Sunday, February 3, 2019

McLuhan's Jolting Thunders plus Links: the Real Prankquean, RadioMOLI, Joyceans in Mexico & more

Happy (belated) Birthday, James Joyce!

Recently I finished reading Eric McLuhan's extraordinary work of scholarship, The Role of Thunder in Finnegans Wake, after having thumbed through it for about five years. An extremely rich, thoroughly detailed, original and astute analysis, it's not always easy reading but its insights are manifold. It ranks up there with Joyce's Book of the Dark by John Bishop and Wake Rites by George Cinclair Gibson among the best analytical Wake studies I've ever read. Eric McLuhan, son of the famous Canadian media philosopher and Wakean Herbert Marshall McLuhan, takes his father's theory on the meaning of the Wake's ten thunderwords (1,001 letters in all) and explores it in thorough detail for the reader, breaking down the elements of each thunderword to their most discreet etymological units, examining the hundreds of polylingual resonances therein, proving how each successive thunderword piles on the themes of its predecessors and encapsulates the themes of the section of the text where it appears while also signaling a shift into a new technological age.

McLuhan's The Role of Thunder in FW opened up many portals for me. I'm sure you'll be seeing references to it pop up in my upcoming posts here and hopefully I can write a full review of my experience with the text sometime soon. For now, I just want to touch on one of the core aspects of McLuhan's study that left an impact on me and which resonates with the name I chose for this blog, "Finnegans, Wake!" McLuhan's book focuses on the Wake as being part of the tradition of Menippean satire, a form of Cynic parody which aims to jolt the reader into a renewed, heightened awareness of how their senses have been numbed, leading to a clarified perception. Finnegans Wake performs this action by putting daytime rational language to sleep, "otherwise the 'conscious levels' would obtrude upon or obliterate all the others." (McLuhan, p. 30) We are all somnambulantly wandering thru the conscious surface of our hyper-rational language, stuck in the world that cut-and-dry system of words and meanings creates for us. Joyce instead turns language into a wild circus, throwing every verbal trick imaginable into the mix and demanding that we not merely look at the words on the page but speak them aloud, awakening the auditory sense and adding new dimensions to our experience of words. Every part of the Wake is a pun, including the title. The name of the main character, Earwicker, carries many meanings, I often think of it as "ear-waker" awakening the ear. McLuhan points out that the German ihre Wecker means "alarm clock." The Wake's thunderwords contain its densest concentration of these forces.

The Wake enacts the aim of the ancient Cynic philosophers who sought to shake humans into an awareness of their dull adherence to systems of learning, leaving them stuck in a state of numbness. McLuhan points out:

The Cynics' constantly reiterated message stressed three things:
  • To the great and powerful, remember you're human.
  • To the proud, remember you're mortal.
  • To the rest, discard all your pretences and illusions.  (McLuhan, p. 7)

McLuhan also quotes Eugene Kirk who describes the core characteristics of Menippean satires, essentially describing the nature of Finnegans Wake:
"The chief mark of Menippean style was unconventional diction. Neologisms, portmanteau words, macaronics, preciosity, coarse vulgarity, catalogues, bombast, mixed languages, and protracted sentences were typical of the genre, sometimes appearing all together in the same work. In outward structure, Menippean satire was a medley---usually a medley of alternating prose and verse, sometimes a jumble of flagrantly digressive narrative, or again a potpourri of tales, songs, dialogues, orations, letters, lists, and other brief forms, mixed together." (McLuhan, p. 8) 
Key in all of this is the combination of low satire and highbrow learning, as McLuhan writes, "never so serious as when at riot of play, combining low sham with profound learning and the trite and trivial with the quadrivial. ... It can quickly be seen that every technique in the descriptive catalogue aims at the same jolt or sudden flash of awareness by irrationally flinging the reader from one situation or mental posture to another." (p. 8)

