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Posts Tagged ‘A Portrait of the Artist’

James Joyce’s most celebrated novel, Ulysses, has been described—by Joyce himself, or perhaps it was Robert Anton Wilson—as either a religion disguised as a joke or a joke disguised as a religion. In either case, the author’s efforts to probe the depths for secret subtle wisdom were profound indeed, but equally important, his revelations were consistently made with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. From Moses to Shakespeare to Aquinas, none was immune to the sarcastic lampooning of Joyce’s rapier wit.

A useful religion, like a good joke, requires a great deal of cognitive blending, examining words, concepts and narratives from a number of simultaneous perspectives. Fairy tales, holy scripture and great novels all employ the language of myth, which is the dialect of metaphor. Potent language brims with signs and symbols, draws us in with a simple enough story, then engages clever devices to direct our imaginations upwards, to higher levels of meaning. A good joke sets up certain expectations, then swings the helm and points us in a different, unexpected direction with joyful results. Either way, when we surrender ourselves to the charms of a good narrator, we also appoint him to the role of navigator, allowing our imaginations and our unconscious to be guided far afield into uncharted waters.

Rarely if ever has anyone grasped the full power of language and known how to harness it the way Joyce did. Each word is selected with the utmost care, and pregnant with meaning and potential. Every sentence is constructed with as much deliberation and precision as a seven layer wedding cake being delivered to the surface of Mars. It may not make for light reading, but it can provide a lifetime’s worth of study for the assiduous reader.

Like Biblical scripture, his books can be read time and time again, with additional layers of meaning gleaned from each and every subsequent reading, while accumulating a greater and greater general knowledge as necessary to draw increasingly meaningful interpretations. Ulysses, in fact, is the kind of book that one could study with the same sort of devotion and exclusivity that fundamentalists apply to the Bible or the Koran. Once you have thoroughly understood this masterpiece, then you will have grasped a complete understanding of human history and the world. Like holding William Blake’s infinity in the palm of your hand, Joyce’s microcosm of Dublin contains—however obliquely disguised or ironically revealed—an all inclusive metaphysical system and a comprehensive roadmap of the human soul.

Committing oneself to the literary output of James Joyce may confer great intellectual and spiritual benefits, but the material disadvantages are hard to overlook. I’m reminded of Lynch’s words to Stephen in the aesthetic theory section of A Portrait of the Artist. “Damn you and damn everything. I want a job at five hundred a year. You can’t get me one.”

No, the remunerative opportunities for the full-time Joyce enthusiast are limited indeed. For the aficionado of fine literature, this may come as a somewhat disheartening realization, for what it says about our society and what is valued and what is not. But I as gave this fact a more thought, I came to see that Joyce is not the profitless diversion, but it’s money that is the vulgar distraction. True enough, we live in a society where money is the measure of all things and what cannot be monetized is discarded and disdained.

Joyce, however, was a staunch advocate of art for art’s sake. By virtue of the the fact that these profound works remain untarnished by greed, profiteering or other commercial influence, they retain a special place in our society, or more accurately, outside of our society. Somehow this joke disguised as a religion, untainted by man’s foulest devices, is elevated to an even higher, sacred plane. Its study is relegated to the mystical and esoteric circles, where the ideas and intentions remain most pure, detached from earthly pursuits. Go forth then into that otherworldly realm of wisdom and mystery, and rejoice, for the remedy you seek cannot be bought or sold.

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