On this day…7 November

On 7 November 1904 Joyce made some notebook entries about aesthetics.

Joyce, who was living in Pola at the time, wrote notes about aesthetics in a notebook on 7, 15 and 16 November 1904. These notes were speculations about Thomas Aquinas’ ideas of the true, the good and the beautiful, and Joyce later incorporated them into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The notebook Joyce used was an ordinary school exercise book that he bought in January 1903 on his second visit to Paris. He wrote his name and the address of the Hôtel Corneille on the front cover, and at the top of the first page is a handwritten calendar with the days crossed off up to 11 April 1903, Good Friday, the day on which he received his father’s telegram recalling him to Dublin.

As well as keeping ornate signed accounts of monies received, borrowed, and spent while he was in Paris, Joyce also made notes from his reading at the Bibliothèque Nationale. The early pages of the notebook are filled with numerous quotations from plays by Ben Jonson alongside quotations from Aristotle, WB Yeats, Edmund Gosse, and Herbert Spencer among others, as well as long lists of Irish books.

Joyce returned to this notebook a week after his arrival in Pola in November 1904 (and the notebook is now known as the Paris/Pola Notebook). At the top of one page is a quotation from Thomas Aquinas: ‘Bonum est in quod tendit appetitus’ (‘The good is that toward which the appetite tends’). This is followed by a paragraph of Joyce’s speculations about this idea, and is signed and dated ‘JAJ. Pola. 7.XI.04.’ On 15 November he discusses another quotation from Aquinas: ‘Pulchra sunt quae visa placent’ (‘The beautiful is that which gives pleasure to the eye’), and he follows this on 16 November with his thoughts on ‘The Act of Apprehension.’

In Stephen Hero, Stephen discusses Aquinas’ ideas of the true, the good and the beautiful with Fr Artifoni, his Italian lecturer at university. This Fr Artifoni, along with Stephen’s teacher in Ulysses, takes his name from Almidano Artifoni, director of the Berlitz School in Trieste, who employed Joyce as a teacher in Pola in 1904.

Though Artifoni doesn’t appear as a character in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Aquinas appears quite a bit in chapter five. As Stephen makes his way to college, he thinks of the line ‘I was not wearier where I lay’ from Ben Jonson, and we are told that whenever Stephen’s mind wearied of Aristotle and Aquinas he often turned to ‘the dainty songs of the Elizabethans.’ This juxtaposition of Jonson, Aristotle and Aquinas is the same as that found in the Paris/Pola Notebook.

Joyce brings Aquinas’ ideas about the beautiful into the conversation between the Dean and Stephen in chapter five:

— You are an artist, are you not, Mr Dedalus? said the dean, glancing up and blinking his pale eyes. The object of the artist is the creation of the beautiful. What the beautiful is is another question.
He rubbed his hands slowly and drily over the difficulty.
— Can you solve that question now? he asked.
— Aquinas, answered Stephen, says pulchra sunt quae visa placent.
— This fire before us, said the dean, will be pleasing to the eye. Will it therefore be beautiful?
— In so far as it is apprehended by the sight, which I suppose means here esthetic intellection, it will be beautiful. But Aquinas also says Bonum est in quod tendit appetitus. In so far as it satisfies the animal craving for warmth fire is a good. In hell, however, it is an evil.

Stephen later tells Lynch that ‘So far as this side of esthetic philosophy extends, Aquinas will carry me all along the line. When we come to the phenomena of artistic conception, artistic gestation, and artistic reproduction I require a new terminology and a new personal experience.’ Lynch responds that Aquinas was ‘a good round friar,’ to which Stephen retorts: ‘Perhaps Aquinas would understand me better than you.’


Sources & Further Reading:

Aubert, Jacques: The Aesthetics of James Joyce, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Grayson, Thomas W: ‘James Joyce and Stephen Dedalus: The Theory of Aesthetics,’ in James Joyce Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 4 (Summer 1967), pp. 310-319.

O’Rourke, Fran: ‘Joyce’s Early Aesthetic,’ in Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 34, no. 2 (Winter 2011), pp. 97-120. (See here: http://www.ucd.ie/t4cms/Joyce%27s_Early_Aesthetic.pdf).

Yee, Cordell DK: ‘St Thomas Aquinas as Figura of James Joyce: A Medieval View of Literary Influence,’ in James Joyce Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 1 (Fall 1984), pp. 25-38.


Joyce’s Paris/Pola Notebook is now part of the collections at the National Library of Ireland. For more information, visit the National Library’s website here.