Wax Wings are Things Without Feathers
Stephen Dedalus is literature’s patron saint of failed idealists. Like his mythological namesake who crafted wax wings to liberate himself from the impossible confines of Crete, Stephen, too, desires escape and so, like one does, et ignotas animum dimittit in artes. Escape from what, exactly, Mr. Dedalus is not quite so sure of. Early on, at a Jesuit boarding school, homesick and lonely, he just wants to escape back to his idealized version of home. Back home on holiday, however, he finds that things are really not so harmonious there either. Returning to school, then, he escapes into his studies, showing a deep interest in books and learning, with particular interest in the Romantics. Less romantically, or more so — who are we to judge? — young Stephen spends some academic prize money he won on a Dublin prostitute. Good Catholic that he is, Dedalus is immediately struck with extreme guilt and retreats into bosom of that more Holy Lady, the Church. However, just on the cusp of joining the priesthood, he spots a young woman wading in the waters of Dollymount Strand and decides that his true ideal is to become a writer and an aesthete. The only problem is that early twentieth-century Ireland is simply too constricting to accommodate this ideal so, desiring to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race, he decides he must escape his homeland.
Part of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’s enduring relevance and popularity is its depiction of a soul embattled by doubt and struggle. There is something universal is Stephen Dedalus’ story of inner strife and the difficulty of striving towards one’s ideals. This same conflict is found in today’s chapter with Marya Bolkonskaya.
She’s tasked early on, in a letter from Andrei, with breaking the news of his engagement to their irascible father. Part of Marya’s character is her desire to be a good daughter. So she prays deeply about how best to inform her father who she suspects will not take the news well.
He does not take the news well. First he vents his frustration at her by means of a classic old Prince Bolkonsky outburst. Then he turns up the volume and frequency of his verbal assaults upon her. Things aren’t looking good for poor Marya.
She does, however, have solace in a dream of hers. That dream is to become a pilgrim like the God’s Folk. This dream is so dear to her that at one point she purchases pilgrim garb and stores it away for when the time is right to set out on pilgrimage.
Even the most dismissive of atheists can admire Marya’s religious conviction here. This is a woman born to extreme wealth and comfort. And, instead of traveling the road of, say, Helene, she settles upon the humble life. She endures her father’s insults and remains a dutiful daughter. She supports her family and friends unconditionally. And today we learn that her most precious desire is to give up her life of comfort and live with the poor and downtrodden, dressed only in coarse rags and with little food, in an effort to be closer to God.
But, like Stephen Dedalus, she finds it extremely difficult to escape. Her family’s siren call is too strong for her to resist. In one of the more brutally sad lines of the novel Tolstoy writes of Marya, “She wept quietly, and felt she was a sinner; she loved her father and little nephew more than God.”
Marya and Stephen’s failures are our failures. We all have goals we’d like to achieve and, probably, more failures than achievements to show for it. The question, then, is how best to respond to failure? There are probably many answers to that question. One of them, however, has to be to interrogate and understand the failure itself.
‘A consciousness of wrongdoing is the first step to salvation.’ This remark of Epicurus’ is to me a very good one. For a person who is not aware that he is doing anything wrong has no desire to be put right. You have to catch yourself doing it before you can reform. Some people boast about their failings: can you imagine someone who counts his faults as merits ever giving thought to their cure? So — to the best of your ability — demonstrate your own guilt, conduct inquiries of your own into all the evidence against yourself. Play the first part of prosecutor, then of judge and finally of pleader in mitigation. Be harsh with yourself at times.
Seneca, Letters From a Stoic