Joyce Essay

By Derrick Stuart

Reading the works of James Joyce has had a profound influence on my life. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man equipped me with the courage to take a stand for my own beliefs and fantasies – that a break with tradition, that deviation from the status quo, is entirely justified and worthwhile. By reading through Ulysses in all of its density, I was given a respect of life – to me, by his marriage of myth and daily life, Joyce is telling us that our own daily lives in the modern age are filled with just as much nobility and grandeur as the revered antiquity of Homer or Virgil. Whether it’s through lofty meditations on Catholic doctrine, or acting on the most base impulses in a hallucinatory brothel, Joyce is succeeding in elevating the status of modern man, with his every weakness becoming as glorious as any classical heroic virtue. Everything exists in a sort of surreal harmonious, cosmic union – sex and mysticism, death and joy – Joyce’s bold juxtapositions have made me realize this and experience my own sort of epiphanies. To me, Joyce is the author of our age – like Tiresias, though himself only nearly blind in his later years; an example of his influence is evident in how his life’s work of charting the nature of human consciousness became an idea which would only come in vogue decades after his death in the 1960s. Although Finnegans Wake is the piece of his which I understood the least, it is the one which has forced me, almost violently, into expanding my horizons. Set ablaze with curiosity over whatever I had just read, nearly every paragraph had me retreating to other sources to discover some obscure concept of anthropology or research the grammatical structure of an Indo-European language to piece together his kaleidoscopic puzzle. James Joyce has also acted like Zen in the old saying, “a finger pointing towards the moon” – prior to reading his novels, I was content was the idea of going through life and dying knowing only English, now I eye every book I see on linguistics at a library or bookstore with a sort of strange starry-eyed wonder. In his own unique way, Joyce has introduced me to Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Giambattista Vico, Sir James George Frazer, and Thomas Pynchon. Joyce has presented to his readers an ultimate question – he challenges people to think about thinking, a task almost as difficult (and almost perilous to the fragility of the psyche), as pondering too long over what the word “Eternity” really means. Unlike many artists of stature, Joyce did not merely create his own world, nor did he paint a reflection of the one around him – he blended all of these literary devices in order to form an entire universe constructed from the sensual interplay between man on the interior level and the subconscious dance with the events around him; Joyce simply isn’t a writer (a hardly simple or static thing within itself), he was transcendent. One gets a feeling reading Joyce that one has been given a secret window into the past, not some cinema-like recreation from memory or abstract portrait which is found in other literature, but one is actually transported into the heart of the past. Joyce places you within the minds which had to process this bygone world as everyday life. Since Joyce, in his intellectual and spiritual rebellion, transcended so many of the blindly accepted conventions of culture and literature, one almost gets a strange sensation that through his realism in transporting the reader to the past, one can also make out the faint horizon of the future upon the misty horizons of the unknown. Besides all of this time travel, Joyce showed to me that one can sometimes break the rules – that art itself is a completely free entity and that one, simply through applying language to paper, has the ability to create worlds both internal and external, simultaneously real and surreal, divine, profane and mundane – that the written word is a living being, full of all the traits of energy which constitute real life.

By Derrick Stuart
Nansemond River High School
3301 Nansemond Parkway
Suffolk, VA 23434