Monday, November 5, 2007


"The colonnade above him made him think vaguely of an ancient temple and the ashplant on which he leaned wearily of the curved stick of an augur. A sense of fear of the unknown moved in the heart of his weariness, a fear of symbols and portents, of the hawklike man whose name he bore soaring out of his captivity on osierwoven wings, of Thoth, the god of writers, writing with a reed upon a tablet and bearing on his narrow ibis head the cusped moon.

He smiled as he thought of the god's image for it made him think of a bottlenosed judge in a wig, putting commas into a document which he held at arm's length and he knew that he would not have remembered the god's name but that it was like an Irish oath. It was folly. But was it for this folly that he was about to leave for ever the house of prayer and prudence into which he had been born and the order of life out of which he had come?"
--James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

Re-reading Joyce's first novel -- perhaps, in a manner of speaking, his only novel -- I'm struck again by how beautifully written it is, but also how oppressive it is. It's not a book I've ever warmed to, largely because the sense of mordant wit that I associate with Dedalus, in Ulysses, is largely lacking in Stephen. And for some reason the depiction of Stephen's youth doesn't do a lot to enlarge my sympathy for him. In some ways, of course, that may be because Stephen is "too close to home": an arrogant exactitude about words coupled with a shy uncertainty about how to deal with people animates some stages of this portrait to a degree I can't help but regard as personally applicable. And I too recall well enough the last throes of that wanting-to-believe in the mumbo jumbo of Catholicism, that feeling of surrendering to its mystery in all due humility (and not a little awe and fear) that Joyce captures so well for many a Catholic schoolboy. Beyond that, the bookishness of Stephen, the humorless donnishness of so much of his attitude, is maybe tiresome because it's precisely the thing one tries to overcome as one might.

Those problems are certainly there for me, but another problem has also been its relentless Irishness. Ulysses and the Wake certainly can't exist without Ireland, but it's an Ireland that has already become lore, become grist for the Joycean mill to an extent that makes of it something wholly different. It's like saying that, when all's done, Picasso and Braque were still doing still-lifes. Yeah, but... But Portrait's situation is intrinsic to what it is to a degree that, try as my early reading might to appropriate this tale to the myth of "the Artist," makes it always "a portrait of the artist as a young Irishman." And so that remark I made at the end of yesterday's blog, about an artist always beginning in a certain time and place, is true here with a vengeance.

And it's the vengeance that interests me: Joyce "gets even" not only with Ireland but with himself as Stephen. He's able, from the vantage of his "exile" in Europe, to look quizzically at the slender reed upon which this fantasy of escape hangs. We're never told in the novel where Stephen is going or why. We just assume it's the story of Joyce's own flight to Paris, to study medicine, ostensibly. Joyce, like Stephen, might have felt he was leaving not to return, but of course both did return -- and there's no real reason to assume that Stephen ever gets away again. In other words, the degree to which Stephen is not Joyce is what impresses itself upon me more each time I read Portrait. And I think it's necessarily so -- if only because Ellmann and others have based so much of Joyce's biography on how his life events correspond to their presentation in Stephen Hero and in Portrait. But that fact has nothing to do with fiction. The use to which Joyce chose to put things that happened to him is all that matters. And the novel seems to me much more important as the story of a young (Irish)man with an artist's self-conception, then as a recasting of the past so it becomes the prolegomena to the mature work. Stephen, both Joyce and Stephen realize in Ulysses, will not mature until something definitive happens to him. His mother's death is perhaps the first major event, the next must be finding a different kind of personal meaning in his relation to a woman. But we have no evidence that such ever happens to Stephen, and there he remains.

In the passages I quoted above, what strikes me as significant is the degree to which the mature Joyce is giving us the working method, but without showing us that Stephen really recognizes it for what it is. The tendency to see the visible world as signs is there -- Stephen is swift to recognize how a group of symbols easily come together once he imagines himself as an augur: he is meant to read signs, to call upon mythic figures such as Daedalus and Thoth in his self-conception of what it means to be a writer. This is that mythic subtext that Eliot was so quick to pick up on and which he and Pound as well as Joyce exploited in a modern register that made them a group of true innovators. But it's the second paragraph that gives us the means — the slender reed, the "folly" -- upon which it all hangs. For Stephen realizes that the name Thoth, sounding like "troth" (something you pledge), registers a definite Irish meaning, even as his "absurd name, an ancient Greek" is meant to be accepted as a possible name in Ireland. A judge putting commas in a document is perhaps much more homely than that indifferent god refined out of existence, paring his fingernails, but for that very reason has more imaginative resonance. The task of proofing a document would be definitive for those endlessly proliferating texts of Joyce's maturity. Which is to say that the homely image is what makes the mythic image possible, keeps it from being some antiquated fantasy of a richer world of imaginings. The "god's image" makes Stephen smile because it's a cartoon, not an enduring image of hieratic significance.

And so the question: is he about to give up everything for the sake of this folly? It's not even Rimbaud's folly of seeing a lake where a livingroom should be. It's a folly of claiming kin because of a name, because of a walking stick, because Thoth and troth sound remarkably alike. But Joyce is aware of something that the novel shows and that Stephen doesn't yet grasp -- that the "house of prayer and prudence" is founded upon a willful reading even more audacious than Stephen's. And it is because of the meanings that the Church reads into things secular, and the meanings that Ireland reads into events historical -- in which names and terms loom large, taking on their own life -- that Stephen can in no way "leave for ever" its terms. His master, Mr. Joyce, sees this and knows it -- it is indeed the defining characteristic of his fiction. It could be that this is simply a way of talking about the "transubstantiation" of base Irish matter that Stephen wants to bring about for the sake of his art, but that conception is still too fraught with the fin de si├Ęcle aestheticism -- its medievalism -- that dominates Stephen, though it doesn't Joyce. Rather I'd like to see how "the order of life out of which he had come" is what exercises Joyce's mind until the last.

Is this the case for the rehabilitation of Joyce as pre-eminently an Irish author, despite what the industries in the U.S., France, and elsewhere in Europe have made of him? Perhaps it's inevitably so. The "transubstantiation" into the stuff of world literature only happens because the "folly" of his claim is ultimately an insight about the modern world, in its incarnations everywhere, not only in Ireland. The local is, willy nilly, a part of the global, a glimpse of particularity that is only altered -- like the bread and the wine -- because of a system of meanings. Stephen's spirit is still aligned with "the priest of imagination" who would ascribe, Dante-like, to a set of meanings that could make historical reality achieve its hieratic realization -- in the name of the god he himself would become. Joyce remains at the level where the bread and wine, as body and blood, and as wheat and grapes, are only substitutions, a way of ordering the world by means of names we give things, beginning "once upon a time" and continuing "now and ever."

Stephen Dedalus is my name,
Ireland is my nation.
Clongowes is my dwellingplace
And heaven my expectation.

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