The Newness in the Oldness (2/8)

In Robert Scholes and Clifford Wulfman's Modernism in the Magazines, modernism is defined by its "newness, its difference from some traditional practice." This is, of course, the working definition put forward to evaluate how visual art was presented in print periodicals. However, I was caught by how Pre-Raphaelitism is described in the timeline of modernism's progression: "a newness that claimed to be going back to an older oldness for its inspiration" (Scholes and Wulfman). While this is for an art movement, I thought about how James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man works in similar ways. Firstly, I acknowledge--as Scholes and Wulfman encourage--that my perception of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is of the whole novel rather than its original serialized appearance in magazines. Yet in trying to understand Joyce's work as it might have appeared to audiences of its time, I'm forced to consider the ways in which Joyce is embracing the "new" by understanding the old.

The most obvious way in which Joyce, like the Pre-Raphaelites, uses the past to make clear that which is new is in his style. Readers see in Portrait the Bildungsroman story the Victorians were interested in an era before. Yet in Joyce's recounting of a young man's life, there is an immediately disoriented sense of understanding: "Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo...." (3). The first time I had read this book as an undergraduate, I was confused--and while times have changed since Portrait's first publication, I doubt time has changed so much that readers then were not a little confused either. Further reading makes clear how Joyce is using an older template in the Bildungsroman but making it new by investing in it a stream-of-consciousness or closer to the truth of the perspective of a small child. 

In other ways Joyce juxtapositions the old to display the new is in the character Stephen's sensitivity to sexuality. Of course, authors have hinted at sexuality before this. The Victorians certainly hinted at what they could. Yet Joyce does not hint nor slyly indicate that Stephen questions and explores the meaning of sexuality. Rather, Joyce seems to embrace Stephen's exploration of the topic--quite literally, when Stephen visits a prostitute. The reason I find this relevant is that Joyce questions more than a heteronormative sexuality; there are very open moments in which Stephen has to question masculinity and intimacy between men. One such formulation moment is when Stephen is still very young, and the boys are trying to figure out why the older boys are in trouble. Arty says, "They were caught with Simon Moonan and Tusker Boyle in the square one night. . . Smugging" (42). Joyce outright confronts this topic in ways I found similar to The Freewoman's approach to then controversial and unspoken topics. I frame this as a moment of "old" versus "new" in that Joyce explores how this moment creates a distortion of Stephen's understanding of the world, as well as in the simple fact that such a conversation is caught up in a setting that had already passed (late nineteenth century).

Overall, James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is the age old story of a child growing into a man with the new and determined twist of examining honestly the factors that shape that child's understanding.