Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Book Review (PART 2 of 4): Joyce's Book of the Dark by John Bishop

"In fact, under the closed eyes of the inspectors the traits featuring the chiaroscuro coalesce, their contrarieties eliminated, in one stable somebody" 
- Finnegans Wake, pg. 107

As one progresses along through Joyce’s Book of the Dark, the analysis grows deeper and more thorough (as well as dense and slightly more difficult to read) while the rewards of Bishop’s deep investigations become more exciting. At the heart of the text lies the chapter entitled “Meoptics,” the second-longest chapter in the book, in which Bishop comprehensively discusses the visual aspect of Finnegans Wake. Of course, since it’s a book of the dark in which we share in the experience of a main character who is asleep, the chapter begins by driving home the point that there is rarely anything actually visible in the Wake except pitch-black darkness, hence the hundreds upon hundreds of references to darkness, blackness, and every other kind of murkiness all throughout “the lingerous longerous book of the dark” (FW p. 251).

Occasionally, though, visual dreams do occur inside the head of our dreaming hero. “And Dub did glow that night” (FW p. 329). But if the phenomenon of vision entails light bouncing off of objects and then reflecting back to the retina, we are led to wonder how anyone can have visual dreams with their eyes shut. Thus begins a highly fascinating inquiry by Bishop into the optics of one who has their eyes closed. The word “meoptics” (FW p. 139) suggests “my optics” and “myopia” or nearsightedness and Bishop discovers that our sleeper’s eyes are awakened by phosphorescent (“fusefiressence” FW p. 378) flashes on the insides of his eyelids which remain closed in “blepharospasmockical suppressions” (FW p. 515, Greek blepharon means “eyelid”), and “his eyelids are painted” (FW p. 248) with “his own length of rainbow” (FW p. 79) which seems to emanate from inside the body.

In a dark room with eyes closed, the eyeballs are suddenly somehow lit up to form visual dreams which the eyes view across the inside surface of the eyelids like a movie screen. Bishop elaborates: “because the shimmer falling over all surfaces of the world perceived in dreams is created out of the eye’s flesh and cast forth in a semblance of the real, HCE’s ‘eyebulbs’ (FW p. 531) might be understood to create light---‘fleshed light’ (FW p. 222)---like ‘glowworms,’ ‘fireflies,’ ‘lightning bugs,’ and other forms of life that radiate out of living tissue.” As his own flesh flashes forth florescent streams of light, the sleeper confuses them for meteors or “falling angles” (FW p. 21) or lightning bolts or “starshootings” (FW p. 22) and his “gropesarching eyes” (FW p. 167), groping and searching, try to capture these elusive glowing flickers.

Continuing his inquiry into the visual dreams taking place inside the Wake, Bishop engages in one of his rare discussions of the secondary characters in the book, the children Shem, Shaun and Issy. Alluding to the chapters of the Wake known as “The First and Second Watches of Shaun” (the first 2 chapters of Book III), he notes how “the dreamed image of Shaun” lights up the sleeper’s eyes and becomes visible---“now, fix on the little fellow in my eye” (FW p. 486). Known as “Shaun the Postman” he also carries letters and thus literacy and daytime reality, signaling the awakening of the dreamer’s ego. He is associated with space, visible space, and his “spatiality” (FW p. 172) is to bring forth forms of visible space to be “seene” ([scene] FW p. 52). Bishop also notes that Shaun is “as much a figure through whom we see things as a figure whom we see” which is why extended portions of the Wake are actually narrated by Shaun. This all makes sense when you consider the location of the Shaun chapters toward the end of the book when the night is reaching its conclusion and the sleeper will soon wake up to daylight.

With this perspective of the Shaun character in mind, Bishop also sheds new light on the chapter known as “The Mime of Mick, Nick, and the Maggies” (Book II Chapter 1). What seems to be going on in this chapter, according to most Wake commentaries, is a children’s game in which Shem and Shaun have to try to guess the color of Issy’s underwear, leading to a conflict between the two brothers. The chapter is in the form of a stage play, a pantomime filled with rainbows and references to the word heliotrope (which literally means "moving toward the sun"). For Bishop, the entire thing plays out inside the body of the sleeper and he explains the frequent references to heliotrope as having to do with the movement of the “unknown sunseeker” (FW p. 110), the sleeping body of HCE, floating “toward sunrise, resurrection, and the wakened discovery of sunlit vision" as nighttime progresses toward morning.

