James Farrell on James Joyce, 1944

New York Times
December 31, 1944

Joyce and His First Self-Portrait


"This race and this country and this life produced me," declares Stephen Dedalus--artistic image of James Joyce himself--in "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." "A Portrait" is the story of how Stephen was produced, how he rejected that which produced him, how he discovered that his destiny was to become a lonely one of artistic creation. It is well to look into the life out of which Stephen came, to discuss the social and national background of this novel. In Ireland a major premise of any discussion of her culture and of her literature is an understanding of Irish nationalism. And it is at least arguable that Joyce was a kind of inverted nationalist--that the nationalism which he rejects runs through him like a central thread.

Ireland, when James Joyce was a boy, suffered from a profound political defeat, the fall of Parnell. In that, once again, she was set back in her long struggle to attain nationhood. The aftermath was marked by a deeply felt and pervasive bitterness, often expressed in feelings of personal betrayal. And "A Portrait" reflects such moods. The brilliantly written scene, early in this novel, of the Dedalus family pitilessly quarreling at the Christmas dinner table is a highly concentrated artistic representation of the magnitude of Parnell's fall in Ireland, of how it cut through families with a knifelike sharpness. The family argument is personal and its passionate anger seems to be in inverse proportion to the political impotence of those who are hurling insults at one another.

Whenever Stephen, as a youth, discusses politics he expresses himself with singular resentment. He identifies himself with the courageous men who have striven and been martyred in the cause of Ireland, feeling that they have been let down by their own followers, by those whom they were trying to free. Stephen's reaction is not a singular one for the Ireland of his time. (In fact, it is even paralleled in this period, for just as Stephen blames the Irish people for Ireland's defeats, so do many contemporary radical intellectuals blame the workers for the defeats of socialism.) The Irish people have betrayed the future of Stephen Dedalus, genius son of a declassed family. This is the real sense of his bitterness. Even the monuments and memorials to the honorable heroes of Ireland, Tone and Emmet, are tawdry, part of a tawdry Dublin present which he resents.

Ireland's national aspirations generalized real, deep-seated needs. These had been choked up in the nineteenth century by a whole series of defeats from the tone of Emmet and Tone to that of Parnell. When these wide needs are thus thwarted, frustrated, they are revealed in a molecular way, a sense of multiple personal betrayal, despair and disgust with politics. When this social phenomenon is expressed in art, it is usually in terms of how it is immediately felt rather than in those of its social rationale. This is how Stephen felt about the Irish political defeats, directly with painful immediacy.

The post-Parnell period was one of groping for new orientation. Irish nationalism found this politically in Sinn Fein and culturally in the so-called Irish Literary Renaissance, the Gaelic-language movement and the Gaelic-sports movement.

In a diary note (quoted in Herbert Gorman's valuably informative biography) Joyce once described Ireland as "an afterthought of Europe." This remark is to be interpreted as relating principally to Ireland's cultural backwardness. During the nineteenth century, Ireland, a backward country, suffering from continuous economic crisis, lived through a succession of miseries. Famine, immigration, defeat, this was her lot. Irish culture was meager; it was also debased by much that was counterfeit, for instance the literature of the stage Irishman. What culture there was had been nourished by the liberating influences of the great French Revolution and found its best expression in such patriots as Thomas Davis and Mangan, as well as in the novelist Carleton.

Ireland's experiences gave her thin culture a tincture of sadness, at times a romantic sadness; an instance of this is Mangan's "Dark Rosaleen." In the first half of the nineteenth century a disunified Germany created a German philosophy which, with Hegel, achieves a kind of spiritual unity in culture as a sublimation of the real need for the unity which was not attained on the plane of history. When there was a sudden growth of this thin Irish culture in the post-Parnell period, it can be explained as a similar kind of cultural compensation.

There is a note of foreignness, of alienness, in the first stage of the Irish literary renaissance. Nationalists often call it an Anglicized culture; what I think they really mean is that it did not adequately express Irish needs of the time. The progenitors of this movement were very talented people, and one of them, Yeats, was destined to become probably the greatest poet of his age writing in the English language. But they went to Irish materials as if from without. Sensitive to a disorientation which was pervasively felt at the time, needing sources of inspiration fresher than those of English literature and of the fin de siecle when Victorian culture fell apart, they more or less discovered Ireland.

But what did they discover? This stage of the so-called renaissance produced the poetic drama. It found thematic material in the legends of Ireland's free and pre-Saxonized past. A fresh and poetic language was sought in the speech of the poorest, the most backward section of the Irish peasantry. Standish O'Grady, frequently referred to as the father of this movement, attempted to re-establish the old legends on a Homeric level. It seems as if all these writers were seeking to create images of great figures of their past in order to compensate (though perhaps not consciously) for their lack of leaders in the present; so that with Parnell gone, they could still derive some cultural subsistence, some sense of pride and inspiration, from the image of Fergus and other heroes of the legends.

Thwarted on the historical plane, Ireland set up as a counter to England an idea of her own culture. Through culture, she would show that she was a nation. When Yeats wrote a play like "Kathleen ni Houlihan" with political implications, it is interesting to note that Kathleen ni Houlihan (Ireland, and a rather weak cultural image to set against that of John Bull) asks her sons not to live, fight, win and build for her, but rather to go and die for her, as if Ireland had been lacking in names to inscribe on her martyrology.

The emphasis of this stage of the movement was on the past. Where could Joyce fit into it? What could it teach him, a young genius who was so acutely sensitive to all of the life of the moment?

