restricted access Triptych Vision: Voyeurism and Screen Memories in Joyce's Portrait
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Triptych Vision:
Voyeurism and Screen Memories in Joyce's Portrait

And so the triptych vision passes.


The critical inclination to cite Joyce as an exemplary artist of sound and the word dates back at least to Robert McAlmon's contribution to Our Exagmination Round His Factification in 1929. This inclination can be supported by references to Joyce's works and is readily explained in biographical or other terms. The critical habit, however, bears an assumption that the bias toward the auditory marks Joyce's difference as a writer, his deviation from a cultural norm that privileges the visual over the auditory.1 In one sense that assumption is undoubtedly correct for the trivial reason that we habitually make it, which is to say that we are constituted as subjects predisposed to find meaning and pleasure in the visual, and whose characteristic perversion is voyeurism.

To invert the hierarchy of sound and sight thus suggests a precarious negation—that is, to refuse the priority of the visual must make the visual a locus of conflict, where repression or disavowal must be repeatedly reinforced. The very title of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man evokes this conflict by positing a visual image as the privileged medium of meaning, while the fact that this is the title of a novel signifies appropriation of that privilege by the written text. [End Page 377]


To refuse the cultural predilection for the visual also suggests that seeing is a forbidden sense, that for Joyce seeing is intrinsically voyeuristic. Joyce's own explanation (in the Trieste Notebook entries on Stephen Dedalus) for the reversal of the visual/auditory hierarchy complicates this picture:

He desired to be not a man of letters but a spirit expressing itself through language because shut off from the visible arts by an inheritance of servitude . . .


Joyce's hierarchy of the senses (and of artistic mediums), then, inverts the political hierarchy of empire: vision is the privilege of rulers, and its appropriation by subjected peoples constitutes a perversion. Or, conversely, vision has been perverted into voyeurism through its appropriation for the imperial enterprise, specifically to mark a minimal difference between colonizer and colonized in terms of a seeing subject and the seen subjected. Since Stephen's servitude is a double one, referring to England and the Church, the visual as a privileged site of conflict should provide one nexus for Stephen's double non serviam.

Signifiers of the visual, particularly of seeing and blindness, repeatedly occupy places of conflict in the Portrait, and I want here to explore instances of that conflict and its consequences for Joyce's aesthetics. Interpretations of the Portrait frequently seem outflanked by the duplicity of the text, however, and I want finally to confront this duplicity without explaining it away.

At least one aspect of Joyce's ambiguity is easy enough to locate in the first chapter of the novel. There is a subtle but persistent disparity between what the speaking subject of the narrative appears to know and what Stephen Dedalus is represented as knowing; the difference often involves sexual knowledge. Stephen's preoccupation with sexual topics—smugging, kissing, and so forth—casts doubt on his inability to comprehend them, making his "explanations" seem ingeniously evasive.

Much later, as Stephen recalls events of his childhood, the novel gives us a key to interpreting these scenes:

Masked memories passed quickly before him: he recognised scenes and persons yet he was conscious that he had failed to perceive some vital circumstance in them.


The sense of having failed to perceive something signifies that it was perceived, but that some parts of the memories have been repressed. In other words what Stephen recalls and what we are presented with in the first chapter are screen memories presented from some later perspective, presumably something like Stephen's at or beyond the end of the Portrait. Whether or not Joyce knew the term, he was familiar with the concept of screen memories from Freud's study of Leonardo da Vinci, where memories of childhood are compared, "as far as their origins and reliability [End Page 378] are concerned...