Friday, February 24, 2012

A portrait of the artist

We couldn't get a book cover copy of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man due to copyright complications so we thought a portrait of the odd man out would do for this article at least.
A portrait of the artist as a young man? As a young dog? As a prematurely old man? As an old man? As a young girl? As words we can’t print here? As the odd man out?

The above are titles of work by James Joyce, Dylan Thomas, Ogden Nash, Joseph Heller, Grayson Perry, the punk rock band Dillinger Four (courtesy of Wikipedia) and storyboard; consecutively.

They all either show traces of influence from or parody James Joyce’s great novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Yet with or without the parodies and verbal caricatures of Dylan Thomas and others, James Joyce’s novel remains the most influential – as has been for generations – since its appearance in 1916.

We revisit the novel in our course Literary Criticism this semester not so much to remind us of its standing “as the third greatest English-language novel of the 20th century” (Modern Library) as to review its particular influence on the making of the literary consciousness of PNG in the late sixties and early seventies. The novel’s “huge influence on novelists across the world” (Wikipedia) no doubt affected PNG of that period just as much.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man poses as the avant garde of a particular century of thought and style in imaginative literature. But that avant garde phenomenon, because of its intricate nature as a narrative, turns out to be a powerful medium of influence without meaning to. In fact, if we asked James Joyce why he wrote that novel the answer would be that he wrote what he felt, what he thought, as he himself would and not somebody else. Therein lies your expression of independence. And with that your grace of selfhood.

The novel talks about growth from infancy to adolescence and making sense of one’s surrounds upon the hour of adulthood or maturity. If you have spent all your formative years within the surrounds of a rigid Jesuit scholarship and a protective Catholic upbringing, it is doubtful if your relationship with the strident secular world would be comfortable. Hence, the thematic stance of this novel.

The novel also revolves around human senses and sensibilities. The protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, appears feeble, timid (his reading glasses fall and shatter out of nervousness at one stage), overtly sensitive, vulnerable to potential bullies posing as biblical do-gooders, and so on. But he does, even in such an environment, realize his gift to dream, to imagine, and to create.

And create he does, inasmuch as his alter ego, the author. What we get out of the novel is the art of telling the exact truth about ourselves with extreme directness and honesty – something not many of us would be willing to do. As the blogger (In a Nutshell) suggests, in his time (early 1900s) James Joyce was actually describing the artistic freedom of self-expression which we take so much for granted today. And had he been aware, when writing his novel from 1905 to 1915, that there were such things as mobile phones in the 21st century then his protagonist wouldn’t have written those silly notes to that girl across the street and later squash up the paper out of embarrassment. An SMS or a missed call would have done the job perfectly.

But we come now to the point of what storyboard is really getting at here. The novel is certainly complex. But there are three important things to keep in mind when reading it. First, the necessity of intellectual and physical development of an individual. Second, the significance of one’s love for one’s art. And third, the essentialities of selfless sincerity and sharing of art with the rest of humanity.

Every society we look at today needs to be fully developed both physically and mentally through the individual members that constitute it. Of course, Joyce does not directly say that in the novel but the implications are there enough. What is a good society if all its citizenry is not sufficiently developed? A good society needs to be fully educated to reach that stage of full maturity and intellectual enlightenment. Indeed, without the latter a society is vulnerably open to decadence under the type of people who run it.

The love of one’s art is another matter. Art in this sense means being of oneself a cultured individual. The more you love your art the more you feel you have “insides”, meaning you have a soul. If we look at the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, closely, we note that everything about him is rebellion seen in an adolescent. But that rebellion is milder and subtly aristocratic rather than chaotic. Poetry and literature are discussed in that sense in the novel. And it all comes to us spontaneously for the sake of this art. What Dedalus wants is to exist as an artist unhindered by orthodox social forces and peer influences. It is that love for art that drives him, towards the end of the novel, to protest: “Non serviam – I will not serve that which I no longer believe...” While many critics see that remark as an act of outright rebellion on the part of Dedalus, it is rather an affirmative outburst in favour of the Catholic tradition that had produced that artist in the first place.

Then of course there is the necessity of properly defining this word “individual.” Everything about the novel is centred around individualism. But there is a distinction noted here. Being individualistic denotes selfishness. But being an individual, within the community of collective individualism, is yet another matter. And that, ultimately, is what our novelist is getting at here.

Earlier in this article we mentioned something about the novel’s influence on the consciousness of the PNG literary mind. How do we justify that? In 1970 storyboard wrote the widely publicised short story, “A Portrait of the Odd Man Out.” PNG lovers of the word grew up with that short story. Its intellectual influence on a modern day Papua New Guinea of the time held sway for three decades on end. There have been protests posted through the pages of Post Courier on account of the language used in the narrative, but what matter. All that came as part of our “growing up pains” on the eve of a new and independent nation.

