Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Treasure-House of Language: Managing Symbolic Economies in Joyce's 'Portrait.'

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Treasure-House of Language: Managing Symbolic Economies in Joyce's 'Portrait.'

Article excerpt

"The regulation of the purse is, in its essence, regulation of the imagination and the heart."(1)

James Joyce eventually evolved a complicated, even paradoxical attitude towards money: he alternately played the roles of miser and spendthrift, and synthesized the two impulses in Ulysses, which betrays in its structure and characters both his extravagance and his obsession with control. As a youth, however, Joyce attempted to defy bourgeois conventions by living on loans (which he often disdained to repay), by spending the meager sums he did earn, and generally by acting as though money were a tainted symbol of the "nightmare" of history.(2) Stephen Dedalus embodies many of the young Joyce's economic habits and philosophies. Like his creator, Dedalus attempts to manage the financial and linguistic economies in which he finds himself implicated. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Stephen seeks to discover not only his vocation as an artist, but also the value of words themselves. He passes through a series of stages, which I shall describe as stewardships, in the houses of various Authorities: his father, God and the Church, and language itself. The final stewardship, he believes, endows him with the authority to speak the voice of his community, or what he calls his "race." In other words, Stephen progresses toward possession - of himself, of his destiny, and of his language.

By the end of Portrait he indeed appears to have taken possession of what an earlier version of Stephen calls his "spiritual assets": his linguistic and artistic patrimony.(3) As Ulysses opens, however, he is again dispossessed, and must discover those assets all over again, albeit by a different route. In Ulysses the dissipated Dedalus enacts the profligate side of his author; Stephen's artistic and economic failure can be remedied only through encounters with his oppressors (which would include himself), and finally through his meeting with Leopold and (vicariously) Molly Bloom. I want to argue, then, that Portrait not only exposes the sources of Joyce's and Stephen's economic habits; it also lays the theoretical cornerstones for the economic tropes and philosophies upon which Ulysses so fascinatingly builds. At the same time the earlier novel reveals the differences between Joyce and Stephen: while Stephen remains bound to inadequate notions of the linguistic economy and his role in managing it, Joyce's portrayal of Stephen's struggle proves that he has surpassed his character as both artist and economist.(4)

Portrait is largely a novel about language, and Stephen's world is primarily a verbal or semiotic one. Although he is aware of his social surroundings, they are muted and filtered through his emphatically self-absorbed consciousness. In this sense, unlike the nineteenth-century Bildungsroman, Portrait is not a realist fiction in the way that, say, The Mill on the Floss is realistic. Joyce's novel excises connective - and virtually arrests - plot movement, which is replaced by epiphanic, almost static vignettes.(5) In fact, Portrait appears during the historical moment when, according to Jean-Joseph Goux, literature began to depart from the "gold standard" of realism, a moment that occurred contemporaneously with a new kind of banking system that replaced industrial capital with monopoly or fiduciary capital. Economics was no longer based upon gold coins, but upon "dematerialized money" - banknotes, fiduciary bills - money as promise or script. The result was a "dematerialization of value."(6) Likewise, as Modernism replaced realism, art tended towards abstraction from mere things, instead valorizing "reciprocal relationships among signs" ("Banking," p. 23). If realism offers an allegedly transparent language in which words refer specifically to things or concepts rather than to themselves, the language of Modernism reminds readers that fictions are not simply windows on the world, but prismatic refractions of sign systems. …

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