Volume 18, Issue 1: Pat-Pat
Communing with Joyce
"The day of your first communion was the happiest day of your life." James Joyce writes this through the voice of his
quasi-autobiographical character Stephen Dedalus in
The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But it already suggests a gap
between childhood and faith. First communion was an event to be remembered, not something ingrained before memory. This
gap shapes important parts of the novel's narrative, though not in a way Joyce seems to have noticed.
One reading of Joyce's Portrait is to see it showing a childhood that almost inevitably produces an artist. Every section
and scene contributes some narrowing of Stephen's path toward that aesthetic end. The novel's pervasive irony never allows us
to side fully with Stephen; Joyce clearly and often seems to be annoyed with Stephen's character, his own youth. Joyce perceives
the artist as primarily characterized by the etymology of "aesthetic," namely perception, sensory attention to the tastes, smells,
and images of life. Carry this sensory attention among the obstacles of Stephen's life, and we see him having to choose
various loyaltiesfamily, state, church, friendsby means of the sensory attractions they offer.
Stephen faces the biggest aesthetic dilemma in moving between church and family on one side, with a secular aestheticism
on the other. Stephen and Joyce ultimately choose secular aestheticism, viewed as a priestly office. More notably, he does this out
of a delight for creation. Joyce portrays Roman Catholicism as basically a gnostic faith and culture, whereas secular life is full
of body, good and bad. In the end, Portrait
turns out to be an anti-gnostic tract where secularism strangely beats out the
incarnation. The church ought never to lose such a fight, but it's a pattern of Enlightenment Christianity, both Protestant and
Roman versions. In Joyce's world, some of the failure turns on alienating children from the sensory gospel of the Supper.
Stephen finds himself as a young teen wondering about church and family loyalties, but with nothing built-in: "he had
heard about him the constant voices of his father and of his masters, urging him to be a gentleman above all things and urging him to
be a good catholic above all things. These voices had now come to be hollowsounding in his ears." They lacked music. How do
the voices of fathers and pastors become something alien, outside of our bodies?
Stephen clearly had disloyalty to Christ inbred from his youth. He piously praises his first communion, but notice how
he speaks of it as an alien, a youth already formed and judging, not being judged: "On the day when he had made his first
holy communion in the chapel he had shut his eyes and opened his mouth and put out his tongue a little: and when the rector
had stooped down to give him the holy communion he had smelt a faint winy smell of the rector's breath after the wine of the
mass. The word was beautiful: wine."
Despite this praise, we see in the next scene his deeper loyalties doing the real work. Young Stephen sits in class, unable
to work due to broken glasses. A priestly prefect comes around looking for disobedient boys to paddle, and he beats Stephen
even though he ought to have been excused. Stephen's friends urge him to appeal the beating and avoid the next. It's significant
that his friends urge him to take on the church at a meal among his friends. There at that meal, his friends had pictured themselves
as noble pagans, first. That's their instinctive identity. That, after all, matched what the church had told them for years by
keeping them away from Christ's family meal. Stephen had been eating in fellowship with his friends for years before joining the table
of Christ. So Stephen's friends chant out for their friend: "The senate and the Roman people declared that Dedalus had
been wrongly punished." Stephen reminds himself of this as he reaches the priest's office. The priest turns out to be a
reasonable fellow and accepts the appeal; Stephen returns as a hero among his friends; they lift him in the air, an alien to the church and
at home with their Roman senate.
Patterns of unconscious Christian alienation like this recur throughout the novel. It comes as no surprise then that
Stephen can reflect tragically at one point: "He became slowly aware that his father had enemies and that some fight was going to
take place. He felt too that he was being enlisted for the fight, that some duty was being laid upon his shoulders." But he had
been ingrained to be an individual, the mythology of standing on his own, long before he had been taught loyalty to a table.
Stephen's secular aestheticism turns out to be a continuation of his childhood, not a rejection of it.