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“The most important thing that can happen to a man”: Fatherhood as a Challenge to Symbolism in “A Little Cloud”

From: Joyce Studies Annual
pp. 114-128

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“A Little Cloud,” one of Joyce’s favorite stories from Dubliners, ends in a tableau that must have been all too familiar to its young author: The aspiring artist balances a screaming infant in one hand and a book of poetry in the other. In their contribution to Collaborative Dubliners, Marian Eide and Vicki Mahaffey identify two modes of reproduction, biological and artistic, at work in the story and observe: “[I]t may well be the case that Joyce is using one mode of reproduction to comment on another. If so, what is that comment?”1 Like the meaning of the title, “A Little Cloud,” the answer to this question has been elusive. Mahaffey and Eide, for example, disagree fundamentally about Little Chandler’s artistic potential and thus about the significance of his biological offspring: Is the child an obstacle or an opportunity? Yet Joyce’s “comment” on the two modes of reproduction in “A Little Cloud” is broader than an assessment of Little Chandler’s artistic future. In juxtaposing literary creation and childbirth, Joyce challenges a specific school of literary thought, questioning the Symbolist notion that poetry creates a world superior to reality and demonstrating the importance of according the material world significance apart from the consciousness of the artist.

In a famous 1866 letter to his friend Henri Cazalis, Stéphane Mallarmé, deeply entrenched in a spiritual crisis, gave a concise description of the central ideas that would permeate not only his own poetry but that of the movement that Arthur Symons later labeled Symbolism:

We are merely empty forms of matter, but we are indeed sublime in having invented God and our soul. So sublime, my friend, that I want to gaze upon matter, fully conscious that it exists, and yet launching itself madly into Dream, despite its knowledge that Dream has no existence, extolling the Soul and all the divine impressions of that kind which have collected within us from the beginning of time and proclaiming, in the face of the Void which is truth, these glorious lies!2

Expressing “these glorious lies,” as Mallarmé saw them, resulted in the unique blend of the ineffable and the quotidian represented in his poetry, a blend he described as “a labyrinth illuminated by flowers.”3 For Mallarmé, poetry expressed the magnificent moments when the human observer, gazing upon matter, is moved to create or imagine “divine impressions.” Denis Donoghue notes that the boldness evidenced in this conception of the poet’s role led Jean-Paul Sartre to claim that Mallarmé resented reality, that his poems function as “symbolic acts of revenge: the poet’s words are designed to undo the work of the first Creation, the poem being a second and higher version.”4 For the French Symbolists, as for Sir Phillip Sidney centuries earlier, poets turn a “brazen” world into a “golden” one, giving meaning to the material world through their literary attention.5

Joyce’s 1907 volume of poetry, Chamber Music, was heavily influenced by the French Symbolists, as well as by the particular version of Symbolism espoused by his countryman W. B. Yeats. The poems in Chamber Music, although perhaps more Romantic than Symbolist in content and tone, display a Mallarméan fondness for moments in which beams of light fall upon the subject of the poem. For Joyce, the beam of light symbolizes the poet’s consciousness; the images and scenes he describes are less significant in their own right than for the moods they produce in the poet. In the poem numbered XXVI, the sight of his beloved listening to a distant sound leads the speaker to his own conclusions, which usurp the place of the subject of the poem. He begins by watching and wondering at the woman’s thoughts: “Thou leanest to the shell of night,/Dear lady, a divining ear. In that soft choiring of delight/What sound hath made thy heart to fear?”6 but almost immediately he forces on the scene his own uncertainty about their relationship: “That mood of thine, O timorous,/Is his, if thou but scan it well.”7 Unlike Mallarmé, who allows the light of his consciousness to fall on grotesque or commonplace scenes...

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