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  • “Time Drops in Decay”: A Portrait of the Artist in History (ii), Chapter 2
  • Andrew Gibson

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is about the growth to early adulthood of a young Irish intellectual and fledgling artist in Dublin in an extremely specific period of Irish history, approximately 1882–1903, focusing principally on the years 1891–1903. This may seem rather obvious; but the point has sometimes been a little lost in enthusiasm for Joyce’s modernity or his modernism. This essay seeks to saturate a chapter of A Portrait in certain features of its historical context.1 It also aims to show just how far the novel can be read in terms of a relationship between an extremely precise set of historical determinants—one or more languages, styles, or discourses—and an aesthetic practice or practices.

At the same time, more crucially, the larger project of which this essay forms a part tries to provide one or two answers of its own to a question that has increasingly concerned recent criticism in a quite precise way: what was Joyce saying in A Portrait about his own intellectual development? Gregory Castle, in particular, has recently cast the issue in a set of terms from which this essay partly takes its cue but to which it also adds a historically focused and extremely specific perspective:2 what was Joyce saying about his own formation or Bildung in a colonial culture? More precisely, what was he saying about his development, not only in a colonial culture, but in a highly specific colonial culture at a highly specific and distinctive stage of its development? This development, Joyce surely knew, whatever the setbacks it was encountering, was clearly in the direction of some form of independence from the colonial power. But he is also pervasively and exactly conscious of the complex play of historical, political, and discursive forces that make Stephen what he is. As Seamus Deane puts matters, Stephen is not “voicing . . . a private or personal condition only”; he is also voicing “the hitherto unrealized and unexamined condition of a race.”3 Joyce is completely aware of the degree to which Stephen’s development is about much more than Stephen himself. The question is what exactly comprises that historical and sociopolitical “surplus.”

In my reading of A Portrait as a whole, the novel provides an [End Page 697] account of what were, for the Joyce meditating the novel from 1904 to 1908 and producing the novel we have between 1908 and 1914, the recent history of Ireland, its political and cultural hopes and prospects. In the “Wandering Rocks” episode of Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus admonishes himself, “Not yet awhile. A look around” (U 10.826–27). He is echoing Charles Stewart Parnell. According to the popular biography of the time, R. Barry O’Brien’s Life, when others were urging Parnell to enter politics, he initially resisted, saying, “I must look more around for myself first. I must see a little more how things are going.”4 So, too, Stephen pauses on the edge of a momentous decision regarding his own relationship to his country, in order not only to survey the scene but to get a sense of the prevailing political and cultural vectors. A Portrait itself partly constitutes a Joycean “look around,” with the crucial proviso that, self-evidently, that look must also be an inward look, a scrutiny of what the vectors in question make of the colonial subject.

In key respects, the aesthetic of A Portrait both forecasts and parallels that of Ulysses. In the first instance, both novels are meditations on what is an extremely specific historical context. That the breathtakingly material factuality of Ulysses is not immediately evident to the same degree in A Portrait should not obscure the fact that the earlier novel is established on a bedrock of similar particularities. Second, and crucially for the reading of the novel exemplified here, in A Portrait, as in Ulysses, the meditation on a historically specific situation is inseparable from an extended meditation and a sustained practice upon a historically specific set of discourses. In A Portrait, as in Ulysses, this meditation is not at all...


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