Weldon Thornton, The Antimodernism of Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (Syracuse UP 1994)

[...] The modernist idea of “discrete individualism” - i.e., the idea that the individual is self-contained and self-determining - is undoubtedly a central theme of that novel [Portrait of the Artist]. But in my view, Joyce’s purpose in the novel is not to celebrate such individualism; on the contrary, it is to show how superficial and insufficient this understanding of the individual psyche is. Demonstration of that claim about Joyce’s handling of individualism in the novel, however, would have deflected me from my discussion of sources and expressions of atomic individualism in Western intellectual history and would require a book to itself. This is that book. [2]

My argument here is that Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist is, in some meaningful senses of the term, antimodernist. In Stephen Dedalus, Joyce depicts an intelligent, sensitive young man who is strongly influenced by various ideas and assumptions of the Modernist Syndrome - ideas that Joyce himself weighed and found wanting. Though Joyce treats Stephen sympathetically, he reveals in a number of ways the insufficiencies of Stephen’s implicit view of reality and of the self. Furthermore, Portrait reflects this distance between Joyce and Stephen, not simply in its tone or in certain differences of aesthetic opinion between author and character, but in its very structure and verbal texture, because the structure itself embodies Stephen’s implicit view of reality, and the verbal presentation of his consciousness persistently involves a deeper individual and cultural psyche than Stephen himself can comprehend.

From early in his career, Joyce saw the need to dramatise within his work the conflicting perspectives the twentieth century inherited in the subject-object, mind-nature dichotomy - a dichotomy expressing itself in literary terms mainly in symbolism vs. naturalism. Joyce saw the essential falseness and pernicious effects of this dichotomisation and prepared himself to effect a synthesis of the two perspectives. In Portrait the need for this synthesis is fully dramatised through Stephen Dedalus, who is enamoured of such a dichotomy, while Joyce reveals the incompleteness of Stephen’s view.

Thus I see Joyce as “taking the measure” of Stephen, but I add two things to this long-established perspective on the novel. [note]. First, I set my about Joyce’s “antimodernist” aims in Portrait within the context of certain deep-running currents of Western thought [...] Second, I show how profoundly Joyce takes the measure of Stephen’s individualism, even of his implicit view of the nature of reality and of the psyche. [...; 4]

Moreover, my analysis differs from poststructuralist analyses by showing that although Portrait does involve a profound criticism of the modernist view of the self, Joyce does not claim the self is non-existent or merely a cultural construct (as the poststructuralists would have it) but rather shows the self’s coherence and entelechy are more deeply rooted in the psyche than any analysis can comprehend.’ (pp.2-4.) [Bibl. note follows, as infra.]

[ top ]

[...]

Chapter 6: “The Verbal Simulation of Stephen’s Psychic Milieu” [sect.: ‘Language Chez Joyce’]
‘Having read Joyce’s works carefully with this question in mind, I find no evidence that he identified language with reality, or with culture, or with human consciousness or thought processes. [Weldon here cites examples of that view from Marilyn French, Randy Malamud, Katie Wales, et mult. al.] (Ironically, it is his unparalleled skill in using language to evoke and simulate various aspects of reality that causes some critics to make this unwarranted inference. Anthony Burgess makes precisely this point in regard to Joyce’s presentation of his characters’ psychic life [viz., Burgess on interior monologue: ‘reading, we are convinced that this is how thoughts flow through the mind, and we forget that most of our inner life, especially when it is concerned with elemental matters like bodily wants, is preverbal. [... &c.] Joysprick, p.50; here p.197.]

It is very hard even to know what such claims of the “identity” of language and reality mean, because they involve so fundamental a confusion of categories and fly so directly in the face of our experience. That is, not even the most abstruse theoretician can believe that pain or death or an earthquake are sheerly linguistic, and we should not attribute such metaphysical confusions to Joyce. He was not simply a word-crafter existing in a vacuum; he was a living person who struggled with a variety of experiences, from the death of his brother George and of his mother, to severe iritis, to the mental imbalance of his daughter, and he cannot have believed that these traumatic personal experiences were sheerly linguistic. He did of course communicate with his eye doctor through language, but that must have made it all the more obvious to this lord of language that the pain he suffered in his eyes was not a matter of grammar or syntax or assonance; if it had bee , Joyce could have exorcised it far better than a medical doctor. While Joyce knew that language is the most subtle device we have for the apprehension and extension of reality, he never simply identified the two. He remained aware that there does exist some public proto-reality, prior to us and in some respects independent of us, which we apprehend, and modify, through language.

I disagree as well with those who would see language as Joyce’s sole theme or subject, or who would argue that language comprises the source and substance of his characters’ problems and failures. This claim that Joyce’s Dubliners are inescapably paralyzed by their language was proposed years ago by Hugh Kenner (see esp. the first chapter of his Dublin’s Joyce, 1955), and more recently it often forms a part of structuralist approaches to Joyce’s works. But while Joyce certainly shows in his works that language can become limiting and constricting, he also shows that language is the most subtle and comprehensive tool we have for freeing ourselves from convention or ordinariness. Joyce knew that it is simplistic and evasive to blame the medium, the tool, for either failures or successes of the human imagination. If we use language to achieve fresh perceptions of the world, or to find new means of self-understanding and self-realization, language itself should not be credited with the achievement; but neither should it be blamed if we are so unimaginative I or passive that we permit ourselves to become inured to ordinariness and cliché.’ (p.117; cont.)

