Saturday, October 10, 2020

"the mystery of himsel in furniture" FW 184.10

"Was that voice ourselves? Scraps, orts, and fragments, are we, also, that?"
- Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts 

One relatively simple line from Finnegans Wake has been kicking around in my head for a while now. I say relatively simple because by Wakean standards, the language in this phrase is pretty straightforward. Yet, I've been stuck trying to unpack its meaning for a long time. 

The phrase comes at the end of one of the most famous sections of Finnegans Wake, the listicle paragraph describing, in outlandishly catalogued detail, the interior of Shem the Penman's "Haunted Inkbottle" house on pgs 182-184. You can listen to Robert Anton Wilson reciting this passage with dramatic effect here:


There are so many brilliant and hilarious phrases for the things in Shem's house like "solid objects cast at goblins, once current puns, quashed quotatoes, messes of mottage ...  tress clippings from right, lift, and cintrum, worms of snot, toothsome pickings" etc but what I've been thinking about is the final phrase of the paragraph where Shem is described as "writing the mystery of himsel in furniture." (FW 184.10)

"writing the mystery of himsel in furniture"

The two things that stand out to me are the bizarre quirk of the word "himsel" missing the letter f at the end of it and the use of the word "furniture" here. I kept wondering why furniture? And why not spell out the word "himself"? The Wake is made up entirely of little mysteries like these but this one so intrigued me because the phrase seems so close to being undistorted English in a paragraph that mostly uses recognizable words.  

For context, the phrase appears at the end of a long paragraph and as the final clause in a very long sentence. It's in the Shem the Penman chapter, ostensibly narrated by his very hostile twin brother Shaun the Postman. Shaun the Postman begins the paragraph by describing Shem's house how a postman might describe a really disgusting, dilapidated hoarder house on his mail route:
The house O'Shea or O'Shame, Quivapieno known as the 
Haunted Inkbottle, no number Brimstone Walk, Asia in Ireland, 
as it was infested with the raps, with his penname SHUT sepia- 
scraped on the doorplate and a blind of black sailcloth over its 
wan phwinshogue, in which the soulcontracted son of the secret 
cell groped through life at the expense of the taxpayers ...  (FW 182)

Shem the Penman really represents James Joyce himself, portrayed as a cartoonishly absurd and self-mocking caricature living inside a Haunted Inkbottle. (Joyce used lines from negative reviews for Ulysses as raw material for this chapter.) I love that description of "a blind of black sailcloth over its wan phwinshogue" which sounds like there is a black curtain covering the house's one window but is also alluding to the black eyepatch Joyce wore over his damaged blind eye. 

Following this we get a close look at the inside of the house through a comically long catalogue of items. The sentence begins, "The warped flooring of the lair and soundconducting walls thereof, to say nothing of the uprights and imposts, were persianly literatured with ..." and then it goes on for an entire page, leading into the next page where the same sentence continues mocking Shem and his abode. Shaun says we might actually be able to catch a glimpse of Shem surrounded by all that junk in his house, "self exiled in upon his ego, a nightlong a shaking betwixtween white or reddr hawrors, noondayterrorised to skin and bone by an ineluctable phantom (may the Shaper have mercery on him!) writing the mystery of himsel in furniture." (FW p. 184.6-10)

So, why "furniture" here? Well, the most obvious answer is that we've just gotten this ridiculous description of a house and all the junk that its floors and walls were "persianly literatured with" which immediately connects all of the furnished objects in the listicle with literature. Since this passage is in fact Joyce describing his self-caricature Shem, the furniture filling up his Haunted Inkbottle house could be the literary matter Joyce collects and assembles in his books. He was "writing the mystery of himsel in furniture" because Joyce reveals mysteries about himself in the descriptions of all that junk furnishing Shem's house. 

Furthermore, since Shem is "noondayterrorised to skin and bone by an ineluctable phantom" he's perhaps terrified of death, the inescapable phantom or "Shaper" he asks for mercy from. He's terrorized "to skin and bone" nearly scared to death. Part of why this line has been in my head recently is because during this dark season of death while so many have perished from coronavirus or complications therefrom, I've thought about the furniture that is left over when a dead person departs. All the things that person has accumulated throughout their life, from their desks and bookshelves and picture frames to their little scraps or fragments, all of that stuff is the detritus of a soul. With more than 200,000 people in my country having perished from this virus, their loved ones prevented from being in close proximity in their dying moments, so many families are left with the furniture of the deceased. These physical leftovers are the shells of their life. 

I think what Joyce is getting at with "the mystery of himsel in furniture" is that the mystery of a person's true self or their soul can be searched for in the scraps or fragments or shells that are leftover after the person departs. Just think about a house occupied by someone with all their belongings. When that person dies and disappears, their physical belongings remain. All the things they loved or relied on, all the things that were important or meaningful for them remain. If you really wanted to understand that person or get to know them after they left you might try to uncover that mystery through the things that person kept nearby. 

