Saturday, May 13, 2017

Interview: Bruce Woodside Talks Finnegans Wake Reading Groups, Animation, and the New Edition of 'Waywords & Meansigns'

Waywords art by Sara Jewell.

[Bruce Woodside is an animator/writer/musician out of Los Angeles, California. Beyond his career contributing to such notable films as 'Space Jam,' 'Beauty and the Beast,' and 'Ghostbusters,' Bruce has been an avid student of 'Finnegans Wake' for many years. He's participated in numerous Wake reading groups, regularly shares insightful commentary in the FWread study group, and most recently contributed a recording of HCE's monologue from pages 540-550 to the newest edition of 'Waywords & Meansigns.'  What follows is a recent chat we had about his background with Joyce, his creative career, the new recording, and some his favorite parts of Finnegans Wake. Enjoy. - PQ]


PQ: I’m always interested to hear readers’ background with the Wake, so tell me a bit about your first encounter with Finnegans Wake.

BW: My introduction to the Wake came as a result of becoming fascinated with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when I was fourteen. That book shaped my imagination in a way and at a time in my life when I desperately needed it, although I didn’t fully understand its impact on me until much later. My small town Ohio background and upbringing were completely different from Joyce’s, and much of the political and religious context of the novel went right over my head, but the book struck a chord. For better (and worse), it altered my life. In pursuit of gaining a better understanding of it, I picked up a copy of Anthony Burgess’s ReJoyce, and his brief guided tour through the entirety of Joyce’s body of work was actually my first encounter with the Wake. Based on his description, I ordered the hardbound Viking edition and have been turning its pages and wading through its waters ever since.

I saw on your Waywords & Meansigns bio you’ve participated in some Finnegans Wake reading groups. Which ones have you partaken in? What were they like? Ever been to the Finnegans Wake/Marshall McLuhan reading group in Venice?

My first experience with a reading group was an off-and-on flirtation with a group of academics in Boulder, Colorado, who decided to stage a live reading of the Wake for the public on Joyce’s birthday, sometime in the early 70’s. It was the first time I’d ever heard anyone reading it out loud, and the concluding soliloquy, in particular, performed by a woman with the loveliest melancholy Irish brogue, was extraordinarily powerful.

After moving to Los Angeles, I began to haunt the bookstore at UCLA (where they were selling things like Glasheen’s Third Census and the Classical Lexicon before McHugh became available) and discovered that there was a regular group meeting on campus, working its way through the book at a pace of a few pages each month. This included occasional visits from scholars like Margot Norris and Vincent Cheng. And there was Guinness involved. Everybody had their own copies of the book with tiny little notes and annotations scrawled in the margins and scribbled between lines, a practice I never adopted. I attended as often as I could, until family and career intervened.

In the 90’s, I heard about Gerry Fialka’s McLuhan/Wake group that gathered on a monthly basis at the Venice library, and sat in on a few sessions, but distance and my work schedule precluded regular attendance – and the Internet became a primary location for the gathering of the Wake clans. I was an early participant in the FWRead online group, and have continued to contribute when I can. Retirement from the movie business and a renewed interest in McLuhan’s media theories have lured me back to Gerry’s group (after twenty years) which now meets on the first Tuesday of each month in Marina del Rey. We’re up to page 518.

Do you have a favorite chapter/section/passage/sentence in Finnegans Wake?

My favorite chapters are ALP (chapter 8) and the introduction (chapter 1), which I have literally read countless times, as opposed to, say, chapter 14 (Jaun’s sermon), which I’ve probably only read completely through twice. Not my favorite.

