James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was shunned in its day (1916) for bringing the unpleasant and unseemly to print. It is a moody coming-of-age story that mirrors James Joyce’s own life growing up in the shadow of the Irish Roman Catholic church and its schools.
“a mosaic of jagged fragments that does altogether render with extreme completeness the growth of a rather secretive, imaginative boy in Dublin.” H.G. Wells
James Joyce’s experimental prose attempts to show the inner workings of the soul of an artistic young man grappling with sin and temptation, guilt and coming Judgment while subject to the delights and depressions of a creative personality.
I concur with this snippet of a review by a famous contemporary of James Joyce. He commends the book with this disclaimer:
Coarse, unfamiliar words are scattered about the book unpleasantly, and it may seem to many, needlessly. If the reader is squeamish upon these matters, then there is nothing for it but to shun this book, but if he will pick his way, as one has to do at times on the outskirts of some picturesque Italian village with a view and a church and all sorts of things of that sort to tempt one, then it is quite worth while. –H.G. Wells in The New Republic
Though A Portrait… was not exactly an enjoyable read, and at many points I found myself puzzled at the flights and fancies in this guy’s head (!) and confused at the unmarked place and time transitions, still I found it fascinating in multiple respects. I’ve made a list of the many ‘portraits’ contained in this classic:
- A thorough depiction of Hell
- A Biblical view of God as both merciful and the ultimate Judge of mankind
- An account of the effect of moral sin upon the heart, illustrating masterfully Proverbs’ warning about going to a prostitute
- A philosophical discussion of the nature of beauty and true art
- An insider’s view of the sensitive mind of an artist (and a fascinating attempt to put in writing a soul’s fickle moods!)
- A story of faith lost and the factors leading up to it…
- A classic example of the stumbling stone of ugly ‘holiness’
- A lie lived out in story form–that freedom is the anti-thesis of serving God, and expressing oneself in ‘unfettered freedom’ is the end all!
- A portrait of the unrelieved guilt that results from self-effort. (Denying pleasure and embracing discomfort/discipline will not save!)
- A portrait of the Irish Catholic church–what it gets right and what it so sadly gets wrong. (Eternal life is not found in conformity to an institution.)
Since most of us have more books piled up to be read than time to read them, I offer you my own notes and quotes by topic as a sampling of this unusual classic, just in case it’s not one that’s already on your pile!…
I was impressed at the length and breadth of a sermon on the nature of Hell delivered by the preacher at the boys’ school:
Sin, remember, is a twofold enormity. It is a base consent to the promptings of our corrupt nature to the lower instincts, to that which is gross and beast-like; and it is also a turning away from the counsel of our higher nature, from all that is pure and holy, from the holy God Himself. For this reason mortal sin is punished in hell by two different forms of punishment. Now of all these spiritual pains by far the greatest is the pain of loss…the worst damnation consists in this, that the understanding of man is totally deprived of divine light and his affection obstinately turned away from the goodness of God…At the very instant of death the bonds of the flesh are broken asunder and the soul at once flies towards God as towards the centre of her existence. Remember, my dear little boys, our souls long to be with God. We come from God, we live by God, we belong to God: we are His, inalienably His. Every breath that we draw, every thought of our brain, every instant of life proceeds from God’s inexhaustible goodness…
Oh think what pain, what anguish it must be for the poor soul to be spurned from the presence of the supremely good and loving Creator Who has called that soul into existence from nothingness and sustained it in life and loved it with an immeasurable love. This, then, to be separated for ever from its greatest good, from God, and to feel the anguish of that separation, knowing full well that it is unchangeable: this is the greatest torment which the created soul is capable of bearing…the pain of loss. p128
James Joyce’s depiction of the effect of sexual promiscuity upon the heart is brilliantly illustrative of Proverbs 5 without being unnecessarily titillating, reminding me of Paul’s warning in I Corinthians: “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.” (6:18)
