Jacques-Emile Blanche 1861-1942. Portrait of James Joyce
MICHAEL YOST explores Joyce’s life, work, and theory of art

Homer’s Odyssey begins thus: “ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον…” or, in translation: “The man, to me, sing, O Muse, many-sided. . .”His word “polutropon” has been rendered as referring to a man “of twists and turns,” “of many devices” and, more recently and bathetically, “complicated.”  But in whichever translation one prefers, I could think of no better passage of literature with which to introduce James Augustine Aloysius Joyce.

Joyce himself interwove the warp of his artistic identity around the woof of several imaginary literary identities; most famously, Odysseus and Hamlet. Yet no matter whether we look through the world of Joyce’s creation through the eyes of Leopold Bloom, Joyce’s mock-heroic man of twists and turns, or watch Stephen Dedalus wrestle with his mother’s ghost, we are always looking through Joyce’s eyes. He never removes all of his masks. But neither does he ever seem to be wearing one. To read him is to be immersed in a delicate stream of emotional, physiological and mental observations that seems to belie the real intricacies of his craftsmanship. The intended effect is minutely historical; we are reading the collected and transfigured experiences of the author. Whenever we read Joyce, we are, in a sense, reading history. Or rather, we are reading personal historical experience that has been atomically restructured into story and myth.

It is no secret that Joyce was deeply interested in setting up a place for himself in the literary history of Europe, but he was also driven to arrange and rearrange his own history within it. If, as T. S. Eliot put it, Joyce makes use of a “mythological method,” he does so only to frame personal or individual history as myth, if we accept myth to be, very broadly, a story told about somebody that is really a story about everybody. For example, we see Joyce’s proclivity towards the grand, operatic gesture in the very titles of his works: Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, The Exiles, and last, and certainly least read, Finnegans Wake.

Just as Dubliners is not merely a collection of vignettes, but a series of symbolic miniatures that, taken either together or individually, make up Joyce’s obsessively rendered critique of Ireland’s capital, so Portrait is not merely an autobiographical künstlerroman, but a depiction of the journey every true artist must undergo, if we abide by Joyce’s definition of the term as “a priest of the eternal imagination” (which he obviously thought applied perfectly to himself. If, as Joyce said to Marie Jolas (wife and collaborator with Eugene Jolas of transition fame), “In Ireland Catholicism is black magic,” then the real hero of Stephen Hero was, by contrast, attempting to practice something like literary white magic. When we reach Ulysses, we see Joyce’s method a little more clearly. Here he emerges as an architectonic creator on par with the mythical Dedalus or the historical Dante. Joyce’s choice of names (Dedalus and Ulysses or Stephen and Finnegan) conjure up not only notion of sojourning, craft, deceit, and labyrinthine cunning, but also of heroism, martyrdom, and the possibility of resurrection and return. We know from the beginning that Joyce is attempting something on a grand scale; an epic, but also something in which the multifaceted and constantly changing specie of perception and imagination can subsist, like an illuminated text from the Book of Kells, of which Joyce said:

In all the places I have been to, Rome, Zurich, Trieste, I have taken it about with me, and have pored over its workmanship for hours. It is the most purely Irish thing we have, and some of the big initial letters which swing right across a page have the essential quality of a chapter of Ulysses. Indeed, you can compare much of my work to the intricate illuminations.[i]

This method of transposing history into a superstructure of myth, (or, as we shall see later, of aesthetic philosophy) is also evident when we consider Joyce’s practice as a craftsman.

