While Ulysses may be considered James Joyce’s best book, I seldom ever revisit it. Yet, I always find myself going back to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
So, what is the attraction of Joyce’s Portrait?
Two passages are the guiding stars of Joyce’s literary universe. The first one I love has to do with aesthetics:
“Aquinas says: ad pulcritudinem tria requiruntur, integritas, consonantia, claritas. I* translate it so: Three things are needed for beauty, wholeness, harmony and radiance.”
We humans move through life with the assurance that we know something that is elementary, essential, and irrefutable; we live from cradle to grave with the knowledge of nature’s four elements: air, fire, earth, and water. Of course, Quantum physics has somewhat eclipsed this basic knowledge, yet there’s some comfort in grasping something that isn’t just for scientists.
In aesthetics, James Joyce’s —through the voice of Stephen Dedalus in the Portrait, chapter 5— translated Saint Thomas Aquinas basic elements for beauty: wholeness, harmony, and radiance. When assessing art, I can’t find anything else that may be remotely as easy and graspable as these 3 elements.
Had Joyce not translated this sentence from Aquinas discussion of aesthetics in his Summa Theologica, such knowledge would have been lost to our age, since no one ever reads Aquinas today.
While this second passage applies to all arts, it is mainly applied to writing of literary works:
“The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”
When I write fiction I always keep in mind Joyce’s admonition: don’t let the heavy hand of the author show in your stories or novel—let the characters live their independent lives. This same sentiment was expressed by Flaubert:
“An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere” (Letter to Madame Louise Colet (December 9, 1852).
Is James Joyce’s Ulysses a superior book to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young man? My answer should be obvious from the above discussion.