Stephen the Egoist

I've read Portrait more than any other text of Joyce's; I fear I've gotten Stephen all wrong. It's easy to apply Stephen as a paste. His capitulation with the rituals of Catholic purity, his flight from The Church, and his residual allegiance to its aesthetic logic struck me as familiar as another young, lapsed Catholic who publishes poetry and fiction. The Church is only the accident of Stephen’s real desire, the most immediate and sensual circumstance, which expresses his flight not from Catholicism, but orthodoxy, which is saturating and omnipresent. We call it Liberalism. We’ve planted the spirit of God into Man, his laws into rights granted by The State. In the polemic The Ego and His Own (1844), Max Stirner observes that “Our atheists are pious people” (185). The Church is everywhere, and its esoteric rituals of purity have become objective civil truths. [Liberalism], writes Stirner, is a step forward in the domain of religion, and in particular of Christianity; not a step out beyond it” (183). Stephen’s glimpse of the Bird-Girl isn’t as much libidinous or taboo as it is a vestige of pre-liberal barbarism; corporeality for the sake of corporeality. In the image of the Bird-Girl, he recognizes what Stirner calls self-ownership: egoism; a place outside of liberalism, a species-being. Portrait’s serialization in Dora Marsden’s magazine The Egoist is thus hardly coincidence. Stephen identifies the Egoist in the artist as much as art is a weapon against ideology. Stephen’s villanelle, with all its ecclesiastical intrusions emerges as as egoistic screed:

Are you not weary of ardent ways,

Lure of the fallen seraphim?

Tell no more of enchanted days. (223)

The “fallen seraphim” is the call of culture, the bearer of self-sacrifice and self-denial, which both The Church and Liberalism assure as objective moral truths. If the poem is ironic, as many have argued, then it is only so, because Stephen never really leaves the Seraphim behind. His art lugs St. Thomas Aquinas behind it like bad luggage, and Stephen knows it.