Follow by Email

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Stench of Hell

I have rarely been as upset by any book as I was by Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. James Joyce is heady, not to be attempted lightly, and I doubt I would have known what to do with him if I hadn’t been introduced to him in a classroom. But, at the same time, he is mesmerizing, and he has the ability to make his readers care about his characters in a way that few authors can. If you haven’t read this novel, it is the story of Stephen Dedalus’ intentional and rational movement away from all of the things that formed him; he rejects his language, his religion, his traditions – in short, he rejects beauty. This is not me imposing beauty as the composite definition of language, religion and traditions; this is how Joyce sets it up in the book. When, on the second to last page, I realized how it was going to end, I was furious, wished that Stephen would come to life so that I could hit him and tell him to wake the hell up, accept beauty, and stop being a pretentious, lazy ass, and then I fell into a funk that lasted a solid week. The only other time I’ve been so depressed at the end of a book was when I finished Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark. I’ve been told that I’m misinterpreting that, and that said resultant funk was irrational. I’m not convinced.

James Joyce, 1904

  As I’ve been repacking books, I came across this passage marked in Joyce’s novel. Part of me has been feeling like it’s about time for me to read Dante again, and this has certainly whetted my appetite. What can I say? Fascination with horror and things that we’re afraid of is a very human inclination. Given the fact that Christmas is just around the corner and that Advent is actually a penitential season, dwelling on fire and brimstone for a few minutes isn’t such a bad idea. At this point in the novel, Stephen, who has been raised in Catholic Ireland, is on an Ignatian retreat. The retreat is led by conservative Jesuit priests, one of whom gives the following meditation:
Consider then what must be the foulness of the air of hell. Imagine some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing in the grave, a jellylike mass of liquid corruption. Imagine such a corpse prey to flames, devoured by the fire of burning brimstone and giving off dense choking fumes of nauseous loathsome decomposition. And then imagine this sickening stench, multiplied a million fold and a million fold again from the millions upon millions of fetid carcasses massed together in the reeking darkness, a huge and rotting human fungus. Imagine all this and you will have some idea of the horror of the stench of hell.
Gustave Dore, Canto 14

Take away from this: don’t be as much of an idiot as Stephen Dedalus. I’m convinced he went to hell. His last name is enough to make that clear.


  1. I loved the Ignatian retreat section and read it over a few times this summer. My favorite line of the book I think is close to the end when Stephen's friend says:
    -It is a curious thing, do you know, how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.

  2. Great essay, Ellen! With a few exceptions, all those early 20th Century, twenty-somethings carried on just like Joyce. That was back in the days when the culture was still "whole" enough to allow for the luxury of pouting about how terrible Catholicism was. Today, one hundred years later, I would imagine that, "Portrait," would strike one, not simply as hopeless but as hopelessly naive.