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

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.


1st Tuesday of each month at the Wheatsville Co-op in South Austin (location changes occasionally, contact me for details)

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

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.

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]

(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 (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.