Transforming Bread and Wine: Joyce’s Theory of Aesthetics and its Relation to Catholicism

Criticism of the Catholic Church is evident throughout the breadth of Joyce’s early work, including all of his prose and poetry written prior to Ulysses, first published in its entirety in 1922[1]. However, despite Joyce’s ardent criticism of Catholicism, he employs much Catholic imagery, symbolism, and allusion in his early work. This apparent contradiction between the content of his work and the manner in which he presents this content can be explained by the following three arguments. First, his early prose and poetry suggest that the intellectual and aesthetic is superior to the bodily and the natural. Thus, the truly sensitive individual will strive to rise above the base, ordinary existence of the peons of the world in order to reach a sublime intellectual state. Due to this belief, Joyce considers art sublime because it is a process by which the natural is transformed into the beautiful and aesthetic. In addition to its own transformative character, true art has the power to raise its viewers to a transcendent, superior state of intellectual existence. The notion that true art enables its viewers to surpass the natural, bodily level at which they ordinarily live characterizes the “secularized religion” suggested throughout Joyce’s early work and made explicit in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. As a result, Joyce uses Catholic imagery to establish his worldview because Catholicism also centers on the transformation of the natural into the civilized, as indicated primarily by what is known as the mystery of the Mass, or the transubstantiation of natural wine and bread into the sacred body and blood of Christ[2]. In works as early as Chamber Music and especially Dubliners, Joyce uses Eucharistic imagery to suggest the existence of both a base, common state and an elevated one, detached from bodily emotion. In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the last book he published before Ulysses, Joyce develops his idea to include the importance of art, and therefore the artist, in helping people ascend to a superior realm of intellectual thought. The artist is given a role nearly equivalent to that of the Messiah in Catholicism, who according to the Catholic Catechism is embodied in the priest in Mass (Catechism, Article VI: 1581). The artist is equated with the priest as a figure who possesses the power to wield transformative language in such a way as to create sublime works that in their own transformation aid others to transcend the ordinary. Though the Church is a major target of the social criticism of his early works, Joyce borrows many of its structural components to convey his emphasis on transformative art as the principal means by which regular people are able to raise themselves above the ordinary plane of existence.

The various clues to the nature of Joyce’s conception of a new world order strewn throughout his early work achieve a definite shape and character in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It is no stretch to consider the novel’s central character, Stephen Daedalus, a substitution for Joyce, and to view his ideas as reflections of Joyce’s own beliefs. In an introduction to Stephen Hero, an early draft of Portrait, John Slocum and Herbert Cahoon write, “Many of the incidents in these pages must have had their origins in Joyce’s ‘epiphanies’, those unostentatious moments of revelation which Joyce was in the habit of recording for future use” (Joyce, Stephen 5). The realizations of Stephen Daedalus are often based directly on revelations that Joyce experienced and recorded in his book of epiphanies. Daedalus’s thoughts thus often represent Joyce’s own reactions and observations. Once this close connection between Daedalus and Joyce is clear, the theory of aesthetics that the former sets forth in Portrait undoubtedly conveys an idealized society imagined by Joyce in which the stifling Catholic Church is not at the center of the universe. Rather, Joyce encourages a world in which people are able to live constantly in a state of enlightenment, detached from the ignorant body. “The feelings excited by improper art are kinetic, desire or loathing… [While] the esthetic emotion…is…static. The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing” (Joyce, Portrait 207-208). By the use of the word ‘improper’, Daedalus indicates his disdain for emotions that are purely physical, bodily reactions. Rather, he describes a sublime, “static” state, in which one has the ability to isolate the emotions of the mind from the base, natural body.  Daedalus continues, “The desire and loathing excited by improper esthetic means are really unesthetic emotions…because they are not more than physical. Our flesh shrinks from what it dreads and responds to the stimulus of what it desires by a purely reflex action of the nervous system” (Joyce, Portrait 208). Physical emotions are weak, stemming from the unsavory corpus and based upon automatic reactions of bodily systems that are insensitive to higher forms of feeling. Though Daedalus believes that most of the current world is base, he also firmly believes in its salvation.  He envisions the artist as a kind of savior for the people, wielding his abilities to help them transcend their otherwise ordinary existence. “Art,” Daedalus explains, “is the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an esthetic end” (Joyce, Portrait 209). In his new world order, art becomes sublime because it entails the transformative process of the unclean and natural into the beautiful. The beautiful is important because it elicits the superior, detached aesthetic state in which people produce enlightened thought. In summary, art transforms the natural into artifice—that which is beautiful, man-made, and civilized. By necessity, the artist becomes the central figure of the new world order, since it is his skill[3] that makes possible this transformative process of the natural into the aesthetic. The parallels with Catholicism are clear—to transition from the natural to the beautiful is the only method of introducing an elevated state of existence to mankind. In addition, a central, Messianic figure, the artificer, is responsible for this transformation. Clearly, Joyce recognized the similarities of Christianity to his secularized concept and consciously utilized various religious symbols and allusions throughout his work to convey the importance of transformation to his own worldview.

