Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Joyce's Epiphanic Mode: Material Language and the Representation of Sexuality in Stephen Hero and Portrait

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Joyce's Epiphanic Mode: Material Language and the Representation of Sexuality in Stephen Hero and Portrait

Article excerpt

James Joyce's transformations of themes, language, and characters from one of his own works to another have long been among the signal preoccupations of Joyce's readers. The manuscript fragments known as epiphanies, written in the years 1900 to 1903, are the earliest sources of specific scenes and more general interests which we can see Joyce draw upon in all his longer works of fiction. [1] While Joyce's theorization and use of epiphany from Stephen Hero onward have been central to many readers' understandings of his work as a whole, the connection of this general aspect of Joyce's work to the specific records of scenes and interactions represented in the epiphany manuscripts has been of secondary interest. Perhaps remembering (with some embarrassment) along with Stephen in Ulysses his "epiphanies written on green oval leaves, deeply deep, copies to be sent if [he] died to all the great libraries of the world, including Alexandria" (3.141--42), Joyce's readers have not often given serious attention to the ways in which his mature works use the material first developed in these fragments.

The most common critical approach to the epiphany fragments has been to examine their themes and Dublin locations and to suggest specific places in Joyce's later fiction in which these epiphanic elements are deployed. But this focus on the epiphanies as sources for the later works can obscure the particular workings of language in the epiphanies and in Joyce's earliest integrations of epiphanic material into his fiction. The linguistic contexts of these early uses of the epiphanies--from the passage in Stephen Hero in which Stephen first defines epiphanies, through scenes of Stephen's intense sexual or artistic feeling in Portrait--have a significance beyond their possible prefiguration of Joyce's later fiction. These moments where Stephen theorizes epiphanies or experiences overpowering feelings are not, for the most part, straightforward recyclings of Joyce's original epiphanies; however, in these passages Joyce's language echoes Stephen's initial encounter with an epiphanic scene in order to focus the tensions between Stephen's attempts at rigid self-definition and Joyce's more ambiguous constructions of selfhood.

What is chiefly at stake in these climactic passages is Stephen's alternating mastery and helplessness before his nascent sexuality and the extent to which he can define his intellectual and physical self as discrete from his context. Though Stephen tries to assert an intellectual source for his own language, the language Joyce uses to convey Stephen's assertions is insistently grounded in the corporeal and in several characteristic tropes such as murmuring, which stress the material nature of language itself. This dispersion of the source and nature of language beyond the confines of a discrete, fully cognizant agent undermines Stephen's attempts to assert such an agency for himself. By staging the materiality of language and the diffusion of the self within the context of Stephen's sexual crises, Joyce also links Stephen with the corporeality and diffusion of sexuality more firmly than can Stephen's hyperbolic denials or embracings of his sexuality.

I shall argue that, more than merely constituting a progression in theme between the epiphanies and climactic passages in Portrait, these moments and the defining passage in Stephen Hero are linked by their framing in language this tension between Joyce's and Stephen's constructions of self and sexuality. Because of this continuity of evocative language across distinct climactic moments, we can address this mode of language as a particular force and isolate its specificity and power. I use the term "epiphanic mode" in this essay to refer to this general practice of representing Stephen's nascent selfhood and sexuality, which Joyce develops first in the Stephen Hero passage--with its particular tension between the epiphanic text and Stephen's theorization of epiphanies--and then expands in his rendering of Stephen's emotional climaxes in Portrait, which have varying connections to the epiphany fragments. …

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