Thursday Fiction Corner: Portrait of the Artist as a Thrusting Spiral

Brancusi's portrait of James Joyce

Extending the concept of Bloomsday to Bloomsweek, we take a look at James Joyce for our Thursday Fiction Corner. Specifically, we feature a short excerpt from Nico Israel’s Spirals: The Whirled Image in the Twentieth-Century Literature and Art, in which he examines the use of spirals in Joyce’s work and Brancusi’s spiralesque portrait of the writer (see above) :

In 1929, the editors of the newly formed, Paris-based English-language publishing house Black Sun Press commissioned a drawing of James Joyce from the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi for a limited edition of fragments of the ongoing Work in Progress that they planned to publish later that year. Brancusi
produced two drawings that certainly resembled Joyce but did not have the modern signature style sought by the editors, so the editors asked the artist to try again. This time, Brancusi created a far more abstract work, titled Symbole de Joyce, consisting of three vertical, straight lines of varying lengths spaced at intervals along the paper and, on the right half of the drawing, a large Archimedean spiral (figure 28). Brancusi later commented that this portrait captured le sens du pousser (the sense of pushing or thrusting) he thought to be his model’s principal characteristic. Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellmann claims that when Brancusi’s drawing was eventually shown to Joyce’s father, who had not seen his self-exiled son in many years, the elder Joyce wryly remarked, “The boy seems to
have changed a good deal.”

What Brancusi saw as the “symbol” of one of the key features of Joyce’s personality is borne out in noteworthy ways in the latter’s early fiction, from the narrative emphasis on the “missing corkscrew” in Dubliners’s “Clay” to the “whirl of scrimmage bodies” that defines Stephen Dedalus’s first moments at school in the opening pages of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But it is in Ulysses and in Finnegans Wake that spirals are ubiquitous, most notably in the former’s “Scylla and Charybdis” episode (whose rock and whirlpool seem embedded in Brancusi’s Symbole de Joyce) and in the latter’s “Anna Livia Plurabelle” (whose river-like coursings expand fractally) and “Night Lessons” episodes; in the Finnegans Wake episodes, spirals are associated primarily with Platonic idealism and vagueness, knowledge and pseudo-knowledge, feminine cursiveness or liquidity, and (homo)sexuality and fear of drowning. In both novels, they are also associated, to a greater or lesser extent, with W. B. Yeats, whose ideas Joyce parodies without entirely skewering.

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