One great goal

In Brief

Deasy responds to Stephen's bleak view of history with a classic statement of what Gifford calls "the Victorian faith in the inevitability of man's moral and spiritual progress": "All human history moves toward one great goal, the manifestation of God." Gifford observes that "By the end of the century this faith . . . was widely regarded as a feeble substitute for vital spiritual commitment."

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Thornton identifies two close analogues to Deasy's statement: Alfred, Lord Tennyson's hopeful vision of 'one far-off divine event, / To which the whole creation moves,' at the end of In Memoriam (1850), and Matthew Arnold's lines from Westminster Abbey (1881), "For this and that way swings / The flux of mortal things, / Though moving inly to one far-set goal."

The idea that history has a telos or purposeful end-point had long been associated in western culture with the historiography of the Christian church, whose ideas of apocalypse, revelation, divine judgment, and transformation Joyce contrives to associate, derisively, with the "goal" being scored on the hockey field. The Christian conception of history is marked by a beginning (the Creation), a middle (the Incarnation), and an end (the Last Judgment). Although God exists in his incomprehensible fullness of being outside of time, he reveals himself progressively through these (and many other) actions in the forward movement of time. Thus history is seen as the ongoing record of God's self-manifestation, with the fullest revelation coming at the end of time. This linear model can be found in all denominations of Christian belief, and in secular historiographies inspired by Christian belief, such as Hegel's description of human history as a progressively greater manifestation of the Geist or Spirit.

Against such schemas which depict history as a linear progression from beginning to end, Joyce seems to have preferred circular or cyclical models which describe human experience perpetually revisiting similar states of being, with no clear beginning or end. The early lecture "Drama and Life" (1900) describes eternal human truths that express themselves perpetually and unchangingly in human experience. The Viconian historiography of Finnegans Wake augments this eternal sameness with the idea of recurring cycles.

In Proteus, Stephen continues thinking about ideas of history. He harshly dismisses the triumphant transcendentalism of Deasy's "one great goal" when he watches a live dog sniffing a dead one on the tidal flats: "Dogskull, dogsniff, eyes on the ground, moves to one great goal. Ah, poor dogsbody! Here lies poor dogsbody's body." Here, the great goal of life is clearly death. When Stephen contemplates the decomposing body of the drowned man at the end of Proteus, it becomes apparent that his focus on the death of the organic body does not represent simply a cynical or nihilistic rejection of metaphysical explanations; but it does constitute a rejection of Christian metaphysics.

JH 2012
A schematic representation of the relation of time to divine eternity. Source:
A schematic representation of the progressive revelation of divine law. Source:
A schematic representation of the totality of divine history. Source: