Sunday, July 18, 2010

Examining James Joyce/Stephen Dedalus' Esthetic Philosophy (part 1)

James Joyce cannot be described as simply a ‘novelist.’ He was a poet before he had even attempted to write prose. In fact, he composed a poem at the age of 9 that was so incredible his father mailed it to the Vatican. Calling him a ‘writer’ simply doesn’t do the trick either, it’s best to describe him as an ‘artist’ and Joyce himself made the distinction clear in the title of his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which details Joyce’s own life from childhood through young adulthood in a prose style that grows more complex and intelligent as the character does. 

He is also a philosopher, at times outlining his own philosophies and theories through his characters (mainly, his alter ego Stephen Dedalus) and this is especially so in Portrait. In the final chapter of the book, Stephen is a student in the first years of college and he’s already gained a reputation for being an aspiring poet.  We’ve heard him describe his goal to escape the nets of nationality, language, and religion which are flung at souls to hold them back from flight. And, in a conversation with the school’s dean, we learn that Stephen has been working on an esthetic theory using ideas from Aristotle and Aquinas. A few pages later, in conversation with his friend Lynch who jokingly acts disinterested, Stephen outlines in detail his esthetic philosophy.

Proper vs Improper Art
Joyce first distinguishes between proper and improper art.
The feelings excited by improper art are kinetic, desire or loathing. Desire urges us to posses, 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.

Proper art = static
Improper art = kinetic

Proper art is art in the service of what is properly the function of art and that function is to elicit a state of esthetic arrest. Arrest = static (from the Greek statikos, “causing to stand”). You apprehend a proper piece of art and you can only stand there in sensational (esthetic) contemplation and enjoyment. You’re in awe, raised above desire and loathing. Whereas a picture of a pretty girl or even of a plate of delicious food draws you physically to desire it. Joyce calls this pornographic art and, in this sense, all advertising art is improper art. Derogatory satire, art with social criticism that causes you to loathe or dislike something: that’s improper art---it’s didactic, instructing you what to do.
The desire and loathing excited by improper esthetic means are really unesthetic emotions not only because they are kinetic in character but also because they are not more than physical. Our flesh shrinks from what it dreads and responds to the stimulus of what it desires by a purely reflex action of the nervous system.
What is art?
We then get into what exactly art is and there is a quote which I think perfectly describes James Joyce or Stephen Dedalus (or, perhaps, any artist) at this point in his life:
To speak of these things and to try to understand their nature and, having understood it, to try slowly and humbly and constantly to express, to press out again, from the gross earth or what it brings forth, from sound and shape and colour which are the prison gates of our soul, an image of the beauty we have come to understand---that is art.
Once art and its proper function (esthetic arrest) are understood, the artist crafts an image of beauty using things like sound, shape, and color which open the gates of the soul.

Art, said Stephen, is the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an esthetic end.

In response to his friend’s question “What is beauty?” Stephen (Joyce) gets even deeper. Thomas Aquinas’ simple definition (“that is beautiful the apprehension of which pleases”) does not suffice because, using woman as example, he notes how the many different cultures around the world “admire a different type of female beauty.” The popular hypothesis explaining the phenomenon is that the physical qualities admired by men are “in direct connection with the manifold functions of women for the propagation of the species.” Stephen dislikes that dreary hypothesis (“It leads to eugenics rather than to esthetic”) and describes his own:

This hypothesis 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.
And a few pages later he continues:
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…[Now quoting Aquinas again] Three things are needed for beauty: wholeness, harmony and radiance.”

Looking at each one now:
1. Wholeness: [He points to a basket someone is carrying on their head] “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 or 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 selfcontained upon the immeasurable background of space or time which is not it. You apprehend as one thing. You see it as one whole. You apprehend its wholeness.”

2. Harmony: “Then 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 result of its parts and their sum, harmonious.”

3. Radiance: “When you have apprehended that object 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.”

Joyce alludes to this kind of esthetic apprehension in Ulysses: “Any object intensely regarded may be a gate of access to the incorruptible eon of the gods.” And Joseph Campbell elaborates the experience for us in his book Mythic Worlds, Modern Words:
This is a breakthrough. You have gone through the object and felt the transcendence that manifests through it, the transcendence of which you are yourself a manifestation. Pure object turns you into pure subject. You are simply the eye, the world eye, regarding beyond desire and loathing…
Forms of Art
Having explained what (proper) art is and how we apprehend beauty, Stephen now goes on to describe what he sees as the three forms of art, in all of which “the image must be set between the mind or senses of the artist himself and the mind or senses of others.” The three forms, each “progressing from one to the next,” are:

1. the Lyrical form: “the form wherein the artist presents his image in immediate relation to himself”
2. the Epical form: “the artist presents his image in mediate relation to himself and to others”
3. the Dramatic Form: “the artist presents his image in immediate relation to others”

He elaborates each one:
The lyrical form is in fact the simplest verbal vesture of an instant of emotion, a rhythmical cry such as ages ago cheered on the man who pulled the oar or dragged stones up a slope. He who utters it is more conscious of the instant of emotion than of himself as feeling emotion.

