Stephen Dedalus is a Jerk

I’m still chipping away at Ulysses (174 pages through my 682-page edition) and I’m finally noticing something.

  1. I’ve picked up the book a few times at book stores, opened to one of the early pages, and closed it again almost immediately.

  2. It is notorious for four particular chapters, reputedly difficult even by the standards of a notoriously dense book. They have passages described as “impenetrable” and “incomprehensible.” Those chapters are “Proteus,” “Scylla and Charibdis,” “Circe,” and “Oxen of the Sun.”

  3. I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the fall of last year and disliked it so strongly that I swore I would never read Ulysses.

The common thread is James Joyce’s famous auto-biographical character, Stephen Dedalus. Dedalus is the Telemachus figure to Leopold Bloom’s Odysseus in the Odyssey theme the book follows however loosely. As Telemachus, the first three episodes follow Dedalus before they ever get to Bloom. The first of the book’s infamous chapters – Proteus – is a Dedalus chapter in which Bloom does not appear. The second – Scylla and Charybdis – is also a Dedalus chapter in which Bloom appears only in passing. Both are notorious for the constant, obscure literary and philosophical references, without which a reader has little hope of following the thread of Dedalus’s thought. I haven’t yet gotten to Oxen in the Sun or Circe. They’re famous for their dense and disjointed narrative styles but they also happen to be Dedalus chapters. Finally A Portrait of the Artist is a portrait of Stephen Dedalus’s childhood (a sort of fictionalized autobiography of Joyce, himself).

The problem with all of this is that Stephen Dedalus is insufferable.

I decided pick up James Joyce again, in part, because I read an essay Michael Chabon wrote for The New York Review of Books about his Joyce affinity in which he describes Portrait as follows:

Beyond Dubliners there was the unlovable A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which starts well, charting bold, clear routes, like “Araby,” through the trackless waters of childhood, then fouls its rotors in a dense kelpy snarl of cathected horniness, late-Victorian aesthetics, and the Jesuitical cleverness that, even in Ulysses, wearies the most true-hearted lover of Joyce.

I decided that, if a self-proclaimed Joyce-o-phile considered A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to be little more than a box to check off, then the other stuff might be worth another shot. For what it’s worth, I enjoyed Dubliners immensely. I don’t have the heart or stomach for Finnegan’s Wake (though I guess I said that once about Ulysses) so that left only one stop on the train.

The chapters of Ulysses that focus on Leopold Bloom, bumbling through Dublin, killing time, trying to interject jokes and interesting bits of information into conversation, reminiscing about his wife and worrying over her potential infidelity, trying to find a quiet place to eat, and looking in shop windows are endlessly charming even while they’re remarkably difficult to read.

Dedalus, on the other hand, is arrogant and thinks in long strings of latin or french. He composes bits of tired poetry and argues with himself and everyone else about obscure philosophical theories. He openly disdains almost everyone around him and contemptuously dismisses their ideas. He’s thin-skinned and bristles at criticism, actual or perceived.

If Bloom is where Joyce stashes his humanity and his heart – which, of course, can’t be entirely separated from his intellect – then Dedalus is where Joyce shoves his brain. Joyce’s intellect is scary and obscure in the wild. The concentrated form in which it pours from Stephen Dedalus is just too much. He overflows with the self-important erudition, overly complex jokes and literary references, agonizingly clever puns, and comprehensive historical and religious knowledge for which Joyce is famous, tempered by none of the humanity.

If I met Bloom on the street, I would think nothing of him. If I met Dedalus on the street, I would loathe him instantly. Chabon writes:

Then, in the spring of 2010, I made my second complete ascent of Ulysses, and came down hopelessly in love. Reading it at twenty, I had identified with Stephen Dedalus, a grave mistake. Stephen Dedalus is a pill. Doubtless I was kind of a pill myself at twenty, but that didn’t make Stephen any more appealing even then […] When I read Ulysses again I was shocked to find that, first, I was now mysteriously a decade older than Leopold Bloom, and second, that the tale of his stings and losses, his regrets and imaginings, was as familiar to me as the sour morning taste of my own mouth.

As it turns out, Dedalus is the reason I never wanted to attempt Ulysses. I guess that means I was less of pill when I was 27 than Chabon was at 20 (possible, but not necessarily true). Dedalus also seems, indirectly, the reason that most serious readers give up. The only reason I can think of to keep him is that Joyce couldn’t let him go, that he was as autobiographical as people suggest, that a day without some measure of Stephen Dedalus simply couldn’t be a normal day for Joyce. That makes some sense but it doesn’t make Dedalus any more tolerable to anyone else.