A Portrait of Stephen Dedalus

A Portrait of Stephen Dedalus (2014) Oil on linen on board 20in. x 20in.

A Portrait of Stephen Dedalus (2014)
Oil on linen on board
20in. x 20in.

With a sudden movement she bowed his head and joined her lips to his and he read the meaning of her movements in her frank uplifted eyes.  It was too much for him.  He closed his eyes, surrendering himself to her, body and mind, conscious of nothing in the world but the dark pressure of her softly parting lips.  They pressed upon his brain as upon his lips as though they were the vehicle of a vague speech;  and between them he felt an unknown and timid pressure, darker than the swoon of sin, softer than sound or odour.” (108)

With the sensuality of this kiss James Joyce closes the second chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  The moment remains one of my favorites in all of literature.  Despite all the elements surrounding the young Stephen Dedalus…Catholic identity, Irish identity (both cultural and political), identity as the son of his father and so on…the first inkling of his true individual identity as a person, as Stephen Dedalus, arises as he “wandered into a maze of narrow and dirty streets” (106) wherein he meets “(a) young woman dressed in a long pink gown” (107)—a lady of the evening.  Joyce writes:  “In her arms he felt that he had suddenly become strong and fearless and sure of himself.” (107)  The maze, the labyrinth of life that must be navigated equates to all of those elements which would contribute to identity but which, in fact, confound an understanding of oneself, of life.  The elements make up the conceptual labyrinth that must be traversed.  He truly meets himself outside the realm of these conceptual and imposed realities only in an experience so intense that it overrides the rational function of the mind.  He begins to find himself in the act of sinning, in the act of undermining the ordained order of things.  He finds himself, ultimately, only when he sets himself against God Himself.  The logic of salvation history, the justice and injustice of political struggle, the custom and tradition imposed by nation and by family all seem as nothing as the young woman dressed in pink slips her tongue into his mouth.  His transgression eventually frees him to assume the central role of the divine himself, that of a creator…an artist.  At that point he no longer navigates the labyrinth, but he engineers labyrinths as a clever, perhaps divine, maker.  The meaning of Joyce’s epigraph taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses referencing Daedalus (“clever artificer”) to the novel becomes clear:  “And he applies his mind to obscure arts.”