Friday, February 02, 2007

Joyce's Kunstleroman

I have just finished read James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (for the second time acually, I read it around the same time last year) and thought I would try to articulate some of my initial thoughts, especially since our class discussion Monday will revolve around it and its relation to Dante.

The story is a traditional "Bildungsroman" in the sense that it is a 'coming of age' tale of a young boy; more specifically, it is a 'kunstleroman' since it deals with the 'coming of age of an artist.' There are obvious parallels between Stephen and his journey from Clongowes to Belvedere to University College where he sinks into sin, emerges as a convert, flirts with the priesthood, but eventually decides to "fly by the nets" of nationality, language, religion in order to "forge in the smithy of his soul" the conscience of Ireland. Quite a bold statement. In fact, Stephen's character is marred by his overweening pride and is the reason that each chapter (there are 5) begins with Stephen being brought low from the preceding high that ended the earlier chapter. As a boy he faces the dean only to be humbled when he learns it was a joke, he renews his religious convictions only to renew his assertion that his is a lonely road, one he must travel alone, and so he becomes an artist. Like his namesake (Dedalus), Stephen Dedalus doesnt' want to be grounded by the Irish language, the Irish Catholicism (which he believed betrayed the Irish hero Parnell), or Irish nationality (which so readily accepted the yoke of a foreign culture: England). However, he can't get too close to the sun either or he will burn, like his namesake's son Icarus, whose wax wings melted and caused his death. So this is Stephen, flying in the precarious position, in between, intermezzo, in media res.

What strikes me about Stephen is the almost deliberate subversion of Dante and his aesthetic. Dante's travel's through hell to purgatory to heaven are linear. Point A to Point B. Stephen however, occupying that precarious middle position, is constantly being threatened with the unknown waiting to destroy him and the known that will cage him. Such is the flight of Dedalus, both then and now. Like Dante after the Vita Nuova, Stephen turns to Aristotle and Aquinas in order to develop an aesthetic. However, his words "I will not serve" are reminiscent of Milton's Satan who remarks "It is better to reign in Hell than to serve in heaven." Therefore, Stephen's aesthetic is primarily an individualistic and self absorbed one. He takes Aquinas' three points: Wholeness, Rhythm, and "unitas" (which he translates radiance) to say that something beautiful must be 1) whole: you can abstract it from all reality and see it as a whole thing, individual of all others. A chair therefore without its setting, held up in the minds eye, with a given boundary, etc. 2) Rhythm: the coordination of parts that create a balance of parts to the whole. A chair with legs, a back, a seat. Functioning and aesthetically pleasing. 3) Unitas/radiance: (I take this to be the most important since it is such a break from Dante, and later Tolkien) the "quidditas" or the whateness of the object. The thing is only the thing.

Now the last point may seem trite, but its not. Dante, after reading Aristotle and Aquinas came to the conclusion that his love for Beatrice, and the beauty he found in her, was so beautiful because it pointed beyond her. In fact, Dante's journey through hell to purgatory to Paradise, begins with Virgil as his guide, than Beatrice, than Christ, because each signifies something "beyond" the object. Beatrice is desireable, which is "love in motion" only because there is something stationary about her, that is, an unmoved mover/God who is absolute love (thanks Aristotle and Aquinas). Eliot picks this up beautifully in Four Quartets and Ash Wednesday when he speaks of the Still point in the turning world. So, already Dante and Joyce (well, Stephen to be exact) are at odds.

Stephen's aesthetics relates to his self-indulgence because he ultimately thinks that there is nothing and no one besides him. He constantly seeks to set himself apart from the group and the novel ends with him abandoning all his friends and the community so he can work alone. If the pattern of the book maintains itself beyond the last page, we can safely assume that the next time we encounter young Dedalus, he will have fallen again.

Anyways, this hardly scratches an inch of the surface of this incredible account of the mind of a genius. But these were some of my initial observations and I find Blogging a great way to articulate them (and bore anyone who wants to read this drivel).



Rebecca said...

doug- that's not drivel. It is actually perfect timing, because I am reading that book right now for my modern british lit. class with D. Bowen. I am really liking it, and your insight is appreciated!

Vanessa Brouwer said...

It's very true, I'm in the same class with Ree and a lot of what you wrote that I just read we discussed in class today. What you are writing ties different minds such as Dante to Joyce and it's really interesting to see the connections.. thanks Doug!