Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Once upon a time, and a very good time it was, there was a moocow coming down along the road, and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named Baby Tuckoo...
His father told him that story.

So begins the story of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, written by James Joyce, first published as a serial in The Egoist in 1914 - 1915. This strongly autobiographical novel chronicles the life of young Stephen Dedalus, the oldest of ten children in an Irish Catholic family at the turn of the century. The book opens with a stream of consciousness narrative written from a child's perspective, with sensual imagery and words approximating baby talk.

Throughout the novel, the Dedalus family makes a series of moves into increasingly dilapidated homes as their finances dwindle. As a very young boy, Stephen enters boarding school at Clongowes, but soon is forced to withdraw because of his family's poverty. The family moves to Blackrock, where Stephen takes long walks with his Uncle Charles and goes on imaginary adventures with boys from around the neighbourhood. When Stephen is a bit older, the family moves to Dublin, once again because of financial difficulties. There he meets a girl named Emma Clere, who is to be the object of his adoration right up until the end of the book.

As Stephen matures, he struggles with feelings of isolation, sexual fantasies, association with prostitutes, spiritual confession, then religious fanaticism. As this period of religious obsession passes, he becomes increasingly frustrated with Catholicism. Influenced by works of Aquinas and Aristotle on the subject of beauty, the young man develops his own theory of aesthetics concerning beauty and art.

He has come to regard Ireland as a trap, and realizes that he must escape the constraints of nation, family, and religion. Stephen imagines his escape as something parallel to the flight of Daedalus in Greek mythology, who escaped from his prison with wings crafted by his own genius. The book ends with Stephen leaving Ireland to pursue the life of a writer.

I first read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as a sophomore in high school, and have returned to it many times, feeling the mixed emotions associated with a return to a childhood home.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Maniac

Here's me, not in Ireland but in euphoria!
I'm wearing a pale yellow dress with white collar and brown smocking, made by my mother. The expression on my face pretty much reflects my general state of baffled happiness, then and now! This is my first grade picture, and even then, as now, my motto was "Smoke 'em if you got'em."

This blog is dedicated to the memory of the artist and young man, James Thomas Owens, who introduced me to James Joyce.