Traces of Joyce’s ideology of the aesthetic emerge as early as his first work of poetry, Chamber Music, published in 1907. Throughout this collection, the poems speak of the aesthetics of true love and often compare them with images of the natural world. At first, this likening seems to contradict Joyce’s belief in the superiority of art over that which naturally exists in the world. However, the natural imagery of these poems is usually likened to music, making the entire collection itself almost literally a piece of “chamber music”, containing various movements involving different instruments. Thus, the work itself in effect transforms nature into an art form. The narrator of the third poem of the collection asks, “…do you hear the night wind and the sighs/ of harps playing unto Love to enclose/the pale gates of sunrise?” (Joyce, Chamber Music 20). The narrator likens the “night winds” to harps and says that the “gates of sunrise” are “enclosed” by them, indicating their dominance over the natural imagery. In the narrator’s imagination, he transforms the night wind into music, creating a sublime force that transports him to an elevated state. He cries, “Play on, invisible harps, unto Love/whose way in heaven is aglow…soft sweet music in the air above/and in the earth below” (Joyce, Chamber Music 20). His propensity to conceive of Love as aglow in Heaven suggests that he is experiencing an enraptured state, perhaps love, and his command that the harps continue their playing highlights their role in conveying him to this level. The alliterative soft “s” in “soft sweet music both above and below” further expresses the gentle tenderness, superior to more base emotions like lust and desire, evoked in the narrator by the lovely music he hears in the winds. However, though the idea of the narrator transcending to an elevated state is present, it is not clear that the music he hears is superior to the nature around him, only that the first aids the second in enrapturing him. The sounds of nature are transformed into music in his mind, but not in reality; the motif of transformation of the natural into the beautiful has not yet strongly emerged this early in his work. It is for this reason that there is no explicit Catholic imagery in Chamber Music.  His theory of aesthetics was not to fully develop until later in his writing career.

Joyce’s use of religious imagery first becomes pronounced in his next published work, Dubliners, in 1914. Seven years later, what began as an interest in transcending to a higher state with the aid of art had developed into the true beginning of the theory of aesthetics that would manifest itself in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and throughout Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. The first three stories in Dubliners are particularly saturated with religious imagery. Since these narratives are devoted to incidents that occur in the lives of schoolboys, many critics have suggested that the excessive amount of Catholic language demonstrates the overpowering influence of the Church on their impressionable minds, to the point where everything that they think and feel is infused with the theology they are taught. Philip Herring, for example, suggests that the use of the word “simony” in the beginning of the story “the Sisters”, “…points to corruption in high places and illegitimate ecclesiastical authority as the primary obstacles to people’s fulfillment” (Herring 68). Although this is true, Joyce also borrows Catholic imagery in order to aid in the construction of his own worldview, presented as an alternative to the current, stagnated society oppressed by the Church.

