Study Guide

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Spirituality

By James Joyce

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Chapter 4

The music passed in an instant, as the first bars of sudden music always did, over the fantastic fabrics of his mind, dissolving them painlessly and noiselessly as a sudden wave dissolves the sand-built turrets of children. Smiling at the trivial air he raised his eyes to the priest's face and, seeing in it a mirthless reflection of the sunken day, detached his hand slowly which had acquiesced faintly in the companionship. (4.2.17)

Here, Stephen starts to separate his personal spirituality from religion. The fact that the priest feels no joy in the sudden burst of music worries Stephen – and we realize that his aesthetic sense for beauty is alive again.

What were they now but cerements shaken from the body of death – the fear he had walked in night and day, the incertitude that had ringed him round, the shame that had abased him within and without – cerements, the linens of the grave? (4.3.19)

Stephen sheds the "cerements" of his former life. He gives names to the things we have seen him struggle with throughout the book – his fear, incertitude (uncertainty), and shame – many of which were cultivated by his religious faith.

His heart trembled; his breath came faster and a wild spirit passed over his limbs as though he was soaring sunward. His heart trembled in an ecstasy of fear and his soul was in flight. His soul was soaring in an air beyond the world and the body he knew was purified in a breath and delivered of incertitude and made radiant and commingled with the element of the spirit. An ecstasy of flight made radiant his eyes and wild his breath and tremulous and wild and radiant his windswept limbs. (4.3.17)

Finally, we see Stephen actually "take off," as it were. The "wildness" that seizes him contrasts boldly with the stiff control and lack of emotion that characterized his piety; this is the joyous spiritual experience that Stephen has been seeking all along.

Glimmering and trembling, trembling and unfolding, a breaking light, an opening flower, it spread in endless succession to itself, breaking in full crimson and unfolding and fading to palest rose, leaf by leaf and wave of light by wave of light, flooding all the heavens with its soft flushes, every flush deeper than the other. (4.3.34)

So, remember the image of Stephen’s soul withering like a desert flower before Father Arnall’s sermon? Here it’s reversed – his soul encounters a beautiful new world that unfolds like a gorgeous flower.

He felt above him the vast indifferent dome and the calm processes of the heavenly bodies; and the earth beneath him, the earth that had borne him, had taken him to her breast. (4.3.33)

Again, this description rebels against traditionally Catholic views of earth and heaven. Here, the heavens (and perhaps God?) are indifferent, whereas the earth, embodied in a maternal and mythological way, nurtures him.

To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life! A wild angel had appeared to him, the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life, to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on! (4.3.30)

This is a total subversion of Catholic moments of epiphany – here, a mortal angel appears to Stephen, an envoy from life, not heaven.

Stephen J. Dedalus

– Heavenly God! cried Stephen's soul, in an outburst of profane joy. (4.3.28)

What a perfect sentence! The seeming contradiction of "Heavenly God" with "profane joy" demonstrates Stephen’s new sense of the spiritual.

Chapter 5

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 creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails. (5.1.150)

We are aware that the artist is not actually God; however, Stephen’s theory puts the artist on equally divine footing with the concept of God. Through the idealized act of artistic creation, the craftsman somehow transcends the work and remains distant, divine, and unconcerned. So unconcerned, in fact, that he can actually sit back and cut his nails.

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. (5.1.149)

Stephen posits that the perception of the object of beauty by the artist is a suspended spiritual state – "the enchantment of the heart." This is what lies at the core of Stephen’s aesthetic theory and of his new individual spirituality.

…a priest of the eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life. (5.2.16)

Stephen applies overtly religious language to the role of the artist. The sublimation of experience into art replaces the transubstantiation (the idea that the Communion wafer isn’t just a metaphor for the body of Christ, but it really is in essence the body of Christ).

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