Note-taking for week 13

In the first presentation, we attempted to define nationalism in general and determine which sort of nationalism it is which Stephen advocates. The presenters defined nationalism as “the assertion by members of a group of autonomy and self-government for the group’s solidarity and brotherhood in the homeland, and of its own history and culture, seeing it as a natural progression which follows colonialism and decolonization”. However, we see in Portrait that things are not as simple as that and the progression is never linear. Going back to the past before colonization is impossible because that heritage cannot be reclaimed, only perhaps as romanticized past. Going forward is what Stephen seems to think as ideal, by using the very tools of colonization like language to reassert one’s individuality and identity. Some critics argue that it is not possible to assert individuality using the language of the colonizers. However, in Homi Bhaba’s “Mimicry”, it is said that English is not owned by anyone and so its usage may be transformed by the colonized writer to write his own freedom into being.

 Initially, Stephen was shown to be colonized and indoctrinated by the coloniser’s values and discourse as he learns by rote and memorises things. This is shown by his quoting from different sources like his school textbooks and religious texts. He also quotes from Aristotle and Aquinas in a way which seems to suggest his lack of understanding according to the presenters and sometimes even quotes wrongly. This shows his discomfort with an imposed sort of learning and culture which erodes his own Irish heritage. However, later he breaks free by playing with the form of language especially in his diary entries in which he finally shifts from the 3rd person to the 1st person which emphasizes his individuality. He makes his own language and his own form of art to express himself and in doing so, expresses Irish identity.

 In the second presentation, the use of symbols and impressions reflects Stephen’s impressions of nationalism and Ireland. The politicians are “intangible phantoms” and patriotic propaganda is reduced to “hollow sounding” “voices”. Surrealism and symbolism makes it obvious that language is vague and ambiguous by nature, and writing in that way self-reflexively draws attention to that fact. By doing so, both the form and content shows imperial ambiguities and ambivalences which supports the assertion of the text being modernist. However, if modernism was supposed to be defined by empiricism (psychology of locke and Hume), then Joyce could be seen as anti-modernist because he destabilizes the notion that we may understand the essence of things and Truth by observation. If observation is unreliable, then the notion of a stable self is also problematized. Thus, modernism which places so much emphasis on the individual’s point of view becomes inadequate. Modernism is too vague to be defined as a single entity and cannot hold it own against realist literature. However, we need not see modernism as simply an offshoot of the enlightenment ideas of scientific positivism (empiricism/ Locke and Hume). There are other ways of defining modernism since it is a broader concept than that thus Joyce can still be a modernist writer even if he contradicts the precursors of modernism as a movement arising from the enlightenment.

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).

Notes and such for 12th November

In today’s class, the first presentation regarding Ireland and nationalism framed the subsequent presentations and discussions adequately. Michelle suggested in her presentation that Joyce’s work contrasted with the notion that nationalism is part of a natural progression following colonialism and decolonialisation. Joyce’s work instead presents nationalism as an assertion of individuality which is a culmination of various factors. The final slide of the 2nd presentation suggested a reading of Joyce as anti-modernist, if the term modernist is grounded in the philosophies of John Locke and David Hume (that took up some time). One of the points raised was how the history of modernity is longer than the time frame occupied by modernism, and it is necessary not to conflate modernism with modernity. Conflation came up again in the later discussions, this time concerning the figure of Daedalus and Stephen.


I proposed an explanation of the problematic quote based on the understanding that Hume and Locke are empiricists, a field of philosophy that suggests observations as the primary source of knowledge and hence the self, developed through knowledge, is constituted of observations.In Joyce however the observable cannot constitute the individual due to the indeterminacy of language that is used to record such observations. The example of the tundish was cited by Kin Yan(?). In that sense then, Joyce would be anti-modernist IF we defined the term according to the philosophies of the two philosophers.

