07 August 2008


I finished Portrait and I had an overwhelming feeling of sadness for Stephen. I was left with a sense of how alone he must have felt. Where his family, friends, country or religion could offer him no solace or comfort. I am grateful that I have people in my life that I can turn to. I'm glad I read it, but I prefer to read selections that would inspire me to be better. To be honest, I was a little depressed and I wanted to find Stephen and be his friend.
I was unsure of the change in format at the end where it looks like journal entries. What is the significance of this?


Brooke Foged said...

I think Stephen's isolation fits perfectly with the ongoing theme we've been covering in class of the alienation present in modernism.

And I understood (from our discussion) that the diary further exemplifies this theme as it is the most private kind of writing -- not meant for public consumption. As Snehal said, every journal writer secretly expects it to be found one day and read ... but that won't necessarily happen. It's possible that Stephen would be the only one to ever read it. He's writing for himself -- more aloneness. To me, it's similar to the way the modernists tend to alienate their writings from the mass public, prefering to be read by intellectual peers. Perhaps Stephen writes in a diary because he feels he has no intellectual peers.

Richard Rossi said...

I agree with Brooke. I don't really see it as poor Stephen ending up alone. Stephen has always been alone; he has always been apart from schoolmates, family, friends. You see it right in the first chapter when he's running on the field with the other boys during some kind of game, probably soccer. All he's trying to do is stay as far away from the action as possible. There is always a distance between himself and his family. Even in high school, his circle of friends is small and he always keeps some distance between himself and them. As far as we know, he has only shared one intimate detail of his life with one friend, one time, and we have no idea how that interaction occurred. He is not capable with forging a single close relationship with any girl/woman, even those who show an interest; hence, his turn to prostitutes.

Moreover, I think Stephen likes it that way. He see himself as being apart from his fellows, as being someone special, and he enjoys that position. That, I think also helps explain why he rejects the priesthood and ultimately the church. He likes the idea of being a priest because it sets him apart from other men. But it doesn't set him apart far enough because he would, in the end, be just another priest. I think that's the realization he has when he walks past jesuit house and wonders which of those rooms will be his. He really doesn't want to become part of a community. He really thinks he's cut out for something better.

You can debate whether he believes it's fate, or God's plan for him, or just it's plain hubris, but I think it's clear that he see himself as something special, someone apart.

I don't believe the diary form at the end means that Stephen is writing just for himself. I think he very much wants his writing published. He may not care whether it's read by the masses, but he does want it read by someone or else what's the point of going forth to forge the uncreated conscience of his race.

Snehal said...

I think that there is a way to think about this question without getting into Stephen's consciousness (which, despite the innovations in modernist technique, is still a little opaque).

Namely, how important is alienation, isolation, and "aloneness" for either the development of an artist or the narrative of the development of an artist? Why does the artist seem to need this kind of radical separation from society in order to become an artist? What makes alienation a problem in a Lawrence novel and a virtue (perhaps) in a Joyce novel?

It might be interesting to think of this problem in light of developments in the visual arts in the continent, where new artistic movements were trying to figure out how to reintegrate the artist with society and seeing the forward development of art as tied up with that process of reintegration. This is what is normally understood to be the avant garde.

And finally, if alienation is both necessary for art and a condition of modernity, then what are we to make of those moments when the novel seems to offer the possibility of overcoming alienation ("forging in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race") but uses two tropes (the smithy of an individual soul, presumably with only one smith; and the horizon of the uncreated conscience which puts the moment of integration off into some uncharted future) which resist that reintegration?

I'm compelled by the things that all of you have written -- I'm going to go back and re-read those last few pages and see if something else doesn't jump out at me.

Emilie Fleig said...

I'm finding this thread extremely interesting. In class, I was fixed on this question of the purpose of the journal format (since it implies a desire to keep one's work from the public eye). I agree, Richard and Brooke, that Stephen wasn't forced to be alone but chose to be along as a mode of creating his art. But then, why or how will he address his entire race (I guess that it the central question of his endeavor)?

The concept of not wanting one's work to be read (or giving off that image, at least) still baffles me a bit. It makes me wonder: what is their goal, particularly Stephen who isolates himself and yet wants to reach out to others.

How does he envision these others (his race)? If he himself wants to reintegrate with them at some future point, does he expect a change in either them or in himself (or in the world because of his art) that will allow him to overcome his isolation? Does he even want that?

Richard Rossi said...

I don't know that choosing to be alone necessarily equates with not wanting to be read. Writers are, by their natures, observers, a fact which necessitates establishing some distance between yourself and that which you are observing. In that respect, alienation and isolation or "aloneness" can be very important for the artist.

There is no evidence in the novel that Stephen doesn't want his work read at some point. In fact, quite the opposite, we know that on at least one occasion he entered his work in an essay contest and won a fairly large prize. Ultimately,I'm not sure how to think about this whole issue of wanting or not wanting to be read in relation to modernism. To be sure, many of the modernists were aghast by what they would interpret as the deterioration in language, art, and standards that was the result of mass marketing, the growth of the middle class and the upward social mobility that growth engendered. Quite clearly, Pound and Eliot had no use for the mass market and were writing for a small, select group that was capable of appreciating their work.

I'm not sure that's true of Joyce. Although modernist in his themes and concerns, Joyce is also concerned with larger social and cultural issues that are unique to Ireland. He believes that his "race" the Irish, have lost their birthright, their language and their culture, to a succession of invaders that includes the Romans, the English, and the Catholic Church.

I really think what he is trying to restore is the "soul" of his race. That's why ultimately he has to leave Ireland. If he remains he runs the risk of being drawn into the current,corrupted culture, of becoming part of it. Once that happens he won't be able to effect change. So he has to get away, get some distance between himself and Ireland in order to continue to see the issue(s) clearly.

I don't know whether he knows exactly how he's going to reintegrate with society, but I believe he thinks that he has to forge a new conscience of his race within himself before he can reengage.

Snehal said...

I, like Emilie, am also finding this thread extremely interesting. I'm particularly interested in how we resolve this problem that the Kunstlerroman has built into it: 1) the artist needs alienation in order to be an artist (that's a clumsy way of putting it, but let's say that that works) and 2) the artist wants to produce art, which by it's nature, tends to communicate and resist the urge towards isolation.

This (seeming) contradiction in the narrative of the Kunstlerroman seems to find its outlet in a similar problematic in modernism: 1) modernists responded to problematic developments in mass culture (which they usually saw as a deterioration and a decline in the power and value of language) by turning towards very highly crafted, polished works while 2) they hoped to effect serious changes in at least the way that language was understood if not society at large.

I don't want people to think that I believe entirely that Stephen retreats into some kind of literary hermitage. I just think that this is a tendency that modernism also has built into it. So, if there is a reintegration or a reconciliation with social forms and society, that reconciliation carries with it some of the residues of the original alienation and isolation as well.

What's left to figure out is what effect that has on the modernist work: can it overcome alienation (which it seems to posit is a permanent, even if new, condition in human life) in art; can it actually make transformations to social patterns and cultural forms; why does it leave the project of reintegration so vague and tenuous (we didn't read Mrs. Dalloway, but that's another place where alienation is purportedly overcome in the brief moment of Clarissa's imagining of Septimus's suicide).

And then, I think, this leaves the final question of publishing and patronage. Artists still found themselves involved in the very circuits of commerce that they found offensive (there were ads (ADS!) for Stein's poetry; Pound's poems earned their publisher some handy sums which gathered, presumably, interest; etc.)

This discussion has been really illuminating.