James Joyce is agreed to be, to the extent that such things are ever agreed on, the greatest novelist of the 20th century. A board of big-name academics convened by the Modern Library Association to choose the top 100 novels English novels of the century gave Joyce two of the top three spots: Ulysses was #1 and Portrait of the Artist was #3. (You can see the entire list here.) Most folks with a college education would probably be familiar with Joyce. Of course one can be familiar with an author without actually reading his books. Most folks with a college education probably haven’t read any of his books. I hadn’t until about a week ago.
Why should we care about Joyce? A respectable educational explanation is that we should read Joyce because his novels were important. Their influence shows clearly in the likes to such authors as Virginia Woolf, Thomas Pynchon, and even Don Delillo. Of course you may be among those who have never read anything by Virginia Woolf, Thomas Pynchon, or Don Delillo either. If so, then such an explanation merely boots the question up to another level. What’s the big deal? Why should anyone care about these books?
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man tells the story of a young Irishman named Stephen Dedalus living in the early 20th century. It covers his life from toddlerhood up to age 20, when he leaves Ireland. The fictional life of Dedalus mirrors the real life of Joyce, even to the point of having the two attend the same schools. What makes the book famous is its approach to realism, the famous stream of consciousness that gives us a peak inside the mind of young Dedalus. We read the thoughts of the character, but they are not organized, linear thoughts. Nor are they highly emotional thoughts. They are real human thoughts. Stephen will be in a certain situation, sitting in class or attending church or watching other people on a beach. Suddenly his mind departs from the scene and heads to something completely different. The text departs with him. For readers unused to this sort of thing, this style of writing can be frustrating. Small wonder that many people quit before reaching the end of a Joyce novel.
But there’s a purpose behind all this. Joyce is teaching us about the human mind. As Augustine observed in an autobiographical writing 15 centuries earlier, the human mind is not obedient in the same way as the body. If we order our arm or leg to move, it moves; we perceive no different between the mental order and the action. On the other hand, if we order our mind to focus on a certain task or topic, it usually doesn’t focus, or at least not for very long. It swings wildly, bringing up memories and ideas seemingly at random. The mind wanders. It’s a basic part of the human condition; a truth so obvious that it’s a cliche, or at least it was until recently.
This is the first and foremost theme of A Portrait of the Artist. The human mind is not a logical machine like a computer. It is not even an entity that incorporates emotion along with reason to take a two-part approach to the business of living. It is a collection of thoughts, ideas, memories, emotions, feelings, and tendencies stewed together without any organization that we can discern. In order to learn about humanity, understand humanity, and deal with humanity, we first must accept this fact about what humanity is. A human mind is basically Grandpa Simpson.