Monday, April 19, 2010

A Portrait of the Young Man as an Artist

"Is a chair finely made tragic or comic? Is the portrait of Mona Lisa good if I desire to see it? Is the bust of Sir Philip Crampton lyrical, epical or dramatic? Can excrement or a child or a louse be a work of art? If not, why not?"

It was highly appropriate that the narrator would ask these questions near the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man because by then I was also wondering if excrement counted as art, or at the very least could pass for it. Of course, we all know that excrement can, and often does pass for art. Mr. Joyce's novel did absolutely nothing for me. I read the words of the novel and thought I should be having a profound sense of something; instead I felt nothing.

A Portrait is a bildungsroman, a coming of age story about a boy as he transitions into becoming a man (an artist, if you will). It follows five episodes in Stephen Dedalus's life; the first one when he's in elementary school and the last one about when he's in college. In between we see him transition from being a confused and scared little boy, to rebellious prostitute visiting sinner, to repentant Catholic, to areligious cynic. However, the novel is not written in the narrative form with which contemporary readers are more familiar. Instead, it's written a distorting stream-of-consciousness-not-always-linear writing style that is abrupt and not always easy to follow. Maybe that's what makes Joyce the "father of the modern" novel. It also might make the novel pretentious (and by "might," I mean "more likely than not").

I have two complaints about this book. 1) I did not feel like anything happened the entire novel. Even within the episodic chapters, I did not feel that very much happened. I never felt connected to Dedalus. This is to say, I didn't feel like this novel had a story (and for those post-modern snots out there, I do insist on a having a story in my novels). 2) I couldn't relate with Dedalus' big revelations. First Joyce gives us a massive sermon in which Dedalus, the sinner, fears the burning flames of hell. Then, later, we get an extended aesthetic discussion about the nature of art. Neither offered any new insights to their respective discourses. Instead, they're presented as being parts of a growing Dedalus. Maybe I'm too jaded with personal revelations, but these episodes (and the episodes generally) reminded me of the trite personal epiphanies of high schoolers who have decided to open themselves up to one another, and, you know, have deep thoughts, and stuff. It felt like these "deep thoughts" were important, not because of their merit, but because Dedalus was having them. Sorry, Stephen, I don't give a shit. (that's right another reference to poop). And in case you're wondering why I re-titled Mr. Joyce's book, it's because I feel like this was the portrait of a young man, portraying himself as an artist.

This is the second James Joyce novel that I've tried to read (the first one was The Dubliners). If there is a James Joyce fan out there, would you please explain to me why he matters? I don't get it, and I genuinely want to. I just feel like this is another academic, over-hyped writer to be referenced only to other "enlightened" types, and only at elite parties where everyone is drinking something out of a martini glass and smoking foreign cigarettes. Someone take me off my soapbox.


Nihil Novum said...

I haven't read Portrait, although I have read Ulysses and Dubliners and occasionally I crack open Finnegans Wake even though I know I'll never get through it.

The main thing about Joyce to me is his grasp of language. His descriptions, his double or triple entendres, his tendency to write extremely beautiful passages about mundane things. I don't know anyone else who writes on his level, except maybe Nabokov.

Regarding his plots, not having read Portrait, I can't comment on it, but Ulysses and Dubliners had a lot going on. it's just that a lot of it was internal or in the background. it's not easy to pick up all the plot threads because they're woven so organically in with everything else, but they are there. You didn't even enjoy The Dead? That's probably the most accessible piece Joyce ever published. If you didn't even like it, Joyce probably isn't for you.

As regards pretension: yes, Joyce is pretty pretentious at times. On the other hand, he's also extremely self-deprecating, sometimes hilariously funny, both linguistically and scatalogically, and at other times, he's very heartfelt. Some of these things you might not get unless you have a ltitle background on his books: Stephen Dedalus is based on Joyce himself, and although Portrait presents his epiphanies as important and lifechanging, Stephen also appears in Ulysses as a confused, empty, extremely pretentious man.

I think you hit the nail on the head here:

"It felt like these "deep thoughts" were important, not because of their merit, but because Dedalus was having them."

But somehow missed the point in spite of it. They ARE important because he's having them. Stephen is a narcissist and a very confused young man. He's pretentious and stupid and arrogant and vulnerable and confused.

