Portrait of the Artist as a Subject in Language: Name(s)-of-the-Father in Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Sanjay Dey, Heramba Chandra College, Kolkata

Towards the end of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist of the novel declares:

“I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning.” (Portrait, 208, italics mine)

At this point in the novel, Stephen in a humble way says he would ‘try to’ express himself as ‘freely’ or as ‘wholly’ as he can, through art. This would imply his attempts might not be wholly successful and that he might not achieve freedom from those three constraints of home, fatherland, and church. The three arms he allows himself to use are also important. Silence would mean Stephen would not speak or would restrain himself from a certain kind of language use. Exile would mean Stephen would move away from his family and country. And cunning would mean Stephen would adopt artfulness as a strategy to separate himself from these constraints.

This paper is an attempt to understand Stephen’s relation to his home, fatherland, and church, how these three factors contribute to the formation of the ‘young man’ Stephen, and how the ‘artist’ Stephen tries to re-form himself through a process of separation from these constraints, and how much he fails or succeeds in his attempt. The paper uses some major Lacanian concepts related to the roles of law, logic and language which function as the names-of-the-father exerting a pivotal impact on the formation of the subject, of young Stephen, and in the birth of the artist Stephen.

Stephen’s formation as a subject in language

In Portrait we do not see Stephen as already an artist, rather, we get a sense of the possibilities of Stephen as a would-be artist. This development in the protagonist’s artistic subjectivity is a recurrent motif in all of the five chapters of Portrait. The epiphany that Stephen undergoes at the end of each chapter adds gradually to his subject formation. For Lacan, the subjectivity of an individual is not something inherent or natural; it is constructed. When a child is born, the first step towards knowing his self as a unified whole takes place in the mirror stage where he depends on a mirror to realize his unified self. The mirror may be literally a mirror or it may be society acting as the mirror for the projection of an image. However, this image is never able to reflect reality as it is and gives only a partial or distorted image of the real object. Then s/he is initiated into the symbolic structure of language and, therefore, becomes a subject formed by language. The Lacanian subject is different from the Cartesian individual in that it can be located in the gap between the ‘I’ that thinks and the ‘I’ that it is in ‘I think therefore I am.’ (A Discourse, 28)

Lacan further mentions that the moment of the creation of the subject is the moment of his alienation from his real self (which is marked by fragmentation, incoherence, and gaps). The subject created in/by the symbolic order is the split that divides the self from the linguistic subjectivity. (The Lacanian Subject, 45) As the real does not find expression within the symbolic order, the only way to gain knowledge is by the presence of its absence in the symbolic order of language. An example from the text would possibly explain how Stephen’s subjectivity is being created through words, how he accepts his world of words with a sense of gloomy resolution:

“He opened the geography to study the lesson; but he could not learn the names of places in America. Still they were all different places that had those different names. They were all in different countries and the countries were in continents and the continents were in the world and the world was in the universe.” (11)

In this quotation names are important for Stephen because they assign subjectivity to the places which they refer to. The box-within-box like pattern bears close resemblance to that of the structure of the language and the subject. Whenever a signifier is being considered it points to another signifier and in turn to another and so on. These indications come to us through names, which are linguistic symbols and hence can be seen as the multiple layers of subjectivity that one is subject to within the symbolic order of language: Places- countries- continents- world- universe.

Yet when one signifier is taken something remains outside signification. In other words, the signifier fails to reach the signified or the symbolic does not succeed in grasping the real. It is precisely this deficiency of the signifiers that leads Lacan to say that the task of the signifier is never to point at a signified, rather, one signifier leads to another and this process goes on endlessly. And it is at this moment of movement from one signifier to another that the subject is born. The gap that lies between two signifiers is the gap of the real which is filled in by the symbolic through the birth of the subject. This is instantly evident when Stephen tries the same pattern with his own subjectivity in the following lines of the above-mentioned quotation.

An interesting part later in Chapter 2 is, perhaps, one of the best examples of how the life of the subject is one dominated by language; as if, language has a life of its own and the subject is created and sustained by the symbolic order (that is, of language): “It surprised him to see that the play which he had known at rehearsals for a disjointed lifeless thing had suddenly assumed a life of its own. It seemed now to play itself, he and his fellow actors aiding it with their parts” (71). Hence, no wonder that Lacan implies that the subject is always subjected, that is, to language. Life of every subject can indeed be viewed as a ‘play’ played upon by language.

The very opening lines of the novel offer us a story told to the protagonist by his father. Following this we see how the father’s song, mother’s piano, Dante’s premonition and so on and so forth, begin to make up the world of little Stephen. Various instances in the novel show how Stephen begins to make meaning of the world from words that he encounters in his surroundings. Thus, it is clearly evident from the following quotations that his subjectivity is constructed in/by language:

“On the desk before him he read the word Foetus cut several times in the dark stained wood. The sudden legend startled his blood: he seemed to feel the absent students of the college about him and to shrink from their company. A vision of their life… sprang up before him out of the word cut in the desk.” (75)

Or, “Words which he did not understand he said over and over to himself till he had learned them by heart: and through them he had glimpses of the real world about him” (52).

