During his childhood, Stephen lives by his senses: he understands the people and things around him only by the way they look, sound, smell, or feel. The novel suggests that to child Stephen, his mother is her good smell, and nighttime is the chill of the sheets. His attention always veers toward detail: when he learns that Simon Moonan did something forbidden and homosexual with some other boys, he can only understand the news by thinking of Simon’s nice clothes and fancy candy. He has trouble with abstractions and categories; he does not clearly understand the meaning of the York-Lancaster competition in his math class, but he thinks intently of the colors of the handkerchiefs and award cards. When he tries to think of the idea of god or the organization of the planet during study hall, “it made him feel tired,” and he focuses instead on the colors of the map.
In his adolescence, Stephen remains preoccupied with sensory detail, but his relationship to it becomes much more troubled. As he develops abstract thinking, he begins to ask himself large questions like: Are priests always good? What is sin? What is greatness? What is Ireland? The questions force him to try to order and interpret his experience, which reveals puzzling contradiction and unintelligible variety. At this point in his maturation, his talent for observation surpasses his interpretative abilities. In other words, he sees and hears and smells a great deal but he can’t quite make sense of it. For relief, he first turns to old novels and poetry, which present a somewhat simplified and romantic picture of love and honor; then he turns to religion, with its rigid and reliable rules; and finally to academia and aesthetics, which also provide frameworks for understanding. None of these is quite faithful to Stephen’s actual experience, which always exceeds the frameworks with intense, mysterious sensory and emotional detail. By the end of the novel, Stephen is ready to leave behind the mistakes of his adolescence and to create a new framework, “to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience.”
Order and the Senses ThemeTracker
Order and the Senses Quotes in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
The fire rose and fell on the wall. It was like waves. Someone had put coal on and he heard voices. They were talking. It was the noise of the waves. Or the waves were talking among themselves as they rose and fell.
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.
He was angry with himself for being young and the prey of restless foolish impulses, angry also with the change of fortune which was reshaping the world about him into a vision of squalor and insincerity. Yet his anger lent nothing to his vision. He chronicled with patience what he saw, detaching himself from it and testing its mortifying flavor in secret.
He had tried to build a breakwater of order and elegance against the sordid tide of life without him and to dam up, by rules of conduct and active interests and new filial relations, the powerful recurrence of the tides within him. Useless. From without as from within the water had flowed over his barriers: their tides began once more to jostle fiercely above the crumbled mole.
It was his own soul going forth to experience, unfolding itself sin by sin, spreading abroad the balefire of its burning stars and folding back on itself, fading slowly, quenching its own lights and fires. They were quenched: and the cold darkness filled chaos.
A cold lucid indifference reigned in is soul. At his first violent sin he had 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.
It was a grave and ordered and passionless life that awaited him, a life without material cares. … At once from every part of his being unrest began to irradiate. A feverish quickening of his pulses followed and a din of meaningless words drove his reasoned thoughts hither and thither confusedly. … Some instinct, waking at these memories, stronger than education or piety, quickened within him at every near approach to that life, an instinct subtle and hostile, and armed him against acquiescence. The chill and order of the life repelled him.
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?
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.