Mysteries and worlds contained within everyday objects is a theme throughout Joyce's work. Recall the line from the "Oxen of the Sun" episode in Ulysses, "Any object, intensely regarded, may be a gate of access to the incorruptible eon of the gods." Part of the debate about Shakespeare in the "Scylla and Charybdis" episode dwells on the Bard having left his "secondbest" bed to his wife after he died and what that bequeathed piece of furniture may have implied. In the "Ithaca" chapter, after Joyce lists out all of the furniture in the living room of 7 Eccles Street, Bloom considers the significance invested in two chairs: "Significances of similitude, of posture, of symbolism, of circumstantial evidence, of testimonial supermanence." It's that "testimonial supermanence" that is most relevant to why Joyce might suggest the mystery of a self can be uncovered in furniture. The permanence of furniture outlasts the person and could provide a tribute to who they were.
Now, what about the quirk of that word "himsel"? Why did Joyce have to truncate that word? Maybe he left out that final letter just to annoy the reader or just to be weird or maybe because the letter f is already nearby in the word "furniture." The word "self" appears several times in and around the passage we're looking at: on p. 182.19 "endlessly inartistic portraits of himself" and on p. 183.03 "exceeding in violent abuse of self and others" and on p. 184.06 "self exiled in upon his ego" and 184.11 "our low hero was a self valeter." So then why "himsel" rather than himself? 

I think I've figured out the answer but my reasoning is subjective and convoluted so I'll need you to follow me on this. That word "himsel" refers to Hansel from the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale. I will explain why, but first I should mention Joyce puns on Hansel and Gretel multiple times in the Wake (see p. 551.09 and p. 618.02). And I feel like the presence of Hansel in "himsel" on page 184 is verified in the passage immediately following "himsel in furniture" where we get a detailed description of Shem's alchemical oven ("an athanor") and of course the oven is a major part of the Hansel and Gretel story. 

Moreover, "the mystery of himsel in furniture" could be alluding to the bread crumbs left over by Hansel to create a path to follow home. The mystery of the self to whom all that furniture belongs could be unraveled by following the breadcrumbs of their belongings, and again I'll remind you that in this passage Shem's house is said to be "persianly literatured" with all these objects so literature and furniture might be seen as synonymous here. 

Other lines from the Wake feed into my theory. This line on page 68 offers an interesting hint: "The column of lumps lends the pattrin of the leaves behind us." In the word "pattrin" Joyce is punning on the Gypsy word "patrin" which (according to Fweet) refers to "a Gipsy trail, handfuls of leaves or grass cast by the Gypsies on the road to denote to those behind the way which they have taken." This is exactly like the breadcrumbs left behind by Hansel, only it's more mysterious because it involves Gypsies using leaves for a traveler to follow. Think of how leaves can be the pages of a book. Of course, it's also a pun on pattern, we are looking for patterns to follow. In the very next sentence on page 68 is the phrase "life, limb, and chattels" where chattel is furniture or personal possessions. This hearkens back to Shem on page 184 terrorized "to skin and bone" and writing his mystery in furniture.

That word "chattel" appears again at the bottom of page 598 in a sentence describing the archetypal family of HCE and ALP living over millions of years through their offspring with reference to all the belongings of their descendants including "their orts and their everythings that is be will was theirs." (FW p. 599.01) That word "orts" is important here, orts are scraps or leftover pieces of food, like breadcrumbs. The word "orts" pops up on page 69 in "your horde of orts and oriorts" where it is combined with Armenian words that mean young men and young girls, again following the theme of passing things down to descendants. And on page 67, again in the context of a passage talking about the perpetual upswell of future generations inheriting the leftovers of the past, we get the phrase "orses and hashes" which refers to lots things but I think "orts" are echoed in there.

I bring all of that up to reinforce the possibility that "the mystery of himsel in furniture" involves seeking out the stories of the past by following the breadcrumbs left behind. Joyce scatters tons of clues all throughout the book and the reader is encouraged to play the role of detective, picking up little bits of evidence, putting it all together and trying to form a story. An important metaphor in Finnegans Wake is the dump or trash heap. The hoarder's nest in Shem's house is part of a broader pattern. The book itself is a sort of trash heap of cultures, languages, histories, random scraps of information, stories from Joyce's life, etc. For the reader sifting through it all, even with just a few pieces you can start trying to make sense of it. You can identify and follow patterns or patrins. 

While I wouldn't suggest "the mystery of himsel in furniture" has now been solved, I think we have at least identified some intriguing evidence, some meaningful scraps. I think that's why in the closing lines of the book we read "The keys to. Given!" (FW p. 628) The keys to unlocking the mysteries of the Wake are scattered all throughout the book. We're told this at the very end because it pushes us to cycle back to the first page and start digging in all over again. The search never ends.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Video: Anthony Burgess - "Lots of Fun at Finnegans Wake" (1973)

In this extraordinary video, Anthony Burgess walks us through the basic plot points and features of Finnegans Wake while hanging out inside a pub. He even sings the Ballad of Persse O'Reilly. Check it out.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Video: Binaries & Bibliomancy: Finnegans Wake as the Western I-Ching

(contributed for Maybe Day 2020

This essay was originally presented at the 2019 James Joyce Symposium in Mexico City and earlier this week I recorded it as a video for the virtual Maybe Day celebration on July 23rd celebrating the work of Robert Anton Wilson. "Binaries & Bibliomancy" essentially builds upon the theories presented in Wilson's great book Coincidance where he outlines an isomorphic relationship (in mathematics, systems that are parallel in form) between the I-Ching and Finnegans Wake. In my piece I talk about the machinery of these two distinctly different classics, how both books are built as thinking machines, always up-to-date, always encouraging open readings. The Wake advertises itself as a book of "Opendoor Ospices" (FW p. 71) allowing for open-door readings and "Ospices" or auspices, consulting for prophecy much like the I-Ching. As Finn Fordham described it in his book Lots of Fun at Finnegans Wake, "Through its continuously self-generating transformation, it is a text of modulation and becoming, flux and flow, an alternative classic of change to the I Ching."

