"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Young Language
of Stephen Dedalus

" . . . the white look of the lavatory made him feel cold and then hot. There were two cocks that you turned and water came out: cold and hot. He felt cold and then a little hot: and he could see the names printed on the cocks."
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
James Joyce

Today, I'm picking up where I left off last time with yet another look at the young Stephen Dedalus and these observations which appeared previously in
Notes on Modern Irish Literature:
Volume 7 Number 2
Fall 1995

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man opens with an exploration of how Stephen, from infancy to youth has learned to make sense of language and how this sense is made. He wonders about homonyms: "That was a belt round his pocket. And belt was also to give a fellow a belt." He wonders about syntax and dialogue: "What was the right answer to the question? He had given two and Wells laughed." Stephen's search for meaning is evident in his consternation over Wells' question about kissing and his deliberation over God's name: "God's real name was God." Names, nicknames, euphemisms, graffiti -- these are just a few of the many examples of the evolution of Stephen's thought and language.

French literary critic Michael Riffaterre (1924 - 2006) was well - known for insisting on a "theory of literariness rather than of literature," stressing that the role of the reader is crucial if the text is to be considered poetic or literary (Interview in Diacritics, Winter 1981, 13). He explains that "the reader's perception of what is poetic is based wholly upon reference to texts." These previous texts signify the literary or poetic value of the text at hand by providing the reader with poetic signs which Riffaterre calls hypograms. Hypogrammatic derivation is the process by which a word or phrase is poeticized when it refers to (and, if a phrase, patterns itself upon) a pre-existent word group" (Semiotics of Poetry, 22 - 23). Riffaterre focuses primarily on reading, on what conventions govern the reception of the text, and on exactly how readers comprehend the linguistic signs of the poetic text, including cultural or mythological codifications "ranging from lexical items through cliches, quotations, and sound combinations to syntactic structures" (Diacritics Interview 12).

Riffaterre observes various types of hypogrammatic derivation, one of which -- the neologism -- is particularly applicable to the opening chapter of Joyce's Portrait, which captures and delineates Stephen's early attempts to understand how language works. The young language of Stephen Dedalus is filled with neologisms, not so much because the words themselves are newly coined but because they are entirely new to Stephen -- or nearly so. In his description of Stephen's language, Joyce portrays a number of way in which a speaker or listener makes sense of and assigns meaning to the neologisms he encounters. For the boy Stephen, all words are neologisms because they are all new to him, and he has as yet only a limited frame of reference in which to place them.. In fact, what the reader witnesses in the opening chapters of Portrait is the formation of such a frame in Stephen's mind.

Stephen derives semantic meaning from newly encountered words and phrases much the same way that Riffaterre's model of hypogammatic derivation yields poetic meaning -- placing them as signs in the context of his semiotic and literary practice and looking for their reference to pre - existent word groups. In fact Stephen does search for literariness in his spelling sentences, which seem like poetry to him: "Wolsey died in Leicester Abbey / Where the abbots buried him. / Canker is a disease of plants, / Cancer one of animals." He daydreams about how pleasurable it would be to lie before the fire at home and "think on those sentences" (10), even though they are simply exercises from a work book. Perhaps it is the repeated initial sounds of the first two sentences (Wolsey / Where) and the juxtaposition of the minimal (Canker / Cancer) in the next two lines that are signs to Stephen of poeticity. And, of course, the rhythm. Then there is the verse which Fleming has written in Stephen's geography book:

"Stephen Dedalus is my name,
Ireland is my nation,
Clongowes is my dwellingplace,
And heaven my expectation."

What signifies poetry in this case is the rhyme; for Stephen observes that the verse read backwards is no longer "poetry" (16). In these verses, the hypogram is not a single word but a combination of conventional associations. Stephen's perception of what is poetic, like that of Riffaterre's reader, is based "wholly upon reference to texts." Stephen has in his frame of reference such texts as "Pull out his eyes / Apologise" which predicate the identification of the spelling sentences and Flemings's jingle as poetic (8).

Before long, Stephen is outgrowing nursery rhymes and jingles. He yearns to move beyond the readily perceptible metrical and phonological patterns which govern the "poetry" of this early childhood. He is impatient to "be like the [big] fellows in Poetry and Rhetoric," whose knowledge seems to give them so much strength and power. "It pained him that he did not know well what politics meant and that he did not know where the universe ended. He felt small and weak" (17).

Stephen has already begun, however, to understand the complexities of the universe -- a word at a time. For example, when he stands on the playground with "his hands in the side pockets of his belted gray suit," he thinks, "That was a belt round his pocket And belt was also to give a fellow a belt." He places the two homonyms in context, first feeling the belt around his coat and then remembering an exchange between two of the other boys: "-- I'd give you a belt in a second. . . . -- Go and fight your match. Give Cecil thunder a belt. I'd like to see you. He'd give you a toe in the rump for yourself." It crosses Stephen's mind that rump is "not a nice expression," and he remembers his mother's admonition that he not "speak with the rough boys in the college" (9). Stephen calls up all the representations of the word that he knows, saturating himself momentarily with the idea of belt. In addition to identifying the two denotations of the word, he decodes a negative connotation as well, remember his mother's warning against rough speech.

