One topic that interests me in literature is portraiture. I’d like to kick off a new series about portraits in literature with some snippets from an essay I wrote a few years ago about James Joyce’s Portrait.
The “portrait” in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Irish, 1916) is upheld by Joyce as textual, communicating meaning through words and associations. His denotative question, “Why own a thing when you can say it?” reveals his bias; instead of upholding the visual quality of the art, shown through ocular imagery and aesthetic, Joyce uses the intangible word to create mental pictures and manifest beauty.
Throughout the text Joyce is cognizant of the ironic truth that words present, poking fun at his own medium; “Wells must know the right answer for he was third in grammar.” By insisting that Wells, at classmate of Stephen’s at Clongowes, harbors the ability to distinguish truth because of his elite understanding of language Joyce challenges Stephen’s (and in a roundabout way, his own) role as artist. His etymological search for answers contests Oscar Wilde’s belief that the artist’s role is to put forward problems without answering them, for Stephen’s superior sense of savvy is borne from his developing command of language. Although Joyce merges imagery and aesthetic with words, there is little doubt that his love of language conquers his love of the visual. When Stephen, for example, considers why he is bothered by his classmates’ presence on the street he ponders whether it is their colors (their tangible, visual existence) or the representation of them (their association through words) that constitutes the problem: “was it their colors? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the greyfringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colors: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and color?” The movement of color in Joyce’s portrait, points to Stephen’s answer as “yes.” He, like Joyce, favors the verbal to the visual. Even the presentation of portraiture seems to resemble neat linguistic vignettes: “[Stephen] passed along the narrow dark corridor, passing little doors that were the doors of the rooms of the community. He peered in front of him and right and left through the gloom and thought that those must be portraits. It was dark and silent and his eyes were weak and tired with tears so that he could not see. But he thought they were the portraits of the saints and great men of the order who were looking down on him silently as he passed.”
Stephen’s vague conceptualization of his surroundings as portraiture is a motif carried throughout the text, although the reference becomes more obscured. The blurry vision, caused by Stephen’s “weak and tired” eyes full of tears, is the artistic eye through which he makes art. He essentially transforms every persona into an ambiguous portrait; and it is only later, when the portrait attains an elevated status reflecting the order of saints and great men, that Stephen will admit he has also become a portrait of his original self.
Envisioning the text as a composite of visual elements, instead of linguistic, unveils the structure as portraiture, making the subject of Joyce’s Portrait less obfuscated.
When upholding Joyce’s text as portraiture, identifying and describing the subject becomes, ironically, the most difficult task. Certainly a portrait by definition is a depiction of a person, and usually that person’s bust (or head and shoulders). Hugh Kenner, in his introduction to Portrait, presents a theory using a linear plane of subject/object relationships to explain the process and result of creating portraiture: Background//Painter//Mirror//Painter’s Image// Background’s Image. Kenner marks the center object, the mirror, as the refracting point of transference where Joyce the artist becomes Stephen the subject. Lewis Carol in Through the Looking Glass presents similar chiasmic symmetry; Alice who represents the Joycean artist uses the mirror as a medium to traverse new territory and recreate herself. Alice, like Stephen, passes literally through what Lacan terms “the mirror stage,”arriving at the other side where the artist’s image embodies more personas than its own. Alice’s Red and White Queens are synonymous with Stephen’s Bird Woman and figures like Father Dolan who pull him, often severed, in opposite directions. Psychologically these personas are refracted images of Alice/Stephen as ego/alter-ego. Kenner, who grazes by the psychological element, fails to identify a clear subject of Joyce’s portrait; he simply polarizes Joyce and “Joyce” (Stephen). “Joyce” becomes a linguistic reproduction of the original. The replica, instead, should be further dissected according to its visual elements; Carol, like Joyce, uses color to distinguish ego from alter-ego for a reason.
The style of Joyce’s artistic replication (the visual portrait of Stephen) involves variance of colors and contrasts made up by what John Paul Riquelme calls “verbal texture.” Color for Joyce, like for Thomas Carlyle, is a pigmentation of temper and heart. The white which pervades the beginning of the text does not signify the innocence of young Stephen; instead, white is a perpetual source of the “cold and damp.” From the porcelain lavatory to the religious altar to the fleshy nakedness of the Irish human body, whiteness is connected to a near-comatose state or, as shown through Stephen’s consideration of Eileen’s white, tower-like hands, a perpetual point of contention. Other colors are brought back for discernment against the pasty white of Stephen’s youth. White is the medium through which he derives meaning, a color associated with the moist chill of urine-soaked bed sheets: a color always slightly tinged and off-white despite the scrubbing.
