Friday, May 30, 2014

"A Slow Devouring": Profile of a Finnegans Wake Reading Group in Boston

It's not exactly recent (published in 2008) but I found this article in The American Scholar very worthwhile. It's an engaging, well-written profile of the Thirsty Scholars Finnegans Wake reading group which has been gathering in Cambridge weekly for many years, detailing the unique nature of a Wake group. The attendees are from all walks of life and certainly not a collection of certified scholars:
While many literary scholars have only a cursory understanding of Finnegans Wake, this group of Web designers, data analysts, and aerobics teachers has jerry-rigged an impressive understanding of it while meeting at a bar, their pace somewhere between struggling and savoring.
The article serves as both a description of the reading group and an exploration of the intrigue behind the book itself. On this latter point, he consults with a few literary scholars, one of who offers some thoughts on the Wake's intentionally-designed "Here Comes Everybody" dynamic:

It is not written for the individual, but for people working together to construct ‘meaning’ across national, linguistic and historical boundaries. And in that sense [the work] anticipates in extremely challenging ways the phenomenon of globalization,” Vicki Mahaffey, a professor of English, wrote in the description of a course she taught at the University of Pennsylvania. She warned that the Wake, the “most atypical, experimental book,” is not often considered intelligible in the usual sense of the word. “It has been defended, though, as the verbal equivalent to the achievement of splitting the atom; by splitting the word, Joyce aims to unleash previously untapped creative and interpretive energy.” In an e-mail to me from her new post at the University of York in Heslington, England, she wrote, “I think the communal aspect of reading the Wake is real: what I usually say is that it is the first book written to be read collaboratively (rather than individually or competitively).”

When I lived in California, I had the blessing of getting to partake in the Venice Wake reading group led by Gerry Fialka. A noted devotee of the technology prophet Marshall McLuhan (who was himself a devotee of Joyce and the Wake especially), my good pal Gerry liked to say "James Joyce invented the internet and disguised it as a book." The same idea is hinted at in this article:
A phrase on page 296—“And let you go, Airmienious, and mick your modest mock Pie out of humbles up your end”—led Joel to Google, where he discovered that the word Airmienious ties together the page’s multiple references to Armenia and the Germanic general Arminius who defeated three Roman legions in 9 A.D. The Wake, in this sense, captured the dizzying amplitude of the Internet before it existed. Like the Web, the book is an incredibly vast, far-reaching, piecemeal collection that is brilliant and unifying when taken in context, but gibberish when not. (Also, a portion of each has been dedicated to naked women.) Almost every phrase in the book is a sort of hyperlink to a half-dozen other sources or ideas...
I recommend you go ahead and read the full article.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Joseph Campbell on How to Read Finnegans Wake

The approach described below could serve as a primer for how to study Finnegans Wake. In fact, Campbell very accurately describes the way we study the book in our Austin Finnegans Wake Reading Group.

In the Conclusion of The Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, Campbell first describes Joyce's style of combining multiple words and punning on many different languages, often with rhythms that echo nursery rhymes, songs, prayers, etc. Following this, he shares these instructions:
This complex fabric of semantics, associative overtones, and stem rhythms is merely the materia prima of Joyce's communication. To this, add an enormous freight of mythological, historical, and psychological reference. It would be well-nigh hopeless to attempt to trace the design of any page were it not that a thread of logic runs through every paragraph. True, the thread always frays out into lateral associations which in turn disappear into almost inaccessible tenuities of meaning. Yet the main lines can all be followed. Joyce provides an answer to every riddle he propounds. In every passage there is a key word which sounds the essential theme. This word is supported, augmented, commented upon by other expressions in the same passage. Taken together, they not only indicate the mood but convey the meaning. The task of opening the way into any passage thus divides itself into three stages: 
1) Discovering the key word or words. 
2) Defining one or more of them, so that the drift of Joyce's thought becomes evident. 
3) Brooding awhile over the paragraph, to let the associations running out from the key centers gradually animate the rest of the passage.
Presently, the whole page will be alive with echoings and amplifications, re-echoings and sudden surprises. 
Amidst a sea of uncertainties, of one thing we can be sure: there are no nonsense syllables in Joyce! His language means so much that any intelligent reader can shave off some rewarding layers of meaning. The clarity and scope of the discoveries will depend almost wholly on the perception brought to bear; as the Master himself says: "Wipe your glosses with what you know." (FW p. 304).
Certainly there are many ways to approach the Wake. Mainly, I think you can break these down under two categories which we may call Horizontal and Vertical (as Scott from our Austin group termed it). Vertically, you dig down into each paragraph, sentence, or word to extract the dense meanings and references which may then bring meaning to the rest of the page or section. Horizontally, you just stream on through the musical, playful prose and let the sounds wash over you, triggering emotional or cerebral responses as they may.