As is clear from what has been said above, language plays a vital role in the construction of reality and subjectivity; subjectivity, therefore, belongs to the domain of the symbolic and is created only through the negotiation between the symbolic and/or imaginary order and the real order. However, the twist in the creation of the subjectivity of Stephen is introduced when he refuses to surrender his being completely to that assigned to him by the symbolic order. A quotation will clarify the pressures that are there constantly upon him in forming his subject- position and how he craves to break free from his subjectivity endowed upon him from without like an overcoat:

“… he had heard about him the constant voices of his father and of his masters, urging him to be a gentleman above all things and urging him to be a good catholic above all things… when the gymnasium had been opened he had heard another voice urging him to be strong and manly and healthy and when the movement towards national revival had begun to be felt in the college yet another voice had bidden him be true to his country and help to raise up her fallen language and tradition. In the profane world, as he foresaw, a worldly voice would bid him raise up his father’s fallen state by his labours and, meanwhile, the voice of his school comrades urged him to be a decent fellow, to shield others from blame or to beg them off and to do his best to get them free days for the school. And it was the din of all these hollow sounding voices that made him halt irresolutely in the pursuit of phantoms. He gave them ear only for a time but he was happy only when he was far from them, beyond their call, alone or in the company of phantasmal comrades.” (70)

Phallus and Name-of-the-Father:

Like Joyce, Lacan was evidently fond of word-play and like many of his other concepts, the concept of the Name-of-the-Father contains a pun. The Name-of-the-Father is not a mere name; as said above, it always comes with other implications as is the case with language. This implication is the ‘no’ of the Father. Lacan actually plays with words ‘nom’ (name) and ‘non’ (no) which sound similar in French. The Father-figure is always a formidable one in that it always comes with laws and prohibitions. In his seminars, Lacan explicates the concept while putting forth the concept of subject-formation. When a child is initiated into the symbolic order, language enters the child. This language is essentially phallocentric and, hence, its proximity with the Father-figure. Initially, in the child’s life there is supposedly a dyad between the mother and the child. The child begins to desire his/her mother; so, the mother becomes the object of desire for the child. This is a Freudian concept. However, with Lacan a new concept of desire can be found and he takes Freud’s notions further by saying that the child also begins to realize that there is a lack in his/her mother and, therefore, she herself is a desiring being. The mother desires the Phallus and this is what Lacan calls the imaginary Phallus (imaginary from the child’s perspective). The imaginary Phallus is not a being that is there which the mother wants. Rather, it is a function: the Phallic function that operates between the mother and the child. The imaginary Phallus is that which initiates the first dialectic in the child’s life. It is at this point that the child begins to aim at being the object of desire for the mother. The child assumes itself to be that which the mother wants or lacks (the Phallus) and, therefore, wants or desires. Thus, the child is both the subject and the object of desire. This is the moment of Oedipus complex when the child aims to achieve the mother-child dyad that pre-existed his/her birth. However, soon the moment comes when the child is disillusioned. The mother introduces the discourse of the Other into his/her life and this Other is none other than the Name-of-the-Father or invasion of law/prohibition, logic, and language into the life of the child. The Name-of-the-Father has also been said by Lacan to be the master/first signifier that initiates the subject into the symbolic order (that of language). It is vital to the formation of the subject because all other subsequent signifiers in the life of the subject are held in place due to the mooring of the master signifier. The castration that the ‘no’ of the Father poses leads the child away from the all devouring mother whose desire cannot be fulfilled by the child, causing anxiety in the life of the child. In that sense, the Name-of-the-Father can be said to come to the rescue of the child from anxiety. With the castration complex the child accepts language and its implications and breaks away from the dyad. Thus, there now forms a triad consisting of the mother, the child and the father (language).

The same is the case with Stephen. The opening chapter of the novel is especially relevant in the context of the aforesaid concepts. In the very beginning of the chapter, the presence of the father in little Stephen’s life is evident: “His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face” (5).

The presence of the father begins to shape the world of signifiers for baby Stephen through stories and songs. However, at a later instance in the novel we see Stephen’s father trying to ameliorate his intimidating presence in his son’s life: “… Stephen. I do not believe in playing the stern father. I don’t believe a son should be afraid of his father… We [are] more like brothers than father and son” (77).

But it is, perhaps, too late. Stephen has already internalized the Name-of-the-Father. Nevertheless, that Stephen’s father says this is evidence enough of the fact that in Stephen’s life the father-figure plays a vital role in shaping his subjectivity. Furthermore, Stephen’s taking up of responsibility for his family after he gets the money as a prize-amount can be read as an instance when he identifies himself with the father-figure by assuming the role of his father.

Within the structures of the pre-oedipal or oedipal stages, it is important to note Stephen’s action of wetting the bed: “When you wet the bed first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the oil sheet. That had the queer smell./His mother had a nicer smell than his father” (5). This can be seen as a deliberate attempt on the baby’s part to bring his mother physically closer to him and affecting the pleasure obtained through infantile masturbation that the mother would provide while changing the wet cloth for her child.

