The impact of ‘A Portrait’ has waned for modern young men

At the unveiling in Nice of a plaque commemorating James Joyce: Ambassador Paul Kavanagh, John Montague, Mayor of Nice Christian Estrosi and Bono

At the unveiling in Nice of a plaque commemorating James Joyce: Ambassador Paul Kavanagh, John Montague, Mayor of Nice Christian Estrosi and Bono

 

On Tuesday, unveiling a plaque commemorating James Joyce in Nice, the estimable John Montague said something at once obvious and striking. Joyce, he said, “was the main influence on my boyhood. Any Irish Catholic boy who read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was changed completely.” The statement is obvious in the sense that Montague has written powerfully of Joyce’s influence on himself and his generation. In an incisive essay in The Figure in the Cave, he writes that “No one could overestimate the effects of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on later Irish writers, from Austin Clarke to John McGahern. Or on the national psyche: many young Irishmen came to painful consciousness reading those corrosive pages. The Dublin of my student days was strewn with versions of Stephen Daedalus, including myself. . .”

Montague’s description of the effects of A Portrait on Irish Catholic boys avoids the question of what it did for Irish Catholic girls. But as a former Irish Catholic boy, I was struck by two thoughts. Firstly, Montague is (a robust and youthful) 84. I am 55. There are almost 30 years between us, yet I imagine that there was virtually no difference between our experiences of reading A Portrait as Irish Catholic adolescents.

The second thought, though, is that there would be a vast gulf between both of us and an Irish kid of that age today. Montague and Joyce and people like me who grew up in the 1960s and early 1970s share an essentially 19th-century Irish Catholic culture. It is hard to imagine a 17-year-old in Ireland now, or in the foreseeable future, being equally saturated. And thus it is hard to imagine the experience of reading A Portrait that changed Montague completely being repeated. Perhaps the equivalent experience in contemporary Ireland would not be Catholic. It would be Muslim.

The point is not, of course, that a young Irish person of today can’t read A Portrait, or a novel such as Kate O’Brien’s Land of Spices, with pleasure and understanding. It is, rather, that they are unlikely to read it in a way that would leave them “changed completely”. It will be, to them, a traveller’s tale, a report from a strange and distant country. For Austin Clarke’s generation, for Montague’s, for McGahern’s, and even for mine, it was viscerally immediate. Not just, if you were a Dubliner, in the geographical sense, thanks to the thrill of recognising the streets, Belvedere College, the National Library, Earlsfort Terrace and Newman House. Much more important was the recognition of what it felt like to live in a religious empire and what it meant to revolt against its power and its seductions.

Conservatives will frame this question in their own way. The secularisation of Ireland, they will say, is a self-inflicted wound; not just in spiritual or religious terms, but in relation to the continuity of culture. We’ve had 1,500 years of Irish art soaked in Christian imagery; how can a society understand its own heritage if it loses contact with this religious tradition?

This is a perfectly valid question. It’s not just that it’s hard to appreciate a towering work of Irish art such as the Book of Kells if you don’t understand Christianity. It’s that it’s hard to connect even with, say, the work of a communist writer such as Seán O’Casey. The emotional climax of Juno and the Paycock is a prayer: “Sacred Heart o’ Jesus, take away our hearts o’ stone, and give us hearts o’ flesh! Take away this murdherin’ hate, an’ give us Thine own eternal love!” You don’t have to have been brought up in a Christian tradition to understand it, but you do have to have been brought up in a Christian tradition to fully feel it.

But this conservative argument misses something important. Arguably the greatest cultural loss inherent in secularisation is not faith. It is apostasy. You can learn Christian history and Christian imagery even if you’ve never been near a church. You can’t learn the shock and joy, the terror and exhilaration of Stephen Dedalus’s “non serviam”. Stephen’s cry isn’t a storm of teenage hormones. It’s not a roll of the eyes or a surly pout. It is a momentous leap of unfaithfulness. The phrase – I will not serve – is, as the priest says in his thunderous sermon at the retreat, that of Lucifer himself. It is, in the Bible, the accusation of God himself against a fallen Israel: “Of old time thou hast broken my yolk, thou hast burst my bands and thou saidst: I will not serve.” To identify with the devil, to defy God, is a vertiginous, heart-stopping thing.

To really feel the full import, you have to have grown up in a world that takes such things with absolute seriousness. Apostasy has to have been almost literally unimaginable, so that, when it happens, it brings something starkly new into your mental universe. That’s why A Portrait “changed everything” for Montague and for so many of us who grew up in the same imaginative landscape. But it’s also why A Portrait can’t have quite that force any more. In a secular culture, apostasy is always imaginable and seldom deeply consequential. As the tide of faith recedes, the two fingers will be missed as much as the bended knee.


fotoole@irishtimes.com

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