- Stephen Dedalus and the Ghost of the Mother
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man ends with a hopeful Stephen Dedalus preparing to embark on a career as a poet, excited by life and ready to "forge in the smithy of [his] soul the un-created conscience of [his] race" (Joyce 253). As the source for his art, he turns to a paternal muse: "Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead" (Joyce 253). But in Ulysses, we find a very different Stephen—a brooding, mourning young man whose paternal muse seems to have let him down—a poet who cannot write poetry. In his portrayal of Stephen's problem, Joyce demonstrates his insight that personal relations, language, culture, mind, and finally artistic creativity are deeply interrelated. In order to understand Stephen's predicament better, one might look to the way psychoanalysis has formulated what Joyce seems to have understood intuitively.1 Within this interpretive framework, I suggest that Stephen fails as a poet because he cannot sublimate his psychological conflicts and turn them into art, and that the key to understanding the reasons for this inability can be found in the tension between the types of language in which Stephen thinks and speaks, and his underlying psychological motivations.
One way of understanding what a poet does for himself and for his readers when he writes a poem is through the concept of [End Page 345] sublimation. Although the notion of art as sublimation is not originally Freud's, he formulated concisely within the framework of his drive psychology a conception of sublimation as "diversion of sexual instinctual forces from sexual aims and their direction to new ones" (Three Essays 178),2 and later suggests that sublimation is the origin of artistic creativity (238), The act of artistic creation thus becomes an outlet for the instinctual drive demands.
Joyce seems to have had a similar notion of sublimation and its role in the creation of art, Stephen's long discussion of Shakespeare's life in "Scylla and Charybdis" suggests that Shakespeare's art resulted as a way of managing his conflict-ridden psychosexual life.3 Instead of repressing his painful experience of failure, of being sexually murdered by Anne, Shakespeare found a new outlet for his desires in writing his plays: as Stephen puts it, "loss is his gain" (Ulysses 162).4 Ellmann suggests that Joyce himself held this conception of artistic creation and that he believed Stephen's theory about Shakespeare even more than Stephen did (Ellmann 364). Stephen, along with Bloom, looks into the mirror in Bella Cohen's brothel and sees a reflection of himself as Shakespeare (Ulysses 463). Yet, unlike the great bard, Stephen cannot turn his psychological conflicts into art, The only poem he writes in Ulysses (40) is but a version of an already written poem, "My Grief on the Sea," in Douglas Hyde's Love Songs of Connacht. Stephen seems incapable of using the avenue of sublimation: he can only theorize about Shakespeare's art and life, rather than engaging with his own.
Throughout Ulysses, Stephen's thought consists primarily of formal philosophical/theological/scientific speculations based upon the discourses of Aristotle, Aquinas, Berkeley and others (which have been annotated and discussed by Joyce scholars for years).5 But intermixed with this highly structured symbolic language is a more freely flowing, associative word-play that seems to come more directly from Stephen's unconscious, and often leads to the horrifying, guilt-producing specter of his dead mother with her breath of wetted ashes. Post-Freudian psychoanalytic theory, including the work of Anna Freud and Julia Kristeva, helps to make sense of the fluctuation in Stephen's mind between this highly formal philosophical discourse and freely flowing word-play.
Sublimation is a positive, healthy way of dealing with the demands of the unconscious drives, but when the demands of the Id come into conflict with external reality, or with the strictures of the Super-Ego, the Ego can also respond with various defense mechanisms which can lead to pathology. Anna Freud, a founder of Ego-Psychology, [End Page 346] suggests that one defense mechanism (especially...