Esthetic Analysis of the Bird-Girl Scene in A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man
The Structural Capabilities of Water and Air in the “Bird-Girl Scene”
In Book V of A Portrait of A Young Artist, Stephen Daedalus decides to explain his personal theory of esthetics to his friend Lynch, analyzing perception (primarily sight, but including hearing and touch)and articulating the elements which form a perceptual experience. He then explicates the modes of expression through which the individual responds to his or her experiences. “Experience” is here understood to include affect and how emotion (or ‘feeling’) is formed within the subject who “experiences” his or her world by perceptual means. Stephen is also explicating “experience” in terms of ‘esthetic’ perception in particular, meaning that he is interested in the “experience” of ‘true’ beauty – otherwise understood as the ‘work of art’ or product of the artist. By explaining these modes of expressing experience, Stephen presents himself as if he ‘knows’ all there is to ‘know’ about perception and the experience of that perception, including esthetic “apprehension” proper. Yet Stephen does not really seem to understand beauty or art except through theory. In fact, my hypothesis is that in just one Book prior to Book V (referring to IV), Stephen ironically undergoes a true esthetic experience yet fails to recognize it as such.
This scene, known as “the bird girl scene”, illustrates the problem of defining the nature of any one “experience”, given that sensory perception (the mode of perceiving or perception), emotion, and affect can be ‘felt’ altogether, in a way that seems simultaneous (when they are not) or can seem to occur simultaneously (when they in fact are). Primary symbolism – such as how water functions in the bird girl scene, and how the juxtaposition of “the world”, a flower, and “a glimmer”, connote the intermingling and interactive forces that “happen” to the individual who experiences (as in an agentive entity which acts upon the individual), but which also relies on the individual him or herself to actually create the experience of sensory perception, affect, and emotion. Joyce plays with these intermingling entity-creations throughout A Portrait, using opposing elements, concepts, objects, or sensings, such as water and fire (flame; rivers, rivulets or sea); the world, a flower, a glimmer; beauty and truth; and colors (such as emerald green and white or ivory), to name a few examples. The connotations of these sound-images move in and out of corporeal/incorporeal states for Stephen, suggesting that the boundaries between affect, emotion, and perception are fluid. Stephen ultimately fails to correlate his experiences with his theory of perception because of this variability of experience which yields textures, sounds, and smells that change in shape and consistency, which produce (or compel the individual, by his or her own interest, to create) ideas about existence and being-in-the-world.
In A Portrait, I consider that Joyce utilizes water and air – at least in the scene of the bird girl – to represent these conceptual elements. Hence Joyce juxtaposes the two even within the same instance, using them to give this ‘moment’ of esthetic perception a certain tactile tension, structuring the affect or atmosphere in a way that implies a direct correlation to the felt turbulence of the interior experience: “He was alone and young and wilful and wildhearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish water” (433). The wildness of air and the salty, possibly dirty water, described as “waste” and paired with the alliterative construction “wilful and wildhearted” and previous description (wherein Stephen feels “a new wild life singing in his veins” and “He was unheeded, happy and near to the wild heart of life”) implies, by the repetition of the sound “w” and its word, “wild”, that the atmosphere is somehow entering Stephen, affecting him and thence affecting his experience of the moment. Water and air is therefore pivotal to the scene insofar as they characterize Stephen’s perception.
Stephen notes in Book V that the first thing to occur in the realization of three different phases of “artistic apprehension” in the perception of a ‘work of beauty’ (“wholeness, harmony, and radiance” (479).). He states that the first instance of this moment (wholeness) involves the fact that the object of our perception is presented to us “either in space or in time. What is audible is presented in time, what is visible is presented in space” (479). The focus in this section on the distinction between water and air relates directly to this idea, which is just one reason as to why the environment in which he perceives the bird-girl incorporates water and air as a sharp visual and tactile contrast. Water, after all, extends horizontally, spatially; it flows in what might be considered a linear trajectory, cutting through land and in every way contrasting the air directly above it. The moment he sees the bird girl, in fact, both Stephen and she stand in the stream of a river; the sea is visible from where they stand, which she “alone and still” gazes at. On the one hand, the girl seems tethered to the environment as if birthed from it, the phrase “[h]er long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh,” (433) suggesting a connection to the water that is umbilical.
