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  • Soul SurvivorStephen Dedalus as the Priest of the Eternal Imagination
  • Garry Leonard (bio)

All things are inconstant except the faith in the soul, which changes all things and fills their inconstancy with light, but though I seem to be driven out of my country as a misbeliever I have found no man yet with a faith like mine. (my emphasis).

—Letter to Augusta Gregory (November 22, 1902)1

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is in fact the gestation of a soul.

—Richard Ellmann, James Joyce

I go . . . to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race

—James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (P 252–3)2

A commonplace about modernist literature is that the move away from a faith-based cosmos to a secular worldview brought about “a great divide.”3 The pain and bewilderment of the shift is partly expressed by Matthew Arnold’s pronouncement: “Wandering between two worlds, one dead,/The other powerless to be born.”4 In a more social sense, Yeats describes a similarly abrupt disjunction: “the centre cannot hold/things fall apart.”5 Both of these pronouncements imply shock, even trauma. They imply, as well, a change that was both unsought and unexpected, yet then happened anyway. Finally, they suggest a “clean break.” There is very little sense of any kind of overlap or “transition” phase; indeed, much of the theorizing about modernism emphasizes the scramble to find new aesthetic techniques in order to register the sudden split between a [End Page 3] transcendent hierarchy based on the presumption of Divinity, and imminent systems of economy and self-regulation that contain for themselves their own beginning and their own end, without reference to something “outside” or “above” it.

Charles Taylor, in his recent book A Secular Age asks, “what does it mean to say that we live in a secular age?” (ASA 1).6 One distinction he offers: “public spaces . . . . have been allegedly emptied of God, or any reference to ultimate reality” (ASA 2). Additionally, in the domains of the economic, political, cultural, educational, professional, and recreational, “the deliberations we engage in generally don’t refer us to God or to any religious beliefs; the considerations we act on are internal to the ‘rationality’ of each sphere . . .” (ASA 2). Here, too, we are presented with a schism. Public spaces are “emptied” of God; all exchange and circulation—of ideas, of money, of love—shift over and now operate according to an internal rationale, one that is understood to be complete unto itself, with no need to refer to a “beyond” or an “elsewhere” for guidance or legitimacy. Taylor finds wholly inadequate this way of presenting the shift from the sacred to the secular as sudden and absolute. He calls it “the subtraction theory” (ASA 26–9): All that seemed to happen is that we “subtracted” religion from life and were left with a rationality that seemed to make more sense anyway, based as it was on the here and now, on the discoverable, and on what can be seen and felt, and, more important still, proven and verified.

In other words, presumption of, and reliance upon, a transcendental certitude was an illusion (as Freud signals in the title of his book on religion, The Future of an Illusion).7 The vanquishing of this illusion, so the “subtraction theory” attests, cleared the way for a more genuine humanity to emerge from out of the shadow of fear-based superstition standing in the way of the virtually unlimited potential of the Scientific method. But Basil Hallward, in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, makes a special plea for the soul: “The harmony of soul and body how much that is! We in our madness have separated the two, and have invented a realism that is vulgar and idealism vapid—, an ideality that is void” (DG 21).8 At first, the mysterious granting of Dorian Gray’s wish that the painting grow old while he remains young seems a very illustration of the “subtraction theory.” A transcendent moral order, and the conscience it implies, is neatly subtracted from his life...


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