Now the thing that shocked established church settings and literary minded individuals in the PNG of those days was storyboard’s choice of bringing art down to the level of informality and much intimacy. Author, character and reader became personally involved, so to speak. Being very personal about one’s art was “cool” then – thanks to James Joyce, of course. As the blogger (In a Nutshell-Shmoop Editorial Team) puts it appropriately: “Hallelujah! Re-Joyce and be glad.”

Friday, February 10, 2012

Their very present help

Sometime last year an academic at UPNG pointed out that aside from book reviews and literary criticism, storyboard could consider related topics surrounding the Bible and all the fellowship activity that goes with it.

And that storyboard found pleasantly challenging.

As seen innumerable times in our previous articles, and those of the window’s, the youth of any given community appears the more delicate – delicate because a strong concentration of it can be found at places like UPNG. It is this segment of our communities that needs concentrating on, because that is where much of the country’s potential leadership is. Those that take care of this particular segment of society have quite a task ahead of them. It is up to them to carry out the necessary grooming, pruning, shaping and moulding – whatever academic facade they are stationed at.

Of course our academic was not suggesting that some direct scriptural insertions should be observed in all programs offered for our youth within the academic communities, either at UPNG or elsewhere. That type of activity would be left to the talents and creativity of individual academics. But it would help a bit, and this we believe is our academic’s sincere suggestion, if some aspects of the wisdom from the Bible were included as ingredients of a good course offering, a good argument or thesis, even a whole scholarship program.

As storyboard writes this he feels somewhat amused by the thought that there are so many academics today who are shy about mentioning the Bible, even in a classroom environment. So much pressure placed on vigorous learning, extensive reading and research, and scrutinized debates during seminars and the like where one’s peers become the ultimate judge, can prove inhibiting to some. But we could, aside from being too vocal at times about our other social and personal preferences, be helping ourselves a bit if we said something about our spiritual selves, beings, egos, and so on. Moreover, if a lecturer similarly feels inhibited about his/her sense of spiritualism, then what of the student who is there to acquire knowledge and wisdom from his/her wise counsel and guidance? And what is an academic life if there is no spiritual sharing in it?

At home, within the family environment, there are women as mothers, grandmothers, aunts and relatives ever present and willing to give the necessary guidance for our youth. There, the advice and guidance given is usually Bible-based. Here, in a strictly academic environment the prospects of exercising one’s spiritual beliefs and habits can be a little isolated at times.

About a decade ago storyboard sat in his office and had a lengthy discussion on this very topic with a literature major who seemed to have been having problems of sorts herself. There were a few tears shed on the part of the student and storyboard felt it was his duty to cheer the young scholar up. One of the things storyboard remembers pointing out to the student then was that as academics and scholars there was “a tremendous absence of God in our lives.”

At which remark the student’s face lit up. Even to this day storyboard will never forget the bright smile accorded him.

It wasn’t till after the student had left that storyboard realized what all that meeting was about. The student was in fact praying for storyboard together with her other lecturers all those years that went by. When storyboard checked her records she had been gaining “C” grading and below and never once lodged an appeal which was her democratic right to do so.

Well-respected academics like Mrs Garua Peni, Coodinator of the Orientation Program, and her associates at the student counselling services might not entirely agree with our musings here. They will probably point out that for years all biblical fellowships, whether observed by staff or students of UPNG, were successfully observed one semester after another. Women members of the UPNG community will argue along the same lines. The spiritual lack in question, therefore, lies within an individual academic – and more precisely within a chosen lifestyle.

As we look around the campus grounds now, in preparation of the arrival of the 2012 student population, we see evidence of how much impact such fellowship gatherings have had not only on the campus itself but on the surrounding communities. At weekends these neighbouring communities come over to hire the university’s facilities such as its chapel, its lecture theatres and classrooms, for worship and fellowships. More and more from even as afar off as the Taurama campus and its surrounds are now requesting for space at the Waigani campus for similar activities.

This is a good sign. More so for the younger generation of children and youth who come and go. Not only do these come for fellowships but also visit other campus sites such as the Botanical Gardens for functions and recreation.  And then there is the clinic, a must for some of these children and youth who do so with joviality and much cheerfulness. Where rumours of malaria and other ailments abound these children and youth respond positively, getting malarial blood tests and supplies of tablets to take home with them.

When we see them thus, we know they are bracing to become part of the university community in the years to come. There is so much life, so much song of spiritualism in these little ones. The ear plugs that some of them wear to make them hum and sing and stroll about with cheerful smiles spell out what’s really written in their hearts.

And we hope Hillsong won't mind us quoting part of their ministry sharing here.

Whom have I in heaven but you?
There’s none I desire beside you
You have made me glad...

You are my shield
My strength
My portion
My shelter
Strong tower
My very present help in time of need

(Made Me Glad lyrics from Hillsong. Copyright © 2012 Apostle Studios.)


Thursday, February 2, 2012

A tyrant and a bear in the muse

There is a poem by W.H. Auden which has been the haunt for many a literature student in Papua New Guinea for some years, especially around this time. The poem is so straight forward we get the feeling that it does not say much except that it was written by Auden, a great name in twentieth century poetry.

