Art and the Autobiographical – Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions and James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist in Perspective

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While composing any kind of art, be it painting, performance, or literary work, a creator lends a part of themselves onto the artwork; in a sense engaging in a kind of autobiographical composition. All artists, whether knowingly or unwittingly succumb to this, and the result is that the artist, in some capacity, becomes essentially inseparable from their work. For the purposes of this article, however, we restrict ourselves to the discussion of the purposefully autobiographical art, for while nearly every artist imbibes in their artwork an essence – partly or wholly – of themselves, those that do it without admitting to it are a subject for another discussion.

As eminent academics and literary critics, Habib and Cuddon define autobiography as “a person’s account of his or her life, written for a public audience.’ MH Abrams, differentiates the autobiography from a memoir, in that the latter has more pressing focus on events and encounters of the narrator, while the autobiography deals with the overall growth and personality of the author. All three educators mention in their reference books the idea of the ‘autobiographical novel’ or the 19th-20th Century phenomenon which was exhibited in the works of Goethe and Joyce.

Writers, it has been argued by Ernest Hemingway, “sit down at the typewriter and bleed.” The quote holds very true in the case of French Enlightenment political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, inspired by St. Augustine’s 14th-century work of the same name. While Augustine was living in a time very much mired in religiosity and devotion, the time of Rousseau was the age of secular thought. It has been argued that, as opposed to the earlier spiritual framework of autobiography-writing, his Confessions were a kind of psychological and secular form.

James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is largely known to be the most major work of autobiography in English fiction. Centring around the partially real, third-person narrative of Stephen Dedalus, written in experimental “free indirect speech fiction. Centring around the partially real, third-person narrative of Stephen Dedalus, written in experimental “free indirect speech,” we get to see the spiritual and cultural awakening of the protagonist. This account, continued to some extent in Joyce’s Ulysses, is modelled on the author’s own life but has fictionalised elements.

While reading Rousseau as a Joyce enthusiast, one begins to see striking parallels between the lives of both. For this article, we have picked two of the various stages in the lives of men: early childhood and education, and adolescence and amorous experience, as exhibited in Confessions and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.


Of Moocows and Maternal Influence: Early Childhood and Education

In Joyce’s Portrait, the opening sentence is an uninviting polemic narrating to a young Stephen (addressed as “baby tuckoo”) the chronicle of a moocow coming down along a road. In the brief opening section, comprising one page, we are already introduced to a loving mother (who “has a nicer smell than his father”), an obscure uncle, Charles, and a sternly vocal aunt (known to us as “Dante”). We also find that Stephen has a desire for a young girl around his age named Eileen, even at this tender stage of development. If we contrast it with Rousseau’s more expansive work, Confessions, we find that it goes into more meticulous detail when describing Rousseau’s family. This distinction may have resulted from Rousseau’s prose’s strong non-fictional nature, as opposed to Joyce’s experiment in semi-autobiography. Common to both individuals, however, is the presence of an environment and upbringing conducive to honing their crafts. In Rousseau’s Confessions, we see that his father teaches him the art of voracious reading after he loses his mother at a young age. As this education in French romances carries on, Rousseau finds grounding for his philosophy of man’s nature, which he would go on to develop later in adulthood. Evidences for Joyce/Dedalus’s education as an artist are less observable in the fragmented plot and more in the form of the narrative, which is heavily punctuated with jokes, poems, and scribbles within his notebooks as a student of Clongowes Wood School for Jesuits. It is this reading and this composition from an early age that would make Rousseau and Joyce the biggest names in philosophy and art, respectively.


Mercedes and the Mistress: Adolescence and Amorous Experience

Rousseau doesn’t hold back from exposing himself and his perversions to his readers. In the first part of Confessions, he admits to feeling an intense desire of paraphilic proportions at the age of eight, when his mistress subjects him to corporal punishment. This desire, he admits, has led him to see Miss Lambercier, his beloved tormentor, in every woman he looks at with a certain yearning.

A richly atmospheric work of prose, Joyce’s Portrait is an example of a special kind of artistic and spiritual “coming-of-age” story, one that can be aptly classified as a “Kunstlerroman.” In the second chapter of the book, we get to see Stephen’s deviance from the authority of the church by losing his virginity to a prostitute, an experience he describes as “darker than the swoon of sin, softer than sound or odour.” In his earlier reveries, he transposes the image of the character of Mercedes from The Count of Monte Cristo, a book he reads, and pastes the young lady’s description in the background of his imagination, in a series of lusty ideas.

Both A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Rousseau’s Confessions are remarkable works that successfully fuse art and the autobiographical. One could argue that Confessions is not a work of fiction, unlike Portrait, but it is undeniable that some form of artistic tint and poetic liberty have been taken by Rousseau in its composition. If one goes down to analyse the various recurring themes and parallels in both works, one can see a surprising degree of similarity in the philosophical psyche of both authors. It is hoped that this article has been able to successfully evoke some interest in the field of comparative literature in the reader.


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