Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist I
Bill Long 11/10/08
Reflecting on Chapter 1
I am spending a lot of time these days trying to work through the "greatest 100" works of English-language fiction of the 20th century. Whose list? Well, probably the list of (mostly) dead white males but, nevertheless, I don't think it is a bad one. Which list? This one. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, from 1916, made it as # 3 on the Random House "Board's List," while it only made it to # 57 on the "Reader's List." Hm. I bet that is because there are more teachers in the former than the latter, and the latter remember trying to slog through (without much success) the adventures of Stephen Daedalus while they were in 9th grade and not making too much headway (because of the extensive knowledge you need to have of 19th century Irish history to understand the flow of the novel). Teachers love this book, while students are of a different mind. Well, in a Daedalian type of comment, I wonder if the reason it is called "Random House" is that everything that comes from its offices is heedless....
To the Novel
Just as Sons and Lovers was DH Lawrence's autobiographical novel which he wrote in his late-20s, so Portrait was published, with heavy autobiographical overtones, by James Joyce when he was in his early-30s. The novel is set in Ireland at the end of the 19th century when Stephan Daedalus is a schoolboy. Since the focus of this essay will only be on ch. 1 of the work, I only consider Daedalus' experience as a schoolboy at Clongowes. In this and the next essay I will reflect on two things: (1) Joyce's portrait of youth as a time of confusion; and (2) his portrait of the wandering mind.
First, however, let's begin with the boy's name. We all know that Daedalus was an architect in Greek mythology, the one who designed the labyrinth on Crete. The word daedal in English means "skillful" or "cunning," and so there will be something of the skillful one in young Stephen. But there is a little ambiguity in the name Daedalus for Stephen. He is not only Daedalus, but he is the son of Simon Daedalus. We all know that the son of Daedalus in Greek mythology was Icarus, the unwise one, the one who wanted to fly too close to the sun and ended up having his wings melt and fall to his death in the Aegean Sea. So, does Joyce mean to tell us that Stephen Daedalus is more like the skillful architect or the unwise son? We have to read to find out. Then, the name Stephen "Christianizes" Daedalus. That is, Stephen means "crowned one," and his name commemorates the first martyr of the Christian Church, whose story is told in Acts 7. We thus have a name filled with meaning, even if we don't know at first exactly how the name relates to Stephen's fortune.
One of the most powerful and verisimilar (i.e., probable or appearing true) aspects of Joyce's Portrait is the confusion that Stephen faces as a child. I, for one, hadn't thought about the way that I was so confused as a child until I read the story of Stephen's confusion here. As we grow up, we struggle so hard for understanding--for success at 'splaining things. Indeed, as adults we often wrap ourselves in our rather small cloaks of understanding and refuse to try on other, and possibly more fitting, garments simply because it would make us "cold" for a while while exchanging garments. We want so badly to maintain whatever levels of understanding we have, perhaps out of fear of chaos, that we tell ourselves stories of how knowledgeable or successful we are. By telling ourselves these stories, however, we lie to ourselves. For, in fact, the world is a confusing place. If we were taken out of our familiar environment, we would probably be plunged into discomfiture in a trice. Thus, since our "adult" quest is for understanding, we don't want to welcome, or even remember, the times in our lives when confusion reigned.
It is here that Joyce actually helps us understand ourselves because, in ch. 1, he presents the early life of the artist as one characterized by multiple confusions. A few examples will illustrate this. Stephen is having a discussion with some of his classmates at his prep school. They were asking him whether he kissed his mother every night when he went to bed. Stephen says, "I do." They laughed. Then he said, "I do not." The other fellows gathered around, as if to study this strange expression of humanity who actually admitted that he kissed his mother at night. The text goes on:
"They all laughed again. Stephen tried to laugh with them. He felt his whole body hot and confused in a moment. What was the right answer to the question? He had given two and still Wells laughed" (p. 11; Penguin ed.).
Can't you hear the childhood desperation? On the one hand, he probably kissed his mother without much thought at home, since that was the way you did things. However, when he was brought into the world of the other boys, he saw not only that things were different (hm..they may all have kissed their mothers, really, but perhaps would say the contrary to appear a bit "macho" on the playground) but that he was caught between the unreflective practice at home and a more critical approach to it at school. He felt the first pangs of uncertainty because he respected or wanted to be accepted by both people--his mother as well as his peers. Which was the right answer, though? Do you kiss your mother or not? And, how was he to tell? We get a laser-like insight into the confusion of youth principally because youth is callow and has little experience of things.*
[*By the way, I didn't know until I used the word "callow" in the previous sentence that the Latin word underlying it is calvus, or "bald." Indeed, the first usage of callow in English meant "without hair." See if you can understand Wyclif's 1388 translation of Leviticus 13:40, "A man of whose head heeris fleten awei, is calu." The word then passed through "unfledged" (i.e., birds 'without hair') before settling on 'inexperienced, raw or unfledged,' from which we derive our meaning today.]
Oops. Looks like I need another essay to illustrate more confusions.