The Night Owl speed-reading Wake group in Los Angeles I described here once certainly used the Horizontal approach. There is, no doubt, lots of fun to be had doing it that way. In our group here in Austin we use the Vertical approach, sticking with two pages which we examine and excavate thoroughly, just as Campbell describes. After two hours of discussion, usually we've identified the key words and phrases, defined them, pieced apart some puns, and eventually discovered the thematic "thread of logic." To close our sessions, we have one or two readers recite the pages in full, a touch of the Horizontal method. Just as Campbell describes, the pages do indeed come alive with echoings and surprises as we realize the thread of meaning is weaved intricately all over it.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Finnegans Wake Reading Group of Austin, TX

What:
The Finnegans Wake Reading Group of Austin meets twice every month to read aloud from, dissect, and discuss one of the richest, funniest, most baffling, bewildering and beautiful books ever written, Finnegans Wake by James Joyce.

When/Where:

1st Tuesday of each month at the Twin Oaks Library in South Austin

3rd Thursday of each month at Malvern Books on 29th Street

Who:
This gathering is completely FREE and open to the public. No prior knowledge of Joyce or Finnegans Wake is required. All you need to bring is a sense of humor, curiosity, and an openness to reading aloud in front of strangers.

How:
We read two pages per meeting, the process consisting of each participant reading two lines at a time going in a circle until we've gotten through the two pages. Then we dig into the text trying to decipher the many meanings and layers involved (usually with some help from annotations and guides), often branching off into discussing a variety of subjects like history, philosophy, pop culture, mythology, biology, etc until we've covered most of the content in those two pages. We usually close by having a couple participants do a final reading of the two pages in full. As regular attendee Terry perfectly put it, we take it apart and put it back together again. Much like Humpty Dumpty whose story is a key theme in the book.

While the Wake is notoriously difficult to read because of its multi-layered and multi-lingual dream language, its unique poetics come alive when read out loud, allowing its aural puns and wordplay to be experienced. It also rewards the group setting as multiple minds dredge up their own interpretations thus giving a better glimpse into the sleeping mind of main character HCE or Here Comes Everybody, consisting of "myriads of drifting minds in one." (FW p. 159)

For further info, feel free to contact me at this e-mail address:

finwakeaustin [at] gmail.com

(substitute @ for [at], you know the drill)

Monday, May 5, 2014

On the 75th Anniversary of Finnegans Wake


"What's all this about Ulysses? Finnegans Wake. That's the important book."
- Nora Joyce, shortly after her husband's death


Finnegans Wake turned 75 years old this past Sunday. It was originally published on May 4, 1939 after James Joyce had devoted 17 years to writing it.

Cover for original 1939 Viking Press edition.

Peter Chrisp has a nice piece about it over at his exquisite blog where he displays the two original covers of the book for both its UK and US editions which were published at the same time. They both feature a reddish brown color in homage to the color of the River Liffey or the hair of main character Anna Livia Plurabelle "with her auburnt streams" (FW p. 139).

Chrisp's blog piece also goes into Joyce's Time Magazine cover story that was published during this time. It was for this photo shoot that Gisele Freund captured the only color photographs of Joyce ever taken.

