A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is, if nothing else, a record of the psychological journeys of Stephen Dedalus as he progresses from child to adult, unlearned rural boy to intellectual student, sinner to saint to artist. Stephen’s level of devotion and intensity, regardless of the object of these feelings, seems to increase following each transformation, culminating in his “desire to press in my arms the loveliness which has not yet come into the world” (273). William James, the early 20th Century American psychologist, examined real-life experiences similar to those of Stephen Dedalus conversions, religious transformations, saintliness in his classic book on the psychology of religion, The Varieties of Religious Experience. James provides insight into Stephen’s motivations, approaches, and actions by using philosophy and psychology to analyze religion, especially Christianity, and its effect on the human psyche. Of particular interest are James’s discussion of conversions, especially when viewed in the light of Stephen’s move from the depths of sin to the height of fanatical asceticism, following by his full embracing of art and beauty as the true object of his desire. A careful analysis of James’s works will illustrate whether Stephen’s religious awakening was a true spiritual experience or simply a response to the pressures of his environment.
From an early age, Stephen Dedalus shows a strong devotion to systems or orders that are imposed from without, be it by family, church, or country. As he grows older, Stephen begins to shed these constricting social bonds one at a time, undergoing a number of conversions that change his direction in life, of which the most important are his sudden change into a fanatically religious ascetic and his final transformation into the Artist. Stephen’s religious epiphany occurs after hearing a lecture on hell from Father Arnall at the University’s retreat honoring St. Francis Xavier. Realizing that his soul is “festering in sin,” Stephen turns to God, and weeps “for the innocence he had lost” (150). After confessing each and every last sin, Stephen finally feels the weight of guilt lifted from his shoulders and rededicates his life to God. He becomes a strict ascetic, denying himself any pleasures of the flesh or mind and constantly praying. However, after being asked to become a priest, Stephen discovers that his true goal in life is Art, and deserts his ascetic and religious lifestyle.
William James undertakes to study the extraordinary phenomenon of conversion, “by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right superior and happy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities” (Lecture Nine). He relates the studies of Professor Starbuck of Stanford, who undertook a statistical analysis to determine the causes of conversion. Starbuck concludes that, “Conversion is in its essence a normal adolescent phenomenon, incidental to the passage from the child’s small universe to the wider intellectual and spiritual life of maturity” (Lecture Nine), adding that the normal age for such experiences ranges from fourteen to seventeen. Commonplace in these conversions are sense of incompleteness and imperfection; brooding, depression, morbid introspection, and sense of sin; anxiety about the hereafter; distress over doubts, and the like.
James then writes of Professor Leuba, who focuses on the moral aspect of conversion rather than the theological. Religion, Leuba states, is merely a word that has come to mean the “conglomerate of desires and emotions springing from the sense of sin and its release,” that is, a man’s religion has no effect on his spiritual conversions. He uses several cases of the conversions of drunkards that were obviously not doctrinal, simply situations in which one has an absolute need of help from God and receives it. This moment of salvation need not be connected to an institutional religion to be valid.
So, how do these theories provide insight into Stephen’s conversions? His first conversion, into a devout Catholic, fits neatly with the theories of Starbuck. Stephen is 16, falling in the range of 14 to 17. While sinning, Stephen is aware of his wrongdoing “He had sinned mortally not once but many times and he knew that, while he stood in danger of eternal damnation for the first sin alone, by every succeeding sin he multiplied his guilt and his punishment” (110), showing a recognition of sin, and doubt of the hereafter. “A cold lucid indifference reigned in his soul” (110), as Stephen undergoes periods of brooding, depression and morbid introspection. Starbuck remarks that the results in every adolescent conversion are the same, a happy relief and objectivity, and following his sudden conversion, Stephen exclaims, “Another life! A life of grace and virtue and happiness!…the past was past” (158). Seeing Stephen’s conversion adhering almost exactly to Starbuck’s previous experiences, it seems natural that Starbuck’s conclusion, that is, conversion is a normal adolescent phenomenon that may or may not have long-term effects, applies to Stephen’s situation as well, and this is supported by Stephen’s later behavior.
Stephen’s second conversion, from devout ascetic to passionate artist, takes place after he is offered a place in the order. Stephen has a vision of “a winged form flying above the waves” and realizes that his future lies not with the Church, but in his ability to create from within himself. This conversion follows more closely with the theories of Leuba than those of Starbuck. Stephen’s first conversion, to ascetic Catholic, is almost entirely driven by a sense of sin, corresponding to Leuba’s “feeling of unwholeness.” Leuba considers these types of conversions invalid, as they are driven by a sense of doctrinarian and control by the church, whereas true conversions are free of such “doctrinal theology.” Stephen’s conversion to artist is completely free of church influence, driven solely by his innermost feelings and desires. At the moment that he needs guidance from God the most, he is overcome by a feeling of ecstasy that leads him to his true fate “to “create proudly out of the freedom and power of his soul, as the great artificer whose name he bore” (184). Leuba states that a conversion “starts with the absolute need of a higher helper, and ends with the sense that he has helped us,” succinctly describing Stephen’s experience. This conversion, unlike his last, is truly driven by Stephen’s true feelings and desires.
The final differences in the two conversions lie in their origin, or type. Following his writings on Starbuck and Leuba, James discusses the two different types of conversion: Volitional, in which the convert actively seeks to change, and Self-surrender, in which the change comes into effect in and of itself. While both types of conversion are valid, James finds Self-surrender to be more effective in the long term, because Volitional conversion emphasizes the “imperfect self,” while Self-surrender conversion is lead by the subliminal forces of the “better self in posse.”
While visiting the prostitutes, Stephen is aware of the depths of sin he had fallen in to, and the destructive effect his constant sinning is having on his life. When he hears the topic for the retreat, “Stephen’s heart had withered up like a flower of the desert that feels the simoom coming from afar” (116). Following the lectures, he goes to his room, prays to God for forgiveness, and goes to confession. In other words, he actively seeks to change his life, which shows the Volitional nature of his religious conversion. In contrast, Stephen is content with his life as he enters his second conversion. He is simply strolling along a beach, contemplating life, when the ecstatic vision of the “winged creature” comes upon him and changes the course of his life. This artistic transformation was in the realm of Self-surrender, because the circumstances of the conversion were beyond Stephen’s control.
As a doctrinal-based, Volitional conversion, Stephen’s change into a devout and ascetic Catholic was bound to falter, as most adolescent conversions do. His second conversion, however, has a greater chance of truly changing Stephen’s life because it is solely based his subconscious desires, his “better self.” This dedication to art is revealed in Stephen’s next to last diary entry, as he writes, “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” (276). Stephen has realized that to truly experience life he must embrace the desires of his “better self” by casting off all the constraints forced upon him by society and himself.