re-reading Joyce – chapter two
It’s the small details that make Portrait of an Artist such a joy to read. Like this scene where Stephen sits watching into someone else’s home. You can see the delicious pleasure he takes in being the voyeur (made twice as interesting when the reader realizes she is looking in on Stephen in the same way):
Whenever the car drew up before a house he waited to cach a glimpse of a wellscrubbed kitchen or of a softlylighted hall and to see how the servant would hold the jug and how she would close the door.
I love his emphasis on the movements and gestures of the servant. He doesn’t even have to give us his interpretation of what he sees, it’s enough to know that those small actions are what he’s looking for. Tells us so much about Stephen.
In Part II, Stephen has his first experience with love. It’s unfulfilled (like all first love experiences should be) and Joyce moves us through Stephen’s expectation, disappointment and angry despair in a tumble of rapid lines. He dashes away from the event and off into the night with classic adolescent angst. Racing from the site of his failure, an unthinking, purely physical force. But then he stops, and transforms his physical into poetic:
He stood still and gazed up at the sombre porch of the morgue and from that to the dark cobbled laneway at its side. He saw the word Lotts on the wall of the lane and breathed slowly the rank heavy air.
That is horse piss and rotted straw, he thought. It is a good odour to breathe. It will calm my heart. My heart is quite calm now. I will go back.
This is Stephen’s trick. This pushing of the moment until it breaks apart into its sensory components. This is his artist’s perspective at work. How he will convert the unpleasant to suit his sensibilities.
Part II is also about Stephen as a sexual being, about a natural adolescent longing and then Stephen’s particular fear of sin. Joyce writes quite eloquently about how tortured Stephen feels in relation to his body and its desires. And the chapter ends, rightly, with Stephen visiting a prostitute. Joyce describes their kiss:
(Her lips) pressed upon his brain as upon his lips as though they were the vehicle of a vague speech; and between them he felt an unknown and timid pressue, darker than the swoon of sin, softer than sound or odour.
Darker than the swoon of sin…doesn’t that just perfectly capture the joy and terror of transgression?