Reading ‘Portrait’ as a Young Man

Karl Ove Knausgaard
The New York Times

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Its genesis was long and tortuous — Joyce began writing his novel in 1904 — and the road to its canonisation as one of the seminal works of Western literature was not short either: The reviews spoke of the author’s “cloacal obsession” and “the slime of foul sewers,” comments that seem strange today, insofar as it is the subjective aspect of the book, the struggle that goes on inside the mind of its young protagonist, that perhaps stands out to us now as its most striking feature. What appeared at the time to be unprecedented about the novel seems more mundane to us today, whereas what then came across as mundane now seems unprecedented. Joyce’s novel remains vital, in contrast to almost all other novels published in 1916, because he forcefully strived toward an idiosyncratic form of expression, a language intrinsic to the story he wanted to tell, about the young protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, and his formative years in Dublin, in which uniqueness was the very point and the question of what constitutes the individual was the issue posed.

“Portrait” is a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story, perhaps the prime example of that genre in English literature. It deals with identity or, more precisely, the way in which identity arises, the events that shape us and make us who we are. These circumstances are more or less the same for everyone. We are born into a family, and by virtue of how it receives and relates to us, we become manifest to ourselves and to others. We learn a language, and though it does not belong to us alone but is shared by all members of the community, it is by means of our language that we understand and express ourselves and that which is all around us. With the language comes a culture, of which, whether we like it or not, we become a part. Our circles widen, we start school, and the process of our socialization becomes more formal. We learn about the language, our culture and society, and to that first identity within the family, a new layer of national identity is added. Within this screen, Stephen Dedalus emerges as an Irish Catholic son of a petty bourgeois family, only to turn against all these categories in the latter half of the novel, rejecting Irish nationalism, rejecting his Catholic religion, rejecting the middle class, insistent on being nobody’s son.

The key scene in the book occurs when Stephen is out walking with his friend Cranly and confides to him that he has quarrelled with his mother that morning about religion — because he had refused to receive the Eucharist. Cranly fails to see the problem: Surely he could do it for his mother’s sake, regardless of his absent faith? But Stephen is resolute. “I will not serve,” he says. But why not? This is the novel’s most important question; and the work itself, in its artistic entirety, is the answer. We are not merely the age in which we live, not merely our language, or the family to which we belong, our religion, our country, our culture. We are this and more, insofar as each of us is an individual encountering and relating to all of these categories. But what exactly does this individual comprise? What is its nature, and how do we go about capturing and describing it? How do we even see it, when the tools and instruments at our disposal are precisely of our age, our language, our religion, our culture?

In “Portrait,” Joyce ventures inside that part of our identity for which no language yet exists, probing into the space between what belongs to the individual alone and what is ours together, exploring the shifts of mind, the currents of our moods and feelings as they flow blindly this way and that, and mapping the unarticulated, more or less salient presence of the soul, that part of our inner being that rises when we are enthused and falls when we are afraid or despairing. “Portrait” is about this, a young man’s soul, and what makes Joyce’s novel so magical, what makes it essentially literary, is that his conquest of what belongs to the individual alone — what is special, and to Joyce’s mind unique about Stephen Dedalus — is also a conquest of what belongs, and is unique, to each of us.

Literature is never the preserve of others, and it knows no center, which is to say that its center is any place where literature exists. Only by refusing to serve, as Stephen does, may the artist do just that: serve. Only by means of a “no” may a book like “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” emerge into being. And only by means of a “no” may a book like “Ulysses” reach its famous conclusion: “and yes I said yes I will Yes.”’

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