Robert Anton Wilson Day was officially declared to be July 23rd by the mayor of Santa Cruz, California. John Higgs wrote a great article in The Guardian years back describing what RAW Day is all about. I enjoy the Santa Cruz connection with RAW because our Austin Finnegans Wake Reading Group has a lot of Santa Cruz links. We've had multiple longtime members from Santa Cruz who became good buddies of mine, the host of the Finnegans Wake Reading Group in Santa Cruz is also an old pal of mine, I got to visit up there and attend their Wake groups multiple times. Robert Anton Wilson also had a Finnegans Wake reading group in Santa Cruz for many years. Last time I was there I got to hear stories from folks who knew RAW and also knew Norman O. Brown, the legendary UC Santa Cruz professor, scholar, and theatrical Wakean.

I want to thank Bobby Campbell ( for putting together the amazing virtual tribute to RAW with contributions from a talented group of RAW readers. There's some incredible visuals, writings, comics, and videos over at the 2020 celebration of Happy Maybe Day. I also got to participate in a live panel with the contributors that was a really inspiring and informative time, really enjoyed it and grateful to be a part of this event.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

16 June 1904 and the Letter in Finnegans Wake

James Joyce and Nora Barnacle in 1929.

It cannot be overstated how important Nora Barnacle Joyce was to the career and life of her loving companion James Joyce. The annual Joycean holiday Bloomsday celebrates Joyce's most famous book, Ulysses, which entirely takes place on June 16th, 1904, immortalizing the day on which they went out for their first date. That wasn't his only dedication to her, though. Nora was the muse that inspired Joyce's entire artistic approach, as he wrote to her in a letter from September 1909:

Guide me, my saint, my angel. Lead me forward. Everything that is noble and exalted and deep and true and moving in what I write comes, I believe, from you. O take me into your soul of souls and then I will become indeed the poet of my race. I feel this, Nora, as I write it.
(p. 169, Selected Joyce Letters, ed. Richard Ellmann, underline in original)

This year as Bloomsday approached, I went back to Brenda Maddox's excellent biography of Nora to read the chapter about the summer of 1904 when Joyce and Nora Barnacle first met. Nora had grown up in Galway before moving to Dublin where she landed a job working as a chambermaid and barmaid at Finn's Hotel on Nassau Street. It was in front of Finn's Hotel where James Joyce was walking by on June 10th, 1904 when he encountered Nora for the first time. It was love at first sight (although Joyce had poor eyesight even then at age 22). He approached her and asked for a date the following week. As Maddox writes in Nora, "In Dublin, far more than in Galway, Nora was vulnerable to unwanted male attentions... Wariness of the male was Nora's strategy for survival. When a well-mannered, well-spoken, amusing and unthreatening young man stepped into her path one day in Dublin, therefore, Nora was quite happy to accept his invitation to meet him one evening. But she did not appear." (p. 40)

They had set a date for June 14th, 1904 but Nora stood him up, likely because she couldn't get off her shift at Finn's Hotel in time. Joyce wrote to her in dismay and reading his letter it's funny to contemplate how close this historic couple came to never linking up in the first place:

15 June 1904 
I may be blind. I looked for a long time at a head of reddish-brown hair and decided it was not yours. I went home quite dejected. I would like to make an appointment but it might not suit you. I hope you will be kind enough to make one with me---if you have not forgotten me!  
James A. Joyce

Although June 16th is supposed to be the day they did finally get together and change the course of history, Brenda Maddox notes that there actually is no clear evidence in their letters that June 16th was the exact date. The main piece of evidence is that Ulysses takes place on that day. When Herbert Gorman was composing his authorized biography of Joyce in the 1930s he submitted a questionnaire to Joyce and received responses in the handwriting of Nora. He'd gotten answers to every question except one:

Q: Why did you pitch on June 16, 1904 for Bloomsday? Was it the day you met Nora? 
A: Reply later. 
(p. 41, Nora)

Gorman never did get a response about this and it was never confirmed during Joyce's life, probably because it was "too personal and too shocking," as Maddox surmises. If you are here reading this blog, I will take it for granted that you understand why that might be the case and what supposedly occurred between James and Nora on June 16th, 1904.

