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Reading James Joyce Without a Gun to my Head Part 1

July 19, 2011

Pick pack pock puck. The sound of the cricket bats and for me the sound of Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”.

I first encountered Joyce in a college intro lit class, and while I can’t honestly say I understood him at the time, I can certainly say I appreciated what he was doing.  I don’t know if it was the pressures of academic life or my own need to impress my professors, or simply the fact that I was simply a kid at the time, but when I read Joyce now it’s as if the words run easier.  I’m not so desperate to find something important as I am to simply read for the sake of reading, and being allowed to proceed at my own pace without a deadline certainly makes it easier to appreciate the details.  I’m much more content to write about literature without the proverbial gun to my head, and much more willing to share my thoughts with the world at large, so long as I’m not being graded.

What strikes me the most regarding the initial chapters is the way Joyce can stay firmly seated inside his protagonists’ head.  There is a masterful sense of control in the way he writes the childhood of Stephen Deadalus, using age appropriate language except when conveying dialogue he witnesses.  Stephen’s way of looking at the world, of making connections and sorting out the confusing subtleties of language and meaning is very child-like.  I suppose that’s why the story resonates with me so much.  I remember wondering whether there was any appropriate answer to a bully’s questioning taunts and finding out that there really wasn’t one.  I can remember being profoundly mystified by the rituals of the church, and wondering why my parents got so worked up about that invisible activity known as politics.  There was so much I took for granted as a child that I openly question as an adult.  It is that willing acceptance, that puzzlement, and that terrible underlying fear that there may not be any answer at all that occupies much of the childhood experience.

On top of all of the thinking and experiencing there is also the inherent violence that pervades so much of childhood.  As a child of his times, Stephen is under constant threat of violence, from classmates and from the system of corporal punishment at his school, and even from the threat of damnation itself.  It is the sound of the cricket bats that seems to haunt his steps…the same sound of getting pushed into a pool of brackish water, or of a rod striking an open palm, or even the rhythmic chant of ‘ever-never’ that is supposed to mark time in Hell.  A good deal of Stephen’s psyche is formed on a need to escape punishment.  He escapes from illness by falling into a false reverie of death, he attempts to gain vindication for a wrongful beating at the hands of the prefect, and he is driven by a fearful description of Hell to a confession and and attempt at spiritual redemption.

Stephen’s story can be seen as one of escape, of fleeing from brutality and grossness into something else that he is still trying to comprehend.  The early stages of his development are all false escapes: a false death, a false vindication, and a false redemption. It’s easy to understand what he is fleeing from, but what he is fleeing to remains to be seen in the later chapters.

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