"A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" from the Perspective of Literary Anthropology

Imagination, Narrative Identity and the Functions of Literature

Bachelor Thesis, 2019

49 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction: Humans and Fiction

2. Arnold Gehlen's Philosophical Anthropology

3. Wolfgang Iser: Literature as a Medium and Mirror of Human Self-Unfolding

4. James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
4.1 History and Politics
4.2 Religion
4.3 Family and Friends
4.4 Literature and Art
4.5 The Artist's Identity
4.6 Language
4.7 Forms of Play
4.8 Educational Path: Life versus Art
4.9 Inherent Contradictions of Fiction

5. Self-Staging: Identity and Narration

6. Conclusion: Fiction and Identity

7. Works Cited

1. Introduction: Humans and Fiction

Time moved in two directions because every step into the future carried a memory of the past, and even though Ferguson had not yet turned fifteen, he had accumulated enough memories to know that the world around him was continually being shaped by the world within him, just as everyone else's experience of the world was shaped by his own memories, and while all people were bound together by the common space they shared, their journeys through time were all different, which meant that each person lived in a slightly different world from everyone else's. The question was what world did Ferguson inhabit now, and how had that world changed for him?

— Paul Auster, 4321

The telling of stories might be one of the most widespread and commonly shared features between different cultures and civilizations. It seems to be a permanent pursuit both of the individual as well as of communal life to make up stories about oneself and the surrounding world. Trying to understand the benefit of and the urge behind such a universally shared activity suggests that the fabrication of narratives, especially literary ones, is above all else an effort at making sense of the world and the individual self, and thus an attempt at finding meaning. Against the backdrop of the interplay between self and world, stories can offer support in finding a position and orientation in the world, and thereby provide a foundation for one's identity. In this thesis, the uses of literature and fiction shall be examined with special regard to the questions of what further insights this may reveal about us as humans and about the psychological functions of narrative for the construction of an identity. It will be asked how and to what end our psyche and mind become unfolded in fiction and consequently, what this in turn reveals about the condition of being human.

Drawing on different theoretical strands from the field of Literary Anthropology, the first chapter will be dealing with the work of Arnold Gehlen as a basis for later, in-depth textual analysis. His ideas are helpful for the explanation of how humans have evolved from mere instinct-driven animals to complex, self-reflexive creatures that have created a culture that uses symbols and the power of imagination in order to make sense of themselves and as a basis for action and productive orientation towards the future. This also paves the way for an examination of Wolfgang Iser's work, which will be consulted in order to find out how literature may come to resemble the primary medium reflecting and embodying human development as well as the unfolding and development of the self. Fiction and its aesthetic possibilities will be presented as a prominent way of exploring, understanding and expressing human needs. In the main part of this thesis, these findings will be applied to and discussed on the basis of James Joyce's 1916 novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This is especially illuminating, because the novel deals with the topics of imagination, the functions of literature and the (self-) determination of identity on a content-level. Moreover, its self-reflexivity on a formal and aesthetic level refers back to the theoretical works of Gehlen and Iser, since by doing so the potential and/or limitations of Literary Anthropology may be embodied, highlighting some contradictions inherent to fiction. To conclude these discussions, a brief digression on the significance of narrative to personal identity as well as on the act of staging an identity will follow at the end of this paper.

2. Arnold Gehlen's Philosophical Anthropology

A look at the theoretical system of philosophical anthropology devised by Arnold Gehlen can help to illuminate the questions of how, why, and to what end humans become able to use their imaginative faculties as well as symbols. Above all else, he understands man as a (biologically) deficient being [ Mängelwesen ], which can explain how civilization and culture in general, but also art in particular, function as a relief to what is seen as our fundamentally flawed and conflicting nature. In addition, the most basic state of humans is, in Gehlen's view, that of a permanent and inescapable duty to understand and interpret oneself. Of course, there can never be exhaustive self-understanding; thus, the engagement with oneself and the enigma every person poses to itself is at the same time a condemnation, a task and, most importantly, a chance. Literature and art can supply a medium in which such a process of self-confrontation and - understanding can be documented and properly developed or unfolded. It is with the aid of the imagination and its symbolic manifestations that the understanding and, indeed, appropriation of the world as well as the self can become possible. On this basis, man will be able to focus on acting in the world and orientating himself towards the future.