Moving on... in our Finnegans Wake reading group we recently read page 66 where there is a passage about the mysterious letter that keeps popping up all throughout the Wake, and that sparked a discussion about the postal service. Joyce in Finnegans Wake is frequently preoccupied with the postal service and on p. 66 in writing about the delivery of the letter he describes a postal service that sounds sorta like Fedex except there's a hidden meaning in its acronym: "Federals' Uniteds' Transports' Unions' for Exultations' of Triumphants' Ecstasies." The acronym here spells out FUTUE TE which would be the vulgar Latin curse word futue te meaning "fuck you" or "you all fuck." This comes at the tail end of a passage about how people all over the world and all throughout history getting together and having sex is how the species ensures its future (note the root for the word "future" is contained in futue te). If you parse that sentence, a rare Wake line with normal words, you can identify how it is a sophisticated and clinical way of describing people fucking. The first word federal, for instance, originally referred to a covenant and contains the root word for "faith" so this is all part of a faithful covenant, i.e. marriage. Faithful couples uniting in covenant for exultant triumphant ecstasies has allowed for the continuation of the species through time, that's basically what it says.

Immediately after that, Finnegans Wake asks "Will it ever be next morning the postal unionist's (officially called carrier's, Letters Scotch, Limited) strange fate... to hand in a huge chain envelope ...?" The letter and the postal service can be seen to symbolically connote the continuation of the species, hence why the parcel is called "a huge chain envelope." Elsewhere in the Wake we read how "ancients link with presents as the human chain extends" (p. 254) and later on "Since ancient was our living is in possible to be. Delivered as." (p. 614) The "huge chain envelope" to be delivered might be viewed as the DNA chain of humanity through generations, the links in the chain are formed by couples fucking.

The mysterious letter in the book has many different associations: on one level it represents the book itself; on another level it factors into whatever narrative can be said to exist in the Wake since it appears at the end of the book as being written by the wife Anna Livia in defense of her besieged husband Earwicker; on another level it embodies the dream itself and the sleeper's attempt to carry the dream information across the threshold of sleep so he can remember it in the morning, as John Bishop has argued; and one might also see it the way Eric McLuhan did when he suggested the letter is actually a red herring.

Going back to Nora and the summer of 1904 for a moment, though, it appears there might be something more personal to the Wake's obsession with mailing letters. Brenda Maddox writes:
The swift progress of their love affair depended on a superb postal system. There were five deliveries a day, with the first collection at quarter-past one in the morning. Joyce, who liked to write in the small hours of the morning, took full advantage of the service. After he came in from seeing Nora, he would stay up writing long, painful, self-revealing letters ('It is only fair that you should know my mind on most things') and took them to the box, confident that she would get them in the morning. Both of them relied on letters posted before lunch to make or cancel a date that same evening... (p. 46, Nora)

With all of that, it seems there's some good evidence to suggest that the letter in Finnegans Wake may actually be a love letter. That brings us to what I feel is one of the most brilliant studies of Joyce ever written, Benjamin Boysen's book The Ethics of Love: An essay on James Joyce (published in 2013 by University Press of Southern Denmark). In this large and ambitious book, Boysen examines all of Joyce's works (including Chamber Music and Exiles) and argues convincingly that the main theme throughout all of them is Love. Boysen's book has a large section devoted to Finnegans Wake that is especially filled with original insights that I have not seen other Joyceans touch upon. Most relevant to our current consideration is his discussion of the letter.

Boysen calls our attention to a passage that starts on p. 420 of the Wake which describes some of the notable characteristics of the letter. Beyond the familiar qualities that it was written by Shem the Penman and carried by Shaun the Postman, the passage provides a long, cryptic and comical list of the letter's many misadventures in postal conveyance. Here is a list of some examples (with page and line numbers and my clarifying notes in brackets):

- "Initialled. Gee. Gone." p. 420.19 [Initials are gone.]
- "Tried Apposite House." p. 420.21 [Try opposite house.]
- "Nave unlodgeable." p. 420.23 [Name illegible.]
- "Noon sick parson." p. 420.24 [No such person.]
- "No such no." p. 420.25 [No such number.]
- "Opened by Miss Take." p. 420.26 [Opened by mistake.]
- "None so strait." p. 420.28 [No such street.]
- "Wrongly spilled." p. 420.33 [Wrongly spelled.]
- "At sea. D.E.D. Place scent on." p. 420.30 [At sea. Dead. Please send on.]
- "Kainly forewarred." p. 421.05 [Kindly forward.]
- "Overwayed. Understrumped. Back to the P.O." p. 421.07 [Overweight, understamped. Send back to post office.]

Within this catalogue of characteristics, Boysen notices the presence of Leopold Bloom---on p. 420.22 you find the initials "L.B." and p. 420.33 mentions "Return to City Arms" which would be City Arms Hotel in Dublin where Ulysses describes the Blooms as having once lived---and then he also points out the presence of Joyce's loving companion Nora in the phrase "Loved noa's dress." That would be "left no address" but it's also saying "I loved Nora's dress." He further observes the presence of Finn's Hotel, the place where Nora worked when Joyce first met her, in this passage: "Finn's Hot." (p. 420.25) (It's worth mentioning that, according to some sources, Joyce's original planned title for Finnegans Wake was actually Finn's Hotel.) Boysen calls our attention to another appearance of Finn's Hotel later on in the Yawn chapter (III.3) where Yawn is asked for the name and address---"name or Redress" (p. 514.17)---of the Wake's subject and his cryptic response is ".i..'. .o..l." (p. 514.18) We can't be certain but it is very likely the answer there is "Finn's Hotel." If that is indeed the case, Boysen concludes:
it means that all empty spaces, the uncertainties, the indeterminacies, and the obscurities of the book as such are meant to be interpolated by the singular event of James Joyce's coup de foudre [love at first sight, in French literally "stroke of lightning"] when meeting real love for the first time. What I suggest is nothing less than that Joyce's encounter with Nora---as commemorated in Ulysses by choosing 16 June 1904 (the date where Joyce had his first rendezvous with Nora) as the principal day---is similarly pointed out as a fateful event or Hintertext informing Finnegans Wake. (p. 351, The Ethics of Love)

