I read James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man this week. I approached it in nearly the same way I approached books that I studied in college when I was an English major: I read some background about the book and where it fit into the literary cannon. I read it closely, and re-read parts that didn’t quite make sense at first. Lastly, after I finished the book, I read essays about it to make sure I didn’t miss too much of its meaning.
Because I did this on vacation, for fun, I held myself to a far lower standard than I did as an undergraduate. I think I understood much of what Joyce was getting at in the book, though I will admit that some of the Irish politics stuff flew over my head because I was not familiar with it. I found it fascinating that Joyce made his hero, Stephen Dedalus (a fictionalized version of himself), both a brilliant and thoughtful young man and an anxious, neurotic, and occasionally hubristic stuffed shirt.
I suppose Joyce’s loss of faith was both freeing and incredibly troubling for him, because it pervades the entire novel. The amount of religiosity in the book was a bit overwhelming to me, and far afield of what I normally encounter in the fiction I read. The oppressive superimposition of catholicism over everything reflects the oppressive superimposition of Irish identify politics over everything, too. The two are inseparable in this book: intimately entwined, and one in the same. Joyce left both behind in his real life, and as the book ends, Joyce’s stand-in, Dedalus does too.
Joyce’s Dublin-centered body of work, written while in self-imposed exile, leads me to believe that it impossible to cleave off certain aspects of yourself that developed you, even if you have learned to reject them and have come to resent them. Leave your home, go where you want to: you can never escape who you are.