I resisted appreciating Joyce in college (and still don't appreciate his last two novels to this day), but in college I couldn't stand him because I resented every English Prof. I encountered (and it was practically every one) passing him off with hushed, reverent tones of obeisance like he were Holy Literature's Second Coming. Perhaps had I been that student now they would have passed him off with hushed, reverent tones of obeisance like he were the circa 2008, can-do-no-wrong, Barack Obama. Then, maybe, I would've resented James Joyce a little less, at least.
But had I known then (assuming I'd bothered to read my assigned books in college) how eerily similar my world perspective mirrored that of Stephen Dedalus during that time in my life, many full moons ago (meaning, again, had I not Cliff-Noted the The Portrait and bs'd the class papers on it), I'm sure I'd of been pleasantly surprised, if not shocked - as in shocked that I could relate to this Irish guy, James Joyce, and his autobiographically fictionalized self, Stephen Dedalus, the way that I could relate then to a light-weight Oscar Wilde wannabe, Stephen Morrisey - at how marvelously meaningful and relevant Joyce's first novel could be to a rebellious, church-boy-turned-irreligious-blasphemer like myself.
And my God! - Stephen Dedalus, in his teens, was socially awkward and inept in the extreme with the lovely young ladies, wasn't he? (also just like me!) Because girls and yours truly didn't mix much in high school/college. Girls? What were they? Unless they were making the first move -- ah rare and so blessed an occasion I remember each instance vividly, such a deep impression they set - forget it! Darn right I could've related to The Portrait had I given Joyce a chance back then. But no, I rejected Joyce before I really even knew Joyce just because he was so highly regarded by my intellectual superiors.
Of course, Stephen Dedalus was not just a kook like me by any stretch of the imagination. He acted kookily at times, which made him so human and relatable, but he had too much hero in him to be considered a pure, classic kind of kook. When he marches up the stairs at his boarding school to the administrative offices and reports the unjust physical trauma he's received at the harsh hands of that twit substitute teacher...you know how much guts that took for a little kid to do that? so easily intimidated by 'always-right' adults?...we can't help but cheer for him like an esteemed underdog beating the odds and winning an Olympic race against a pompous competitor predicted to win; and, if you're like me, out pop those goosebumps gallore just considering the courage of young Dedalus demonstrated by his confrontational feat! It marked the first time he'd ever confronted authority; and it was an hugely heroic milestone in his young life, and gave him the idea and the fortitude, I believe, to ultimately think outside the realm of parental/authority-expectations; outside of that Mom-and-Dad mold that well meaning parents so often try and furiously fit their children's futures inside; and that event also planted some identity seeds as he'd later painfully contemplate who it was he truly wanted to be, and how, having abandoned his childhood faith - rejected God (oh man, can so many of us relate to brave Stephen Dedalus!) - he planned on getting there to his life-dream's destinations. And I think it was important to Joyce, in his ambition of erasing himself completely from the text, that his reader's deeply relate to Dedalus, as if Dedalus, and not Joyce, were the author of The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Dedalus, too, I think, has to be considered one of the most fascinating cats in world literature, doesn't he? His life depicted in The Portrait's like a lifelong (or, maybe, more accurately, childhood-to-the-brink-of-adulthood), longitudinal character study/experiment run by a master psychologist - Joyce. A character study covering not the mundane minutia of Joyce's subsequent descents into largely unreadable nor enjoyable, experimental 'novels,' but covering the key scenes, the most significant moments of Dedalus' development: the critical junctures in his boyhood, 'tween years, and adolescence, when he had to form decisions and forge his life's direction, and do so even though he lived with constant doubt. Sound familiar? It's called growing up, isn't it? But growing up is an incredibly complex, tricky process, and Joyce somehow in The Portrait fashions into visible, seamless shape, the abstract intellectual architecture under construction inside young Dedalus (just as its inside each of us) that makes the growing up process read so real and relatable and credible and makes Joyce's aims of authorial-erasure all the more amazing. Did Joyce really write this book, or did Stephen Dedalus?
The Portrait is the ultimate coming-of-age novel in my opinion (or, the ultimate bildungsroman, for the smarmy smartypants). It's both so psychologically and experientially astute at every level of childhood and adolescent development, that I think it should be taught as part of the curriculum of Childhood Development and Adolescent Psychology courses in universities. I'm not kidding.
I liken each developmental crossroads and decision Stephen comes to as being like a novelistic rendering of Robert Frost's 'The Road Not Taken.' Stephen Dedalus took the road less traveled - indeed he did - and for Joyce, and for us, Joyce's audience, it has definitely made all the difference.
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