Clarifying Claritas: Joyce’s Appropriation of Aquinas’ Concept of Radiance in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

          Towards the close of James Joyce’s Kunstlerroman, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the seemingly haphazard placement of Stephen Dedalus’s Thomistic aesthetic has long nonplussed its readers. Many find Stephen’s abundant reliance upon Aquinas’ words out of sync with the arc of the novel, not to mention with Aquinas’ corpus. Some critics argue, therefore, that Joyce lacked familiarity with the primary sources from which he quoted. For instance, Fran O’Rourke comments, “Had Joyce been familiar with these passages, he would immediately have seen that Aquinas had already examined exactly those relationships that were uppermost in his own mind” (99). Others claim that he included the quotes from Aquinas simply to ironize Stephen as something of a pedant. James H. Druff corroborates “the growing sense among critics that Joyce does not even remotely share Stephen’s epistemological assurance” (181). A thoroughgoing juxtaposition, however, of the overarching context of Stephen’s aesthetic dialogue against the broader context of Aquinas’ aesthetic references (scant as they may be) reveals something more at stake.

Joyce’s novel portrays Stephen’s personal development and self-discovery as an artist of the beautiful. To understand how Stephen develops throughout the novel, one must understand the view of beauty he develops by the end of the novel. His view of beauty revolves around Aquinas’ concept of radiance, or what Aquinas calls claritas, as Stephen himself reports that the “connotation of the word… baffled me for a long time” (231). While a biographical determination of the extent to which Joyce read Aquinas’ works lies beyond my present scope, I hope to adduce that the context in which Stephen mentions radiance corresponds to the context in which Aquinas mentions radiance, and this dichotomy plays directly into Stephen’s growing understanding of himself as an artist.

By attending to Stephen’s own exposition of radiance, we will be able to expose its centrality to the novel in light of its centrality in Aquinas. Stephen expounds at length to his crasser companion, Lynch, about radiance, complaining that Aquinas “would lead you to believe that he had in mind symbolism or idealism, the supreme quality of beauty being a light from some other world” (230). This notion reacts directly to Aquinas’ mention of radiance in his work on Peter Lombard’s writings, Scriptum super libros sententiarum, when he refers to “a splendor that irradiates above all things and in which all things are resplendent” (Super Sent., lib. 1 d. 31 q. 2 art. 1 co.)[1]. Furthermore, Aquinas’ understanding of “splendor” in the sentence above preserves the radiance of individual things, enabling Stephen to recognize through the radiance of any individual entity “that thing which it is and no other thing” (231). As Druff states, “[t]he perception of an image’s claritas is both an exhaustive perception of its nature and a recognition of its existential discreteness – which is merely to say that the act of aesthetic perception is by nature epiphanic” (187). Thus, Aquinas’ mention of radiance in the aforementioned text sheds light on Stephen’s concerns, as fidelity to the broad Thomistic concept elicits fidelity to minute reality.

Accordingly, Stephen seeks to dispel any insubstantial interpretation of radiance. He hesitates from relegating radiance to “the idea of which the matter is but the shadow, the reality of which it is but the symbol” (230). Likewise, Aquinas bases radiance in the reality of matter throughout his work. As Umberto Eco points out, “the causes of beauty are connected with the form of things” (115). In the Summa Theologica, Aquinas lists “brightness, or ‘clarity,’ whence things are called beautiful which have a bright color” (ST I, q. 39, art. 8). Elsewhere in the Summa, he reports that “the beauty of the body consists in a man having his bodily limbs well proportioned, together with a certain clarity of color” (ST II-II, 145, 2). Again in Super Sent., Aquinas writes, “we say that men are beautiful [sic] who have proportionate members and a shining color” ((Super Sent., lib. 1 d. 31 q. 2 art. 1 co). While Stephen realizes that Aquinas’ view does reconcile matter and form, Stephen seeks a yet more nuanced view of radiance than one inhering to mere color.

Stephen proves well aware of the source of Thomistic radiance, yet he does not wish to let it mar a personal experience of radiance. He reflects:

I thought he might mean that 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 (231).