To suggest June 16th, 1904 is a major event at the heart of not only Ulysses but also Finnegans Wake is a groundbreaking assertion for Joyceans and the literary world as a whole, as there's no literary event quite like Bloomsday. Boysen bolsters his theory by informing us that the passage on p. 420-421 which lists out all the addresses of the letter (which, as I mentioned, can be seen as a stand-in for the book itself) in fact lists out the addresses where James Joyce lived in Dublin in the years prior to his life-altering encounter with Nora in 1904.

I won't list them all out here, you can find a list of them at Fweet here, but Boysen makes it abundantly clear that the passage contains not only the names of the Dublin districts where pre-June-1904 Joyce lived but also many of the specific addresses (Fweet lists nine of them). On top of that, all of these addresses where Joyce lived before he met Nora are mutated in the language of the Wake to carry dark, depressing connotations. Quoting from Boysen once again:

As "Destined Tears" (FW p. 421.10), these early addresses (French destinataires) embody tearful destinies, which nonetheless did not come true on account of the amorous meeting. In other words, the letter comes to represent the author's metaphysical love-letter to existence, to love, and to himself as a young man not yet transformed by the amorous event. The letter is the mature author's gift to himself as a young man untouched by the amorous transubstantiation, testifying to Walt Whitman's lesson that "love is to the lover, and comes back most to him, / The gift is to the giver, and comes back most to him - it cannot fail" ('A Song of the Rolling Earth' 2, vv. 15-16). As it says in Issy's love-letter, the letter gives testimony on behalf of "my old evernew" (FW p. 460.36) self, which is transformed and ever renewed by the gift of love and existence. (p. 352, The Ethics of Love)

Elsewhere in his book, Boysen writes: "In sum, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are to be perceived as great love letters expressing an existential gift to history and humankind." (p. 348) We can now be sure that the historically famous day of June 16th, 1904 is a pivotal day not only for Ulysses but also for Finnegans Wake. Nora Joyce herself, speaking to Joyce's friends after her husband had died, in response to their questions about the great author of Ulysses, responded, "What's all this talk about Ulysses? Finnegans Wake is the important book." While there's no doubt that Ulysses deserves to be celebrated, maybe it's about time we heed Nora's words and start giving some more attention to Joyce's grandest epic, Finnegans Wake, when we celebrate James Joyce every year on June 16th.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Latest Examples of Reading the News inside Finnegans Wake

"News, news, all the news." - FW p. 28.21

"old the news of the great big world" - FW p. 194.23-24

Ever since the coronavirus shut everything down, our local Finnegans Wake Reading Group transferred to online conferences and since the reading group is one of the most fun and fulfilling things going on for many of us right now, we shifted our twice-monthly meetings to now meet every week. The online venue allows us to branch out and bring in people who are outside of Austin, so now we regularly have people joining us from California, Ohio, and even Taiwan. It's been extremely satisfying having these weekly gatherings and doing digital group excavations of pages from Finnegans Wake.

One aspect of being involved in a regular Wake reading group that always intrigues me is how, without any intention on our part, we always manage to encounter material on the page we're reading that seems to speak directly to what is happening in the news that day. I've written about this phenomenon before (most notably when the Wake seemed to offer commentary on our Trump predicament), it is a quality about Finnegans Wake that has interested me for a long time, ever since the first time I attended a Wake reading group many years ago in Venice, California where the guy sitting next to me made a bunch of notes about contemporary references on the page we were reading. The upcoming Super Bowl, Bush and Cheney, oil wars in the Middle East, it was all there on the page. My mind was blown.

Oddly, these synchronicities never stop popping up. Like I said, these connections happen when you aren't looking for them. Finnegans Wake simply cannot help itself, it always has something to say about the news. I want to give you three examples from the last few weeks of our reading group to show you what I mean.

- Usually we read one page per meeting, but when we were on page 66 we found it to be so dense and overflowing with allusions and references and topics for discussion that we split that one page into three separate sessions. So in our last session we read the final paragraph which begins with "The coffin, a triumph of the illusionist's art..." and so on. We spent about two hours unpacking just that one paragraph and what we took from it, if I remember correctly, was that the paragraph was saying even though somebody was in a coffin it was an illusion in the sense that their legacy was only just beginning, their legacy would go on to have a life of its own, giving birth to new cycles of life (through their memory, through their children and their descendants, etc) even while their body was left to decay, consumed by subterranean creatures and reduced to ashes. This is an important theme throughout James Joyce's work, that absence can be the greatest form of presence, that the dead take on a more powerful life after death. Of course, it so happened that the day we read this passage was the day of George Floyd's memorial service where he was mourned as he lay inside a golden coffin. And George Floyd, in death, has now become an incredibly powerful figure, a name known across the world, the impact of his tragic killing has sparked an enormous uprising intent on societal change. I think of Floyd's sweet little daughter sitting atop the shoulders of Floyd's friend Stephen Jackson and proclaiming "Daddy changed the world!"

