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Cybernetic Smithy

It’s always a pleasure to read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man . On Monday, in my  survey of Twentieth-century English Literature , we finished our discussion of Portrait , examining closely the end passage where the narrator’s point of view collapses into Stephen Dedalus’s own (or in an alternative reading where Dedalus’s powers of observation as manifest in his journal overtake the very narrative in which it is figured.)

As with the near half-dozen non-prostitute females Dedalus encounters throughout the novel and to whom he is erotically drawn, at the end of the novel Dedalus stiffly responds to the point of rebuff a young woman’s cordial tactics. Dedalus explains

15 April: Met her today pointblank in Grafton Street. The crowd brought us together. We both stopped. She asked me why I never came, said she had all sorts of stories about me. This was only to gain time. Asked me, was I writing poems? About whom? I asked her. This confused her more and I felt sorry and mean. Turned off that valve at once and opened the spiritual-heroic refrigerating apparatus, invented and patented in all countries by Dante Alighieri. (274-75) Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Penguin 1964.)

The remainder of the entry ironically characterizes their interaction as a 𠇏riendly” one.

What is interesting to me, besides the inability of Dedalus to communicate openly and directly with someone to whom he is attracted, is the fact that he places the act of writerly sublimation inside the domain of the cybernetic. Dante’s extraordinary unconsummated love for Beatrice is for Dedalus a patented mechanism, a “valve” that controls flows through a hydraulic “refrigerating apparatus.”

Portrait can be read not only as the coming-of-age of an artist, but also as the partial cybernation of the same. When Dedalus writes that he will “forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race” he tropes his very soul as a technical process, a smithy. His exhortation of “Old father, old artificer,” establishes a genealogy not of sanguinity but of artisanship. The “father” Dedalus invokes is not Simon, his birth father, but the Athenian “artificer,” architect, sculptor, and inventor Daedalus, the novel’s final sentence a gesture toward a cyberneticist genealogy.

While only a few moments in this novel, their coming as they do at the end strongly suggests just how Modern Joyce’s sense of artistic becoming is.