Yesterday was the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

You’d think the story of Stephen Dedalus working his way clear of sexual guilt, Catholic hell, a suffocating family, and of course Ireland itself, would skew antique these days; but just as we’re all susceptible to the New Year, we’re all susceptible to the New Life. Portrait is the ultimate successful makeover.

Put aside your awareness that Stephen’s flight beyond the nets of family country and religion will, in Joyce’s next book, crash-land him back into the same hot mess; recall instead your excitement on first reading this liberation song.

A veiled sunlight lit up faintly the grey sheet of water where the river was embayed. In the distance along the course of the slow-flowing Liffey slender masts flecked the sky and, more distant still, the dim fabric of the city lay prone in haze. Like a scene on some vague arras, old as man’s weariness, the image of the seventh city of christendom was visible to him across the timeless air, no older nor more weary nor less patient of subjection than in the days of the thingmote.

Here’s Dedalus just having broken free of the church; here he euphorically strides farther and farther away from a conversation he’s just had with a priest about joining the Jesuits. Although Stephen’s terror of damnation (he has consorted with prostitutes) has propelled him into a piety so intense that he has now been invited to enter an order, the unfolding conversation about his vocation suddenly makes explicit the absurdity of trying to murder his appetite with metaphysics. “His destiny was to be elusive of social or religious orders.” It’s the artist’s silence, exile, and cunning now, all the way.

How does this newly transformed self see the false world he’s about to leave? What are his thoughts as – manically overwhelmed by his release – he rushes about putting distance between himself and the prisonhouse?

Run that paragraph by me again.

A veiled sunlight lit up faintly the grey sheet of water where the river was embayed. In the distance along the course of the slow-flowing Liffey slender masts flecked the sky and, more distant still, the dim fabric of the city lay prone in haze. Like a scene on some vague arras, old as man’s weariness, the image of the seventh city of christendom was visible to him across the timeless air, no older nor more weary nor less patient of subjection than in the days of the thingmote.

You hear the gentle lilting hyperpoetic music of the thing? He’s looking at a city he’s about to leave – the dead world of “The Dead.” This writing is valedictory, a bittersweet backward view. All is old (“veiled,” “gray,” “faint,” “slow-flowing,” “dim,” “prone,” “vague,” “old,” “weary”) and trapped (“embayed,” “patient of subjection”). The final long sentence ends with the odd obsolescence of thingmote – literally, a raised mound on which Viking settlers met to enact laws; yet a figure too for the tiny ancient vanishing thing Dublin’s about to become in the artist’s rear-view mirror. We’re told this is a modernist novel; but at the moment we’ve got a rhyme-happy Romantic poet hurrying himself up into a pose of nostalgia for beautiful delicate ruins.

A veiled sunlight lit up faintly
The grey sheet of water where
The river was embayed.


The dim fabric of the city
Lay prone in haze.

In the days of the thingmote.

The gentle gorgeous insistent quality of these long A‘s underscores the delicacy and immobility of this arrière “arras” scene that hangs in “timeless air.” (And not to belabor the beauty, but look how the dull closed-off short I is everywhere as counterpoint: lit/river/dim/fabric/city/in.) Dublin has become a portrait for the artist. It is no longer an overpowering reality that hurts him, but an aesthetic thing “subject” to his powerful eye.

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One Response to “For the New Year, an Old Book about a New Life.”

  1. Dennis Says:

    I used to think that Joyce’s prose was sui generis, something that he alone created. Living in and visiting Ireland changed my mind when I repeatedly heard normal conversation almost as enchanting as Joyce’s writings. Something in the genes, perhaps, or in the air or the water. Listen to this fellow turn sandwich-making instructions into poetry:

    https://www.facebook.com/irishtimes/videos/10154268464701158/

    You can almost imagine Joyce incorporating it somewhere in Dubliners.

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