English 12 Honors
February 7, 2008
Art and nature can be seen in a contrasting manner. For an artist, to create art is to create an image or an emotion out of nothing. However, nature has a sense of supremacy in which the objects created through nature are part of reality. Artists have attempted to mimic and even surpass the qualities of nature through their techniques. In James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, as Stephen grows up as a budding, young poet, he struggles with the vastness of nature and the superiority it imposes on him. Through Stephen’s artistic journey, Joyce implies that nature is genuine and can not be attained through art. Stephen is only an artist in his adult life once he learns to accept nature.
Through the innocent mind of Stephen, Joyce establishes that nature has a sense of infiniteness. As Stephen opens up his geography notebook, he reads the writing on the inside and tries to interpret it artistically by reading the verses backwards. Initially, Stephen writes:
- Stephen Dedalus is my name,
Ireland is my nation.
Clongowes is my dwellingplace
And heaven my expectation. (27)
By referring to the places as his dwellingplace and his nation, Stephen suggests that he holds some position of power in the areas and further strengthens his image. His pseudo poem dramatically ends with “Stephen Dedalus is my name” (28). The other statements give Stephen a sense of importance which heightens the effect of stating his name last. In his attempt to gain status, he is trying to compete with his surroundings which, in a psychoanalytic sense, are the father figures which are constantly hindering him. Stephen is a part of each of his environments, much like how a son resembles his father and, therefore, Stephen feels much of the oedipal uneasiness that prevents him from becoming a man on his own. Stephen does not feel as if he belongs in his environment because he lacks a definite connection to it like he would with his mother and thus wishes that he is the father figure for this brief instance. He knows that he is in Clongowes and Ireland; however, he is unable to adapt and feel comfortable like the other boys. Stephen can not help but to try to become his father. He lacks composure that the other boys seemingly have and is still very much infantile in his behavior. He continues to seek comfort in his art, treating art much like the physical connection he once had within his mother’s womb.
Although one can interpret meaning in the backwards verses, Stephen himself acknowledges that “they are not poetry” (28). In his artistic act, Stephen contemplates on what true importance he has on the world. He wonders what is beyond the universe and can think of nothing. He then speculates if there is “anything round the universe to show where it stopped before the nothing place began” (28) and if “there could be a thin thin line there all round everything” (28). Ultimately, Stephen concludes that “only God could do that” (28). God, the ultimate creator and nature itself, is the only one that has the power to do such an action. In a sense, His importance is above the importance of all others, including artists such as Stephen. God is typically referred to as a male, dominating figure, perhaps the greatest father figure that one can imagine. Stephen’s relationship with God is much like his relationship with his own father. Despite Stephen’s efforts in gathering his mother’s attention, he is unable to compete with his father, much like how Stephen is unable to compete with God, both in importance and in art. God and Stephen are both creators, a connection that creates even more competition for Stephen and only makes God seem even greater a paternal threat. At such a young age, Stephen already establishes the insurmountable gap between himself and God. No matter how hard Stephen tries to create his art, God will always be there with superior creations, aware of Stephen’s sins and looking down upon him. This gap eventually develops his fear of God as a punishing, unforgiving father figure during his adolescent years. Even without the presence of his father, Stephen continues to be pressured by a father figure, one even greater than his own father. In an attempt to create purpose for himself, Stephen unintentionally ends up mentally castrating himself but, through his castration, he gains a better understanding of the immeasurable aspect of nature and respect toward God as an artist.
If one were to assume that nature is inclusive of all things occurring naturally, then one can believe that human emotions are included in the bigger scale of nature. Like other instances of nature, emotions can not be emulated as simply as artists think. Stephen, inspired by his brooding, yearns to write a poem full of feelings of passion yet he finds himself unable to. With the intent of intensifying his emotions, he removes parts of the scene which “he deemed common and insignificant” (74). In his emotionally driven poem, “there remained no trace of the tram itself nor of the trammen nor of the horses: nor did he and she appear vividly” (74). The lovers in his poem are no longer of Stephen and EC but two unnamed protagonists. What remains is “the night and the balmy breeze and the maiden luster of the moon” (74). His poem is filled with emotions and the images he creates give the reader a glimpse at Stephen’s feeling. However, Stephen obfuscates his magical moment far too much. The elements that Stephen believes are too ordinary are what also make the moment. Without any hint of the real aspects of the scene, Stephen’s poem becomes only a description of a nearly surreal landscape. In Stephen’s attempt to recapture the moment it is unlikely that any of the truth is retained. Nothing within Stephen’s image is natural, feelings or setting.