As far as “the representation of the divine purpose in anything or the force of generalisation which would make the esthetic image a universal one” (231), it is fairly clear that Aquinas does see “the divine purpose” as a “force of generalisation” in all the above references. Indeed, O’Rourke explains how the “splendor of the divine being… is the origin of the beauty of the created universe” (107). Aquinas states, “God is the cause of all beauty inasmuch as he is the cause of harmony and splendor, just as we say that men are beautiful [sic] who have proportionate members and a shining color” (Super Sent., lib. 1 d. 31 q. 2 art. 1 co). Furthermore, in the Summa Theologica, Aquinas iterates the same idea: “God is said to be beautiful, as being ‘the cause of the harmony and clarity of the universe.’ Hence the beauty of the body consists in a man having his bodily limbs well proportioned, together with a certain clarity of color” (ST II-II, q. 145, art. 2). Aquinas cannot but tie personal radiance to divine radiance, and Joyce (ventriloquizing through Stephen) is quick to pick up on his similes between the two forms of radiance, prompting Stephen’s playful litotes in deeming it “literary talk” (231). As I will indicate, the conception of personal radiance impels Stephen’s decision to become an artist. In the meantime, Stephen could simply be conceding his appropriation of Aquinas for the sake of poesy.

Furthermore, in calling his own commentary on radiance “literary talk,” Stephen seems to understate the matter out of irony, since Aquinas’ concept of radiance as a unifying force focuses on holy writ: “For inasmuch as the son is the completed image of the father… [and] the completed word of the father, he has a splendor that irradiates above all things and in which all things are resplendent… because he is as [sic] the perfected word” (Super Sent., lib. 1 d. 31 q. 2 art. 1 co.). The “esthetic image” made “universal” in this context is “the Image of the Father” (ST I, q. 39, art. 8), Who is the Son, while Joyce (and Aquinas) could possibly be punning further on “the sun” in its capacity to illuminate all. Whether he knew it or not, Joyce evinces a solid grasp of the ramifications of Aquinas’ concept of radiance for both the particular and the universal alike.

The strongest indication that Joyce did indeed know more than is generally suspected about his Thomistic primary sources come in his grand declaration of what radiance is in its essence. Stephen maintains that “The radiance of which he speaks is the scholastic quidditas, the whatness of a thing” (231). The editor Seamus Deane attributes this concept more readily to Duns Scotus in his notes on Portrait (319), and Eco maintains that “[i]n this respect… radiance is clearly in opposition to the Thomist doctrine of claritas” (27). The only quote from Aquinas that Stephen could be alluding to arises in the book on Pseudo-Dionysus, In Librum Beati Dionysii De Divinis Nominibus. Therein, Aquinas propounds that “the form on which hangs the proper nature of the thing [sic] pertains to splendor [claritas]” (De Div. Nom., n. 367, p. 119). Surprisingly, this seems to conform quite well to Stephen’s association of radiance with essence.

However, Stephen goes on to add a distinctively subjective element. He tells Lynch that “[t]his supreme quality is felt by the artist when the esthetic image is first conceived in his imagination” (231). The rather anticlimactic fruit of this theory engenders itself in the form of Stephen’s villanelle, when he blasphemously likens his mind and soul to that of the Blessed Virgin Mary in an experience of radiance: “The instant flashed forth like a point of light and now from cloud on cloud of vague circumstance confused form was veiling softly its afterglow. O! In the virgin womb of the imagination the word was made flesh” (236). With biting irony then, Joyce has appropriated Aquinas on his own terms, since Aquinas also connects the concept of radiance to the Second Person of the Trinity, as aforementioned. Indeed, Aquinas writes that radiance “agrees with the property of the Son, as the Word” (ST I, q. 39, art. 8). Stephen’s radiant creativity mocks that which it imitates in Aquinas’ description of the Son.

Stephen downplays Aquinas’ influence on his conception of radiance even more by turning to Shelley and Luigi Galvani, but he cannot escape reacting to Aquinas in so doing. Eco recognizes Stephen’s “fidelity to Aquinas” (22), if only as a vehicle for “a freer development of personal themes” (22). Stephen describes his experience of radiance as follows:

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 (223).

Yet again, we must defer to the villanelle episode as the most conspicuous illustration of the radiance defined above. Surely, he deems his inspiration “An enchantment of the heart!” (235). His exultation, ever impious in its expressions of piety, owes more to Aquinas than Stephen concedes, but this time with reference to the First and Third Persons of the Blessed Trinity. Stephen feels “a tremulous morning knowledge, a morning inspiration. A spirit filled him… [b]ut how faintly it was inbreathed… breathing upon him” (235). Likewise, Aquinas writes that “eternity… as an appropriation to [the Father]… is the principle of all duration… either through generation or through breathing [‘spiration’], namely to paternity or to common ‘spiration’” (Super Sent., lib. 1 d. 31 q. 2 art. 1 co.). Writing the villanelle, Stephen mimics not only Aquinas’ view of the Son’s radiance but also the Father’s action through the Holy Spirit.