In this chapter-long vignette, Shem and Shaun take on the roles of Mick and Nick or the Archangel Michael and Old Nick (nickname for Lucifer/Satan), representing the powers of Light and Darkness battling it out inside the eyes of the sleeper. Associated with visual space and daytime reality, the Shaun/Mick figure attempts to awaken the dreamer to light (Joyce sometimes spells Shaun as “showm” or “shone”) and recapture his grasp on reality. Shem/Nick is the force of darkness or deep sleep trying to subdue the dreamer back into blacked-out sleep and the unconscious realm with its “shameful” repressed material. Bishop sees this as the struggle “which structures any dream, during which a variable force impinging on the ‘tropped head’---pain, desire, a sensory disturbance---seeks to return the ego toward wakefulness… while a concurrently acting counterforce [which Freud calls] ‘the universal, invariably present and unchanging wish to sleep,’ dissolves all such ‘upsits’ ([upsets] FW p. 127).”

As for the mysterious Issy character, always one of the toughest elements of the Wake to pin down, Bishop sees her as the ideal beauty who “drifts through the Wake in the guises of so many female models, movie stars, actresses” always inviting the envious eyes of the sleeper inside of whose eyelids her apparition floats like a “skysign of soft advertisement” (FW p. 4). Appearing surrounded by “rainbow girls” she seems to be the sleeper’s associative interpretation of bright rainbow phosphenes ("truetoflesh colours" FW p. 481) flashing on the retina causing HCE’s “Envyeyes” (FW p. 235) to try “to catch… by the calour of brideness” (FW p. 223) these tenuous clouds. Symbolizing two aspects of HCE himself, Shem and Shaun tussle with each other as the “shameful” devilish Shem tries to guess the color of Issy’s drawers while the watchful eye of Shaun steps in to censor him and send him back down into the dark unconscious. Complicated as this "rainborne pamtomomiom" ([rainbow pantomime/pandemonium] FW p. 285) all may sound, for Bishop this entire entanglement embodies the situation inside the closed eyes of the Wake’s sleeping hero.


Of course, there is so much more to his interpretation than my cursory summary suggests, and the visible colors/rainbow theme of Finnegans Wake is one that’s rich enough to write an entire book about. Joyce, who suffered from countless eye diseases and endured about a dozen ghastly eye surgeries during his writing career, was keenly interested in the mechanics of vision and explicitly attested to the Wake’s elaborate “theory of colours” in letters to friends. Bishop’s “Meoptics” chapter unpacks a wealth of information about the color spectrum and Helmholtzian optics found to be present in the “acheseyeld” ([exiled] FW p. 148) Irishman’s magnum opus. Bishop even uncovers a mass network of blinking/eyelid references within this book of forty winks, leading to an examination of “those lashbetasselled lids” (FW p. 474) which, he explains, developed on the bodies of animals living outside of water so they could refresh their eyes with saltwater or “meye eyesalt” (FW p. 484). I assure you, Bishop goes much further in his attempt to “define the hydraulics of common salt” (FW p. 256) in the Wake’s sleeping hero but we’ve covered enough about the eyes, let’s move on to the ears, which any reader of the Wake knows are the most important. “Ear! Ear! Not ay! Eye! Eye! For I’m at the heart of it” (FW p. 409).

*   *   *

“In sleep our senses are dormant, except the sense of hearing, which is always awake, since you can’t close your ears. So any sound that comes to our ears during sleep is turned into a dream.” – James Joyce

Brancusi's portrait of Joyce (1929)
When commissioned to create a portrait of Joyce in 1929 to be included with the publication of a section from the as-yet-unfinished Wake, Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi came up with a disarmingly simple illustration featuring a large spiral. This symbol could be representative of many things (and indeed spirals are ubiquitous in Finnegans Wake) but I prefer to picture it as a symbol for the ear. The auditory realm is vast in its scope, allowing one to hear all around them, but the wide world of sounds swirls its way into the inner ear like water whirlpooling down a drain.

In his study of the Wake’s auditory dynamics (the chapter entitled “Earwickerwork”), Bishop maintains that the “sound sense” (FW p. 109) of Joyce’s book is its most crucial component. He mentions fellow Joyce scholar Adaline Glasheen’s suggestion that a  reader should try to count how many times the word “ear” appears in the text as well as other auditory words like “hear” and “listen” and “sound.” With the help of the online search engine FWEET (Finnegans Wake Extensible Elucidation Treasury), I found those words appear almost 300 times in the 628 page book and that’s not counting the words like “Bullsear!” (FW p. 9) and foreign words such as the ubiquitous “oreilles” (“ears” in French) and other ear ciphers.

