Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Portrait: Solipsism?

Published in 1963, Sendak’s book is in may ways the bridge between old-fashioned children’s stories in which kids battled with real-world demons and new-fangled children’s stories in which they largely do battle with their own inner demons. It’s the perfect fairytale for our psychobabbling, navel-gazing age, in which tackling one’s own psychological foibles counts for far more than going out into the world and actually doing stuff.
That is from a rather good  trashing of Maurice Sendak by Brendan O'Neil.  I'm not sure that he's right in identifying anything special about it as it seems to me that te same charge could be leveled against Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh and The Wizard of Oz. As I beat my way through  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I find myself wondering if Joyce is any better or is he just another incidence of a modern disease in thinking.

I'm going very slowly reading and then rereading every section. As I go along the question I keep asking is how different is Stephen Dedalus from James Joyce. It seems to me that that question will ultimately decide whether this book really is as important as the critics think it is. If Stephen Dedalus is just a proxy or projection of Joyce's then I think we should treat this book as amusing but unimportant.

Here is how O'Neil winds up his dismantling of Sendak
Strikingly, Where the Wild Things Are has no adults in it. Well, almost none. We never actually see Max’s mum in the book (though we hear her words once) and in the film she’s fleshed out as a divorcee who is too busy canoodling with her boyfriend to pay any attention to her child. That’s probably the most telling thing about Sendak’s story: the absence of adult actors to shape or guide Max’s behaviour. He’s all alone, feeling his way through his own anger towards some kind of mental balance.
Portrait is a lot like that.  Adults only enter into it to the extent that they can represent Stephen's demons. His father, who probably has the largest presence of any adult in the story, seems really to be there to represent Stephen's own nightmares of how he might turn out: a blustering, impotent bankrupt.

Joyce is not unaware of the problem. He writes as if Stephen were dealing with both the inner and outer demons but I'm more and more convinced this is a cheat.
How foolish his aim had been! He had tried to build a breakwater of order and elegance against the sordid tide of life without him and to dam up, by rules of conduct and active interest and new filial relations, the powerful recurrence of the tides within him. Useless. From without as from within the waters had flowed over his barriers: their tides began once more to jostle fiercely above the crumbled mole.
Both sides are acknowledged here. There is the outer:
He had tried to build a breakwater of order and elegance against the sordid tide of life without him  ...
and the inner
... and to dam up, by rules of conduct and active interest and new filial relations, the powerful recurrence of the tides within him.
The problem as I see it is that these two sides are just Stephen's (and Joyce's not incidentally) inner demons dressed up to try and look like two different things. The first is just Stephen acting out the demon he has first represented in his father and, like his father, spending himself into poverty in the attempt. The second is a fraud for where are his parents in this story. Do we ever get a picture of them as separate human beings? We don't. All we get is what they mean to little Stephen who doesn't like when his mother cries and doesn't like it when his father cries. And they fare better than his siblings who are nothing but faceless, nameless blob.

(Even his masters at school, the girls he falls in love with, the prostitutes he goes to and his friends seem only to exist as ways to draw out Stephen's inner demons. Any independent existence they might have is not recorded here.)

This is not unique to him. A I noted last summer, Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It completely expunges the author's five sisters and significantly distorts his brother in order to fulfill Maclean's solipsistic moral vision.

Portrait shares something else with Maclean and that is that it combines apostasy with a powerful sense off loss. Maclean was an apostate of both the family religions: Protestantism and fly fishing. Stephen Dedalus is an apostate of both his family religions: Catholicism and Ireland. But even as they issue their non serviam they mourn their "loss" and try to recreate the thing they have lost in fiction.

And that makes sense for what is modernism but a desire to have our cake and eat it too by both rejecting and mourning the loss of the ancient worldview?

And that is all fine but if all we do about it is to immerse ourselves in ourselves we are just frauds. We are just replacing one kind of mythology for another.
He saw clearly too his own futile isolation. He had not gone one step nearer the lives he had sought to approach nor bridged the restless shame and rancour that had divided him from mother and brother and sister. He felt that he was hardly of the one blood with them but stood to them rather in the mystical kinship of fosterage, fosterchild and fosterbrother.
 From here we go to Stephen's religion.  And we should ask the same question of it: Does Stephen's Catholicism have any real existence outside of his mind in this book or is it just a projection of his inner demons too?

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