Wednesday, December 03, 2008

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I grew up in Levittown, Long Island in the late 50's and early 60's. We had moved there in 1954 from Brooklyn. I went to Island Trees (yes, *that* Island Trees) High School, an almost brand new school district carved out of the potato fields of central Nassau County, adjacent to Levittown. Like most every kid who came to Levittown from Brooklyn, when I became a teenager, I did what was expected of me: I became a hoodlum.
Black leather jackets, garrison belts that our fathers had brought home from the war, motorcycle boots (Georgia Giants were the best) and of course, lots of Vaseline in the hair. I took shop classes, hung out at the candy store and focused my attention on two major areas of life: girls and cars.
But in 1959, something changed. Somehow I got into this English class (it was called "honors") with mostly Jewish kids who carried around copies of "Ulysses" and read the New York Times. On the weekends, they went to jazz clubs or to the movies to see films like "The Seventh Seal" and "The Mouse That Roared". And they all had read "Portrait".
We were assigned a book report to do over Christmas vacation and we could pick any book. I had some books in mind that I thought were "good" that were summarily rejected by the teacher. We didn't have Cliff Notes then, but we had Classic Comics! Finally I asked one of the other fellows what I could read. Someone handed me a copy of "Portrait". I never looked back. All of a sudden, *I* was Dedalus. I read Joyce's words over and over, absorbing their meaning and incorporating them into my own consciousness.
I therefore offer to you, one of my favorite sections, the end of Chapter 4:

"There was a long rivulet in the strand and, as he waded slowly up its course, he wondered at the endless drift of seaweed. Emerald and black and russet and olive, it moved beneath the current, swaying and turning. The water of the rivulet was dark with endless drift and mirrored the high-drifting clouds. The clouds were drifting above him silently and silently the seatangle was drifting below him and the grey warm air was still and a new wild life was singing in his veins.

Where was his boyhood now? Where was the soul that had hung back from her destiny, to brood alone upon the shame of her wounds and in her house of squalor and subterfuge to queen it in faded cerements and in wreaths that withered at the touch? Or where was he?

He was alone. He was unheeded, happy and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and wilful and wildhearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish waters and the sea-harvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight and gayclad lightclad figures of children and girls and voices childish and girlish in the air.

A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane's and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh. Her thighs, fuller and soft-hued as ivory, were bared almost to the hips, where the white fringes of her drawers were like feathering of soft white down. Her slate-blue skirts were kilted boldly about her waist and dovetailed behind her. Her bosom was as a bird's, soft and slight, slight and soft as the breast of some dark-plumaged dove. But her long fair hair was girlish: and girlish, and touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, her face.

She was alone and still, gazing out to sea; and when she felt his presence and the worship of his eyes her eyes turned to him in quiet sufferance of his gaze, without shame or wantonness. Long, long she suffered his gaze and then quietly withdrew her eyes from his and bent them towards the stream, gently stirring the water with her foot hither and thither. The first faint noise of gently moving water broke the silence, low and faint and whispering, faint as the bells of sleep; hither and thither, hither and thither; and a faint flame trembled on her cheek.

-- Heavenly God! cried Stephen's soul, in an outburst of profane joy."