The first story of Dubliners, entitled “the Sisters”, suggests the importance of the artist figure to Joyce’s worldview, though this component of his argument does not fully emerge until Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The priest is equivalent to Joyce’s artist because both are responsible for the transformation that results in the transcendence of the multitudes. In “the Sisters”, the recently deceased priest is a victim of the Church, shunned by his superiors and condemned to a solitary, disappointed life because of a grave transgression he committed in his youth, the breaking of a chalice. In doing so, he has fatally obstructed the transubstantiation of the Eucharist (Joyce, Dubliners 18). Though he should have been one of the only people capable of effecting such a transformation, he has prevented it. It is for this reason that he is forced to give up his aspirations to the priesthood, instead spending his days sitting in a dimly-lit backroom staining his vestments with snuff and carrying on questionable relationships with a young boy (Joyce, Dubliners 11). He is buried with an “…idle chalice on his breast” (Joyce, Dubliners 19). The chalice is idle because it is not, and never again will be, used in the sacred rite of the Mass, just as the priest himself is idle because he has halted his own transformation from an ordinary being into a Catholic priest, the embodiment of Jesus Christ himself during Mass and the most holy of all figures in Catholicism[4].

The next story in which the chalice features significantly is “Araby”. Caught up in his infatuation with an older sister of his friend, the young narrator imagines that the eloquence of his emotions for her elevates him above the commonness of ordinary people. When he goes shopping with his aunt, he narrates, “We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of labourers, the shrill litanies of shop-boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs’ cheeks, the nasal chanting of street-singers…” (Joyce, Dubliners 35). Adjectives such as “shrill” and “nasal”, as well as images such as the barrel of pigs’ cheeks, all converge to emphasize the narrator’s vulgar surroundings. However, he continues, “I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes” (Joyce, Dubliners 35). In addition to a symbol of transubstantiation here, the chalice also represents the womb, and therefore the girl in whom the narrator is interested.  He imagines himself proudly marching through threatening enemies, elevated to a sublime state by his love for this girl that he compares to a chalice, suggesting that she is a medium of transformation. She is the work of art that raises him to a level superior to that of the common man. At first, this analogy may seem contradictory to the proposed argument, since women are not works of art, but rather natural. Despite the truth of this statement, in Joyce’s fiction, women tend to become objectified, losing all sense of individual character. Joyce’s male characters usually view women either as whores or as unblemished works of art, existing to be admired and to transport them to superior realms of thought. For example, when describing the girl he loves, who is standing on a landing looking down at him, the narrator of ‘Araby’ says, “The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing. It fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease” (Joyce, Dubliners 36-37). The image depicted here is static, as though she is posing to be admired. The light falling upon her illuminates her in a fashion reminiscent of a woman who is very often depicted in art, the Virgin Mary. Another transformative symbol of Catholicism, Mary’s baby, who was once immersed in her womb and connected to the rest of her unclean, bodily fluids, emerges to become Jesus Christ, the most sacred being in Catholicism save God himself. As her womb in a sense is a container in which transformation occurs, so is the chalice a container for the transubstantiation of wine into blood. Her closeness to this transformation evokes a sense of transcendence in those who believe in her holiness as the mother of God. The girl in ‘Araby’, the narrator’s chalice, similarly causes him to transcend his mediocre existence.

While Dubliners introduces the idea of the superiority of the realm of the intellectual over that of the physical, the role of the artist in this worldview is not elaborated upon until the publication of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man two years later, in 1916. The title of the novel itself is suggestive. Though it could easily have been titled with the indefinite article “a”, the choice to use the definite article “the” indicates that Stephen Daedalus is more than just any dilettante artist. Rather, the definite article raises him to the status of an archetypal character, a representation of the more generalized artist figure in Joyce’s worldview. The artist is elevated to a status held by only a few other denotations, including that of “the Messiah” in Christianity. This parallel suggests that the artist brings enlightenment to a downcast world in much the same way that the Messiah brings salvation to base humankind.