The Time article is available here to read in full and it's well worth a look. It eloquently captures the initial reception of this most enigmatic book from the renowned and befuddling author Joyce:
It is packed with jokes, plays on words; it contains nonsensical diagrams, ridiculous footnotes, obscure allusions. Sometimes it seems to be retelling, in a chattering, stammering, incoherent way, the legends of Tristan and Isolde, of Wellington and Napoleon, Cain and Abel. Sometimes it seems to be a description, written with torrential eloquence, of the flow of a river to the sea.

As a gigantic laboratory experiment with language, Finnegans Wake is bound to exert an influence far beyond the circle of its immediate readers. Whether Joyce is eventually convicted of assaulting the King’s English with intent to kill or whether he has really added a cubit to her stature, she will never be quite the same again.

*   *   *

In honor of the Wake's 75th birthday, we may as well take a look at the 75th page of the book. After all, any page of the Wake can be closely perused to extract a good sense of the essence of the entire book.

Page 75 is the opening page of chapter 4, which begins with the words:

"As the lion in our teargarten remembers the nenuphars of his Nile"

"teargarten" is a pun on the German Tiergarten meaning zoo, but you can also picture the lion shedding tears of sadness for being stuck in the constrained garden of a zoo, looking back on the beautiful "nenuphars" (lotus flowers or water lilies) floating on the surface of the Nile River.

The river is the key symbol for the whole book and the lotus, as Joseph Campbell loved to point out, suggests the lotus flower growing out of the navel of the sleeping god Vishnu who dreams the universe (see page 598 of FW).

Less than two years after the Wake was published,  Joyce died ("gone for age, and knew not the watchful treachers at his wake" FW p. 75) and was buried in a cemetery close to a zoo, which led his wife Nora to remark, "My husband is buried there. He was awfully fond of the lions--I like to think of him lying there and listening to them roar."

Further down the page:

"It may be... that he reglimmed? presaw?"

Despite its age, the Wake is and will forever be a modern book, "as modern as tomorrow afternoon" (FW p. 309). It contains all of history and constantly metamorphosizes, follows and predicts the times we live in. The great sage of the technological revolution Marshall McLuhan thumbed the Wake daily for insights and considered it a guidebook for studying the effects of media technology.

The Wake was, after all, produced during the opening stages of the Big Bang-like explosive expansion and acceleration of technology and media. Joyce wrote it between 1922 and 1939. Radio, telephone, television, transportation were all growing rapidly, the world being completely revolutionized and Joyce "with his deepseeing insight" (FW p. 75) was keenly aware of what this meant for humanity.

Legendary science fiction author Philip K. Dick was a student of Finnegans Wake and speaks these words through one of his characters in the opening pages of his novel The Divine Invasion:
You think James Joyce was crazy, is that what you think? Okay; then explain to me how come he mentions 'talktapes' which means audio tapes in a book he wrote starting in 1922 and which he completed in 1939, before there were tape recorders! You call that crazy? He also has them sitting around a TV set -- in a book that started four years after World War I.
[...]
Someday I'm going to get my article published; I'm going to prove that Finnegans Wake is an information pool based on computer memory systems that didn't exist until centuries after James Joyce's era; that Joyce was plugged into a cosmic consciousness from which he derived the inspiration for his entire corpus of work. I'll be famous forever.
It's always fun in my Austin Finnegans Wake reading group when we come across phrases like "handwriting on the facewall" (FW p. 135) that appear to describe Facebook. 

Further on down on page 75, we read that the "shamanah" or shaman (Shem/Joyce) "prayed, as he sat on anxious seat ... that his wordwounder ... might, mercy to providential benevolence's who hates prudencies' astuteness, unfold in the first of a distinguished dynasty of his posteriors."

