Notes for the presentation titled ‘The Artist Figure in A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man’

Five points that were raised during the presentation titled ‘The Artist Figure in A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man

 1. Language as having the autonomy at making connections on its own. This is rasied with particular reference to the presence of what we call ‘stream-of-consciousness’ in the text.

 2. Loss of faith in religion as reason for rise of the epiphany. This can be seen from Stephen’s rejection of priesthood while embracing his destiny of being an artist, a realization he received from the epiphanic moment he had with the girl at the beach.

 3. The epiphany can be viewed as a narcissistic experience. This makes Stephen more of an aesthete than artist, because the latter requires humility.

 4. External reality is perceived by Stephen as a representation of something else (i.e. a metarepresentation). Thus, the connection to reality to his own consciousness makes him God-like and therefore again valorizing the artist as a supreme figure.

 5. An epiphany is always accompanied by ironies. This is an issue raised during the discussion after the presentation. The notion here is how could one create a national identity that is obliterated from any notion of nationalism at all?

Stephen’s Voice: The Irish in Me

By appropriating what is said in Black Skin, White Masks — It can  be generalized that those who are colonized, have “no culture, no civilisation, no ‘long historical past'” (34) and it is the master’s or colonizer’s language that “is the key that can opens doors” (38). Stephen Dedalus faces a similar dilemma that eventually got resolved towards the end. Understandably, the English language is an acquired tongue of Stephen but he has learned and found the value of a language that frees him from the entanglement from the nets of “nationality, language, religion” (210). These nets would have stopped his ‘flight’ above the Irish issue that is seen myopically by many of his peers who are unable to view themselves beyond the veneers of the present. As Stephen puts it, “Ireland is the old sow that eats its farrow” (210), basically-speaking, the current condition of his country has to do, way back in the long history of Ireland when Stephen accused the country of giving up its own language and took another (209), hence losing their culture and history (since language facilitates the creation of history).

As mentioned earlier on, the acquiring of a language used by colonists opens the world to the person. Similarly, it is no coincidence that Portrait is full of Latin — the language of the learned. Stephen, it seems, is ready to embark on a journey that is beckoning him, to become an artist with his arsenal of languages, to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” (262) as he starts by finding his own voice as seen in the changes of the novel into the journal form – his own voice, towards the end .

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.

Language as a Labyrinth

Stephen Dedalus declares that, “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile and cunning” (269).

And he sees himself as Dedalus/Icarus – the master builder who has the power to create. In fact, at the very end of the book, he refers to Dedalus to stand by him (“Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead”). Thus, we can see Stephen’s aim as the desire to create a new form where he can express freely, and wholly his opinions, unfettered by past English traditions. Yet he forgets that Dedalus was trapped in the Labyrinth that he created himself! Language becomes a type of labyrinth for Stephen, in which he becomes trapped. In expressing his own ambitions, Stephen falls back on the language forms which he wants to escape from. In fact, the name Dedalus refers back to Greek mythology, which is the foundation of English literature. It is as though Stephen’s identity is forever entrenched in the English culture/consciousness.

Joyce’s ambivalent and open ending can be seen in both the negative and positive light. The negative reading is that Joyce himself cannot escape the labyrinth of language and thus gives up the attempt altogether. The positive reading is of course that we are never sure what new forms of discourse/art Stephen manages to create and he might eventually be successful in expressing himself wholly and unfettered.

History, Statues, and Representation

Jackson mentions the “ever-impinging presence of official buildings and symbolism” in Ireland, and the kind of  “architectural response” (129) that followed the threat of self-government. This suggestion of an “architectural response” led me to think about statues and monuments, which are symbolic, larger-than-life representations of figures that have made important contributions to a country, and are erected officially for the remembrance and celebration of their achievements. In light of this, I found it particularly interesting when Stephen reflects on Thomas Moore’s statue and the commemorative slab in memory of Woolfe Tone that he passes by in Part V:

While he was striving this way and that to free his feet from the fetters of the reformed conscience he came upon the droll statue of the national poet of Ireland [Thomas Moore]. He looked at it without anger: for, though sloth of the body and of the soul crept over it like unseen vermin, over the shuffling feet and up the folds of the cloak and around the servile head, it seemed humbly conscious of its indignity. (Joyce 193)

