MUSINGS Portrait of the Artist as a Young Chancer


James Joyce
?The enigmatic James Joyce.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Chancer

The Circling FIn
Fin Keegan

Often with great artists we assume they pursue their vocation with a devotion excluding all else, forgetting that they too have to deal with such everyday nuisances as dentists, plumbing, and mislaying their keys. Look at a row of books on a shelf, jacketed neatly with lettered spines, and you can quickly lose sight of the flesh-and-blood man or woman who wrought these imaginary worlds out of the endlessly spinning tumble-dryer that was their daily life. Perhaps they got up an hour before their family or scribbled away in their bed before sleep. Perhaps, like the writer Jean Rhys, they had their editor come around to help them fill the hot water bottle. Whatever they had to do and wherever they were—palace or pied-à-terre, cottage or condo—you must struggle with the messiness of Life to produce the formal worth of Art.
WB Yeats meditated often on this contrast in his own life, most memorably in his poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, in which the poet longs to be gathered into what he calls an ‘artifice of eternity’, a place, no doubt, where Revenue Commissioners or the NCT people can’t get letters to you:

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

A far cry from the personal life of young James Joyce, one of life’s original schemers and outright chancers. The other evening, a school-principal friend told us that perfectionism was near-fatal in her profession. Far better, she said, to be a chancer and have the confidence to take a risk. In Art-making that ability is vital. No great artist—Yeats, Wilde, and Joyce included—ever got anywhere without first running the gauntlet of judgmental peers.
Before he abandoned Dublin for the Continent, the culture vultures of Edwardian Dublin seemed to be confronted at every turn with Joyce’s deeds: He could sing, he could act, he could debate, and on top of it all wrote arresting poetry and provocative criticism.
A few years later, lover and baby son in tow, he popped up in Rome where he worked seven months in, of all places, a bank. Life was certainly messy and, whatever the weather, he had to wear a coat with tails to hide the state of his trousers. What was this soft-spoken cashier doing in his spare time, besides drinking?  Working on ‘The Dead’, one of the finest short stories ever written.
Later, on a visit home, he even opened Dublin’s first cinema. Society was agog: What would this unpredictable character come up with next?
Well, we eventually got the answer: two or three books that routinely end up listed as the most important of the Twentieth Century. That’s the thing about Chancers: They generally get closer to Perfection than perfectionists ever manage.

Fin Keegan is a writer based in Westport. This column is based on his weekly radio essay, heard on WRFM radio, and online at