The Aesthetics of Stephen Dedalus

The Aesthetics of Stephen Dedalus
Stephen’s Classical and Scholastic Roots

Stephen Dedalus, the aspiring poet, amateur philosopher, and protagonist of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, while speaking to his dean about philosophy, tells him, “For my purpose I can work on at present by the light of one or two ideas of Aristotle and Aquinas . . . I need them only for my own use and guidance until I have done something for myself by their light” (164). Here, Joyce is invoking an attitude, common to modernist literature, of blending traditional and classical perspectives to create new ideas. Although Joyce’s work is renowned for its deviations from narrative convention, he was also learned in ancient and scholastic thought. Joyce’s notebooks have shown scholars that the author was familiar with the writing of Aquinas and that he studied Aristotle’s Poetics. (Eco 332) One cannot break from the past, after all, without knowing well what it is one’s breaking from. The skeletal structure of Portrait is itself taken from a classical myth, that of Daedalus and Icarus. Stephen’s growth as a artistic inventor is paralleled by the industriousness of his eponym, the legendary artificer Daedalus.

St. Thomas Aquinas by Carlo Crivelli (1476). From the Demidoff Altarpiece. (Source: The National Gallery, London)

The epitaph that opens the book is a quote from the Daedalus section of Ovid’s The Metamorphoses , which translated means, “He turned his mind toward unknown arts.” Like Daedalus, who used his cunning to create unprecedented devices, such as a set of wax wings used to escape from the prison of King Minos, Stephen uses his cunning to create art and a new identity deracinated from his Irish heritage. If the classical model for Stephen’s identity is Daedalus, however, then his philosophical thoughts, as he admits to the dean, come from Aristotle and Aquinas. Later in the same chapter, Stephen muses with his friend Lynch on pity, tragedy, and the beautiful: the basic tenets of aesthetic studies. The precocious Stephen occupies himself outside the classroom by criticizing and formulating an aesthetic theory based on his classical and medieval readings. Another classmate, Donovan, lets it slip that Stephen is even writing an essay on the topic, though Stephen seems to deny it ( “I hear you are writing some essay about esthetics. Stephen made a vague gesture of denial” [186]). From the conversation with Lynch, we can discern that aesthetics is a subject that greatly engrosses Stephen, the burgeoning artist, and one in which he far surpasses his peer.

From his expatiation in this chapter, it is possible to construct, in general terms, Stephen’s beliefs on the nature of art. Such conjecture, however, can be perilous. First, there are only a few pages of conversation we can use to extrapolate the entire system of thought of an individual. The conversation on art holds a relatively small claim on the chapter, lasting about seven pages, let alone on the entire book. Rather than a formal, elaborate discourse, it is a picture of an ambitious student sharing his philosophic realizations with a sympathetic friend. Second, the fact that these are spoken words, not a formal, written argument Stephen would intend for publication, should make us skeptical of how invested he is in what he is saying. If we do assume that Stephen is telling us what he actually believes, we must still keep in mind that Stephen himself is a work-in-progress. As Umberto Eco puts it, “. . . Joyce’s works might be understood as a continuous discussion of their own artistic procedures. A Portrait is the story of a young artist who wants to write A Portrait” (329). Joyce’s novel is a Künstlerroman, a novel about the development of an artist. Stephen’s immaturity is the whole point. He is an artist creating an artist. It is also important to note that the Portrait is semi-autobiographical. That does not mean, however, that we can freely ascribe Stephen’s aesthetic beliefs to Joyce. As observed by David Jones, there is much debate among Joycean scholars concerning degree of influence and by Aristotle and Aquinas in the section (291). This article, therefore, will not try to interpret the fidelity of Stephen’s polemic to ancient and Medieval philosophy; rather, it will evaluate the relevance of Stephen’s thoughts to the novel and determine the dramatic function of Stephen’s philosophizing.

The Aesthetic Context of Portrait

While Stephen informs us that he draws his aesthetic theory from his own ruminations and readings in ancient and medieval philosophy, his creative personality is in harmony with the artistic ethos of Joyce’s own time. Stephen defines art as, “the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an esthetic end” (182). The implications of this statement will be fully examined in the next section, but, for now, the latter part of this definition is especially significant: the esthetic end. For a pagan such as Aristotle, art mimetically reproduced nature and divinity. If executed properly, it could praise the gods by accurately and deferentially telling, and thereby venerating, their stories. It could also, however, slip into blasphemy if the gods were inappropriately depicted. For a medieval theologian such as Aquinas, art was a vehicle for celebrating God (perhaps through liturgical music). Art based on the Bible could teach the illiterate lay Christian parables through stories or poems. As with the ancients, art served a definite spiritual purpose.