As Stephen experiences temptation white purples to a grayish hue which comes to represent the general air surrounding his life: waves of pollution rolling through water and sky. The gray cloud of his environment, the melancholic lacquer of the Dublin atmosphere, shows a slight shift in Joyce’s artistic template. Before the eternal darkness at the ending of Ulysses in which Stephen finds a kind of solace, there is an absence of color in Portrait which, ironically, is borne of an absence of face.
For Joyce, the lack of a face is the lack of substance, the lack of existence. When Stephen tries to imagine himself as someone different, to project another version of himself upon the canvas, he visualizes his face as faded and imperceptible: “The color faded and became strong like a changing glow of pallid brick red.” The absence of color is neither white nor black but akin to a muted red: a smudged face maintaining only body heat. The medium employed by Joyce to achieve this pellucid color is not the common tool of the painter. Joyce does not view himself as a mere painter but as creator. Like the ultimate creator, Joyce forges Stephen from the most pliable stuff on earth; as the priest says to Stephen of god during confession, “He made you out of nothing.” Stephen struggles to build Aquinas’ prerequisites for beauty upon this non-existent constitution but, as expected, the theories of symmetry, integrity, and radiance have no meaning for him in a portrait without true color or, more importantly, without a face.
Stephen’s missing face is a mere symbol for a larger question: what is the subject of the portrait?
Joyce’s struggle to establish face may spring from a singular point of variance: the subject of the portrait is not of a man at all. Anthony Burgess suggests that “in A Portrait Stephen has become godlike, containing everybody else.” In this view the tangible, visual portrait becomes one not of one subject, but of infinite subjects. Stephen, the simultaneous artificer and art-object, becomes “other” to himself by projecting everybody else on the canvas in the desire to see himself. Like the queen from Grimm’s fairy tale of “Little Snow White,” Stephen strives to see a reflection of himself as the predominant specie of Darwinian natural selection, chosen for the best display of what he values most. The queen values beauty and so does Stephen. When the queen asks the mirror (her medium of understanding the outer world) who is the fairest of them all, she sees someone other than herself reflected. Stephen too approaches his medium for understanding the outer world, the canvas, and asks, am I the subject of my own portrait? Just as when Father Dolan beats his hands, Stephen thinks of himself as a disjointed representation of his surroundings: “To think of [his hands] beaten and swollen with pain all in a moment made him feel so sorry for them as if they were not his own but someone else’s that he felt sorry for.” Stephen looks at his tangible body and envisions someone else’s, finding a kind of solace in allowing the “other” to fill the canvas in times of trial or uncertainty: a substitute ego manifested by Stephen.
However, the establishment of this power does not stem from his role as a developing adult but as a perpetual infant. Stephen’s motions to maintain himself as subject of Joyce’s portrait are all made with the backing of childhood innocence; as Henke observes, “in order to confess his sins of impurity, Stephen must revert to a state of childhood innocence. He allows himself to be infantilized.” The powerful subject then, is a child and not a man. Likewise, when Stephen considers his vehicles of deliverance from sin he envisions god’s love of little children. Thus, the engraved word “Foetus” in the wood of his desk suggests another portrayal of the subject of Joyce’s portrait. As Burgess theorizes, “embryonic growth is used to symbolize the spiritual history of a young poet…The static and passive organism, which does not move of its own volition but on which growth is miraculously imposed, is a very Joycean concept.” In this view Stephen, as the subject of Joyce’s portrait, is a nearly inhuman growth without agency, as a foetus, feeding off whatever is offered him, reacting to his environment as a lump of cells, in a constant state of immaturity and underdevelopment, perpetually anticipating formation. There is no growth in A Portrait of Stephen’s stagnant existence; “The foetus has had a premonition of release, but there is still a long time to go before emancipation…He is still held down in the womb of matter, longing for birth but compelled to remain an embryo driven by an enclosing will to take further, more grotesque, shapes before release into the air.” In Stephen’s striving to lead the chain of evolution he places himself at the bottom of it.