Parsing through the annotations found at the website FWEET.org (or in Roland McHugh's book of annotations) you'll occasionally find an especially enriching, insightful little quotation from the endlessly varying source books Joyce took notes from. For that final phrase, Joyce was apparently inspired by a passage from a book by French writer Francois-René Chateaubriand on the Native Americans, a quote which nicely sums up the approach of the shaman-poet Joyce:
"Age itself cannot rob the sachems [Algonquin chiefs] of this happy simplicity: like the old birds of our forests, they still blend their old songs with the new airs of their young posterity."
*   *   *

All these years later, the magnum opus of perhaps the greatest writer of all time remains largely unread, ignored, often disparaged by the general public.

Scholars digging through the Wake's bottomless archaeological depths continually uncover scores of previously undiscovered designs, intricacies, and hoarded jewels. A scholar named Roy Benjamin recently detailed the Wake's important and not-so-hidden matrix of the precession of the equinoxes embedded all throughout the text, for instance.

Devoted reading groups across the globe gather regularly to raid Finnegan's tomb, finding strangely contemporary items like Nike sneakers, iPhones, and yet-to-be-invented social media platforms.

Philip K. Dick never did get to publish his theories on Finnegans Wake. And the world Joyce wrote for remains very far from comprehending, or even desiring to comprehend, his most cherished offering.

75 years after its birth, the Wake still appears to be awfully young. Perhaps ageless.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Wake Art: Visual depictions of the "dreambookpage"


Clinton Cahill's depiction of the Yawn scene.

It's often said of Finnegans Wake that it is a book for the ear, that it's meant to be read aloud and experienced through the dimension of sound. Yet there are also plenty of episodes that feature thoroughly described visuals and when reading some of the vignettes---like the Mookse and the Gripes or the Ondt and the Gracehoper---one can't help but try to form a mental image of the characters.

When it comes to visual description, I'm especially fond of the scene at the opening of the "Yawn" chapter (Book III, Chapter 3) where the sleeping giant Yawn is approached by four chroniclers (and their donkey) who become mountain-climbing archeologists. Ascending up his unfathomably huge body, "they hopped it up the mountainy molehill, traversing climes of old times gone by of the days not worth remembering." (FW p. 474)


The supine, snoozing Brobdingnagian body of Yawn is envisioned in beautifully poetic if immense and absurd proportions:
"There he would lay till they would him descry, spancelled down upon a blossomy bed, at one foule stretch, amongst the daffydowndillies, the flowers of narcosis fourfettering his footlights, a halohedge of wild spuds hovering over him, epicures waltzing with gardenfillers, puritan shoots advancing to Aran chiefs... The meteor pulp of him, the seamless rainbowpeel... His bellyvoid of nebulose with his neverstop navel... And his veins shooting melanite phosphor, his creamtocustard cometshair and his asteroid knuckles, ribs and members... His electrolatiginous twisted entrails belt." (FW p. 475)

With its layered meanings and opaque, obscure prose, any visual representation of the content of Finnegans Wake will of course be entirely dependent upon the interpretation of the artist. Here are some of these illustrative interpretations I've come across.

  • I've posted on this blog before about the Wake-inspired graphical constructions of Id-Grids and Ego-Graphs: A Typographical Confabulation with Finnegans Wake. It's a fun book to flip through and stare at its pages; seeing Wake phrases isolated out of their natural habitat tends to highlight their curious rhythm and mysterious density. You can see more samples from it over at BrainPickings.


  • Cartoonist Ralph Zeigermann created fantastic panels depicting the Mookse and the Gripes episode . Their intensity and humor reminds me of the Ren & Stimpy cartoons. These are a must-see.




    • A new edition of Finnegans Wake is now available from The Folio Society (for an absurdly exorbitant $195) featuring illustrations by artist John Vernon Lord. At the Folio Society website you can see samples of Lord's art and even peek inside his intricately inscribed notebooks on the Wake.

