Monday, September 13, 2010

Joyce on Aquinas on Aesthetics

I recently read James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" for the first time (which I'm a little embarrassed to admit). There's a beautiful passage toward the end where Stephen Dedalus explains his interpretation of Thomas Aquinas' aesthetics to an inquisitive but slightly less bright schoolmate.

Besides its poetic content, it's a gorgeous glimpse of Joyce squaring his own highly modern approach with his Catholic background. Much of Aquinas' medieval and theological view of the aesthetic can be easily and somewhat surprisingly reconciled with the budding formalist aesthetics of key members of the Bloomsbury group - I'm thinking specifically of Roger Fry and Clive Bell. These writers coincided with Joyce in terms of time, aesthetic temperament, and geography, with the obvious asterisk that the Bloomsbury writers were British and Joyce was quintessentially Irish.

Aquinas had three criteria for the aesthetic: Integritas, consonantia, and claritas. The first two are can be translated from the Latin without much ado as wholeness and harmony, but claritas can be interpreted as the ordinary "clarity," or the more metaphysical and theological "radiance." Joyce opts for the latter, but not exactly as one would expect. For those interested in the subject, Umberto Eco wrote a terrific little book about it: "The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas" (Harvard University Press, 1988). The entire passage in "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" is on pages 204-215 of the Penguin paperback edition (the one with the blue cover), and here is a climactic excerpt:

-To finish what I as saying about beauty, said Stephen, the most satisfying relations of the sensible must therefore correspond to the necessary phases of artistic apprehension. Find these and you find the qualities of universal beauty. Aquinas says: ad pulcritudinem tria requiruntur, integritas, consonantia, claritas. I translate it so: Three things are needed for beauty, wholeness, harmony, and radiance. Do these correspond to the phases of apprehension? Are you following?

-Of course, I am, said Lynch. If you think I have an excrementitious intelligence run after Donovan and ask him to listen to you.

-Look at that basket, he said.

-I see it, said Lynch.

-In order to see that basket, said Stephen, your mind first of all separate the basket from the rest of the visible universe which is not the basket. The first phase of apprehension is a bounding line drawn about the object to be apprehended. An esthetic image is presented to us either in space or time. What is audible is presented in time, what is visible is presented in space. But temporal or spatial, the esthetic image is first luminously apprehended as selfbounded and selfcontained upon the immeasurable background of space or time which is not it. You apprehend it as one thing. You see it as one whole. You apprehend its wholeness. That is integritas.

-Bull's eye! said Lynch, laughing. Go on.

-Then, said Stephen, you pass from point to point, led by its formal lines; you apprehend it as balanced part against balanced part within its limits; you feel the rhythm of its structure. In other words the synthesis of immediate perception is followed by the analysis of apprehension. Having first felt that it is one thing you feel now that it is a thing. You apprehend it as complex, multiple, divisible, separable, made up of its parts, the result of its parts and their sum, harmonious. That is consonantia.

-Bull's eye again! said Lynch wittily. Tell me now what is claritas and you win the cigar.

-The connotation of the word, Stephen said, is rather vague. Aquinas uses a term which seems to be inexact. It baffled me for a long time. It would lead you to believe he had in mind symbolism or idealism, the supreme quality of beauty being a light from some other world, the idea of which the matter is but a shadow, the reality of which it is but a symbol. I thought he might mean the claritas is the artistic discovery and representation of the divine purpose in anything or a force of generalisation which would make the esthetic image a universal one, make it outshine its proper conditions. But that is literary talk. I understand it so. When you have apprehended that basket as one thing and have then analysed it according to its form and apprehended it as a thing you make the only synthesis which is logically and esthetically permissible. You see that it is that thing which it is and no other thing. The radiance of which he speaks is the scholastic quiditas, the whatness of a thing. This supreme quality is felt by the artist when the esthetic image is first conceived in his imagination. The mind in that mysterious instant Shelley likened beautifully to a fading coal. The instant wherein that supreme quality of beauty, the clear radiance of the esthetic image, is apprehended luminously by the mind which has been arrested by its wholeness and fascinated by its harmony is the luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure, a spiritual state very like to that cardiac condition which the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani, using a phrase almost as beautiful as Shelley's, called the enchantment of the heart.

Stephen paused and, though his companion did not speak, felt that his words had called up around them a thoughtenchanted silence.