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.