Monday, June 12, 2006

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (by James Joyce)

Shock of all shocks, I actually loved reading this. I was not looking forward to the moocow and the tuckoo and all the Joyceness of it all. I was not looking forward to more of whiny Stephen from Ulysses. But it’s not that way at all. It is lyrical, funny, polished, thoughtful work, featuring many passages I sat and re-read just for pure pleasure. Whatever Thomas Effing Wolfe is trying to do in that ungodly mess of his (see below), Joyce does ten thousand times better in Portrait--I guess I was right about Joyce coming off better by comparison. Joyce is actually trying to say something about the nature of nationality, family, religion, vocation, and art. (As opposed to Wolfe who... okay, I won’t start on him again. But I hate his vacuous, masturbatory, douchey novel even more after reading this book.)

The passage that is sticking with me at the moment is the one quoted below, which I’m still trying to figure out (if you want to make sense of the next two paragraphs, you may want to read it now). The original title of Portrait was Stephen Hero, which made me think that the quote was significant when I first encountered it. Then when I got to the end and realized what Joyce had done, I had to go back and re-read this. Stephen is talking about the personality of the artist ultimately flowing into the narration, and his example is a novel that begins in the first person and ends in the third person. Well lo and behold, at the end of Portrait, we see that Joyce has done the opposite. He starts in third person but ends in first person. There seem to be several layers of irony in here given the title of the novel and it’s autobiographical nature. So what does it mean?

I suppose I could go look up what critics have had to say about this, but that takes all the fun out of it. So far, my thoughts are that A) Stephen is wrong, not for the first time, and Joyce is winking at us from behind the curtain (while paring his fingernails); or B) Stephen is articulating Joyce’s own artistic progression. What this indicates, though, is that the end of this novel isn’t Stephen’s endpoint, but his midpoint. Stephen has to go inward in order to find, for lack of a better term, his artistic voice or aesthetic. But once he does that, he will build his symbolic wings and fly (as the novel’s symbolism and his last name, Dedalus, suggest) away from his own interior self and go back outward. It’s a very Yeatsian idea, the movement first inward and then outward. And given all the bird imagery and the fact that it’s his coming-of-age story rather than his adulthood, it seems a good bet that there is more to come with Stephen. This story ends in media res. Obviously, then, the “equidistance” referenced in the quote below would reflect the novel itself. I’ll ponder some more, but the senior member of the English faculty on my campus is a Joyce scholar who teaches Ulysses, and I need to hunt him down and ask him what his take on it is, if I can. Damn the semester being over!

The quote that I really wanted to use for this is on page 150, the description of the woman standing like a seabird who becomes a secular replacement for the Virgin Mary in Stephen's mind, when he has his artistic awakening. That was one of the passages I sat and re-read a few times. Oh, that James Joyce. This book is the 97th book that I've read from the Radcliffe list, and I'm sure I will have warm and fuzzy feelings for Joyce throughout books number 98 and 99. And then it will all go straight to hell, because book 100... is Finnegans Wake.

“The simplest epical form is seen emerging out of lyrical literature when the artist prolongs and broods upon himself as the centre of an epical event and this form progresses till the centre of emotional gravity is equidistant from the artist himself and from others. The narrative is no longer purely personal. The personality of the artist passes into the narration itself, flowing round and round the persons and the action like a vital sea. This progress you will see easily in that old English ballad Turpin Hero which begins in the first person and ends in the third person. The dramatic form is reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round each person fills every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible esthetic life. The personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalizes itself, so to speak. The esthetic image in the dramatic form is life purified in and reprojected from the human imagination. The mystery of esthetic, like that of material creation, is accomplished. The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” (Page 119)

3 Comments:

Blogger K said...

This does indeed sound very interesting. Personally, I would like Stephen to be wrong - if only because the last sentence of the quote, with the author refined out of existence, sounds a bit close to the death-of-the-author theories I had such trouble digesting at college...

I like authors, and I don't want them dead.

8:01 AM  
Blogger Colleen said...

I loved this book when I read it, oh, about a hundred years ago. But the epiphany at the end just washed over me like a sea of words that every writer hopes to achieve one day. So glad you enjoyed it!

7:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This isn't actually where Stephen replaces the Virgin Mary with the bird woman. At this moment Stephen is able to see a woman for the first time without desire (as he had had here and there for Mary). He is able to appreciate her for the first time as art, and not in a "kenetic" form that he rejects as art.

12:37 PM  

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