Back to the Forge: Learning from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I revisit texts—novels, stories, plays, and poems—with joy. They stand as mileposts, as reminders of the paths I have walked. I have not always enjoyed this journey, but it has been my journey. No one else has walked this path. I have never wanted it to end, even when the trails of my imagination have become untended and overrun with weeds, when it seemed too difficult a task to return to those paths, to follow where they led, to cut new ways into the wilderness.

The mileposts that speak loudest to me are those that recall not simply the distance but the method of travel. How many times have I dipped into Whitman to find a way I thought I had lost? Perhaps not enough. Or the more diminutive Dickinson, who reminds me of the power of possibility? I re-encounter Prospero every few years, not yet ready to cast my books of power into watery graves.

The first time I read Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I was 20, a junior in college. I read it in one furious sitting, rushing as was the case in undergraduate school. The book shot through me—the sermons in the third chapter frightened me, and the ending befuddled me.  I had not written since the rhyming verse I attempted in high school. It would be a year before I started to cobble together my own stories.

I encountered it again when I was 28, and in my first year of graduate school. I wrote every day and was just learning to read by making connections—or rather, by freeing my mind to read as expansively as possible. I did not see a mirror in Stephen Dedalus, not yet, but I saw how Joyce was beginning to challenge the reader, and followed his challenge into Ulysses, and peered obliquely at Finnegan’s Wake. Reading Joyce intoxicated me—all the word play, all the allusions, all the swirl of events. This is how my brain worked, and I felt a kindred spirit at play in Joyce. Perhaps this was too great a burden to lift as a young writer—to think like Joyce, to aspire to something like his work, but I saw the path, at least one path. There were others, and I tested many.

The next time I was 41, and in my first high school teaching job. For whatever reason, my writing had slowed. The difficulties I encountered in my work made me doubt every word I wrote—and even every word I read—which made reading more distant and difficult. I could read a novel as a collection of themes and ideas, which made for fine if programmatic teaching, but the hearts of the works did not beat with the same sense of connection. I felt hollow. I read Portrait as a kind of roadmap for one man’s feelings about Ireland, faith, men, and women. I nodded toward his art but felt closed off from that part of Stephen’s story. I knew it was there—I sensed it—which made the experience strangely worse. This is what you should be doing, the book chided.

I spent several years away from my life’s work. I wrote here and there—stories for kids, sermons, and—in fits and starts—this blog. I suffered for it, as, I am sure, did those around me. I am not a man who can be what he is not and put on the trappings of happiness. “Fake it until you make it,” may work for some, but I need connection—not simply interpersonal or romantic connection, but to the universe, to some deep unconscious thrum that turns words into flesh and flesh into a play of bright and dark and dense presence. While I started to craft a life that combined the spiritual threads I would need to reconnect me to that seen and unseen world, it wasn’t until I started writing daily that my words found the old (new) purpose. Over the past year, I have kept a daily writing practice that, with very few exceptions, has brought me back.

Now I am 58. I am not young. I have long past the point where Stephen stepped into his work, but my heart bursts, as if newly forged—reforged by my years long effort. I read the book again, and this time I hear the singing—it is for me, and for my students too. I orchestrate a class that includes Portrait, weaving together strands from universes that while shadowy—more to my students than me—move with playful grace. The book sings to me, calls to me, demands my attention, my thought, and my response. Not simply in class, but in my work.  Not just these words, but other words.

I no longer feel called to write like Joyce, or Dickens, or Marquez, or Woolf, or Calvino (though, wouldn’t that be nice). Or, or, or. All the words—from every page, from the labels of soap, from the scraps of memes, to the shifting exchanges of my students call, all the words—insist “forge.” And so, I will, I must. Old father, old mother, old artificers, all of you, “stand me now and ever in good stead.”

The Books

Almost fifteen years ago, I put my books in the attic. They were out, in shelves, but tucked beneath a sloping ceiling and packed behind all manner of family detritus. When my ex-wife and I separated, I moved them into my main living space, where they sang back to me after their—or my—sojourn.  My books matter to me, and I felt their absence. Getting them back onto tall shelves, walking past them every day, reminded me of what I had done, what I had learned, and what I wanted to do with my life and mind.

I have books about writing, books about religion, books about education, history books, philosophy (what we called theory in graduate school), fiction, poetry, books full of art and art history, and even books about sports—mainly baseball. I have a hard cover edition of Dickens published by Chapman and Hall with pages that requires a pocket knife to cut open.  I own a set of Andrew Lang’s color-coded Fairy Tale books.

The books reflect my preoccupations over the past thirty years.  Much of what is on my shelves I first read while I was in graduate school. Some I acquired afterward to keep me in touch with what I spent six years studying. Some comes from undergraduate college—books about gothic art and architecture, an old edition of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. There are some newer books that reflect my current interests: a collection of Sumerian mythology, a book about Djinn.

As much as I love my books, as much as they tell a story of my past, as much as they feel like an external manifestation of my mind, I think it may be time to lose them.

How long can one hold onto the past—a past that weighs an actual ton—without moving into the future? Yes, there are some things that I would keep, and this is true of more than my books, but they possess so much gravity. What is the past to me? Of course it is, was, everything. However, the future beckons, and requires a kind of lightness to which things do not lend themselves. Even memorable things.

There are other presences in my life—deep and profound connections. This time last year, I started unraveling the two jobs I had in Norfolk, Virginia. I moved away from those jobs and in the process also moved away from my daughters, who continue to live with their mother in Norfolk. Of course, I separated from and divorced their mother. It may seem inconsequential, but over 30 years ago, I picked a cat off the street, and have had cats ever since. I have never been more than three weeks away from them. This year I considered giving up a long standing fantasy baseball game that I have played for nearly 30 years with friends.