It's not at all hard for me to understand why Joyce isn't for everyone (and I've tried unsuccessfully to read Portrait a few times), but if I haven't given any good reasons for Joyce's importance here, I hope I at least explained why I enjoy reading his novels.

Here's my review of Ulysses. It contains some more thoughts on Joyce, if you haven't had your fill.

R.M.Fiedler said...

Nihil, thanks for your comments.

From what I gather of your comments here and your review of Ulysses, Joyce is remarkable for his technical skills as a writer; and less for the story he's woven together. I read on wikipedia that Joyce said of Ulysses that he "put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant." It seems to me the reason I have not yet connected with Joyce (with one exception: admittedly, I enjoyed "The Dead") is that I disagree with Joyce's conception of art (or specifically, novels).

I generally disapprove of writers who "hide the ball" and expect the readers to put in more effort to understand their work (I could go on and on about Pynchon, for instance). In this regard I tend to see their technical achievements as mere novelties. A brilliant chair maker might be able to carve the most intricate chair, but I have only minimal interest in that chair if it's uncomfortable. That's to say that Portrait felt like it was about form, not substance; I'm a reader that demands substance. I want the story, not the descriptions; and I only want the descriptions insofar as they illuminate the story.

I realize this is a highly narrow view of what novels should be (and has the absurd result of accepting Stephen King or Dan Brown as a novelist, but possibly excluding Joyce). Nonetheless, I've grown extremely cynical towards art that is only relevant when read in the context of the development of art. Chomsky (somewhere) once said that thinking about politics should be for everyone, not just the political scientists and specialists. That's how I feel about my literature. The entire time I read Portrait I felt that I wasn't getting something because I haven't studied Modernist literature extensively.

As for Stephen's revelations; I can see why they may be relevant for Stephen, but why should they be relevant to me? I expect the novelist to somehow justify my reading of his novel by receiving something in exchange for reading the novel. Here I didn't feel like I received anything. And I especially did not feel that I received anything by listening to Stephen's personal epiphanies. I don't need James Joyce via Stephen Dedalus to have deep thoughts, I can go find some 20 year old philosophy major coked up on existentialism to share some of his epiphanies which I can then write off as being trite.

I appreciate the thoughts, though. You're officially the first person I know to defend Joyce and I finally feel like I have some idea why people read him (and some idea why I'm not one of those people).

Brent Waggoner said...

Yeah, I find it hard to argue that Joyce is more about structure and style than narrative. I mean, Finnegans Wake is practically narrative free. I can completely understand why he doesn't appeal to everyone.

Christopher said...

I have some sympathy for frustration with authors who "hide the ball" by making their books willfully obscure (and admit that Finnegan's Wake probably falls in this category).

But I think that generally speaking, the metaphor is a broken one; trying to "find the ball," as if each text has an absolute message or theme, is not a very satisfying approach to literature. While Joyce's comments betray a certain unbecoming arrogance, I think that it reflects a more appealing model of reading, in which texts can be revisited and reconstructed over and over again.

All in all, I agree that an author should not be too obtuse, but I think that preferable to the author who isn't obtuse at all.

Christopher said...

Secondary comment: You say that Portrait seems to be about form, not substance--but that describes the modernist (and even moreso the postmodernist) ethos. Added to your distaste with Pynchon, would you say that you're no fan of the way literature is heading these days? Just a thought.

R.M.Fiedler said...

I agree that texts which can be revisited and reconstructed have a certain appeal (and perhaps the most ideal appeal); but I see the act of reconstruction as a reconstruction of a thing (reconstructing the story) and not just reconstructing a construction. I don't mind a flexible ball which changes depending on the way you might want to read it; in fact I think the best novels are the ones which lend themselves to being re-read and re-understood. Nonetheless, I think there needs to be a "ball" behind it all.

