Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Reading Group Reminiscences

As it so often tends to do, the Wake made its omniscience humorously obvious to the participants of our latest reading group here in Austin. Prior to digging into the text, we had some discussion about the big Finnegans Wake promotional campaign to promote the first ever Chinese translation of the book, talked about the book's seeming awareness that the reader is reading it, and also about cities as living beings.

We should not have been surprised when, in the course of the two pages we studied, the Wake winked at us with a couple lines that sounded like Chinese, referencing Confucius and other Chinese elements (bottom of pg. 131) while the next page had, among many references to the nature of cities, the line "weighs a town in himself."

I would've liked to have kept thorough notes on all of the Wake meetings we've had here in Austin as well as the other ones I've been to but unfortunately it hasn't worked out that way. I do, on the other hand, know which pages we've looked at in every Wake group I've ever been to and so here I would like to share one or two lines from the different Wake groups I've attended and reflect on those a bit.

The Marshall McLuhan/Finnegans Wake Reading Group in Venice, CA 
early 2010

This was the first Wake group I ever took part in. I drove three hours up from San Diego, eager to finally interact with other Joyceans. The meeting did not disappoint. We read pages 340-341, the very center of the book and one of its densest sections. We're in the middle of a TV program featuring opposing comedians Butt and Taff who represent Shaun and Shem. The following line elicited poetic reflections from some of the many readers in attendance:
TAFF (a blackseer, he stroves to regulect all the straggles for wife in the rut of the past through the widnows in effigies keening after the blank sheets in their faminy to the relix of old decency from over draught.) (pg. 340)
The participants brought up the ending of "The Dead" where Gabriel Conroy gets into deep contemplation staring out the window after an argument with his wife. The word "blackseer" is interesting as well, suggesting pessimism but it's also Shem the "seer" or poet, and Shem is always referred to as black, "a nogger among the blankards" (pg. 188). Also of note, "widnows" suggests the word "vidnova" which in Ruthenian (a dead Slavic language) means renewal or renewing, a key theme in the book. And one last thing: blackseer also calls to mind the Black Sea next to which lies Crimea. This chapter (the Tavern of HCE, ch. 11) makes frequent reference to the Crimean War.

McLuhan/Wake Reading Group
January 2011

I got to participate in this wonderful group once more right before I moved from California to Texas. We covered pages 362-363 which contain a number of great lines (read more about this meeting here).
"a sixdigitarian legion on druid circle" (p. 362)

The group suggested this was referring to Stonehenge and again later on in this page, in a section that reads like a newspaper advertisement for a living space, we see:

"pair of chairs ... occasionally and alternatively used by husband when having writing to do in connection with equitable druids and friendly or other societies"

Sounds like its talking about Joyce himself as he writes and tunes into the spirits of ancient druid societies, it's also an early echo of the list of similar apartment advertisements that appear on pgs 543-545.

Trial run for FW Reading Group of Austin, inside my apartment
April 2012

My friend Joe and I, eager to start off a new Wake reading group, sparked things off in my apartment by randomly choosing a chapter to start with. We began with the penultimate chapter of the book, Chapter 16, starting on pg. 555 (and then Joe had a baby a month later and virtually disappeared from the Wake reading scene).

As this is the chapter where we see the sleeping family inside their house in the earliest morning hours, the motif "night by night" recurs in a few beautiful varieties throughout the next few pages.
"titranicht by tetranoxst" (p. 555)
I love this little phrase because it sums things up so well here. This whole page is so sleepy and foggy as the parents wake up to the sound of their child crying and then fall back asleep. In Latin, "tetricus" means gloomy, dark while "tetra-" means four and both "nicht" and "nox" mean night. This chapter is seemingly narrated by the four bedposts of the parents' bed, while the book itself is always represented as a cube or square plus the Wake is really a book of recurrent fours.

Finnegans Wake Reading Group of Austin
Sept 2012 - current

We've already finished a whole chapter and are getting deeper into a second one so I'm not going to pull up lines from each page we've read, especially when chapter 5 is so thoroughly loaded with great quotes. Instead, I'll handpick a few favorites.

"How to Pull a Good Horuscoup even when Oldsire is Dead to the World" (p. 105)

This comes from a long list of alternative names for the "untitled mamafesta" which is really the Wake itself. What I love about this line is how humorously and concisely it sums up the theme of renewal or reincarnation. To pull a good horoscope when old sire is dead to the world is to be born again and receive a new horoscope or birth sign as you're pulled out of mom's body. It's also a clear reference to one of the Wake's main influences, the Egyptian Book of the Dead with Osiris and his son Horus. Also note the appearance of HCE's initals in "Horuscoup even".

"You feeling like you was lost in the bush, boy? You says: It is a puling sample jungle of woods." (p. 112)

Much of this chapter is, in a way, teaching the reader how to approach the Wake and discussing the nature of this "chaosmos of Alle" (p. 118). This great quote is blatantly toying with the reader who by now must be feeling like they've gotten lost inside a wild jungle of words, lost in the bush. It is "a pure and simple jungle of words" but also "appalling" and "a pulling [of one's leg]" because it all feels like one big joke. (See this post for more discussion of this chapter.)

Moving on to the next chapter we've been reading, which starts with a massive catalogue of descriptions for HCE...

"like a heptagon crystal emprisoms trues and fauss for us" (p. 127)

You can unravel so much from this line. First, note the HCE initials present. Then, note the seven (hepta-) colors which would emit from a prism through which phosphorescence ("fauss for us") were aimed. Also, of course, true and false (fausse is French for false). I also sense "empires" and "falls" in there.

"between youlasses and yeladst glimse of Even" (p. 130)
Another little line with so much weight to it. Homer's Ulysses and Iliad appear, also lasses and lads, but for me I most prominently perceive "between Ulysses and ye last glimpse of heaven" which feels like Joyce in the process of writing the Wake, he's between Ulysses and his final work, the last glimpse of his heaven or Eden. Glossing "Even" as the Wake, I'd say it's because the book doesn't end, it's cyclical and circular, thus Even. (Also contained here is one of many references to the Irish songs of Thomas Moore, this one "Tho' the Last Glimpse of Erin with Sorrow I See" so Even is also Erin.)

Finnegans Wake in Santa Cruz
December 2012

Had lots of fun at this gathering which took place in an Irish pub in Santa Cruz. We went through pages 253-254, the latter of which contains one of my favorite lines in the book:

"for ancients link with presents as the human chain extends" (p. 254)
Here we have ALP and HCE linking ancient with present as the double-helix chain of DNA extends ever forward into the future. That's what I perceive to be the ultimate theme of the book, men and women, lads and lasses, coming together to continue the ever-renewing story of the human species.

This page also had the clearest and most shocking example of how the Wake contains everyone's name inside of it. Noted Wakean Marshall McLuhan appears as:

"Meereschal MacMuhun"


  1. Translations of merely conventional writing often provoke criticism as poor work.
    Has anyone judged the Chinese translation of FW, and by what criteria?

  2. I think you meant to comment on the "Billboards in China" post...

    Since it's pretty new, I haven't seen any criticism as to the quality of the Chinese translation of the Wake, but you'd have to imagine it's got plenty of inaccuracies.

    I can't even imagine how the Wake would be translated into any language. Nevertheless, it's a good sign for the world when more and more people are interested in reading the Wake in any language.