A few lines after, in the playgrounds of Clongowes, Stephen faces a very vital question from his schoolmates: “What is your name?/…/What is your father?” (6). The similarity in the question pattern could very well draw attention to the fact that the name of Stephen, which imparts him his subject position, is crucially linked with that of the father. This is how a subject is formed within the symbolic order: by the acceptance of the name of the father: the master signifier. Stephen’s fellow student at Clongowes, Wells, asks another question vital to framing Stephen’s subjectivity: “Tell us, Dedalus, do you kiss your mother before you go to bed?” (11). The question immediately embarrasses Stephen causing him to blush. At this instance, the character of Wells can be read as one who brings the Name-of-the-Father into Stephen’s life making him feel the imposition of prohibition on his physical closeness with his mother. The impact that the ‘no’ of the father leaves on Stephen is evident a few lines after where we see him preoccupied with this question: “Was it right to kiss his mother or wrong to kiss his mother? What did that mean, to kiss?” (11). And a little later: “His mother kissed him. Was that right?” (16). It is this prohibition of incest brought upon Stephen by the ‘no’ of the father that haunts him for the rest of his life.

Religious law or yet another ‘Name-of-the-Father’

Other than his own father, religion poses an overbearing imposition on Stephen’s development as an artist. The call of religion is so severe in Stephen’s life that it chokes his enjoyment with women. The sermons on virtue and sin, hell and heaven lie so heavy on his conscience that he suffers misgivings from his encounters with women. As the intrusion of the symbolic order (or the symbolic phallus) deprives the subject from the delight of allurement that it enjoys in the pre-oedipal stage of the mother-phallus-child structure, religion drains Stephen’s experience off enjoyment (which can be somewhat equated to Lacan’s concept of jouissance) giving him a sense of guilt and dejection. This once again echoes the chiding by the Name-of-the-Father that the child undergoes with the intrusion of the symbolic order. The boundless freedom that Stephen expects to enjoy in order to realize his subjectivity as an artist is being constantly delimited by the restrictions of religion. No wonder that Stephen finally rejects to take up the priesthood of the Church:

The voice of the director urging upon him the proud claims of the church and the mystery and power of the priestly office repeated itself idly in his memory. His soul was not there to hear and greet it and he knew now that the exhortation he had listened to had already fallen into an idle formal tale. He would never swing the thurible before the tabernacle as priest. His destiny was to be elusive of social or religious orders. The wisdom of the priest’s appeal did not touch him to the quick. He was destined to learn his own wisdom apart from others or to learn the wisdom of others himself wandering among the snares of the world. (136)

Language of the Colonizer or yet another ‘Father-substitute’

Following the link of the above quotation, the language that Stephen uses is equally burdening for him. In the course of his development as an artist Stephen rejects the language that he uses in favour of one that is his own. When a child learns to use language we call it his mother-tongue; this poses a vital problem for Stephen in his development as an artist. The mother-tongue is essentially one that belongs to the mother as the Other. It is the discourse of the (m)Other that the child learns to internalize. This discourse, in turn, is that of the father/man that is imposed upon the mother which the mother/woman has internalized. This crucial problem is faced by every subject due to the fact that there is no language that is feminine, and it is only through a phallocentric discourse that the subject can articulate his experiences. Hence, language comes to the child doubly distorted making it all the more difficult to use it to articulate experiences; hence, the limitation of the symbolic order. The case is very much the same with Stephen. The language that Joyce had at his disposal was Irish that had been informed by a foreign culture, British. Similarly, Stephen’s medium of expression no longer belongs to the native land (Ireland as motherland) to which Stephen belongs. In fact, his motherland has been appropriated by a foreign culture, therefore, has been introduced to the discourse of the Other. While the mother-tongue is the primary Other that the subject must accept, in colonial countries the intrusion of the discourse of the Other for every subject is twofold. Colonization works on the assumption that the colonized country is feminine, whereas, the colonizer is considered to be the masculine counterpart. Thus, Stephen rejects his mother’s (metaphorically) discourse when he realizes that it is not her own, but that of the Other (colonizer/patriarch):

“The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me in acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.” (159)

It is, perhaps, due to this reason that Stephen’s subject formation is different: he distances himself from the Other’s discourse or from the Names-of-the-Father. It gives us the crucial clue to Stephen’s selection of his own language as an artist in order to find expression, which we get to see more profoundly in Joyce’s subsequent works.


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Sanjay Dey completed his B.A. from Heramba Chandra College, Kolkata in 2012 and M.A. from Presidency University, Kolkata in 2014. He is interested in modernist and postmodernist texts and cultural and critical theories of the 20th century and since. He also teaches at Heramba Chandra College as a guest Lecturer at present where his field of teaching includes Medieval, Renaissance, Victorian, Modernist, and Postmodernist Literature.