Joyce at the same time diachronically attributes Stephen with the paramount ambition of the foetus: to birthe itself. Just as the crowning accomplishment of the artist is to paint herself, Stephen’s conquest as foetus is to father himself, enacting a kind of aesthetic creationism upon his existence. His disjointed and gendered association of birth with males reflects the early Puritanical doctrine of the new convert in America during the 18th century where men of religious insight were viewed, according to Dillon, as “nursing fathers” in which “a male convert describes himself as a womb receiving sperm.” The Puritan male’s religious experience as the Bride of Christ is then “feminized” and gender roles are inverted. Women’s actual, physical womb and breast milk as foundation for and nurturer of life is sublimated in exchange for the theoretical milk of men, bestowed upon them by god. Stephen’s existence as simultaneous foetus and “nursing father” reflects this Puritanical theology. The literal inability of Stephen’s body, as a man, to birthe anything living is a clear destruction of classical associations with the male body. Perhaps Joyce deconstructs his portrait to insist on Stephen’s separation from the body. The religious undertones are obvious, but Joyce is also working from Romantic ideology of the body, as shown by William Blake in The Daughters of Albion, that connect the feminine to bodily desire and carnal existence. The androgynous state that is Blake’s ultimate vision absorbs the female into the male, dissolving the physical into the spiritual. Joyce struggles with this tender balance between Stephen’s bodily and religious desires, eventually imposing an androgynous state on him. Ellen jocosely mistakes Stephen’s gender when he enters the room; “I thought it was Josephine. I thought you were Josephine, Stephen. And, repeating this several times, she fell to laughing feebly.” Later, his orgies with prostitutes and his sexualization of the Bird Woman recover an association with heterosexual masculinity to Stephen. But Joyce dances the line of gender and desire again when Stephen comes upon his male peers splashing in the water. This scene of “wet nakedness” prompts perhaps the most significant flight imagery in the text.
The eroticized bodies of the young men, smacking each other with wet towels, with sea and brine in their hair, unbuttoned collars, without belts or coats invokes a “swordlike pain” from Stephen’s body (182); from this scene Joyce uses climactic language and the orgasmic imagery of quick breathe, trembling heart, and wild spirit to attribute Stephen with a “desire to cry aloud.” It is unclear whether Joyce is reclaiming the body (and its association to the feminine) like Wilde and Pater, or if he, as Tracey Teets Schwartz claims, “de-essentializes the notion of masculinity in general by divulging its changing, constructed, performative nature.”
Joyce doubtlessly recognizes what Wilde describes as the painter’s shortcoming in producing art: “the painter is so far limited that it is only through the mask of the body that he can handle ideas; only through its physical equivalents that he can deal with psychology.” If Joyce attempts to relinquish Stephen’s association with the body, then the subject of the portrait becomes instead, the soul. Faceless and ambiguous, the soul as subject becomes emblematic of the art of decadence and the Art of Death as typified by the “Parnassian” group and anti-Romantic objectivity. The soul becomes Joyce’s establishment of cultural sickness as art, diseased and vulgar. Stephen’s own soul “was fattening and congealing into a gross grease, plunging ever deeper in its dull fear into a sombre threatening dusk, while the body that was his stood, listless and dishonored, gazing out of darkened eyes, helpless, perturbed and human for a bovine god to stare upon…He, he himself, his body to which he had yielded was dying.” The personification of the soul results in emotional detachment and loss of human quality, making the artist’s subject material inaccessible to a subaltern public. The only tactile part of the portrait becomes, then, the brush-strokes or surface texture, assuming it is globular enough for the public to wrap its hands or minds around.
These two images of the subject of Joyce’s portrait, of Stephen as foetus and as soul, offer binary views of life and death, both equally abstract. Less abstract perhaps is the role of the narrator in establishing the subject of this admittedly obscure portrait. Narration is the subject that Joyce upholds when all others fail. By obscuring the narrator, developing what Riquelme defines as an “oscillating narrator,” Joyce conveys Stephen’s emotional detachment from his own life. The consonance between Joyce and Stephen allows a covert narration where narratorial mediation is minimized. The narrator as subject, although empty of human quality itself, may seem more strongly connected to the sympathetic world because its use of language. However, Joyce’s narrative device succeeds in revealing its own artifice in a way similar, as Riquelme explains, to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Language succeeds in making Stephen less human, less accessible; the portraiture must, as I have begun to show, be upheld as an optical illusion.
