Spirit of man

In Brief

At the beginning of Ithaca the conversation between Stephen and Bloom appears to be going much better than it did in most of Eumaeus, but at least one of Stephen's ideas clearly strikes Bloom as, in the words of Eumaeus, "a bit out of his sublunary depth." He declines to voice an opinion on what his young companion calls "the eternal affirmation of the spirit of man in literature," a phrase which strongly recalls ideas that the young Joyce had advocated in a lecture inspired by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. The lecture praised art which affirms human life but tells the truth about it, no matter how unflattering.

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In January 1900, when he was only seventeen years old, Joyce delivered a lecture titled "Drama and Life" to the Literary and Historical Society of University College, Dublin. In this important announcement of aesthetic views that would continue, with some significant modifications, to occupy Joyce throughout his writing career, he argued that great drama was superior not only to facile stagecraft but also to mere "literature" for its capacity to represent enduring truths of human experience. Later, persuaded in part by his own greater talent for novelistic fiction than for stage plays, Joyce abandoned the invidious distinction between drama and literature. But he maintained his belief that fiction should represent eternal truths of the human condition.

"Drama and Life" proposes that "Human society is the embodiment of changeless laws which the whimsicalities and circumstances of men and women involve and overwrap." The essay presents these eternal truths metaphorically as the "spirit" of humankind: "It might be said fantastically that as soon as men and women began life in the world there was above them and about them, a spirit, of which they were dimly conscious, which they would have had sojourn in their midst in deeper intimacy and for whose truth they became seekers in after times, longing to lay hands upon it. For this spirit is as the roaming air, little susceptible of change, and never left their vision, shall never leave it, till the firmament is as a scroll rolled away."

The artist who seeks to capture this eternal spirit in words studies "men and women as we meet them in the real world, not as we apprehend them in the world of faery." Such pitiless scrutiny is a stronger response to life, Joyce argued, than high-minded idealization of the human condition, or earnest ethical programs, or religious worship, or pursuit of beauty, or mere amusement. Such an art "may help us to make our resting places with a greater insight and a greater foresight" because it grounds us in the unpretty, but substantial, truth of what we are. The powerful "Yes" with which Molly concludes Ulysses breathes the same spirit of looking hard at what life has offered and affirming its value.

JH 2018
Henrik Ibsen, in a colored drawing or block print by an unknown artist. Source: www.sciencesource.com.