I think conflation as a problem arose because of the nature of modernism and the text discussed today. One example used in class today was regarding the epiphany as used in Joyce’s work, part of Praseeda’s presentation. Stephen’s epiphanies contrast with Woolfian (Virginia) epiphanies, for example, in that instead of a unity of the self with the world around him, Stephen in fact becomes more distant. While observing the girl wading in the sea, he feels that she represents all women and acknowledges the sexual feelings that accompany his observation. At the same time he distances himself from the people who experience those feelings, privileging instead her association to Ireland. The distinction Stephen makes expresses a desire to move away from conflating perspectives, choosing instead to set himself apart as an artist exiled from the larger framework of society.

In another example, it was suggested that Stephen perhaps conflates the figure of Icarus and Daedalus, and tries to straddle the position of inventor – or the “brains”, and the user, – the “blonde”.

Links to other weeks and texts:

Conflation arises as a prominent issue in discussing modernism in other texts like Orwell’s “Shooting An Elephant”. In this text, it has been suggested in previous classes that there is a conflation of identities in the reluctant colonialist: on one hand he is required to perform his role as colonizer, but it conflicts with his individual beliefs and identity. The conflation of the two areas produces responses to colonialism that emphasise its complexities, rather than a valorization and exoticization of the colonial enterprise, or an outright disparaging of the process. To link this to modernist concerns, the problems with identity and nationalism point to the crisis of knowledge and representation.

The Intellectual Exile

Stephen’s decision to exile himself from Ireland “to forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race” (276) got me thinking of Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual, where he devotes a chapter entitled “Intellectual Exile: Expatriates and Marginals” to discuss the predicament of the intellectual exile. In it, Said differentiates between the physical condition of exile—rooted in an ‘assumption that being exiled is to be totally cut off, isolated, hopelessly separated from [one’s] place of origin’ (48)—and the metaphysical condition of exile; characterised by ‘restlessness, movement, constantly being unsettled, and unsettling others’ (53). In this sense, it is interesting to think of Stephen as an exile even in Ireland in a metaphysical sense, through his status as an individual at odds with his society, and therefore an outsider and exile so far as privileges, power and honours are concerned. In this light, perhaps Stephen’s physical exile at the end of the novel underscores that instead from escaping from Ireland, he escapes with it.

Said also furthers his discussion on the intellectual exile by inscribing Theodor Adorno’s comment in Minimia Moralisa that ‘for a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live’ (58). In this light, it is noteworthy that the novel ends with Stephen’s journal entries, indicative of an execution of his artistic talent to supplant a void within him. Keeping in mind the novel’s semi-autobiographical nature, I believe the novel somewhat traces Joyce’s own progressions as an intellectual exile, and perhaps for Joyce too, writing becomes a place for him to live.


Said, Edward W. Representations of the Intellectual. New York: Vintage Books, 1996. Print.

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.

Ego credo Joyce’s work est simpliciter atrox, bloody atrox.

I tend to become very excited for various reasons when talking about Ireland. For one, they have leprechauns and the fey, we have… Well. We have the Merlion. They have the internationally-acclaimed Riverdance (how Irish it is exactly leaves much to be debated, but for purposes of argumentation, bear with me), we have Riverfest. And as a country not that much larger population-wise (6 million; Wiki) than Singapore, they have contributed great writers in almost every field of English literature: Beckett, Heaney, Shaw and of course our much beloved Joyce, this despite having been colonised (or oppressed, if you will) by the British since the 1600s with the Plantations of Ireland.

Or instead of “despite”, perhaps the operative word used should be closer to “because”? That these great writers wrote in English cannot simply be a coincidence (Beckett did write in French though), and language and communication for the Irish seems to be one of those prominent issues like the GST or ERP are for Singaporeans. I once interviewed an Irish couple for a project on the Merlion:

Me: “Describe the Merlion in one word.”

Husband: (thinks for a second) “Very grand.”

Wife: “ONE word.”

Husband: (laughs) “It’s a problem we Irish have. We speak too much.”

