Tuesday, September 14, 2010

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

Stephen, following his own thought, was silent for an instant.

-The soul is born, he said vaguely, first in those moments I told you of. It has a slow and dark birth, more mysterious than the birth of the body. When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.

Brent once called me the only student of Modernism to have never read Portrait or Ulysses. I thought of not ever reading them just to stick it to that smarmy jerk, but I think instead I'll just refuse to link to his review.

I will be honest and say that at times it was tough going. The length of Portrait--as opposed to the stories of Dubliners, my only previous experience with Joyce--gives the author ample space to show his versatility, but while the very first chapters recount Stephen Dedalus' childhood in the breezy, chopped style that seems germane to the very young, the adult chapters are written in an elongated prose that forces the reader to slow down and follow the snaky paths of Joyce's language. To appreciate it you must get up close, like tracing subtle patterns in design of great size, when trying to behold its entirety your eyes glaze over.

Despite that, the story is simple: Dedalus, Joyce's stand-in, is born into a family of Catholic Irish Nationalists. He briefly flirts with a religious career before deciding that to follow his impulse toward being an artist he must shed the burden of his family, country, and religion. Randy and Brent have both observed that this process is very difficult to appreciate, and I'll concur. I think the problem with Dedalus is that he is so clearly Joyce that there is no larger claim; it is impossible to imagine oneself as Dedalus because the author and character form a closed loop we cannot enter: Dedalus is Joyce is Dedalus and so on.

There is a self-referentiality in this that proves why Joyce is considered the cornerstone of Modernism. Joyce has nothing to say that is not about himself, and Portrait is about Portrait. Dedalus admits as much during a long conversation about the nature of art with a friend:

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?

I marked this passage before returning to Randy's review and realizing that he also had chosen it, not because I think that he is fond of it. I'd like to unpack it a little, in response to some of Randy's criticisms.

There is a sublime humor to that first question. Comedy and tragedy were, for Aristotle, the two principle modes of literature and here Dedalus presumes that a chair is, if not literary, then artistic. A chair, like a novel or a play, is something that man creates and so is creative; Dedalus carries this thought to absurdity by wondering if you can say the same thing about poop, children, and lice, all of which are also man's creations. (Supposing, along medieval lines, that lice are products of spontaneous generation.) The unpopular bust of Crampton gets sandwiched between them to suggest bad art veers much closer to the excrement side of things than it does to classic works.

Earlier in the discussion Dedalus says that a thing of beauty has the quality that makes it "that thing which it is and no other thing." He calls it its quidditas, or whatness, but perhaps not intentionally I think this is the wrong word. Quidditas is the quality of a thing that makes it of a type, what you might say to the question "what is it?" The quidditas of a book is something that it shares with other books, by virtue of being books. What he should say, I think, is haecceitas, or thisness, that quality that makes it only itself. Haecceitas is a godly word, and suggests the way that each thing functions according to the design of God. The haecceitas of the finely made chair is that it, as its craftsman intended, it provides the perfect seat. But there is no perfect chair, because the craftsman is not God, and there is no perfect novel because the novelist isn't either. For that matter, what is the haecceitas of a novel?

So the question isn't about the chair, but about the book itself. One reason Dedalus may seem trite to Randy is that for someone who claims to possess inspiration he produces no art besides one thoroughly mediocre poem. This is frustrating, but we're meant to understand that Portrait is in some way the story of its own creation, the product of that inspiration that Joyce calls "pure as the purest water, sweet as dew, moving as music." To buy into Dedalus' sense of inspiration you must buy into the novel, and to do that you must return to Dedalus' sense of inspiration. No wonder then, that for Randy the whole enterprise falls flat--Portrait's greatness is predicated on an assumption of its greatness!

This is essentially what we have been doing in literature for the past century. You might uncharitably call it navel-gazing. The term Dedalus prefers is "lyrical"--"the form wherein the artist presents his image in immediate relation to himself." Randy says that Dedalus' discourse on art offers no new insight and he's right, but what it offers is the peculiarity of a novel talking about itself.