A closer examination of it surprises us in the manner Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Eagle does or Salvatore Quasimodo’s Ancient Winter, along with those other shorter and intriguing pieces by Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake.

But the thing about Auden’s poem is that it reflects the twentieth and twenty-first centuries so realistically that we cannot ignore it. The poem is simply titled Epitaph on a Tyrant and quoted in full this is how it looks and sounds like:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

We sense the simplicity of the poem. And that is the dramatic aspect of it all. And the drama of the poem lies in just this one verb – “interest” (line 4). That, of course, makes us feel extra cautious about the whole poem. Even a simple poet may hold some keen interest in mechanical engineering, for example. Reading the poem and then pointing fingers at someone would therefore seem inappropriate as we could be pointing at ourselves in the mirror. And that is the irony, the very substance of the poem.

Yet the tyrant, so-called, is so simple and lovable in appearance we could all move forward and give him a nice little bear-hug.

Talking of nice little bear-hugs the next poem that comes to storyboard’s mind is the one by Galway Kinnell called The Bear (Body Rags, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967). This poem is a ripper. It has seven stanzas or thoughts to it.

In summary the poem talks about a hunter who wounds a grizzly bear with simple hand-made instruments like fox bones and having thus slowed the movement of the beast slightly sets out to hunt it down, if even he himself dies along the way. In the end, when the hunt is all over, and he is successful, he feels like he must get up and dance but lies still. Both the hunter and the bear become one, as it were.

The whole poem looked at in detail reads as follows. In the first stanza the persona in his stature of civic orderliness notices a certain irregularity (“some fault in the old snow”), so he peers downwards and in doing so senses the odour of the bear, a beastly or bestial presence.

In the second stanza he manufactures a lure consisting of blubber and in it the whittled tips of a fox rib all of which he freezes in the snow and leaves “on the fairway of the bears.” When he notices the disappearance of the lure he knows he has struck luck and he thus sets out after the beast searching for signs that it has been wounded. He does see “the first, tentative, dark splash on the earth” and that sets him running, “dragging [himself] forward with bear-knives in [his] fists”.

The third stanza, which is the key turn of the whole drama of the hunter and the hunted, appears provocative but holistic at once. “On the third day I begin to starve/at nightfall I bend down as I knew I would/at a turd sopped in blood/and hesitate, and pick it up/and thrust it in my mouth, and gnash it down/and rise/and go on running.”

In the fourth stanza, which is the seventh and final day of reckoning, the hunter sees his object of pursuit far ahead, “the carcass upturned, the heavy fur riffling in the wind.” He walks up to it, sees the pathetic little eyes, the somewhat stunned stare and flared nostrils, “catching perhaps the first taint of [the hunter] as he died.” It is a piteous, melancholy kind of encounter for man and beast. The man “hacks a ravine” in the beast’s thigh to eat and drink; he then tears it down the whole length, opens it up, climbs in, shuts it as he would a door after him, for it is cold, and sleeps.

In the fifth stanza, the hunter dreams “of lumbering flatfooted over the tundra, stabbed twice from within.” He too becomes the wounded and the hunted. Even in a dream he notices that he too is splattering, leaving a long blood trail behind him. And he knows that he too will be followed, no matter which way he turns, “no matter which parabola of bear-transcendence, which dance of solitude, which gravity-clenched leap, which trudge, which groan.”

In the sixth stanza he knows he too must fall “on his stomach that has tried so hard to keep up.” Thenceforth, there is the problem of digesting bear blood, bear bone, the lot. Himself so mortally wounded need only lie back and smell the “wretched odour of the bear blow across his sore, tongue lolled into song or screech,” until he thinks he must get up and dance but lies still. And sleep he must. This is the most intriguing part of the poem, which spells out what some philosophers would refer to as “the sleep of the just.”

Stanza seven talks of the hunter’s or persona’s awakening. There is promise of normalcy restored. The landscape of snow country looks as enchanting as ever, with the exception of not just one, but two, three, four, and more, bears, slowly approaching him, licking paws and furs with indifferent looks in his direction, taking all the time there is in the world. The poem ends with the words: “...the rest of my days I spend wandering: wondering what, anyway, was that sticky infusion, that rank flavour of blood, that poetry, by which I lived.”

These are two great poems. It does not matter how we read them to enjoy or be intrigued by. But storyboard feels the key word to keep in mind in the first poem is “interest” – a very simple, innocent sounding human sentiment. In the second poem we go beyond “interest” and enter the realms of “instinct” where the key word we note is “blubber”, denoting fat or meat as lures used on those senses that are less wary, even dormant. The lure or “blubber” also becomes the “fairway” of the persona’s, especially in that intuitive desire to wound in order to pursue and to continue “wandering”, “wondering”, “over the world”.

The second poem is highly metaphorical, and it too has become the haunt for many a literature student in Papua New Guinea.