- The following week we were reading page 67 which features a special constable or policeman taking the stand in a trial and giving an eyewitness account of some occurrence in the book. At one point while the policeman is speaking, Joyce uses the phrase "he guntinued." The presence of this constable character opened up a whole discussion about police and the history of policing, which apparently originated from British colonialism and the need to keep colonial subjects in line. Of course, this discussion about the police and their history sprung up amid the backdrop of heated debates going on in the United States about the need to reform our police system. In a bizarre coincidence, the passage on 67 with the policeman features the phrase "You are deepknee in error, sir" which we couldn't help but connect with the horrific image of the policeman Derek Chauvin putting his knee on George Floyd's neck for nearly ten minutes until he died.
(I should also mention that this same passage with the policeman and subtle appearances of police violence featured the word "tailliur" which conjures up Breonna Taylor, the young black woman who was killed while sleeping in her home in Louisville, Kentucky.)

- The most recent one really struck me as being uncanny. While we were reading page 68 we stopped at this sentence and chewed on it for a while: "Nor needs none shaft ne stele from Phenicia or Little Asia to obelise on the spout, neither pobalclock neither folksstone, nor sunkenness in Tomar's Wood to bewray how erpressgangs score off the rued." It is a very dense and difficult sentence to unpack, but there are some good clues in there. That word "stele" refers to a type of ancient monument, a stone slab with inscriptions. You've got an obelisk, another monument, in there. The portmanteau word "pobalclock" combines two Irish words which basically translate to "folk stone" and there is "folksstone" following right after "pobalclock." Fweet mentioned that there is a stone pillar monument in the town of Folkestone in England marking the spot where Saxon invaders landed on the shores. You see where this is going? The sentence essentially says we don't need monuments to mark where the invaders landed, we don't need to recognize those "erpressgangs"---a word combining the German erpressen meaning "to blackmail or extort" and also press-gangs which were groups that kidnapped men and forced them to enlist in the military. All of this stuff rung an uncanny echo with the ongoing debates in the United States about removing statues and monuments that commemorate Confederate generals or slave owners or other historical figures known for their roles in perpetuating America's history of bigotry and racial oppression. Page 68 is very rich and fascinating, there's a lot to it, but for me it was pretty mind-blowing to come upon this sentence about statues and monuments and how we don't need them if they're commemorating invaders and oppressors in the midst of what is happening in America right now. Finnegans Wake never disappoints.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Renowned Educator and Finnegans Wake Scholar John Bishop Has Died

The retired Berkeley professor and legendary James Joyce scholar who wrote Joyce's Book of the Dark, John Bishop, passed away on Friday May 15th, 2020 after suffering complications due to Covid-19. He had been fighting through health maladies the last several years. Read his obituary here.

It is safe to say John Bishop's book Joyce's Book of the Dark made a huge impact on me. I owned the book for many years before I committed to reading all of it, but it always inspired me. My initial discovery of the book was right around the time I fell in love with Finnegans Wake around 2009 when I was living in San Diego, unemployed for months at a time, living in tiny apartments, spending days reading at the beach, nights reading at the library. I used to make the long drive up to LA to attend a Finnegans Wake reading group in Venice and drive home the same night. It was right around that time when I first started writing a blog. In fact, part of my inspiration to write a blog stemmed from my feeling that there was such a book as Joyce's Book of the Dark by John Bishop out there in the world and hardly anybody on the internet was talking about it. I write for people like me who are searching for discussions about this exact thing. The name of this blog "Finnegans, Wake!" and that little quote "you have nothing to lose but your chains" that sits atop this blog, that all came from John Bishop's book.

By the time I finally got around to dedicating myself to reading Joyce's Book of the Dark back in 2012 (the same year I started this blog), the book struck me so much that I then spent a full year slowly re-reading the whole thing, taking copious notes and trying to comprehend it all. It's a huge book, peppered with various diagrams and word-trees, and stuffed with footnotes that are as rich and informative as the text itself. Bishop builds up his Wake theories so thoroughly that his book is easy to get lost in. I think it's tough to make an argument against Joyce's Book of the Dark being the greatest book ever written about Finnegans Wake. That book alone, I would hazard to surmise, has launched many academic and literary careers. The sharpest and most ardent Finnegans Wake readers across the globe hold Bishop's book in the highest regard. It helped open up the text of the Wake for all of us to read our own theories into it, while expounding thoroughly on Bishop's own profound and fascinating interpretation of the book.

After studying Bishop's great book I wrote a 4-part review attempting to summarize some of its most eye-opening aspects in my view. That review consumed an immense amount of time and energy, it was not an easy thing to write but I felt a need to do so and the final result became one of the things I feel most proud to have written.

Here are the links to my review of John Bishop's masterpiece Joyce's Book of the Dark:

                       Part 1
                                                 Part 2
                                                                            Part 3
                                                                                                      Part 4

At the bottom of Part 4 there I shared some links to more material from John Bishop including an old lecture he gave on the Prankquean section of the Wake, a rich and enlightening interview with Bishop conducted by my friend Gerry Fialka (wherein Bishop reflects on FW p. 287: "If we could each always do all we ever did"), and the full recording of a literature course taught by Bishop at UC-Berkeley in 2008.

