How Reading James Joyce Inspired Me in 2017

Illustration by Ashley Lian

Between the early 1900’s and today, I think it’s accurate to say that a hell of a lot has changed. So when I started to read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man¹ I expected it would provide a window into that other, faraway time — as great books often do— but not much more that that. But I was wrong. Though I wasn’t looking for it, I found new inspiration in the century-old words, in unexpected passages and nooks marked by asterisks in yellowed margins. Now I want to share a few of those small inspirations and (briefly) their origin, unique to me but hopefully relatable and inspiring to others living in this wild year of 2017.

¹ A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a semi-autobiographical novel by Irish author James Joyce. It tells the story of Stephen Dedalus (Joyce’s alter ego) growing up in Ireland during the early 1900's. As the story progresses Stephen develops into an artist and an intellectual and begins to feel far-removed from the traditions and cares of his time and place.

We need more retreats

Let’s dive right into this book and skip to Chapter 3 where the idea of retreat comes into play…

Stephen Dedalus, now a student at an all-boys Jesuit school, sits amongst his classmates, listening to the rector address the church. The rector is speaking on the topic of an upcoming retreat in honor of the patron saint of the school, St. Francis Xavier. At one point the rector provides a nice definition of the word retreat that caught my attention.

“A retreat, my dear boys, signifies a withdrawal for awhile from the cares of our life, the cares of this workaday world, in order to examine the state of our conscience, to reflect on the mysteries of holy religion and to understand better why we are here in this world.” (Chapter 3)

And that little line there was all it took to get my mind going — Withdrawal? From the cares of this workaday world? I reflected on the workaday world I find myself a part of, a hyper-connected world where our phones are virtually a part of our anatomy. I thought of my friend who recently told me the first thing and last thing he sees every day is his phone screen. I thought of another friend who recently traded in her iPhone for a flip phone, after realizing she had become compulsively addicted. And I thought of this TED talk I recently watched on the death of boredom and its impacts on creativity. It’s a buzzy and trite topic but the fact remains: we live in the most distraction-prone age in human history.

You don’t have to look far to find it: the compulsive reach in the pocket, the frozen downward nod: we run away from quiet moments, from contemplation, from boredom. We let our phones guide our consciousness, let them confirm our biases, let them think in our stead. And in this constant din of distraction we lose something. We lose the chance to check in with ourselves; to ask ourselves if we are happy, to ask ourselves what we value and if we are allotting the proper time and energy to those values. That is not our smartphone’s agenda and if we let it distract us in all of our spare moments, we will inevitably lose touch with ourselves.

After letting my thoughts settle I decided to put my phone on airplane mode one night after work. And in a short time I felt an unfamiliar peace wash over me. I knew that the night had become singularly mine, that I had complete control over what I would do with my time and that no notification, no temptation of minor dopamine release could pull me away. I felt free.

So if the workaday world of early 1900’s Dublin warranted a retreat from distraction, there is no doubt that we need a break from it in 2017.

Being intellectual is overrated

When you are developing a theory of beauty instead of enjoying beauty itself I tend to think you’ve missed the mark. I’m referring to Stephen — now in college — and his lengthy discourse on beauty where he basically outlines an abstract theory to explain the process by which a human identifies something as beautiful. And as Stephen explained and explained, I started to hear my own voice. I do this too, I thought. I often catch myself theorizing all sorts of phenomena in my life, trying to make it fit nicely into a convenient package that I feel I understand well. It’s a fine thing, a human practice, and I am not trying to bite it or discourage intellectual thought. But is understanding itself the ideal we should be constantly striving towards? I used to think so. But as we attempt to explain our reality and transcribe it all into the limits of human thought, we may just end up forgetting to enjoy ourselves along the way. Then we too will have missed the mark…

He watched their flight; bird after bird: a dark flash, a swerve, a flutter of wings. He tried to count them before all their darting quivering bodies passed: six, ten, eleven: and wondered were they odd or even in number. Twelve, thirteen: for two came wheeling down from the upper sky. (Chapter 5)

Is Stephen quantifying a visual experience in this passage? Maybe not what Joyce had in mind, but it got me thinking. I began to think of all the quantifying we do in 2017 — “the quantified self” if you like buzzwords. We count up our followers, our steps, the number of countries we’ve traveled to, the number of books we’ve read this year, the number of likes our latest selfie got. Yeah, we have all sorts of data now and we count it all. It’s fun, I can’t lie. I’m also not trying to bite the quantification of our experiences. But I think it is critical that we have perspective and awareness of our inclination to do so. Because if we spend our limited attention counting up our experiences, documenting them in a virtual world and gauging how interesting they are to others, we will again find that we have little time to just simply enjoy ourselves in our experiences.

To know is to possess, & any fact is possessed by everyone who knows it, whereas those who feel the truth are possessed, not possessors. — E.E. Cummings

Nationality is not Identity

Now let’s take a look at a dialogue between Stephen and his friend Davin, who has a strong sense of Irish patriotism. Stephen is at odds with most of his peers on this point (and basically all other points) as you will gather in the following line.

The soul is born, [Stephen] said vaguely, first in those moments I told you of. It has a slow and dark birth, more mysterious than the birth of the body. When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets. (Chapter 5)

After reading this, Joyce had me thinking again about my current situation. I’ve visited more places outside of the US than inside and I find that I admire other cultures’ values more so than my own country’s. I’m a little twisted up inside, and Stephen’s proposition gives me a nice way out. But following this idea to the extreme can lead to an indifference in the fate of one’s own community. Here is an excerpt from early on in the story, when Stephen has just moved to Dublin and is beginning to distance himself from his peers:

He chronicled with patience what he saw, detaching himself from it and testing its mortifying flavour in secret (Chapter 2)

I was of the same mind as Stephen for some time. “I am a globalist, not limited to one nationality,” I thought proudly to myself. But the more I think on it, the more I realize this is too simple an escape. To shun my nationality is to pretend that living in a country for 24 years of my life did not impact my values, my ideas, and my identity. So what then? Does nationalism have a place in our globally connected and interdependent world? Let each decide for themselves. For me, my nationality is a part of my identity, and to say otherwise would be to delude myself. But I do not limit my identity to it, and I do not limit my ideas and my values to those of my country’s.

Long live the individual and independent mind.

Well that’s all I got for this one. Thoughts or feedback? Throw them at me in the comments and we will hash it out. Send some claps my way if you enjoyed this.

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