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. (Source)
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 obliquely 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:
Shem is as short for Shemus as Jem is joky for Jacob. A few toughnecks are still getatable who pretend that aboriginally he was of respectable stemming (he was an outlex between the lines of Ragonar Blaubarb and Horrild Hairwire and an inlaw to Capt. the Hon. and Rev. Mr Bbyrdwood de Trop Blogg was among his most distant connections) but every honest to goodness man in the land of the space of today knows that his back life will not stand being written about in black and white. Putting truth and untruth together a shot may be made at what this hybrid actually was like to look at. (FW p. 169)
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.