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Sunday
May102015

A Little Cloud

The author of this story is split in two: Ignatius Gallaher, the cosmopolitan rake who has no interest in anything and his hand in everything; and our title character, the meek and pious Thomas "Little" Chandler who loves the night and melancholy poetry. Normally, such a dichotomy would beget deep sighs of disdain from the literary-minded who want their figures clear but not clear-cut. Yet in this case the debate is far more fundamental: it is the debate between those who choose to live for their families and those who only live for themselves. Joyce, a man who by most accounts never really decided between these two life paths, only succeeded in one facet of his existence, that of art. His methods were hardly novel, albeit well-chosen. At the age of twenty-two, Joyce selected his bride from among the fairest maidens of Dublin  she not being one of them  because it was she whom he was destined to love and it was she who would accompany him to Trieste, to Switzerland, to Paris so that he would never be completely alone. It is common for literary biographers to overextend the influence of their subject's work into the personal and intimate banalities that lead to practically every coupling on earth as well as every inhabitant. Perhaps we are fools for supposing that a great artist can separate his identity from his reality, his dreams from the contagious mist of mediocrity that swirls about him on every corner, his physical and emotional handicaps from the weaknesses of all men at all times. Yet this is precisely what Joyce attempted, and he tried harder at it than any other major writer of the twentieth century. He failed and failed badly and almost became a footnote within Irish literature. Now we can imagine it: Here lies James Augustine Aloysius Joyce, b. 1882.  Addio terra, addio cielo

Around the age of thirty-two, however, when, like Little Chandler's, "his temperament might be said to be just at the point of maturity," and after ten years of Bohemian uprisings that nearly resulted in his family's perdition, Joyce opted to wed the everyday and the elevated, and in so doing showed us the full contour of his soul. Rarely had such an educated man such a filthy sense of humor; among the truly great (this doesn't mean you, Mr. Sterne) only Mozart's and Goethe's seemed to be on the same base plane. It is this hedonistic, selfish, scatological Joyce that cradles the Petri dish that is Ignatius, both a famous saint and a name rooted in fire and the diabolical pursuits of the Greatest of Pleasure Seekers. Ignatius does not possess a single redeeming quality, and Joyce would have it no other way. Conceding some elements of humanity to this despicable lout would deprive him completely of his relevance as a symbol and the more-than-rare occurrence of someone slowly becoming the poster child for the vice he or she embodies (in Ignatius's case, the vices are a collective). 

Is Ignatius simply a wastrel in a primitive allegory about values? Most certainly; yet he is also representative of the need of modern humanity  even though the need has surfaced time and again for centuries  to justify its instincts by praising the beauty of youth, of frivolity, of unaccountability, of meaninglessness. I think the majority of young men of privilege, myself included, have fought through the phase which Ignatius endorses as truth itself. Take for example Chandler's worries about the City of Lights:

 Tell me, is it true that Paris is so ... immoral as they say?

Ignatius made a Catholic gesture with his right arm.

 Every place is immoral, he said. Of course you do find spicy bits in Paris. Go to one of the students' balls, for instance. That's lively, if you like, when the cocottes begin to let themselves loose. You know what they are, I suppose?

 I've heard of them, said Little Chandler.

The only sincere statement in this whole exchange is Chandler's first question, a fear of missing out on the best that life has to offer, if that's really what one defines as the best. For every girl that becomes part of our past, there are a dozen that can only populate our speculative dreams. And for Chandler, married two years ago at the uncoincidental age of thirty, life consists of refraining from the poetry that his soul desperately wishes to express in favor of a bourgeois home of wife, child, and unambitious job. There is little wrong to such a scenario apart from the great injustice it inflicts upon the artistically minded. Those select few may have other jobs in which they support themselves while spending evenings and weekends on their true passion; and they may manage a personal life that needn't be a series of mistakes, regrets, or distractions. Chandler would be the person to strike such a balance if he weren't, in his own words, "timid." That is why, after his futile evening in Gallaher's shadow,  "he [still] wished to vindicate himself in some way, to assert his manhood," the silliest and most juvenile of male instincts, even at the somber age of thirty-two.

The end of A Little Cloud has been much discussed, but it is not as significant as the rest of the story. As is unfortunate in tales of simple characters that gain in importance owing to the smoothness of their correspondence to people we know, we are prone to manufacture our judgments from our last impressions, from fateful cracks in the armor of otherwise solid citizens who have perhaps just lost their way. Once Chandler determines that "Gallaher was only patronizing him by his friendliness just as he was patronizing Ireland by his visit," the mood shifts from hopeful expectation to resentment to a brief acknowledgement of the greatest ill of our modern society  selfishness. Never before has man been so capable of forging his own destiny  without anyone else, without country, without God  and transforming himself into who or what he desires regardless of "birth and education," two factors in which Chandler is actually Gallaher's superior. But with this freedom comes a concomitant responsibility that is far harder to embrace. As hard in fact as Chandler's infant child  a boy and little cloud who, like his father, continues to pass unnoticed through the twilight sky.

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