A main source of ridicule in all of this is the intellectual fraud, the theorizing intellectuals who think they've got it all figured out. This resonated with me as I've noticed more and more how irritated I am by the pedantry and pompousness of overly rational or scientific thinkers. As the Wake says, "Latin me that, my trinity scholard"! (FW p. 211) Finnegans Wake is kryptonite to people with that mindstate. Of course the western scientific tradition is immensely valuable, but to be so locked into that framework as to think the nature of reality consists of only what has been verified in peer-reviewed scientific research is, to me, a form of madness. McLuhan talks about the Menippean/Cynic approach as intending to wake the reader up using the Book of the Word in order to allow them to actually study the Book of the World. It can't all be explained away in theories and conclusions. McLuhan writes:

Menippean satirists simply deploy the one text, the written book, to cleanse the Augean stables of their readers' sensibilities, and then set the reader to work on the other text, the Book of the World: in all, an intensely grammatical enterprise, and no less so because they do it with language. Of these two books, one, the satire, is an entirely human production, while the other, the world, has been remade and re-uttered by man in and by his own speech and technologies and culture. Civilized man is so enveloped by his own artefacts and technological whims that he has forgotten himself, has lost the ability to perceive and read them as 'signatures' or signs, has become subject to them and spends his days ignorant that he lives in a wild fairyland of his own making. Restoring awareness is a Herculean labour. (p. 10-11, emphasis mine)
One last thing I want to mention here is McLuhan's discussion about the Letter at the center of the Wake as being a red herring. Joyce confounds and frustrates the reader looking for a literal meaning for the Letter and its importance, making us focus instead on the linguistic games used to obscure our pursuit of meaning.

Menippists often take a perverse delight in frustrating readers who try to educe 'right' meanings or coherent narratives from their work: techniques range from putting the preface late in the work, to jumbling the order of chapters or inserting blank pages as chapters... to instructing the reader to write the next few lines or paragraphs, etc. Joyce manages it in a more literary manner, by letting the very style of the Wake float a dozen levels of meaning simultaneously in every passage; so there is not one point of view at a time but many. Again, this ploy will keep the reader from becoming rigid, that is, from adopting a single fixed perspective on the text or the experience, and demands that the reader sustain sustain maximal flexibility of response...
'Our subject is not so much the letter's content, as how that content becomes obscured, and how we are urged to embark on what is tantamount to an archaeological investigation so as to piece its meaning together. This task is carefully made impossible by the Wake itself,' remarks Philip Herring (Joyce's Uncertainty Principle, 200). In true Menippean fashion, the fun and the play is the point, not the interpretation of the content; or rather the real meaning is the effect that the book has on the reader. (McLuhan, p. 301-302)
I'll spare you any more of my scattered responses to McLuhan's book for now. I was sad to learn that Eric McLuhan passed away last year on May 18, 2018 at the age of 76. Now I wish I'd have taken the opportunity to get in touch with the man to discuss his richly fascinating perspective on Finnegans Wake, Menippean satire, and technology when he was alive.

Check out the post "Remembering Eric McLuhan" over at the excellent "McLuhan Galaxy" blog to learn more about his life and career. Also go read this piece by Eric McLuhan's son Andrew in remembrance of his father.

You might also dig this this interesting piece by Robert Guffey in "Paranoia Magazine" that touches on McLuhan's theories on the thunders, Joyce's technological insights, and other adventures in thought.


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LINKS:


RadioMOLI is now live! 
The Museum of Literature Ireland (MOLI) has launched a 24/7 digital radio broadcast featuring discussions, interviews, radio plays, documentaries and more. Listen to it HERE. I have it on in the background right now, they are currently playing an audiobook version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The radio program launched last night for Joyce's birthday, kicking off with the famous recording of Joyce reciting the end of the Anna Livia Plurabelle episode and they even played a rendition of the "Ballad of Persee O'Reilly" from Finnegans Wake.


RTE "The History Show" discusses the legendary piratess Grace O'Malley
This RTE program featured a terrific segment on the history of the legendary pirate queen Grace O'Malley, the real life figure satirized in Joyce's fiery Prankquean character (discussed in my last post). Listen to the 27 January episode to hear the segment.


