Monday, November 10, 2008

Book Review: James Joyce's Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man

This novel traces the intellectual and religio-philosophical awakening of young Stephen Dedalus as he begins to question and rebel against the Catholic and Irish conventions he has been brought up in. He finally leaves for Paris to pursue his calling as an artist. It is anyone’s guess regarding the future of Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce's Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Although he is quite intellectually endowed, his progression of individuation is a common struggle for many - and many readers will be sympathetic. I think what best reflects his future rests upon his father’s characterization of him as a "lazy bitch" (126). In other words, he will be wherever the next intellectual and sensual stimulus presents itself.

Stephen’s obsession with the erotic and sensual remains central from beginning to end of the novel. Even during what might be seen as a religious conversion; his motivations remain bound to sensuality and the novelty of various emotive flights. He speaks of his attraction to Mary and prostitutes with the same language, "(he) read the meaning of her movements," and finds himself "surrendering himself to her." He never really lives in the Catholic doctrines but is thoroughly taken by the excitement of its images and feelings; primarily its aesthetic usages and no more. In his meditations we find his "brains simmering and bubbling within the crackin tenement of the skull…flesh shrank together as if it felt the approach of the ravenous tongues of flames (97). From the first chapter we know that Stephen is moved most my image and symbols. Religious ones offer new-fangled excitements.

Stephen character nearing the novel’s end is essentially this: "I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself home, my fatherland or my church…" (181). Most important to Stephen is the development of a personal conception of divine aesthetic (so long as it is separate from church, nation, and family). He is most interested in flying. In meditative states he is transfixed by birds flying, his soul flying, an image of "winged form…a hawklike man flying sunward above the sea, a prophecy of the end he had been born to serve and had been following through the mists of childhood and boyhood, a symbol of the artist forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being" (121). Stephen finds that he might restore his own soul, as an artist, and lover of beauty. This restoration is further sealed by the girl as the sea, "a wild angel had appeared to him, the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life, to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!" (123). This Wagnerian overture to the divinity of Venus is the intellectual and sensual climax for Stephen. It is at this altar of sensual beauty that he is baptized in the waters, communes, and is redeemed. He declares his own brand of prophecy and spiritualism by inner retreat.

It may be easier to feel sympathy for Stephen’s future discord, given his experience with Jesuit tyranny and its possible far reaching effects. The brand of self denial and religious extremism pushed by the Jesuits to so young a child, might only promote inner retreat and self-deification. Where else might one find escape? Stephen’s disillusionment towards the church seems to occur when he realizes he could never live as a priest. When he realizes this, he seems to reject his faith altogether, as he thereafter "turned his eyes coldly for an instant towards the faded blue shrine of the Blessed Virgin" (116). Vocation or being "called" is only for the clergy (according to Jesuits). Therefore an alternative office in life (the "non called" life) seems less dignified, less holy, and less sensual hence Stephen’s abandonment of Catholicism. Had his Jesuit militiaman emphasized the holy life of an artist, writer, laborer, and layman Stephen might not have become so frustrated with the contradictions of the church.

Given Stephen’s final journal entries in the novel, it seems his mental state though active, may not be sufficiently healthy. His future might be prone to alcoholism and drug use as concocting mental images and sensual gratifications becomes harder to achieve. As Catholicism, paganism, and other sensual costumes lose their luster he will likely turn to narcotics. Drugs offer fantastic emotive experiences and bodily gratifications. They are the logical conclusions for his life and likely for his death.

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