Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man redux

So, I've blogged about each part of Portrait, but how does it stand as a whole?

I think the biggest thing I realized this time through is how disciplined the work is. Portrait always invites comparison to Ulysses, because it seems that Joyce is trying out the techniques that he will present to such great effect in the later work. Also, Stephen is our viewpoint at the beginning of Ulysses, so it seems like Ulysses is picking up where Portrait left off.

But I now think that this comparison is unfortunate and unfair to Portrait, which can stand strongly on its own. Ulysses is the flashier of the two, showing off Joyce's brilliance at every turn Every effect in Ulysses is on a large scale -- where Joyce wants to put some literary effects into a section, he puts in 57. Portrait is much more naturalistic as subtle in its effects. It's easy to read through and not notice the alliterations and other effects, or the change in the narrator's speech patterns, though Joyce clues you in on the first page.

Joyce is a subtle writer, but in Portrait not so fond of puzzles for their own sake, which may be why I found the footnotes here not terribly useful. We can trace the Dedalus family's descent into poverty without needing to know each address they move to -- mentions of twice-watered tea served in jam-pots instead of cups tell us all we need to know. Stephen himself is overly clever, but I think we're not necessarily supposed to understand each of his allusions -- he's just playing intellectual games for their empty sake. When he writes for himself alone (in the diary fragments at the end), he's generally straightforward, although of course fragmentary and cryptic to outsiders.

I suppose anyone writing about Portrait is tempted to think about how much is autobiographical. Stephen lives in many of the same places as Joyce, he has the same preoccupations about the Irish language, he has bad vision, and so on. I discussed in an earlier post the question about whether Stephen's artistic manifesto is really Joyce's -- is he giving us a way to evaluate his work within the work itself?

But on this reading, I've come to think that really it doesn't matter so much. More clearly than any manifesto could, Joyce's writing shows us how the artist transforms the world he sees as a through a glass darkly into glittering words. Of course there's some relationship between the raw material and the finished work, but the work stands on its own. Just as Stephen transforms his raw experience into art (as his namesake Daedalus does), so Joyce has transformed his raw experience into Portrait.

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