Now for the good stuff. In rereading Ulysses and dipping into Finnegans Wake and Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce, it’s become clear that the man is one of those artists who I have a foundational, yet utterly complicated and baffling relationship with. It will take some time to completely hash things out.
Anyway, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce, via his alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, lays out some of his key aesthetic ideas in a conversation. He defines properly aesthetic emotions as ones which have a static, halting quality to them: they draw us into a state of contemplation rather than to action (art which attempts to do the latter, according to Stephen, is not proper art).
In examining what it is about art that inspires aesthetic emotion, Stephen categorically rejects all aesthetic theories that try to ground themselves entirely in the hard sciences (he has Darwinism specifically in mind, but his argument can be expanded to include the sciences more generally; we can think of the recent fad of explaining all human behavior via neuroscience, for instance). Instead, he offers this:
—This hypothesis, Stephen repeated, is the other way out: that, 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. Now, we can return to our old friend saint Thomas for another pennyworth of wisdom.
—It amuses me vastly, he said, to hear you quoting him time after time like a jolly round friar. Are you laughing up your sleeve?
—MacAlister, answered Stephen, would call my esthetic theory applied Aquinas So far as this side of esthetic philosophy extends Aquinas will carry me all along the line. When we come to the phenomena of artistic conception, artistic gestation and artistic reproduction I require a new terminology and a new personal experience.
The conversation rambles a bit before returning to this point.
—To finish what I was saying about beauty, said Stephen, the most satisfying relations of the sensible must therefore correspond to the necessary phases of artistic apprehension. Find these and you find the qualities of universal beauty. Aquinas said: ad pulchritudinem tria requiruntur, integritas, consonantia, claritas. I translate it so: Three things are needed for beauty, wholeness, harmony and raidance. Do these correspond to the phases of apprehension? Are you listening?
—Of course, I am, said Lynch. If you think I have an excrementitious intelligence run after Donovan and ask him to listen to you.
Stephen pointed to a basket which a butcher’s boy had slung inverted on his head.
—Look at that basket, he said.
—I see it, said Lynch.
—In order to see that basket, said Stephen, your mind first of all separates the basket from the rest of the visible universe which is not the basket. The first phase of apprehension is a bounding line drawn about the object to be apprehended. An esthetic image is presented to us either in space of in time. What is audible is presented in time, what is visible is presented in space. But, temporal or spatial, the esthetic image is first luminously apprehended as selfbounded and selfcontaitned upon the immesurable background of space or time which is not it. You apprehend it as one thing. You see it as one whole. You apprehend its wholeness. That is integritas.
—Bull’s eye! Said Lynch, laughing. Go on.
—Then, said Stephen, you pass from point to point, led by its formal lines; you apprehend it as balanced part against part within its limits; you feel the rhythm of its structure. In other words the synthesis of immediate perception is followed by the analysis of apprehension. Having first felt that it is one thing you feel now that it is a thing. You apprehend it as complex, multiple, divisible, separable, made up of its parts, the results of its parts and their sum, harmonious. That is consonantia.
—Bull’s eye again! Said Lynch wittily. Tell me now what is claritas and you win the cigar.
—The connotation of the word, Stephen said, is rather vague. Aquinas uses a term which seems to be inexact. It baffled me for a long time. It would lead you to believe that he had in mind symbolism or idealism, the supreme quality of beauty being a light from some other world, the idea of which the matter is but the shadow, the reality of which it is but the symbol. I thought he might mean that claritas is the artistic discovery and representation of the divine purpose in anything or a force of generalization which would make the esthetic image a universal one, make it outshine its proper conditions. But this is literary talk. I understand it so. When you have apprehended that basket as one thing and have then analysed it according to its form and apprehended it as a thing you make the only synthesis which is logically and esthetically permissible. You see that it is that thing which it is and no other thing. The radiance of which he speaks is the scholastic quidditas, the whatness of a thing. This supreme quality is felt by the artist when the esthetic image is first conceived in his imagination. The mind in that mysterious instant Shelley likened beautifully to a fading coal. The instant wherein that supreme quality of beauty, the clear radiance of the esthetic image, is apprehended luminously by the mind which has been arrested by its wholeness and fascinated by its harmony is the luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure, a spiritual state very like to that cardiac condition which the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani, using a phrase almost as beautiful as Shelley’s, called the enchantment of the heart.
The qualities which Aquinas understood as necessary for beauty have their correspondents in human cognition itself, a sort of three act drama which one must undergo to arrive at the unveiling of a thing’s proper quiddity, which is the telos of aesthetic striving.
This psychological turn, and the self-reflexive attitude Joyce’s mature work takes towards cognition suggests the other insight which he hit upon, as illustrated by Marshall McLuhan:
Joyce not only was the first to reveal the stages between apprehension and the creative process, he was the first to understand how the drama of cognition itself was the key archetype of all human ritual myth and legend. And thus he was able to incorporate at every point of his work the body of the past in immediate relation to the slightest current of perception. (“Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process”)
The mythological Daedelus was, among other things, a creator of labyrinths. The use of the name for his alter-ego is not accidental. Joyce, in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, would come to create literary labyrinths for the reader where it is just this sort of cognitive drama that the reader must navigate. In doing so, we see how the symbolically mediated world we recognize as everyday life is itself a labyrinth which we are always navigating to greater or lesser success, and in which archetype is always operative.
McLuhan, in his own way, attempted to replicate this in his own writings. Texts like Understanding Media are themselves verbal labyrinths which refuse to present their arguments in any predigested fashion, instead aiming to shock the reader into a certain kind of awareness, with the Daedalus figure now a highly mannered academic man.
