It’s June 16th, the day in Dublin in 1904 when James Joyce met the love of his life, Nora Barnacle, and the day upon which he set the wanderings of Leonard Bloom in Ulysses. It’s customary to quote some appropriate passage from that groundbreaking novel on this day, but I will not do so. I would rather point you to his earlier work, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, one of the most sheerly beautiful novels anybody ever wrote. Joyce tells us mostly of his own life in that one, through the character of the young Stephen Daedalus, who struggles to master the call of the flesh, the spirit, and the artistic life–the latter being a union of those two concepts.
Like a lot of students from my generation, I read the novel in eleventh grade, and have encountered nothing quite like it since. Certain passages remain with me to this day, although it is work, sometimes, to remember their context. Joyce was one of the first writers to introduce me to the sensuous quality of language and, more pointedly, to an eroticism that wasn’t necessarily tied to sex. That he managed to connect that language to the intellectual and emotional life of an artist, a writer, is a remarkable achievement. In chapter four of the book, Stephen retreats from school for a while and goes to the sea, where he meets his muse, the anonymous inspiration for all his work to come. To be sure, Dante had Beatrice, but even the great Italian poet would have to praise these lines for the elegant way in which they reveal a beauty the memory of which will sustain us:
“A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh. Her thighs, fuller and soft-hued as ivory, were bared almost to the hips, where the white fringes of her drawers were like feathering of soft white down. Her slate-blue skirts were kilted boldly about her waist and dovetailed behind her. Her bosom was as a bird’s, soft and slight, slight and soft as the breast of some dark-plumaged dove. But her long fair hair was girlish: and girlish, and touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, her face.
She was alone and still, gazing out to sea; and when she felt his presence and the worship of his eyes her eyes turned to him in quiet sufferance of his gaze, without shame or wantonness. Long, long she suffered his gaze and then quietly withdrew her eyes from his and bent them towards the stream, gently stirring the water with her foot hither and thither. The first faint noise of gently moving water broke the silence, low and faint and whispering, faint as the bells of sleep; hither and thither, hither and thither; and a faint flame trembled on her cheek.
— Heavenly God! cried Stephen’s soul, in an outburst of profane joy.”
For Stephen, the girl is an idea. For me, his vision of her, and what he makes of that vision, is a rejection of the life of the spirit he’s been handed at his Jesuit school and the beginning of his attempts to make a life of the flesh and spirit by himself, for himself. On the level of the physical alone, the passage looks forward to the first great love scene between Father Ralph and Meggie in Colleen McCullough’s popular novel The Thorn Birds, including Ralph’s rejection of any such love as profane. On the level of the spiritual, the girl becomes a renewable symbol of peace, of life and color; of the animate world and the deeper, indivisible world of the sea itself.