A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
A character study on the psycho-sexual-religio impressions of Joyce’s main character, Stephen Daedalus in context of a few chosen passages.
“A cold lucid indifference reigned in his soul. At his first violent sin he felt a wave of vitality pass out of him and had feared to find his body or his soul maimed by the excess. Instead the vital wave had carried him on its bosom out of himself and back again when it receded: and no part of body or soul had been maimed, but a dark peace had been established between them. The chaos in which his ardor extinguished itself was a cold indifferent knowledge of himself.” p 73
Stephen Daedalus has tasted so-called ‘sin’. He revels in the atrophy of his once-principled life and in the ‘lost innocence’ he once so fiercely guarded with a boyish devotion to family, religion and jesuit-taught school in early 20th century Ireland. He sits now, allowing the power and magnitude of his ‘sins’ to wash over and through his body and ‘soul’. He begins to grow detached from everything he once knew and believed in. With the first act of ‘earthly sin’ (sex) he fears he is doomed to profoundly suffer. He obsesses over the idea that he is wounding himself with his newfound sexual indulgences and that in feeding his ‘animal appetites’ he is somehow ‘starving his soul’.
In the very acts of these so-called mortal sins, once his fears have passed, he is taken on a wave of pleasure that transforms itself into a journey of self-expression, an almost out of body experience, and that rather than being drowned by his indulgences, he is liberated by a newfound connection of body and mind. He is a mere mortal under God and the Heavens, and yet he tastes a smaller, grander kind of bliss in the most unlikely (and forbidden) places, i.e.; in a brothel. After excruciating guilt and a morass of self-flagellation, and the inevitable succumbing again and again to his desires, Stephen discovers he is no martyr. He is instead made of flesh, warm and soft and crying out for human connection. He has lost his complacency in mere holy books and pious dreams. He no longer sees life in the cold walls of Conglowes. But he senses he may be sacrificing eternity for a few mortal years of pleasure. Hell looms ever large in his soul. He is at a crossroads.
“He had sinned mortally not once but many times and he knew that, while he stood in danger of eternal damnation for the first sin alone, by every succeeding sin he multiplied his guilt and his punishment. His days and works and thoughts could make no atonement for him, the fountains of sanctifying grace having ceased to refresh his soul. At most, by an alms given to a beggar whose blessing he fled from, he might hope wearily to win for himself some measure of actual grace. Devotion had gone by the board. What did it avail to pray when he knew his soul lusted after it’s 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 offense was too grievous to be atoned for in whole or in part by a false homage to the Allseeing and Allknowing.”
Stephen, with his ingrained Irish Catholic religious upbringing, cannot easily separate his actions from ‘God’s word’ as he understands it through the church, school and country. When he sins, he believes he not only sins against himself but also against everything and everyone he has ever known in his young life. He thinks he stands in “danger of eternal damnation” through each sin yet continues his behavior, thereby “multiplying his guilt and his punishment” in an effort to eliminate the idea of salvation through his unrepentance. He uses the concept that since nothing he does now to change could possibly save him he might as well continue on this sullied path rather than give up his sins to no avail. Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven, perhaps? He gives up paying penance or praying with an insincere tongue. He feels jaded and used up. But he wants to experience more life. And he cannot find it in a priest’s vocation. His soul “lusts after it’s own destruction” in a true mortifying of the flesh for his own previously believed weak human purposes. Mundane cravings overpower him. He is like a changed man. In the jaded avowance of his “loveless awe of God”, which “told him that his offense was too grievous to be atoned for in whole or in part by a false homage to the Allseeing and Allknowing”, Stephen simultaneously impersonalizes God and hides behind some vague image of determinism. With this thinking he washes his hands of his personal responsibility and concludes his Divine Master sees into his heart, mind and ‘immortal soul’. He cannot hide his ‘true self’ from his mighty God and he cannot break free of the guilt ridden religious stranglehold on his psyche. He feels there is no way around this. God knows his troubles, yet he does not want to let go of them… If he does confess, he wonders if it will have any effect.
He knelt to say his penance, praying in a corner of the dark nave: and his prayers ascended to heaven from his purified heart like perfume streaming upwards from a heart of white rose.
The muddy streets were gay. He strode homeward, conscious of an invisible grace pervading and making light his limbs. In spite of all he had done it. He had confessed and God had pardoned him. His soul was made fair and holy once more, holy and happy.
It would be beautiful to die if God so willed. It was beautiful to live in grace a life of peace and virtue and forbearance with others.
He sat by the fire in the kitchen, not daring to speak for happiness. Till that moment he had not known how beautiful and peaceful life could be.
Stephen finally confesses and his heart has broken open in a great torrent of emotion and feeling of relief. Somehow he feels a weight lifted off his shoulders, in simply admitting defeat over his ego and his desires. He feels a familiar comfort in asking for forgiveness. His soul soars on mollified wings of acceptance. Nothing has tasted as sweet as this moment of purity. His inward and outward recompense of an existence only a short time ago he had sworn to live out as an ‘infidel’ has now altered suddenly and completely. He is the “white rose”; shining, clean, anew. His past is wiped clean with each dropping word of his sins and he can see a ‘new life’ ahead for him, if he follows a ‘righteous path’. Everything in his life changes in one moment of spiritual vicissitude. He is given the unthinkable: God’s grace, in which nothing at the very moment of forgiveness can reach him and sway him. But not for the grace of God, he senses, he would not be here. He would not be given a second chance. He would not feel the blissful re-acceptance of the prodigal son.
Here Stephen has gone from one extreme to another. He went from wholly immersing himself in decadence to replenishing himself by God’s forgiveness of his sins. He is lifted up and mesmerized by the clarity and direction he finds in one day of so-called ‘godly union’. He finds beauty and life in things that once did not seem to possess them. It is interesting that in sliding to both sides of the philosophical spectrum, one material, the other spiritual or religious, Stephen has found personal satisfaction and grief in both – but it has only been through acceptance of a power greater than his own self and desires that he has found some sense of personal fortitude. In his surrender he grows stronger and more resolute in his beliefs. It is not the church’s or the country’s or even his school’s approbation he requires now but his own forming, evolving relationship with his newly forming conception of ‘God’ and of ‘spiritual principles’ that nourishes him. I
think he may be on his way to discerning what it is he ultimately needs for himself. I don’t think he could have found the possibility for balance without the extremes at which he was willing to venture out into. The struggle as a human under ‘God’ remains within him, and the purpose and expression of spirit ferments with ‘faith’ and ‘good works’…within the framework of the individual’s strength as an eternal being within and a mortal being without, one who can ‘sin’ and still be ‘forgiven’.