We can discern a repeating pattern in Joyce’s compositional method. First he creates a text, or texts, in which he musters his characters. He develops this to a greater or lesser extent, then abandons it, having since (with his characters now in situ) re-conceived it. He then newly develops the re-imagined version, occasionally cannibalising the earlier texts in the process. Thus we have A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man emerging from the fragments of Stephen Hero, Ulysses emerging from the fragments of a sequel to A Portrait, from Giacomo Joyce, and from a planned but unwritten Dubliners story (also called Ulysses).  His big books are, in a sense, a two-step process, a single step being too high a climb. The ur-works are like enzymes precipitating his creativity. [ii]

Such a statement ought to convince us of the sheer systematic effort with which Joyce crafted his work. We must also see on reading him, that one of his models, if not in style, yet in structure, is the Summa Theologica, insofar as the project of a systematic philosopher such as Aquinas is to create a whole out of parts, in which, to use a quotation from Schiller, “quietly and unceasingly he directs the greatest force upon the smallest point.” In such a system, the influence and weight of the whole is felt in each part, and the whole is itself a work of consummate artistry in which each part is ordered toward the achievement and weight of the whole. As Joyce himself wrote of Finnegan’s Wake: “every word can be justified.” But what, in the ultimate sense, is this justification? As I suggested earlier, it is nothing more or less than history itself.

In Dubliners, for example, the role of history is obvious. Joyce wished to bring Ireland to an examination of conscience. As he wrote to Grant Richards, a London publisher who would have the care of Dubliners, in 1906:

My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis. I have tried to present it to the indifferent public under four of its aspects: childhood, adolescence, Maturity, and public life. The stories are arranged in this order.

They were, he said, written “in a style of scrupulous meanness” with a complete commitment to representing exactly what he had seen. . . The Irish, he declared, needed to look at themselves.” [iii] History, in this case, is directed towards a kind of national confession, in which the repressed, unrepresented, subterranean evils of the subject’s psyche are made known in all their filth-bespattered amplitude. However, we should not imagine that Joyce did not re-arrange his experiences with an eye towards his own artistic goals. Such a merely documentary ‘realism’ would be far from him, as his later works show. In any case, in Joyce’s infamous correspondence with his wife, we see a similar desire to simultaneously hide and to disclose what Joyce, prior to his apostasy, would have known as sin. This confessional turn, which Joyce uses to wallow in sensuous and often disgusting detail, is a paradoxical counterpart to the ‘matter-of-factness’ that is the basis of Joyce’s fantasia.

But this sense of degradation is also, clearly, a projection. It was not the only projection that Joyce would make of himself and his inner states upon an unsuspecting world. A single reading of Exiles serves to confirm for the reader Joyce’s irritating, pompous, hyper-romantic level of self-concern. The main character is a nearly un-veiled version of Joyce, as the other characters are thinly veiled versions of Nora Barnacle, his son Giorgio, and other associates. It is a failure in the same way that Portrait is a success: in a way, we never step beyond the realm of Joyce’s imagination. In the same way, Joyce incorporates and re-schematizes Dublin in Ulysses, famously claiming that he wanted to write the book so that it could be used to rebuild the city if need be. Christ said he would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days; Joyce fragments, coalesces, warps and congeals Dublin in the space of one. Here, history is the substance, the prima materia of artistic creation. It was to be so always with Joyce.

Yet Joyce, even in his lyric poetry, reaches towards the impersonal control of a creative demiurge. But although in Portrait, one sees a picture of Joyce-as-Stephen, his tongue as sharp as a sword, and his mind full to the brim of syllogisms, distinctions, and all the rest of the furniture of his Jesuitical-Scholastic education; by the time he re-appears in Ulysses, he is embarking on a screaming bender with Buck Mulligan. Likewise, from the time after he proclaimed his emancipation from Ireland, Catholicism, and his family, Joyce’s life as an exile was in a continual state of shipwreck. Much like his father John Joyce, James was a drunk, a narcissist, a pervert, and a spendthrift, frequenting brothels and regularly eschewing the responsibilities of a husband, father, son, and brother. He was an arrogant dandy, iconoclastic, cynical, and boorish, who “loved obscene words, ‘savoring them like candy.’[iv]” He contracted venereal diseases that may have caused the deterioration of his eyesight. After his marriage to Nora, he worried (rightly) about his potential for abusive behaviour, the kind which we see again and again in the fathers and husbands of Dubliners. By this time, Joyce’s utterly sottish father had once attempted to strangle his long-suffering, highly religious mother, only to be wrestled ignominiously to the floor by John Stanislaus, Joyce’s younger brother, who would, at great personal cost, bear Joyce’s financial burdens for much of Joyce’s life. It takes very little effort to see to what degree Joyce’s obsessions, sins, and failings were bound up with those elements of himself that he believed to be most important: his vocation as an artist, his apostasy, his devotion to his own freedom, et al. He suffered much, at his own hands and at those of others. But whether it was self-inflicted or not, it was all, in a sense, a martyrdom.

