In “Reaching the Point of Wheat” (Riquelme 361-66), Helene Cixous performs a psycholoanalytic (?) reading of the first chapter in Portrait. She reads the “Pull out his eyes/ Apologise” nursery rhyme (6) as Stephen’s first work of art, as he takes in the rules of the “Law” (the father’s storytelling and the language therein) and “subverted it into a little poetry.” Of this scene, Cixous writes, “He accepts the law in order to transgress it.”
I don’t have the Lacanian chops to engage fully with Cixous’s reading of the Law (the father/Father), of Stephen’s origins (the mother), and Stephen’s aesthetic agency. But she does offer a useful framework for thinking about arguably the climax of the novel: Stephen sinning and finding his way to repentance/forgiveness, but then rejecting that in a moment of epiphany when he sees a young woman near the water and takes in her body without shame. I kept reading the bildungs parts of the novel as Stephen learning the rules of the world (and experiencing punishment when he transgresses those rules). This is a throughline that follows Stephen as a young boy who goes to Catholic school-- experiencing the enforcement of the rules with corporal punishment and the innerworkings of the system, justice, when he sees the rector). He experiences social rules and authorized/conflicting positions, as when he witnesses the argument at the dinner table and when he and his friends argue over writers at the time. And finally, when he commits “sins of impurity” (125) by sleeping with a woman (88-9) and, as he suggests, masturbation. What follows is an intense, drawn-out punishment that’s self-inflicted, intense guilt and shame inspired by the Catholic teaching and sermons Stephen experiences.
Cixous discusses different types of learning (knowledge given at school, say, and knowledge discovered, which is strictly sensual and based in pleasure) and “the mechanism of the law” which is “completely negative,” based in what one “musn’t” do yet already assumes one’s guilt (again, not enough chops to explain this fully). She seems to argue that one must transgress the law in order to fully understand it. And this is what Stephen does. Cixous’s argument helps to explain the rather abrupt and unconvincing epiphany/turn in the narrative when he rejects the offer of pursuing priesthood. By Cixou’s logic, Stephen’s development required that he break the law to see beyond it, to fully understand it. The offer by the director seems to be a symbolic entrance into the world of the law, an symbol of Stephen crossing the “threshold,” one that was prefaced by the ultimate transgression (worse than murder). By Cixous’s logic, everything that happens to Stephen must happen in order for him to understand the law/Law and become an artist.