Cloacal Imagery and the Development of Artist and Text in Joyce’s Portrait

James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man contains an orgy of sensations. Writing in the early 20th century, Joyce touched a nerve in his readership through his liberal use of cloacal imagery. More than an exercise in inclusive realism, writing raw, seemingly unpleasant sensory facts into the bildungsroman serves to highlight a key aspect in Stephen Dedalus’ development as an artist. A crisis of identity afflicts the novel’s protagonist, as he struggles with various social institutions over ownership of his self, oscillating between extremes of mind and body to stake his claim. Stephen fixates on and recreates various sensual experiences that reek of stale urine and defecation. Joyce’s free indirect speech style enables one to analyze the language that contextualizes each instance and to make inferences regarding the interface between mind, body, and artistic creation. I argue that Stephen’s perceptions of sensations serve to indicate the extent to which he possesses ownership of his self with respect to social institutions. Focusing primarily on cloacal imagery, I show that the language surrounding Stephen’s impressions of raw, gross materiality is a function of his state as an autonomous individual and artist; his most creative moments occur when he marries his mind to his body.

Joyce introduces Stephen as baby tuckoo. Stephen recounts, “When you wet the bed first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the oilsheet. That had the queer smell” (Portrait, 5). Stephen objectively reports the causes and effects regarding his infantile incontinence in a matter-of-fact tone. Free of value judgments, Stephen’s bodily discharge results in his mother’s tangible reaction, soliciting neither guilt nor despair. Institutional dogma surrounds the scene in Dante’s colored brushes and Catholic threats, yet Stephen remains impermeable given his ignorance. Instead, he perceives his environment as pure sensation and creatively remixes it in his mind. He recounts merely the maroon and green colors of Dante’s brushes, and he reduces her threats to bits of aural qualities with which to play, “Pull out his eyes,/Apologise,/Apologise,/Pull out his eyes” (Portrait, 6). Given Joyce’s language here, the reader understands that only a naïve child, or a great artist, synthesizes body and soul to this extent, free from dogma’s paralyzing effects. A function of Stephen’s age and innocence, he perceives the world devoid of ideologies and indulges in the free play of his senses. It remains Stephen’s burden throughout the novel to maintain a childlike reconciliation of this duality in the face of cascading societal values and personal desires.

Clongowes Wood College, a Jesuit institution, ironically serves to instigate Stephen’s fall from innocence and, therefore, the separation from his body. In fact, he falls into a square ditch, a urinal, which sets into motion a slew of new and humiliating experiences. Mulling over a spelling book’s poetic lines, Stephen shivers, thinking, “That was mean of Wells to shoulder him into the square ditch because he would not swop his little snuffbox for Wells’s seasoned hacking chestnut, the conqueror of forty. How cold and slimy the water had been!” (Portrait, 8). No longer in a world of unadulterated sensations, Stephen exists at Clongowes, where boys like Wells act with mean intentions. A few pages later, the reader learns that Stephen is not alone in thinking Wells’ action unkind, for “all the fellows said it was,” and again, later, “It was a mean thing to do, to shoulder him into the square ditch, [the boys] were saying” (Portrait, 12, 18). Emphasizing others’ evaluations, Stephen compels the reader to question whether his brooding is his own. Baby tuckoo experiences the warm, then cool and queer sensations without humiliation, whereas the present Stephen experiences these same sensations within the context of imposed social values. A weight accompanies the latter, which works to tear Stephen’s mind from his body. Stephen’s dispossession of his self is clear, as he writes, “Stephen Dedalus/Class of Elements/Clongowes Wood College/Sallins/County Kildare/Ireland/Europe/The World/The Universe,” on his geography flyleaf (Portrait, 13). Fleming scribbles a poem on the same sheet, “Stephen Dedalus is my name,/Ireland is my nation./Clongowes is my dwellingplace/And heaven my expectation.” That Joyce has Fleming write a poem, declaring, “Stephen Dedalus is my name,” on Stephen’s paper emphasizes the latter’s estrangement from his own body and creativity. Free play of the senses, available to his younger self, eludes him in these new conditions, as his classmate colors his world (Fleming literally colors the image of Earth on his paper), usurping his body and driving him further into isolation. One scene, however, depicts Stephen’s ephemeral return to childhood synthesis of mind and body.

