My Bias Towards A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Examined
I succumbed to the temptation recently to leave a comment on another web site, Gil Roth's very good and reliably updated Virtual Memories page, to be specific. The matter under discussion was somebody's list of the top 100 novels, English-language only I believe, of the last century. One of the commenters had objected to the high ranking of Joyce's two most famous books, arguing that Ulysses was not a novel and that Portrait of the Artist was vastly overrated, adding that he was of the opinion that many of the people who ranked the books so highly did not really regard them that much, but for their own various reasons were afraid to say so. I had recently read several similar opinions on this subject by people who evidently did not suffer from such failings of nerves, and, being pretty confident myself that the spirit in which these opinions were proclaimed, at least, was wrong, I felt moved to speak a word, though of course in my own defense and justification rather than Joyce's, whose reputation overall in the literature world is still on the whole about as secure as one could hope for. His estimation does seems to be slipping some, but given that in the 1960s he was apparently the second most-commonly written about English language writer (after Shakespeare) in academic publications, that was probably inevitable.
To my surprise the writer whose comment I had replied to, who signs himself Vince Czyz, wrote back in a comment on this site, back on one of the Caesar and Cleopatra articles, in which he restated his previous opinion regarding Joyce most forcefully and succintly, the intention of which, or one of them, I presume, was to challenge me to re-examine my high opinion of Joyce as a novelist; or perhaps it was simply to let me know that I was a fool, but for the sake of this essay, I am going to pretend it was the former. Before I address the specific points my correspondent brought up, none of which I can ultimately accede to within the admittedly narrow limits of my own knowledge, I suppose I had better come clean on my longstanding emotional attachment to the Portrait.
I read the Portrait twice when I was pretty young--I was 17 or 18 the first time and 24-25 the second time (and I was, I confess, still very young, almost childlike at 25)--so I haven't read the whole thing through in at least 14 years. It had a great deal of influence in the way I chose to live, or at least think about, my life, and, I suspect, it has had a similar influence in the lives of quite a few other impressionable young people who generally turned out to make rather comical, if not outright sad, figures in the exposure of full adulthood. I suppose this could be considered a damning mark against the book, if it could be widely demonstrated and proved to have deluded lots of hopeless people into thinking themselves of superior intelligence and sensitivity, and possessed of an artistic spirit and so on. Personally I think the book is more than just this kind of posturing, but certainly there is a danger of an intelligent but inexperienced or poorly educated person misunderstanding how the experiences of Stephen Daedalus/James Joyce relate to his own life. When I read it in high school it was actually part of my Senior English class. My high school had a quite good English department for a public school, though as we were constantly assured, it had been much better, the students smarter, the teachers more exacting, etc, 30-40 years earlier. Still, we read good books, and most importantly, it was conveyed to a lot of us at a pretty young age what constituted superior writing and why it was important to pay attention to it. I wish I had had teachers who could have made the wondrousness of science and mathematics thus vivid to me at a young age, because I think I could have made somewhat more progress in those areas than I did. Anyway, The Portrait of the Artist was one of the books that most helped me to gain this appreciation at the time, at which also such reading was a consolation and pleasure to me in the midst of various difficulties that were going on in my family, and these therapeutic qualities meant a lot--perhaps too much--to me for quite a long time, even, to a certain extent, down to the present day, when I am not really getting much out of the old habit anymore. The Portrait was also the book I chose to write on for the admissions essay to the college I went to, for what it's worth, and at the time I really had no consciousness of phoniness or pretentiousness in this choice. I truly did feel it to be a very important book to my development (which it was, though obviously whether for good or ill is still very much in question).
The second time I read it was during a fairly quiet period, when I was recently out of school and was living essentially alone, in a boarding house with a bunch of people I didn't talk to, and I had, certainly compared to now, an unbelievable amount of free hours to kill in the course of a day. I was also I think only half-employed and somewhat impoverished, though still in a shabby genteel way--I could at least afford to have dinner in a bar most nights, for example--so I was probably slightly depressed and the Portrait served again to buck up my spirits in the face of an ugly and indifferent world rather than inspiring me to throw it out the window in manful disgust at its pieties. I suspect, just judging from the pages I glanced at at random in preparation for this post, that if I read it again now I would still admire the writing and, yes, the art of it. I can see the juvenile sentiments expressed in it more for what they are than I probably did formerly, but what they are--callow, perhaps--did not strike me as necessarily wrong, or as unworthy subject matter. The world which he was writing about was one that was, or least certainly appeared to be, completely stifling to a young man of ambition and talent. Breaking somewhat free from the psychological confines of it would have been the defining struggle of his life, which, yes, he did not completely succeed in overcoming to achieve the mature perfection of the absolute cultured man. Though, in his defense, he certainly made it a pretty good part of the way.