And a few pages later…

In the roadway at the head of the street a slab was set to the memory of Wolfe Tone and he remembered having been present with his father at its laying. He remembered with bitterness that scene of tawdry tribute. There were four French delegates in a brake and one, a plump smiling young man, held, wedged on a tick, a card on which were printed the words: Vive I’Irlande! (Joyce 199)

(According to the novel’s footnotes: Wolfe Tone was the leader of the United Irishmen; the slab was laid to commemorate the centenary of the Rebellion of 1798)

What particularly intrigued me was Stephen’s withering sarcasm (“droll statue”, “servile head”, “tawdry tribute”, just to name a few examples) towards these supposedly celebrated figures in Irish history and culture. While these statues can be seen to represent the official national history of Ireland, Stephen’s expression of his attitude towards these figures (and by extension, what they represent), is then his personal interpretation of history. In doing so, the official national history of the public sphere is now conflated with personal history/experiences of the private sphere. Here, we are cleverly introduced to another representation of history; a different perspective that Modernism so champions!

 (On a side note, I do think that it was an interesting choice to represent Joyce/Stephen’s general disdain towards the Irish condition via his contempt towards statues of supposedly representative figures of Irish history and culture, considering that statues are after all another form of art and representation, just as novels are).

An Extremely Brief glance at the ‘Modern Epiphany’ in Portrait

Modern texts place a lot of attention on the mundane and subjective in experience, and likewise a notably strained effort to find someway of reuniting the two.  Taken together, they are hallmarks of the alienated modern sensibility and their separation is at the heart of this alienation.

The Modern epiphany is more difficult to achieve for the modern writers because Truth in general is not clearly  manifest to the writer in everday objects as it was to the poets of earlier periods.  Hence Joyce’s identification of the epiphany as a manifestation through “vulgarity of speech or of gesture” [the clearly mundane, alienated from Truth to the point of seeming profane].  Hence the Modernist epiphany deliberately strains to identify the mundane or particular with something revelatory and in Joyce we see this in his identification of things which are in this very respect quite different, even opposite, such as the anonymous  Bloom with Elijah or Moses, or the Irish with the Greek people exalted in Homeric poetry, or hot cocoa with the sacramental blood.  For Joyce, the effort at reuniting the mind with the objects of experience turned in particular to increasing attempts at identification of the moment with all of time.

In Joyce’s technique, epiphany replaces the role carried out in traditional narrative by the event; the collocations of numerous textual themes in associative moments are the events of the mature works, and they are multitudinous.  Hence the reader should take his understanding of epiphany as axiomatic; explicitly identifying each one by the term “epiphany” would become excessively redundant.

Stephen Dedalus, the Irish Greek: Unity through Art

It seems that one of the most obvious aspect of Portrait is the protagonist’s issue with language. I think it reflects, especially towards the end of the text, the direction that he wants to develop his art. He champions for an Irish autonomy that unites instead of disunites — division that is based on an English vs Irish and/or Catholics vs Protestants rivalry. In other words, Language becomes an important premise in the driving forward of such a desire.

If we look at the scene between Stephen Dedalus and his dean, Stephen recognizes that the language he has been taught all his life is an “acquired speech” (195) and this serves as a reminder of his subservient position as he is being cast in the “shadow” (195) of a heritage that he does not identify with.

True enough, the English language belongs to the English or the Anglo-Saxons and differs from Irish historical heritage – that is, Gaelic. However, at the same time, the Irish language is becoming overly charged and associated negatively with (extreme) Irish nationalism. This deters Stephen from accepting it willingly becomes it disunites Irish people, it is obvious that Stephen adopts Parnell’s vision of unity where the differences of factions are negotiated and reached. I believe this is the reason for Stephen and even Joyce’s inclination towards something different, an art that uses the colonizer’s language (I guess strictly speaking, Ireland can be considered the colony of England) but undermines it by subsuming it within a Pan-European experience. And I guess this explains the framing of this text with Greek imageryand Latin, and not just English.

For one thing, Joyce’s inclination is illustrated by the name of Stephen Dedalus, where both names are of Greek origins. Furthermore, Dedalus is the name of a skillful artist from a Greek myth who designed the labyrinth to keep Minotaur ‘imprisoned’. Perhaps, Stephen, the artist and character is tasked with this task to use his art to keep ‘extremism’ and violence, as symbolised by Minotaur in check.

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.