The novel chronicles the transformation of this important artist figure from an ordinary boy into the great archetype who determines to save mankind through art. As a child, Daedalus first expresses his own desire for ascension to a higher realm when he imagines an idealized meeting with a woman in his future. Just as the older sister in “Araby”, she is objectified as a work of art. “They would be alone, surrounded by darkness and silence: and in that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured…weakness and timidity and inexperience would fall from him in that magic moment” (Joyce, Portrait 75). In the bleak, art-deprived world of his early youth, which is driven by little more than bleak political conflict, Daedalus’s sensitive nature causes him to crave something more than what is presented to him in his daily life. He desires a transcendent moment in which vices like timidity, weakness, and all else that is natural and bodily will fall away from him, leaving him in an exalted state of “supreme tenderness”. In the second phase of the novel, after Daedalus has grown into a teenager, he is so disillusioned with the commonality of all that he sees around him that he retreats within himself. “Nothing moved him or spoke to him from the real world unless he heard in it the echo of the infuriated cries within him” (Joyce, Portrait 101). Daedalus disdains the common masses but is not yet the transcendent artist; he does not exist on a higher plane but merely is indifferent to all that occurs around him. His inner self, ‘infuriated’, cries out against and retreats from the brutal common world. Having failed to find the perfect event, imagined in his youth, which would detach his superior intellectual self from his restrictive natural body, he has become frustrated and simply exists, apart from the others but not yet sublime.

It is not until Daedalus passes through two more stages of intellectual development—first, the cold indifferent attitude created in him by his precocious sexual adventures, and second, the intensely religious phase he briefly goes through afterwards in repentance for the former phase—that he begins to understand his role as artificer. He is the artist that should provide to the world what he has unsuccessfully sought in it. This epiphany first occurs to him when he observes some acquaintances who are amusing themselves diving into the sea.

It was a pain to see them and a swordlike pain to see the signs of adolescence that made repellent their pitiable nakedness. Perhaps they had taken refuge in number and noise from the secret dread in their souls. But he, apart from them in silence, remembered in what dread he stood of the mystery of his own body…now, as never before, his strange name seemed to him a prophecy (Joyce, Portrait 173).

At this instant, several realizations occur at once. As usual, the natural body is “repellent”, dismissed as unclean and inferior. Daedalus, fully clothed in man-made products of civilization and standing aloof a little distance away, represents the cool, detached intellect looking down upon the “pitiable” boys, who in their nakedness connote a state closer to the bodily and the common. His spatial distance from them aids him in obtaining a clearer “dread” of the “mystery of his own body”. Spatial distance represents the kind of intellectual clarity that emerges when one man has managed to rise among many, as Daedalus has finally done. Broken free from his body and aware of its mystery, his name for the first time seems to him a prophecy. Like Daedalus, an artificer of Greek mythology, he sees himself called to create works of art that will give to people such as his “pitiable” acquaintances at the sea the means by which they can, if even for a brief moment, transcend to a higher plane of existence than they could otherwise ever know.

In fact, the reader is allowed to glimpse a product of Daedalus’s hand, a poem about the Eucharist. As he angrily reflects upon how the woman he is infatuated with and unable to approach is representative of the narrow-mindedness of the whole country, he fantasizes about her confession to a priest, thinking “to him would she unveil her soul’s shy nakedness, to one who was but schooled in the discharging of a formal rite rather than to him [Daedalus], a priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life” (Joyce, Portrait 223). He then proceeds to create several lines of verse that describe the Eucharist, explaining that this image somehow “unites his bitter thoughts” (223). He clearly indicates that his function is the same as a priest’s; perhaps he is not ordained, but nevertheless, he transforms the bodily into the sublime. He is upset that she would choose to confess to a conventional priest when he could also play the role of her confessor, and sees her choice as an indication that she is a victim of the Church like everyone else around him, her mind limited by the particular structures her religion has taught her. Daedalus’s remark that the Eucharist unites his thoughts on this matter indicates his realization, perhaps subconscious at this point, of the similarity between the Eucharist and his own purpose. In playing the role of her confessor, Stephen in his passion would transcend to a realm of sublime emotion, just as the Eucharist transports those who consume it to a more spiritual plane of thought. Of course, the chalice of which he writes in this incident can also be read as symbolizing the womb, and therefore the woman herself. As in ‘Araby’, this reading emphasizes the role of women as art objects that help the men who admire them transcend their ordinary existences. In this case, Stephen’s infatuation with a woman has led to his creation of a poem, in its quality indicative of his inexperience as a writer but nevertheless a sign that he is able to view the world from a detached, elevated stance.