    • Over at the blog for the James Joyce Centre in Dublin, Clinton Cahill has been sharing his own efforts at illustrating the Wake in monthly blog posts for a while now. He mostly uses charcoal for his sketches, creating a shadowy hazy texture that feels perfect for the opaque subject. I especially like this piece of HCE's fall: 

    • Of course I have to mention the wonderful work Stephen Crowe has been doing for a while over at his blog Wake in Progress. He's been illustrating the Wake one page at a time for four years now. I highly recommend checking out his blog, it's one of the best ongoing Wake projects out there.
    • Lastly, Joyce's daughter Lucia had an artistic gift and used it to draw some illustrations for early publications of chapters from the Wake. See this link for more.

    Tuesday, February 11, 2014

    Book Review (Part 3 of 4): Joyce's Book of the Dark by John Bishop

    "(Stoop) if you are abcedminded, to this claybook, what curios of signs (please stoop) in this allaphbed! Can you rede (since We and Thou had it out already) its world?" 
    - Finnegans Wake, pg. 18
    After the resolute reader has made it through the first 300 dense pages of Joyce's Book of the Dark, its author provides us with a brief respite in the form of an entertaining chapter-long primer on how to read Finnegans Wake. This chapter, entitled "'Litters': On Reading Finnegans Wake," also prepares the reader for the forthcoming exegetical finale, the climax of this enormous study (which we will discuss in Part 4).

    FW structure (by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy)
    Bishop begins with an apologia for the style of writing he's employed thus far in the book in which words, quotes, and snippets from all over Finnegans Wake are taken and utilized throughout his own prose, often out of context. For instance, in one Bishop sentence he might use three completely unrelated quotes from Joyce's book to build his point. He argues that the Wake itself endorses this kind of reading, pointing to the enigmatic nightbook's references to the ancient practice of Virgilian fortune-telling (Sortes Virgilianae) in which a reader opens the works of Virgil at random ("volve the virgil page and view" FW p. 270) and then interprets the lines as referring to their own life at that moment, a practice of divination very much like using the I Ching. The same tactic works with the Wake. As Allen B. Ruch puts it, "Finnegans Wake seems uncannily alive, as if it's aware you're reading it." Indeed, the Wake can be seen as a Western version of the I Ching which is also known as the Book of Changes---the key symbol of the Wake is a river. Just as Heraclitus wrote that you can never step into the same river twice, it's often said of the Wake that it's a different book each time you read it, as its riverine text is "moving and changing every part of the time." (FW p. 118) (Philosopher Robert Anton Wilson, who was known to randomly flip open the Wake and riff on it during stand-up routines, has an essay discussing in detail the parallels between the Wake and the I Ching in his book Coincidance.)
    I Ching diagram

    The Wake itself is also explicit in "indicating that the words which follow may be taken in any order desired" (FW p. 121) because, unlike a novel with a sequential and orderly plot, Joyce's circular book might be said to have no beginning or ending and is composed in an alphabet soup of "expolodotonate[d]" (FW p. 353) English, a giant scrapheap of words and letters that have been "blown to Adams" (FW p. 313) or "litterish fragments" (FW p. 66).

    The experimental American composer (and noted I Ching devotee) John Cage displayed the idiosyncrasies and strange pleasures that may derive from this type of approach to the Wake in his essay (read aloud here in a gem of a video) "Writing for the Second Time through Finnegans Wake" in which he constructs mesostic poems from dug up Wake words.

