1. souse, n.5: 3. A drunkard. slang (chiefly U.S.). (OED)
  2. white souse, n.1: A blog for literature, politics, science, and the occasional cocktail.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Jedi

I recently bought a copy of the new Penguin edition of James Joyce's seminal work A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Now, you can say much about a work of literature both by the epigraphs the author prefaces it with and the blurbs tacked onto the back cover by the publisher. In the former case, Joyce aligns himself squarely with tradition, however untraditional his writing may be, opening his narrative with a quote from Ovid: Et ignotas animum dimittit in artes (“And he brought forth his spirit into the unknown arts”). An almost Nietzschean line about the artist's creative potential (Ovid and Joyce both refer to a Daedalus)--this is hardly iconoclasm, though I suppose it captures that eternal jouissance we experience in youthful revolt.

The blurb, on the hand, really floored me:

"A truly extraordinary novel." -- Ewan McGregor

On the front cover. Now, we surely do not need Ewan McGregor to tell us that Joyce's work (novel?) is truly extraordinary. The informed reader knows this. At best, the blurb simply informs us that McGregor has read the book. But why is this such a powerful endorsement? Is it because McGregor still has youthful rebel cred leftover from Trainspotting, a film that embraces, if anything, more the spirit of creative nihilism than the transformative power of the artist (does its closing tagline, "choose life" get it off the hook)? Is it because the later McGregor sold his soul to the most banal cultural franchise in human history in order to extend his youth market shelflife? Do the publishers think fans of the Star Wars novelizations will be looking for something a bit meatier after downing all those hackneyed plots that float superficially around a vaguely Eastern, somewhat-Scientologist metaphysics? Finally, isn't it at least slightly noteworthy that Ewan McGregor isn't even Irish? And that if we're supposed to think he is (or is close enough), we'd also have to forget that Joyce spent most of his life in exile from Ireland and that much of his writing castigates his native society? So why a recommendation from an almost-authentically Irish person when Joyce was so critical of the authentically Irish? I think the real answer, as always, lies with one man: Sean Connery. Fans of McGregor, the same ones who pick up Joyce in the bookstore, will remember his repudiation of his fellow Scotsman as a narrow-minded, nationalistic hypocrite. Like Joyce, McGregor is able to be a scathing commentator on his own culture while at the same time being one of its most prominent symbols. The connection will not be lost on a generation raised by the odd combination of stylized violence/glamorized drug addiction and treacly fantasy-adventure stories that comprise contemporary entertainment. And, after all, the guy still does full frontal nudity (like Harry Potter!), and that's bound to shock at least a few people yet, quite in the tradition of softporn Ulysses. McGregor has also taught us that you can be a tool of the mainstream media-culture syndicate and still retain a marginal identity--this, after all, is the true dream of the modern subject: being different, misunderstood, and the focus of everybody else's obsessive attention. Rather like Joyce, and Portrait, now available from Penguin, a truly extraordinary novel.

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