Since earliest childhood, novels and poems help Stephen make sense of the world around him. From the very first scene of the novel, in which infant Stephen creates a little rhyme from Dante’s threat that “eagles will come and pull out his eyes,” words shape and brighten Stephen’s experience. The sounds of words puzzle and enlighten him, and novels like The Count of Monte Christo help him shape his adolescent identity. At times, beautiful phrases from poems thrill him as much as real romantic experiences.
Yet, though Stephen’s inner experience melds art and life, Stephen the young poet and aesthete believes there must exist a great distance between them: he imagines art as the vapory spirit soaring high over the city of the real. Drawing on the philosophy of Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas, Stephen decides that art must inspire only philosophical abstractions about emotions, “ideal pity or terror,” but not real emotions themselves – he thinks passions like love and anger are too lowly for art. In his own poetry, he omits random or unsavory detail in favor of high romantic abstraction. “Excrement or a child or a louse” finds no place in his art. Joyce’s novel itself, of course, includes everything Stephen omits: passion, crudeness, dirt, randomness, contradiction. The novel itself gently mocks and refutes Stephen’s youthful theories – theories that once belonged, perhaps, to the young Joyce himself.
Literature and Life ThemeTracker
Literature and Life Quotes in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
It shocked him to find in the outer world a trace of what he had deemed till then a brutish and individual malady of his own mind. His recent monstrous reveries came thronging into his memory. They too had sprung up before him, suddenly and furiously, out of mere words. … The letters cut in the stained wood of the desk stared upon him, mocking his bodily weakness and futile enthusiasms and making him loathe himself for his own mad and filthy orgies.
Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language manycoloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose?
Was [the flying form] a symbol of the artist forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable being? … His soul was soaring in an air beyond the world and the body he knew was purified in a breath and delivered of incertitude and made radiant and commingled with the element of the spirit.
This was the call of life to his soul, not the dull gross voice of the world of duties and despair, not the inhuman voice that had called him to the pale service of the altar. An instant of wild flight had delivered him and the cry of triumph which his lips withheld cleft his brain.
The feelings excited by improper art are kinetic, desire or loathing. Desire urges us to possess, to go to something; loathing urges us to abandon, to go from something. These are kinetic emotions. The arts which excite them, pornographical or didactic, are therefore improper arts. The esthetic emotion (I use the general term) is therefore static. The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing.
… though the same object may not seem beautiful to all people, all people who admire a beautiful object find in it certain relations which satisfy and coincide with the stages themselves of all esthetic apprehension. These relations of the sensible, visible to you through one form and to me through another, must be therefore the necessary qualities of beauty.
I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning.
Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.