I wonder about what I have given up, but also what I have stayed with over the years. I have been a teacher for over 20 years—including my work as a TA in graduate school, over 25 years. What would it be like to not teach? I wrote for years, and then, if I didn’t stop, I slowed considerably—at what hazard, I cannot guess. I am writing again now, and have been, but can’t help wonder why my work slowed to a trickle.

I wonder would it would be like to be free of obligation and free of the gravity of myself—that ton of books, the closet full of clothes, my job, my family, my cats, even my friends. I wonder what my life would have been like if I had just chased words—the stories that I had declared as my purpose when I went away to and then stayed in graduate school. When I went away to graduate school, I traveled in a single car, with a mattress tied to the roof, and a single cat riding in the passenger seats. What would it be like to travel to what’s next with even less?

I do not regret the life I led, nor the life I lead; regret possesses a gravity greater than all the books own own, and I have no time for that. Not now. Nonetheless, I am aware of another life that exists, not over the horizon, not over the rainbow, but buried deep within me. I don’t know how I have kept it buried for so long, or at what cost—or even at what gain. Still. It is there.

I wonder, and wonder hard, and the wondering stirs something in me, something alive and insistent. What will I carry into the future? What must I carry? And what must I leave?

Imaginary Destinations

There are imaginary places that call to us. Illyria. Macondo–though be careful of that one, friend. The Invisible Cities that Polo reports on to the Khan. And Cocaigne.

And so, at the end of the day, when I have spent the precious fortune of my wit and energy, spent it for what? Money? Success? Some recognizable residue that others may tout as virtue? I return to the nearest country I can find–the one adrift in the books on my shelves, or the sea of my imagination. Return traveler, with ships once more laden with waking dreams.

Until such time as I may board a ship, an airplane, or some contrivance to carry me into strange and wonderful streets, I have this. Baudelaire…

L’Invitation Au Voyage

There is a wonderful country, a country of Cocaigne, they say, that I dream of visiting with an old love. A strange country lost in the mists of the North and that might be called the East of the West, the China of Europe, so freely has a warm and capricious fancy been allowed to run riot there, illustrating it patiently and persistently with an artful and delicate vegetation.

A real country of Cocaigne where everything is beautiful, rich, honest and calm; where order is luxury’s mirror; where life is unctuous and sweet to breathe; where disorder, tumult, and the unexpected are shut out; where happiness is wedded to silence; where cooking is poetic, rich, and yet stimulating as well; where everything, dear love, resembles you.

You know that feverish sickness which comes over us in our cold despairs, that nostalgia for countries we have never known, that anguish of curiosity? There is a country that resembles you, where everything is beautiful, rich, honest and calm, where fancy has built an decorated an Occidental China, where life is sweet to breathe, where happiness is wedded to silence. It is there we must live, it is there we must die.

Yes, it is there we must go to breathe, to dream, and to prolong the hours in an infinity of sensations. A musician has written l’Invitation a la valse; who will write l’Invitation au voyage that may be offered to the beloved, to the chosen sister?

Yes, in such an atmosphere it would be good to live—where there are more thoughts in slower hours, where clocks strike happiness with a deeper, a more significant solemnity.

On shining panels or on a dark rich and gilded leathers, discreet paintings repose, as deep, calm and devout as the souls of the painters who depicted them. Sunsets throw their glowing colors on the walls of the dining-room and drawing-room, sifting softly through lovely hangings or intricate high windows with mullioned panes. All the furniture is immense, fantastic, strange, armed with locks and secrets like all civilized souls. Mirrors, metals, fabrics, pottery, and works of the goldsmith’s art play a mute mysterious symphony for the eye, and every corner, every crack, every drawer and curtain’s fold breathes forth a curious perfume, a perfume of Sumatra whispering come back, which is the soul of the abode.

A true country of Cocaigne, I assure you, where everything is rich, shining and clean like a good conscience or well-scoured kitchen pots, like chiseled gold or variegated gems! All the treasures of the world abound there, as in the house of a laborious man who has put the whole world in his debt. A singular country and superior to all others, as art is superior to Nature who is transformed by dream corrected, remodeled and adorned.

Let them seek and seek again, let them endlessly push back the limits of happiness, those horticultural Alchemists! Let them offer prizes of sixty, a hundred florins for the solution of their ambitious problems! As for me, I found found my black tulip, I have found my blue dahlia!

Incomparable flower, rediscovered tulip, allegorical dahlia, it is there, is it not, in that beautiful country, so calm, so full of dream, that you must live, that you must bloom? Would you not be framed within your own analogy, would you see yourself reflected in your own correspondence, as the mystics say?

Dreams! Always dreams! And the more ambitious and delicate the soul, all the more impossible the dreams. Every man possesses his own dose of natural opium, ceaselessly secreted and renewed, and from birth to death how many hours can we reckon of positive pleasure, of successful and decided action? Shall we ever live in, be a part of, that picture my imagination has painted, and that resembles you?

These treasures, these furnishings, this luxury, this order, these perfumes, and these miraculous flowers, they are you! And you are the great rivers too, and the calm canals. And those great ships that they bear along laden with riches and from which rise the sailors’ rhythmic chants, they are my thoughts that sleep or that rise with the swell of your breast. You lead them gently toward the sea which is the Infinite, as you mirror the sky’s depth in the crystalline purity of your soul;—and when, weary with the rolling waters and surfeited with the spoils of the Orient, they return to their port of call, still they are my thoughts coming back, enriched from the Infinite to you.