Thursday, June 22, 2023

James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist as a Lapsed Catholic

 I never liked James Joyce but I understand why some people do. From Mike Aquilina at Angelus News:

These words seem to undermine the case put forth by Eliot and others. And there is ample material in Joyce’s works to make the case that his “open war” raged on for decades. Though Colum believed the novel “Ulysses” to be “one of the most Catholic books ever written,” many Catholics condemned it as blasphemous and pornographic. Now comes to the discussion Father Colum Power, a many-degreed scholar and priest of the Servants of the Home of the Mother. For readers of Joyce he has written an invaluable book: “James Joyce’s Catholic Categories” (Wiseblood Books, $50).

Wisely, Father Power has chosen to limit the question to what can be known. He does not place bets on whether Joyce wrote as a Catholic or whether he died in the state of grace. Indeed, he begins his study by acknowledging Joyce’s apostasy. Joyce, baptized and educated as a Catholic, became an apostate. The goal is not to reclaim him for Catholicism, but to discover what kind of an apostate he became, how far his apostasy from Catholicism took him from religious belief. When faith is lost, how does Catholicism survive? How does it manifest its lingering influence? Joyce was confoundingly capable of intense aversion and vehement diatribe toward the Catholic Church, and, almost simultaneously, of a nuanced and favorable disposition toward the historical Catholic contribution.

The subsequent discussion is substantial. Father Power’s book runs just shy of 400 pages, and it provides rich historical and biographical context for an informed reading of Joyce’s stories. Father Power engages the relevant arguments about Joyce’s aesthetics. Was he a realist or a relativist? Do his unconventional narratives depict a world devoid of meaning and coherence, or a world so rich that it overflows the devices of conventional narrative?

Joyce’s most extensive reflections on art appear in his novel “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” They belong to the novel’s protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, and it is at least debatable whether Joyce would claim them as his own. It is fascinating, however, that Dedalus works out his aesthetics in the language of Thomism, the Christian philosophy Joyce had learned from the Jesuits at prep school. St. Thomas Aquinas himself composed no sustained treatment of aesthetics, so what Joyce places in the mouth of Dedalus is an original contribution, a synthesis that would be engaged by later philosophers, including Umberto Eco. Joyce consistently appropriated the language of Catholicism — most famously, the word epiphany — to express his ideas about art. He spoke about the artist as “priest of the eternal imagination.”

In the course of his analysis, Father Power provides a close and sensitive reading of Joyce’s works; and in doing so he reminds us why we should care in the first place. Joyce’s stories and novels are heartbreakingly beautiful works of art. (Read more.)

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