Until I reached the fifth and final chapter, the rating on A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
was a pretty weak three-stars. And those were mostly for the deserving prose, and not for the underlying story. Boy did that last chapter pack a whollop! As with Dubliners
, Joyce's emotional acuity and linguistic precision is amazing, not a single word feels to be excessive or out of place, and he is able to tap into Stephen's psyche with a knowing conviction. I relate to Stephen a lot, and he feels perhaps more real to me than any other character - or at least he ranks among Proust's narrator and Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway in psychological completeness.
As I say that Stephen is whole, I am reminded of Stephen's own discussion on what makes something beautiful: "Three things are needed for beauty, wholeness, harmony and radiance." He adopts Thomas Aquinas's definition of beauty here, in the original Latin of course (these Irish school-boys have the priggish habit of palavering in Latin...). Why Stephen's school-boy pals put up with his incessant Latin-quoting, highfalutin, theoretical chatter is beyond me; I think it has something to do with bummming smokes off of him, but it seems a bit of an unequal trade. Anyway, I think maybe the best format for me to review Joyce's first novel is to look at it under his own (and Thomas Aquinas's) metrics: (a) wholeness, (b) harmony, and (c) radiance. Since this is a portrait, or rather a portraiture, I will mostly defer to Stephen's character as a basis for measuring Joyce's work's beauty.
I have already touched a bit on Stephen's wholeness. His thoughts are presented in a sort of detached, omniscient, third-person breed of stream-of-consciousness, one which is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf. But rather than a faded socialite's consciousness, we are privy to the odd, allusive, aesthetic throbbings of a young artist. I loved especially the mental composing of poetry, the logophilic absurdities which slip from his mind like a sieve, for example:
The ivy whines upon the wall,
And whines and twines upon the wall,
The yellow ivy upon the wall,
Ivy, ivy up the wall.
Which is quickly followed up with his own self-condemnation of his foolishness:
Did anyone ever hear such drivel? Lord Almighty! Who ever heard of ivy whining on a wall? Yellow ivy; that was all right. Yellow ivory also. And what about ivory ivy? The word now shone in his brain, clearer and brighter than any ivory sawn from the mottled tusks of elephants. ivory, ivoire, avorio, ebur.
I for one have done this many a time, though I don't venture to boast of my aesthetic senses to any state rivaling Stephen's, a truly aesthetic brilliance. But it is Stephen's musings like these that remind us that he is an artist, or at least and aspiring artist - because we rarely see him doing
anything artistic aside from occasionally scribbling some verses on the back of a cigarette box. I think it is often easy for us to imagine authors as Flaubertian monomaniacs, locking themselves in a garret, throwing tantrums and pounding the floorboards for three days searching for le mot juste
; but that is unfair, inaccurate. Stephen is an artist, but first and foremost he is a young man, a human being. He goes to whorehouses, he takes walks around Dublin, around the college quadrangle, he has family squabbles, etc. We are perhaps guilty (or rather I am) in deflating my perception of artists to something which is not whole, which is at one and the same time something more than human, but something also less than human: an aesthetic sentiment which surpasses all boundaries on the ordinary and transcends into the sublime, but only that, nothing else. So thank you, Stephen, for liberating all the pretty poets and novelists and painters who I have locked away in a garret these twenty-three years.
Is Portrait of the Artist
harmonic? Yes. Is Stephen? Only in the end. Like all great characters, there is a contradiction eating away at him from the inside-out. The church vs. life-as-a-work-of-art, or something like that. The religious portion of this book, while adding something to understanding Stephen's struggle, is heavy-handed and difficult to get through (l'ennui
). Stephen's struggle is essentially the age-old young-man struggle of sex. He likes sex, he wants to have lots of sex, but he feels guilty for having it. But once he starts, he says to-hell-with-it, his soul is already damned, why not dip in a bit more? Worse than just that, he feeds his lascivious tastes at brothels rather than bonking the nice little Catholic girl he writes little villanelles about before bed. But for all the dirtiness it makes on his soul, his first sexual encounter seems to unfold an profound (and profane) aesthetic possibility for him:
He closed his eyes, surrendering himself to her, body and mind, conscious of nothing in the world but the dark pressure of her softly parting lips. They pressed upon his brain as upon his lips as though they were the vehicle of vague speech; and between them he felt an unknown and timid pressure, darker than the swoon of sin, softer than sound or odour.
All the talk of the evils of sex reminded me light-heartedly of our abstinence discussion in CCD class (I, like Stephen, was raised Roman Catholic). Basically we were all give an Oreo and a glass of milk, and told to dip the cookie into the milk, then to observe that the cookie had soiled the milk forever and that nothing could ever remove that sin from our soul
. A bit of a harsh treatment on snack time, and I always suspected a coffee filter would do the trick, but alas, that is my experience with the Catholic church. Anyway, so Stephen's milk is soiled forever, and he withholds all of the senses' pleasures from himself in order to repent. But when he is offered a chance to enter the priesthood, he realizes that it isn't his calling, it was only a vague ideal which he sought to please someone else, his mother (shhh Freud, calm down).
But anyway, I've gotten a bit off the point. Harmony. The novel is thoroughly consistent. It is evident from the start that Stephen's piety has an expiration date, that something modern and beautiful will emerge from his experiences with the church, and it does. At the end we see the Stephen which suffered the burden of the church, of his family, of his country, we see that Stephen with the tethers removed and a reinvigorated attitude on life:
Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.
Lastly, the radiance of the novel. Like the filter on an instagram photo, radiance is that je ne sais quoi
, I-don't-know-what, that bit of experience which transcends language and leaves you speechless. Portrait of the Artist
had me oftentimes speechless. I do not need to explain why, because I have quoted enough snippets from this beautiful (provenly so) novel, and if you are left in doubt I can only encourage you to take the novel and open to any page at all (except maybe the copyright page) and read a sentence at random. Like some other reviewer said far more succinctly than I: "You had me at 'moo-cow.'"