    Marshall McLuhan was known to keep a specially customized copy of the Wake so as to similarly explore the potentials of piecing together its lexical elements like a child playing with Legos:
    "The Wake was McLuhan's vade mecum. In later years he kept one copy unbound, with each page pasted onto a sleeve of 3-ring paper. The stack stood in an accessible spot just outside the door of his office. McLuhan was forever plucking fresh pages like a gambler toying with oversized cards. He liked to snap the pages into new configurations, up, down, across, and read the phrases in a kaleidoscopic collage, much as Joyce himself had written them."
    For Bishop, the Wake's frequent allusions to its own brand of "pure chingchong idiotism with any way words all in one soluble" (FW p. 299) are signals to the reader that this type of free associative reading is not only suggested but required if one is to grasp Finnegans Wake. Breaking down a passage from the Wake's opening pages, Bishop details how our hero's fall into sleep brings with it the collapse of every conceivable standing structure; ladders, buildings, trees, etc. but also rational, readable structures too. Bishop frequently adopts particular Wake phrases to return to over and over again to hammer home his theoretical points---in this case, he advises that we must be like Finnegan who "stottered from the latter" (FW p. 6) or tottered and fell from the ladder, except we must be prepared to totter or fall from the letter, the normal rational language of letters. Thus, Bishop concludes:
    Together, all these elements are stating oliquely what is everywhere evident in Finnegans Wake anyway: that the language of the book, like the language of dreams and like language autonomically disrupted by the stutter, will operate in a manner unpredictably different from that in which rational language operates. As a reconstruction of the night, Finnegans Wake is "freely masoned" (FW p. 552), "freewritten" (FW p. 280), and structured "in the broadest way immarginable" (FW p. 4) by free associations.
    Continuing his impressive interpretative plundering of Wake passages, Bishop takes us through the first paragraph of the Shem the Penman chapter (FW p. 169) which describes, in an exaggerated and absurd parody, the author Joyce. Bishop shows us that in order to understand the Wake's author and the text itself we must read "between the lines" and pursue "distant connections" in our free associative reading because the life of Shem ("an outlex" who is outside the laws---Latin lex---of reason), just like the material of dreams and sleep, "will not stand being written about in black and white", thus it cannot be conceived merely by reading the words on the page. The text of Finnegans Wake is "superscribed and subpencilled" (FW p. 66) so its meaning must be sought above, below, and beyond merely the printed words, just as we would interpret a dream by reading past its bizarre surface material, as Bishop declares:
    The greatest obstacle to our comprehension of Finnegans Wake since its publication has surely been a failure on the part of the readers to believe that Joyce really meant what he said when he spoke of the book as a "reconstruction of the nocturnal life" and an "imitation of the dream-state"; and as a consequence, readers have perhaps too easily exercised on the text an unyielding literalism bent on finding a kind of meaning in every way antithetical to the kind of meaning purveyed in dreams... What it really requires of its reader is the ability to pursue "distant connections" and, in doing so, to leap all over the place.
    The actual words and material of the Wake available to be absorbed and assimilated by the literate mind conceals hidden, buried, invisible meanings. In other words, "the speechform is a mere sorrogate" (FW p. 149). The physical pages are "packen paper" (FW p. 356 [German Packenpapier, "wrapping paper"]) that must be dug through to discover what lies beneath the surface. The Wake's 5th chapter, which describes the nature of the book itself and its puzzling style, uses the metaphor of a mysterious buried manuscript that's been dug up out of garbage heap by a pecking hen. This exhumed document with its "writing thithaways end to end and turning, turning and end to end hithways writing and with lines of litters slittering up and louds of latters slettering down" (FW p. 114) is pored over by various expert scholars and scientists trying to decipher its "changeably meaning vocable scriptsigns." (FW p. 118) This process of digging and deciphering is a key recurring theme in the Wake and a perfect metaphor for the experience of reading it.
     
    Everything about the Wake, in both the macro and microcosm, is essentially a puzzle or a riddle. It describes itself in this sense as a "nightmaze" (FW p. 411), a "jigsaw puzzle" (FW p. 210), a "beautiful crossmess parzel" (FW p. 619 [Christmas parcel + crossword puzzle]), a "cryptogram" (FW p. 261), or "holocryptogram" (FW p. 546) and challenges us "to salve life's robulous rebus" (FW p. 12[a rebus is a pictogram puzzle]). Bishop attests that if you perform Virgilian sortilege and open the book at random, you're bound to come upon a riddle of some sort: "Every word, every phrase, every paragraph, and every story of Finnegans Wake requires the same kind of solution as a riddle does. And this includes the English."

