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Joyce's Portrait

James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Applying Their Minds to Unknown Arts: Einsteinian Influence on the Development of Dedalus

By R. David Heekin

Perhaps the most influential scientific discovery of the last hundred years was Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Among other things, scientists solving general relativity equations have almost conclusively proven that our universe is finite in its age. This hypothesis led to the development of the big bang theory of the "birth" of our universe. Few theories ever conceived have had such broad and sweeping consequences for the way humans view the world around them. One such person who was perhaps influenced by Einstein’s radical assertion was James Joyce. In Joyce’s Portrait, his semi-autobiographical character, Stephen Dedalus, "solves" another equation in relativity to allow himself to "apply his mind to unknown arts and change the laws of nature."

At Clongowes, Stephen at first seems overwhelmed by the bulk of knowledge and new experiences that are introduced to him. Not being intellectually mature enough to thoroughly analyze this material for its veracity or worth, he instead takes in virtually everything that is presented to him and accepts it as absolute truth. Even Stephen’s thoughts at this time sound as if he were simply repeating in his head certain phrases he has heard from others around him (Kershner 235). For instance, recalling the time Wells pushed him into a ditch, Stephen thinks,

That was mean for Wells to shoulder him into the square ditch because he would not swap his little snuffbox for Well’s seasoned hacking chestnut, the conqueror of forty.

As Kershner points out, we can hear the "echo of schoolboy phrases…almost kennings in their ritual, formulaic quality" in the above thought. Only a few pages later, when Stephen is taunted by Wells, he rethinks exactly the same thought in roughly the same language (235). Clearly, he is either comfortable in repeating to himself the same thoughts over and over, or he simply is not yet capable of forming his own unique opinions based on experience. This situation can be partly attributed to Stephen’s relative youth compared to those around him, as he did enter Clongowes at the age of six, and it would come as no surprise that he looked up to his elder classmates. But I think another reason for his credulousness has to be the classroom environment at the school. It seems the preferred method of teaching for the Jesuits at Clongowes is to have the boys memorize facts and be able to spit them out when called upon to do so. It is not hard to see the correlation between the sing-song recitation of Latin declensions and the recurring thoughts that pop into Stephen’s head time and again. To further reinforce this behavior, the boys are given a few whacks with a pandybat any time they slip up. In this way, Stephen may have developed an unconscious mechanism that led him to favor giving the right answer over incurring the wrath of an angry priest.

Clark describes A Portrait of the Artist as a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress for Stephen from the world of absolute truth to the Einsteinian world of relative truths (The Dedalus Factor). If that is the case, I would say that Stephen’s pilgrimage begins at the Christmas dinner scene in section one. Several key events take place here. For one, Stephen witnesses a clash of two very well-developed and respected rhetorics of the Irish people. On the one hand is the rhetoric of Irish nationalism, defended by Mr. Dedalus and Mr. Casey. On the other is the rhetoric of the Roman Catholic Church, represented by Dante. Prior to this it is likely that Stephen had been taught that both the Church and the cause of Charles Stewart Parnell were things that were absolutely necessary for a good Irishman to believe in. However, in the Christmas scene the two unquestionable authorities clash and end up being unequivocally opposed to one another. Although Stephen may not have fully grasped all the implications of the conflict, there is a good chance he left the room confused as to which of the two sides was in the right, when neither could possibly be wrong.

The next significant event which lessens Stephen’s trust in an absolute truth is a story told by Simon Dedalus in section two. He tells of a meeting between he and the rector at Clongowes when he was informed of Stephen’s protesting the punishment administered him by Father Dolan. Later that night the rector quipped to Dolan that, "you had better mind yourself or young Dedalus will send you up for twice nine." (73) For him to make a joke of a situation that had caused so much grief for Stephen seemed almost unimaginable. The image of the Jesuits as the keepers of truth who "washed their bodies briskly with cold water and wore clean, cold linen" suffered greatly in Stephen’s mind after that incident (139).

