Art in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Stephen Dedalus' philosophy of art, expressed in his discussion with Lynch in Chapter Five, seems essentially romantic, yet the novel is written in a very realistic mode typical of the twentieth century. This apparent inconsistency may direct us to one way of interpreting this novel. Dedalus' idea of art may be Romantic, but because his world is no longer the world of the Romantics he has to see art more as a fundamental validation of his own being than as a communication of a special vision.
Two aspects of Romanticism figure into this analysis of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. First, the Romantics' defining belief in some connection between the human spirit and some higher purpose, and their belief in art's capacity to serve as the vehicle to connect the human with the divine, is the philosophical underpinning of Dedalus' esthetic theory. Second, however, the Romantics also believed that they were communicating in the words of the people, to the hearts of the people, and this Dedalus cannot quite believe he can do. He senses inchoately that communication of the Romantic vision to a modern world is impossible.
Therefore, Dedalus' difficult coming of age as an artist, and perhaps Joyce's, records the essentially romantic, Platonic soul, struggling to emerge from the oppressive realities of the mundane world. The Platonic soul has to reject that world because it is not divine, as the Romantics rejected the Enlightenment scientific worldview, but whereas the Romantics of Wordsworth's age could believe their role was to communicate this truth through poetry to "the people," Stephen Dedalus can only withdraw from the world into abstruse theory, or a loathing of society's ugliness, or else a complete rejection of everything his society represents.
Dedalus (thus also Joyce) has a split vision. His view of art is Romantic, but his view of the role of the artist is Realistic.
The Romantic View of Art
The Platonic-Romantic aspect of Dedalus' esthetic philosophy is apparent in his reference to Plato, whose idea of beauty and truth as translated by Dedalus, sounds much like the famous last lines of Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn": "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,'&emdash;that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." Dedalus says of Plato, "'Plato, I believe, said that beauty is the splendour of truth'" (208). Plato's own philosophy held tightly to the notion that the world is only a mundane copy of Ideal Forms. This is reflected pretty clearly in Dedalus' analysis of the "esthetic emotion" as "static": "'The esthetic emotion . . . is therefore static. The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing'" (205). The mind's being "raised above" the mundane is nothing other than the function that Plato envisioned for philosophy&emdash;to allow us a glimpse of the world of divine forms, which ordinary experience, seeing only the mundane and mortal,...