Anyway, this, I think, underlines part of what separates Joyce from a lot of authors stylistically influenced by him. His sorts of literary mind-games can easily become little more than an elaborate comedy routine when detached from his psycho-mythical bedrock. It also gets a little bit to how Ulysses can easily become a point of obsession for a certain kind of readership: there are very few literary novels which solicit this degree of active participation in the text.
Of course it’s possible to be set off course by very particular labyrinths. I first read Ulysses when I was seventeen years old, a very terrible year in my life where I had sunk into a kind of terminal introversion; I had isolated myself from nearly everyone and wasn’t applying myself in any way, and for some reason lacked the ability to see how I could pull myself out of this rut. I had become a prisoner in a labyrinth of my own mind.
I did read a lot, however, and my reading brought me to Ulysses, which was like finding a golden string. Now, I’m not going to say that the book saved me or anything, but it was during the reading of Ulysses that a sense of purpose took hold of me – I would study English, and I would eventually try to write something like this. It was the intellectual and aesthetic flint-stone I needed. Even with Portrait and some eccentricities like Tristram Shandy under my belt, I had never encountered a work quite like it, and found it liberating in how it attempted to embrace so much of the human experience; it was perhaps the moment where the avant-garde formalist weirdo in me crystallized. But also, a big part of why it had the effect it did on me, I think, is that it was funny, and I really needed to regain a sense of humor. Joyce stands alone among other modernist authors in his commitment to comedy and his near total lack of propriety, and it really disarmed me at the time, who had grown accustomed to associating serious art with a certain degree of gravitas. You can accuse Ulysses of many things, but not of taking itself too seriously.
So the year after, I was in university with H.C.E. (Here Comes English) and A.L.P (Also Let’s Philosophize) which itself turned out to provide another labyrinth, the successful navigation of which would be my conversion to Catholicism.
I used to have a conversion story posted on here, but I quickly grew dissatisfied and pulled it. It didn’t give an adequate account of the whole messy affair, and at any rate was written from a vantage point which has already past. I think I’d have a better chance of getting at the essence of it by outright fiction than through autobiography.
But if we are to oversimplify and make things pat, easy, intellectualized and pretentious: I needed to find a manner of reconciling the truth I found in literature and aesthetics ( to the truth I increasingly found in philosophy. Poetry and philosophy, if not properly harmonized, become antagonistic, as I discovered. I didn’t want to turn my back on any aspect of the human experience and say it was a lie. There had to be a point at which the poetic flesh intersected the rational logos (guess where it is). Anything else was despair.
Now, Joyce himself was a lapsed Catholic who came to actively resent the Church, which, in Joyce’s eyes, had falsified and fled from human experience. His own art was in part an attempt to get back at that human truth which had been obscured.
The irony is that what he accomplished is impossible to imagine without his formation in Catholic tradition. Because his imagination and intellect were formed in a premodern, incarnational and scholastic mindset, he could have faith in the consonance of mind and matter, that there is a deep structural wholeness to existence. He could dissect and structure the essences of everyday human experience into his language; he could play with literary form and variegated aspects of experience without, like many of the postmodernists, losing faith in the adequacy of language to represent reality and retreating into his own hermetically sealed world. Nor did he get entangled in ideological, anti-human labyrinths. To quote McLuhan’s essay, “Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters”,
What Joyce did was to bring the great developments of symbolist art into the focus of Thomist philosophy. He created a great new cultural window, metaphor or synthesis. Everything the Schoolmen had written was suddenly seen through the Chartres-like windows of St. Thomas. […] It was Aquinas who enabled Joyce to surpass all the Pre-Raphaelites. It was the Thomist awareness of analogy derived from sense perception that gave Joyce the means of digesting all the ideas of his contemporaries without relying on any of them as a prop or frame of reference.
For all his protests and rebellions, you cannot imagine a thoroughly unchurched Joyce.
McLuhan notes Joyce’s playful rejection of a conception of art as a sort of gnostic salvation from the human condition, that art should point away from the world, which McLuhan finds analogous to materialistic utopianism (“Let us doll up the fallen angel and let us put it in ever more powerful machines until the whole world looks like Marilyn Monroe in a Cadillac convertible.”) Contrast this with, say, Richard Wagner, who was very much in the business of offering a redemption via art, and who adopted Schopenhauer’s wholesale scorn for the human condition. Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal are exceedingly beautiful works, but also trade in a sort of melancholy, despairing flight from the world and humanity.
All this goes back to what I said earlier about Joyce intuitively feeling very different from his contemporaries. In the same essay, McLuhan quotes Arland Ussher on this:
The oddity of James Joyce seems to me partly that of a prodigious birth out of time […] He took with immense seriousness his destiny of “forging the uncreated conscience of his race” – so that he had to be, by turns, A St. Augustine crying aloud his sins, a Scholastic glossing on Aquinas, the producer himself of a “Summa” or great synthesis, and finally Duns Scotus splitting hairs and mangling words. And all this time he was essentially a humorous sceptical Dublin observer – an Everyman among artists, with a schoolboy love of puns, puzzles and indelicacies – sometimes distorted out of nature by these processes, at other times assisted to an immortal symbolization.
But anyhow, my younger self was, in his own way, clumsily looking for the sort of vantage-point that someone like Joyce could take for granted. So I found myself moving in the opposite direction, religiously speaking.
All these words and we still haven’t even arrived at stately, plump Buck Mulligan. I doubt this sequence of posts, should it continue, will resolve itself into a conventional review.