Chapter 1 is terrific – how anyone could read that chapter and not be drawn into the rest of the book is a mystery to me. I mean, I get it: this novel is probably the most deliberately obscure and difficult work of literature ever committed to paper, and reading it is an act of faith – in Joyce’s skill, in his commitment to the truth of immediate experience (even the experience of being immobilized in sleep), and in his ability to control his technique and not drive it over the cliff into total incomprehensibility. Boredom and/or anger are two fairly common responses (is it a put-on? can any novel be worth so much effort?), but for me, an almost ecstatic vision of ordinary everyday human experience can also be evoked, and that has made it an essential part of my reading over the better part of a lifetime. Oh, and I think it’s fun. And funny.

How did you decide upon your selection for Waywords & Meansigns? Tell me about the experience you had creating the recording.

I was a little late to the party, and the section (“Haveth Childers Everywhere”, pp. 540-550) was unclaimed. I would have preferred to take it right to the end of the chapter, but the remainder was already spoken for. Still, I think it’s a coherent piece, given over for the most part to a single voice: after pages and pages of Yawn dodging questions from the Four, misunderstanding and misinterpreting the nature of the ritual inquest, darting in and out of various channeled personalities in a tortured séance, he finally sheds his confusion of disguises and emerges as HCE, pretty clearly making the case, as no one else can, that he isn’t such a bad guy after all. Except that he is, of course, and can’t quite conceal in his peroration the nature of the crimes to which the city of Dublin and his river/wife bear witness. The city itself becomes both a testament to his accomplishments and evidence of his inevitable defeat. To me, despite the increasingly meaningless intrusions of the Four (who I decided to treat as radio static), it feels triumphant: the hero reclaims his title, despite all the usual reservations. “Book to besure,” he concludes [FW p. 550].

Anyway, that was the emotional throughline I decided to take with it. I’m fairly certain it could be interpreted in a variety of other ways, but that was the one that made sense to me, even when I couldn’t figure out exactly what he was saying. The reading came first; the music was designed to underscore the places in the text where I perceived emotional transitions taking place, e.g., from Humphrey’s initial lyrical boasts into the depressingly repetitive passages describing the “respectable” citizens of Dublin who have benefited from his city-building efforts.

The experience was rather like doing a deep reading of any page of the Wake: what starts out as a bizarre and confusing collage of barely recognizable English, smudged with overlays of other sounds, other senses, dimly connected by obscure distortions of dissolved grammar, eventually emerges into a foreground of tentative understanding – not a final identification but something closer to a kind of dark energy, an indicator of the invisible engine of an unconscious mind. The wonder of it, for me, is that real characters emerge out of that darkness, with real relationships, even though their outlines are blurred and they are in a near-constant state of transformation.

Your reading has the same lilt and tone as Joyce’s recording of Anna Livia Plurabelle---was this style intentional?

I read somewhere once that the Wake is best read out loud with a kind of “stage Irish” accent, this rough approximation of which was the best I could manage. I have listened to Joyce’s recording of ALP many times, and I did take my cue from what clearly seems to me to be a performance of the piece rather than a straightforward reading – it’s his notion of what Dublin washerwomen sound like, and he should know. I, on the other hand, am probably doing something closer to a parody of an Irish accent, but I have no way of judging it. An actual Irish speaker will probably wince.

I understand you’re an illustrator who’s done work for Disney and Warner Bros.---can you tell me a bit about your job and how you got into it?

I spent nearly forty years in the entertainment business as an animator, traveling a career arc that took me from a lightbox on which I drew cartoons with a pencil on sheets of punched paper all the way up to a digital screen on which I helped design always-on persistent virtual reality worlds in 3D that could be entered via an Internet portal. In between those two poles, I worked a variety of jobs as the nature of the business slowly (and then all at once) shifted from analog to digital technologies.

I started out in Denver, Colorado, after graduating in 1971 with a degree in English Lit., hoping to write and direct live action films, but my entrance into the field came by way of cartoons, after which I decided that drawing films as opposed to shooting them on location was a more pleasurable (and less strenuous) way of earning a living. I relocated to Los Angeles in the late 70’s, moving from commercials to feature projects. The advance of computer technology was a huge disruption for many people in the cartoon business, but somehow I managed to transition during the 90’s from animation into storyboards and, eventually, direction in the new CG environment, which included working for Disney Imagineering on their VR projects. And then, right out the door into retirement, although I still animate for my own pleasure and for distribution on the Internet (and even occasionally do so with a pencil on paper.)