While we have intimated Stephen’s Trinitarian impetus, his introduction of Shelley in no way diminishes this impetus, as I shall care to elaborate. Stephen experiences “the luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure” (223) when the mind is “arrested by its wholeness.” Earlier, Stephen describes this connection with wholeness as “a stasis called forth, prolonged and at last dissolved by what I call the rhythm of beauty… the first formal esthetic relation of part to part in any esthetic whole” (223). Shelley, of course, writes at length of rhythm’s importance to beauty in his “A Defence of Poetry.” Surprisingly, Aquinas also writes of rhythm, more or less, and he, too, connects it to the concept of stasis versus kinesis, “because that which generally is above all rest and motion is the cause for all things, both of rest and of motion” (De Div. Nom., n. 367, p. 119). While that might fly in art, Stephen’s choice of stasis in life proves all the more poignant “insofar as [divine beauty] moves all things toward the divine motion, since the motions of all things are ordered to the motion by which they are moved toward God, just as the motions that are [sic] secondary ends are ordered to the motion that is [sic] a final end” (De Div. Nom., n. 367, p. 119). His refusal to move himself or others denies the principle of rest he preaches, making the strongest case that Joyce depicts a Stephen who does steep himself in Aquinas on the latter’s own terms.

Before we can proceed, we must elucidate what this “clear radiance of the esthetic image” (223) means for Stephen. Further hinting at Joyce’s familiarity with Aquinas, Stephen states that the experience of beauty is “Static therefore… [because] beauty is the splendour of the truth… beheld by the intellect” (225). Likewise, Aquinas refers to Plato’s definition of beauty above, but only insofar as “the Son, as the Word… is the light and splendor of the intellect, as Damascene says” (ST I, q. 39, art. 8). Joyce adds another level of irony insofar as Stephen experiences this type of radiance kinetically, not statically, proving himself even more attuned to Aquinas. His meditation on “only a garner of slender sentences” (191) from Aquinas “lit up at moments… lightnings of so clear a splendour that in those moments the world perished about his feet as if it had been fireconsumed,” a somewhat kinetic description of reading Aquinas (though Joyce may beg to differ, given the fact that Stephen “felt the spirit of beauty… in revery”). However, Aquinas also commits the error of kinesis in claiming that the sight of this beauty should indeed “arouse a wondrous love of wisdom” (ST II-II, q. 145, art. 2). Furthermore, the radiance of the Son, Who is Wisdom Incarnate, is not the radiance Stephen chooses. Stephen rejects Him on that very basis, since “desirable beauty does not have a nature except insofar as it puts on a good nature, [sic] for thus it is truly desirable; [sic]… following its proper nature it has splendor… [having] a likeness with the things proper to the son” (Super Sent., lib. 1 d. 31 q. 2 a. 1 ad 1). Rather, Stephen longs for when the “mind is arrested and raised above desire” (222), for goodness or for anything else, while radiance only has a place within Trinitarian Love for Aquinas. Aquinas associates the Holy Ghost with “a certain kind of interior movement… as Love” (ST I, q. 39, art. 8) that Stephen rejects. Though Stephen rejects the Trinity, he knows what he rejects, given the rest of the book’s Trinitarian language.

Besides the subtle allusions to radiance in In Librum Beati Dionysii De Divinus Nominibus and Scriptum super libros sententiarum, radiance is specifically appropriated to the Second Person of the Trinity in the Summa, warranting a Trinitarian reading of Joyce, given his explicit citation of Aquinas. In fact, Joyce describes Stephen’s highly cerebral faith as follows: “The imagery through which the nature and kinship of the Three Persons of the Trinity were darkly shadowed forth in the books of devotion which he read –were easier of acceptance… than was the simple fact that God had loved his soul from all eternity (161). In fact, Stephen develops his understanding of the artist in the same language that Aquinas does in speaking of the Trinity, in the same section as radiance is mentioned, nonetheless. In his epiphany on the beach, Stephen spots a phoenix “at the name of the fabulous artificer” (183). Famously, Stephen concludes his process of self-creation by invoking the artificer at the end of the book: “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead” (276). When speaking of the Trinity, Aquinas states that “an artificer works by his art” to convey “God’s relation to his effects” (ST I, q. 39, art. 8). Stephen explores the relation between an artist and his effects in the same words Aquinas does.

