Saul Bellow said that a writer is a reader who is moved to emulation. From my own experience, this seems to be true. The book that has had the most influence on me, that has made the deepest impression, is A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, first published in 1916. I first read it in 1977 when I was 18, and have read it, I think, five times since then, including twice just in the past six weeks or so. I’ll say more in a moment about why I did that.
In late spring, probably May, 1977, I was taking English 12 and was on the threshold of graduating from Carson Graham Senior Secondary School here in North Vancouver. I was a strong academic student and had had a basically very good school career, but I was filled with deep, inchoate conflicts. Although I had formed a plan with a friend to take a couple of gap years before university and travel the world, I knew that the time was coming when I had to decide on a career for myself. I was torn, and for simplicity’s sake let’s say that the alternatives were between a life in science or a life in art. I had long assumed that I would pursue a scientific career, probably in space science, which I loved; but I also loved writing and had developed a passion for film-making. At the same time I was experiencing the ferocious pangs of unrequited love, and was starting to wonder seriously about the deep meaning of life altogether—in other words, to experience the beginnings of a spiritual thirst. All of these forces were powerful, and seemed to churn together like lava in the caldera of my soul.
Right. Enter Ms. Mitchell, a student teacher who was teaching a particular segment of my English 12 class. She was the daughter-in-law of the Canadian novelist W. O. Mitchell. I forget exactly why it was, probably because I had already read the novel that the class was studying, but Ms. Mitchell came to me one day after class and presented me with a copy of a Penguin paperback edition of A Portrait of the Artist. She said something simple like, “I think you’ll enjoy this.” The title was vaguely familiar to me, but that was about it. I thanked her and took the book.
(Warning: there are spoilers in what follows.)
I started reading, and soon I was drawn deeply into its world of intense sensation and feeling rendered in poetic language. For some reason I seem to recall starting to read it while sitting at my bench at the back of the class in physics. I’ll always remember my first encounter with the beginning of the book’s second episode, just on page 2:
The wide playgrounds were swarming with boys. All were shouting and the prefects urged them on with strong cries. The evening air was pale and chilly and after every charge and thud of the footballers the greasy leather orb flew like a heavy bird through the grey light.
I found this passage to be almost preternaturally vivid. I knew exactly what that sort of an afternoon was like; I had seen and felt it myself. I loved the “strong cries” of the prefects, the “pale and chilly” air, and, most of all, the “greasy leather orb” that “flew like a heavy bird through the grey light.” And, while I wasn’t reading aloud, I sensed the rhythm of the language. If you read it out loud right now, you’ll hear it yourself.
I became consumed with the book. I read it obsessively but also carefully, so as not to waste the experience. Its young hero, Stephen Dedalus, talented and observant, was being drawn by unseen powers toward a life of art, a life of poetic creation. I remember reading it on the bus over town to my evening job at Vancouver General Hospital (I was already working evenings full time as a janitor in the last couple of weeks of school). Stephen’s thoughts and conflicts felt much like my own. His destiny became important to me: what would happen? Would the powerful forces of family, country, and Church finally shape him to their ends, or would he escape and find a way to be himself?
Stephen Dedalus, although he was an Irish boy living in late-19th-century Dublin, was much like myself; toward the end of the book we were even the same age. I identified strongly with his sense of inner conflict and the feeling of being out of step with the world around him, while also being unsure what to do about those things. And it was all being related in luminous, poetic prose. The struggles of the artist-to-be were themselves being presented as a work of art.
The climax of the book comes at the end of chapter 4. I forget where I was when I first read it, probably at home in the living room with a mug of tea, but I’ll never forget how I was galvanized by the scene. Stephen, who is trying to get into university, becomes impatient of waiting for his father and finally strikes off on his own through the streets, winding up by the seashore, where a number of his schoolmates are splashing in the water and engaging in horseplay. They shout cheerful greetings to Stephen, playfully grecizing his name as”Bous Stephanoumenos” and “Bous Stephaneforos,” which both mean “crowned ox” in Greek. (I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but the ox reference points to the Minotaur—the bull-man trapped in the labyrinth of Daedalus. And just by the way, Stephen’s connection with the bull will be picked up again in Ulysses.) This exchange seems to trigger something in Stephen; he makes the connection between his own name, Dedalus, and that of his mythical namesake, and
he seemed to hear the noise of dim waves and to see a winged form flying above the waves and slowly climbing the air. . . . a hawklike man flying sunward above the sea, a prophecy of the end he had been born to serve and had been following through the mists of childhood and boyhood. . . .
Energized and inspired, he sets off along the shore in a kind of ecstasy. And there, on the tidal flats, he is vouchsafed a divine vision. Here there are people wading and digging for cockles, and one of them is a beautiful girl standing in a tidal stream, barelegged with her skirt kilted up at her waist. Her gaze meets Stephen’s unabashed, and they regard one another for an unknown but long time. She is like a lovely seabird, a creature of magic, and her girlish face is “touched with the wonder of mortal beauty.”
When finally she withdraws her eyes from his, Stephen’s soul cries out, “Heavenly God!” in an outburst of profane joy, and, trembling, he sets off again over the sands,
singing wildly to the sea, crying to greet the advent of the life that had cried to him.
Eventually he collapses in a sandy nook on the beach and falls asleep. When he wakes it is evening, and he looks up to see
a rim of the young moon cleft the pale waste of sky like the rim of a silver hoop embedded in grey sand. . . .
When I first read this scene, I felt that I was going through these experiences myself at the same time. I was having an awakening to my artistic vocation along with Stephen Dedalus. In some way, at that moment, I was Stephen Dedalus. Or, in other words, the novel, a work of art, was having the effect on me of a rite: a structured experience of the spirit that was bringing about a deliberate inner change. I had undergone a rite of passage. Like one rising from baptism, saved, I was rising reborn as an artist.
It would only be years later, upon reading the works of Joseph Campbell, that I would come to understand the experience in these terms. In a world where many people are abandoning institutional religion, art takes up the slack and provides people with inspiration and even with actual rites that have an actual saving effect. And this is perfectly natural, for religion itself always begins as art. An artist—a true artist—is exactly one who is close to the wellhead of divine substance that flows into the world from the beyond.
So I have just revisited the site of my conversion, so to speak, by rereading A Portrait of the Artist, and I find it still to be powerful, although it can never provide the same kind of experience again, since the transformation has already been effected. The butterfly (if I may make so bold) is looking back to his caterpillar days. Indeed, this last rereading had a technical focus; I made notes on the story as I read in order to learn its structure. Now I can turn a critical eye on it: could it be improved? Did Joyce perhaps drop a stitch here or there?
We shall see. But A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man will always remain a pivotal and transformational book in my reading career, and will always enjoy pride of place in my library.
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