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Celebrating the Sacred in Ordinary Life

James Joyce and the Renaissance Magus


Tom Absher

This book is an introductory examination of the Hermetic tradition in the Renaissance and how James Joyce made use of certain of its salient features in his four works of fiction: Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake. This book makes a useful contribution to literary studies of Joyce’s work as well as introductory cultural studies of the Hermetic tradition, its philosophy and important figures, like Marsilio Ficino and Giordano Bruno.

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Chapter 1. Setting the Terms



Setting the Terms

I want to focus this inquiry by reflecting on a single chapter midway into Portrait, Joyce’s self-proclaimed autobiographical novel. Chapter three depicts the religious retreat Joyce’s alter ego Stephen Dedalus attends as a teenage boy. I begin with this portion of the novel because I believe it is of major importance as a shaping crisis and emotional center of his life and work as an artist. It is a key turning point alchemically for Joyce in every way and ironically becomes his own defining epiphany. It also has alchemical reverberations because of a highly negative experience, it reveals to him the changes, the alternative positive direction his life must take. The chapter is all about the Catholic Church’s teaching regarding “the one thing that matters” about the human soul, but for Stephen it begins to reveal to him his need to explore and define for himself the many things that matter about his particular soul. Indirectly Joyce is opening up this process for each one of his readers for themselves. As Stephen begins to learn to read the world and through that his soul, the reader is drawn to examine his or her own world and soul.

The boys at Joyce’s Jesuit School, Belvedere College, are on a three-day retreat which involves, among other things, listening to sermons on the religious teachings of the Church. In the twenty-five pages or so presenting the retreat, Joyce gives us the parts of...

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