Thursday, June 04, 2009

The wonder of mortal beauty

Back in the 1950s, it was axiomatic that college students read James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Even an engineering student like me found the novel on his junior seminar reading list -- the Viking edition with green cover, $1.25. It was an awakening.

I'm sure I am just one of thousands of students who first glimpsed the intellectual life by reading Portrait. The Irish writer Seamus Deane has called the book "the first novel in the English language in which a passion for thinking is fully expressed." The intellectual Edward Said elaborates Deane's remark: "Neither the protagonists of Dickens, nor Thackeray, nor Austen, nor Hardy, nor even George Eliot are young men and women whose major concern is the life of the mind in society."

There was the teasing epigraph, of course, from Ovid's Metamorphoses: Et ignotas animum dimittit in artes (And turned his mind to unknown arts). And then, out of the blue: "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...."

What? What followed was the story of a young mind awakening, challenging Church and Irish strictures -- anti-sex, anti-joy - daring to spread wings and fly like Dedalus of old. So much of the book resonated with my own Catholic childhood, so little had changed in the half-century between Joyce and me, that it seemed to have been written for me alone. And when Stephen Dedalus sees the girl with her skirts jacked up on the beach at Blackrock, and becomes fully aware for the first time of "the wonder of mortal beauty," it was my epiphany too.

For me and for others the book was an invitation to the life of the mind, or at least to a life of joyous skepticism. Edward Said, in the little work referred to above, says of the intellectual life that it must be secular, eschewing all gods natural and supernatural who require "a total, seamless view of reality that recognizes only disciples or enemies.
What strikes me as much more interesting is how to keep a space in the mind open for doubt and for the part of an alert, skeptical irony (preferably also self-irony). Yes, you have convictions and you make judgments, but they are arrived at by work, and by a sense of association with others, other intellectuals, a grassroots movement, a continuing history, a set of lived lives. As for abstractions or orthodoxies, the trouble with them is that they are patrons who need placating and stroking all the time. The morality and principles of an intellectual should not constitute a sort of sealed gearbox that drives thought and action in one direction and is powered by an engine with only one fuel source. The intellectual has to walk around, has to have the space in which to stand and talk back to authority, since unquestioning subservience to authority in today's world is one of the greater threats to an active, and moral, intellectual life.
It is a fine line one must walk, between blowing hither and yon in a random wind, and aligning one's thoughts with a chosen authority. We have seen in recent days what transpired in Catholic Ireland when subservience to authority overwhelmed a joyous skepticism. Would that more young Stephen Dedaluses had caught his glimpse of mortal beauty. Certainly, some of us did, as we stood with Stephen barefoot in the sand on Blackrock Strand.