Against Sentimentality: Joyce’s Portrait

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Edmund Wilson said that “no two persons ever  read the same book”, and in my present fascination with revisiting books I read as a young man, unsurprisingly I find I am reading different books. Indeed, if a book, a mere sentence, can change you, then in some true sense your interpretations of the text will always be changing too. In any case, as with music, poetry, or any art, the interpretations and pleasure open slowly and in new ways with every encounter.

Joyce’s novel, in part, can be seen as a detailed and intense grappling with the struggle for form in expression that mirrors a reader’s work, for work it is to be rewarded  more fully with ‘difficult’ texts. As a young man, the book was a ‘good read’ and I retained its ‘atmosphere’, wit, irony, humour, although I have to say that the central irony passed me by so intent was I in discovering anguish in young men with which I could identify.

Stephen is remarkably educated and sensitive in many ways (despite his misguided despair that he will never be able to do more than graze upon the mountain of ‘culture’), but he is also, like I was, an emotionally labile, self-centred and overly serious prig (all of the latter qualities I have the misfortune still to thwart my project of self realisation).

There is one thing I want to do separately from here which is to take the remarkable  section which intertwines  Father Arnall’s sermon with the tortured internal responses of the young man who wanders in a separate maze of narratives, all of which lead him from listless despair to, say, fury or utter shame, and back again to self-loathing and despair. Not least among my reasons for wishing to do this is the desire to examine the rhetorical excellence of the sermoniser, its watertight coherence and consistency which enable such Hellish discourses to add to the many (obviously, various Irish voices would be included here) vicious modes in which language  ensnares and opresses the vulnerable.

It’s in the attempt to escape vulnerability, woundedness, that Stephen attempts to find the still point, the omega point provided by his own aesthetic theory. In a twist of double irony, what attributes of such a mathematically envisaged simple point to overcome  the complex mush of being human may be salvaged are provided by the formal control of Joyce. There can be no doubt at all that the author is well distanced from his own biography, and memory’s constructive  nature enables him to, layer upon layer, take many different approaches, angles – as many as the streets in Dublin, the intense stopping points of a heavily described single building or meeting point yet making the City itself a spectral identity (of course, much fog, mist, rain, darkness too) that is so many fragments. The self so ‘portrayed’ is the very opposite of a portrait with its neat frame and carefully controlled  construction that makes claim to be a representation of ‘the truth’, ‘the real’, an arti-fact  bulwarked against time. So too the rhetorics of the sentimentalists  who are like extras in a play, or masked  effigies an a grotesquerie:

Near the hoardings on the canal he met the consumptive man with the doll’s face and the brimless hat coming towards him down the slope of the bridge with little steps, tightly buttoned into his chocolate overcoat, and holding his furled umbrella a span or two from him as a divining rod.

The gross sentimentality Joyce depicts, most clearly in relation to nationalism and religion, but spilling into the pathetic memories of illusory halcyon pasts, epitomised most sadly by Stephen’s stark account of his drunken father’s behaviour in Cork,  is coterminous with language itself. That mean, mercantile,  dull register of the market place all around Stephen makes his soul dry, shrivel; it is always in danger of overcoming him, this dead weight of the quotidian world, “His own consciousness of language was ebbing from his brain.”  “He walked on in a lane among heaps of dead language”. Dead language: it is the death of language that causes the death of the soul and catachresis which is the precise enemy of the creative  act (although, of course,  the dead language in quotations is exactly part of the power of the novel, and Stephen’s eventual  rejection of the heaps of dead language that plagueed him that provide redemptive  vision; also in particular, his, our, struggle to find away of saying ourselves, feeling, being,  is doomed if all we have available  are the linguistic strategies of sentimental cliché).