Has your Joyce fanhood ever factored into your creative career at all?

On the whole and in a word, no. When I first began writing (poetry, novellas, eventually unproduced screenplays) Joyce was, of course, an inspiration; but attempting to model one’s writing on Joyce in any way can be an enormously exhausting and eventually dispiriting endeavor. Had I single-mindedly pursued a career in writing, I might have worked my way through the difficulty and found my own voice, but Joyce’s writing sets a very high bar, and unfortunately it isn’t a bar that is of much value in what passes for a lot of writing in the medium of film.

While I find Joyce’s writing to be a model of scrupulous clarity, it is precision acquired at a cost. It takes real discipline (and time) to remove all the extraneous material and arrive at a linguistic approximation of the truth, without offering your reader the helping hand of explanation or the familiar scaffolding of a neat three-act structure. Hollywood in general is a land of lazy readers, of fifteen-second plot synopses and elevator pitches. The image is king, language its court jester.

I’ve always thought the only way to really film FW would be in that kind of quasi-animated Waking Life/A Scanner Darkly style. Have you ever contemplated that kind of endeavor?

I don’t think Finnegans Wake needs to be a film (I think the Wake has probably achieved its ideal form as a book), but that won’t stop people from trying to turn it into one, including yours truly who has for years nursed the dream of animating to Joyce’s reading of ALP. Animation (though not necessarily the rotoscoping of Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly) seems the correct medium for the continual watery transformations a Wakean film demands, and I think some animated efforts have gotten close (Adam Harvey’s version of Chapter 7, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uWSdxwXufsA, strikes me as one of the best to date), but most (like Mary Ellen Bute’s Passages) are still too solid and well-defined to render the slippery and playful quality of the fluid dream. Joyce solved the problem by inventing a new language that only just barely resembles the old one, but translating it into some visual counterpart tends to nail down the meanings to a limiting singular point of view. Taking a cue from the Waywords project, it might work best as an anthology, soliciting a variety of stylistic takes from individual directors. Amazon? Netflix? Are you listening?

Lastly, what other authors and books do you love besides Joyce and Finnegans Wake?

When I was a kid growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, my imagination was nurtured by comic books, movies, cartoons, science fiction, TV shows – the entire junk floodtide of popular media that saturated the consumer landscape pre-Internet. Hence: my career. So my tastes are all over the place, but there are other authors who from time to time have managed to seize my attention: William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Hart Crane come to mind, as well as Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, H.G Wells, William Faulkner, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon – and one minor little shout-out here to the once-famous, now forgotten fantasy writer James Branch Cabell, whose elegant mock-romantic prose in Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice, was the subject of an obscenity trial in this country several years in advance of the battle over Joyce’s Ulysses.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Guest Post: Scott Rhodes on the Making of "Vicocyclometer" (for Waywords & Meansigns, 3rd Edition)


[The newest edition of Waywords & Meansigns was made available today, featuring over 100 new recordings from artists hailing from 15 different countries. Here in Austin, a small team of Wake-heads from the Finnegans Wake Reading Group of Austin assembled to make weird music out of a three-page section in Book IV, page 613-615. You can hear our recording here, just scroll to the bottom of the page. We dubbed our project "Vicocyclometer." Scott Rhodes, who produced our unique mix, provided some very thoughtful background on the essence of our recording. So, for the first ever guest post at this blog, here is Scott on the making of "Vicocyclometer."--PQ]


Obviously our "Vicocyclometer" is not a scholar’s work, such as proceeding merely by taking cues from a conservative reading of the text and setting them to sound. We were more artistically playful, call it the way of the amateur: made with love. The process was actually quite similar to any given session of our local reading group. Our method of tackling Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has been to pay close attention to annotations and commentaries on each passage, sentence and word—and even syllable —but in the end we return to our imagination, a mode of reading we feel Joyce himself would approve. The text should be intimately meaningful to the reader, demanding a personal investment for its completion. Of course that's a dangerous tightrope to walk, as Nietzsche said "who has not been sick to death of everything subjective and its accursed ipsissimosity" (self-referencing). Taking a hint from the old adage: an artist’s goal is to make you an artist… there is an art to it.

