James Joyce – Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

Serialized in The Egoist just before Wyndham Lewis’ Tarr. Many different ways to approach text, also many ways to use it as way to talk about Modernism more broadly: nationalism, aesthetics, realism, plot to description, etc. Particular passages to remember and turn to:

The opening, where we join the young Stephen in trying to deal with raw sense data without convention. In sense, we are going back before the beginning of the bildungsroman in order to work back up to that genre and explode it. Language acquisition is foregrounded, as Stephen merely repeats words that he doesn’t yet know. Before Stephen becomes ossified in the dogma of the church, the narrative is content with assimilating sounds into little imagist poems: association leads to an aesthetic order that does not immediately refer to any real system or reality: “Pick, pock, pack, puck: like drops of water in a fountain falling softly in a brimming bowl.” This should remind us of the end of “The Dead.”

But as the novel goes on, Stephen begins to realize that his resources for poetic expression are constrained by his sensorial experience: his cry of need is derived from something scrawled in a latrine. He thus burrows into the religious practice of mortifying the senses, which is not completely in contradistinction to the act of creation, but in some systems, a precursor to creation as such. In this sense, we can see his religious fervor not in contrast to his refusal of the oil, but as a logical precursor to that decision: the refusal of a system, any system, in favor of the interior potential of the artist himself [talk about how “oil” returns in coil, platinoid, ellipsoidal, etc. as aestheticized forms). The end of chapter four, concluding in the bird-girl epiphany, shows how the sensuous anture of words has built itself into a system of linguistic poise: the pleasures of mere form. He realizes the potential of his own name, and, mixing up the story of Icarus, decides to be soaring and beautiful just like the artificer (this is to conflate Icarus and Dedalus into a single figure].  THEN THE BIRD-GIRL.

But this moment of expression almost immediately gets turned into a system inherited from Aquinas. From chapter 5, we get the artist pairing finger-nails, refined out of existence, like the God of creation. In order practice freely, Stephen realizes that he will need to practice “silence, exile and cunning.” A figure less like Icarus than Dedalus is now emerging. The final pages move to first person narration: Stephen finds his voice, become self-narrating, self-producing. “Amen. So be it. Welcome, O Life! I got to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated consciousness of my race.” We’ll see, upon opening, Ulysses, how Stephen fails.


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