States of Desire: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and the Irish Experiment

By Vicki Mahaffey | Go to book overview

Four

Joyful Desire
Giacomo Joyce and Finnegans Wake

Both Wilde and Yeats, in different ways, idealized art and beauty in their youth. Only gradually and under pressure did they come to see the beauty of art differently, not as an alternative to life, but as an expression of life's contradictory, contingent, and volatile nature. Moreover, the aesthetic idealism of both Wilde and Yeats was importantly connected with their love of Ireland, which both constructed as a "lost" world of imagination and art, an alternative to the materialistic and urban values they associated with England. Wilde, with his love of green, and Yeats, with his adoration of flowers, paid homage to their common homeland by abstracting it into a pastoral Utopia to which they could secretly, imaginatively return in their art. Fortunately, the art of both was governed by laws so flexible and precise that it gave them a model for a revised view of life, in which life and art overlapped, differing primarily in their capacity to be replayed.

James Joyce, who was deeply influenced by both Wilde and Yeats, understood that the lives of these men were not deeply informed by the insights that shaped their art. Like Shakespeare, as Stephen Dedalus describes him in the "Scylla and Charybdis" episode of Ulysses, they moved through much of their lives "untaught by the wisdom [they had] written or by the laws [they had] revealed" (U, 9.477-8). When Joyce developed the semi-autobiographical character of Stephen Dedalus, he presented Stephen as someone whose artistic values were importantly shaped by Wilde and Yeats, but he also emphasized Stephen's discomfort with those influences. At the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen is less like Wilde than he is like Dorian Gray recalling Hamlet: "'Like the painting of a sorrow, / A face without a heart'" (DG, 163). Like Dorian, and to a lesser extent like the young Wilde and Yeats, Stephen can commit excesses without ever taking a genuine risk, because he accepts no responsibility for the consequences of his actions or emotions. But Stephen not only resembles but also differs from Yeats, in that he does not share idealizing nostalgia for a distant past. In his diary entry for April 6, Stephen recalls Yeats's poem, "Michael Robartes Remembers Forgotten Beauty" (from The Wind Among the Reeds), and he protests the sentiment that drives it:

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States of Desire: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and the Irish Experiment
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • States of Desire - Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and the Irish Experiment *
  • Preface *
  • Acknowledgments *
  • Contents *
  • Abbreviations xix
  • One - Introduction Reading and "Irish" Desire 3
  • Two - Wilde's Desire a Study in Green 37
  • Three - "Horrible Splendour of Desire" the Will of W B. Yeats 87
  • Four - Joyful Desire Giacomo Joyce and Finnegans Wake 142
  • Five - Conclusion 210
  • Notes 213
  • Selected Bibliography 253
  • Index 261
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