But, nevertheless, Stephen would still be greatly affected by the rhetoric and influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. Following a period of extreme moral depravity where he frequented the red light district of Dublin, Stephen is frightened back to the Church by a fire and brimstone evocation of the hell that awaits him should he continue on that path. After Stephen’s confession and repentance, he adopts a lifestyle that is essentially the polar opposite of his previous existence. This dramatic shift from one extreme to another perfectly illustrates Stephen’s continued belief in a black and white definition of truth. Whereas he once embraced the logic of sensuality, he just as quickly reversed his position to accepting the logic of the Church. But as time passes by, it becomes apparent that Stephen will not be able to continue his pious way of life to the grave. He tires of the monotonous devotions he subjects himself to and begins comparing his impending fall to the tide rising along the seashore. That fall comes as he is considering accepting a vocation to the priesthood: "Some instinct… 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." (143) It is clear that Stephen’s destiny is not to be just another proponent of the ancient logic of the Church; rather, Joyce has something greater in mind. Although it may seem that at this point in the novel Stephen begins to reject Christianity, I would argue the opposite. It seems to me that Stephen never abandons Christianity; instead he incorporates it into his plan to become Daedalus—to transcend the known laws of nature. A little explanation may be needed before I further pursue this point, though.

A famous parable of Albert Einstein regarding his theory of relativity concerned two groups of physicists, each with instruments for measuring velocity, and an elevator. One group was located inside the elevator and could see nothing outside the elevator. The other group was outside the elevator and was watching as the elevator passed by on its way up. The two groups both set out to determine why the scientists inside the elevator were held to the floor. The group on the inside used their instruments to measure the velocity of falling objects and decided that it was due to the force of gravity. Those on the outside measured the upward velocity and acceleration of the elevator containing the scientists and concluded that the force generated by its movement would hold the occupants to the floor. So both groups gave different answers to the same question, and as it turns out, both were equally correct according to Einsteinian relativity (The Dedalus Factor). So how does this apply to Joyce’s Portrait? According to Clark, it is relevant insofar as Stephan learns to accept relative truths as opposed to the classical doctrine of absolute truth (The Dedalus Factor). I would take this conclusion one step further, though, and say that Stephen is able to reconcile the seemingly mutually exclusive rhetorics of Christianity and sensuality. Up until the end of section four, Stephen is caught in no man’s land, having failed at applying either extreme to fit his mode of existence. The crane girl epiphany symbolizes for Stephen a moment of extreme clarity, perhaps not unlike what Einstein felt as he first conceived e=mc2. She is at once a symbol of both philosophies that have literally torn Stephen in two for much of his life. Maybe the best description of her is as an "erotic paraclete" sending Stephen forth to baptize his race.

Following this Pentecost, Stephen is able to propound his new theory of relativity in two ways. Firstly, he is able apply it to his dissertation on aesthetics. Stephen uses here his understanding of the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, however cursory, to explain what he believes to be the nature of beauty. The manner in which he applies the assertions of Aquinas would hardly have been condoned by the Church father, however. Secondly, Stephen is able to bring to fruition his poetic masterwork that he has struggled with for some time. In the villanelle he blends both Christian and erotic imagery to create beauty. Verschuyl, as the title of his essay suggests, regards Stephen as "religionless and asexual" in his creation of the villanelle (Religionless and Asexual). I, however, believe Stephen to be both very religious and very sexual as an artist. While some evidence would appear to indicate that Stephen has rejected Christianity outright, (his refusal to pray at his mother’s death, for instance) I think this is not the case. Certainly Stephen has rejected something pertaining to Christianity, and I believe that to be the Christian asceticism as practiced by the Jesuits and the Catholic Church. But to say that Stephen has completely abandoned Christianity is somewhat presumptive. After all, Stephen does express to Cranly a belief that the Eucharist is the body of Christ and that the Christian philosophy is "logical and coherent." (210) Therefore I think Stephen’s non serviam is directed not at Christ—Stephen actually identifies to a great extent with Christ—but rather at the Church of his fatherland and its insistence on absolute truth.

The final and most convincing evidence for Stephen’s turn to relativity is, as Clark points out, the switch to diary form in the last pages of the novel. No longer does Stephen even attempt to hide his opinions from the reader in the form of an objective third-person perspective; instead he is content to lay it all out before us, completely confident that his assertions are true relative to his unique position in space and time (The Dedalus Factor).

Works Cited

Clark, Rev. Timothy D. "The Dedalus Factor: Einstein’s Science and Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist." In Bloom: James Joyce.

Kershner, R.B. "The Artist as Text: Dialogism and Incremental Repetition in Portrait." Critical Essays on James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. ed. Philip Brady and James F. Carens. New York: G.K. Hall, 1998. pp. 231-42.

Verschuyl, Chris. "Religionless and Asexual: Searching for the Smithy of Stephen’s Soul." In Bloom: James Joyce.