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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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“A Shout in the Street”

When Joyce began leaving the Catholic Church in 1898 at sixteen, I believe he left it in large part because it wasn’t catholic, that is, universal, enough. For him Roman Catholicism was narrowly dogmatic, restrictive, and almost exclusively preoccupied with the next world, the life to come, and not this world, life in the here and now. As a young, aspiring artist he knew he could never reject the tangible world around him for the abstraction of a promised world, and so over time he began his long journey back to what I refer to as secular mysticism, the spiritual world view and orientation of the magus, in Joyce’s case older than Christianity, which held to a vision of the sacrality of this world and ordinary life. In Stephen Hero, the first draft of Portrait, Joyce writes: “The poet is the intense center of the life of his age to which he stands in a relation than which none can be more vital. He alone is capable of absorbing in himself the life that surrounds him and of flinging it abroad again amid planetary music.”1 This reflects the importance of the artist as magus’ immersion in the secular world in order to turn what is found there into the sacred music of art, which makes it essentially an alchemical journey, a transforming of ordinary reality into something sacred which is what the magus is about as well. In one of...

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