Gehlen's theory is based upon an inquiry into how humans may be differentiated from other animals or animate beings, claiming that humans, in comparison, have in themselves a unique system of structural (with regards to consciousness) and biological laws. Since the human sensory system is, at this evolutionary stage, no longer embedded in animal functions principally governed by instinct, they become free to enter new realms, i.e. cognitive functions, as well as to focus on self-reflective action and orientation towards the future.[1] This is, however, an ambivalent matter: Man is thus conceived as a self-reflexive being of action, but this condition results from basic biological shortcomings. In contrast to animals who in general are3 4 physically adapted to their habitat, humans - at the present stage of biological evolution - are seen to lack such an adaptation to their environments; rather, they must actively work on their surroundings in order to make up for their lack of physical adaptation.[23] Man is entirely open to any sense-impression, stimulus and strain from the outside world - as a consequence of not being bound to one specific environment, he is fundamentally prone to being overflown by stimuli from outside himself.[4] This is at once a source of strain and pressure, but also the quintessential impulse for any action: As a way of coping and living with his default deficiency, which turns bare existence itself into man's foremost task, he can find relief through action and, in a wider sense, through culture; the task comprises not only the sustaining of existence itself, but in a further step the forming of oneself, one's identity and character, as will be explored in more detail later on. All cultural and civilizational acts and processes are, in this vein, understood by Arnold Gehlen as attempts to productively dominate and respond to the nature of man and his inherent deficiencies. Culture, conceived as a secondary stage of nature3 4 5 6, thus emerges from the re-working and transformation of man's natural impairments into modes and opportunities of civilizational life.7 The movement from nature to culture is described via the concept of action, which in this theory is understood as comprising the body's workings and senses as well as human perception, consciousness and thinking, all of which constitute different phases of an action.8 Culture, in this sense, is the entirety of that which is not immediately prescribed or determined by nature.9 This conception can help in understanding how we at the same time are paradoxically both rooted nowhere (through not being aligned with nature) and, through constructing a secondary realm of culture, potentially everywhere; this is one of the contradictions central to human life, and will later on be further examined with regard to the unfolding of its dynamics and ambivalences.

From this original condition of human existence follows what constitutes the central mechanism in Gehlen's theory as well as the basis for the practical analysis later on. Man's most important capacity, in Gehlen's view, is the symbolical apprehension of the world. It enables him to transform the flood of sense-impressions into a potential for living; it is through symbolical perception and expression, chiefly embedded in the use of language, that humans can understand the world, thus becoming able to act in it.10 Language, the primary medium for any symbolical activity, encompasses humans' communication as well as imaginative faculties, thereby liberating mankind from the constraints of the present, and instead enabling an intentional orientation towards the future. Language and imagination form the nexus underlying Gehlen's conception of man and culture; one function of the imagination is to become independent from the immediate present and, by taking a different, removed viewpoint, instead being able to act in line with other goals and orientations.11 What Gehlen means by this is a self-reflexive distance that is created by consciousness and language, by which the present can be handled and controlled in a manner that brings stability and predictability to human's actions; this especially concerns the ability to communicate and cooperate, and is thus indispensable to any community and culture.