Dedalus must be selfish, because this is literary selfishness. He yearns to express his innermost self, his haecceitas, but he must abandon the quidditas of nationality and religion. I have always found religious comfort in novels, and Portrait makes me uneasy because Dedalus expresses a near encyclopedic knowledge of Catholic history and theology but rejects it anyway. I question how fully he is able to do this, because Portrait, with its long middle section recalling Dedalus' religious frenzy, stands as a testament to how much of his Catholic upbringing he has absorbed.

In my mind one of Modernism's abiding principles is the embrace of traditional forms as a defense against the crippling emptiness of the modern world, expressed perfectly in the novel's last lines:

Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.

The "old artificer" is his namesake, Daedalus, the mythical craftsman who fashioned both the wings of Icarus and the labyrinth of the Minotaur. (And how did both of those stories end?) The line between ancient myth and Catholicism is not straight, but I choose to think of this ending as an affirmation that the old forms are difficult to kill. I know that this line is also a particular favorite of Nathan's, and I'd like to hear his perspective on it.

I am saddened by our collective distaste for this book--not just Randy's virulent kind, but the milder version shared by Brent and myself. It seems that it is the kind of book you could live in, and consider at serious length, but I do not know that it is inviting enough for that.


Brent Waggoner said...

Portrait of the Modernist as a Young Man.

G.R.R. Fotley said...

Nice review. I think you've helped me understand why I disliked this book so much.

G.R.R. Fotley said...

GRR Fotley being Randy

Christopher said...

Well. I was also trying to defend it somewhat.

G.R.R. Fotley said...

Yeah, I got that; but even the aspects of this book which you seemed to admire or present as meritorious are things/artistic goals that simply do not interest me. As though, I concede Joyce has accomplished what he set out to accomplish, and objectively I can see that it is an accomplishment. Nonetheless it is an acknowledgment which does absolutely nothing for me.

I think I may have liked the novel better if there were some zombies in it.

G.R.R. Fotley said...

Also, Brent, I thoroughly enjoy "Portrait of the Modernist as a Young Man."

Brent Waggoner said...

I'm working on the zombiefied version, Portrait of the Artist as a Decomposing Corpse. It's structured around 3 epiphanies and one brain-eating.

Christopher said...

But part of what is meritorious about the book is that it's a template for 100 years of literature. You say those goals don't interest you, but I can't imagine that you haven't been interested in other books that, without Joyce, may not ever have been written.

G.R.R. Fotley said...

It's true there are a number of novels and even philosophers influenced by Joyce that I've probably read and enjoyed. But then we're shifting to a discussion about the merits of knowing/reading/studying history of literature, which is not something I'm necessarily interested in. Instead I think (I'm about to make a gross generalization) that people tend to be interested in the history of a particular literary movement secondarily to their interest in that particular literary movement. It's all well and good to say Camus was heavily influenced by Kierkregaard; but I'm only going to read Kierkregaard if Camus made such an impression on me that I want to understand not only Camus but his influences as well.

Along the same lines, I think it's very easy to be moved by one work and unmoved by its predecessor. I find Duchamp's toilet to be empty and pretentious. That's not to say I've written off the art that has come afterward.

Christopher said...

Oh, I'm not trying to convince you to read more Joyce. But you said in that post that you wished someone could explain to you why people do--that's what I had on my mind.

Christopher said...

Also, I think "empty" is exactly what "Fountain" is supposed to be. Nobody really wants to look at it, but it's importance is pretty huge.

Brent Waggoner said...

Yeah, Fountain was basically a big joke Duchamp played. He was a funny guy.

Christopher said...

Well, there's something to be said for Fountain in that it presented an object empty of any semantic meaning. It's value isn't that it presents an idea, but asks a question--what is the minimum someone can contribute to an object to make it art? By taking things to their absurdist level he opened up the rest of that spectrum to serious artists. John Cage did the same thing for music with 4'33".

Portrait is hardly the same thing. I'm not sure you could do this with literature--it'd be like presenting a blank page, or binding a Chinese menu. But even still I grant Randy's premise.