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A case for Portrait – Revisiting James Joyce Part 1

Reading Portrait while I'd just begun hobnobbing with literature left me with vague stirrings of the inner workings of a mind. A mind flourished in the throes of awakening into the grace of wisdom and anguish.

I remember the sunshine in those evenings and creaky window of my cousin’s attic overlooking the cemetery of the church sharing the fence. I was captivated by some of those dreamy passages in the book and I knew Stephen Dedalus was here to stay. The seductive power of Joycean language weaved a bit of magic tangle for me, even when I wasn't aware or never curious for Irish politics, his specifics of catholic dogmas and the morals of the Irish society in general.

However what was palpable at the time was an instant recognition of Joyce's genius and how tactile was Stephen Dedalus' mind that worked its way through an evolving awareness from his childhood. The autobiographical signposts in the book were as misleading as seemingly direct and simple literary techniques employed. Stephen narrated his own life in various phases and evolution of his consciousness built up on a masterful control of words. What set Joyce apart from most was the unprecedented ability to combine his rebellious experiments in form and content.

Joyce lived in exile and in attempts to ward off impoverishment. In many ways the self imposed exile left him living on the edge. The crossroads in Trieste where he stayed, inhabited by people of multiple nationalities provided him a linguistic melting pot and the psyche of an exile. The Portrait to Ulysses and culminating in Finnegan’s Wake provide ample evidences of this progression.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914) is special not in the least it pioneered stream of consciousness form, not even the brilliance of language but the fact the book has a lot of heart in it. You would find the spirit and its mellowing of consciousness in the transitory stages of childhood, adolescence and youth. You would imbibe as much as you revel in the sensitivity applied in his imageries and the narrative.

Stephen's childhood goes through the bittersweet experiences surrounding his parents, governess Dante, Catholicism and Conglowes School. His impressionable mind responded to the seemingly overwhelming and insecure life and times. His fascination for the innocence of Eileen who is a protestant is disapproved, the induction of church, nationalism and politics at the dinner table with him as witness, his sense of punishment and justice when he complains to the rector about Father Dolan as the latter pandied him for the broken glasses which he was falsely accused for having done it deliberately - You could find Stephen grow up fast and developing a sensitive but tenacious mind. This evolution is drawn in a metaphor as given below:

"He (Stephen) turned to the flyleaf of the geography and read what he had written there: himself, his name and where he was.

Stephen Dedalus
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
County Kildare
The World

The Universe"

Stephen's run-ins into the charms of romanticism and sexuality are the next phase of his life. He would be on a journey to come into terms with his perceptions which are in conflict with his immediate world. The reveries about the girl in the tram and his urges to talk to her, his amorous melancholic visions of Mercedes from Count of Monte Cristo, the unconventional views of writers (the boys attacked him for defending the heretic poet, Byron), his dispassionate realization of his father's failures, his longings and first sexual encounter with a prostitute reveal the growth of an artist's psyche. Joyce employs the metaphor of walking to imply Stephen’s awakenings and you would see him do at different stages of narrative:

"He had wandered into a maze of narrow and dirty streets. From the foul laneways he heard bursts of hoarse riot and wrangling and the drawling of drunken singers. He walked onward, dismayed, wondering whether he had strayed into the quarter of the Jews. Women and girls dressed in long vivid gowns traversed the street from house to house. They were leisurely and perfumed. A trembling seized him and his eyes grew dim. The yellow gas-flames arose before his troubled vision against the vapory sky, burning as if before an altar. Before the doors and in the lighted halls groups were gathered arrayed as for some rite. He was in another world: he had awakened from a slumber of centuries."

The torments of Stephen walking alongside the vagaries of lust and loss of innocence after the brief spells of romance, and the burgeoning of his artistic self finds expression in Joyce's imageries and word play.


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