Air, meanwhile, implies ascension; the girl’s wings therefore are in no way vestigial to Joyce’s purpose. They reference the mythology behind Stephen’s name, but they also reference the bildungsroman structure of A Portrait on its own. Thus we have a repetition in the text of the word “drift” in a specific association with “clouds” and by extension, air: “The water of the rivulet was dark with endless drift and mirrored the highdrifting clouds. The clouds were drifting above him silents and silently the seatangle was drifting below him; and the grey warm air was still” (433).
This status wherein they each occupy both air and water, implies that the bird girl is, firstly, an extension of Stephen himself, and secondly, the cause of Stephen’s esthetic outburst as well as a signal that the ‘outburst’ is going to happen. My first point follows from the other, as reference to the text shows: “The personality of the artist passes into the narration itself, flowing round and round the persons and the action like a vital sea.” Stephen’s selfhood flows around the bird girl, creating her at the same time as pushing forward to formulate this “vital sea”. “The dramatic form is reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round each person fills every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible esthetic life” (483). Thus, Stephen ‘births’ the bird-girl in this way; the the emerald tether links her to his immediate thoughts while she looks beyond his present thoughts and personality to his future self.
Throughout my analysis of the Stephen-Lynch conversation and the bird girl scene, I take this notion to claim that Stephen does not really understand esthetic experience at all; a fact which rests mainly on the point that to do so includes denying his own agency or complicity in the moment of perception. While Stephen believes that “The esthetic image in the dramatic form is life purified in and reprojected from the human imagination”, meaning that only once the materials of sensory perception are inside oneself can the individual process his or her own experiences, thenceforth coming to “know” the “experience”. He seems to connect the ‘esthetic image’ in the “dramatic form” (he evidently refers to the epic construction of A Portrait itself) to the personality of the individual artist, considering the artist to imbue esthetic experience – which is created by the individual him or herself – with nothing other but him or her own being [in the “narrative” form]. Thus, like the narrator of A Portrait (or should we say Stephen?) the artist “remains within or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails” (483). Stephen, indeed, does appear indifferent throughout the test – a fact most obviously illustrated by the third person narration by which the text is relayed. That being said, Stephen elucidates a concept of an artist who never creates, except inside his head. Essentially, for Stephen, everyone is an artist – a fact which, if true, holds some real problems for defining what the artist who creates a physical (tangible) project is. But it also yields the question of how much Stephen can be said to actually experience the things he “experiences” if he remains so distant. The consequence, I believe is that Stephen becomes unable to properly register what esthetic experience ‘feels’ like.
My contention is that Stephen’s theory reveals – by its contextual situation between the bird girl scene and a moment wherein he glimpses his “beloved”, Emma Clery, at some distance – that he is unable to recognize that his vision of the bird girl at a distance is directly related to his love-at-a-distance for Emma Clery. The fact he turns and runs away from his vision of the bird girl is also telling: just as he appears unable to approach Emma, he is unable to face the girl with wings. The bird girl, like Emma, exists in the same time and space as Stephen, but threatens to fly away after her vision has passed with disinterest over his body and onto other possible experiences – that vast sea which opens upon the horizon. This is why the bird girl is described as “an envoy from the fair courts of life,” and why either Stephen or the narrator – it is not clear – equates her heart to a bird’s: “her life as simple and strange as a bird’s life, gay in the morning, restless all day, tired at sundown? Her heart simple and wilful as a bird’s heart?” (485).
Thus, Stephen avoids ‘real’ esthetic experience. He closes his eyes in the bird girl scene, (“He closed his eyes in the languor of sleep”(435)), just as he closes his eyes during his interaction with the prostitute in Book II (“He closed his eyes, surrendering himself to her, body and mind, conscious of nothing in the world but the dark pressure of her softly parting lips” (353).). Esthetic experience, beyond that which he creates almost solely in his own mind, is too strong for him. Thus, he avoids it to the point that he cannot compare even the guidelines of his own theory during an important experience – his mind shuts down, he becomes “peaceful”: “His mind, empty of theory and courage, lapsed back into a listless peace” (484). Joyce paints for us a boy growing into a man that fails to an epic degree – as epic as the emotions which he fails to register properly. He is, as a consequence, unable to truly understand what it means to take from his personal experiences and put it into art.
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