Dec 5, 2006

An Open Letter to a Cyclopean Modernist

This post has nothing whatsoever to do with Japan. Instead, it's about a book. Ok, there's a little about Japan. But it's mostly book stuff.

Dear James Joyce,
I'm sorry. I'm very, very sorry. I take it all back. Ok, most of it. There's probably some stuff I don't remember. Anyway, sorry about that.
The point is, I've talked a lot of shit about you in the past. Unjustified shit. Shit that I wish I could unshit. I'm very sorry. For some godunknown reason, I thought that it would be "cool" or "hip" to make blanket judgements about you. You see, lots of people really, really like you. "Hey, that James Joyce is really revered and respected," I thought, "that probably means he sucks!" And knowing what I did about the incomprehensibility of Finnegan's Wake, I thought that was probably true, that the only people who actually read you were musty literary professors and pretentious guys with beards.
I decided that I needed some justification for hating you so much, so I did end up reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. And you know what? I hated it. I felt so justified. "Yeah," I thought, "this does suck!" Now, I'm not taking that back. The first time I read Portrait, I did hate it. I'll explain why.
I identified with it far, far too much. Stephen's struggle with and subsequent rejection of Catholocism, his musings about aesthetics, and his longing to leave Ireland cut way, way too close for me. I disliked to book because it made me uncomfortable, like a stranger who can give you an overly accurate description of your situation. I was also in a somewhat bad position then- for a variety of reasons I thought that I was "done" growing up, that I'd put aside fancies and ambitions. Both I and my girlfriend at the time had convinced ourselves that we wanted stable, ordinary jobs. Reading about Stephen and his ambitions was too cutting. Here was a book about someone whom I related to far too much, who resolved to do the sort of thing that I longed for but had shirked from. The idea was disturbing, and so I said, "I hate this book."
I've recently reread Portrait here in Japan, and the experience was entirely different.
I did not approach it from a standpoint of frustrated longing this time. Rather, it was from a standpoint of doing. Here I am, now, in Japan, and instead of resigning myself to a life that I do not want, I feel I'm now "encounter[ing] for the millionth time the reality of experience." Here in another country I am no longer the shirking, guilt ridden Stephen who walks sullenly down the streets of Dublin demonizing his own desires. Instead, I feel much more akin to the later Stephen, the invoker of the "old artificer" who has gone forth to actually do something with his life.
So, Mr. Joyce, I loved the book. Loved it. When I put aside my cynisim and pretentions, when I approached it with a new perspective and an open mind, I thought it was excellent. Admittedly, I didn't think that it was necessarily the third best book ever written in English, but I believe that it was Tolstoy who said that "Shakespeare is actually quite good, despite all of the people who say he's quite good." I think the same could be said about you.
Something that I did not catch when I first read the book was that the writing style very clearly mirrors Stephen's mindset at the time. This is stupidly obvious, in hindsight, but from the first page with the baby-talk to the end parts which are reminiscent of a Socratic diologue, the novel does not describe Stephen, it is Stephen in a way. It seems to me that the very ending of the book, where the third person narration ends and the reader is suddenly plunged into Stephen's journals, represents a sort of epiphany and maturity on the part of the main character. It is as if, through the use of epistolary, he has gained the ability to be self-representative.
Quite frankly, the book left me feeling what I like to call "jazzed." "Yeah," I'm thinking to myself, "I want to have aesthetic epiphanies and do stuff! Whoo-hoo! Fire up the smithy of my soul, yo!" I admit it, Mr. Joyce. You make me feel all fuzzy and artsy inside.
SonicLlama, The Hired Tongue

I made a note of this passage when I came across it. Here, Stephen is speaking with an English priest and realizing that English was exported to Ireland, and that for his ancestors it was a borrowed language. This is a great passage (if a little unsettling) for one teaching or learning a new language:

"The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak 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. My voice holds them at bay."

Of course, when viewed in context of later events this passage actually takes on a hopeful tone. Not only does Stephen "accept its words," he does grand things with them. Here's hoping, then, both for me and my students.

1 comment:

Sydney said...

Wow, I am totally impressed that you made it through Portrait even once, let alone twice! I tried to read it once, about a year ago, maybe two. And I just couldn't. I think it's because of TV. When I was in France, without a TV, I found that written action and imagery were suddenly much, much clearer than they ever had been. I read books that had always posed great difficulty (because I couldn't follow the action) with ease and delight. Indiana, by George Sand, is a fabulous book that I could never get into at home because I just had no idea what was going on - but in France, it was as clear as if I was seeing it for myself! Maybe if I were to stop watching TV for 6 months, I'd be able to make it past the first twenty pages of Portrait, but as it stands, that book might as well be Greek. (And it's so sad - I'm a good reader! I like books of all kinds! I hate being the kind of person who can't follow Joycean prose!) But it is both who and where we are when we read that determines how we experience a book. Which is why it's always good to reread things and try to read the things we once failed. Except The DaVinci Code. That book is clearly, objectively, and undeniably the worst thing ever written. And I am including Powell's entire Occult Thriller Romance section in the equation when making that statement.