In Brief

In Nestor Stephen associates darkness with mysterious metaphysical truth. His symbolism inverts a standard biblical identification of truth with divine light. The purpose seems to be something like the "transvaluation of values" envisioned by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: transforming a Christian trope that denies the fullness of human life into one that affirms it. Stephen's embrace of "darkness" anticipates his encounter with a freethinking Jew, his exploration of non-Christian cosmologies, and his production of creative works that affirm forces like sexual passion.

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The opening verses of John's gospel proclaim: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.... All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.... And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not" (1:1-5). Light and darkness are symbolic in this formulation, and some later Christian thinkers would reverse the arbitrary opposites in order to articulate religious values different from the Greek Logos. Thornton cites some critical efforts to connect Stephen's language with Neoplatonic Christian writers like the pseudo-Dionysius (a late 5th and early 6th century Syrian theologian writing in Greek) and Henry Vaughan (a 17th century Welsh poet writing in English), both of whom propounded a mystical spirituality of transcending sense perception and reasoning to enter "the darkness of unknowing."

Stephen clearly echoes the beginning of John's gospel and reimagines its message of a cosmic creative principle beaming light down into the world. Instead of the Logos he imagines an "obscure soul of the world," a "darkness shining in brightness which brightness could not comprehend." The Platonic idea of a world soul was famously revived in the 16th century by Giordano Bruno, a daring proto-modern philosopher whom the Catholic church condemned as a heretic. Bruno was important to Joyce from Stephen Hero to Finnegans Wake, and Stephen has already defended him in A Portrait of the Artist. In his concluding diary he recalls a conversation with one of his Jesuit priests: "He said Bruno was a terrible heretic. I said he was terribly burned. He agreed to this with some sorrow." The Brunonian idea that most enraged Catholics, his belief in multiple worlds beyond the earth, shows up in Proteus, again linked with darkness: "Darkly they are there behind this light, darkness shining in the brightness, delta of Cassiopeia, worlds."

Stephen also associates darkness with the human form that the Logos assumed in this world—i.e., Jesus. He thinks of the Pharisees not comprehending the "long look from dark eyes" that Jesus gave them. And like Bloom, who tells the Citizen in Cyclops that "Your God was a jew. Christ was a jew like me," he tries to imagine these dark eyes in a face different from those limned by light-skinned Christians. Mr. Deasy uses John's language to reinforce anti-Semitic stereotypes: "— They sinned against the light, Mr Deasy said gravely. And you can see the darkness in their eyes." Stephen not only opposes such bigotry, he thinks of Averroes and Moses Maimonides (one of them Muslim, one Jewish) as "dark men in mien and movement." This racial disagreement in Nestor anticipates Stephen's encounters with Bloom later in the book. Bloom's dark clothes ally him symbolically with Stephen, and the dark Jewish eyes that Mr. Deasy finds so suspicious becomes one source of his mysterious attraction. In Ithaca, Stephen also considers Bloom's "winedark hair," making him Odysseus as well as Jesus.

The symbolism of darkness pops up too in Stephen's contemplation of his own psychology and his creative processes. Bending over Sargent at his sums, he thinks of the secrets that lurk "in the dark palaces of both our hearts." Recalling his time at the Sainte Geneviève library in Paris, he imagines these dark presences as dragonlike: "and in my mind's darkness a sloth of the underworld, reluctant, shy of brightness, shifting her dragon scaly folds." This meditation, prompted by the cavern-like darkness of the library, strongly evokes the underground caves in William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where dragons inhabit "a Printing house in Hell" in which "knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation." Blake's poem explicitly seeks a transvaluation of values: Hell, symbolic of dark forces in the human psyche that Christianity has traditionally defined as evil (passion, energy, hatred), will be married to the things defined as good (reason, self-control, love) to produce a complete picture of humanity. 

Having rejected Christianity more completely than Blake did, Stephen nevertheless maintains a strong attachment to its symbols, rituals, and creeds. His own idiosyncratic poetic vision, when he produces it, will not utterly abandon the structures of thought erected over two millennia by the church. In some instances it will invert and reinterpret them.

JH 2021
Source: ourlifeinchrist.wordpress.com.
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