Art and Religion

Can language truly liberate us from ourselves as social beings? Joyce’s question struck me – ‘What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?’

The former, upon which Joyce’s childhood and world view was brought about,  ‘an absurdity which is logical and coherent’, refers to the structure by which religion is constituted, it is absurd insofar as it is an invisible structure founded upon by our faith and belief in the supernatural, the miracle and a higher divine order that transcends ourselves and our earthly realm. The Bible as the canonical text is essentially ‘logical and coherent’, since it informs us about the values and beliefs of Christianity which is founded upon the teachings of Jesus, moral goodness, the depravity of sins, amongst others.

Yet to ‘embrace one which is illogical and incoherent’ – that is to embrace the atheist life of a modernist writer and to forge a path for himself in an aesthetic experiment which demands that he becomes the creator, basing his art on the experiences of reality and everyday life, while doing away with past burdens and beliefs, seems a terrifying but nonetheless exhilarating experience to me. As much as the world is governed by systems, laws, rules and order, one’s consciousness and feelings often times remain in Joyce’s words, ‘illogical and incoherent’. Even as Stephen goes ‘to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race’, I get the sense that Joyce’s semiautobiographical work of art has achieved precisely this aim, in his ability to articulate and pour forth his “stream-of-consciousness” into the ordered world of language and cement his place as one of the greatest modernist writers of the twentieth century.

meaning and comprehension in Portrait

Reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I really felt that this was by far the ‘most’ modernist text we’ve encountered in this module.  I found the book quite hard to fully comprehend, but at the same time strangely compelling. The first part of the novel really reminded me of Roald Dahl’s Boy (albeit a very fractured and hard-to-understand version). There is that same sense of a ‘little boy lost’, and the impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness style really emphasised that for me. What I found particularly interesting is the way Joyce seems to constantly use language as a way not of communicating (either between characters, or with the reader), but as ‘obstructing’ understanding. Whether it is his thoughts as a young boy first entering boarding school, during that painful Christmas dinner, or in his various journeys as he grows older, Joyce’s modernist style seems to make language a barrier that stands between us and true comprehension. As I was reading, I was constantly reminded of the whole signifier-signified dichotomy, because I could never be sure I was understanding what Joyce wanted to convey, fully or at all. Perhaps in a sense the text is Daedalus’ maze, and we’re to try and find our way out.

Thoughts on The Artist

Reading Ritchell’s post on how the artist uses the inherited foreign language to express the subjugated psyches of the Irish reminded me of this poem I came across in Prof Patke’s Irish Poetry module. It’s a poem by Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, an Irish poetess who writes strictly in Irish, called The Language Issue. For those who’ve not taken the class before, or who’ve not heard of Nuala, I’d just post a link to the poem so you guys can take a look: . In this particular poem, Nuala expresses the irony that it is only through the translation of her poetry from Irish to English that the Irish language will survive. Instead of resisting against the dominant English language, the artist (or whatever indigenous language he/she uses) must somehow be co-opted by it. Having this comparison between Nuala and Joyce in mind, I find that this colonial baggage/ language struggle runs across most Irish literature (and post-colonial ones for that matter).

What makes A Portrait so different then? What particular kinds of contradictions and problems does a writer like Joyce, who operated within the modernist period and who is labeled a high-modernist writer, face? In many ways, he resembles Woolf (the husband), Conrad and Orwell- who are all at once (and of varying degrees) part of the system and not. If we have the reluctant colonizer (in many of the characters we’ve seen so far in the module), couldn’t we see Joyce/ Stephen as a figure of the reluctant colonized? I agree that there are many ironies inherent within the text and I feel that, given the position of Joyce, this is necessarily so. The ending, therefore, is not entirely problematic for me. Stephen decides that he needs to go into exile in order to leave behind religious and political and family constraints but he also expresses a wish to write in service of his race. There is no way he can deftly negotiate these contradictions, at least not at that point of time when the novel ends. However, does the distance between Joyce, the accomplished artist, and Stephen (as yet fully formed) signify that there is really a way out? At least for me, this novel throws up more questions than it answers them!

Modernism- representation or symptom?

