing awareness of individuality - the Vances we are told "had a different father and mother". Rhythm and the poetic use of language are then invoked;

"O the wild rose blossoms, on the little green place"

But something is amiss. He is "a nicens little boy named Baby Tuckoo". So, in the very first sentence we are introduced to a displacement, a sense of not belonging; in short, the lot of the sensitive and creative mind. The following chapters describe Stephen as a quasi-audio visual recorder absorbing sense impressions and ordering the world around him. Later, after the student's religious retreat, Stephen puts himself through "an ever-increasing circle of works of super-erogation". He attempts to deny his body of any pleasure and rejects the senses which he has spent his life honing. To the artist this is folly and Stephen soon realises it; "what had become of the pride of the spirit which had always made him conceive of himself as a being apart in every order" (161). This brings us back to the baby cuckoo and introduces us to the notion of the artist as bohemian, free spirit and outsider. He is the perennial observer, not participator of the life around him and it is this calling, stronger than any other, which eventually makes him reject the priesthood. But Stephen is not the existentialist anti-hero of modernist literature offered to us by Camus and Sartre, he is the Romantic hero who believes primarily in the existence of beauty and truth. In "Stephen Hero", Joyce's preliminary draft of the Portrait, Stephen gives forth his theory of epiphanies;

"by an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or gesture, or in a memorable phase of the mind itself" (188)

Later on, in conversation with Cranly, he further describes the moment of epiphany as part of his definition of beauty;

"when its whatness leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance the object achieves its epiphany" (191)

In Stephen's theory of aesthetics in the Portrait this whatness, the third quality of beauty, is referred to as the object's essence but it is worthwhile to note that Joyce didn't use the word epiphany in his revised theory of aesthetics. This would have been too close to Joyce the artist. Stephen's transfiguration on Dollymount Strand then is an exemplary instance of a Joycean epiphany. All the composite parts are connected to complete the whole; the mythological Daedalus has flown the labyrinth; the messianic figure of Stephen has been baptised; the artist has realised his vocation and the human being within achieves the freedom of a life without shame or wantonness. Joyce achieves what Aquinas said are the three requisites for beauty; integrity, wholeness and radiance, which brings us the moment of epiphany.

However, in the final chapter there is a marked increase in the use of irony. Joyce remarked much later that; "I didn't go easy on him did I". We are reminded of the title "The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man". In popular and many scholarly references it is often referred to simply as "The Portrait" but Joyce wanted us to remember it was also of a young man with all the attendant foibles, vanities and affectations that accompany youth. As the novel progresses and Stephen's confidence grows, he develops certain distasteful tendencies which only a close reading of the narrative reveals. In Belvedere he answers his schoolmates 'urbanely' and in a 'suave' manner. By the time he is in college he can extend a wilful unkindness to MacAlister for asking the professor whether they are likely to be tested on applied science where in particular, he is offended by MacAlister's pronouncing of science as a monosyllable (176) - Joyce himself would have been too sophisticated a thinker to entertain such petty prejudices.

Also revealing is the beginning of the final chapter where we are told; "the lore which he was believed to pass his day brooding upon so that it had kept him from the companionship of his youth, was only a garner of slender sentences from Aristotle's "Poetics" and a pamphlet from Aquinas". His grand theory of aesthetics then, is culled from only two writers and these ironically the two men most responsible for the intellectual credibility (from a theological perspective) of the institution he intends to free himself from. This cannot but be a deliberate ploy by Joyce and shows Stephen to be perhaps more pilloried than praised for his famed theory of aesthetics. He is ultimately his own victim. His Achilles heel being, as McCann pointed, his absence of altruism and the responsibility of the human individual. Having attained his heroic emancipation in four interconnecting and overlapping forms Stephen cannot surpass the greatest rite of passage of them all; the demanding criteria of Joyce himself.

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