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Esthetics as a Simple Matter of Preference

Esthetics as a Simple Matter of Preference

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Published by Christopher Brown
Joyce's self-portrait of Stephen Dedalus presents a character that sacrifices all—including happiness and popular ethical goodness—for the sake of beauty and the greatness of art. Yet this step is not a logical conclusion, but merely Stephen's own preference.
Joyce's self-portrait of Stephen Dedalus presents a character that sacrifices all—including happiness and popular ethical goodness—for the sake of beauty and the greatness of art. Yet this step is not a logical conclusion, but merely Stephen's own preference.

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Published by: Christopher Brown on Oct 20, 2008
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05/27/2010

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Christopher Brown – 20c Lit, 11Paper 1, 10/3
Esthetics as a Simple Matter of Preference
In Stephen Dedalus’s exposition on esthetics with Lynch, he com-pares two hypotheses explaining the universal but varied appreciationof female beauty. The first is rational and functional: “that every phys-ical quality admired by men in women is in direct connexion with themanifold functions of women for the propagation of the species” (161). This is pure evolutionary theory, and Stephen admits its factuality,blatantly remarking, “It may be so” (161). It is a sufficient explanation,but not satisfactory. He presents the second thus: “all people who ad-mire a beautiful object find in it certain relations which satisfy and coin-cide with the stages themselves of all esthetic apprehension” (161). That Stephen sides with the second is a matter of course, given thepreceding discussion with Lynch and the dean of studies; what is curi-ous is Stephen’s criteria for preferring one over the other. The secondhypothesis, strangely, evades the question of universal beauty rather,while the first settles it quite definitively. But Stephen argues the first is“dreary,” and “leads to eugenics rather than to esthetic”; apparentlyfor no other reason than this, he “dislikes” the first and simply
 prefers
the second, which serves as an escape, an other way out” (161).Stephen’s motives, then, are self-seeking, in that he holds his de-sires to no standard but his own estimation. It is not the pursuit of truththat drives him, but a indefatigable fascination with what he valuesmost: passion. His vehement rejection of the time’s neurasthenia is the
 
Brown 2underlying impetus behind every argument and desire. Perhaps themost decisive experience is Stephen’s encounter with the dean of stud-ies, who embodies the dispassionate mechanical languor of the priest-hood. Stephen rejected the jesuit priesthood because the orderseemed to enervate its followers, as he observes in the sinless, almostpedantic, “masters” at the jesuit school. Among his classmates, he ob-serves an insipid contentment, from which he rebels, “for he could nolonger quench the flame in his blood. ... There was a lust of wanderingin his feet that burned to set out for the ends of the earth” (130-1).Stephen notes that “Like Ignatius [the dean of studies] was lame but inhis eyes burned no spark of Ignatius’ enthusiasm” (143). Indeed, thedean’s demeanor is forced, stiff, and condescending. The fire that hehas been trying to light never amounts to anything more than “a smellof molten tallow”—it never achieves the fruition of flames, reflectingthe impotency of the dean in general (144).Stephen’s antagonism of the dean of studies resurfaces later andcasts him as Stephen’s Satan. When Cranly asks the now-agnosticStephen whether or not he fears Christ’s rejection on Judgment day,Stephen inverts Cranly’s heaven and hell. For Stephen, hell is whereverthe dispassionate, like the dean, end up. Wherever that is, Stephen’sheaven is the opposite, which traditionally entails everlasting fire. Con-sidering the zealous repentance and righteous horror that overtakesStephen in the third chapter, this nonchalance is surprising. Stephen
 
Brown 3does not undergo a change of heart, however, only a transfer of pas-sion. It was the passion of Father Arnall that imparted to Stephen theintense awareness of his perdition. Yet, as the immediate threat of thisdamnation disappears when he confesses, so does Stephen’s interest.When in the throes of the threat of eternal punishment, Stephen is inan ecstasy of passion. So far, the young Stephen has surprised himself letting his body take over his mind, as it did with the rector at Clon-gowes, and the prostitute who accosts him on the street (41, 77). Butin this new fear, he gloriously experiences the other extreme: his moralturmoil achieves such perturbation that it effects a physical result: “aconvulsion seized him within” and “he vomited profusely in agony”(106). Even his period on the bench before confessing is agonizedbliss, but the ecstatic purity and happiness that follows forgivenesswanes quickly, and Stephen’s prized passion fades away. The ephemerality of religious passion causes Stephen to give itup. When singled out as “called,” a “flame began to flutter again onStephen’s cheek” as he imagines himself “wielding calmly and humblythe awful power of which angels and saints stood in reverence” (121). Yet, this drama is idealistic; realizing that religion will not satisfy him,Stephen turns to his studies of estheticism and his vocation as anartist.Stephen’s esthetic theory is divisive—the few to whom he ex-plains it, the dean of studies, Lynch, and Cranly, are more amused than

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