On June 15, 1917, a U.S. marshal and 12 New York City policemen entered the Lower East Side offices of the radical magazine Mother Earth and placed its editor under arrest. The U.S. was mobilizing to enter World War I, and the famous anarchist Emma Goldman had been charged with conspiracy to obstruct the draft in violation of the Selective Service Act passed earlier that year. She brought with her to the jailhouse, according to Vivian Gornick, only two things: “a small toilet case” and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce.
Joyce’s novel was a rare object at that time (though, admittedly, not so rare as Emma Goldman’s toilet case). At the time Goldman was arrested, Portrait had been in print for little more than six months in an edition of less than a thousand. Yet it’s fitting, even if surprising, that she had a copy and attached such importance to it, since Joyce wrote the quintessential book against “the spirit of unquestioning obedience” that Goldman deplored.
While Goldman rebelled publicly against governments, armies, corporations, and churches in order to even the scales of justice, Joyce ignored a political bagatelle such as World War I. He wrote not of the struggle to liberate a people but of the individual’s struggle to liberate himself—if need be, from his people. In his book on the adolescence of Stephen Dedalus—the best book ever written on male adolescence, I think—Stephen liberates himself above all from his own twisted conscience. And that is hard enough. To overthrow a government of the people is not so hard, perhaps, as to overthrow the government of the heart.
Plato confused conscience with reason, but Freud, the ultimate analyst of corrupt conscience (a.k.a. neurosis), did not. He knew that for some it could be a catalogue of hysteric, childish dangers with sometimes pitiless, bullying, and sophistical methods for enforcing its prohibitions.
Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus rebels against such irrational conscience, conscience that rules not by reason but by incantations and scare tactics, a sovereign conscience that “force hath made supreme / Above his equals” as Satan says of God in Paradise Lost Book I, ll 248-249. At times Stephen shares the apostate angel’s “unconquerable will” and “courage never to submit or yield,” as Milton puts it. When the priest names the cardinal Satanic sin—“non serviam: I will not serve” (Portrait p 117)—and says you burn in Hell for it, Stephen cowers and chastens himself. But reason, courage, and self-sympathy prevails; in the novel’s last pages Stephen twice echoes Satan’s famous line, “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven” (PL I, l 263); he tells his friend Cranly “I will not serve” on p 239 and “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church” on p 247. Dedalus soars over Hell with self-made wings, over the Irish Sea to Europe, hoping “to fly by those nets” of church and homeland (p 203) which are the aliases by which demonic conscience makes itself known.
This inner conflict, which shapes Portrait, in turn takes its shape from the family conflict in which its template was cast. Just like in Paradise Lost, where the many crises of conscience turn on relations between God the Father and his curious, jealous children, Portrait is all about fathers and sons. Patrick Parrinder, author of a great essay on the novel called “A Portrait of the Artist,” says of Stephen Dedalus: “his father’s voice plays a crucial part in the novel. Portrait begins (as we have seen) with his father’s words and ends with a cry addressed to an imaginary father.” It’s battle and rapprochement between father and son, rebellion and submission, resentment and idolization, and a vacillation between these two positions, conducted wholly in the realm of language. While writing my college thesis on Portrait I counted instances of the word ‘father’ and came up with 193 (including ‘governor’ three times and ‘Papa’ once) in 253 pages. (Since this was before the internet and e-books, I counted by circling ‘father’ whenever I came across it and then I went back and tallied them up on notebook paper with hash marks in sets of five!)
There’s a beautiful triangle form inside of Portrait, with sin at one end of its base and piety at the other, and a conciliation between the two at its glorious flying vertex. Only Joyce could inscribe this abstract form onto a novel of such incomparable specificity and naturalism. He does it with three motivic lines on Stephen’s approach to reality.
“It was his own soul going forth to experience, unfolding itself sin by sin.” p 103
“In vague sacrificial or sacramental acts alone his will seemed drawn to go forth to encounter reality.” p 159
“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.” p 253
There at the windy vertex Stephen throws off the yoke of oppressive conscience by replacing it with a conscience he made himself en route to maturity. That is self-governance, no? That is autonomy, and it enables “detachment from parental authority, a process that alone makes possible the opposition, which is so important for the progress of civilization, between the new generation and the old,” as Freud says in “The Transformations of Puberty,” the third of his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.
I’ll soon be forty years old. I’ve been done with puberty for months. Now, if I could just move past this nasty, moody adolescence. Well, here I go with my wax wings on, to set sail over the abyss, muttering to myself, “ ‘Indigestibly byronic’? I find that incontestably mo-ronic, Mr. Kenner….” Shit, it’s a long way down there.