Language is furthermore seen as the mediating element between the two central challenges man must continually undergo in order to assert his existence in the world and orientate his actions: They consist of what can be called an appropriation of the world as well as an appropriation of the self.12 This refers to understanding and therefore gaining control both over what is inside and outside of the self.13 Such a split between inside and outside perspective, between viewing the self subjectively or objectively is at the core of life, denoting a conflict intrinsic to the subject. Although forming a dichotomy, these two perspectives complement each other; without recourse to the world and the objects in it, the self, constantly being under influence by what is outside of it, cannot be understood. Vice versa, any individual's attempt at purely understanding the objective world will be futile without also tracing back the effects it leaves on the inside.14 As our consciousness is conceived by Gehlen as primarily working through and expressing itself in the form of language, it then follows that every human experience is axiomatically of a communicative nature. This gives language the possibility to be the essential tool in understanding consciousness, oneself and the world. It may generate self-awareness and give rise even to a will independent of reality, enabling man to arrive at an almost objective self-reflexive distance, and at the same time to be nearest to what is happening in his psyche; through language, experience is nothing that simply happens to oneself but one is rather living in it, such is the effect with which language shapes our perception.15 Apprehension, thinking and speaking thus overlap, as they are all framed by the symbolical mode of perception that constitutes the human experience and is reverberated by language.16

Before it can be shown how these examinations of language and perception channel into the creation of art and its functions, a look at the development of the individual is necessary. In Gehlen's view, every individual is inescapably faced with the task of forming and shaping oneself.17 Of course, there will never be a chance to fully control or fashion oneself, since there are many psychological factors such as affects, emotions or personality traits that evade any influence; the same goes for the outside world with its myriad chance events, since its dimensions exceed any range over which an individual could try to exert control. However, Gehlen has a point in that everyone is, to a large degree, responsible for himself and his actions: through focussing on what can be controlled and disregarding what cannot, everyone will in a way find themselves as a material to be shaped with great freedom. This process, in Gehlen's theory, requires - with regard to the innate radical openness and flood of impressions man is exposed to - stabilization and handling of the self.18 As has been explored above, this process functions through close interaction between inside and outside; the aim here is to achieve self­assertion over constraints of the outside, and to realize one's interior life and thought in a way that becomes tangible in the outside world. The process of becoming a person is thus also always a manner of creating a (personal) reality19 which may stand in contrast to, but can also bring something to and expand the already existing reality. In each case, reciprocal interaction and mutual contribution will be the dominant dynamic resulting from confrontation between self and world.

With a fundamental openness as the starting point for any expression, this conception of man as described by Gehlen can unfold itself most vividly through the use of fiction and its structures of play. The literary or artistic concept of free play (which will be discussed more elaborately in the next chapter on Wolfgang Iser) entails the reciprocity between a communicative handling or mastery of the world and an exploring of the self, brought about by the individual's own capabilities.20 By the concept of play, Gehlen understands most fundamentally the overcoming of a certain obstacle or accomplishing of a task; the ability or power to do so then induces a form of pleasure. At the same time, this basic structure brings with it a certain familiarity with the object-world. Furthermore, it is seen to unfold a variety of human drives and impulses without having a certain objective. In this way, play provides man with a space or potential to direct his excessive drives and to experience himself as well as what is called the structure of human drives in an open and communicative manner.21 Insofar as this process of playing is embodied in language, the latter can be seen as a culmination of human development - as the medium in which what is physical evolves into something cognitive, meaning that the most fundamental drives and biological processes upon which Gehlen bases his theory are now transformed and enter into a much more sophisticated, self-reflexive realm.22 What this means is that language and play, insofar as they are expressed in art or literature, form a prominent medium through which self-understanding becomes possible. As our drive structures have to be oriented, the situational images of success and achievements that are given in literature can fulfil this function. Language and literature thus provide a medium for processing, interpreting and in this way even altering the world. As literature is based on language and thus springs, in Gehlen's theory, from man's innermost being23, it can also be seen to embody and entail a further differentiation of the individual's inner world.24

