A Portrait of the Artist

By Mara Wishingrad

In trying to explain the genesis of genius, our culture has promoted the myth of Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of Love and Beauty. If one were to rely on the popular media, one would think that the artist, like Aphrodite rising fully formed from the foam of the sea, is born with his genius already developed and merely needs the right opportunity to make his gifts known. In contrast, Joyce’s depiction of an artist’s development in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man illustrates that the artist’s consciousness develops over time and needs many years to mature. Accordingly, Joyce chooses another myth to symbolize his story, naming his hero Stephen Dedalus after the mythic Greek hero Daedulus who uses his skills to gain his freedom.
In Portrait, Joyce presents a study of the development of the artist’s mind by depicting the inner growth of one young man, Stephen Dedalus. Through the technique of stream of consciousness, Joyce directly records Stephen’s thoughts and feelings, instead of describing them from the viewpoint of another person. By using language that becomes progressively more articulate and intellectual as Stephen grows up, Joyce shows how Stephen’s thinking develops as he matures. As a result, the reader feels he is sharing in Stephen’s inner life, rather than just observing him from the outside.
Although Stephen’s environment and the events of his life share little resemblance to mine, our inner lives reveal a surprising similarity. Like Stephen, I have always felt that I look at the world a little differently than others do. From the time I was very young, my inner life has always been as real and important to me as the external world. The activities I was attracted to were those that relied on my imagination, rather than those that presented physical challenges. While others were content to just be active participants, I would frequently stand on the periphery studying people and questioning the things around me. Through Joyce’s portrait of Stephen, I have come to see that what sets me apart from others is something I should embrace, not something I should shun.
However, it has not always been easy to believe in myself, having grown up with the myth that artists are born with their talent fully formed. Measuring myself against my literary heroes, my efforts often fell short of the mark. No one pointed out to me that these accomplished writers didn’t always write so brilliantly. No one spoke of the many agonizing hours they spent re-writing and editing in order to form that seemingly effortless sentence. While there were days that I felt as if I could do anything if I put my mind to it, more often I felt that my goals were impossibly far away. Joyce’s portrait of Stephen’s development has been an inspiration, offering an alternative to the Aphrodite myth.
In the myth that Joyce has chosen the hero Daedalus is contrasted with his son Icarus. Daedalus, a master craftsman, creates wings for himself and his son so that they can fly and escape from the island of Crete where they have been imprisoned by King Minos. Icarus, young, impetuous and intoxicated with his freedom, ignores his father’s warnings not to fly too close to the sun; he burns his wings and falls to his death. Stephen, unlike Icarus, prepares himself for his flight. Through both formal education and rigorous self-examination, Stephen is able to create his own system of beliefs, his own moral code, and his own philosophy of aesthetics. He develops an awareness of who he is and what he wants. By the end of the novel one feels that Stephen is ready to leave the safety of school, family and country to strike out on his own as an artist. One sees that Stephen reaches his intellectual and artistic maturity over time and that it is not a straight path upward, but one with many detours and obstacles on the way.
Joyce’s portrait of Stephen’s development as an artist has encouraged me on my own artistic journey. Stephen’s thoughts and emotions, so eloquently depicted by Joyce’s words, have changed the way I look at the process of becoming an artist and creating art. As I seek to create my own personal myth, my consciousness embraces the knowledge that we are not born artists; we become them.

By Mara Wishingrad
The Dalton School
108 East 89th Street
New York, N.Y.10028