Thursday, February 08, 2007


My blogging has been so spotty of late that I feel I owe my 7 real readers – the readers, that is, aside from the hundreds who surf by to see what I have to say about Fernando Botero – an apology, or at least an explanation. But oh how I hate tiresome personal blogging… Which doesn’t mean I won’t indulge.

An aerial bombardment of stuff: 1) the wind-down of our departmental jobsearches; 2) a pair of pre-schooler birthday parties, the first (weekend before last) at home & relatively small & manageable, the second (this past weekend) horrifyingly large & nerve-wracking (will the rain stop?? when will the pizza arrive??); in town was J.’s oldest friend with her own 6-year old, who was clearly coming down with something more or less serious, which led to 3) J.’s coming down with strep this week, necessitating yr. humble blogger’s trotting to his GP for a throat swab (negative, thank you) & hauling the girls to their pediatrician for the same (no news is good news); 4) a late-night popcorn binge seems the proximate cause of the painless but irritating crumbling of a long-ago filled molar, which of course meant an inconvenient hour in the dentist’s chair… And so forth: the travails of bourgeois suburban life, I guess.

After the first reading in maybe 12 years of Joyce’s rather awful play Exiles, I’m pondering the old issues of “aesthetic distance/irony” in Portrait of the Artist. How seriously are we to take Stephen D? Is it possible for us to set aside our knowledge of what becomes of him in Ulysses, of how he is depicted there, & read his apotheosis at the end of Portrait (sky-aspiring, conscience-forging, net-avoiding, etc.) as perfectly serious, not at all ironical? Exiles, tho not much of a play (esp. if you’ve been dipping about in volume III of the big Grove Beckett, Dramatic Works), is a fascinating bridge between Portrait & Ulysses: “Portrait of the Artist as a Mature Man Returned to Ireland in 1912.”

Also reading thru Joyce’s letters, one of the more procedurally irritating “scholarly” things I’ve attempted lately. Volume I, edited by Stuart Gilbert, is a chronological adulthood-spanning selection. Volumes II & III (ed. by Richard Ellmann) are more comprehensive collections covering the same years. Ideally, one would read Volume I & II/III concurrently, darting back & forth in chronological order. I didn’t do that, but read Vol. I first; now I’m mostly thru Vol. II (irritatingly without an index), hampered only by the fact that I’ve been flipping back to the Selected Letters in order to get the full texts of the v. v. “naughty” letter JJ wrote Nora in 1909, when they were apart for several months and needed – erm, ahem – “stimulating” reading material.

Also working thru Herbert Gorman’s “authorized” 1939 biography of Joyce, interesting mostly as a ventriloquizing of Joyce’s own self-mythology as a writer.

And: Rosmarie Waldrop, Blindsight; Stéphane Mallarmé, Mallarmé in Prose; Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon; Perry Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (this one a radiant eye-opener; anybody got a copy of Lineages of the Absolutist State they want to sell me?).


Archambeau said...

Fellow Bourgeois Poet,

When I first read Portrait, I totally identified with Stephen Dedalus (I was an artsy provincial with unwarranted ego problemsm so what else could you expect, really?). But since then I've come to read him with some distance, especially in that final section you mention, where we read his diary. There, we finally seeStephen become, full-on, the subject as well as the object of narration: but he's kind of an asinine narrator, and you can question his reliability. Remember how he recounts the conversation with Cranly (was it Cranly? One of his college peeps, anyway...)? He talks about being suave, while his buddy "had his grand manner on." Are we to take this at face value? And then there's the juxtaposition of high and low, all the packing-of-luggage business combined with his dreams of becoming the voice of his people, which undermines our sense of heroism by breaking with the decorum of the heroic convention (Achilles never has to pack socks or Q-Tips). So I read Stephen with a bit of distance. He's kind of a pimply Icarus, I think -- or more that than he is an ascending angel of poetry.

You know how the language of narration tends to mimic Stephen's stage of development? Baby talk at the start, some simple declaratives when he's a schoolboy, and all that -- "free indirect discourse," as the narratologists used to say? I think that gives us a clue as to how to read the book: we can watch how Stephen talks (and how the narrator talks about him) and think of what that says about Stephen's maturity and the like, and do so all the way through the book. I mean, when he's a university student Stephen is kind of insufferably pretentious (if at times witty) -- his explanation of his aesthetics is needlessly complex, in the manner, say, or an American grad student circa 1990 talking Derrida.

I guess that's a three-coffees-and-in-a-hurry way of saying I've got a strong sense that there are lots of textual cues urging us to distance ourselves from Stephen. Not that I caught those cues when I was 18, and certain I was about to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of the Fort Richmond Collegiate graduating class of 1986...


Alex Davis said...

Wasn't it Hugh Kenner, "The Portrait in Perspective," who first advanced the claim that Stephen is not to be taken all that seriously, especially as an artist? And isn't part of the problem how we relate the depiction of Stephen in Ulysses to that in Portrait. Is it proper to judge a character in one book by his actions in another, later work? Besides, there is the whole problem of whether irony inheres in a text or whether it is brought to the text by the reader. (On which topic, see S Fish, "Short People Got No Reason to Live: Reading Irony.)