At some point after I began writing about the works of James Joyce, partly inspired by John Bishop, I started writing papers to deliver at academic conferences focused on Joyce studies. Though I have now been to a handful of conferences around the world and met many accomplished and inspiring Joyceans, I never did get to meet John Bishop. But I did get to see him. The first time I attended a Joyce conference was back in 2011 at Caltech in Pasadena, CA. Sadly, Bishop had recently suffered a stroke so he was unable to attend. His friends among the professors there channeled him in via Skype though, to have a Finnegans Wake reading group one afternoon during the conference. He was confined to a wheelchair, his physical faculties had taken a hit but his mind remained sharp. Years later when I was at a Joyce conference in Toronto in 2017, once again the professors channeled in their friend John Bishop via video conferencing. This time he delivered a paper on a panel about magic in Finnegans Wake (where there was also a great paper about the Wake as grimoire).

By that time I had already written the big review of Bishop's book, I was a huge fan of his (I had also been contacted by some of Bishop's caretakers who mentioned he had read and loved the review I wrote) so I sat there listening to him on a live-feed expound off the top his head all about one little line in the Wake ("Poor little brittle magic nation" spoken on FW p. 565 by a mother who comforts her child after he awoke from a nightmare, telling him it's only his imagination) and I tried to take as thorough notes as I possibly could, practically jotting down every word the man said. This is because, while there are many great exegetes of Joyce out there, no other has ever struck me to the degree Bishop has. And this would likely be my last chance to hear him share fresh insights about Joyce and Finnegans Wake. That short talk he gave totally blew me away. I think about it often. I wrote a summary of what he said at the end of this recap of the Toronto Joyce conference.

Afterwards I sought out Bishop's friends, the professors who had arranged his talk. I told them I was someone with an immense appreciation for Bishop's work and let them know that, last I'd heard (in the interview Bishop did in 2009 that you can listen to here) Bishop said he was finishing up a sequel to his Book of the Dark and also writing a book about what he had learned in his four decades studying Ulysses. I asked if they knew anything about those projects and implored them to ensure Bishop's notes for those projects are located and safeguarded. I maybe seemed a little crazy.

That was June of 2017. A year later at another conference, this time in Antwerp, Belgium, I got to have lunch with another great Joyce scholar whose work I admire, professor Vincent Cheng who wrote the powerful book Joyce, Race, and Empire. He also was a roommate with John Bishop when they were in grad school together. We talked for a long time, professor Cheng is a really nice guy, friendly and accommodating, he told me many stories. He mentioned how Bishop would stay up all night writing his thesis. That thesis is what became the book Joyce's Book of the Dark, but professor Cheng emphasized that the material in the book was only the first half of his thesis. There was a whole other part to it.

Here's hoping we haven't seen the last of John Bishop's unique angles of explicating the depths of Finnegans Wake. Regardless, the man leaves behind a legacy of having inspired and sparked the passionate interests of many readers around the world. I hear stories all the time about the Wake reading group he hosted in Berkeley. I can only hope to carry on the tradition of enjoying and celebrating Joyce's book of the dark and spreading the spark of inspiration and excitement for Joyce's work that Bishop provided.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

A Tribute to Austin Finnegans Wake Reading Group Member Richard Lee Price (1949-2020)

Memory is not an eye that returns to the past; it is rather the power that allows us to see what is, in its essence, outside of time .... 
- Ermilio Abreu Gomez 
(quoted by Richard Lee Price in his novel Troubadours: Love, Death, Rumba)

Do not go gentle into that good night,  
Old age should burn and rave at close of day; 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 
- Dylan Thomas

Yesterday I heard the news that a good friend who was part of our Austin Finnegans Wake reading group for years named Richard Lee Price (June 14, 1949 - April 7, 2020) had passed away. Richard was a truly beautiful soul, a poet, a musician, a songwriter, a scholar professor, a funny and witty chatterbox with a Bronx accent. I loved him and I feel crushed by the news of his loss. Since hearing about it, I have been overwhelmed by feelings of grief and anger that I will never get to see him again. I knew that he was battling an illness, he had been sick for a while but I was holding out hope, I felt sure he would get better and return to our group. I'm really going to miss him and I want to send my heartfelt condolences to his family and loved ones. (You can read an obituary for Richard Lee Price here.)

He was a really unique guy, a true character, lots of fun to be around. Because I grew up in New York City the son of an old school Brooklyn guy with a heavy accent and most of my father's friends and associates were old New York guys with heavy accents, Richard felt like a long lost relative or family friend. Richard grew up in the Bronx, lived in Brooklyn for years, went to school in Queens, he was a true New Yorker. Like my dad and his pals, he was talkative, a super witty and funny and occasionally over-the-top chatterbox. Unlike most of the people I grew up around though, he was an intellectual, a poet, an artist. His NYC street-tinged accent spitting out rants was not raging about petty bullshit, no, he was frequently carrying on about Greek philosophy and mythology, about Shakespeare, about Yeats, about jazz music, about the Bible or eastern religion. He was a passionate and proud Jewish man with a great sense of humor. He had been an English professor for forty years and then became an avid practitioner of Tai Chi and Chi Kung in his retirement, battling back ill health. He had a sage-like presence, a wisecracking old professor who walked around with a cane, but who was a master of the art of kung fu (no kidding). I really enjoyed being around him and I feel sad and angry that I didn't get to spend more time with him and that I can never see him again. What I do have are lots of memories of him that I will cherish.

