Raphael’s “School of Athens” (detail)
This episode corresponds with Book XII of Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus has to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis. It symbolizes being stuck between two powerful forces, both of which are destructive. The episode takes place in the National Library, where Stephen Dedalus is presenting his theory on Hamlet, asserting that Hamlet’s father in the play is representative of Shakespeare the individual. He tries to navigate between the two extreme views, one that posits that knowing the history of an artist’s life is important in understanding that artist’s works, and the other that art should be appreciated for art’s sake, without focus on the artist’s life. The argument incorporates the conflicting views of Aristotle and Plato on the value of art, whether it is an imitation of life or whether art is an ideal to which humans should strive.
Reading this episode, I felt like I was personally navigating between the two extremes. At times it felt very difficult to stay centered in the flow of the text and not get sucked into the whirlpool or chewed up by the multi-headed beast. I suspect that this was intentional on Joyce’s part and that he made this section difficult in order to instill the feeling of being torn and trying desperately to remain on course.
For this episode, rather than attempting to summarize everything that is addressed in this very dense text, I decided to pick a single paragraph and analyze it closely.
—All these questions are purely academic, Russell oracle out of his shadow. I mean, whether Hamlet is Shakespeare or James I or Essex. Clergymen’s discussions on the historicity of Jesus. Art has to reveal us ideas, formless spiritual essences. The supreme question about a work of art is how deep a life does it spring. The painting of Gustave Moreau is the painting of ideas. The deepest poetry of Shelley, the words of Hamlet bring our mind into contact with the eternal wisdom, Plato’s world of ideas. All the rest is the speculation of schoolboys for schoolboys.
In this passage, George Russell (A.E.) expresses the Platonic ideal that art should be an expression of the ineffable ideal which is formless and cannot be fully grasped by the conscious mind. He criticizes Stephen, who leans toward the Aristotelian. Stephen bases his theory on analysis and criticism and tries to avoid getting pulled into the formless whirlpool of ideals that is the basis of Plato’s philosophy. But I can’t help feeling that Stephen has a little bit of the Platonic in him. He is, after all, a poet, and though he strives to be an academic, he still has an artistic side.
When Joyce writes that A.E. speaks from “his shadow,” he is alluding to Plato’s allegory of the cave in The Republic. Art, according to A.E., is what allows people to view the flame of divine consciousness as opposed to the mere shadows cast upon the cave wall.
The last sentence of A.E.’s quote appears to be a direct jab at Stephen. Stephen is young, essentially a student in Russell’s eyes, just as Aristotle was a student of Plato’s and therefore not as qualified, in A.E.’s opinion. Stephen is also teaching schoolboys. Essentially, he is saying that Stephen is just not experienced enough to fully comprehend the true nature of art, the purpose of which is to communicate directly with the psyche and provide a glimpse of the part of us which cannot be grasped by our normal state of awareness.
While I concede the value of analytical thought, I am a romantic at heart and tend to lean toward the Platonic ideal. Still, I relate to Stephen, trying to navigate between these two opposing ideologies. I suppose that personally, I run the risk of being drawn into the whirlpool and losing myself in the mystic, which is why it’s important to try to stay grounded.
Next week, I’ll cover Episode 10 which ends on page 255 with the phrase “…sturdy trousers swallowed by a closing door.”
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