"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.
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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.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.
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.
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.