Here’s a quote that really got me thinking and from which i started working towards for my presentation tomorrow 🙂 :

“The experience of modernity is fostered by the rise of the modern city, and works of modernism do not so much convey this experience as they betray the strain of surviving it and detail their various strategies for doing so. Thus modernism might be regarded less as a representation of modernity and more as a symptom of it.” (Garry Leonard)

I’ve been thinking of how Modernism relates to Empire in our module and thought that perhaps Modernism seems opposed to the idea of Empire because it is supposed to be about validating individual subjectivity which goes against the grain of any colonizing discourse. However, if Modernism is just a symptom of Modernity, then by extension did Empire really cease because of this enlightened idea of Modernism or simply because of the conditions of modernity? When empire ceased, could it be that it is not because people suddenly realized the Truth but because of so many social forces which renders empire outmoded and forces it out because it just cannot coexist with the other elements. It is not freedom but no choice :p So what new mode of colonization have we come up with now? Capitalism?

According to a critic, the lack of money drives Stephen to be an artist because he has no other means to validate his position as a member of the middle class. Thus, at the downturn of the family’s fortunes, Simon Daedelus sends Stephen to be educated,  giving him all the necessary resources to develop his aesthetic theory. He seems more obsessed with articulating it than actually producing a work of art, perhaps a reflection of his anxiety?

Nationalism and Joyce/Stephen

It is often thought that nationalism is a natural progression from colonialism and decolonisation. Yet, after reading Joyce’s novel, there is the sense that things are never that simple and there is never a linear progression. Nationalism is seen to be an assertion of individuality and it is the culmination of various factors. Although much attention has been given to the importance of race and gender in nationalism, I feel that language plays an imperative role as well.

It has always been stated that nationalism is about the independence of a country, the capability of the natives to undertake roles of governance after having been educated by the colonial masters. Yet, the colonised countries have always adopted the language and culture of the colonial rulers resulting in the loss of their own cultures and languages which ends up in a loss of a unique identity of their own. It is the beginnings of the breakdown of the colonial language and culture with the rise of individualism that perhaps, forces the colonial rulers to recognise that there is a gradual subversion of the power relations between the colonials and the colonised. The fact that decolonisation and nationalism takes place concurrently cannot be dismissed as a coincidence. The contrast of language between Stephen’s childhood obedience and his “rebellious” youth then portrays this measured subversion. In the novel, this is evident through Stephen’s childhood and youth respectively which shows that it is only by breaking down colonial structures and finding one’s “voice” in the process of restructuring that a true individual emerges. Only then can there truly be nationalism/individualism when shadows of colonialism are removed and Stephen does this with his “art.”

As a child, Stephen uses a lot of repetition, quotation and constructed rhythmic effects in his sentences. I feel that this is important because language functions as tool of colonialism. His ability to articulate in fluid English mirrors the gradual loss of the Irish vernacular in Ireland during colonial rule. The young Stephen’s adherence to the rubrics of the English Language shows the entrenchment of the colonial system and it is of no coincidence that at this point in the novel, he conforms to expectations and he takes his English lessons seriously. To repeat is to perform an identity and this performance is essential for maintaining solidarity. The young Stephen then continually performs the identity of the colonised with his reiteration of the colonial language and he has no notions of any individuality, relegated to being another member of the oppressed Irish community. Of course, this also shows that the oppression of the Irish is not only enacted by the English but it has been deeply ingrained into the Irishmen’s way of life. They have become comfortable with it and they are afraid of embracing changes.   

In his youth, Stephen’s articulation becomes to be disjointed and this happens in tandem with his assertion of individuality. It is suggested that he experiences these disjoints because the colonial language has become insufficient. He begins to adapt and re-structure the colonial language to his need and in the process of doing so, he makes it “his own language.” Language then becomes a form of art. This is significant for art has no “real” rubrics. With this “art,” emphasis is placed on the failure of language and the need to adopt other modes of representation. Stephen/Joyce hence shows that Irish nationalism requires the willingness of the Irish to stop perpetrating the old systems of colonialism and to find their own ground.