But for the artists of the Fin de Siècle, art existed only for its own existence: l’art pour l’art; “art for art’s sake.” While the Aesthetic Movement can be said to have originated in France with the Symbolist poets in the late 1800s, two of its most luminous proponents, Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater, were Dubliners, like Joyce. Pater, an influential art critic and essayist, was well regarded in literary circles for his writings that helped fuel the Aesthetic Movement. In the conclusion of his most famous work, Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), Pater writes of the richness of a life steeped in artistic appreciation and the usefulness of philosophic thought in the understanding of art. “The service of philosophy, of speculative culture,” he writes, “towards the human spirit is to rouse, to startle it into sharp and eager observation” (299 Pater). If the full life is full of aesthetic experience, philosophy is a tool to articulate and understand the beauty one’s experiences. He concludes the chapter saying, “Of this wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art’s sake, has most; for art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake” (301). Pater transforms the artistic appreciation into the quasi-religious experience that gives meaning to the otherwise inane moments of life. Like Pater, Wilde enumerated his own aesthetic doctrine in the preface to his novel //The Picture of Dorian Gray// (whose title bears a resemblance to Joyce’s novel). Wilde defines the artist as “the creator of beautiful things.” Art’s purpose is not to instruct or worship, in contrast to Aristotle and Aquinas, but to be enjoyed for being beautiful. Didactic or mimetic qualities may contribute to beauty, but they shouldn’t be ends in their own right. He goes on to write, “Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.” This is Pater but with intellectual snobbery. Those who are capable of appreciating beauty are somehow better off, according to Wilde. What we read here is quintessentially Stephen. He shares Pater’s reverence for the exquisite moments in life that come from total submersion in the artistic world and Wilde’s cultivated elitism. From Portrait‘s lengthy title, we read that Stephen is still a puerile artist, but he is certainly following Pater’s instruction in reaching the most exalted state of consciousness through rigorous contemplation of art.

Beauty and Genre

A marble bust of Aristotle (330 BCE) by Copy of Lysippus. (Source: National Museum of Rome)

Stephen makes many points on the purpose of art, but two in particular, his definitions of beauty and genre, are interesting because they are in conversation with the form of Portrait. Stephen defines art as a disposition, that is to say, a natural tendency, recognizing the human propensity for creation. This impetus for creation is two-fold: first, it is an act of physical creation akin to childbirth, as the artist puts labor, effort, and love into a subject of her own creation; second, part of this human disposition is for the viewing of that which is beautiful. Stephen quotes Aquinas, saying, “that is beautiful the apprehension of which pleases” (181). Artistic production is as fundamental as any other human drive. Perhaps the most important distinction about art that Stephen makes is of its “sensible” and “intelligible” aspects. In one interpretation, sensible could dictate the dual effect art has on the viewer. Art is both sensible, since we use our five senses to observe it, and intelligible, because we can ponder, criticize, argue and engage in other cerebral contemplation directed towards art. Shortly after in the conversation, Stephen says, “Though we may not like a statue, we can recognize that there’s something in it to admire. Our senses discern something from it.” (181). The conscious mind, Stephen realizes, may not care for a statue, but senses can still be stirred by it. The sensible and intelligible may be the routes through which the esthetic end travels into us, first through the senses and next to the brain. The senses are a mode of apprehension used by our higher faculties to absorb and understand beauty. It is his acute understanding of art and beauty that makes Stephen the budding artist. It is because of his ability to absorb the sensible and intelligible aspects of beauty that, as Wilde says, “there is hope.”

Once beauty is defined, Stephen categorizes it into three forms: “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” (188). These three forms are really three traditional forms of narrative in literature. The lyrical represents the subjective, such as a poet’s mind poured out directly onto paper in a sonnet. The dramatic represents the objective portrayal of the works action, such as in a play where the audiences sees rather than is told what is happening. Finally, epical refers to a mix of subjective and object, in which the narrator describes to a reader what is happening, such as a novel. This passage is appropriately included in the text because Portrait is a novel that experiments with narrative form. It is more than epical but less than purely lyrical. The reason for this is Joyce’s use of the Modernist convention of stream-of-consciousness. The novel eschews a traditional first or third-person narrator and instead often leads us from one of Stephen’s thoughts to the next: “Eleven! Then he was late for that lecture too. What day of the week was it? He stopped at a newsagent’s to read the headline of a placard. Thursday. Ten to eleven; English: eleven to twelve; French: twelve to one; physics” (155). An everyday mental conversation (“Eleven!” and “What day of the week was it?”) is inserted into typical third-person narration (such as, “He stopped at a newsagent’s to read the headline of a placard”). Although Stephen discriminates narrative form into categories, one of Joyce’s most famous achievements is writing outside this three-pronged mold.

