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Amber Paulen

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - James Joyce

James Joyce

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

On James Joyce’s first word, or maybe two, it is understood with what force of lyricism we are dealing: beyond lyrical, beyond epical, is this dramatic? Little Stephen Dedalus has a moocow and this moocow that was down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…

Before reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man I have had one encounter with James Joyce. Without question it was Ulysses, without question it was a failed attempt at that! I felt as if James Joyce had willed, with his capolavoro, that he become completely intelligible. It was prose enraptured in itself as prose; like Narcissus in the mirror and the reflections came in perpetual drum rolls: a labyrinth of frilled words and pretty phrases that could never get enough of themselves.

Maybe I was smoking too much marijuana to read Ulysses. But for every other book, a little pot did no harm.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (let’s call it Portrait from here on out) was indeed a beautiful and formfull book. It was often said that a new wave of literature would rise from it and James Joyce in general. As I read I found myself wondering if that new wave has come and rolled on. What was the revolution of literature that James Joyce gave us? Has it truly impacted literature in an irrevocable way?

Another statement I pondered on while reading Portrait was that James Joyce attempted, through the writing of his books and his books themselves, to bring literature nearer to life. On websites, time and again, it is noted the stylistic advances of form in Portrait, advancing chapter by chapter in intellectual growth and conceptual growth, as young Stephen Dedalus grows older. The absolute exclusion of others but by their relationship to Stephen: the girl he loved was never given a name. It was a book borne in the mind. We are brought as near as we can be brought into the consciousness of Stephen Dedalus. Which begs the question: is consciousness life? Does not literature sheerly by being literature, always remain separate? As I stand in a crowd and think through my literary drenched thoughts, I am separate from life through this veil of consciousness; I see from the outside looking in. But all this should be left for next time…

Portrait is a “coming of age” story, a Bildungsroman. It is the story of a young boy become young man, swimming up to the surface to catch pure breathes of fresh air. It is at once the gradual story of revolt.

I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile and cunning.

Revolt. Let that word sit on your tongue. Roll it there for a couple minutes. Savour it.

That word, Revolt, strikes me at the deepest point of my gut and uprises shivers, intoxicating shivers. If it is at all possible to attain the positive without the negative I do not know, but what I do know is that one must always forge ahead. If Stephen Dedalus (read: James Joyce) would have chosen to become a priest this book would have never been written, the artist would have never been born. The difference between a priest and not a priest, to Stephen Dedalus was the difference of worlds, of truths, of destination.

Always when reading these “semi” autobiographical types of works this phrase never fails to cause a giggle: they tell me I have read too many books. Does the reading of books directly imply the spirit of revolt or is it the other way around? From where to we get rebellious ideas? The potential artist looks around himself and finds that reality does not match his visions—it is too dreary, it has little place for exhilarating emotions—between who I believe myself to be and who is shown on the outside, there is too great a distance.

Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language manycoloured and richly stories than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose?

My absolute favorite part of Portrait came in Chapter III: those fear-reducing sermons of the priest. The horrific invocations of the torments in hell made their disquieting point. I never forgot that it was through Stephen’s ears that I was hearing, though I knew it was the priest speaking, I wasn’t sure who it was doing the embellishing. Each gradation towards inexplicable eternal suffering and pain, I imagined to be told with a priest-like snicker. The absurdity is in the utter vulnerability of the imaginations of young minds. If I was effected, reading and fearing eternal hell and damnation… what were those young boys thinking? Off Stephen hurried to confession!

Then, at the end of Chapter IV, came the rushing headlong joy of the artist, finally. Stephen’s childhood seemed so dour and pensive, his triumphs minor triumphs, his happiness’ short and fleeting. After his rejection of the offer to enter into the lifelong duty of priesthood, Stephen was again light of heart, and he ran. He ran seaward, drunk with what was coursing through him. The ebullient poetry of this scene is enough to inspire even the least lyrical of us: A day of dappled seaborne clouds… Words? Was it their colours?

The discovery of the poet, the poet’s rebellion: poetry. It is an impenetrable rhythm, it is music, it is the song of the soul. To herald that voice, to raise lips trembling to the clarion, is a turbulent process. But for those moments, those moments of surfacing, when the poetry of one’s heart matches the poetry of the world: that is song, there is voice, that is poetry.

Whether or not James Joyce’s voice and drama was enough to change the complete face of literature is besides the question. That the bulk of his work is inaccessible cannot be denied. But it is there, and that is what is important, that James Joyce sang, that he has written pages with a truly unique voice. Portrait excels in every way I can imagine, and not imagine, a novel to excel. Until I will make another go for Ulysses this book must stay with me and bear his testimony. James Joyce’s song is an intoxicating song, his use of language is incredible, monstrous even, his revolt is the revolt brought into words.

He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld. He did not know where to seek it or how, but a premonition which led him on told him that this image would without any overt act of his, encounter him.


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