The language of the oppressor

It is common knowledge that the relationship between the Irish and the Empire has always been complex, with the Irish harboring ambivalent feelings towards the imperialism; Jackson’s article contextualizes these feelings by illustrating the benefits and the drawbacks of the Empire that were felt by the Irish:

For Ireland, therefore, the Empire was simultaneously a chain and a key: it was a  source both of constraint and of liberation… The Empire was not only a form of outdoor relief for impoverished Irish gentlemen: it also served as a vehicle for the upward mobility of the Irish middle classes, both Catholic and Protestant.  (Jackson, p136, 140)

Like many of its other colonies, the Empire was seen by the Irish as an oppressive force, an “imperial economic vampire”; it acted on its self-interest, resulting in the suffocation of Irish economy. Unlike its other colonies, the Irish were able to participate in Empire to reap personal economic benefits. This shows that shifting one’s political allegiances could result in the difference in one’s social position. The Irish ambivalence towards the Empire reminded me of the Joyce’s struggle with the English language in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. With the death of the Irish language (the Irish Gaelic language is after all seen as a dead language: the dean not recognizing the Irish word ‘tundish’ for funnel in Portrait suggests the colonization of Irish by the English language, and Stephen’s recognition of the impossibility of resurrecting the Irish language), the adoption of English language becomes a given, even if it suggests a betrayal of one’s cultural allegiances.  However with the appropriation of the language of the oppressor, Stephen struggles with his ambivalence towards his adopted language:

His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired         speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language. (Joyce, p. 205)

Stephen is torn between using and rejecting the English language. He acknowledges that English does not belong to him because of his Irish identity, yet he is also aware that Irish is not his speech either. The colonization of the Irish language by the English language is akin to the Empire rule over Ireland. Like Stephen, Joyce appropriates the language of the oppressor to write the novel. Perhaps like the article by Jackson, although the Empire is being seen as an oppressive force that suffocated the Irish language, it provides another language (that is wider used, and hence allowing a wider readership for the novel) for Joyce to appropriate, and a medium that gives Joyce and Stephen voice.

Portrait and Identity Construction

As i read Portrait, the scene that was most intriguing was the Christmas dinner. When you thinks about Christmas dinner, you’d think that it would be a heartwarming, happy affair where people get together, feel thankful, bask in the christmas spirit and maybe enjoy some turkey and ham. But Stephen’s Christmas has got to be the most uncomfortable event ever. Dante gets in a row with Stephen’s dad and Mr Casey as she defends the Catholic Church’s role in destroying Parnell while the two men attack this institutionalized religion and its long-standing opposition to Irish republicanism. 

But Stephen recalled that in the past, Dante was a Parnell supporter as she “hit a gentleman on the head with her umbrella because he had taken off his hat when the band played God Save the Queen at the end” (37). So she is essentially anti-British but not anti-Catholic. But what perplexes me is how the two cannot be separated as the Church often supports and echoes the British position. I think if anything, this instance shows how institutionalized religion is so influential and how it is a net that inhibits the Irish to find their own unique identity. Thus Stephen finds it necessary to “fly by those nets” and the only way that he sees this happening is to exile himself. 

What is interesting for me as a modern reader is how Joyce feels that the Irish identity is fettered by British colonialism and his solution is to escape. But it just doesn’t seem possible (to me) to escape this colonial past. Shouldn’t this be an integral part of constructing identity? By embracing this post-colonial/diasporic condition? I mean, if his name, Stephen Daedalus is a borrowing of Greek Myth and Catholic tradition (St. Stephen), then why not accept the fact of British colonialism and its effects (whether bad or good) on his identity construction? Another issue that troubles me is how he intends to write about Ireland if he is in exile? One could claim that he would have better perspective but this distancing could also make him lose touch with reality.

Tundish? – English or Irish?

– That? – said Stephen. – is that called a funnel? is it not a tundish? –
– What is a tundish? –
– That. The…funnel. –
– Is that called a tundish in Ireland? – asked the dean. – I never heard the word in my life. –

This was really one of those ‘moments’ that struck me when I read Portrait of the Artist for the first time some years ago. It just seems so ironic that the dean, who is an Englishman, ‘a countryman of Ben Jonson’, needs to be taught by Stephen on what the English word ‘tundish’ is about, or that it actually is an English word to begin with. In spite of his brilliant grasp of the English language, Stephen also suggests how the borrowed language makes even the most familiar things seem distant and foreign when he says, ‘How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot read or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words…’
The idea of an ‘acquired speech’ is really what hits home, i supposed. In spite of its foreignness, the underlying self-referencing that this borrowed language belongs ultimately to the English conqueror, imposed upon the subjugated Irish, the English language is however, central to Stephen’s own artistic quest. As he acknowledges towards the end of the novel, the only way for him to utilize this condition is to shape the English language into a medium for him to convey and express the conditions of the subjugated Irish race.

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.