Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man – Episode One

‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ is worthy of much praise in my humble opinion but that is the extent of the plaudits I would assign to James Joyce’s body of work.  That sentiment is cemented by my several unsuccessful attempts to finish Ulysses whose subject matter and style strike me as uninteresting.  Even the discovery that Joyce and I share a curious synchronicity, i.e., his having died on the day I was born, does not improve upon that benediction.  The revelation that we had passed on the stairs between levels of existence came as a mere whimsical twist of fate and fact seven decades after the coincidence and does not portend a call to literary arms mind you.

The more mundane facts of my quitting part way through a book or movie are frequent occurrences even with books by favorite authors; when a Saul Bellow novel heads south to Mexico, I’m out.  I went there with him once but not again.  Joseph Conrad lost me halfway through a book as well, a character having become so abhorrent to me that I could take no more.  On the other hand, there are several authors, one or more of whose novels I have reread multiple times, more to determine my evolving impressions at succeeding phases of my life of what they describe.  Among these are Robert Penn Warren’s ‘All the King’s Men’, Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’, Sinclair Lewis’s ‘Arrowsmith’, and Carson McCullers’ ‘A Member of the Wedding Party’, each providing meaningful life lessons to be refreshed as often as needed.  There are also favorite short stories and movies I am not ashamed to have reexperienced several times as well.

I am no literary critic, and the above is hardly a reading list recommendation since, as you must have noticed, most of these books were written long before even this author was born such that if you followed my literary advice, you would miss most of the literary achievements of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  However, the titles were in fact on a reading list handed out by my literature professor, Sophus Keith Winther with his express purpose being to inform his students that until and unless we had read all one hundred books on that list we did not have a credible opinion concerning whether a book was worth reading and could certainly not consider ourselves ‘well read’ by any stretch of the imagination.  And God knows how much we each desired to be so denominated.

I worked away at that list over the years after graduation with Ulysses not my only stumbling block: ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ was a hard pill to swallow, but I got it down.  I enjoyed reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s ‘Democracy in America’ and only much later learned that ‘everyone may imply that they have read it, but no one actually has’.  ‘The New Golden Bough’, ‘The Quest of the Historical Jesus’, and iconoclastic essays by H. L. Mencken were on the list, and I read them.  I think the Bible was on there too; I’ve lost the list somewhere along the way so I’m not sure, but I had read most of the Biblical books long before that.  He did not place the novel ‘Beyond the Garden Gate’ that he himself had written on the list; I found it one time in a used bookstore up on the Ave.  It wasn’t bad as coming-of-age novels go, but he was correct in leaving it off the list.

From the above one might suppose that I consider myself to have progressed some distance down a literary path.  I don’t; I haven’t.  No one reads my novels, and I can’t say that I blame them.  I was a physics major and had been shocked to learn after my junior year that I would be required to take many courses in the ‘humanities’ if I intended to graduate in four years, which was definitely my, and my new wife’s, plans.  So I received permission to opt out of a physics lab (I hated labs) and injected a heavy dosage of philosophy, anthropology, literature, and poetry into my senior mix of physics and mathematics classes.  This kerfuffle had come about because I had thought that the German courses I had taken would apply as humanities, but since I had had a language ‘deficiency’ out of high school, they did not apply as humanities in my case.  But the mere fact that it was required that I take those classes did not preclude my immense enjoyment in taking them; they constituted a mini enlightenment for me.  I came to see that if the Russians had not launched sputnik, I would have enjoyed an opportunity to spend a career in any of those fields.

I became an aerospace engineer, but did nonetheless proceed conscientiously to work my way down Winther’s reading list even during lunch breaks at my various sites of employ, jotting down multisyllabic words to look up later in the dictionary.  I did not extend his list other than to obsess on a few of the authors who had a single entry on the list.  I should have kept up on newer stuff, but I didn’t.  I tend to be befuddled by more recent acclaims to literary excellence such as ‘Infinite Jest’ that I quit after nearly four hundred pages, ashamed that it had taken me that long to quit.

So why am I telling you all this?  Good question and at least part of the answer is that I tend to be a bit wordy as though I were a Republican avoiding a question.  But significantly the selection of a title for this description of my hike down the western intellectual slope brought Joyce’s ‘portrait’ of an upward climb to mind.  His use of the word ‘portrait’ brings other aspects of this emergent trope to mind, such as the fact that the only humanities I had managed to amass through three years at the university were a couple of drawing classes given by the art department at the U as my justification for accepting a minor art scholarship and the additional fact that over the years, beginning long before my university experiences and longer yet before I had any interest in literature, I had engaged in drawing caricatures, an activity veiled as portraiture.  And if it takes me this far afield to justify the use of a single word in the title, this will be a very long and especially boring description of my very short remaining years peering through the gauze-like shroud of Alzheimers.

My western decline has become quite steep.  I still know quite a few words and names but to call them forth sometimes takes a minute – yes, a full minute – sometimes more.  The other morning as Kay and I were eating breakfast and communicating in half sentences (or less) awaiting words that would not come without assistance, we laughed, acknoledging that this situation was actually quite humorous if one looked at it empathetically, which we do.  I said we ought to make a video with each day an episode.  We laughed.  We realize it’s pathetic… but at the same time, kinda cute.

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