James Joyce
New York: The Viking Press, 1971
From the 1916 original (The definitive text corrected from the Dublin Holograph)
253 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
May 2006

In this challenging, exciting, humorous, sad and moving story, written with power and genius, we follow the life of Stephen Dedalus from his boyhood to the end of his university days. Stephen is James Joyce and is not him. The novel is autobiographical and fiction in a mix very difficult to unravel. That particular question never has interested me. But since I first read this novel in 1957 I have been overwhelmed by its power and especially moved in the many ways in which it is my own life story.

I’m not sure if this is my fourth or fifth reading, but each time it has deeply touched me and has made vivid elements of my own past which I had all but forgotten.

Stephen is a half generation older than my father. He is an Irishman in Cork and Dublin; me born and raised in St. Louis, USA, but third generation Irish American. Stephen was educated by Jesuits and at Trinity College. Me, nuns, the Brothers of Mary and the seminary. Stephen was already on his way at the end of university to being a serious original thinker and writer. I graduated from college undecided on a future, headed toward the Peace Corps and not yet fully gripped by the intellectual world, not an artistic bone in my body.

Nonetheless, I identify with Stephen. I knew the hard (if loving) discipline of Catholic education, the dominant desire that we would live “their truth,” not that we would think for ourselves. I experienced the automatic expectation of family and peers, that we were in possession of unalterable truths, yet, like Stephen, I had this nagging habit to think outside that box, to challenge, be puzzled and doubt.

We don’t really learn where Stephen ends up, and we have no justification of imposing James Joyce’s later life on Stephen Dedalus. I ended up an atheist professor of philosophy, inflamed by the existential challenge of Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, DeBeauvoir and others and remain so now in my senior years, retired, but still returning to my beginnings by such reading and thinking as again tackling this stirring tale of young Stephen.

Stephen survives his college (high school) days but has what he deems a failed lover affair with a young local woman, idealizes his imaginary love for her for years to come. He also revolts against both his religious upbringing and his disastrous (mainly imagined) love affair and becomes a wanton young man seeking loveless sex where he can find it.

After a while he repents this way of life, disciplines himself with a great vigor and returns within the bounds of his faith. However, soon this faith has died and Stephen turns instead to creating a theory of aesthetics which will actually drive his moral life.

There is an incredible irony here since the theory of aesthetics holds that the arts should not drive action, should not be a tool of morality and movement, but allow each person to achieve a state of “stasis,” a state in which understanding and insight are achieved, but from which no action follows. Yet at the same time what the theory does achieve for Stephen is the justification of the moral life in which Stephen refuses to make a moral choice. He says the aim of aesthetics is “to discover the mode of life or of art where by your spirit could express itself in unfettered freedom.”

I am happy Joyce left Stephen at the early stages of the formulation of his “aesthetic.” We are left to wonder where it goes, whether Stephen ever again fell in love, which would tend to stimulate great passion and expression of feeling, and if such an event would then challenge his way of life and aesthetic.

Along the way were many small themes and exciting discussions and ideas. I’ll just note a few which were especially important to me. (My claim here is not that these are specially central to Joyce’s construction of the novel, but that these were especially interesting or challenging to me.)

  1. After Stephen falls into a life of love-less sex and then repents, he seems significantly more moved by the fear of hell and even purgatory than as a repentance for his behavior itself. That fascinated me. I never found hell or purgatory to matter an iota, even when I was within the Roman Catholic faith community. Perhaps I just never believed in them at all, I don’t know. Rather, I found religious meditation, especially on “sin” to be extremely useful, rewarding and motivating since I had this strong desire to imitate the saints and live a good life since it just seemed a better way to be in the world.

  2. Stephen found mortification to be a very useful practice and so did I. In more recent times mortification has fallen on hard times and most especially since Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code has brought to the spotlight onto Opus Dei and their rather bizarre practices of mortification, at least among some members of that community.

    Stephen says:
    But he had been forewarned of the danger of spiritual exaltation and did not allow himself to desist from even the least or lowliest devotion, striving also by constant mortification to undo the sinful past rather than to achieve a saintliness fraught with peril. Each of his sense was brought under a rigorous discipline. In order to mortify the sense of sight he made it his rule to walk in the street with downcast eyes, glancing neither to right nor left and never behind him. His eyes shunned every encounter with the eyes of women. From time to time also he balked them by a sudden effort of the will, as by lifting them suddenly in the middle of an unfinished sentence and closing the book. To mortify his hearing he exerted no control over his voice which was then breaking, neither sang nor whistled and made no attempt to flee from noises which caused him painful nervous irritation such as the sharpening of knives on the knifeboard, the gathering of cinders on the fireshovel and the twigging of the carpet. To mortify his smell was more difficult as he found in himself no instinctive repugnance to bad odours, which whether they were the odours of the outdoor world such as those of dung and tar or the odours of his own person among which he had made many comparisons and experiments. He found in the end the only odour against which his sense of smell revolted was a certain stark fishy stink like that of longstanding urine: and whenever it was possible he subjected himself to this unpleasant odour. To mortify the taste he practiced strict habits of table, observed to the letter all the fasts of the church and sought by distraction to divert his mind from the savours of different foods. But it was to the mortification of touch that he brought the most assiduous ingenuity of inventiveness. He never consciously changed his position in bed, sat in the most uncomfortable positions, suffered patiently every itch and pain, kept away from the fire, remained on his knees all through the mass except at the gospels, left part of his face and neck undried so that air might sting them and, whenever he was not saying his beads, carried his arms stiffly at his sides like a runner and never in his pockets or clasped behind him.
    In my own life I did do the same sorts things as Stephen. However, what interested me in the long quote is the passion for figuring out and using one’s own mortifications. Like Stephen I spent hours worrying about and planning such things.

  3. I could go on, but the last major thing to note is his sense of inadequacy at university. The sentiment in his description below haunted me much of my university student days. I just didn’t have Joyce’s marvelous language to describe it: “… it wounded him to think that he would never be but a shy guest at the feast of the world’s culture.”

In the end I think this novel may endure for historical interests, and for Joyce scholarship. I seriously doubt very many who grew up after Vatican II will ever be able to richly appreciate this marvelous and explicit novel.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu