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The Review Man

Formerly of Goodreads, now of both words, in the coming times only here?

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Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - James Joyce It's hard to tell where the self-aggrandizing, pretentious 'philosophy' ends and the real literature begins in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. On one hand, the title all but warns us that we're in for the immature adventures of a young man; on the other hand, we're treated to the thousands of 'sophisticated' emotions that the word artist evokes.

One idea that defines Stephen Dedalus's coming-of-age adventure (and, interestingly enough, the novel as meta-criticism) is that of realism and fantasy. The desk your computer sits on is real. You are real (or so says David Hume, because the alternative is a waste of everyone's time). Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is real. But is Stephen Dedalus real? Is the art he seeks to create real? Is art itself real? Yes, the physical representation of the art is real -- art 'consumption' is a decidedly sensory affair -- but is the very soul of art also real?

(Perhaps more importantly, does talking about these things make you more important than someone who doesn't care? If not, would it be hypocritical of me to wax poetic about how Dedalus himself commits this error?)

Nowhere is this tension seen more clearly than in Stephen Dedalus' strange life story. He visits a prostitute, suddenly converts to hellfire and brimstone, then just as suddenly follows his 'true' artistic calling. Note that, from the audience's point of view, Dedalus' simplest, most transparent moments are his first; his most frustrating come near the end of the novel at the 'artist' phase. Is this meta-commentary on the state of literature or authorship? What other reason does Joyce offer for such a transformation? Alternatively, look at Dedalus' most foundational views of human life itself. When are his opinions most clear, most realist? Is Dedalus' moment of clarity the moocow or the artist?

Now I must be very careful with my review, since I do not wish to imply that simple things are better than more complicated things. (This is how many people misstate Occam's Razor; in reality, the best explanation is the one with the fewest assumptions, and even that often proves fallacious in modern chemistry.) I do, however, wish to consider if Portrait is pretentious, if it is about being pretentious, or if it is exactly what it looks like. In other words, is the Dedalus at the end of Portrait a needlessly egotistical philosophical type without an ounce of real talent to offer the world? Is he a character created by an author exhibits these traits himself, yet who wished to discuss these very issues? Or is he genuinely a true artist, perhaps misunderstood by some, but rightfully lauded by others?

The disparity between realism and fantasy becomes all the more obvious if you consider God to be Dedalus' fantasy and art to be his true point of reference. Joyce seems to offer a decent argument in favour of this proposition, but upon stepping back from the narrative, the argument breaks down. If art is real, who's to say God isn't? And if God isn't real, then surely something as invisible as art can't be real either.

Those last two sentences are flippant and hardly logical, but I write them for a greater purpose; namely, to expose what I contend is a fundamental problem with Dedalus' philosophy. Dedalus is interested in the idea of the artist as creator, perhaps less so in actually producing art for the world to see. However, regardless of what happens after death, Dedalus won't be able to enjoy his own art (barring some sort of hippie reincarnation scenario). What, then, is the purpose of abandoning God for something so ephemeral? In such an oddly Pascal-Wager-esque situation, doesn't it make more sense to bet on God?

Now I haven't read Ulysses, so I am in no way fit to comment on the complete life of Stephen Dedalus, nor am I in any position to judge Joyce's entire literary output. In fact, I do tend to believe that Dedalus is a flawed philosopher not because Joyce is incompetent or wrong, but because Joyce fully intended for him to be so. Nonetheless, Dedalus becomes so frustrating a character that he drains much of the joy of the novel's last 100 pages. In a sense, Dedalus reminds me of an inexperienced runner who sprints at the start of the marathon and is wheezing on the ground by Mile 10.

However, this is in no way a criticism of Portrait itself; it's an examination of why Dedalus is right about all the wrong things and wrong about the things that truly matter. The novel itself is great, but Dedalus is the kid who ruins the party for everyone else.