How Joyce gave Guinness a new slogan
Over at his always interesting "Swerve of Shore" blog Peter Chrisp details how Joyce provided Guinness beer with a new slogan in a passage from Finnegans Wake while touching on Joyce's penchant for devising new ideas for advertising.


Joyceans in Mexico City
The next James Joyce Symposium will take place this June in Mexico City. "Joyce Without Borders" is now accepting proposals for papers. I'm currently working on mine. The theme and location of this event promises something special. I've been to a few of these conferences now and they're like Disneyland for bibliophiles. Very much looking forward to it!


New online FW reading group "Blotty Words"
Carol Wade has been creating truly stunning paintings of pages from Finnegans Wake for a while now with her "Art of the Wake" project. Now she has launched an online FW reading group called "Blotty Words" which is being run thru this Facebook page.


Save Sweny's!
Sweny's Pharmacy, one of the locations featured in Ulysses (where Bloom buys Molly some lemon soap) is in trouble as the surrounding neighborhood has experienced extreme gentrification and rising rents. The rent for Sweny's, which has been in the same spot since the 1850s, doubled in the past year. A cultural landmark that features daily readings of Joyce and hosts Bloomsday celebrations every year, they are asking for support to help them stay open. You can go HERE to pledge as little as $1 per month thru Patreon to help this landmark of Joyceana stay alive.


Finnegans Wake-End, May 3rd-5th in Dublin
"Waywords & Meansigns" mastermind Derek Pyle and documentary filmmaker Gavan Kennedy will be participating in a weekend celebration hosted by the James Joyce Centre in Dublin in honor of the 80th anniversary of the publication of Finnegans Wake which was officially released to the world on May 4th, 1939. Read more about this event HERE.


Finnegans Wake at 80
Another big event scheduled to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Joyce's masterwork will be this three-day symposium at Trinity College in Dublin, scheduled for April 11-13. Lectures and panels will focus on encouraging "a synthesis of thematic and formal approaches to the Wake through genetic approaches, that is, to look at its stylistic and linguistic complexity through the prism of the notes and manuscripts on which it was written during the period 1922–1939." Read more about this symposium HERE.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Thunderword No. 2

(Perkodhuskurunbarggruauyagokgorlayorgromgremmitghundhurthrumathunaradidillifaititillibumullunukkunun!) 
- Finnegans Wake, p. 23

This, the second of ten 100-letter thunderwords scattered throughout Finnegans Wake (the tenth containing 101 letters, making 1001 in all), punctuates the climax of the explosive Prankquean fable (p. 21-23) and strikes resonant chords with many of its themes. As with everything in Finnegans Wake, thunderword no. 2 is so many things at once.

Our Wake reading group here in Austin recently made our way through the Prankquean episode and coincidentally, our friends in the Santa Cruz Finnegans Wake group also just finished reading about the Prankquean. Seana Graham wrote a nice blog post discussing their collective interpretations as well as the background of Grace O'Malley, the 16th century Irish pirate queen, a historic figure who became part of Irish folklore and who Joyce renders cartoonishly as the Prankquean. A provocative force who befuddles and terrifies the patriarchal Earl of Howth (called Jarl van Hoother in the Wake), the Prankquean represents feminine energy that forces change. Seana writes: "when I look at what is happening in our country, I see a similar principle at work."

A quick bit of background: the Prankquean episode is based on a story wherein the pirate queen Grace O'Malley showed up at the door of Howth Castle one night hoping for a place to spend the night. Established traditions were that the castle doors remain open during dinner time, yet the Earl of Howth defiantly shut the doors on O'Malley. At this blatant show of disrespect, O'Malley responded by kidnapping the heir of Howth. Instead of a ransom, she demanded the castle doors remain open for visitors. In the two-and-half page Finnegans Wake fairy tale version, the story is repeated three times with slight variations. In each instance, Jarl van Hoother is busying himself doing something creepy ("laying cold hands on himself" or "shaking warm hands with himself") when the Prankquean arrives at the doorstep and drops an unsolvable Zen koan of a riddle on van Hoother who promptly slams the door in her face, so she kidnaps and runs off with each one of twin children Tristopher and Hilary while Jarl van Hoother angrily hollers after her.

