30 October 2010

A portrait of the blogger as a young philosopher-II

On the 10th of October I wrote the first of three posts describing some of the influential figures in my own coming of age. That is here. I was inspired by all the hoopla over the John Lennon anniversary, as he may well be the single most influential figure in the coming of age of many of the people who I personally know. My last post in a couple of weeks will be on the Beatle, but first I am going to veer off into the world of the the books of James Joyce.

James Joyce was the greatest Irish, if not the greatest European, if not even perhaps the greatest earthly writer of the twentieth century. If you classify Castaneda as non-fiction, he was the fiction writer we devoted the most energy to when I was in college. There were three books: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a short novel about the coming of age of a writer who we all assume is a thinly-disguised James Joyce. The hero is raised in the Catholic church; his teachers are trying to recruit him into the priesthood; the main event in the book is his loss of faith in God. My student pals were largely atheists who had formative experiences rebelling against their parents' religion. Joyce's description of the experience is personal to him and it was personal to many of us. In particular I have a memory of a Grateful Dead fan (this band was big in Berkeley in 1980) explaining to me, very seriously, that the Stephen of Saint Stephen (this was one of their most popular songs) was Joyce's Stephen Daedulus of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. People can take the most ridiculous things seriously.

(As an aside I read the Annotated Grateful Dead entry on Saint Stephen. There are a lot of people taking ridiculous things seriously on that page, but nothing about James Joyce. In any case the original Saint Stephen predated Joyce but over a thousand years.)

The second book by Joyce which we all at least tried to read is Ulysses. This is a long and complicated novel in stream-of-consciousness style which is nearly impossible to pick up and read continuously in comfort the first time. If I recall correctly, the first time I tried I made it to around page 100 and gave up for months. It is a fairly grueling initiation rite to get all the way through it and we were all proud when we had. The promised obscenity near the end of the novel was not worth the effort. I am skeptical that the people who banned the book on grounds of obscenity ever sat down and read the first few hundred pages to get to the so-called dirty parts in natural sequence and, having finally gotten there, then suffered from violated sensitivity.

My classmates and I spent hours discussing this book. I am not sure any of us understood it. Years later I discovered a magic formula for reading this book easily, which I presented in an earlier post.

The third book by Joyce which nobody got far into is Finnegans Wake. On the Wikipedia page this book is described as unreadable. It is done in an unusual style which could be described as stream-of-dream-consciousness. Anybody who succeeded in reading it in Berkeley in 1980 would have been credited with divine power. It is a pity I did not know my magic formula for Ulysses and Finnegans Wake back then; it would have been interesting to see what a reputation for possessing supernatural power would have equated to in real world reward.

No comments:


Please see paragraphs 8.4, 8.5 in the Google Terms of Service document!

About Craig

My photo
Houston, Texas, United States
I have been living in the lovely neighborhood of Spring Branch in the great city of Houston since late in 2005. I started out with the idea of making this blog about my life in this neighborhood. That did not last long. Right now I am posting every five days on the alternating topics of literature, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics. This project has been ongoing since July 27, 2010 and I believe it will continue for at least a few more months.