By Nicholas Shayne Boggs
If the mind becomes a desolate place, then the world becomes a desolate state of mind. Such is the risk of venturing too deeply into self doubt and intellectual wandering. James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man follows the journey of a boy to such a situation; and to my displeasure, it seemed also to follow my own life. I can remember very clearly the first time I realized that I was truly wandering philosophically. It was at a meeting for the debate club at my school. As part an ice breaking exercise everyone had to explain their philosophies for life. Some were egoist in nature, others integrated elements of Karma and so on and so forth. When it came to my turn, however, I found that I had nothing to say. I seemed to prescribe to nothing in particular, but not because I had never thought about it. I had essentially debated myself out of any particular view on life; I was not a blank slate but I was covered with eraser marks. As I watched Stephen Dedalus struggle to find his place in a world he did not understand I experienced something very new to me, I began to envision myself as the character.
While I realize that Dumas and Dostoyevsky and the countless other writers of great fiction have created characters which could easily impact my world view, I could never do it. One might argue then that the Irish heritage and Catholic faith of Stephen Dedalus would prevent me, and American and a Methodist, from empathizing with this character. The fact is, however, that faith and nationality are both issues which I to have thought a great deal about. I have wondered at the politics of my nation, and have been disheartened by their divisiveness just as Stephen was, and while I have not struggled with faith as mightily as the character I have found myself pondering its precepts just as he did.
Before I read Joyce’s work I had always assumed that the quest for “the right answer” had a definite conclusion. It had seemed to be an unspoken conclusion that my needs would be fulfilled and I would be contented. In all my questioning, I had never asked the most essential why I had never asked why I was searching in the first place. The fact that A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man ends not with the absolute conclusion of a journey, but rather with the relative entrance into the next stage of life, made the point that absolute answers do not exist. The artist may never know the real meaning of art. Moreover, after realizing that the cold journal entries of the final pages of the text indicated that Stephen had found only a void, it became apparent that I too could easily befall this same fate. I realized that I am not the world, and therefore the world has no obligation to answer my questions.
My mind remains particularly fixed upon a peculiar event within the book. Stephen suddenly begins to loose touch with himself and struggles to remain rooted. “He could scarcely recognize as his his own thoughts, and repeated slowly to himself: I am Stephen Dedalus. I am walking beside my father whose name is Simon Dedalus.” I too have wondered who I really am, why I really am the person I am, or even if the person I think I am is who I really am. Suddenly, nothing seems quite as absolute as it was when I left it and it seems it never will be again. Just as Stephen began to contemplate his smallness because of his brush with the concept of mortality, my brush with this book has acquainted me with the smallness of my questions.
Ultimately, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has not inspired a search for meaning, and neither has it answered an existing search. It has, however, given me a frame of reference. Stephen’s obsession with finding his answer shall not become my own. While I may never understand the meaning of beauty which Stephen sought I shall not live in oblivion to it. Joyce has helped me not to question, but to take heed of my questioning.