Next Section

Previous Section

7.9 The Escape of the Artist

Both HCE and Shem share the dubious distinction of being the victims of violence at the hands of Shaun, and Shem's non-participation in the reproduction of the deity and his non-violent stance implicitly advocate peace. A major problem with Shem's non-participation from a historical materialist perspective is that he does not appear to enter into the struggle for control over social resources. His literary 'o peace a farce' (FW 14.14) could be described as naive in its ability to achieve social justice or even peace, and indeed may be in fact 'a farce'. Certainly his approach is depreciated by Shaun as 'feminine'. Yet, Shem's non-participation is as competitive a strategy for domination as Shaun's own. Dominic Manganiello, in his exploration of Joyce's politics in Stephen Hero, suggests that even had Stephen chosen the role of demagogue he could not have competed in the environment of Irish nationalist agitation:

In other words, the sweep and belligerence of his political criticism cast Stephen unwittingly in the role of demagogue, and, consequently, rendered him impotent when confronting the 'cleverly inflammable enthusiasms' of the patriots who engaged in 'flag-practices with phrases' (SH 53, 83).13

If political belligerence places Stephen in an inferior position where he cannot use his superior intellect to dominate others, resorting to physical violence takes him yet another step away from a position of strength. This is borne out in A Portrait when Stephen is overpowered by Heron, assisted by 'Boland [...] the dunce and Nash the idler of the class' (P 73) and assaulted as a heretic. In Ulysses, Stephen is knocked unconscious by two British soldiers because of their wrong-headed perception that he had insulted their king. Stephen's confrontation with his Italian and English 'masters' (U 1.638) in both instances is clearly an unequal match. While Stephen all too lucidly perceives the absurdity and horror of violence, his mode of opposition to it in part is founded upon his physical unsuitability and intellectual superiority to that form of human competition, particularly as the opinions expressed by his opponents are the product of unthinking obedience and not reasonable discourse. As Lord Tennyson in Circe points out: 'Theirs is not to reason why' (U 15.4397).

The withdrawal from violence opted for by Shem in his refusal to fight Shaun physically, or like Joyce to participate in World War I, nonetheless represents a competitive stance. Stephen and Shem's ideological weapons succeed with time, and thus in Book III.4, after Shaun is taken out to sea to await rebirth, Shem takes his place in Issy/ALP's arms. As early as A Portrait Stephen emphasises his refusal to bow to the demands of patriarchal culture, and while rejecting violence, nevertheless takes up those 'arms' available to the artist: 'I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: [...] using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use - silence, exile, and cunning' (P 222). Rather than concern for the lives of others, Stephen specifically rejects enlisting in the Irish nationalist cause due to the possibility that it may cost his life:

— My ancestors threw off their language and took another, Stephen said. They allowed a handful of foreigners to subject them. Do you fancy I am going to pay in my own life and person debts they made? (P 184)

In Ulysses, Stephen compares Sinn Fein and his relationship with it to the ancient Greek assembly which sentenced Socrates to death (U. 9.239), and in A Portrait considers the nationalist demand that he risk his life a net cast to prevent the fulfilment of his individual potential: 'You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets' (P 184). To realise his potential as an artist, Stephen avoids being taxed by what he considers irrelevant or inferior modes of contention, or indeed making the ultimate sacrifice of losing his life. As Manganiello notes concerning Stephen Hero, 'Ego realization, which arrives once the anarchist artist has freed himself from the shibboleths of society, alone really matters'.14

In A Portrait, the pacifist Stephen refuses to sign the Czar Nicholas's petition for universal peace, complaining that the Czar had 'the face of a besotted Christ' (P 177) and objecting to McCann that 'If we must have a Jesus, let us have a legitimate Jesus' (P 180). While Manganiello's analysis suggests that Stephen's 'sense of realpolitik [...] enables him to detect a warmonger in disguise', an alternative understanding is that Stephen considered the Czar a rival, which meshes far better with Manganiello's own discussion of egotism as the sustaining motivation of the artist Stephen.15 Joyce's depiction of Stephen's ambition as forging the 'conscience of my race' (P 228) in A Portrait, and later as a reincarnation of Christ in Ulysses, places him in competition with the Czar, who in Stephen's perception, similarly seeks to replace Christ. Although there is no doubt a degree of poetic licence in his words, Joyce also entertained messianic ambitions, as Manganiello points out:

This curiously paradoxical insistence on sin as a way of deifying the ego and of achieving self-redemption allowed Joyce, like Wilde before him, to entertain delusions of messianic grandeur, 'I hope that the day may come,' he wrote in a letter of 1912 to Nora Barnacle, 'when I shall be able to give you the fame of being beside me when I have entered into my Kingdom' (Letters II 309).16

Moreover, for Stephen in Ulysses, the business of forging an Irish conscience was to be achieved in a similar manner to Christ who preceded him: over the long duration, albeit without martyrdom.