In Joyce’s work then, the use of language becomes not just a means of developing Daedalus’ consciousness, but each and every word used is itself a contest between Irish heritage and English oppression, especially so in light of how English, in becoming the dominant language, has gradually reduced the position of the Irish language. And following the Ulster Plantation in the 17th century, when the Irish were forced to live on the least fertile land, Irish as a language came to be recognised as that of the backward and lower-class, while English was the language of the more urban-minded. The discussion of the tundish with the dean is perhaps the best example of this “battle” of the languages.

Isn’t Irish-accented English the sexiest thing around, by the way? (Next to Ewan McGregor’s Scottish-English in Trainspotting)

Divided Families, Divided Selves, Divided Ireland

Personally, I feel that Jackson’s comment that “British imperial rule in nineteenth-century Ireland generated a political culture where families might be divided through their Irish or imperial allegiance” (136) resonates with Portrait’s depiction of the predicament Stephen and his family find themselves in. As already mentioned in Caroline’s post, the Christmas family dinner scene highlights how national politics drives Stephen’s family apart. In fact even as a young child, Stephen’s world-view is demarcated along political lines, being taught that the “brush with the maroon velvet back was for Michael Davitt and the brush with the green velvet back was for Parnell” (3-4). In addition to tracing the division of individuals and families via national politics, Portrait also highlights how Ireland herself is divided by similar impulses, evident in the interaction between Stephen’s musings and the geographical landscape of Ireland: “The grey block of Trinity on his left […] pulled his mind downward; and while he was striving […] to free his feet from the fetters of the reformed conscience he came upon the droll statue of the national poet of Ireland” (194). Geographically, such a juxtaposition between the Protestant and Anglo-Irish orientated Trinity College and the national poet Thomas Moore, who represents a cultural heritage of contemporary Gaelic Catholicism, underscores how divided the physical landscape of Ireland is. This is something I could only understand when I had the opportunity to visit Dublin while on exchange last year. The city is indeed peppered with many monuments and statues that celebrate movements or individuals of different national factions. While paradoxical, I think it does encapsulate the predicament Ireland finds herself in, and reading Portrait allowed me to better appreciate the historical origins of this predicament and how such a predicament is inherited by the Irish, such as Stephen and his family.

My Literary Bildungsroman

When I read Portrait for the first time in another class (I was year 2 then), I remember that the thing which stuck with me most was the idea of Stephen being stuck in an impasse because in as much as he wanted to “fly by those nets” (220) cast upon him by his national inheritance, there is a simultaneous inability to break through those nets because it was always the acceptance of the Irish themselves of their subjugated positions that make this “flying” literally impossible.

Now, when I’m reading it again, I realize I understand the nuances of this impasse a lot better. Having learnt what modernist art attempts to do by challenging traditional modes of representation (is any form of realist representation real in the first place?) and what post-colonial politics are involved with every writing process ( especially when the writer/artist figure has been previously colonised), I realize that Stephen’s impasse involves many more layers of subjugation than those of his literal circumstances. Because it’s not the just the double binds that Stephen finds himself in: being an artist, no one understands his art and he is thereby an exile; but by following the crowd, he is essentially contributing to Ireland’s continual subjugation because “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow” (220), it is also the inability to find a language outside of which that he has inherited. This is because English is a language that is not of his own heritage but is also ironically the only one through which he knows how to express himself, hence this mode of artistic representation will forever be self-ironizing no matter how he tries to fly by those nets.

Yet, I think having understood much of what modernist texts try to do with art and representation, the saving grace of Portrait is the idea that perhaps the art is in using the inherited foreign language that is English to convey the subjugated psyches of the Irish. This is very much like what Chinua Achebe talked about in his essay, “The African Writer and the English Language”, where the redemption that an African writer can do for his art is to appropriate the use of English for his art because English is part of his history/heritage and to accept that is to move a step forward in better self-representation. So the importance isn’t in denying the self of the use of English but to appropriate it with one own’s cultural contexts such that English becomes merely the mode of Art through which one’s cultural disposition can be expressed. And in Portrait, the constant self-ironizing, I believe is therefore the way Stephen understands and represents the Irish condition that is in and of itself very ironic in the first place.