|By Rev. Timothy D. Clark
Joyce and Einstein both made enormous contributions to their respective fields, but left us with as many new mysteries as answers to questions. Einstein's theory of Relativity showed us that our conceptual relationship to the world around us is extremely flexible -- that our perception of the world is determined both by our position in and of itself, and our position in relation to others. His theory of physics which had an immense impact on our epistemological endeavors, in that it imposes limits of what and how we can know due to our location in space/time. Aftershocks of Einstein's theory were felt in art, literature and philosophy, and undoubtedly greatly influenced Joyce's literary project.
This seems, perhaps, a strange notion. Nonetheless, it is clearly traceable throughout the course of Joyce's work. It is hinted at in Dubliners, wherein our pictures and conception of the town and the world are determined by the thoughts, beliefs and learning the characters, and finally comes to fruition in Ulysses, wherein we see the same events from several perspectives, and are given very different impressions of those events, according to the mental states of the observer through which we view them. But, in between these two works, we find A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In Portrait, Joyce both furthers and illustrates the relativistic project by carrying the reader, along with Stephen Dedalus from a world in which the final answers are objective and known, into a post-Einsteinian world wherein truth is determined by one's position and perspective, and there are several equally valid ways of expressing that truth.
One of Einstein's better known parables of relativity is that of the physicists and the elevator. Einstein presents us with the following thought-experiment: There are some physicists, having all the necessary equipment for measurement of velocity. The physicists inside the elevator have no means of looking outside it, and indeed, have never been outside it. Effectively and ideally, they are in a closed system. They notice that they are in a three-dimensional space, and can only walk on one side of it, that is, the floor. They decide to try to figure out the cause of this and using their instruments, measure and calculate, and in the end, determine that the force of gravity is responsible. Another group of physicists out side the elevator chance to observe it, and notice that it is accelerating rapidly through space, and determine that all objects inside the elevator would be held to the end opposite the direction of the acceleration, and attribute this phenomenon to the force of acceleration. Einstein's relativity says that both groups are right in light of their location relative to the elevator- from inside, the force of gravity is indeed responsible, and from outside, the force of acceleration is responsible and neither statement has more or less truth value than the other.
Prior to Einstein, a such a concept of truth was unthinkable: there was always a True answer for any question, and such a quandary of perception would have been labeled as being 'indeterminate at this time, due to an insufficiency of mathematical and/or physical knowledge. Once we have that, we will be able to give you the Absolute Truth.' Science was (and is) prone to the same sort of thinking and dogmatic marketing of truth that Joyce saw in religion, politics and art: an absolutist version of Truth and Reality as neatly packaged and marketed by The (Scientific/Religious/Aesthetic) Establishment. To find that type of relativity in the universe of science leaves open the path to find it in other areas as well. Einstein's relativity was the indirect death knell of the One True Religion, the One True Aesthetic and the One True Whatever-the-hell-else.
If one wishes to regard Portrait of the Artist in autobiographical light, then it would seem Joyce at least intuited this early on, and most certainly was consciously aware of it by the time he undertook the novel. Portrait is, I think, a sort of 'Pilgrim's Progress' from the world of objectivity to the world of relativity, and I wish to illustrate this by dealing with several facets of the novel, beginning with the overarching guide through the novel: the narrator. The first chapter of Portrait begins with a montage of memories of very young childhood, presented by a third-person narrator who is either omniscient or is the individual whose childhood these memories belong to. It is safe to assume the latter, as the references to 'baby tuckoo' identify (according to a textual note) that as a nickname of Joyce's in his infancy. Why, then, would the narration be in the third person, here, as well as throughout the bulk of the novel? What quality does a third person narration have, that another narrative voice would not? I think that the quality is that of objectivity, or at least, the pretense of objectivity. But there is something else that these early paragraphs clue us in on. The memories are disjointed. They do not flow smoothly into one another, they come as non-sequitur after non-sequitur. But they are not without logic- the logic of subjective association. While the reader may never be able to get the entire sense of what goes on in these opening paragraphs, they clearly cohere in some distinct way for the narrator. Thus, beneath the veneer of objectivity conveyed by the third person narrative mode, lies the influence of the subjective personal truth and reason.
As the young Stephen begins his education, we see the descriptions becoming increasingly filtered through this idea that there is and objective truth about things, both rational and spiritual. Stephen becomes very taken with the notion of education, and he excels at it. His efforts put him at the head of his class in essay writing, although his skill at mathematics is weak. His education indoctrinates him with the structures of rationality in the liberal arts, and his religious education, as we are shown in the retreat episode, indoctrinates him with a passionate faith for a time. The One True Way of Irish Catholic Rationalism seems to be his calling, and yet, as we see from his forays with the prostitutes, it is insufficient for him -- clearly, he longs for a variety of experience that that path will not allow for. Even his repentance is driven more by his fear of damnation than by a genuine love of God. Stephen himself comes to a partial realization of this after his conversation with the priest about taking holy orders: Some instinct... Stronger than education or piety, quickened within him at every near approach to that life, an instinct subtle and hostile, and armed him against acquiescence. (p. 174)
What we see here are the early stirrings of Stephen's recognition of himself as an individual truly apart from the world in which he was raised, an intuitive belief that he is 'a being apart in every order' (p. 174). It also marks the beginning of Stephen's most drastic change in modes of perception, the point where he goes from being a faithful dogmatist to an individual thinker.
The tone of the text begins to change subtle here as well. It ascends from a tone of gray mundanity to one of more romantic and poetic vision, both of which have strong associations with the liberal fluidity of individual perceptions. Stephen also begins to see beauty in a new, more personal way. His earlier encounters with women, specifically those with prostitutes, did not allow him to appreciate the beauty of a woman, but rather were attempts to express himself as an individual in a system that frowned upon that notion. The descriptions of those encounters are fleeting and dry, implying far more than was actually said, and were, even before his 'repentance', a source of guilt and shame. But, once Stephen begins to assert his individuality, he is able to appreciate beauty according to his own aesthetic, as we see in his ecstatic description of the girl he sees wading in the stream (p. 185). he comes away from the experience regarding her as a 'wild angel.. of mortal youth and beauty.' (186) His later conversation about fire and beauty with the dean of studies, with Stephen quoting from Aquinas takes on a condescending and insincere tone when held up to this description. Stephen has already found his aesthetic, and the quote from Aquinas is a statement of compromise: 'Pulcra sunt quae visa placent' allows Stephen room enough for his individual vision, while sliding that fact past the dean in the guise of Aquinas.
One by one, Stephen surrenders dogmatic modes of thought and behavior, until he at last emerges into the Einsteinian world, and surrenders his pretense of objectivity, by changing the narration to first person. While he continues to describe events around and beyond himself, Stephen is, for the first time, applying meaning and emotional content to those events, not hiding it behind the tone of his language for the reader to suss out, but hanging them out with enthusiasm, recognizing that, from his position in time/space, inside the closed system of himself, they are absolutely true and legitimate, regardless of how they may appear from another perspective. It's gravity when Stephen says it's gravity, and acceleration when he says it's acceleration, and it's all true, and real, and his.