StoryThoughts: “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (novel) by James Joyce (1916)

Turns out Wings Made of Wax Can’t Actually Fly

High points: little Stephen of the beginning, with the moocow and the “apologize/pull out his eyes” riffs. The lengthy sermons about Hell at least kept me awake. The villanelle was a nice, affecting piece of work (about a girl we never actually get to meet, though, unfortunately). And that’s all. Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners is a towering literary accomplishment, with “The Dead” as its pinnacle; A Portrait of the Artist is a stunt, Joyce plummeting artistically from the top of that tower into a pool full of formless muck. There’s no question that Portrait of the Artist, with its stream-of-consciousness narrative, was original when it appeared, but it’s dull, dull, dull. Portrait reminds me of exactly why I stopped keeping a journal as a teenager–it drove me to the sort of nauseatingly tedious navel-gazing that, far from being therapeutic, proved in and of itself to be a source of depression. In fact, at least my own teenage diary had, between bursts of ill-informed philosophy, the occasional over-the-top lust-filled, enraged, or vaguely suicidal rant. From budding artiste Stephen Dedalus we don’t even get this.

If you want to be an artist, if you want to write, Stephen Dedalus, then write. Write as your instincts and intuition demand. Don’t waste your time weaving an elaborate philosophical position on what art ought to be–especially not a position that art must, to be truly worthy, be desireless, sexless, inert. When Joyce pivoted from Dubliners to Portrait, it was as though the Wright Brothers, after conquering heavier-than-air flight, had next set themselves to the task of creating the world’s most intricately complex wallpaper pattern.

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