Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged 󈥴th century lit’

It would be a gloomy secret night.


This line opens the second paragraph of Part III of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I have always wanted it to be the first line. The actual first line is just fine by itself, but this line seems to more perfectly capture what Part III will be about – sin and sorrow and fear, failure and shame.


I live in Switzerland so I’ll use the mountains to illustrate my point. Let’s imagine that Catholicism and its brand of spiritual health are the Alps. Stephen was born somewhere in the pre-Alps, not at the valley floor, mind you, but somewhere halfway up with a clear and breathtaking view of those formidable peaks. The mountains are so strong a presence in these kinds of villages that they define everything about your life – your work, your relationships, and even, sometimes, your health. As a child, Stephen spent a lot of his time wondering what it would be like to experience the world from that high up.


Slowly, as he grows olders and begins to learn, he begins to climb. Small forays to lower Alpine meadows with his classmates followed later by longer walks on his own along the more interesting trails. The mountains are still frightening, but beginning to feel a bit more comfortable.


I think for anyone born into this kind of landscape, the view up is just as impressive and awe-inspiring as the view down. And as you get higher, as you get closer to the top, the sheer power of the downward slopes starts to take on more significance than the summit.


So quite naturally, in Book III, Stephen starts exploring downward. He stops looking up and starts concentrating on the slippery, rocky slopes and the more rickety trails heading toward the valley floor. Stephen is a strong young man and he takes these paths with long strides and his eyes half-closed. Heading this direction changes everything – you hold yourself differently to keep your balance, the wind comes at your from an another angle, the scenery starts to change. The experience is thrilling in its novelty.


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 upon itself, fading slowly, quenching its own lights and fires.


Stephens heads down this mountain so fast, there are times he’s nearly in free fall. Things start to feel unfamiliar again and pretty soon, he’s gone further in a direction he didn’t even realize existed. People live quite differently on the valley floor of Stephen’s Catholic mountain and he’s suddenly alone, afraid and ashamed. At this point the mountains rise so high above him they block the sun and clouds have taken away his view of the peak.


The rest of Book III is about Stephen finding the courage to start walking up again. In many ways it is a dreary chapter, filled with long sermons and lengthy fire-and-brimstone reflections as Stephen works toward making a confession. One aspect of his thinking that I enjoyed seeing was his emphasis on human absolution before spiritual. He imagines a scene between himself and Emma, a young girl he has been smitten with for quite some time, which involves him asking her to forgive him for seeing her as a sexual object. Only after he’s worked this out in his mind and listened to a horribly graphic lecture on hell does he feel ready to head toward a priest and confess his time spent with several Dublin prostitutes.


If you’ll excuse the silliness of this extended metaphor, Stephen’s confession acts a bit like a chair-lift. Instead of walking back up the mountain he’s pulled quickly toward the summit on a theological mechanism.


The muddy streets were gay. He strode homeward, conscious of an invisible grace pervading and making light his limbs. In spite of all he had done it. He had confessed and God had pardoned him. His soul was made fair and holy once more, holy and happy.


I cannot imagine what turn-of-the century Irish Catholicism must have been like to experience as a creative, sensitive child, except that it must have been terribly frightening. Stephen takes everything a step beyond imagination. His body reacts physically to his thoughts as well as to the images in the sermons. This is something that makes the ending of Chapter III very interesting in that Stephen’s movement away from sin only becomes permanent when he takes communion. This physical act – just as sensual as his sin – is finally what transforms him completely.




There is a particular moment in the beginning of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man which I have always loved. Stephen is in class, studying geography and looks inside his textbook to see a list he’d written some point before:


Stephen Dedalus

Class of Elements

Clongowes Wood College


County Kildare



The World

The Universe


Next to this is a joke written by a friend, which turns this list into a snappy, silly rhyme.


Stephen Dedalus is my name,

Ireland is my nation.

Clongowes is my dwellingplace,

And heaven my expectation


 Stephen, still sitting in class, reads these lines backwards and makes the observation that altered in this way, they lose their poetry. And then right after, this:


Then he read the flyleaf from the bottom to the top till he came to his own name. That was he: and he read down the page again. What was after the universe? Nothing. But was there anything round the universe to show where it stopped before the nothing place began? It could not be a wall but there could be a thin thin line there all round everything. It was very big to think about everything and everywhere. Only God could do that. He tried to think what a big thought that must be but he only could think of God.


Portrait is very much about Joyce, a narrative reconstruction of his memories which translate into his version of how he became a writer. Which is why I love that first part and that he sees how the lines, once changed, lose their poetry. A simple enough reflection but one which shows he was already thinking about the importance of arrangement with respect to language. More importantly, this thought leads him to immediately consider his place in the universe, the size and shape of things beyond and outside him. These two observations, stacked the way they are, seem such huge clues to the kind of artist Stephen will become. The questioning of one’s place, of the size of the world beyond the self, all underwritten by a focus on a kind of aesthetic harmony.


And then Stephen hits the God wall. He knows his thoughts are huge and that it’s pretty exciting, even extraordinary, to have these kinds of big thoughts. But he can’t get past the idea that only God has the right to such thinking. So he stops his big thoughts and the passage ends with his amused considerations of what God is called in other languages. This entire passage takes up less than half the page and yet so much of the novel’s theme is laid out. It’s wonderfully done.