The simplest epical form is seen emerging out of lyrical literature when the artist prolongs and broods upon himself as the centre of an epical event and this form progresses till the centre of emotional gravity is equidistant from the artist himself and from others. The narrative is no longer purely personal. The personality of the artist passes into the narrative itself, flowing round and round the persons and the action like a vital sea.

The dramatic form is reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round each person fills every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible esthetic life. The personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalizes itself so to speak. The esthetic image in the dramatic form is life purified in and reprojected from the human imagination. The mystery of esthetic like that of material creation is accomplished. The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.
The lyrical form seems quite easy to understand from his explanation, it’s as simple as a poem written by someone in love. The poet is presenting his image (the poem) in “immediate relation to himself” while everybody else reads the poet’s feelings expressed in lyrics. In the epic, the artist presents his work in mediate relation to others, I find Ulysses to be a perfect example as Joyce (through Stephen) is directly involved in the action but the story is presented with a full, detailed backdrop of the city, its inhabitants and especially the other main characters. One could perhaps make an argument that, in his three books, Joyce displayed the progress from one form to the other: the self-centered autobiographical Portrait (lyrical) leading into Ulysses (epical) and then the intricately crafted dream world of Finnegans Wake (dramatic). But, more likely, both Portrait and Ulysses should be considered epics and Finnegans Wake the absolute epitome and farthest extreme of the dramatic form.

Read Part 2 HERE

(Note: This whole discussion owes a great deal to Joseph Campbell's book Mythic Worlds, Modern Words: Joseph Campbell on the Art of James Joyce.)


  1. Thank you. I'm a bit hampered in commenting much, in that I haven't read Portrait, though I've read Dubliners and Ulysses, and as you know, am struggling through the Wake. I have an odd feeling that with Joyce, I ought to be reading all these works simultaneously, as my hold on what he is trying to do is slippery at best.

  2. Seana,
    I would caution against trying to understand his works by reading all or any of his stuff simultaneously. The best thing to do is read a guide like Joseph Campbell's "Mythic Worlds, Modern Words" or Burgess' "ReJoyce" along with whichever book you're reading (both Campbell and Burgess' books have chapters on all three of his novels). That's really the most effective way to grasp what he (Joyce) is doing.

    I was going to make note of it in Part 2 of this post but this post owes heavily to Joseph Campbell's book "The Inner Reaches of Outer Space" and also the aforementioned "Mythic Worlds, Modern Words." I had actually read both of those books long before I even attempted to dip my toe in the vast ocean of Joyce's books themselves.

  3. Thanks--that lets me off the hook, doesn't it?

    I've seen ReJoyce at the library and been drawn to it, so maybe I'll go with that...

  4. Check out my review of ReJoyce here:

  5. Thank you. That was a very clear and enticing review. It's funny how it seems we get to Joyce by being led back to him through other readers' experiences of him. And despite the different levels of erudition about this--putting myself not so much on the ladder as just contemplating getting on it--it's interesting that the experience of reading Joyce is remarkably similar, no matter how much or how little you get. I mean once you actually enter into the 'field of Joyce', rather than allowing yourself to be put off by what you don't understand.

  6. Did anyone see the fim Birdman? The director appropriates many of Joyce's themes: icarus, the labyrinth, aesthetics, subject/object, direct =characters in the film (joyce =stephen dedalus in his novel) I am shocked that not one of the film critics got that. Birdman borrows heavily from Joyce, but in its own language. Great film.

    1. Hello! I saw the film in the theater and immediately thought "thats Joyce!!!"

      I read many of the reviews from the top film
      critics and was shocked that none of them, not a single critic mentioned James Joyce.

      So, to set the record straight, I made and posted a 45 minute lecture about the Jocean influence within Birdman. I was originally introduced to the works of Joyce by Campbell. You can see my Jocean film analysis here:

  7. Thanks for your comment. I did see Birdman, absolutely loved it. At the time I didn't pick up on the Joycean themes but now that you point it out I can see it. It's a film I've been eager to see a second time. I'll have the Joyce goggles on during my next viewing.