The valences between Joyce and Aquinas do not cease at “artificer.” By looking further into the section wherein the Son appropriates radiance, we see other elements common to Joyce and Aquinas’ way of speaking of art. Stephen intends “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” (276). On the one hand, in comparing God to His effects in the Son, Aquinas mentions how “we may say that a smith works ‘by’ a hammer” (ST I, q. 39, art. 8). Further, the context applies to words insofar as “wisdom and art are appropriated to the Son” (ST I, q. 39, art. 8) and “God’s word… prefigured the delivery of the human race accomplished by the Son.” Stephen and Aquinas both strike the chord of salvation by word, but the difference lies between divine creation and human creativity.

Stephen brings this last matter to the fore. He declares that “[t]he artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails” (233). While Stephen speaks facetiously here, it parallels Aquinas with regards to literary creation in the same section that he mentions radiance in light of the Trinity. J. Mitchell Morse posits that Augustine “was also partly responsible for Joyce’s idea of the godlike artist, and perhaps to some extent even for his conviction of the irrelevance in moral standards to artistic judgement” (30). Though he is referring to Augustine, Aquinas himself says, “To be written by another is not of the essence of a book considered as such; but this belongs to it only as a work produced” (ST I, q. 39, art. 8). Aquinas seems to be drawing a similar distinction as Joyce as to creator versus created, but he certainly would not concede God’s “indifference.” Rather, Aquinas calls the Eternal Word “the art of the omnipotent God” (ST I, q. 39, art. 8), ultimately inseparable from Himself. Thus, the “book” Aquinas refers to concerns “the ‘book of life’… it is God’s knowledge regarding those who are to possess eternal life” (ST I, q. 39, art. 8). If we read Augustine on Aquinas’ terms (as Stephen appears to be doing), we see that Morse’s casting aside of moral consideration is by no means facile for Stephen. Stephen’s view of life – considering his desire to be an artist – is inextricably woven with his view of radiance and with the ensuing conflict between beauty and goodness. While O’Rourke thinks that Stephen’s quandary concerning beauty and goodness indicates the shallowness of Joyce’s reading of Aquinas (103), I take it to mean the opposite.

By examining every reference to radiance in the book, one will readily observe Joyce’s purposive intent behind the term in shaping Stephen’s view of life. The first mention occurs in the Jesuit’s didactic sermon on hell, in which he calls Lucifer “a radiant and mighty angel” who lost his place in Heaven with the phrase, “non serviam: I will not serve” (126). Later, Stephen echoes this sentiment when he tells Cranly, “I will not serve” (260). But what does this service mean in the context of radiance? He refuses to glorify the Lord. The notion of glorifying God disenchants him when it does not seem to ignite the fire of love in those who propose to glorify him. He characterizes the dean of students uncharitably as follows: “his very soul had waxed old in that service without growing towards light and beauty… in his eyes burned no spark of Ignatius’ enthusiasm” (200-201). In fact, Stephen posits that “[i]t seemed as if he used the… cunning of the world, as bidden to do, for the greater glory of God… it seemed as if he loved not at all the master and little, if at all, the ends he served” (201). Ironically, the static absence of radiance in this servant of God repels the young Stephen from service to the source of radiance. Stephen cannot say what Aquinas does in the context of radiance: “This is my God, and I will glorify him” (ST I, q. 39, art. 8).

Stephen does not always resist glorifying God, however. When Stephen repents of his whorish indiscretions, he acknowledges how God “once had meant to come on earth in heavenly glory but we sinned: and then He could not safely visit us but with a shrouded majesty and a bedimmed radiance” (150). Thus, Stephen inherently feels honoring such radiance to be too abstract, as it is hidden now. Still, after his initial conversion, he recognizes that personal radiance cannot hide from the divine radiance, contingent as it is upon the divine radiance of goodness. While looking for a confessional in the poor district, he ponders about the poor: “if their souls were in a state of grace they were radiant to see: and God loved them, seeing them” (152). Here, Stephen accords with Aquinas, whereby, “spiritual beauty consists in a man’s conduct or actions being well proportioned in respect of the spiritual clarity of reason” (ST II-II, 145, 2). Furthermore, they derive their glory from God’s honoring their virtue, since “glory is the effect of honor: because through being honored or praised, a person acquires clarity in the eyes of others” (ST I, q. 39, art. 8). Though he denies it elsewhere with reference to Stephen, Eco echoes this distinction when he says that “in Aquinas a reference to the knowing subject is constitutive of beauty” (118). Stephen comes to seek this glory for himself and in itself.