The ears of the sleeping body at the center of Finnegans Wake never fall asleep, thus the hero’s central nickname “Earwicker” which derives from the Anglo-Saxon Euerwaar or “Ever-Waker” and designates a watchman.  All of the sounds in his surroundings leak into his head as “Acoustic Disturbance” (FW p. 71) and find their way into his dreams. These sounds include his own body’s snoring, the beating of his heart, the grumbling of his stomach (“all the vitalmines is beginning to sozzle and chew and the hormonies to clingleclangle” FW p. 456), farts, grinding teeth, and perhaps sleepily mumbling to himself “imeffible tries at speech unasyllabled” (FW p. 183). Outside sounds like cars, trains, singing birds, and even a rooster crowing “Cocorico!” (FW p. 584) proliferate towards the end of the book when morning approaches, confirming (according to Bishop) the work’s overall chronological structure of one single night experienced by “one stable somebody” (FW p. 107) as opposed to the “universal dream of some disembodied global everyman as some Wake critics have attested.”

Indeed, Bishop’s textual analysis diverts sharply from the general consensus of Wakean criticism at times but he always backs up his imaginative arguments thoroughly and convincingly. This was particularly the case with his piecing apart of the pages which open Book II, chapter 3 of the Wake. This is perhaps the most difficult and dense chapter in Finnegans Wake, but the opening seems to be describing a very complex and powerful radio, “as modern as tomorrow afternoon… equipped with supershielded umbrella antennas” (FW p. 309) inside Earwicker’s pub. At least that’s how it had always been interpreted. I had always loved this image since it was one of the many examples in the Wake of technology that hadn’t been invented yet. Bishop sees things differently though, and the results of his detective work appear to be impeccable.


He begins his virtuoso exegesis of the radio passage by emphasizing the most worthwhile approach to interpreting the Wake: “rather than reading it linearly and literally, we interpret it as we might interpret a dream, by eliciting from the absurd murk a network of overlapping and associatively interpenetrating structures.” Digging into the murk of this ostensibly electronic passage he uncovers that “this harmonic condenser enginium” (FW p. 310) not only conceals the appearance of the sleeping body of HCE at all times but specifically alludes to his head (“enginium” = Latin ingenium or “mental power”) described as having “a howdrocephalous enlargement” (FW p. 310) (Greek kephale means “head” and the medical term hydrocephalus means “water on the brain”). Concurrently, he finds embedded throughout the passage all the anatomical parts of the ear, leaving the Wake reader agape for not realizing all along that what we are dealing with here is just a very dense and radio-analogy-filled description of “the lubberendth of his otological life.” (FW p. 310)


Alongside a diagram of the inner ear, Bishop includes all of the ear anatomy terms like “hummer, enville, and cstorrap” ([hammer, anvil, and stirrup] FW p. 310), “routs of Corthy” ([rods of Corti] FW p. 310), and “tympan” ([tympanum] FW p. 310) which are found to be lurking all over this Wake passage we once thought was describing a radio device. This leads him to declare that “Earwicker, as a recurrent ‘character’ in the Wake, is constituted essentially of two vast, vigilant, and radarlike ears with a large and hydrocephalus head wedged vacantly somewhere in between.”


HCE’s “pricking up ears… picking up airs from th’other over th’ether” (FW p. 452) don’t simply perceive sound, though, they also interpret as they listen, for even while asleep his mind can’t help but activate its predisposition for making what Bishop calls “audiophonic associations” no matter how absurd they may be. As Bishop explains, “Like all of his body, HCE’s ears are humanly made and organized, wired by parents and the authority of literacy.” So the sounds that his “vast, vigilant, radarlike ears” absorb then enter into a massive knotted web of phonetics (what the Wake calls “funantics” FW p. 450), a matrix of words and language which reach back through connections and meanings beyond HCE’s conscious mind, recalling again the aforementioned etymological archaeology of Vico. For Bishop concludes his line of thought thusly:
If a reading of [Vico’s] The New Science shows HCE lying at the evolved end of a diachronic language whose roots lie unrecapturably buried in the unconsciousness of prehistory, immersion in the Wake’s ‘funantics’ complementarily shows Earwicker lying at the center of an immense phonological tangle whose totality is language as a synchronic structure.
Concluding his study of the Wake’s “otological life” (FW p. 310) and “funantics” (FW p. 450), Bishop more or less advises the reader who wishes to engage this notoriously difficult and “superliterate” text to become like HCE and merely listen, letting the breeze of mixed sounds wash over you, drawing up sparks of association, memory, emotion here and there inside one’s radiohead. As hard as this may be, the Wake reader must try to give up the natural inclination to make rational sense out of everything and “abandon the monied and privileged reflex of literacy in order to attain to ‘dummyship’ and become as good an illiterate as HCE.” Or as Finnegans Wake itself states: “What can’t be coded can be decorded if an ear aye seize what no eye ere grieved for.” (FW p. 482)

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