Awfully holy

In Brief

Turning away from his thoughts about priests, Stephen recalls a time when he seemed to be heading toward that vocation: "You were awfully holy, weren't you?" This period of the character's life was narrated in part 4 of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

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Part 2 of A Portrait concludes with young Stephen's first visit to a prostitute. Part 3 is devoted to his spiritual wrestling with that carnal choice, fueled in no small measure by a religious retreat in which a gifted preacher does his magniloquent best to inspire sheer terror in his young charges. For the impressionable and imaginative Stephen, the horrific scene-painting of hellish tortures works. Desperate, he confesses to a priest at the end of the chapter and is granted "Another life! A life of grace and virtue and happiness! It was true. It was not a dream from which he would wake. The past was past."

Part 4 begins, however, with a sardonic tone suggesting that this new life offers no release from the banal drudgery, baffled desire, and self-delusion of other forms of life. Stephen throws himself into a heroic regimen of perpetual worship. He mortifies every form of sensory pleasure and desire. He agonizes over whether he has truly changed, and seeks new forms of repentance. But an air of futility hangs over the whole enterprise, accentuated at moments by savage authorial irony: "His life seemed to have drawn near to eternity; every thought, word and deed, every instance of consciousness could be made to revibrate radiantly in heaven: and at times his sense of such immediate repercussion was so lively that he seemed to feel his soul in devotion pressing like fingers the keyboard of a great cash register and to see the amount of his purchase start forth immediately in heaven, not as a number but as a frail column of incense or as a slender flower."

By the time represented in Ulysses, Stephen has progressed far enough in self-knowledge that he can take over from the narrator the job of mocking his spiritual ambitions: "You prayed to the Blessed Virgin that you might not have a red nose. You prayed to the devil in Serpentine avenue that the fubsy widow in front might lift her clothes still more from the wet street." As the confusion of spiritual and sexual desires here would suggest, Stephen found that the religious life did not satisfy his keenest longings. At the end of Part 4 of A Portrait, when offered an opportunity to enter the priesthood, he walks away from it to pursue his calling as an artist and seek carnal love.

JH 2015
Cover art for Vintage Classics edition of A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man. Source: www.juditferencz.co.uk.