Clongowes Wood College
Vintage Class Picture ~ No Names Given

Surrounded as he is by boys on the playground, he soon overhears another expression, similar in its negative connotation: "You are McGlade's suck." Stephen thinks upon hearing this that "Suck was a queer word. . . . the sound was ugly" (11). He appeals to the sensory impressions which survive from past experiences in his frame of reference. It is not that he has heard this word spoken before, but that the nature of the word itself -- its sound and its various connotations -- remind him of past events. First he describes the behavior which provokes the other boys to call Simon a suck, then he recalls the sucking sound made when his father pulled the lavatory plug:
"Once he had washed his hands in the lavatory of the Wicklow Hotel and his father pulled the stopper up by the chain after and the dirty water went down through the hole in the basin. And when it had all gone down slowly the hole in the basin had made a sound like that: suck. Only louder.

"To remember that and the white look of the lavatory made him feel cold and then hot. There were two cocks that you turned and water came out: cold and hot. He felt cold and then a little hot: and he could see the names printed on the cocks. That was a very queer thing."
(11 - 12)
The memory of the water in the sink reminds him further of the white enamel, and he feels first cold then hot as he pictures the two small words written on the water spouts. The damp feeling this memory evokes does not leave him, and when he sits at the table for tea, the damp white bread, the damp white table cloth, and the white apron of the kitchen-help make him wonder "whether all white things are cold and damp" ( 13). This entire chain of thought is initiated and governed by Stephen's attempt to confirm the meaning of the word suck.

Stephen lends an "avid ear" to the conversation of his elders, in hopes of mastering their vocabulary and assimilating as many new words as possible into his own:
"Words which he did not understand he said over and over to himself till he had learnt them by heart: and through them he had glimpses of the real world about him. The hour when he too would take part in the life of that world seemed drawing near and in secret he began to make ready for the great part which he felt awaited him the nature of which he only dimly apprehended." (62)
For Stephen, words such as belt and suck are neologisms, relationships between the familiar and the unfamiliar. With both of these words, and others such as heartburn, kiss, Athy, smugging, wine, and order, Stephen is indeed compelled to decode consciously and deliberately.

He does so with phrases as well as with single words, striving to understand the cultural context of the hypogram. For example, when Wells begs, "don't spy on us," fearful that Stephen will tell on him for the skirmish which has placed Stephen in the infirmary Stephen realizes the meaing of his father's parting advice "never to peach on a fellow (22). Later when he is home for the holidays he things of something white that is not cold and damp and negative in connotation -- he things of ivory and of the long, white, thin, cool, soft hand of his friend Eileen. Eileen is someone else with whom he is not supposed to play -- not because she is rough but because she is a Protestant. Stephen questions the judgment of his Catholic governess: "She did not like him to play with Eileen because she was a protestant and when she was young she knew children that used to make fun of the litany of the Blessed Virgin. Tower of Ivory, they used to say, House of Gold! How could a woman be a tower of ivory or a house of gold? Who was right then?" (36). But when Eileen touches his eyes and his hand with hers, he makes his own connections; he thinks that ivory is a "cold white thing" and that Eileen's hands are "like ivory, only soft. That was the meaning of Tower of Ivory but protestants could not understand it and made fun of it. . . . Her fair hair had streamed out behind her like gold in the sun. Tower of Ivory. House of Gold. By thinking of things you could understand them" (36, 43; emphasis added).

Stephen's conclusion here is strikingly similar to Riffaterre's certainty that one can understand even the puzzling signs and hypograms of a text or culture if one tries hard enough: "Finding the hypogram is a matter of perception: the reader simply cannot identify it unless it has already become part and parcel of his culture, unless he already knows the other text wherein it is contained. If it is part of his heritage, the reader will sooner or later catch the connection" (Interview in Diacritics 14, emphasis added). Stephen's thought pattern follows this model as he decodes the hypograms, Tower of Ivory and House of Gold. He is a perceptive person person, and he knows that the pre - existent text to which these hypograms refer is the Litany of the Blessed Virgin. Even though the use of such phrases as metaphors is not, for him, an immediately accessible part of his culture, it is in a larger sense part of his heritage; thus he does -- as Riffaterre suggests one will -- "eventually catch the connection." For now, it is enough that he can interpret the phrases as descriptive of the beauty that he admires in his friend Eileen.

How a speaker or a reader derives meaning from words is a central concern of Portrait, the story of a child, who "frees himself with the words he makes his own" ("Out of Mere Words," James Klein, 299). Stephen wants to somehow ground language, to find in it an absolute meaning to stand him in good stead in that future which he dimly apprehends. Joyce shows us how young Stephen Dedalus puzzles over words and phrases and bits of conversation and processes them as neologisms, gradually incorporating them into his own idiolect, and depositing them into his ever - growing frame of textual reference. We want to understand Stephen's continuous effort to control his universe through language -- because it is our own. And we, like Stephen, can understand things by thinking of them.


I searched and searched for an illustration of a young boy,
the age of little Stephen Dedalus, daydreaming before the fireside,
an Irish boy if possible, but I would have settled for any nationality.
Even so, the best I could find were some British pets . . .
from this favorite artist ~ another Stephen D.!

In Front of the Fire ~ by Stephen Darbishire

Next Fortnightly Post
Tuesday, July 14th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

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my running list of recent reading

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