In "A Portrait," the world presses on Stephen. His own thoughts are melancholy. His proud spirit cannot tolerate the painful burden of reality. He must rise above it. All of this burden is not directly represented in the novel; some of it is reflected in memory and in conversation. No clear and full picture of Stephen's relationship with his mother is described. Through conversation, we learn that he has had a distressing quarrel with her, in which he tells her that he has lost his faith. Additionally, Stephen loses his respect for his father; he begins to develop that feeling of being fatherless which is so important a part of his character in "Ulysses." But here Joyce does not develop these relationships in directly written scenes. Much is not touched upon; what of the relationship between Stephen's father and mother?

"The Portrait" contains only a most highly concentrated sense of home, school, streets and city which press so sharply upon Stephen's spirit. In fact, Joyce introduced the city and urban life realistically into modern Irish literature. He is acutely sensitive to all that happens around him: he breathes in something of every wind which blows in Ireland. Joyce at this time felt more, saw more, brooded more than he allows Stephen to reveal to us. Stephen, as boy and youth, tramps the streets of Dublin.

Sometimes in his walks he trembles with fears of damnation. Again, his mind is filled with lurid visions of sin, written of in purple passages suggestive of Pater's prose; but very often he searches, looks, listens. In these walks how much of Dublin must have attracted him, how much must have repelled him! How much didn't the streets of Dublin tell him of life, of men, of himself? How much of Ireland's real, historic past was not poured through his senses, into the pulsing life of the present? Why is Stephen so melancholy? Obviously because he carries within him such a burden of impressions, such a burden of the life of his country, his city, his race, his own family. He feels that he, himself, is an alien in his homeland, and that he is even forced to speak a language that is not his own. He sees the results of Ireland's better history in the quality of the life, of the culture, even of humanity in Dublin. This quality of humanity is vividly revealed in his feelings about his own father. Unless he breaks with all that this represents, he, himself, will have no future. At one point, defending himself after he has rejected all that produced him, he says: "I am not responsible for the past." But he has seen the consequences of that past all about him in the present.

Such being the case, Joyce is not going to find literary inspiration where the leading literary men of the time have found it. He does not have to discover Ireland. He carries too much of it already in his own being.

Moreover, Joyce was born and educated a Catholic. He was trained by Jesuits at the university which Cardinal Newman helped to found. He admired Newman and was influenced by his writings. Behind the lucid prose Joyce saw revealed a man who had arrived at his conviction through spiritual agonies. Stephen is shedding convictions which Newman came to accept, but he, too, is going through spiritual agony in so doing.

From his considerable reading in the literature of the church the boy gained not only a sense of the past but also a sense of an ordered inner world and of a systematized other world. Eternity has filled his imagination. Still in his teens he has been shriveled by fierce fires as he sat in the chapel listening to the Jesuit retreat master describe with rigid logic the physical and spiritual agonies awaiting the damned in hell. (This is one of the most magnificently written passages in all of Joyce's work.) After hearing such sermons Stephen becomes almost physically ill. In fact this is the period when he suffers most intensely. And his greatest sufferings are not imposed by the Dublin reality which disturbs him so much but by images of an inferno as terrifying as that of Dante. He quivers and cowers before the vision of an other world which must make that of the Irish legends seem the most pale of mists. His spiritual struggle is one involving acceptance or rejection of this ordered other world.

He comes to reject it. But his struggle leaves Stephen with a deepened sense of melancholy. He has gained a penetrating sense of the depths of experience. In "Ulysses" Joyce will say that all history is a nightmare. Stephen has known what walking nightmares can be like. He is forging such a temperament that he will never be able to find interest, inspiration, scarcely even curiosity in the ghosts which Yeats sought in castles or in those spirits with whom AE tried to converse. His whole life, his education, his conception of an inner life, all this must lead him to find literary materials different from those which could be shaped by his immediate predecessors.

Inasmuch as he is to be a writer, the literary world should presumably be the one aspect of Dublin life where Joyce might find communion of spirit. But this analysis should show how he was gravitating toward a break with it as with the rest. The young artist who develops before our eyes is one who will be able to feel creatively free only if he directs his eyes toward the future, and if he seeks a loveliness that has not been born rather than one that was born centuries ago in Celtic Ireland.

Stephen, then, is the homeless genius. He needs to expand, to feel free. He needs an arena adequate for his talents. He sees no future for himself unless he rebels, rejects. And beyond this Dublin, with its misery, its poverty, its Georgian houses, its sleek patricians and its English rulers are the cities of the world. Beyond this Ireland, poor and culturally deprived, is the culture of the world. He has felt himself from early boyhood to be different and marked for a special destiny. He cannot and will not participate in politics; he cannot follow the literary men who are making a stir in Dublin. Where can he find a career open for his talents? His feeling of need for expansion and freedom is acute. Are not feelings such as these the kind which were generalized in Ireland's national aspirations? The problems which he faces, the needs which he feels with the vision of genius--others have felt these, and they have fled. Before him Ireland has had millions of her wild geese sons and daughters. Stephen knows all this. He knows how some have died of starvation; he knows how Tone and Emmet died; and he knows how many have died in their souls.

In terms of all these conditions Stephen's soul is being born. Wherever he turns he sees "nets flung at it to hold it back from flight." But he will be free. The homeless Irishman in Ireland, the homeless genius in the world, he will fly off like Icarus, onward and upward. Proudly rebellious, he has proclaimed: "I will not serve." Instead of the vocation he could not find as a priest he will find it in service as "a priest of the eternal imagination." Creating without fetters, he will "forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." One of Ireland's most brilliant wild geese has found the wings with which he may fly away.


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