The visual element is a composition of Joyce’s and “Joyce’s” vision of himself. By projecting himself through the refracted mirror of language or portraiture, Joyce attempts to destroy himself as a mere vision, striving to “fly by those nets” of convention. Instead, the defacement of his portrait becomes the portrait itself. Like the picture of Dorian Gray, even the defaced portrait maintains a face of sorts. Dorian’s portrait rots from the sin and death that Dorian avoids in daily life, as Wilde manifests a second face for his protagonist: a death mask. Stephen, likewise, equates portraiture with death. Upon examination of his grandfather’s portrait he observes, “He was condemned to death,” seeing beyond the life-likeness of his grandfather’s face, straight to its associations with the grave. Strangely, the physical existence of a contained portrait, or image, has more life than the subject it contains. As Stephen rambles in the night he longs to encounter, not a person, but an image; “He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld. He did not know where to seek it or how: but a premonition which led him on told him that this image would, without any overt act of his, encounter him. They would meet quietly as if they had known each other and had made their tryst, perhaps at one of the gates or in some more secret place. They would be alone, surrounded by darkness and silence: and in that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured.”
Stephen here seems to uphold the visual over the linguistic, emphasizing his desire to encounter an “image.” However, this image is “unsubstantial,” meaning that it has for Stephen, ironically, no visual element at all. The image’s darkness and lack of sound eliminates both the visual and the linguistic, leaving Stephen longing to encounter its reaper-like agency. As he observes toward the end of the novel, “Reproduction is the beginning of death” — portraiture, as a reproduction of a person’s face, illuminates death-like instead of life-like characteristics. Like Dorian Gray who, angered at his own disillusionment, hungers to ignite his thwarted demise by pulling the veil from his portrait, Stephen’s fantasy is to unsheathe and confront death. Surely Stephen, by the close of A Portrait has found the language of death. His struggle is to find instead the image of death.
The last chapter is plagued with Stephen’s attempt to understand images and their relation to language. Like Blake whose engravings often reflect an antagonistic message to his words, or Rene Magritte who uses black cut-out shapes of familiar objects and then labels them with incompatible names, Stephen uses the language of death to represent images of life. His consideration of Cranly’s bust, the head-and-shoulder figure he observes rising above the “meekly bent” heads of his other classmates, illustrates this trend in Chapter V. First he distinguishes the image of another from his own, and then transforms that living image into dead language: “Another head than [Stephen’s], right before him in the first benches, was poised squarely above its bending fellows like the head of a priest appealing without humility to the tabernacle for the humble worshipers about him. Why was it that when he thought of Cranly he could never raise before his mind the entire image of his body but only the image of the head and face? Even now against the grey curtain of the morning he saw it before him like the phantom of a dream, the face of a severed head or deathmask, crowned on the brows by its stiff black upright hair as by an iron crown. It was a priest- like face, priest-like in its pallor, in the widewinged nose, in the shadowings below the eyes and along the jaws, priest-like in the lips that were long and bloodless and faintly smiling.”
Stephen is unable, at this point in the novel, to think of his peers as anything more than portraiture. His study of Cranly’s bust takes a living man and transforms him into an artistic figure with a severed head, deathmask, an iron crown (seeming like Jesus dying on the cross), and bloodless lips; Cranly’s bust embodies death. Even Stephen’s lusty consideration of the female body turns to artistic creation, cold and removed from the living world. The female form, in all its previous sexuality, has been hardened to a mere statue with eyes “that seem to ask me something. They do not speak.” Stephen struggles to see the world in his attempt to feel it around him. He tries to remove the sturdy platform of language that he has striven so hard to create, from under him. Stephen buckles under his inability to interpret the world through images. He notices their shortcoming immediately; they do not speak.
Joyce’s support of the linguistic element contends the visual aspect of portraiture, obscuring the subject (which is visual despite itself) by contorting its face to a death mask. The subject of the portrait is severed from its creator who is also the subject of the portrait.‡ Joyce maintains the linguistic element at a high price. He negotiates the face of the subject, trading life for death, in his conquest to elevate language. Joyce strives to remove the visual element from portraiture, replacing the subject’s face with language.