30 Day Book Challenge: Day Thirteen

Book whose main character is most like you: Stephen Dedalus (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce)

Yes, I realize the pretension of claiming affinity with James Joyce’s semi-autobiographical Kunstlerroman. It’s pretentious for two reasons: Firstly, the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, is a learned snob and ineffectual rebel without a cause; a proto-hipster, if you will. Secondly, because it’s so autobiographical, you’re essentially comparing yourself to one of the greatest writers of all time.

However, I will attempt to exonerate myself by arguing my kinship with Dedalus stems from his struggle with his Irish-Catholic milieu, as opposed to any kind of artistic resemblance.

As a Kunstlerroman, Portrait details the artistic development of Stephen Dedalus as he seeks out his muse. As autobiography, it depicts Stephen’s/Joyce’s struggle to forge his own identity amidst the discursive regimes of Irish politics and Catholic morality. As the novel progresses, the two become one and Stephen finds authenticity in his calling as a writer, and forges an identity that is actually a synthesis of all the opposing forces that have been pulling him apart through out the narrative: “Welcome, O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.”

Being raised Catholic in an Irish-Newfoundland family, I really identified with much of Stephen’s struggle. One of the most polarizing sequences of the novel is the “hellfire sermon.” A Jesuit priest basically goes on at length (and I mean pages worth) about all the different punishments sinners face in Hell. Many readers scratch their heads at this, but I (along with others raised Catholic) could identify with the excruciating, cringe-worthy details.

As a kid – up until I was about 18 – I was legitimately scared of hell. Sometimes I would lie in bed for hours because my stomach was full of anxiety, thinking about my inevitable eternal punishment for reveling in sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. And Joyce really hits the nail on the head the way he pinpoints the sensual manner in which Hell is perceived – there is a punishment for each of the five senses according to the priest.

Of course, having gone through the male version of puberty as a Catholic, I could also identify with Portrait. Once Stephen gets hit by hormonal train, he falls hard. I myself never went so far as to solicit the services of prostitutes, but I was a pretty active dude – at least as any normal teenage male these days. Nevertheless, after you indulge, you’re stricken with the old Catholic guilt and you worry about things like sex before marriage and all that crap.

By the time I was in High School, I began toying with the idea of atheism and eventually kicked the fear of Heaven/Hell to the curb. These days I don’t go to church unless it’s for marriages or funerals. My reasons are multifarious and I won’t bother to get into them here. Still, I think my Catholicism lingers, as I’m loathe to align myself with hacks like Hitchens and Dawkins, and I’m also very sensitive to Christ as a symbol/metaphor.

My point is that my relationship with Christianity/religion is complicated, as is Stephen’s in Portrait (and later, Ulysses), and Joyce himself through out his own life. Say what you will of the Church as an institution, but Christianity as a theology and philosophy is worthy of respect and should not simply be dismissed, especially if you intend to criticize it. While I’ve been known to go on ad nauseam about the problems of Catholicism, I still take offense when non-Catholics, raised in secular families, with no knowledge about the church run their mouths.

For me, too many atheists point their criticism towards Christians as opposed to Christianity itself, and that’s elitist bullshit. Joyce is unrelenting, and never varnishes his opinion towards either, but he still has the sense to imbue his characters with humanity, instead of reducing them to caricatures or allegorical symbols, and that’s what I mean by respect.

blah, enough with my rant.

cheers,

-B

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~ by braddunne on July 12, 2011.

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