A portrait of an artist as a young man

Humanity is individual yet entangled. On a path amongst paths. Heedless, saturated by a dark and unknown. The artist is not separate from this distinction. They are merely defined by an impulse which forces them to do what others do not. Bear witness.

James Joyce is a literary icon of traditionally unliterary stock. This is unfair of course. The Irish are only backwater people so far as the cosmopolitan viewpoint is concerned. That is, in respects to their relationship with their more culturally celebrated English counterparts. Who are, by definition, the original cosmopolitans. Joyce, in the voice of Stephen Daedalus, comments on this in his critique of the Irish language and Irish nationalism. By refusing to adopt Irish language or sign a petition for international peace he seems to dismiss the matter as trivial. Yet this conflict remains a persistent undercurrent theme of the novel . Independence from the conflict between English Catholicism and Irish Protestantism, viewed through the wider overall critique of suppression of the individual and conformity vs. rebellion, takes on an upward causality, from individual to cultural, to immortal, and exemplifies the genius of Joyce’s overall technique while demonstrating the symbolic resonance of variation and how they reverberate through social entities.  

A portrait of an artist as a young man was Joyce’s first novel. Written over the span of ten years and considered to be semi-autobiographical. The work follows Stephen Daedalus, Joyce’s stand in, from very early childhood up through and into his early adulthood. The plot of the novel as far as action or storyline are concerned is subdued. As the title makes clear this is not an epic adventure, a mystery or a romance, it is a portrait. A series of portraits, painted with sound over a canvas of time. Which, as he demonstrates in a conversation with his friend about aesthetics, is the thrust of what the lyrical component of a novel hopes to accomplish. To demonstrate the minute change, from moment to moment, bundled together over the course of time to create the individual. This process is the gist of the novel. The storyline is almost irrelevant. Each vignette is designed to capture and encapsulate a moment of defining space over a span of indeterminable time that shapes a character into something more and more concrete. In lieu of action and adventure Joyce attempts to spellbind us with his technique, style, vocabulary and insight.

The idea of limiting action or artificial drama is a defining characteristic to all modern and even more so in post modern art. The cubist movement is the most recognizable definition of this concept. From Picasso to Dali there is a movement away from form in a normative context towards abstraction. Parallel with a simultaneous movement in the opposite direction from portraying subjects in a romantic abstract light towards a more simplistic view. This counterpoint of ideological polyphony is consistent with the modernist worldview of humanity. In that the most epic struggle of the ancients in no more or less dramatic or profound than the death of a salesmen, the celling murals of the Sistine Chapel no less beautiful than the Ma Jolie. The work itself is, again, almost irrelevant. Or at least attempts to make itself so. It is the spectrum of feeling the work evokes in the reader, or viewer, or listener that substantiates any works essential quality. This connection between the artist, the work, and the patron is of paramount importance. The transfer of energy and information creates a connection that spans space and time and puts the arts closer to the eternal than any hard science or aesthetic feature individually.

It is my understand that Joyce is not completely aware of this aspect of his and Stephens rebellion.  Realistically could never have been obvious to him. Only through the lens of over one hundred years of artistic development in the direction Joyce was pioneering is the magnitude of his revolution recognizable. It seems fitting that, in the context of this work specifically, a seemingly minor change of style and context results in the most lasting contribution towards a movement in one direction or another.

In that if you had asked Joyce what he though the world would be like one hundred years after Portrait, I am sure he would feel that the issues of nationalism, religion, social hierarchy and social rebellion would be altered far more than the idea of literary narrative. Yet the issues Joyce and Stephen face in the novel are identical in many ways to the ones anyone faces today, yet the way we tell stories has gone through a complete revolution on the shoulders of artists and rebels like Joyce, his contemporaries, and those who idolized them.

I think this is a salient point more so in contrast than when taken at face value. Most of the second chapter is taken up by a dinner conversation between Stephens father and his aunt about the plight of Charles Stewart Parnell. It is the radical position of his father that Parnell was ostracized by the Catholic church and betrayed by the Irish people for his Protestantism.

This conversation, view from the perspective of Stephen as a child, sets the tone for Stephens view of and relationship with his faith. Which is the main protagonist of the novel. There are many key themes in this section which being to shape the novel and allow the reader to understand the context and devices being utilized. In the context of the question brought up by the previous paragraph, if Joyce would recognize his modernist bent as his most profound contribution, there are clear signs against this.

Joyce begins the scene without transition or introduction. In a previous paragraph he is viewing the world through a young Stephen Daedalus sick in bed at school, feeling homesick and scared. In the next he is describing his travel home in the third person and then, almost without breaking stride, transitions into a conversation between two unknown characters at a dinner table in first person. This complete disregard for linear storytelling, seamless fluctuations from first to third person narration, absents of a true narrator, defines the work as ahead of its time and revolutionary. In Joyce’s time it was the questions of childhood idealism, conversation between man and woman as relative equals, the detrimental commingling of church and state, that feels drastic. Dinner table political speech and nationalistic vs. religious alliance, secularism and multiculturalism reek of high drama and subjective significance.

Yet it is the storytelling device, the personification of the reader as a third person omnipotent being present in the consciences of Stephen, which impresses the modern reader. Because dinner table political speech, childhood idealism, secularism and cultural revolution has become so common as to be appropriate for daytime television. Which is perhaps where postmodern contribution to culture is most clearly displayed. In that Joyce did not invent these themes, Picasso did not create abstraction, rather they stimulated a desire to widen the cultural aperture enough to view these technicalities in there natural context. Real life experiences.

Another theme of Artist is this ironic self reflecting property of art. How good art, true art, reflects life, causing life to reflect art. It is a scientific process in a way. The revelation of the aesthetic soul bolstering the immaterial one. I believe the development of the religious feeling serves the same purpose and provides a stark contrast for the artistic version of feeling and expression. Religion, art, and science or education serve similar purpose, to illuminate the unknown and provide pathways to guide the individual. Joyce’s criticism of religion is art itself. Where one lacks the other thrives and vice-versa. Stephen Daedalus’s early obsession with religion fosters, in the later stages of the novel, a certain respect for the method with which the priests go about their duty. The artist, the intellectual, and the scholar are all linked by a common commitment to their cause as a transcendent form of existence.


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