Adolf Hoffmeister. James Joyce, 1966

On the theoretical side, this failure of The Exiles comes, in part, from an inability on the artist’s part to live up to his own aesthetic theory. An understanding of the course of Joyce’s career, taken alongside the aesthetic theory advanced in Portrait, shows us while Exiles was attempted, but also why it failed, and why Ulysses and Finnegans Wake followed.  In Portrait, Stephen holds forth on his advancement of Thomistic aesthetic statements with the perverse and bestial Lynch: “Aquinas says ad pulchritudinem tria requiruntur, integritas, consonantia, claritas. I translate it so: Three things are needed for beauty, wholeness, harmony, and radiance.”  These, according to Stephen, correspond to the order of knowing. In his terms, we apprehend something in its “wholeness” when we see it as a unity, as one thing which is distinct from others. We apprehend the “harmony” of a thing when we grasp the nature of its internal order in what Stephen terms “the rhythm of its structure.” We grasp that “it is a thing.” We “apprehend it as complex. . . made up of its parts, the result of its parts and their sum. . .” At the third step, we reach what Aquinas terms “claritas.”

Here, Stephen brings to our attention the fact that he has chosen to translate this word in a certain way:

It baffled me for a long time. It would lead you to believe that he had in mind. . . the supreme quality of beauty being a light from some other world, the idea of which the matter is but the shadow, the reality of which it is but the symbol. I thought he might mean that claritas is the artistic discovery and representation of the divine purpose in anything or a force of generalization which would make the esthetic image a universal one, make it outshine its proper conditions.[v]

In other words, a certain aesthetic philosophy threatens to become, for the newly fledged Stephen Dedalus, an aesthetic theology. It is a crucial moment for the “thoughtenchanted” boy. “But that,” he concludes, “is literary talk.” By this he means, with an echo of Ibsen trembling in the vibrations of his voice, that it is unreal. Rather, he returns, “You see that it is that thing which it is and no other thing. The radiance of which he speaks in the scholastic quidditas, the whatness of a thing. This supreme quality is felt by the artist when the esthetic image is first conceived in his imagination.[vi]” Rather than a transcendental, ‘Platonic’, theological aesthetic, Joyce, through Stephen, yokes his brand of Thomism to the wagon of materialist realism, rejecting outright the link between species and their genera, between universals and particulars, and between his art and God. In other words: non serviam. The affirmation of the term “quidditas,” usually referring to the formal qualities that a thing shares with others, should not fool anyone. Here, Stephen quite clearly uses the word to mean something closer to another scholastic term: “haecceitas,” which refers to the material, rather than the formal distinction between beings that might otherwise be members of one species. It is this obsession with a thing’s material particularity that plainly marks Joyce’s artistic concerns and style.

But Stephen quickly passes over into a consideration of the three genres of literature: lyric, epic, and dramatic insofar as they correspond to the three qualities of beauty:

…the lyrical form, the form wherein the artist presents his image in immediate relation to himself; the epical form, the form wherein he presents his image in mediate relation to himself and to others; the dramatic form, the form wherein he presents his image in immediate relation to others.