Joycean themes are immediately recognizable in the piece: thunder, sounds of water, multiplicity of languages as well as the great leaps in geography and epochs. Other Joycean inspired ideas are not so apparent. A good example is a personal choice I made involving a rather tenuous bit of ethnomusicological speculation of mine about traditional Pontic music. When Peter proposed building the piece around Middle Eastern music I knew right away I wanted to use this particular folk music of northern Turkey— for a couple of reasons.

The main instrument in Pontic Music is the Kemençe, which is a kind of dulcimer that is bowed. Typically the melody is quite intricate and repetitious, similar to the stylings of the Irish fiddle. When I first heard Pontic music I immediately heard a similarity to Irish music, though I doubt there is any comparative legitimacy. Still, I knew that Northern Turkey had in fact been colonized by Gaelic people in the Hellenistic period (hence Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians) but over a period of centuries they slowly had been subject to various wars and defeats (hence the famous ancient sculpture "Dying Gaul") but eventually the Gaelic people and language assimilated into the people and languages of the region.

So the idea was not absurd but more importantly Pontic Greek folk music conveyed precisely what this given passage of Finnegans Wake is about— cultural displacement and assimilation. In this given passage we are reading of Roman Christians supplanting Irish Druidism, but in antiquity we have Romans supplanting the Gauls of Asia Minor. The sounds and voices of old Pontic recordings in my collection were suitably Joycean with those nostalgic, mournful moods, the Kemençe and tearful stories all telling of yet another culture's violation: the early Twentieth century displacement of Pontic Greeks and Armenians.

Of course this very kind of violence is another constant in Finnegans Wake. Wars and battles from across the globe and throughout time are constantly visited upon the reader, sometimes as a glimpse, sometimes a whispering hint, other times in pages of immersion. In fact the book would be a grim experience were it not for Joyce’s overriding principle epitomized by his employment of the literary pun. Like a pun, meaning itself cycles through time, and the pun succinctly instantiates that we hold two opposing thoughts at once—something Aristotle thought impossible, though Blake might differ: “Excessive sorrow laughs. Excessive joy weeps.” As does Joyce who is committed that not just linguistic or personal meaning exceeds in irony, but ontology itself is superabundant, history too, excessive. If oppositions are subject to time (perhaps even essential), even the most grievous occasions of genocide and, if you will, epistemicide, will all eventually surrender to their temporality and, in Joyce’s Viconian, Nietzschean and Möbius mind, find their way to their beginning season. It’s Joyce’s eternal return.

So a lot of thought went into our little "Vicocyclometer" and lots more could be said but I leave with this quote as an elucidation on the final quiet moment of our little musical mashup.

Since these choruses come so late in the season, it seems almost as though song might stay the passage of time. At this point, one succumbs to the illusion that this shrilling chorus has been heard before, in another time and another place, a time of commencement and a place of chilling water. And then the sound and the picture fall into place. The shrilling of the tree crickets is a sonic déjà vu, a déjà entendu, of the chorusing spring peepers in the swamps and bogs. The two choruses are remarkably similar, not only in fancy but in sound and pitch and rhythm. The resemblance brings the listener to a rude realization of the passage of time. Only yesterday it was spring. Today it is fall. The year is ending on the same note on which it began. 
(Vincent G. Dethier; Crickets and Katydids, Concerts and Solos.)