Ruminations on A Potrait
I’ve read a lot of books in my life, and a lot of them have been incredible. But Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man is part of a different tradition, a tradition of literature that left me breathless, in rapture at times, and in confusion at others. I had to reread passages just to bask in their logiophilic glory, and I had to reread pages in order to tease out the meaning of such complex and incisive concepts as Dedalus’ esthetic philosophy. Now that probably has more to do with my inability to understand than Joyce’s ability to convey concepts clearly, but for me, the challenge of deciphering a great artist’s work is exhilarating and, quite simply, the worthiest of pursuits. Joyce is a master, a true literary great; he is, to boil it down to brass tacks, AN ARTIST. And how did he become such an artist? Well, this autobiographical novel guides us by the hand, down the road which led James Joyce to the giant stature which he commands in the canon of literature today.
Stephen Dedalus’ Vocational Epiphany, or:
A Reader’s Rapture
One of my favorite passages in A Portrait is that in which Joyce describes Stephen’s coming to realize his vocation, which in Joyce’s favorite terminology, would be considered an epiphany. Stephen, as he wades into the water near the Bull Head, pictures himself as the mythological figure of his namesake, Daedalus. He imagines himself soaring above the world; he imagines himself molded anew out of the dreary existence he inhabits into a winged, ethereal creature. The language in which Joyce depicts this awakening is rich and multi-layered, the imagery is poignant. Stephen is transformed, he is uplifted above the drudgery of worldly pursuits. To this point in the book, he has been forcing himself into a mold in which he most certainly does not fit. He observes his catholic rites in silence and self-denial, and he is still, despite all his struggle, falling short. But his epiphany frees him, it allows him to rise above the restraints of his religion; it, in fact, opens up to him a whole new world of possibility.
This was the call of life to his soul not the dull gross voice of the world of duties and despair, not the inhuman voice that had called him to the pale service of the altar. An instance of wild flight had delivered him and the cry of triumph which his lips withheld cleft his brain.
And, of course, a vocation implies a specific calling. One would easily surmise from the title of the novel what that calling is for Stephen, but Joyce puts it best when he says:
He would create proudly out of the freedom and power of his soul, as the great artificer whose name he bore, a living thing, new and soaring and beautiful, impalpable, imperishable.
As he moves forward from his vocation, “a new wild life was singing in his veins.”
It might be. Why not?
There were so many flagstones on the footpath of that street and so many streets in that city and so many cities in the world. Yet eternity had no end.
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 maycolored and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose?
The world for all its solid substance and complexity no longer existed for his soul save as a theorem of divine power and love and universality.
His thinking was a dusk of doubt and selfmistrust lit up at moments by the lightnings of intuition, but lightnings of so clear a splendour that in those moments the world perished about his feet as if it has been fire consumed: and thereafter his tongue grew heavy and he met the eyes of others with unanswering eyes for he felt that the spirit of beauty had folded him round like a mantle and that in revery at least he had been acquainted with nobility.
Like a cloud of vapour or like waters circumfluent in space the liquid letters of speech, symbols of the element of mystery, flowed forth over his brain.
Joyce, James, and Chester G. Anderson. A Portrait of The Artist As A Young Man: Text, Criticism, and Notes. New York, NY: Viking Press, 1968. Print.