Above all, language, literature and the task of forming one's existence come together in their active responding to the sensual impressions of the world, since communication can provide orientation in an open, seemingly boundless world. This is further developed in the use of symbols, which facilitates the free handling of things and objects of the real world through a secondary system such as fiction. Using symbols weakens the influence and brings relief to the constraints of the present, so that it becomes possible to imaginatively produce a variety of actions, plans and images that would never be possible in the here and now.25 They constitute a liberation and the possibility for a detachment from what is actually being perceived, thus being able to replace and reproduce it in any variety or fashion. This way, thinking and consciousness can be seen to bring all human achievements together in a de-materialized form of world appropriation, which Gehlen describes as an infinitely open, virtual present.26 Symbols and fiction create mental images, familiarizing what is unknown, and again generating new, unknown structures and images from what has become known.27 In this reciprocal dynamic, language is the mediating system for mutually experiencing the inside world through the outside world as well as perception through imagination and vice versa.28 Fiction temporarily suspends the difference between real and merely imagined situations, and can be used to abstract from what is concrete in real life to universal, imagined realms, unbound to time or place.29 Having started with the most basic biological functions, Gehlen's theory now arrives at a much more cognitive, sophisticated consideration of how we use language and imagination to establish for ourselves a secondary realm of literature that is detached from nature, with the function of both self-understanding and self-expression.

Literature and fiction in this sense become the primary tool for the obligatory self­assertion that Gehlen places at the foundation of his philosophical anthropology. They furthermore point towards what is termed the eccentric position of man, meaning that on accord of his openness, man is always in need of something outside himself in order to facilitate self­understanding; without an outside medium, man would in this view remain inscrutable to himself.30 Fiction is thus one instrument that transcends biological, social, cultural and linguistic borders, providing an external mirror that reflects what is immanent. Shedding light on and enabling a certain amount of control over affects and the self, art is understood as generating and conveying the various states of our consciousness and experiences. Thereby, it imaginatively creates new experiences that can function as a release to otherwise unmediated physical drives as well as to the psyche.31 Fiction allows for a way of dealing with reality that takes real experiences, combines and reflects on them in an imaginative realm, giving the chance and freedom to orient them towards new, future solutions which may otherwise not become apparent. Tracing back one's experiences through a fictional lens and constructing a narrative that brings them all into a structure of cause and effect can also reveal the processual development of a character or personality.32 As will be seen in the analysis of Joyce's Portrait, this refers to the possibility of (retrospective) self-understanding via the attempt to bring past experiences, events and emotions into a single strand of actions, summing them up in one unified and teleological narrative order. It is through literature's dynamic between and merging of inside and outside world, in which the living reality may be understood as an outwardly represented inner world, that literature becomes a basis and impetus for action.33 Imagination, as its primary capacity and as a skill fundamentally inherent to man, can in this conception function as a corrective of the present, directed towards influencing or even shaping the future. Such a way of dealing with the world through the use of literature constitutes a special form of an individual's subjective relation to the reality.34 The cultural achievement of literature can, according to Gehlen's theory, be conceived as a culminating point in humans' development, which started on a biological level and has arrived at a form where stimuli and events are imaginatively created in order to enable an aesthetic and mental experience; in the product of literature, the aesthetically dispositioned structure of our consciousness is manifested in a self­reflexive way.35 Not only has literature been described, through the consideration of Gehlen's theoretical system, as a fundamental development and expression of human consciousness, feeling and thinking; it can most notably be understood to be a medium and mirror for self­reflexivity as well as an active force in affecting and shaping future actions. Fiction is generated out of the world and can act back on it as a source of creative power, overcoming existing boundaries and structures and leading from constraints into something new and open.

3. Wolfgang Iser: Literature as a Medium and Mirror of Human Self­Unfolding

Building on the now established framework of Arnold Gehlen's theory, Wolfgang Iser's system of literary anthropology can be consulted in order to comprehend how the use of symbols and the imagination works in the medium of literature, thereby aiming at a deeper understanding of man's anthropological and psychological state. Iser's triad of the real, the fictive and the imaginary, with which the interplay between world, mind and fiction is characterised, will be used to describe the dynamics inherent to literature. This way, a clearer picture of how fictional and textual worlds are generated, to what manifold ends they are used, as well as how the formal and aesthetic levels of a literary work function, may become attainable. It will be discussed how fiction is both a product and mirror of the human condition, reflecting fundamental human patterns and giving a platform for staging the conflicts inherent to man in a controllable space. Inner psychological conflicts, however irreconcilable they may seem in real life, can be integrated in fiction. Literature will thus be described as a stage on which the desire to overcome human boundaries and the self can be acted out. These considerations will include the conception of literature as a dynamic field of free play, thus portraying fiction as a medium designed for human self-unfolding, enabling the continual staging of the self as a primary and necessary tool for being able to understand oneself.