It is worthy of note that Joyce himself composed or attempted to compose in each of these three genres. Chamber Music, his first collection of poems, was published in 1907, but had been distilled and arranged from a mass of verse written while Joyce was still in Dublin. In that same year, Joyce began adapting Stephen Hero into Portrait,and was still trying, as he would until 1914, to find a publisher who would take Dubliners without major changes. The original title of his first novel, Stephen Hero, gives a suggestion of ambitions towards the epic, as per the English ballad Turpin Hero. If we accept the Joycean definition of “epical”, we see that Portrait does define Joyce’s relationship with himself relative to others within this work. That might be said, in fact, to be the burden of the novel. But of course, Portrait begins with the bedtime story being told to Stephen in the third person, and ends with fragments of Stephen’s diary, written in the first person. By the time we reach Finnegans Wake, Joyce has truly disappeared, “like the God of creation. . . within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.[vii]” But the material is the same: Joyce’s impressions, his fragmentary sensations and observations, his literary tics and typical menagerie of references to Shakespeare, the Tridentine Mass, and the Irish mythos. But as Joyce himself claims: the more the artist approaches the “claritas” in which the “quiddity” of his art is known to his reader, the more he himself retreats, though his image remains. His fiat creates, transforms, the flux into a thing. Here is the ultimate use of history: not simply to rearrange the past, but to re-present it, and to draw our attention more closely to its reality, and to the quiddity of things; to define them, and to reveal them for what they are. To return for a moment to Stephen’s earlier interpretation of claritas as the radiance of quiddity: it should be clear now that for Joyce, words are imitative of language, not symbolic of them. Because things are nothing more or less than themselves, words must be nothing more than themselves, or at least, their imitative objects. Consider Stephen’s attention to the onomatopoeic qualities of the word “suck.”

Suck was a queer word. The fellow called Simon Moonan that name because Simon Moonan used to tie the prefect’s false sleeves behind his back and the prefect used to let on to be angry. But the sound was ugly. Once he had washed his hands in the lavatory of the Wicklow Hotel and his father pulled the stopper up by the chain after and the dirty water went down through the hole in the basin. And when it had all gone down slowly the hole in the basin had made a sound like that: suck. Only louder.

The word “suck” is not defined. It is felt. And herein lies an artistic challenge for Joyce. A word has no meaning beyond itself, as an object has no meaning beyond itself. There are no genera for Joyce, only species, and thus every object and experience become, ultimately, a thing unto themselves; the single member of a species of one, as St. Thomas says, for very different reasons, of the angels in paradise. Here we reach, perhaps, the place where Joyce’s aesthetic begins to devour itself in contradictions. Joyce has written works and passages of works that are truly unique in literature, and seem likely to remain so. He has created beauty. But he attempted to express things that were, perhaps, uncommunicable when he attempted to ground words almost utterly in the material, accidental eccentricities, of the ever-changing river of history, rather than on the formal, natural, essential qualities that are, in themselves, knowable. He may well have ended, not falling to the earth on burning wings, but rather trapped in a labyrinth of his own design.


Joyce, James, Ulysses, Modern Library Edition, Random House Inc., New York, 1992

Joyce, James, The Portable James Joyce, Penguin Books, London, 1976

Joyce, James, Finn’s Hotel, Ithys Press, 2013

Bowker, Gordon, James Joyce: A New Biography, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, New York, 2012

Ellmann, Richard, James Joyce, Oxford University Press, USA, 1983

[i] James Joyce to Arthur Power, Ellmann, Richard, James Joyce, Oxford University Press, USA, 1983, p.545

[ii] From Danis Rose’s preface to Finn’s Hotel (Ithys Press, 2013)

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Ibid, p. 234.

[v] Joyce, James, The Portable James Joyce, Penguin Books, London, 1976, pg. 480

[vi] Ibid, p. 480-481

[vii] Joyce, James, The Portable James Joyce, Penguin Books, London, 1976, p. 483

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