"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Archive for the ‘Classics’ Category

More on The Portrait of the Artist

(continued from my first post on A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)

Great literature should take us away to wild and strange places.  A Portrait of the Artist takes us inside the human mind, arguably the strangest place there is.  Joyce teaches us about the strange, unpredictable, decidedly non-linear workings of the human mind.  That, in itself, makes the novel memorable, but it would hardly be worthy of greatness if that’s all it did.

Another goal of literature is to show a character with total honesty.  It’s impossible for any one human being to have direct access to the mind of any other human being.  Experiencing a character through literature is about as close as we can come to fully encountering another human mind.  Stephen Dedalus is among the most total and realistic characters in literature.  In A Portrait of the Artist, we get to know what it’s like to be him.

Stephen is a young man, as the title says.  Like all young men, he cycles rapidly through many different outlooks on life.  He is deeply into literature, then drama.  He gets religion, then loses it.  He is committed to his family, then he isn’t.  He’s an ascetic, then a free spirit.  At each stage of his mental development, he thinks he has found the thing, the one and only approach to life that is correct and which commands his total attention.  He doesn’t even seem to be aware of the fact that he’s constantly making big changes in his outlook on life.

At the same time, reality keeps intruding on Stephen’s life in so many ways.  His family’s financial situation, academic rules, the behavior of friends, and his own sexuality–all are constantly playing tricks on him and preventing him from taking a linear path through the world.  Stephen tries to be a serious intellectual, but his fellow students are more interested in crude humor and other distractions.  He beats against their indifference without any success.  In this respect as well, Stephen’s experience is something we can all relate to, particularly those of us who were once budding young intellectuals in a largely non-intellectual world.

I can’t conclude without mentioning religion.  Joyce is not a big fan, particularly not of the conservative Catholicism that dominated Ireland when he was young.  Since the novel is set largely at Catholic schools and colleges, Catholicism plays a large role throughout the novel.  It’s most important in chapter three, the novel’s central chapter.  At this point in the novel, Stephen, at the tender age of 16, is routinely visiting prostitutes in Dublin.  One of the priests at his college takes the students on a retreat, during which he gives them a lecture on the torments of Hell.  (Ironically, this same priest was kind to Stephen during childhood.)  The lectures go into excruciating details, describing the physical pain, horrendous sights and sounds and odors, burning heat, and so forth that are present in Hell for all eternity.  No mention is made of how the priest knows these facts, nor is there much attention paid to the love and saving grace of Jesus Christ.  It’s just Hell, Hell, Hell for sermon after sermon.  The experience leaves Stephen fearing for his soul to the extent that be becomes physically ill and barely able to move or function.

It’s not a pleasant scene, but it is a powerful one.  One advantage to reading A Portrait of the Artist is that it puts the religious experience of past eras in terms that moderns can understand.  These days we find it hard to comprehend how people of centuries past thought about sin, death, and judgment.  Chapter three of Portrait gives us a look at a character writhing in the throes of sin and fearing for his eternal destiny.  It lets us understand that, for those who truly believed as Stephen believed, sin took on an overwhelming, almost physical presence if it wasn’t dealt with via confession and penance.

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Chesterton comments on “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”

This is also why the new novels die so quickly, and why the old fairy tales endure for ever. The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal. But in the modern psychological novel the hero is abnormal; the centre is not central. Hence the fiercest adventures fail to affect him adequately, and the book is monotonous. You can make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons. The fairy tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world. The sober realistic novel of to-day discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world.

– G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

What I’m reading: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

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.

What I’m Reading: H. P. Lovecraft

It’s October.  Autumn is here.  Colored leaves are falling.  Pumpkins are appearing.  There’s a chill in the air.  What better time to curl up with a book by one of the great masters of horror: H. P. Lovecraft?

This is actually the first time I’ve read anything by Lovecraft.  When I was in college, his books were quite popular, especially with the geeky set.  I wasn’t a big fan of horror, however.  In fact, I’m still not.  But Lovecraft and his creations have gotten so deeply embedded in the pop culture landscape that I decided to give him a try.  I picked up a couple volumes from a used bookstore and decided to start with The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.

Well, I was not impressed.  Lovecraft certainly has a large vocabulary and a penchant for images.  He has some skill for devising gothic-sounding names.  Nonetheless, his writing is packed with stuff like this:

In light slumber he descended the seventy steps to the cavern of flame and talked of this design to the bearded priests Nasht and Kaman-Thah.  And the priests shook there pshent-bearing heads and vowed it would be the death of his soul.  They pointed out that the Great Ones had shown already their wish, and that it is not agreeable to them to be harassed by insistent pleas.  They reminded him, too, that not only had no man ever been to Kadath, but no man had ever suspected in what part of space it may lie; whether it be in the dreamlands around our own world, or in those surrounding some unguessed companion of Fomalhaut or Aldebaran.  If in our dreamland, it might conceivably be reached, but only three human souls since time began had ever crossed and recrossed the black impious gulfs to other dreamlands, and of that three, two had come back quite mad.  There were, in such voyages, incalculable local dangers; as well as that shocking final peril which gibbers unmentionably outside the ordered universe, where no dreams reach; that last amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the centre of all infinity–the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and thin, monotonous whine of accursed flutes; to which detestable pounding and piping dance slowly, awkwardly, and absurdly the gigantic Ultimate gods, the blind, voiceless , tenebrous, mindless Other gods whose soul and messenger is the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep.

