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Uncoiling the Snakes of Ireland in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: From the Souls in Hell to Laocoön
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snakes in clover, picked and scotched, and a vaticanned viper catcher's visa for Patsy Presbys

Finnegans Wake I.8, 210.26-27

According to legend, while standing on the top of the hill now called Croagh Patrick, County Mayo, with a bell and a wooden staff, St. Patrick, that vaticanned viper catcher, banished poisonous reptiles from Ireland. Ancient representations of St. Patrick frequently show him trampling on a serpent, as in the medieval carving of him in stone at Patrickswell, County Limerick. The legend has frequently been understood as a parable about his efforts to drive out pagan beliefs and establish Christianity, that is, Roman Catholicism. Despite the pervasive presence of the Catholic Church in Ireland centuries later, for Stephen Dedalus, there are still snakes in the shamrocks associated with religion, the body, and the character of art. The depth of these connections becomes evident when we consider visual aspects of Stephen's experience and imagination in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

During Stephen's adolescence, the Church that ministers to his soul encourages him to imagine both the origin of sin and its consequences as viperous. Later, having been sensitized by the reptilian associations to what may be an allergic extent, Stephen's imagination and intellect reject the argument about the character of art in Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's famous treatise Laocoön, or The Limits of Poetry and Painting, which depends on an image of reptilian power. Stephen's thoughts on Lessing and aestheticism are a part of his turn away from religion to art. Dissatisfied with Lessing's evocation of vipers in the poisonous, living chains of the Laocoön, Stephen sets his own direction. The vicious, chain-like snakes of the Church and the sculpture group are versions of what Stephen calls the "nets flung at [every Irish soul] to hold it back from flight" (P 203). He sets himself to try to fly by those nets, that is, to escape them but to do so by means of the apparently constraining bonds. The Laocoön and Lessing's treatise provide Stephen with an opportunity that the Church's more static images of serpents do not. They enable him to engage in a dynamic process of cultural transformation, one in which Joyce's writing itself participates.

Snakes and serpents are mentioned primarily in part three, though in part five, when Stephen is talking to the dean of studies, he wonders what kind of Protestant sect the English convert had belonged to or encountered, including "seed and snake baptists" (P 189). In part four, when Stephen sees his friends bathing, he feels "a swordlike pain" in response to their "repellent . . . pitiable nakedness" when he looks on them without their usual protective coverings, including Ennis's "scarlet belt with the snaky clasp" (P 168). He associates the pain with the dread he feels about his own body. Snake, sword, body, and dread have all combined earlier in Stephen's life, in his experiences with religion, to make an indelible impression. During the retreat, unsurprisingly, Stephen hears that the "devil" came to Adam and Eve in the garden "in the shape of a serpent, the subtlest of all the beasts of the field" (P 118). The aftermath is the driving out not of the snake by people but of Adam and Eve by Michael with a sword. Later in the retreat, the priest compares the torments of the damned to the practice of punishing a parricide by throwing him into the sea in a sack with "a cock, a monkey and a serpent. . . . hateful and hurtful beasts" (P 122). He repeatedly refers to stings, including the "most cruel sting of the worm of conscience" and "the threefold sting of conscience, the viper which gnaws the very heart's core of the wretches in hell" (P 129, 130). The most memorable verbal evocation of the snake occurs when Stephen identifies his phallus and his lust with the serpent after he experiences "[t]he ache of conscience" and decides to confess: "But does that part of the body understand or what? The serpent, the most subtle beast of the field. . . . His soul sickened at the thought...

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