On A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I don’t like to know about books before I read them. Obviously part of the pleasure of reading is the surprise of a plot unfolding, but foreknowledge also narrows the aperture of a story. Knowing the story or reading an analysis narrows the lens and closes one off to the glimmery light about the edges that crinkles the peripheral and focuses sharply like a needle’s tip. Science fiction and fantasy are particularly afflicted.

I’d seen an animated Lord of the Rings before I read The Two Towers and mostly skipped through the book until I found battles. It may as well have been a forty-page novella about Helm’s Deep for all I cared. Tolkien invented languages and built a world with mythology and history but I couldn’t wait for Legolas and Gimli to start counting the orcs they slaughtered. Star Wars is perhaps worse. The world would be a better place without the extensive canon over which Star Wars fans obsess. (That’s not fair – it would be better with the canon, but without the fans obsessing.) Deny though they might, most fans dislike the newer movies because they don’t match expectations based on their prior knowledge. That’s no way to enjoy a story.

Classic literature can be difficult to appreciate for similar reasons. So much has been written about Dickens, Austen, Twain, and Bronte that the critical thoughts of more serious people blend seamlessly in with my own. Where does one tide break and the other swell? James Joyce presents that problem in its most acute form. Almost everyone I know has studied Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer in class (whether they technically read or not). The words can be dense, but build a story that matches the most recollections. Joyce produces thick swarms of words that illustrate feelings, fluidity of thought, disjointed events difficult to assemble into narratives if they were ever intended as such in the first place. They don’t appear often in high school classrooms but erious people worship his complex constructions, write and ruminate on their significance constantly.

I went into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man knowing Joyce as a deity of modernist writing and the novel as a fictionalized autobiography, based faithfully on his childhood. I thought constantly about the reflection of the author in his fictional alter-ego, Stephen Dedalus. As he grows up he becomes remarkably self-absorbed. Joyce uses his striking language to describe Dedalus’s pining after a woman he admires:

“And if he had judged her harshly? If her life were a simple rosary of hours, her life simple and strange as a bird’s life, gay in the morning, restless all day, tired at sundown? Her heart simple and wilful as a bird’s heart?”

He sees in her only physical beauty and that her intellect will fall short of his own, so short as to constitute a completely alien experience to which he can barely relate. In his maturity, Dedalus becomes insufferable. With the author’s own genius removed, Dedalus’s musings on art and philosophy contribute to his character rather than reflect the intellect of the man holding the pen. It’s difficult to sympathize with his struggle. It was in that space between plot and self-portrait of the author that I encountered one of the book’s most beautiful passages:

“Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue and hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the grey-fringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language many-coloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid simple prose?”

Stephen Dedalus was, in a very real way, James Joyce himself and the passage struck me as beautiful but odd, in part because I identify with the sentiment. Simple words, artfully assembled, resonate far more than the impenetrable masses of various geniuses. But I keep a list of words I encounter in the wild, that I aspire to use or simply find novel and exotic. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man added such luminous pearls as “calumnious,” “lambent,” and “ordure” – such archaic constructions as “soutane,” “scullion,” and “hoyden.” Joyce manifests rather the opposite of what he attributes to Dedalus.

Joyce, more than anyone else I’ve read, seems to relish the “colour and legend” of his radiantly dense vocabulary. I’ve said of a favorite song, though a favorite for a dozen reasons, that any guy to rhyme the word “klonopin” is a genius just for that. The manipulation of words, flair and pure creativity, is reason enough to fall in love with a phrase. I read the passage several times and archived it in one of my notebooks, but the more I read it, the more I wondered if Joyce really saw himself that way. How could he? “Baby tuckoo” is really lucid and simple? What on earth would his prose look like were it complex? Finnegan’s Wake, I guess.

There’s nothing wrong with language for its own sake, but I wish I’d read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man free of assumptions about its relationship to its author. Then, perhaps, I could’ve scratched my head over Stephen Dedalus without wondering whether Joyce recognized such self-absorption and severity in himself, whether he recognized it as self-absorption and severity at all. Then, perhaps, I could’ve enjoyed the language for its own sake without being skeptical of the author and his alter-ego.