 Either you can take such stuff seriously or you can’t.  I can’t, so no more Lovecraft for me.

Chesterton on Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit stands in Dickens’s life chiefly as a signal of how far he went down the road of realism, of sadness, and of what is called modernity. True, it was by no means the best of the books of his later period; some even think it the worst. Great Expectations is certainly the best of the later novels; some even think it the best of all the novels. Nor is it the novel most concerned with strictly recent problems; that title must be given to Hard Times. Nor again is it the most finely finished or well constructed of the later books; that claim can be probably made for Edwin Drood. By a queer verbal paradox the most carefully finished of his later tales is the tale that is not finished at all. In form, indeed, the book bears a superficial resemblance to those earlier works by which the young Dickens had set the whole world laughing long ago. Much of the story refers to a remote time early in the nineteenth century; much of it was actually recalled and copied from the life of Dickens’s father in the old Marshalsea prison. Also the narrative has something of the form, or rather absence of form, which belonged to Nicholas Nickleby or Martin Chuzzlewit. It has something of the old air of being a string of disconnected adventures, like a boy’s book about bears and Indians. The Dorrits go wandering for no particular reason on the Continent of Europe, just as young Martin Chuzzlewit went wandering for no particular reason on the continent of America. The story of Little Dorrit stops and lingers at the doors of the Circumlocution Office much in the same way that the story of Samuel Pickwick stops and lingers in the political excitement of Eatanswill. The villain, Blandois, is a very stagey villain indeed; quite as stagey as Ralph Nickleby or the mysterious Monk. The secret of the dark house of Clennam is a very silly secret; quite as silly as the secret of Ralph Nickleby or the secret of Monk. Yet all these external similarities between Little Dorrit and the earliest books, all this loose, melodramatic quality, only serves to make more obvious and startling the fact that some change has come over the soul of Dickens. Hard Times is harsh; but then Hard Times is a social pamphlet; perhaps it is only harsh as a social pamphlet must be harsh. Bleak House is a little sombre; but then Bleak House is almost a detective story; perhaps it is only sombre in the sense that a detective story must be sombre. A Tale of Two Cities is a tragedy; but then A Tale of Two Cities is a tale of the French Revolution; perhaps it is only a tragedy because the French Revolution was a tragedy. The Mystery of Edwin Drood is dark; but then the mystery of anybody must be dark. In all these other cases of the later books an artistic reason can be given — a reason of theme or of construction for the slight sadness that seems to cling to them. But exactly because Little Dorrit is a mere Dickens novel, it shows that something must somehow have happened to Dickens himself. Even in resuming his old liberty, he cannot resume his old hilarity. He can re-create the anarchy, but not the revelry.

It so happens that this strange difference between the new and the old mode of Dickens can be symbolised and stated in one separate and simple contrast. Dickens’s father had been a prisoner in a debtors prison, and Dickens’s works contain two pictures partly suggested by the personality of that prisoner. Mr. Micawber is one picture of him. Mr. Dorrit is another. This truth is almost incredible, but it is the truth. The joyful Micawber, whose very despair was exultant, and the desolate Dorrit, whose very pride was pitiful, were the same man. The valiant Micawber and the nervous, shaking Dorrit were the same man. The defiant Micawber and the snobbish, essentially obsequious Dorrit were the same man. I do not mean of course that either of the pictures was an exact copy of anybody. The whole Dickens genius consisted of taking hints and turning them into human beings. As he took twenty real persons and turned them into one fictitious person, so he took one real person and turned him into twenty fictitious persons. This quality would suggest one character, that quality would suggest another. But in this case, at any rate, he did take one real person and turn him into two. And what is more, he turned him into two persons who seem to be quite opposite persons. To ordinary readers of Dickens, to say that Micawber and Dorrit had in any sense the same original, will appear unexpected and wild. No conceivable connection between the two would ever have occurred to anybody who had read Dickens with simple and superficial enjoyment, as all good literature ought to be read. It will seem to them just as silly as saying that the Fat Boy and Mr. Alfred Jingle were both copied from the same character. It will seem as insane as saying that the character of Smike and the character of Major Bagstock were both copied from Dickens’s father. Yet it is an unquestionable historical fact that Micawber and Dorrit were both copied from Dickens’s father, in the only sense that any figures in good literature are ever copied from anything or anybody. Dickens did get the main idea of Micawber from his father; and that idea is that a poor man is not conquered by the world. And Dickens did get the main idea of Dorrit from his father; and that idea is that a poor man may be conquered by the world. I shall take the opportunity of discussing, in a moment, which of these ideas is true. Doubtless old John Dickens included both the gay and the sad moral; most men do. My only purpose here is to point out that Dickens drew the gay moral in 1849, and the sad moral in 1857.