[ top ]

‘That Joyce did not identify language and reality is made clear by a number of his own statements at various times during his career-statements that show he saw language as a means of conveying or engaging some entity, some aspect of reality, and that consistently involve a discrimination between language and the cultural reality it conveys. in “Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages” (1907), Joyce says “nationality ... must find its reason for being rooted in something that surpasses and transcends and transforms changing things like blood and the human word” ([Mason & Ellmann, eds., Critical Writings, Viking 1959, p.166). In his 1907 essay on Mangan, he speaks of him as having “... expressed in a worthy form the sacred indignation of his soul” (Ibid., p. 186). In “The Home Rule Comet” (1910), Joyce says of Ireland, “She has abandoned her own language almost entirely and accepted the language of the conqueror without being able to assimilate the culture or adapt herself to the mentality of which this language is the vehicle” (Ibid., pp.212-13). In his Trieste Notebook, s.v. Dedalus, Joyce wrote “He desired to be not a man of letters but a spirit expressing itself through language ...” (Scholes & Kain, The Worksbop of Daedalus, p.96). And lest it be objected that all of these are early, naive statements that Joyce had “got beyond” by the time he came to Finnegans Wake, consider the following statements relating to that work: [117] to Ernst Robert Curtius, Joyce said “The night world can’t be represented in the language of day” (JJ, rev. ed., 1982, p.590). Ellmann tells us of “Anna Livia Plurrabellle” that “to a friend who complained that it was just dada, he said ‘It is an attempt to subordinate words to the rhythm of water,’” and further that “he felt some misgivings about it the night he finished, and went down to the Seine to listen by one of its bridges to the waters. He came back content (Ibid., p.564, and footnote). And in an often-quoted letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver he said “One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead ploC (Nov. 24, 1926; Letters, III, p.146). These comments show that Joyce did not identify language with various psychological, culture, and natural entities.’

[Thornton goes on to insist that Joyce’s techniques are concerned with i‘simulations, rather than attempts to replicate the psyche’; idem.]

[ top ]

Bibliographical note
Readings of Portrait that propose an ironic distance between Joyce and Stephen Dedalus are traced back to Hugh Kenner’s “The Portrait in Perspective,” in James Joyce: Two Decades of Criticism, edited by Seon Givens [Augmented Edition] (NY: Vanguard Press, 1963), pp. 132-74. The essay appeared in revised form in Kenner’s Dublin’s Joyce (London: Chatto & Windus, 1955). In recent decades such a view has become common, but there have been significant exceptions - e.g., Wayne Booth, in The Rhetoric of Fiction (rev. edn. Chicago UP 1983), and Louis D. Rubin, Jr., in The Teller and the Tale (Seattle: Washington UP 1967). Two book-length studies of A Portrait similar in perspective to my own are Marguerite Harkness’s The Aesthetics of Dedalus and Bloom (Bucknell UP 1984) and Joseph A. Buttigieg’s “A Portrait of the Artist” in Different Perspective (Ohio UP 1987). Harkness’s book is the fullest account we have of the links between Stephen Dedalus’s attitudes and ideas and those of the fin de siècle aesthetes, especially Wilde and Pater; it focuses on how Joyce reveals the insufficiency of Stephen’s aesthetic ideas. Buttigieg too discusses Stephen’s thinking about art - especially how Joyce shows the inadequacy of the formalist aesthetic ideas that Stephen is enamoured of. Buttigieg’s approach to Portrait through “modernism” suggests an affinity between our approaches that is more apparent than real, since his view of modernism is radically different from my own. An earlier, insufficiently appreciated book is Homer Obed Brown’s James Joyce’s Early Fiction: The Biography of a Form (Cleveland: Case Reserve UP 1972), which proposes that Portrait reflects Stephen’s mind even in its subject-object division and in its structure. Vicki Mahaffey’s lengthy discussion of Portrait in her Reauthorizing Joyce (Cambridge UP 1988) also has something in common with my approach, in its emphasis on the persistent “doubleness” of Stephen’s experience and on the role of “unconscious awareness” in his response to the world. James F Carens’s lengthy essay dealing comprehensively with virtually every aspect of the novel (and a great deaf of the secondary literature) is also worthy of note: “A [162] Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, in A Companion to Joyce Studies, ed. Zack Bowen and & James F. Carens (Conn: Greenwood Press 1984), pp. 255-359. For an overview of critical opinion on Portrait (and on Joyce and his works generally), see the review essays by Thornas E. Staley, “James Joyce”, in Anglo-Irish Literature: A Review of Research, ed. Richard J. Finneran (NY: Modern Language Association 1976), pp.366-435; and “James Joyce”, in Recent Research on Anglo-lrish Writers: A Supplement to Anglo-Irish Literature - A Review of Research, ed. Richard J. Finneran (NY: Modern Language Association 1983), pp.181-202. Thomas Jackson Rice’s James Joyce: A Guide to Research (NY: Garland 1982) is a helpful annotated secondary bibliography.

[ back ]
[ top ]