The Aesthetic Speech and Stephen’s Development

Philosophy aside, the inclusion of Stephen’s aesthetic theory is indicative of both his artistic acumen and social alienation. We know from the opening of the book that Stephen stands aloof from his fellow Irishmen. His last name itself, Dedalus, is obtrusively non-Irish. As Hugh Kenner puts it: “Why, a name like a huge smudged fingerprint: the most implausible name that could conceivably be devised for an inhabitant of lower-class Catholic Dublin: a name that no accident of immigration, no freak of etymology, no canon of naturalism however stretched, can justify: the name of Stephen Dedalus.” (Kenner 351) Stephen is horribly chided by his classmates in Clongowes Woods and fails to assimilate into his pre-adolescent social environment. Upon hearing Stephen’s last name, a school bully virulently inquires, “What kind of a name is that?” (6). His name–the word that gives him identity–and his shyness make his first years in Clongowes a nightmare. Later in chapter five, preceding his conversation with Lynch, there is an encounter between Stephen and the dean of his school, in which the two dabble in aesthetic theory. This heady tête-à- tête displays how distant Stephen feels from the dean and contrasts his energized later conversation with this tepid one. The interactions between the Stephen and the dean are somewhat perfunctory. Each character responds briefly to each other and merely make a few general comments about

“James Joyce” (1918) Photograph by C. Ruf.

aesthetics. It begins with some avuncular questioning on the definition of beauty, but the dean soon loses interest and Stephen even catches him not paying attention: “The use of the word in the marketplace is quite different. I hope I am not detaining you. –Not in the least, said the dean politely. –No, no, said Stephen smiling, I mean…” (164-165) The dean, an adult figure who should have the utmost interest in stimulating Stephen’s intellect, is seen only as passing the time with him. We know, however, from the conversation with Lynch, that Stephen is capable of elaborate philosophic discourse. The conversation would more accurately be called pontification, as Lynch does little more than humor Stephen by listening to his theories. Lynch even professes that he has no interest in the subject and is probably only there to take cigarettes from Stephen. What we see is a lone aesthete, completely devoted mentally and spiritually to his craft but alienated from his peers and teachers by his own abilities. Earlier, Stephen dolefully muses:

  • but yet it wounded him to think that he would never be but a shy guest at the feast of the world’s culture and that the monkish learning, in terms of which he was striving to forge out an esthetic philosophy, was held no higher by the age he lived in that the subtle and curious jargons of heraldry and falconry. (157)

Stephen despairs that not only at the interminable store of human knowledge but that his own contributions to the “feast of the world’s culture” will be thought esoteric or irrelevant by his community. The realization that his passion is but a specialized curiosity, such as heraldry and falconry, to the world is undoubtedly a painful one.

Portrait as a Künstlerroman

Stephen is a character in development. The trajectory of the novel takes him from his early fascination with sounds as a youth to an adolescent aesthete. His artistic theories are a phase in his development and thus they should be approached with incredulity, knowing his growth is not yet complete. Cordell Yee observes that there is a lack of sophistication to Stephen’s aesthetics: “Stephen’s lack of this understanding shows that by the end of A Portrait he is not an artist in a fundamental way. He is immature: the would-be artist is also a would be theorist.” (68) Joyce, he argues, deliberately misapplies Aquinas’s teachings when he places them in Stephen’s mouth. (69) This suggests that this section of chapter five, rather than a coherent philosophic treatise, is indicative of character building by Joyce. Aesthetic theorizing is a milestone in Stephen’s artistic growth. His conversation and thoughts, reminiscent of Pater’s Renaissance, are inevitable parts of artistic life he is leading so there should be no surprise in that Stephen, the young aesthete, will grow up into someone who thinks seriously about the nature of art. Yee further notes the early evidence of Stephen’s interest in the beautiful: “As a child, Stephen has a questioning mind: he wonders about the world and shows a philosophic bent. He does not take things for granted and seems to recognize a distinction between nature and convention. He often thinks about language, asking why certain words are used, why they mean what they mean.” (77) A young Stephen is hypnotized by the “pick, pock, puck” (52) of the balls striking cricket bats in the school yard. His childhood fears manifest themselves in his consciousness as verse as he hides under a table: “Pull out his eyes,/Apologise,/ Apologise,/ Pull out his eyes” (6). Indeed, his whole life seems to resonate with artistic and intellectual preoccupation. Joyce, here, has traced the path of an artist from his rawest form to the more (but not completely) refined. The novel begins with a story read to infant Stephen by his father and ends with a diary entry, “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead” (224). Significantly, the novel ends with the invocation of Daedalus, Stephen’s assumed artistic father and, implicitly, the casting off of Stephen’s old parentage and his entrance into his own self-fashioned heritage. The classical world provides both Stephen’s new identity and the roots of his understanding of aesthetics.

Works Cited

Eco, Umberto. “The Artist and Medieval Thought in the Early Joyce.” A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ed. John Paul Riquelme. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2007. Print.

Jones, David E. “The Essence of Beauty in James Joyce’s Aesthetics.” James Joyce Quarterly. 10.3 (1973) : 291-311. Web. 13 March 2011.

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ed. John Paul Riquelme. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2007. Print.

Kenner, Hugh. “Joyce’s Portrait–A Reconsideration.” A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ed. John Paul Riquelme. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2007. Print.

Pater, Walter. “‘Conclusion’ of Renaissance.” A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ed. John Paul Riquelme. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2007. Print.

Yee, Cordell D. K. “The Aesthetics of Stephen’s Aesthetic.” Critical Essays on James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ed. Philip Brady and James F. Carens. New York: G. K. Hall & Co. 1998. Print.


St. Thomas Aquinas


James Joyce

Created by Greg LaLuna

Back to Modernists’ Perception of the Past

Back to James Joyce