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.”