    As anyone who's ever participated in a Finnegans Wake reading group knows, trying to solve the riddles on each page is where all the fun lies. Parsing through a single page with a group, you'd be amazed how many things other people will find that you would've never caught on your own. The group approach gives you the feeling that you're all tasked with interpreting the elements of one very long and complicated dream, the dream of HCE or "Here Comes Everybody." Bishop suggests that if you've broken out in laughter in the process of solving these dream-riddles then you are on the right track:
    …dreams operate exactly as riddles do, not simply in the wholly intuitive process by which they are untangled, but in the kind of understanding they yield. The successful interpretation of a dream results not primarily in an intellectual understanding, but in an illuminating "click" that wakes up the dreamer in the middle of his own life. And just as the analysis of a dream produces a sudden recognition, just as the solution of a good riddle generates a ripple of mirth, so a good "reading [of the] Evening World” (FW p. 28) works to liberate “everyone’s repressed laughter” (FW p. 190), whose release is a sign that the book has been read rightly: in risu veritas, as Joyce remarked of the Wake ( Latin “in laughter there is truth”).
    As we dig into the unconscious mind of HCE and try to interpret its many puns and riddles, we are also confronted constantly with forms of child's play, fairy tales, and nursery rhymes. It is this aspect of the Wake that Bishop explores in his book's penultimate chapter, called "The Nursing Mirror." It is considered a forgone conclusion in modern scientific and psychoanalytic circles that dreams and sleep entail a regression to the infantile state. On this subject, Bishop refers to Freud's Interpretation of Dreams which states: "Dreaming is a piece of infantile mental life that has been superseded" and "to our surprise, we find the child and the child's impulses still living on in the dream." Passing into a deep unconscious snooze, the Wake's hero returns to "first infancy" (FW p. 22) and becomes "an overgrown babeling" (FW p. 6). Our immersion into this night world consequently turns us into children as well since, as Bishop describes it, "Joyce puts his reader into a position roughly analogous to that of a child encountering an unknown language for a first time."

    It is a childlike curiosity and abandonment of authoritative literal reading that will provide the most rewarding experience for a Wake reader. The aforementioned exhumed document representing the Wake itself is described as being "folded with cunning, sealed with crime, uptied by a harlot, undone by a child" (FW p. 94). Despite the novel's highbrow literary reputation, Bishop proclaims "one must become a child again if one is to read the Wake."

    The buried "childhide" (FW p. 483 [childhood that is hidden]) unearthed in the playful, joyous, humorous Wake represents a crumbling of the old man institutions of rational, literalistic language and its supposed "awethorrorty" (FW p. 516 [notice the presence of "horror"]. "The old man on his ars" (FW p. 514) supine and sleeping gives way to the child inside coming alive with no regard for grownup daytime rules and rational structures. The Wake celebrates this child inside all of us, "The child we all love to place our hope in for ever" (FW p. 621).

    At the heart of the Wake, at the end of one of its densest chapters (Book II, chapter 2 "Night Lessons") the children have begun to take over power from their parents as the old era closes and a new one begins. The children tease their parents in a letter sending "our best youlldied greedings to Pep and Memmy and the old folkers below and beyant" (FW p. 308) while also inscribing doodles in the margins, including an apparent thumb-to-nose image. But the most eminent and comical symbol of this playful "thumbtonosery" (FW p. 253) that Joyce's book represents is the Manneken Pis statue and fountain in Brussels which the Wake makes frequent reference to. The statue depicts a small boy, a "wee mee mannikin" (FW p. 576), continually pissing with a grin on his face. One can see why Joyce took a liking to this statue; in his greatest work he virtually obliterated language, the very foundation of all respectable reasonable rational adult structures, to rubble and took a piss on the ashes.

    Sunday, February 2, 2014

    Happy Birthday James Joyce

    "A hundred cares, a tithe of troubles and is there one who understands me? One in a thousand of years of the nights?" 
    - Finnegans Wake, p. 627

    Today, February 2nd, marks the anniversary of James Joyce's birth. A highly superstitious man, he insisted upon both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake being published on his birthday. The latter would lead to some misadventures as, after 17 years of laboring on his final book and making endless hand-written revisions and additions to the page proofs, he finished writing the book in November of 1938. This left barely two months to proofread the entire 628-page linguistic nightmare and get it to the printers.