I want to tell you a few stories about Richard Lee Price that may capture what kind of guy he was.

- First time I met Richard was at a Bloomsday event at Malvern Books in central Austin about five or six years ago. I read an essay about Ulysses from the podium and then this guy with a white beard, wearing a sideways beret, carrying a cane gets up to ask a question and goes on into a longwinded and passionate discussion about Homer's Odyssey and the Molly Bloom chapter in Ulysses and then asks me some super heavy question that I had to think about for a while before I could muster an answer. I don't remember what the question was now, but I remember later on all of us from the group were wondering who the hell was that guy? He and I connected and he soon started attending our meetings.

- Richard was a brilliant guy, he sparked so many ideas and perspectives for me in our discussions. I remember the first time we had a Finnegans Wake reading group hosted at the Irish Consulate, Richard went into detail on an interpretation of the I-Ching appearing on a page we read and what he said became part of my inspiration to write a paper on FW and I-Ching that I delivered in Mexico City last year. I recall many times when he'd point out something in the course of our reading groups, a unique interpretation of a line in Finnegans Wake that was just so perfect and enriching that I'd be pondering it for months and would always thank him. I still have ideas and notes for future pieces to write that sprang from talking with him. As a professor of literature and seasoned scholar he was a mentor figure for me but also a great buddy. I remember one time it must have been a rainy night or something and only he and I showed up to a reading group meeting we had at the Wheatsville food co-op in South Austin. So instead of doing the normal routine of studying a page from the book we just talked in great detail about Finnegans Wake in general, he wanted to hear my theories about it and then he went into long fascinating monologues about Dante and The Divine Comedy and Herman Melville and Moby-Dick. His mind was a treasure trove. Another great memory of him I have is one time at a reading group where Richard and I were discussing a subject related to Finnegans Wake and the next morning he left me a voicemail talking at length about an article he had read online about that same subject, an article he just loved and went on and on in great detail about and said he wanted to read it 10 more times. Then he left me another voicemail immediately afterward where he realized it was actually something I wrote on this blog and he said "in the parlance of my youth, you are one heavy dude, man." I still have these voicemails from him and I will cherish them. (Part of what I loved about Richard is he was genuinely interested in my writing and my ideas about Joyce, he would often read my work and give me really meaningful feedback. That piece he was talking about on the voicemail was one of my favorite pieces ever, called What is Finnegans Wake? A Simulacrum of the Globe (Part 2).)

- Richard was a scholar and a professor of literature for forty years. In our groups he would regularly go off into Greek philosophy and mythology, come back to Judaism and the Bible, veer into old New York City and the Bronx and jazz music, throw in some classic poetry and dirty jokes. He was known to break into song and he had a good voice. He had so many classic poems and amazing lines and lyrics memorized and he was eager to share them. For a while he had his own book group focused on Chaucer's book Troilus and Criseyde which he adored and often mentioned in our Wake discussions. This is the kind of thing that I wish I could hear him talk more about now. At one point some of our reading group members recorded a pilot episode for a podcast, the full recording is something like 4 or 5 hours and Richard is on there giving his typically wide-ranging and long-winded talks. I hope I can share some of that here soon.

- He was a very funny dude, kind of a goofball, always cracking jokes, being ridiculous and witty. One thing I remember that cracked me up was one night the reading group had a party and when Richard and his wife were getting ready to leave I was like "leaving already?" and he responded, "Peter I'm an old man! I gotta go home and have my milk and cookie and go to bed!"

- One of the last times I saw Richard was a Wake reading group night I will not soon forget. In the meeting prior to it, a young college student had attended the group for the first time and later while we all ate pizza afterward she had expressed some unkind opinions about Native Americans which Richard politely but firmly argued against and sorta shut down. The exchange was a little odd I guess but I didn't make much of it at the time. Then in the following reading group meeting a month later, the same young lady returned and brought her boyfriend along. He seemed sorta like a young conservative frat boy kinda dude but, as she boasted, "he knows everything" and he did indeed talk like he thought so. After our group meeting while we all ate pizza across the street again this guy and his girlfriend spouted some egregiously hateful and Islamophobic opinions and racist garbage interpretations of history and I got to witness the old professor, old school Bronx dude, and obligingly confrontational yet calm Tai Chi master Richard, sitting with both hands atop his cane, absolutely school those little fuckers in the most articulate and info-dense manner possible. This was all an intellectual debate, mind you, but it got pretty heated. The more heated it got, the more calm, articulate and piercingly funny Richard got. I think my feelings on the matter were apparent by my hysterically laughing at how badly Richard was schooling them in this heated argument. God, it was great. He had been slicing through that kinda bullshit from loud, know-it-all assholes for decades. What an inspiring guy he was.

May he rest in peace.