After confession, Stephen exercises himself excessively in the ways of piety. He proves acutely aware of the fact that “every instance of consciousness could be made to revibrate radiantly in heaven” (160). Indeed, Aquinas refers to “the Son – [as] supreme and primal life” (ST I, q. 39, art. 8). Stephen feels at this point of his life “the unseen Paraclete… robed in the scarlet of the tongues of fire” (161), connecting radiance to the Holy Spirit as well. In a stirring instance of plocee, radiance recurs in Stephen’s classic epiphany on the beach, sounding like a description of the Holy Spirit, not simply the mythic Dedalus:

His soul was soaring in the air beyond the world and the body he knew was purified in a breath and delivered of incertitude and made radiant and commingled with the element of the spirit. An ecstasy of flight made radiant his eyes and wild his breath and tremulous and wild and radiant his windswept limbs (183).

Here, he becomes enchanted with the radiance of his own experience, because he now yearns to act as “a priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life” (240). As Morse says, “having decided not to join the Jesuits, he discovers the one God he can serve, art: the art of using language to express the meaning of life” (39). Therefore, even though he rejects the afterlife, he still exults in the present life: “Welcome, o life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience” (275). Still, “[t]he radiant image of the eucharist united again in an instant his bitter and despairing thoughts” (240). In his focus on the radiance of personal experience he casts away the radiance of “the Son [sic], who is the image proper” (Super Sent., lib. 1 d. 31 q. 2 art. 1 ad 1).

What radiance Stephen does select, Aquinas still addresses. Stephen writes his villanelle about the morning temptress of his mind: “Her nakedness yielded to him, radiant… like… symbols of the element of mystery” (242). He finds something blasphemously sacramental in articulating carnal desire, while answering for himself the dean of studies’ recommendation that Stephen “distinguish between moral beauty and material beauty” (205). Aquinas does acknowledge with Augustine that “many things are beautiful to the eye which it would be hardly proper to call honest” (ST II-II, 145, 2). However, this choice results from Stephen’s sense that “he had been acquainted with nobility” (191), as “it might be replied that to be proud of one’s honesty is to play the harlot because of one’s spiritual beauty” (ST II-II, 145, 2). Stephen yearns for the enchantment of his own heart by the experience of personal radiance, while he remains “confounded by… the Sacred Heart” (237) in its divine radiance.

We have plumbed the ramifications of Joyce’s singular reference to Aquinas’ concept of radiance in light of both Stephen’s story and in light of Aquinas’ context for mentioning radiance. Against Druff’s dismissal of the idea that “the aesthetics display a great philosophical integrity” (185) while agreeing with him that Joyce is ironic, I have hoped to show that his aesthetic of radiance adheres to yet diverges from Aquinas, creating its very irony. It has led us to a deeper understanding of Stephen’s intimacy with reality, an intimacy reconciling the physical and the spiritual. We have adduced the way in which Stephen interprets Aquinas in terms of literature. Aquinas refers to divinely inspired literature, whereas Joyce seeks to reduce it to human inspiration. This makes Joyce’s reading of Aquinas at once ironic yet profound, rendering feasible Joyce’s deep familiarity. Stephen proceeds to use Aquinas to resolve the particular and universal as esthetic images, while convincingly associating the radiance of the image with its essence. This latter association cannot but lead to grappling with the Son – the Second Person of the Trinity – to Whom radiance is appropriated and Whom Stephen struggles to access throughout the novel.

Indeed, Stephen’s discussion of the artist parallels Aquinas’ language about the relationships within the Trinity, Whose very nature specifically transcends Stephen’s distinction between stasis and kinesis. God desires our desire to win His repose, so Stephen’s preference in stasis towards man in art mirrors his stasis before God in life. He does not desire to serve the radiant source of goodness but rather to celebrate created existence as good, a subtle point to be sure. As Morse points out, Joyce can at least rejoice with Augustine in creation, for “God saw that it was good” (38). In the end, however, Joyce may say to me what Stephen says to Lynch, “Perhaps Aquinas would understand me better than you” (227).

[1] Quotations from Super Sent. and In Div. Nom. were translated by Daniel Orazio at the University of Dallas. “Radiance” in these works and elsewhere is often rendered as “splendor” or “clarity.”

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