Iser starts his theory with an inquiry into the question whether or not a definitive separation of reality and fiction is possible. According to him, there are always elements of reality present in a fictional world, since the latter in some way always has to refer back to our social reality, sensations and emotions. These, alongside with other (social) systems of meanings, world views or other existing texts containing a specific way of interpreting the world, form the fields of reference from which any fictional text inevitably draws.36 Whether a text is in agreement or incongruence with the existing discourses to which it refers, is of no matter - the real world outside of the textual world will, by being its point of origin, always be present in the text, so that there can ultimately be no clear distinction between reality and fiction. The fictive - or the act of fictionalising - then is conceived as an intentional action aiming at a contrast to the real; by transforming the real into something unreal and at the same time manifesting something from the otherwise diffuse and elusive realm of imagination, it transcends the until then existing boundaries of real and unreal, creating a new and in-between product. The fictive is thus an act of replicating and altering reality to a certain set purpose. In this way, fiction entails the creation of an illusion (but not deception!) with the goal to create the possibility of an understanding that would not be possible without such a newly gained distance to reality; what is concealed in reality can be uncovered through an illusion.37 The imagination, in this context, is the underlying source, out of which the fictive takes its material for building a textual world. It is through this process of manifestation, that the otherwise open realm of human fantasy and imagination can be traced back. To conclude this brief description of Iser's triad, the fictive can be understood as the mediating force between the real and the imaginary, continually generating interactive processes between the two. When looking at the results of this dynamic, the interrelations between textual worlds are important. This means that worlds can be created for example through the selection of elements from real systems, newly contextualising them and thereby transgressing the borders of the existing systems. These elements can be combined and related to each other in order to generate a new semantic order or system. In the form of narrative events, new systems can themselves be transgressed within the text. What Iser suggests is that transgression of borders and the increase in creating new relations between existing worlds and elements are at the centre of the act of fictionalising, thereby creating new worlds and levels of meaning while at the same time enabling an aesthetic experience of the imaginary38 - an idea that will later on help understand the role of subjectivity and imagination in Joyce's Portrait.

This basic framework leads to a further examination of fictionality and its functions in relation to the real world. Literature, as Iser postulates, creates a secondary, fictional world in the mode of as-if [39] - e.g. a deliberately unreal world that seems as-if it was real - from which consequences for reality can be drawn and in which reality, through distance and transformation, ultimately becomes the object of consideration. Fiction furthermore allows a vision of something that by itself would elude any depiction; by way of the fictive, the medium of literature gives a chance to manifest the imaginary in an apprehensible manner. Through language, the intangible imaginary now becomes graspable - a mechanism that defines the imaginary realm as what makes the text possible in the first place.40 In contrast to our everyday reality, which in its entirety may seem abstract and unintelligible to us, this imaginary world - though to a large extent unreal - can be much more concrete. In this mechanism, fiction takes what is located in reality as a mere potential - the source materials to which Iser refers - and turns them into a concrete reality; through a fictional illusion what is possible can become real, demonstrating that the constraints of reality are not as compelling as they seem. In the same vein, the now concrete imaginary world and the complex of mental images created by it gain control over the real world: literature with its secondary system of meaning creates a distance which increases our awareness of reality, thus also giving new options or guidelines for our


1Cf. Gehlen, Arnold, Der Mensch. Seine Natur und seine Stellung in der Welt (Klostermann 2016) 26-29.

2 Cf. Ibid. 30-34.

3 Of course, this aspect could also be understood in an entirely different way as to how Gehlen understands it: Instead, one could argue that humans have lost some of their specific forms of adaptation precisely because they learned to use tools instead, thus becoming able to gain new territories. A more detailed discussion of Gehlen's basic evolutionary conception would, however, exceed the scope of this paper.

