Friday, September 12, 2008

The Dedalus MS

Intellectuals rarely explain the purpose of their work: its goals and how their methods relate to them. Joyce famously outlines the goal of his semi-autobiographical character Stephen Dedalus's putative future project:

"to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race"

which is a rare moment of candour. These intellectuals often just go about their business like people hypnotised. This statement's often quoted because it's candid, it's concise, and it's an interesting piece of writing. It's tempting to treat it as an explanation of Joyce's own project and forget about the displacement into the imaginary diary of an imaginary character whose ideas may or may not reflect those of the author. There may be good reasons for doing this.

This kind of candour invites crude mockery. For instance you could have:

"to manufacture, in the stalls of mental labour, the ineluctable product of imaginative contemplation"

or a bit cruder:

"to force into being, in the outhouse of the intellect, the as yet unformed content of human race consciousness"

This would be to construct primitive comedy around a level contingency in the statement left unexamined by the author. Either the statement lacks perfection as a summary of the author's activities, basically writing things down in an exercise book, or these activities lack perfection in relation to some implied criteria. In either case the statement comes to be determined, secondarily, as a pure abstraction. Joyce's smithy opens onto the infinite, or has this possibility, like the Tardis in Dr Who, or Mrs Thatcher's Family Grocer's, not through any mystical operation but through this process of abstraction.

Anyway, this was the mission statement of the young Joyce. The real mission statement of the mature Joyce might not be too far from this, to the point of accepting the same choice of words, but with their crude parody implied also. This might be step forward, but it also involves the repudiation of the idea of progress through synthesis implied in the formula as it stands in Portrait of the Artist, which again may or may not be a good thing.

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