As Stephen yearns for EC, “he senses that the object of desire is one with which he has somehow been familiar for a long time, one he knew in the ‘dim past.’ It is his mother” (Brivic 286). The woman in his poem is no doubt his mother and the man, though unnamed, is who Stephen wants to be. Stephen writes his poem to feel masculine, to show that he is capable of love toward another. However, he is unable to fully envision himself kissing his mother because he feels that he can not fulfill the role as a father and that the actual thought of making his mother into a sexual, approachable figure is wrong. Stephen is demasculated by his failed attempt, knowing he can never be his father, and quickly turns to shame. The imagery Joyce depicts is suggested to be feminine by the “maden luster of the moon” (Joyce 74). Brivic also writes that Joyce’s imagery “associates [Stephen’s] image with the womb, and he associates it too with tenderness and security” (Brivic 286). A child is unable to properly recall the experience of being inside the womb, hence Stephen’s vague and hazy descriptions. However, the same child is physically part of his mother, allowing him to feel a sense of comfort. Unsatisfied by his subconscious attempt to recreate the environment and becoming his father, “he [goes] into his mother’s bedroom and [gazes] at his face for a long time in the mirror of her dressingtable” (Joyce 74). This unnatural behavior is no doubt caused by his oedipal fixation with his mother. “Freud describes how many boys cultivate ideal, desexualized visions of their mothers” (Brivic 287). Young Stephen views EC as an untouchable goddess of sorts. He is unable to physically approach her and attempts to create art to be with her in his fantasies but he subconsciously finds himself regressing toward oedipal instincts and his attachment to his mother.
In the end of the novel, Stephen discusses his plans for the future as an artist with his companion Cranly. Ideally, Stephen wishes “to discover the mode of life or of art whereby your spirit could express itself in unfettered freedom” (217), an idea that Cranly struggles to comprehend. Cranly questions Stephen, asking Stephen whether he would deflower a virgin or not, curious with what kind of response he would give. As Cranly asks for Stephen’s opinion, “[Cranly’s] last phrase, soursmelling as the smoke of charcoal and disheartening, excited Stephen’s brain, over which its fumes seemed to brood” (218). Joyce once again uses the word brood to describe Stephen’s passion for women. Stephen however is able to control his once-rampant feelings and respond calmly, and states:
- I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use, silence, exile, and cunning. (218)
Although he does not give a direct answer, unlike the childhood Stephen, the older Stephen is no longer trying to defy nature. Part of Stephen must understand that he still has these natural yet sinful desires. Despite this, he approaches his life with sociological imagination, looking at himself as an individual in a vast world and distinguishing himself from society to develop a mindset free from the harmful influences of society. These influences of society are the paternal threats that restrict the young Stephen, that cause him to be mentally castrated. They cause Stephen to act upon oedipal feelings, threatening Stephen and restricting his potential as an artist. Rather than elevating himself above his paternal threats, he merely wishes to defend his mind, freeing himself from thoughts imposed by others. He does not want to prove a point to society and acts solely on his own accord.
Stephen now has no fear of consequences and does not fear being alone. One can argue that being alone will cause one to act on instinct, becoming more in tune with nature. Stephen considers his oedipal feelings as unnatural, that they are only natural because human interaction has made it so. He believes that there is a state of mind more natural than that following human nature. Human nature in a typical sense deals a great deal with one’s surroundings and emotional situations. By isolating himself from the people around him, Stephen is able to attain this nature mindset that surpasses human nature, therefore, being able to achieve the greatest level of art.
Joyce states that Stephen’s development is a rhythmic curve and that each triumph is followed by a fall. Stephen becomes aware of his inevitable fall. By becoming an artist from an entirely new approach, Stephen is, in fact, embracing nature rather than trying to manipulate it. He strives to attain a new level of consciousness of his environment and breaks away from the urge to become a father figure through his new awareness and thus is able to concentrate on his art.
Joyce tells the reader that recreating nature will end in vanity through Stephen’s failures. Joyce chooses the intellectual Stephen, an aspiring young artist, as the protagonist. The young Stephen is driven by the goal of all artists: to express a certain scene or emotion. As skillful as he is at his art form of choice, he is still unable to overcome the conflict between art and nature in all senses. However, the older Stephen, who is able to accept nature as it is, is able to continue growing as an artist. “He aims to re-form human consciousness by bringing a new awareness of mind through self-exploration” (Brivic 297). He no longer desires to use art as a link between himself and his mother and create an impossible fantasy. Artists should not try to become creators and should instead try to comprehend nature to the fullest extent. Nature should not be mimicked but should be left the way it is, just as portraits do not exaggerate features; rather, portraits leave them the way they are.