4 Cf. Thies, Christian, Arnold Gehlen zur Einführung (Junius 2007) 36.

5 In this sense, culture is seen as the next form of living following the overcoming of nature. It could be understood as a parallel level overlaying nature, only accessible to humans. Although this framework could be debated as well, the later conceptualization of symbols and imagination should not be tainted by the question whether or not Gehlen's understanding of evolution is completely in line with others-

6 Cf. Gehlen 35-37.

7 Cf. Thies 36.

8 Cf. Ibid. 55.

9 Cf. Gehlen 39.

10 Cf. Ibid. 51.

11 Cf. Ibid. 149ff.

12 This division links back to one of the fundamental ideas of philosophical anthropology: In this tradition, which primarily focuses on the self-conception of man, there has been an ongoing debate about whether or not man can be split into body and mind/soul, and whether there is something individual like the soul that transcends the material. Gehlen, in any case, is trying to build a more integrated concept, in which body and mind may come to form a unity. Cf. Thies 23.

13 Cf. Ibid. 29.

14 Cf. Gehlen 163 and 189-191.

15 Cf. Ibid. 198.

16 Cf. Rehberg, Karl-Siegbert, “Existentielle Motive im Werk Arnold Gehlens. ‘Persönlichkeit‘ als Schlüsselkategorie der Gehlenschen Anthropologie und Sozialtheorie.“, in: Zur geisteswissenschaftlichen Bedeutung Arnold Gehlens. Vorträge und Diskussionsbeiträge des Sonderseminars 1989 der Hochschule für Verwaltungswissenschaften Speyer, ed. Helmut Klages et al., (Duncker & Humblot) 491.

17 Cf. Ibid. 510.

18 Asserting a personal reality or personality often means being truthful to values that are very much subjective and, indeed, often irrational (Cf. Rehberg 519). However, from a purely subjective point of view, they are often held to be more truthful and even objective than anything to be found in the outside world; thus, exclusive trust and confidence in one's interior ‘law' may be felt as the ultimate goal and duty, as will become apparent in the later analysis of Joyce's Portrait.

19 Cf. Gehlen 239.

20 Cf. Ibid. 242.

21 Cf. Witteriede, Heinz, Eine Einführung in die Philosophische Anthropologie. Max Scheler, Helmuth Plessner, Arnold Gehlen, (Lang 2009) 105-108.

22 Cf. Ibid. 118.

23 Cf. Gehlen 246.

24 Cf. Ibid. 281.

25 Cf. Ibid. 282.

26 Cf. Ibid. 355.

27 Cf. Ibid. 297.

28 Cf. Thies 58.

29 Cf. Delitz, Heike, Arnold Gehlen, (UVK 2011) 45.

30 Cf. Ibid. 54 and 104-107.

31 Cf. Gehlen 361.

32 Cf. Ibid. 300-304.

33 Cf. Thies 111-113.

34 Cf. Messelke, Karlheinz, “Der Reiz des Schönen. Zu Gehlens ästhetischer Theorie.“, in: Zur geisteswissenschaftlichen Bedeutung Arnold Gehlens. Vorträge und Diskussionsbeiträge des Sonderseminars 1989 der Hochschule für Verwaltungswissenschaften Speyer, ed. Helmut Klages et. al., (Duncker &Humblot) 657­659.

35 Cf. Iser, Wolfgang, Das Fiktive und das Imaginäre. Perspektiven literarischer Anthropologie, (Suhrkamp 2016) 18-20.

36 Cf. Ibid. 21-23 and 136.

37 Cf. Ibid. 24-34.

38 Cf. Ibid. 39f.

39 Cf. Ibid. 45-51 and 113.

40 Cf. Iser 104-109.

Excerpt out of 49 pages


"A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" from the Perspective of Literary Anthropology
Imagination, Narrative Identity and the Functions of Literature
University of Augsburg
English Literature
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
James Joyce, Literary Anthropology, Literary Theory, Anthropology, Literature, Irish, Art, Identity, Fiction, Wolfgang Iser, Arnold Gehlen, Joyce, Martin Middeke, Philosophical Anthropology
Quote paper
Simon Braun (Author), 2019, "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" from the Perspective of Literary Anthropology, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1186877


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