Thus Daedalus becomes an artificer, but the analogy of this role to the Catholic priest arises in the fact that both figures use language to transform their followers. In Catholicism, nothing can initiate the transubstantiation of the Eucharist except the words of the priest (Catechism, Article VI: 1592). If the transformation of the Eucharist is important, the priest is essential as the only one who can bring such alteration to occur, thus helping his followers at Mass to transcend to a higher plane of existence. The chosen medium of Daedalus’s art is literature and verse—from the time he was a young boy, he shows an intense admiration for the workings of language. The book itself begins with a very young Daedalus, probably a toddler, listening with fascination to the words of a story his father tells him (Joyce, Portrait 19). This initial focus on the shaping of words indicates the importance that language has to the rest of the text. As Daedalus imagines that he will forge “anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being”, so does Joyce himself hope that his literature will transform the common into the beautiful, thus becoming art as he has defined it (Joyce, Portrait 175). He writes of Dubliners, “I have written it for the most part in a style of scrupulous meanness and with the conviction that he is a very bold man who dares to alter in the presentment, still more to deform, whatever he has seen and heard” (Joyce, Dubliners: Viking Critical Edition 269). Joyce does not embellish the commonality he writes of, which would only serve to make it more gaudy and vulgar, but rather transforms it by writing in a manner that is so scrupulous and mean as to both capture the exact atmosphere of Dublin at the time and also to emphasize, through this exactness, the paralysis and stagnation inherent in Dublin society. Finally, as Daedalus envisions a true art that will elevate people to a higher plane of aesthetic existence, so does Joyce hope that his literature will do the same. In a letter written to his brother in 1900, long before he wrote either Chamber Music or Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, he asks, “Don’t you think there is a certain resemblance between the mystery of the Mass and what I am trying to do? I mean that I am trying in my poems to give people some kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own…for their mental, moral, and spiritual uplift” (Joyce, quoted in Catholic Moments 2-3). Long before he fully developed his theory in his writing, Joyce makes clear his conception of the service of his literature to people as analogous to the service of the Eucharist to Catholics. The connection between the priest and the artificer that he creates in his literature and emulates in reality is clear. Both, through their use of meaningful language, create works of holiness or beauty out of scraps of commonality; these works, when presented to the base world community, evoke feelings of transcendence and awe. Though disenchanted with the Church, Joyce perceived this essential similarity to his own belief in the value of art.