I think a distinction is in order: "There is not some meaning you cannot give it, but no meaning..." I felt that Portrait fell in this latter category. I agree an absence of subtlety is a problem in a given story (See, e.g., Avatar). But I'm just saying the opposite extreme is also a problem, and Portrait was on that side of the spectrum for me. (I would also place The Sound and the Fury in that category)

Your second point: Insofar as a novel takes that ethos as an end in itself, I feel pretty strongly that it is "fashion" literature. Something to keep the academics abuzz until post-post-modernism kicks in (and I mean that first "post" literally, not ironically/post-modern-ly). Insofar as a novel uses modern or post-modern techniques secondarily to bring it's story across, I'm in love with it. My familiarity with contemporary literature's not as strong as it could be, but two (maybe obscure...?) authors that (for me) represent non-obnoxious, story-driven post-modern writing are Chris Bachelder (I have signed first editions of both of his novels) and Mark Z. Danielewski (particularly House of Leaves.

What do you think a novel is?

Christopher said...

I don't know what a novel is. Is it a particularly illuminating question, or a semantic one?

As for House of Leaves, I think there's something of what you complain of there: In the way that the labyrinth of the text is a mirror of the labyrinth itself, it elevates form to the level of substance. This is one of the most important hallmarks of postmodern literature, I think.

The puzzled form isn't "secondary" to the meaning, as you say, it is the meaning, it is "the ball." Yes, the substance (the plot of the book) is illuminated by the form, but also the form is illuminated by the substance. This circuit travels round in a loop, elevating form to the same level as substance, making "form" a kind of substance in and of itself.

That's what I think a lot of people find so irritating and postmodernism, and reject it. Just as 20th century art became about the colors, textures, and contrasts themselves instead of what those colors, textures, and contrasts represent, so modern fiction has become about the writing: style, form, genre, the existence of the author.

My question is: What makes Joyce different from Danielewski?

R.M.Fiedler said...

For me, the answer to that question is very easy. Years after reading House of Leaves, I still think about The Navidson record and the story contained therein. I don't think about the form of the novel, or how the form contributes to the story, I think about the story itself; and I'm obsessed with it. I love the story in the Navidson record, and have a passing interest in the form that Danielewski employed in his novel.

However with Portrait I don't know what story I'm supposed to be thinking of, or if there is one at all. So the distinction is based on whether or not I feel there's a story, and the merits of that story (I know references to how I feel have a dubious critical value). For me, House of Leaves is a terrifying story about a family going through this ordeal. There are characters and feelings and connections between people. (admittedly, I'm less enthusiastic about the Johnny Truant story line or Zampano, or whatever his name was). I didn't feel like any of those things were in Portrait.

And I'm sure part of this is that I'm not willing to give Joyce a real chance and read his novel seven or eight times to get the story which is too subtle to see the first time around (if not with Portrait, I understand his longer words to be so). That might mean that I'm lazy or unintelligent. I'm comfortable with either label.

Brent Waggoner said...

I don't know. The basic narrative in Portrait isn't too obscure: Stephen grows up and has some life-changing experiences, which leads to him becoming a completely different kind of person. It's one thing to dislike the story being told, but it's another to say there is no story at all. Stephen's character changes throughout the narrative.

Ulysses, for example, is much longer and takes place during one day. There is a straight A-to-B narrative, and there is even a climax, although it's epiphanic rather than plot-driven.

There's nothing wrong with preferring a narrative like House of Leaves, but it's an entirely different thing.

Brent Waggoner said...

Also, re: The Dead, I'm curious as to why you liked it since, structurally, it's like most of Joyce's work. Gabriel goes to a party, interacts with some people, exchanges some ideas, and in the end has an epiphany which serves as the climax of the story. How does this contrast with Portrait?

p.s. This is Nihil Novum.

Christopher said...

Sounds like you should read BR Meyers' A Reader's Manifesto:

R.M.Fiedler said...


I read "The Dead" like 8 million years ago, and all I remember is that I liked it. I can't say why.

As for the plot of Portrait, I agree that there is a plot, but the plot is not what the novel's about. If someone knows the plot of Portrait, I don't think they know anything about the novel. In a sense, the plot serves as a garnish for everything else that Joyce is doing.


I read most of the Reader's Manifesto and enjoyed it but disagreed with a lot of the individual assessments. I like Delillo and McCarthy (at least, what I've read of them). Nonetheless, an interesting read.

Brent and Christopher:

This extended discussion of what is and what is not a novel makes me wonder: what novels would you point to as being all the things you think a novel should be.

My answer = Catch-22