 
-G. K. Chesterton, Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens

What I’m Reading: Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit was written by Charles Dickens.  Even if you knew nothing else about the book, you’d probably be able to guess something about the central character.  Little Dorrit–officially named Amy Dorrit–is a young woman, a paragon of goodness, love, and mercy, while surrounded and attacked on all sides by the cruelties of a corrupt, shallow, and greedy society.  Dickens was and still is famous for creating characters like this.  Oliver Twist and Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop are two obvious examples.

But while those two examples are generally viewed as lesser works from the less mature part of Dickens’ career, Little Dorrit is instead characterized as one of his supreme literary works, and indeed as one of the great Victorian novels.  It unfolds against the background of a debtors’ prison, where Amy’s father is held for a debt caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare that neither he nor anyone else understands.  Amy is born in prison and spends her first twenty-two years there, passionately devoted to helping her father and everyone else.  Eventually two outsiders, Mr. Pancks and Aruthr Clennham, unravel the facts and find that the Dorrit family actually have an enormous fortune.  They leave the prison in triumph.

For the early Dickens, that would have been the end of the story.  For the mature Dickens, it’s the halfway point of the story.  After they leave prison, the Dorrits embark on a trip across Europe.  As they go, Mr. Dorrit’s character subtlely changes.  He becomes obsessed with the concept of being a gentleman, including such gentlemanly pursuits as abusing the servants and harshly judging anyone poorer than himself.  He also becomes determined to remake Amy and her sister as members of the upper class.  To that end, he hires a strict governess named “Mrs. General”, and together they try to twist Amy into the ‘proper’ mold.  The irony is self-evident.  When Amy lived in prison with her father, she was free to pursue genuine goodness and love.  Once the family is free and out of prison, she is boxed in by society on every side.

Literary critics have written more about Dickens than any other English author but Shakespeare.  While there’s undoubtedly an enormous amount to discover in the depths of Dickens’ novels, one can get so wrapped up in it as to miss the main points.  The first main point is wealth.  To Dickens, wealth is a corrupting force.  The poor characters tend to be meek and mild, innocent and wholly good.  The world of the wealthy is a world of corruption, pretension, indifference to suffering and general meanness.  Of course one can find characters that buck the trend on either side, but on the whole the pattern holds strongly; Dickens must have viewed it as a central truth of humanity.  The second main point, obvious related, is Christian goodness.  Goodness is recognized by care and generosity, while badness is greedy, stingy, nasty, and self-centered.  In Little Dorrit one of the main villains is Mrs. Clennham, the widowed mother of Arthur, who has spent decades sinking into an Old Testament-fueled Calvinist obsession with sin and punishment.  At the end of the novel she is brought to a climactic meeting with Amy, who shows her the genuine goodness of Christ.  This dramatic clash of personality types, and many others like it, carry Little Dorrit into the highest echelons of literary achievement.

Day 25: A character who you can relate to

If you’ve been following my progress through the thirty-day book project, you may be asking an obvious question: what the &$%# happened to day 25?  Well, what happened to day 25 is this.  I typed up a nice post for day 25, then either I never hit the “publish button” or else some bug in the software stopped it from actually appearing on my blog.  So, in the ‘better late than never’ category, here is day 25.

My choice for this category is The Catcher in the Rye.  The character, of course, is Holden Caulfield.  Most people are required to read this book while in high school.  I was not.  I may be the only person who read The Catcher in the Rye voluntarily around age 18.  Holden Caulfield immediately got my attention and stuck with me.  He is one of only two characters who I could possibly put in this category.  (The other one would be Yossarian from Catch 22.)

When I say that I relate to Holden Caulfield, I don’t mean that I am like him or that I ever was.  I have never attended a fancy east-coast prep school.  I have never run away from such a school.  I have never spent several days wandering aimlessly around New York City on my own.  I’ve never suffered a total mental breakdown.  That is not the point, though.

We encounter Holden Caulfied as a teenager, in a place surrounded by other teenagers.  All are white, all from decently well-off families, all nearing the end of high school.  They are not stupid, but they’re completely unable to communicate with each other.  They have no sense of purpose.  They haven’t been given any vision by which to guide their lives.

Holden Caulfield runs away from school and lives on his own in New York City for several days.  While there, he wanders around and gets into various types of trouble.  He is badly confused: about himself, about his future, about love, about sex, about money and many other things.  He has various visions about what he might do to get away from the crazy society he lives in, but they shift rapidly and he doesn’t actually take action towards any of them.  He knows deep down that he needs real love and companionship but doesn’t have any clue where to look for it.

There’s a sharply divided reaction to this character.  Some people understand him immediately and view him as one of the great characters in American literature.  Others find him completely unlikable and off-putting.  I would venture that in some cases, at least, young readers find that this book hits a little bit too close for comfort.

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