    Joyce and his friends worked around the clock to prepare the final manuscript, its author barely sleeping at all during this time and once collapsing from exhaustion during a walk in Paris. Richard Ellman tells a story from this period's "frenzy of proofreading":
    [Paul] Léon supplied a last drama by forgetting a section of the revised proofs in a taxi. He rushed back to stop the driver, but the taxi was gone. Bitterly ashamed, he hurried to Joyce's flat to inform him; Joyce did not reproach him, seemed rather to take it as the usual sort of bad luck. Léon telephoned to London to send more proofs, but the taxi driver, after two hours, miraculously appeared with the missing package. (Ellman, pg 714)
    The first printed copy of Finnegans Wake was presented to Joyce on January 30th, 1939 and three days later on his birthday he gathered with family and friends to celebrate the culmination of nearly two decades of intensive work. Paris' best caterer baked seven cakes, each one a replica of Joyce's seven books, with icing the color of the books' bindings. At the dinner celebration, Joyce told the guests how the idea for the Wake came to him in 1922 when he was at Nice in France and, after dinner, Joyce and his son sang a duet and his son's wife read aloud the last pages of Finnegans Wake.

    The world was busy preparing for a second World War during this time, though, and the great author had been virtually cast aside as a lunatic for so thoroughly dedicating his gift to such a strange and difficult-to-comprehend book. Within two years he died at the age of 59, the world collapsed into "Booms of bombs and heavy rethudders" (FW p. 510) and the great historic dream epic of co(s)mic puns, riddles, and jokes was left to collect dust until a young Joseph Campbell (with Henry Morton Robinson) published the first intensive study of Joyce's magnum opus in 1944.

    James Joyce did not lead an easy life. Born in 1882, he was the eldest of 10 children in a family that collapsed into debilitating poverty, his mother died when he was a teenager, and his father let an already struggling household fall into complete disrepair. Growing up, he lived in probably two dozen different addresses because of unpaid rent. This pattern continued when he had his own family, bouncing between apartments and flats in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris as he struggled to get any of his books published and feed his wife and two children on an English teacher's salary.

    He tended to get by on loans from friends until Harriet Shaw Weaver, convinced of his genius, became his patron and supporter, eventually helping him get the chapters of Ulysses published serially. Despite its controversial content (the novel was banned in English-speaking countries for 11 years after its publication), Ulysses made Joyce the world's most famous writer in the 1920s. His reputation took a swift decline as he would then dedicate the rest of his career to writing Finnegans Wake whose chapters were also published serially for a baffled and disappointed audience. Suffering through numerous eye diseases and surgeries, the mental collapse of his beloved daughter Lucia, public excoriations of Ulysses (copies were piled up and burned in Ireland), and friends withdrawing their support for his bizarre new book, he carried on in his work. As he writes in the Wake, "You will say it is most unenglish and I shall hope to hear that you will not be wrong about it. But I further, feeling a bit husky in my truths." (FW p. 160)

    All these years later, we're still unraveling the riddles of his final "worldstage's practical jokepiece" (FW p. 33). An unyielding, unique, damn near heroic dedication to crafting and completing these encyclopedic texts seems entirely worth it in retrospect as their study and appreciation has already far exceeded his 59-year lifespan. In fact, especially as regards the Wake, one might say the world is only beginning to learn how to approach and appreciate his art. With its combination of world languages (over 70 have been identified) and rational-mind-cracking prose-poetry, Finnegans Wake seems like it was written for the children of the future.

    Here are some links to check out today about Joyce and his birthday: Peter Chrisp writes about Joyce's selecting James Stephens (because they shared the same birthday) to finish writing the Wake in case he couldn't continue, and Flavorwire presents 10 authors on James Joyce.