Saturday, November 17, 2012

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

A young man exiles himself from his culture, his motherland, in order to be who he is.

Stephen Dedalus, a bright half blind sensitive boy, from a family on the downward slide, gradually realizes that the oppressive culture that molded his sensibility, and made him an artist, an observer, is the culture he must abandon. Non serviam. I will not serve. The bloody drawn out cutting of the apron strings, as Stephen is squeamish about being the most terrible of the disappointments inflicted upon his saintly mother. But he cannot be a hypocrite, however much society prefers him to be.

This short novel begins when Stephen is a small child.  The prose corresponds to Steven’s age and understanding. Each scene is wonderfully vivid, with powerful characters leaping off the page. The Christmas Dinner and the family argument about Parnell. The mistaken caning of the shy little boy’s palm. Nothing is wasted – each scene illustrates Stephen’s character as well as the Irish culture of the time. Most of the time the sentences are like poetry. The sacred and profane are mixed up together and you can’t tell where one stops and the other begins. In parts, the book is extremely funny. (Although Stephen himself is utterly humorless.) Silence, exile and cunning. He takes himself far too seriously, but that perhaps is how you become a Mount Everest of an author, whose writing works on about seventeen levels at once.

The famous hell lecture bored me. I don’t think I got it, understood the fear, the tension between teenage horniness and the dread of immortal suffering. That is partly a function of modern times, but it doesn’t seem like the other Irish boys in the book are hung up by piety. They seem sarcastic.

Stephen is kind of a namby pamby obsessive but through his eyes a entire world of people come into view, passionate people oppressed on two sides – by the English (that is, what the Irish are NOT) and the church. Oppressed by the English and repressed by the church. And that pressure is what squeezes out a genius.

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