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Moment to Moment: Living like Stephen Dedalus

Editor's Note

I first read James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in my twelfth grade AP Literature course. I had heard the tales of Joyce’s writings—they were too complicated for the average reader, they seemed meaningless, they were just plain strange.

So I approached the text with caution but ultimately agreed with earlier assessments. I was confused by what exactly Joyce was trying to communicate with his work. Stephen Dedalus is a character who is at once crazy—he is convinced that he shares a destiny with the mythical Daedalus, the creator, whose son Icarus flew too close to the sun—and obsessive—he quickly latches onto a young girl from the moment he first meets her. The book's narrative style that quickly shifted from snapshot to snapshot only left me bewildered.

I remember arguing in class that Joyce’s text lacked a simple thing: a plot. What was so wrong with a narrative, a linear track a reader could follow? Instead, Joyce’s book often read like a progression of simple moments. Dedalus has a conversation with his mom, meets a girl, hates Ireland. But how were they all related?

I would like to say that eventual class discussions turned around my thinking, but I still managed to hate the book throughout my college years. At the mere mention of James Joyce, I would scrunch up my face, as if to say, “Not him again.”

But recently I started thinking more about the idea of life as moments. Maybe a plot makes a book more palatable to a reader, but Joyce’s book was more true to life. Because what is life really than a string of seemingly unrelated moments that make a story?

I have often tried to place my own life into a narrative. I talk to this person, I get this grade, I go to this school and it will all add up. It will all play out as it should. But following this narrative sometimes stops me from taking chances. I expect it will all play out a certain way, and if it doesn’t—well, I haven’t confronted that possibility yet.

As a senior approaching graduation, realizing that I can’t control my own narrative and that seemingly random moments may affect—perhaps permanently alter—my fate is incredibly scary. I have a whole future ahead of me that I can’t control. And no longer is there any defined narrative. I did the whole high school and college thing, but now I’m on my own.

Somehow Dedalus’ model is somewhat comforting. Sure, it would be nice if my life had an easy plot to follow and an easy one to sell. "Elizabeth Djinis: The Lifetime Original Movie." But more often it’s the unexplainable moments that get me. The conversations that years later have more significance than they ever could at the time.

I often think about the times that I met people who would go on to become my closest friends in college. It wasn’t a cataclysmic event and I didn’t always leave the conversation and know what was ahead. Instead, gradually, over time, you break down barriers. You become closer. They see you laugh. They see you cry. They look at you and they know you. But the times you realize this aren’t always the biggest moment—sometimes they could be as a small as a night in Perkins.

When I first entered college, I asked my mom if these would really be the best four years of my life. So many people had warned me not to waste these years because I would never get them back again. So when I turned to her, eyes wide, asking whether college was the best four years of her life, she paused.

“College was great, but so were my twenties, and so was having you. Sometimes the best years of your life are hard to predict in the moment.”

So for now, like Stephen Dedalus, I’m living moment to moment and not trying to figure it out. The crazy thing about life is that those little moments become each of our stories, but they wouldn’t be half as exciting if we didn’t simply let ourselves live. 

Elizabeth Djinis is a Trinity senior and Recess managing editor. 

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