In both Ulysses and the Wake, the logos of each new age is developed by a 'fundamental' male which must then be implemented by a 'dominant' male. The mystery of ex nihilo creation, whether by the deity or the artist, is accounted for by Stephen as a need to escape from oneself, in the same manner as Shakespeare's creativity and ego realisation is informed by a need to escape the mental 'wound' of having been dominated by Ann Hathaway. In a discussion ostensibly about music, Stephen elucidates to the cap back-to-front upon Lynch's head how an escape from oneself in the form of creativity in turn manifests a new self and by implication a new reality:


Here's another for you. (he frowns) The reason is because the fundamental and the dominant are separated by the greatest possible interval which....


Which? Finish. You can't.


(with an effort) Interval which. Is the greatest possible ellipse. Consistent with. The ultimate return. The octave. Which.



(Outside the gramophone begins to blare The Holy City.)


(abruptly) What went forth to the ends of the world to traverse not itself, God, the sun, Shakespeare, a commercial traveller, having itself traversed in reality itself becomes that self. Wait a moment. Wait a second. Damn that fellow's noise in the street. Self which it itself was ineluctably preconditioned to become. Ecco! (U 15.2104-21)

Earlier, Stephen suggests to Deasy that a 'shout in the street' (U 2.386) is the cultural-textual foundation of the existence of the deity which Stephen likens to the commotion of the boys' hockey match, the particular outcome of which is the product of bloody battle: 'Jousts, slush and uproar of battles, the frozen deathspew of the slain, a shout of spearspikes baited with men's bloodied guts' (U 2.317-18). In Scylla and Charybdis, Stephen reiterates this view, 'God: noise in the street' (U 9.85-86), and emphasises an associated requirement to confront the present: 'Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges into the past' (U 9.89). In the above quotation from Circe, however, Stephen is not only complaining of a loud gramophone recording of The Holy City but reiterating his own messianic ambition when he damns 'that fellow's noise in the street'. The notion of a cultural reality defined by a 'shout in the street', the violent competition Stephen eschews, is superseded by a reality 'ineluctably preconditioned to become' via the inspired perception of a traversing 'fundamental' creator. The octave here is indicative of the 'ultimate return' of such creators, as Stephen, in the guise of Phillip Drunk, later confirms: 'If I could only find out about octaves. Reduplication of personality' (U 15.2522-23).

In Finnegans Wake 'fundamental' creators return as HCE figures in a cyclic movement of creativity and fall. The principles of Stephen's discussion are developed in the Wake so that the 'fundamental' becomes the excretory originator Shem/HCE, while the 'dominant', the violent Shaun/HCE. Such a determinism of return precludes the artist from the necessity of engaging in the personal confrontation implicit in the 'shout in the street', the 'joust of life' (U 2.315), Stephen associates with his students' hockey match. The escape from reality implicit in both the creation and appreciation of art can no longer be perceived as an evasion of the dictates of ethical behaviour when that artistic endeavour alters over time the textual composition of cultural reality. The subversion of the patriarchal centre of culture that Joyce undertakes in his fiction does not produce a separate reality; functioning as an escape from domination, artistic texts which promote difference instead reshape and diversify the inward-looking perspectives with which society comprehends itself. Thus, in Joyce's works at least, escape is critical to new beginnings.

13 Dominic Manganiello, ‘The Politics of the Unpolitical in Joyce’s Fictions’, James Joyce Quarterly, 29 (1992), 241-58 (p. 249).

14 Manganiello, ‘The Politics of the Unpolitical’, p. 245.

15 Manganiello, ‘The Politics of the Unpolitical’, pp. 243-45.

16 Manganiello, ‘The Politics of the Unpolitical’, p. 244.