Monday, June 22, 2009

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.


Vince Czyz said...

I'm glad you've re-examined Joyce, a writer whom I GREATLY respect and admire--"The Dead" is one of the great short stories of English literature. I think he was unquestionably a literary genius, but ... I do believe Ulysses is much less a novel than a treatise, or, as I have argued elsewhere, a literary model for reality--and a pretty good one, too. And while he may be written about quite often, as you point out, he is seldom read--all things considered. When I was in grad school in 1985, Ulysses had sold only 220,000 copies in 63 years; Joyce appeals to academics because he consciously (see Ellman's bio) wrote for academics.

And yes, of course, I don't think you are a fool--or anyone else who deifies Joyce. I just think it's time to bring Jimmy back to Earth (I did a Master's essay on the Circe chapter of Ulysses so I'm vulnerable, too).

I don't have time at the moment to read your whole blog, but I MUST take issue with this: "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."

Yeats? Swift? Wilde? Shaw? To name a few off the top of my head. And who can forget the novel that is the English Don Quixote …? Okay, there’s you … but I say that with a smile, not with malice cause I often forget about it myself: Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy, easily one of the great novels in English. And guess who it would later influence? Yes, Jimmy Joyce. There is also The Vicar of Wakefield ... although I can never remember the name of the author I am pretty sure he was Irish—a novel of morality, I should add, long before Joyce was on the scene. There are many more, I’m sure, but you may as well do the research. Moreover, NO nation on Earth has the reputation for poetry that Ireland enjoyed for centuries: see Robert Graves’s The White Goddess. What the Irish master poet (ollave) had to know just to qualify as a poet is staggering: several alphabets, several languages, astronomy, music, history, law, etc. What he had to commit to memory seems unthinkable now—literally thousands of lines of versified myth and legend; and what he had to be able to compose on the spot is equally mind-blowing. It’s not entirely surprising that the Ollave “sat next to the king at table and was privileged, as none else but the queen was, to wear six different colours in his clothes. The word ‘bard,’ which in Medieval Wales stood for a master poet, had a different sense in Ireland, where it meant an inferior poet who had not passed through the ‘seven degrees of wisdom’ that made him an ollave after a very difficult twelve-year course.” [P. 22 of White Goddess]

It's a book well worth reading though I admit, it can be slow going at times.

Anyway, in the spirit of friendly discussion and debate,


V. Czyz

Vince Czyz said...

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.

Being obviously self-conscious is an immediate clue that you are not reading a novel but COMMENTARY on OTHER novles and other forms of literature. And to a great extent, that is what it is. In fact before you argue too strenously Ulysses is full of x, y, or z (and you know, a narrative backbone is NOT necessary to a novel; the narrative can be implied or intimated rather than the whole supporting structure), remember this: Joyce himself stopped calling Ulysses a novel in 1918--well before it was published and a time when he was shying away fromm narrative and moving the book towards an exercise in the styles found throughout literary history.
Most famously, when asked what his book was about he retorted: "My book is not about something, it is something." A literary model for reality, more than less, I would argue.

Vince Czyz said...

And before I go one last point: I never claimed "Portrait" or "Ulysses" weren't good or didn't evince literary genius; I argued "Portrait" doesn't belong anywhere near the top of a top 100 books of the 20th century. The Recognitions by William Gaddis, roundly ignored by critics and listmakers, is a far superior work. As is, in my opinion, Dhalgren by SR Delany--another book that doesnt even make the list. I'll also take THE PLACE IN FLOWERS WHERE POLLEN RESTS by Paul West any day over "Portrait" ... and though I haven't read Gravity's Rainbow, I have read parts of it and read about it and I have no doubt it is also quite superior. Quite a few books, really, that are much more interesting and succeed much better as novels than "Portrait".

Alas, the trouble with blogs, no one's reading or participating other than us.

Positive Winner said...

Thanks for your response. I appreciate your explaining in greater detail what you mean by Ulysses not being a novel. I am still not sure that I would be capable of understanding it as something different from a novel even if Joyce himself said it was not one. Any definition of my own as to what a novel is I am afraid would be nothing too precise, so it is not as if I have any especial interest in its being a novel or not other than that it seems to me to be a more interesting literary exercise as a type of novel rather than as criticism or a model for reality, which I would think of as ultimately inferior forms that would be put to better and more ingenious use in the service of a more expansive art-work like a novel. That would be my understanding of what it is supposed to be, but, if that is not what it is, hopefully I can come around to some clearer understanding of what that signifies.

Admittedly I am an amateur scholar, but my impression of the self-esteem of the Irish people regarding their culture doing the period of Joyce's youth (1880s-1900s), as well as the general level of regard with which the people and products of that nation were held among the cultural elite of the leading European states at that time, is that it was pretty low. While I don't deny what you say about the ancient Irish poets, I also don't see a lot of evidence that they were ever widely much known of, let alone read, among any broad society of educated people in modern times, even in Ireland itself. Adding in that this poetry was sung in a language that was little-known internationally and of which a form was not even spoken by the vast majority of the modern Irish population, I do not get the sense that this heritage had much of a living presence or formed much of a source of pride to the Irish people in 1900, or redounded at all to their credit internationally. And as I noted in the earlier post, most of the internationally prominent writers native to Ireland in modern times up until Joyce, such as Swift, Sterne, et al, were culturally, socially, and so on, very English--Oxbridge educated, not Catholic, London-centered, ordained in the Church of England. It seems to me these would be fairly significant distinctions in the minds of the sort of people Joyce grew up around, that they were not exactly of their people.

I haven't read any of the books you have mentioned in your last comment. While The Recognitions may be underappreciated, I have certainly heard of it, and heard praise of it, many times, as well as seen it in bookstores. I have read some other Pynchon books, though not Gravity's Rainbow. He is admittedly a very impressive writer, though I have to say as yet I haven't gotten to the point intellectually where I find much about the world he depicts to be very recognizable, so I have had a hard time developing much feeling for him. The other two books to be honest I have never heard of.