The authorial distancing is crucial. Between Joyce and Stephen there is a space that varies, and sometimes Joyce needs to be almost in a different realm. Take this evocation,  if only for its beauty, as a removing in total of the young man’s self-centred universe:

The fellows were practising long shies and bowling lobs and slow twisters. In the soft grey silence he could hear the bump of the balls: and from here and from there through the quiet air the sound of the cricket bats: pick, pack, pock, puck: like drops of water in a fountain falling softly in the brimming bowl.

Like musical motifs, much, as in this quotation, will be scattered through the novel repeated or refined, modulated.  In a most sensuous novel,  the resonances, repetitions, modulations are more often psychologically image based rather than pictorial or correspondent, iconic. In refracting Stephen’s emotional turmoil, for instance, it’s important for Joyce that  the grossly dead and sentimental images of the Church’s penchant for horror are counterpointed with secular, mundane equivalence, as  below to suggest what  a Father Confessor may diagnose accidie, a qualified Doctor more likely to term mild depression, the rest of us as vague disgust and boredom:

A field of stiff weeds and thistles and tufted nettle-bunches. Thick among the tufts of rank stiff growth lat battered cannisters and clots and coils of solid excrement. A faint marshlight struggled upwards from all the ordure through the bristling greygreen weeds. An evil smell, faint and foul as the light, curled upwards sluggishly out of the cannisters and from the stale crusted dung.

I’ll end by taking aa an example a passage that is important to the novel thematically, and also throws light on how Joyce worked his distancing. The latter, I think is crucial, for it was Joyce’s intention to call on a new nationalism, or citizen or free individual to take on and oppose the tyraany of dead ideas and dead language. At the point where Stephen is being left by “Ellen” after the party:

It was the last tram. The lank brown horses knew it and shook their bells to the clear night in admonition. The conductor taled with the driver, both nodding often in the greenlight of the lamp. On the empty seats of the tram were scattered a few coloured tickets. No sound of footsteps came up or down the road. No sound broke the peace of the night save when the lank brown horses rubbed their noses together and shook their bells.

They seemed to listen, he on the upper step and she on the lower. She came up to his step many times and went down to hers again between their phrases and once or twice stood close beside him for some moments on the upper step, forgetting to go down, and then went down.

This is a beautiful piece of writing, pure author.  It’s part of the theme which will bring together Stephen’s sexual longings, desire for innocence,  love of his mother,  shame over his time with a prostitute, the shifting identity of Ellen/Emma  and so on. It is intense, and the young artist is preoccupied by find form to express the maelestrom.  His dreadful poem,  the contents of which we are mercifully spared from reading, ornaments itself with Byronic pretension,  dispenses altogether with the actual scene (so gorgeously described by Joyce) and “told only of the night and the balmy breeze and the maiden lustre of the moon.” It is amusing, of course, but the dreadful sentimentality shown here is crucial to the theme of how in a dead culture, in a cyclic pattern, dead language  creates dead emotions, dishonest ones, untrue ones, stock response ones. How tempting for Stephen to show off and put himself above the crowd by a pallid exhibition of unconscious parody: he does thereby place himself most firmly in the crowd!

Towards the end of the novel,  the author and Stephen have  become  more closely identified, two  opposing people have come closer to the one reading,  the one person: closer, not completely so, but sufficiently to mark the beginning of the artist proper.  Recalling the tram incident we have:

He had written verses for her again after ten years. Ten years before she had  her shawl cowlwise about her head, sending sprays of her warm breath into the night air, tapping her foot on the glassy road. It was the last tram; the lank horses knew it and shook their bells to the clear night in a dmonition. The conductor talked with the driver, both nodding often in the green light of the lamp. They stood on the steps of the tram, he on the upper, she on the lower. She came up to his step many times between their phrases and went down again and once or twice remained beside him forgetting to go down and then went down.

But this is Stephen’s recalling, encountering,  remembering  afresh,  seeing things lighter, less clouded by the  weight of dead language and thought and feeling.  To that extent,  the reader  too may unfix the portrait of themselves  as once they were and,  lighter, move on.

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