Note-Taking for Joyce (Jessica)

We had two presentations yesterday; we talked about language in Joyce as a tool of re-appropriation. The result of re-appropriating the English language, through deconstruction (and taking quotes out of context as Michelle mentioned) is to create an artist’s ownership of it. Most importantly, this ownership (as painted/achieved by the artist) belongs to the artist alone. Joyce therefore posits the existence of Irish Nationalism (perhaps as a means of dealing with the discourse of colonization) through the assertion of individuality (“a” portrait, not an objective, all-consuming “the” portrait), identity and creation.

However, the class had a bit of a debate over the idea of Stephen’s desire to “fly by these nets”. These nets are identified as nationality, language, religion. The fact that Stephan says “fly by” and not “fly from” strike many as significant, because it undermines the idea of totally escape and denial. During the second presentation, the exploration of myth as a motif in the text supports this idea. Even thought Stephan adamantly declares “non serviam“, he proves himself unable to disentangle his identity from the history of his own existence. If Stephen can be considered both the figures of Daedalus and Icarus, then as Daedalus, he has created art (as the second presentation mentioned, “the fabulous artificer”), but as Icarus, he is unable to escape the prison (ie, the “nets”).

Lastly, we talked about art in terms of modernity and Modernism (the aesthetic movement). Stephen’s search for transcendence has been undermined constantly in the text. His diary entries actually hint at a degeneration of sorts, and as Rebekah mentioned, there are many incidents that undermine other momentary “epiphanies”.

I don’t know how relevant this may be to the module, but interestingly enough, these “little epiphanies” can also be seen in Virginia Woolf’s texts- most specifically, in To the Lighthouse. In the dinner scene at Mrs. Ramsay’s house, she finds a moment of “stability” (Woolf 142), yet she knows that “this [moment] cannot last” (141). There is also an artist figure in the text- Lily Briscoe, who manages to complete her painting, just as Stephen is able to complete his own portrait. Yet, as the class mentioned, with so many instances of irony in Joyce’s text, how transcendental or “successful” is his attempt at transcendental art?

Very interestingly, Rebekah also mentioned that the act of pinning down truth is one that is fixed, ordered and stable. While grabbing at coherence, the act of truth-finding is reductive. This can be seen in A Passage to India, where the image of India can never really be understood or described. There is too much ambivalence, and in trying to “discover the real essence of the land”, the characters find themselves thwarted (they will never know the “real” India), violated  (Adela), or dead (Mrs. Moore).

Subjectiveness and Irony in Joyce

Portrait is an interesting text because it melds together both English “empire” (in Ireland), and the idea of a Bildungsroman. What I like most about this is the fact that it is so subjective. First, the title of the text betrays that it is only “a” portrait (as opposed to being “the” portrait for example). The idea of language as art, of representation as a form of art is therefore brought up (as earlier posts have mentioned). Secondly, the fact that the character of Stephan is viewed by us with irony and distance also makes the text part of the modernist tendency (not only is he not a typical protagonist, but also because Joyce presents us with a character that is so subjective).

The motif of flight appears throughout the novel as a form of desire, escape and art. Stephan holds very grand notions of flying above men, and feels that he is destined to be “a symbol of the artist forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being” (183). Stephan’s notions of grandeur thus makes him a character (who envisions that he is) larger than life, and ironic. The way he holds himself in high regard, compared to other “characterless” characters (182) is a humorous way in which Joyce has depicted a young man who fancies himself a great artist belonging to some universal prophecy. Also, the idea that the young man is portrayed “as” an artist is telling- he is conscious of his role as an artist, and is playing this very role. This adds a further distancing effect between us and him as a (believable) character.  

 Stephan concludes by telling us that he is able to “fly by these nets”, therefore transcending his marginalized existence (by being Irish), and also (physically) escaping Ireland. Yet, many critics have pointed out that although Joyce’s semi-autobiographical character (and Joyce himself) has physically left Ireland, Joyce himself has never been able to “leave”, judging by the fact that his later works still deal with Ireland. Viewed in retrospect, this adds another layer of irony to the work, leaving it indeed a subjective portrait.