Stephen briefly taps into baby tuckoo’s childlike bliss the night of the Whitsuntide play, as the boundaries of his ego dissipate and he connects with the physical world on a meaningful level. The narrator recounts the moments before the curtain lifts, “For one rare moment he seemed to be clothed in the real apparel of boyhood: and, as he stood in the wings among the other players, he shared the common mirth” (Portrait, 74). References to “youth” and “boyhood” point the reader to a past that Stephen experiences only as an infant in the opening pages. This scene particularly strikes the reader, as it immediately proceeds from Stephen’s swearing off all comradeship and rejecting the “profane world” in which “a worldly voice would bid him raise up his father’s fallen state by his labours and, meanwhile, the voice of his schoolcomrades urged him to be a decent fellow,” while other “hollowsounding voices” threaten to shackle him (Portrait, 73). The immediacy of these two passages in relation to one another highlights Stephen’s internal quarrel. On one hand, he resolutely claims “the company of phantasmal comrades” to shore off institutional obligations. He relates the physical world to familial duties, thereby distancing his self further from his physical body. On the other hand, he experiences an event bordering on transcendence in communion with his fellow actors. The spontaneity and communal elements of the play serve to momentarily dissipate the walls Stephen builds between his mind and the physical world.

The play concludes, and Stephen bursts out of the theater in search of “some further adventure,” some tangible, permanent embodiment of his feelings (Portrait, 75). The narrator relates, “Pride and hope and desire like crushed herbs in his heart sent up vapours of maddening incense before the eyes of his mind.” Importantly, the sensations he perceives as vapors here suggest forms of the mind as opposed to the material world. The reunion of his mind and body, instigated by the creative and communal act of the play, remains a mere blip in time. Pride, hope, and desire, each an ephemeral consequence of the play, briefly appears, then ceases to exist before his mind. The tone suddenly shifts, “He strode down the hill amid the tumult of suddenrisen vapours of wounded pride and fallen hope and baffled desire,” until, “the air was clear and cold again” (Portrait, 75).  In dialogue, the narrator says, “—That is horse piss and rotted straw, he thought. It is a good odour to breathe. It will calm my heart. My heart is quite calm now. I will go back” (Portrait, 76). On a formal level, this is the first instance in the novel in which Joyce employs a dash, signaling dialogue, to communicate Stephen’s thoughts. The smell of horse piss and rotted straw, the cloacal odors that Stephen associates until now with the humiliating square ditch incident at Clongowes, instigates a transition at the book’s formal level. Later, Stephen reveals the primacy he attributes to the dramatic form, explaining, “the dramatic form [is] the form wherein [the artist] presents his image in immediate relation to others” (Portrait, 188). Given this aesthetic claim, the reader understands Stephen’s thoughts here, “It is a good smell,” (my emphasis) as representing a crucial transition in the protagonist’s development. The cloacal odors in this moment serve as mediators between his restless soul and the mundane physical world, the latter of which he associates with institutional obligations. Stephen accepts the ugly, even oppressive physical world, momentarily marrying his mind to his body. The dash recalls the objectivity and immediacy associated with baby tuckoo’s report of the bed-wetting process. Stephen’s ego-dissolving experience acting in the play primes his return to a purer, younger self. One understands Joyce’s play with form here as mirroring Stephen’s reunion with his body, as both the author and protagonist wrest ownership of their physical form from stale traditional values.

Joyce employs cloacal imagery in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to display Stephen’s precarious position as a self-autonomous individual with respect to various external values and obligations. Joyce’s free indirect style enables one to analyze these passages at a formal level, inferring from the language at play Stephen’s and the art object’s development. As a child, Stephen lacks the linguistic and epistemic depth to internalize the institutional nets that surround him. Instead, he interacts with physical sensations with an immediacy that follows from his infantile stage. He reports his wetting the bed as a pure physical fact, devoid of humiliation and anxiety. Contrasting this with his experiences at Clongowes, one understands Stephen’s crisis as intricately mixed up with his perception of physical sensations. He learns to associate the physical world with the institutional snares that threaten his development, yet constitute his being. A brief return to his infantile self brings the odor of horse piss and rotted straw, and the text momentarily transitions to a more refined dramatic form. Stephen’s acknowledging, even appreciating the abject sensations works to ground his soul to his body. The mind-body duality found throughout Western tradition, Joyce argues, is symptomatic of the vanity in struggling to overcome society and its values and to assert one’s individuality. Yet, that struggle is necessary in forging new, meaningful art and human connections. Joyce’s Portrait remains ambiguous in its irony until the end, like the inexplicably pleasurable waft of horse piss and rotted straw on the air in Dear Dirty Dublin.

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