It is clear that Joyce’s frequent use of religious imagery in his work, despite his own disbelief in the institution, was not simply due to overexposure to Catholicism in his own life but was pointed and deliberate. The minds of his characters, supersaturated with religion, imply that Catholicism has oppressed them and narrowed their minds. Through his own frequent use of Catholic imagery, he demonstrates that he, also, has fallen victim to the Church, at least in that the structure of his thoughts has not escaped being shaped by it. More significant, however, is that the priest is an almost perfect analogy to the artist in Joyce’s secularized religion. The archetype portrayed in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a very particular kind of individual, the only type who has the ability to create true art and so transform his people. Joyce evidently sees himself as an example of this artist figure. His own work is not just a naturalistic record of current events, but rather an essentially literary body of work; the reason for this is partially because it does more than depict Ireland’s stagnation. Rather, it demonstrates belief in the ability of the nation to transcend the squalor into which it has fallen in order to achieve a more inspired state of existence. In his early work, this notion is perhaps most clearly illustrated in “the Dead”, when Gabriel, who has concerned himself with petty matters throughout the course of the story, seems to be transported to a more sublime realm of thought, removed from the pettiness of ordinary existence. “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead” (Joyce, Dubliners 288). His previous fretful concerns about his ability to fit in with others of a class lower than he and his inability to capture the attention of his wife are all but forgotten. His soul swoons with the newfound ecstasy of this sublime state, in which he is totally absorbed in the gentle falling of the snow to the ground. In this quiet, meditative moment, he possesses clarity such as none of the other characters in Dubliners have been able to achieve. He perceives consciously the distinction between the living and the dead, where the dead represent those who are trapped in a banal existence. In perceiving that this distinction exists, it thus becomes possible for him to make a conscious attempt to transcend his own mediocre life, to strive to always comprehend the world the way he seems so easily to be able to perceive it at the moment where he looks out the window at the snow falling. Similarly, Joyce’s work calls for Ireland to reflect upon itself and to realize its own paralysis, to raise itself out of mediocrity and strive for a society in which art and the cultivation of the mind are valued above all else. Hence, his literature, despite its defiance of the traditional Church, still maintains a kind of spirituality in its belief in the power of transformation and hope for humankind. His literature will provide the mirror by which Ireland can see itself and transform; he is Daedalus, the literary artificer, come to raise his people out of the sluggish matter of ordinary existence.









Works Cited

“Article VI: The Sacrament of Holy Orders: The Effects of the Sacrament of the Holy Orders”.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, second Edition
.United States of America: Doubleday,
1995. Print.

Herring, Philip K. “Dubliners: The Trials of Adolescence”. James Joyce: A Collection of
Critical Essays.
Mary T. Reynolds, editor. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993. Print.

Joyce, James. Dubliners. New York: Modern Library, a division of Random House, 1954. Print.

Joyce, James. Dubliners. New York : Penguin, Viking Critical Edition, 1996. Print.

Joyce, James. Poèmes: Chamber Music, Pomes Penyeach. London: Gallimard, 1967. Print.

Joyce, James. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Penguin, 1991. Print.

Joyce, James. Stephen Hero. New York: New Directions, 1955. Print.

Joyce, Stanislaus, quoted in “James Joyce’s Catholic Moments”, A. Nicholas Fargnoli. Ireland:
National Library of Joyce Studies, 2004.

Pohle, Joseph. “The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol.
5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. Web. 12 Apr. 2010.






[1]For examples of such criticism, see in particular Dubliners (7-19, 33-41, 122, 190-223)and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (42-50,237, 240, 244)

[2] In fact, the wine and blood are considered not to transform merely into the body and blood of Christ but into Christ in his totality. The actual name for this rite was not agreed upon until the Council of Trent (1545-1563) officially ruled that it had become the official term. ‘Transubstantiation’ was eventually agreed upon because it aptly indicates not just that item A has been converted into item B, but that item A has been substantially or essentially transformed into item B. Although several contesting theories have emerged throughout history, such as Durandus’s belief that only the essence of bread is transformed, but not the matter, or Luther’s consubstantiation, in which Christ’s presence and the physical bread and wine exist at once, the Catholic view emphasizes that the wine and bread, though their appearance remain unchanged, are entirely transformed into the Real Presence of Christ (Pohle).

[3] Though the use of the personal pronoun “he” at the exclusion of “she” here is cause for hesitation, women hold no place of importance except as artful objects in Joyce’s worldview (as demonstrated in the course of this argument). Therefore, the use of “he”, excluding the possibility of a female artist, seems reasonable in this context.

[4] This is true if the term ‘priest’ is taken to include all members of the Church who are not laity. If one uses it in the more restricted sense, as in the priest of a particular parish, then of course according to the Catholic hierarchy the Pope is the holiest of holy men, although one could also say that he is essentially a priest with very high status.