Discuss the language of religion in Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes" and James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" in relation to one another and to the various uses of language in general, taking into account the importance of this language

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Candidate 15264 – Varieties of Irishness – January 2007

Discuss the language of religion in Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” and James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” in relation to one another and to the various uses of language in general, taking into account the importance of this language in an Irish context.

When attempting to formulate concrete lists that define the usages of language, one of the first usages that frequently arises is ‘language to inform’. Another frequently mentioned usage is ‘language to persuade’, and the list goes on for far longer than this besides. Along with various forms of media, as well as human speech itself, religion is no stranger to the use of language (written and spoken) to its own advantage. When combined with the ‘language question’, which is constantly up for discussion in Irish history, the issue becomes further convoluted. There is much to be said about how James Joyce and Frank McCourt treat these issues in their respective novels (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man [hereafter referred to as Portrait for brevity] and Angela’s Ashes), even though this is by no means the principal topic of either novel. The main discussion shall centre on the language of religion and how both authors present it, but for some of the paper, the importance of the Irish language itself in a religious context shall be given due attention.

In terms of language and Christian belief, one particular list begins thus:

“1. Sentences expressing commands, injunctions, exhortations, wishes etc., such as ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God’, ‘Let us love one another’ and so on.

2. Sentences expressing moral views, such as ‘Brethren, these things ought not so to be’, ‘It is not good for man to be alone’ etc.“

The remaining points highlight sentences expressing factual truths, sentences expressing analytic truths, and sentences that inform the reader about the supernatural and metaphysical. The concerns of Joyce and McCourt, though, appear to be with the first two types (more detailed examples of exactly how will soon follow). The focus of Angela’s Ashes is primarily McCourt’s schooldays, during which time the principal tenets of Christianity are drummed into them in the form of “commands, injunctions, exhortations, wishes etc.” – mainly in application to heresy, both written and spoken (‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain’ and so on). Equally, there are a great many instances of this in Joyce’s novel.

The list delivered above by J Wilson, however, seems rather basic and not as detailed as others, such as the following list and diagram courtesy of Mr G. B. Caird:

“We use words: (1) to talk about people, things and ideas [informative]; (2) to think [cognitive]; (3) to do things and to get things done [performative and causative]; (4) to display or elicit attitudes and feelings [expressive and evocative]; and (5) to provide a means of communal solidarity [cohesive]. The first two clearly belong together…we shall call these two uses ‘referential’. Similarly the third and fourth uses belong together under the general heading ‘commissive’, since we involve ourselves in or commit ourselves to the actions, attitudes and feelings to which we give utterance.

                        Use                Virtue                Vice

Referential                Informative        Truth                Falsehood

Referential                Cognitive        Rationality        Fallacy

Commissive                Performative        Validity                Invalidity

Commissive                Expressive        Sincerity        Insincerity

                        Cohesive        Rapport                Discord

The various uses and abuses of language operate sometimes in isolation, but far more often in combination.”

The crucial difference between the exemplars presented by the two theorists is not in the greater detail that Caird gives, but in the fact that Caird recognises the capacities of abuse that religious language can facilitate as well as those of positive use. It is my belief that examples of all five categories that he lists can be found in the novels to be explored here, albeit under several sub-categories. It is this approach (loosely based on Caird, but with sub-categories) that I will be using to examine the language of religion as well as its relation to the use of Irish in the church.

The first ‘sub-category’, as it were, which neither theorist mentions explicitly but I believe to be found copiously in both novels, is that of language as a threat. Admittedly, Caird almost gets there, asserting that “when we reach the point at which words are used as weapons, it is inevitable that there should be a clash between the referential use of language, whose object is truth, and the emotive use, whose object is victory.” Of course, the sheer number of examples means that not all will be mentioned here. The first of the most significant comes in Portrait, where a preacher is speaking to Stephen Dedalus, among others, about the devils that they will meet in hell if they do not act in a Christian manner. “Such is the language of those fiendish tormentors, words of taunting and of reproach, of hatred and of disgust…O, my dear little brothers in Christ, may it never be our lot to hear that language!” Not only does the preacher use his words to dissuade the boys from bad behaviour, he also layers the threat by emphasising the dreadful heresy that comes from the mouths of devils.

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The theme of heresy – which could perhaps be dubbed another ‘sub-category’, and which is an important product of both spoken and written language in a religious context – is a thread that runs throughout both novels, particularly in McCourt’s case. He recounts one incident when, after saying to a priest that Emer’s wife won him “in a pissing contest”, heard from another child who had apparently read it in a book, the priest urges him to “turn your mind from those silly stories” because “books can be dangerous for children” – presumably to direct the children to ‘safer’ forms ...

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