A cold lucid indifference reigned in his soul. At his first violent sin he had felt a wave of vitality pass out of him and had feared to find his body or his soul maimed by the excess. Instead the vital wave had carried him on its bosom out of himself and back again when it receded: and no part of body or soul had been maimed but a dark peace had been established between them. The chaos in which his ardour extinguished itself was a cold indifferent knowledge of himself. p.103
The tendency of sin and guilt to drive the sinner away from relationship with God:
What did it avail to pray when he knew that his soul lusted after its own destruction? A certain pride, a certain awe, withheld him from offering to God even one prayer at night, though he knew it was in God’s power to take away his life while he slept and hurl his soul hellward ere he could beg for mercy. His pride in his own sin, his loveless awe of God, told him that his offence was too grievous to be atoned for in whole or in part by a false homage to the All-seeing and All-knowing. p.104
A form of ‘holiness’ without the beauty of true holiness:
[The dean of studies described]
His very body had waxed old in lowly service of the Lord–in tending the fire upon the altar, in bearing tidings secretly, in waiting upon worldlings, in striking swiftly when bidden–and yet had remained ungraced by aught of saintly or prelactic beauty. Nay, his very soul had waxed old in that service without growing towards light and beauty or spreading abroad a sweet odour of her sanctity–a mortified will no more responsive to the thrill of its obedience than was to the thrill of love or combat his ageing body, spare and sinewy, greyed with a silver-pointed down. p.185
The stumbling stone of hypocritical ‘holiness’ which is devoid of the Gospel:
Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire!
–Do you not fear that those words may be spoken to you on the day of Judgement?
–What is offered me on the other hand? Stephen asked. An eternity of bliss in the company of the dean of studies? p.239
The hopelessness of man-made religion to redeem from sin and its guilt:
It humiliated and shamed him to think that he would never be freed from it (the guilt of past sins) wholly, however holily he might live or whatever virtues or perfections he might attain. A restless feeling of guilt would always be present with him: he would confess and repent and be absolved, confess and repent again and be absolved again, fruitlessly. p.153
The illusion and limitation of man-made religion:
Have you ever loved anyone? Cranly asked.
–I tried to love God, he said at length. It seems now I failed. It is very difficult. I tried to unite my will with the will of God instant by instant. In that I did not always fail. I could perhaps do that still…p.240
The illusion of free-thinking:
“I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning.” p.247
In my pre-occupation with these weighty topics, I’ve neglected to cite the beautiful passages that weave in and out of Joyce’s writing, like ‘a day of dappled seaborne clouds’ (p.166). I leave these for your discovery. But I’ll close with what was to me the most poignant passage in the book, bringing lyrical writing together with the destiny of a soul. In the book’s closing pages Stephen, the young artist, strolls down an avenue with his friend. He is on the verge of leaving his homeland, friends and family to pursue his dreams. They are discussing his recent rejection of his faith when they hear a distant choir from which one lone voice…
…frail and high as a boy’s was heard intoning from a distant choir the first words of a woman which pierce the gloom and clamour of the first chanting of the passion:
–Et tu cum Jeus Galilaeo eras.
And all hearts were touched and turned to her voice, shining like a young star, shining clearer as the voice intoned the proparoxytone and more faintly as the cadence died.
The singing ceased. They went on together… p.244
It wasn’t until I went back and looked up the Latin phrase that I caught its significance.* Who is this woman whose words are recorded in the liturgical recasting of Jesus’ final hours? It is the servant girl in the courtyard during Jesus’ trial, who seeing Peter states:
“You were with Jesus the Galilean.”
But the young artist has made up his mind, never having grasped that faith in Jesus was the source of the freedom he sought…and he declares “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe” before setting out as so many before and since–
To discover the mode of life or of art whereby [his] spirit could express itself in unfettered freedom. p.246
And on that poignant note, I close, grateful for God’s mercy in my own life so that I can testify that Yes, I am with Jesus! And trust that if this become a life-or-death profession, He will keep me true to Him.
Thanks for letting me share my reading with you here; feel free to chime in!
*BTW, Cliff’s notes is a big asset for reading this Latin-laden book; it’s available on-line. Or just key the Latin phrase into your favorite internet browser and voila! a translation will be at your fingerips!