Regarding the particular objections raised in Vince Czyz's comment:
1. Ulysses is not a novel. I don't see this. There has hardly ever been a book more steeped in novelistic lore and self-consciousness about its form, and there is as much of a recognizable traditional story within its shenanigans as in several ordinary novels. I agree that the book is probably largely unintelligible picked up cold, and I was fortunate to come to it at a period when I had just gone through a lot of the sort of historical reading that it constantly refers to and had had several friends with whom I regularly ate and drank who had taken a six or eight week seminar exclusively on the book which they talked about frequently as well as clearly and also, perhaps like myself, being at least in part of a middling but sort of educationally ambitious Irish Catholic background, were well attuned to a lot of the underlying spirit at work in it.
2. He objected to my bringing up the famous (infamous?) "uncreated conscience of my race" quote at the end of Portrait as pretentious and overblown--which of course it is--and by pointing out that Joyce was hardly the only person in Ireland with such a conscience. The sentence is central to the psychology of the novel however, and gives the ending a power which a more sober and deferential statement of ambition would lack. Ireland in 1902 or thereabouts was not, as it is today, a country with a highly respected international tradition in literature or any other arts. It was not an independent nation at all, nearly all of its best known native writers (Swift, Shaw, Wilde, Sheridan, etc) to that point had quickly absconded to England upon reaching adulthood and been absorbed under the umbrella of English literature, and any writer or other artist self-identifying as "Irish" would have been regarded at the heart of the dominant European cultures--English, French, Italian, German-Austrian--as at best an interesting quasi-barbarian with a vigorous animal spirit, but ultimately still rather childlike. As an incurable Euro-high-culture-phile Joyce was, whatever one thinks of it, very sensitive to this state of affairs, and to his mind, as far as the people who counted in the world were concerned, the conscience of his race was very much uncreated and unknown. Today, as we all know, this is not the case, and the indigenous Irish had a great 20th century as far as their literary impact on Western culture and the Anglosphere goes. But James Joyce is by far the most responsible figure in making this happen.
3. He doesn't think Portrait is one of the 20 greatest novels of the century, not remotely. I will have to let this one go, since a) I really haven't read that many novels to make anything like a definitive list, and b) beyond the general categories of great, very good, good, and doesn't really grab me, I don't have a great passion for ranking things in a rigid hierarchy, be they books, movies, women, dinners, etc (which I why I really can't make it through anything Harold Bloom writes, who has to rank everything, and for whom one of the primary virtues of good books is they forever after utterly negate the value of slightly less good books, which I don't really agree with). That said, if somebody sent me a check and asked me to list what I thought were the 20 best books of the 20th century as I currently perceive them, I would certainly include the Portrait among them.
4. Dedalus (Joyce) is self-absorbed and arrogant, and thinks he is the only person paying attention. As to the last two, he at least demonstrates a better claim to think these things that most people put forth. As to the first, I don't agree; he is not especially compassionate towards people who fall short of his standards for them, but he is quite sensitive to and aware of what passes around him. He clearly at least pays attention to what people say and how they say it, as is evidenced by his dialogue, which is always masterful.
5. The Portrait has no story, not much to say but to expound an aesthetic theory. I wrote something about this in my original comment on Gil Roth's page. Personally I find the development of a well-educated and very fine mind with an intensely felt aesthetic theory to be a highly interesting and worthy story with a great deal to say, but evidently my correspondent thinks otherwise.
From the (Barely) Pre-Blog Archives: March 20, 2006. I re-visited Ulysses after 10 years or so and was apparently still impressed by it:
"Whatever its vulgarities/shortcomings, it is truly awesome in parts, and the climax at the end remains one of the pinnacles of English language and European literature. A decade on the coarseness and low-classness of Molly is a little more striking. At 25 (me) she seemed a normal healthy and fun-loving sort of girl. Perhaps to intellectuals she seems over-the-top, unrealistic in her bodily obsessions, a 33-year old woman, etc. As always in this book the perfect tone and precision and detail with which minor details are recalled and inserted into the story is staggering. There is no other writer, Shakespeare maybe Shakespeare who is close to this ability. Proust's memory is of experience in isolation, a moment frozen and separated from the rest of life, beautiful and exquisite but one doesn't feel the rush and flow of all life, which is Joyce's great power. In the competition for literary genius-20th century I see Joyce and Kafka as the two contenders. Joyce's books are more real and lively than life though they are very like life at bottom, while Kafka's are more real than life without being really like life at all, which is a very unique sort of artistic genius. But Joyce is perhaps the consummate writer-artist of all time, certainly since the Renaissance..." At this point I confess that I don't know where I am going with all this however.