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  • Love in JoyceA Philosophical Apprenticeship
  • Ruben Borg (bio)

This essay reads Joyce’s fiction as an apprenticeship in love. With this term, I would like to suggest that love is not only a prominent theme in Joyce, but a dominant concept within a philosophical and artistic trajectory, part and parcel of an artist’s progress as he experiments with the power of images and with modes of representation. My argument turns on three interconnected points: first, that early on in his career Joyce adopts a scholastic framework according to which love is the supreme philosophical emotion and the source from which all other emotions proceed; second, that he puts this framework to the test by pitting the concept of love against a cluster of related passions, most notably desire, pity, and joy; and finally, that in exploring these passions, he grapples with the problem of reconciling a scholastic interpretation of love with a modernist approach to representation.

Joyce originally adheres to the hierarchy of dramatic passions established by the scholastic tradition; but in the course of his artistic evolution he is led to question the sustainability of that hierarchy. We will see that this shift is best illustrated by a comparison between A Portrait of the Artist and Giacomo Joyce. In the former, tragic and comedic passions are distributed along a learning curve that privileges pity over desire—and joy over both. Pity is preferred to desire as the more charitable and less possessive emotion. But already in Giacomo Joyce, and again in Finnegans Wake, Joyce experiments with a different kind of image (and thus with a different distribution of the passions). As he becomes increasingly aware of the impossibility of grounding a modern experience of Love in a scholastic-theological framework,1 he revises his understanding of the relation between Love and the passions that proceed from Love. Under this [End Page 42] new regime, Love, pity, and desire are seen to be inextricably bound up; pity is suspected as the most equivocal of the passions, while desire is recognized as an indefeasible component in all amorous experience.

I will argue that that this shift coincides with a modern reinterpretation of the scholastic notion of comedy. By the end of his apprenticeship Dante understood Love as a binding together of all things, a moment of communion—joyous, comedic—with the universe as a whole. For the Joyce of Finnegans Wake, Love retains the value of a joyous and universal affirmation; but now, the sense of the connectedness of all things is reflected in images of utter indeterminacy, images that come into being in a space between ontological determinations—between fact and fiction, memory and dream, truth and untruth. Joyce’s later writing is comedic precisely in so far as it affirms such indeterminacy as a defining predicate of reality.

the tragic passions

An early instance of Joyce’s scholastic treatment of Love in relation to the tragic passions is found in Stephen Hero, where we encounter Stephen as a student engaging the syllabus of his English Literature class.

He [Father Butt] took “Othello” more seriously [than “Twelfth Night”] and made the class take a note of the moral of the play: an object-lesson in the passion of jealousy. Shakespeare, he said, had sounded the depths of human nature: his plays show us men and women under the influence of various passions and they show us the moral result of these passions. We see the conflict of these human passions and our own passions are purified by the spectacle. The dramas of Shakespeare have a distinct moral force and “Othello” is one of the greatest of tragedies (SH 29).

The excerpt appears to ironize the moral reading of tragedy promoted by Stephen’s teachers, who, as Stephen wryly observes, would refuse “to allow two of the boarders to go to a performance of ‘Othello’ [ … ] on the ground that there were many coarse expressions in the play” (SH 29). Father Butt’s lesson is undermined by his school’s Jesuitical policy. Yet, to be sure, his claim that Othello probes the moral effects of various human passions is not challenged on point of merit. Nor does Joyce ever quarrel...


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pp. 42-62
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