Joyce's fable of the Prankquean marks its three stages this way:

"And that was how the skirtmisshes began." (p. 21) 
"But that was how the skirtmishes endupped." (p. 22) 
"For one man in his armour was a fat match always for any girls under shurts." (p. 23)

In the third instance of the Prankquean's assault on the castle, Jarl van Hoother becomes so enraged that he dons an array of armor and his face turns every color of the rainbow in fury "like a rudd yellan gruebleen orangeman in his violet indigonation," but he was no match for the Prankquean. At first I thought the thunder clap was Jarl shutting the door loudly but "the duppy shot the shutter clup" contains the word "dup" which means "to open." That adds new meaning to the phrase "that was how the skirtmishes endupped"---the skirmish ended up with the door being kept open, as the Prankquean demanded. Similarly, after the thunder it says the Prankquean "made a sweet unclose."

Here is a video made by Wake performer extraordinaire Adam Harvey breaking down the sounds of this thunder:



The consonant-heavy thunderword comes as a fitting denouement to an episode marked by fiery storms, combustible anger, and ... bodily excretions. The ferocious Prankquean "lit up and fireland was ablaze" upon her initial arrival. When she departs, the skies rain down "falling angles" or "starshootings." Of course, her beguiling presence makes Jarl van Hoother erupt in volcanic anger and, as was hilariously discovered and discussed in our Wake group, loud explosive diarrhea.

Eric McLuhan's rich study The Role of Thunder in Finnegans Wake breaks down every syllable of each thunderword. In this one he finds a whole host of relevant themes and metaphors including: reference to the word "thunder" in over a dozen languages; lots of nautical terms in multiple languages (kicking off with "Perkod-" recalling Pequod, the ship in Moby-Dick) linking to the sea-faring piratess Prankquean; pairs of peas in a pod (recalling the Prankquean's repeated riddle, "Why am I alook alike two poss of porterpease?" [p. 22] a question for which there is "Noanswa!" [p. 23]); references to battles, enemies, cannon fire; clothing (recall van Hoother covers himself in layers of armor); charm and seduction (Prankquean is a kind of temptress, there are also words for "whore" contained in the thunder).

So, yes, this 100-letter word on one level represents the sound of thunder erupting, on intricate microcosmic levels it has a whole host of words in various tongues striking concordant notes with the episode's major themes, but it also quite simply enacts the onomatopoeic sounds of a loud, long fart. Or more likely a shart. I'm not kidding.

(Perkodhuskurunbarggruauyagokgorlayorgromgremmitghundhurthrumathunaradidillifaititillibumullunukkunun!) 
Finnegans Wake, p. 23
The thunderword is surrounded by indications that Jarl van Hoother is angrily sharting. It is perhaps an appropriate response to the Prankquean who, each time she arrives at the castle door, either defecates ("the prankquean pulled a rosy one" on p. 21, according to Fweet the slang "to pluck a rose" is when a woman defecates or urinates) or she urinates ("and she made her witter before the wicked" on p. 22---she made water). When she arrives a third time, van Hoother has "his hurricane hips up to his pantrybox, ruminating in his holdfour stomachs" (p. 22), clearly he's got an upset stomach. When he orders the castle door to be shut (each time he yells for the door to "Shut!" there's an echo of "Shit!"), it is said that "he ordurd"---there's the word "ordure" meaning excrement. 

Immediately following the reverberation of the thunderword, we are told, "And that was the first peace of illiterative porthery in all the flamend floody flatuous world." Can't help noticing the flaming, floody flatulence there, certainly offering hints that Jarl van Hoother let out a wet fart or a shart. The text also notes that "van Hoother was to git the wind up" which sounds like he farted. With all this in mind, we can't help now seeing words like "shutter" and "shurts" (p. 23) as indicative of van Hoother sharting on himself, angrily in his "violet indigonation."   

The more I read the Wake, the more I marvel at how Joyce blends together so much of the world's history and folklore, science and wisdom, seemingly every language known to man, and yet never does he cease to be silly and absolutely filthy. Yes, the Wake is in many ways a high-brow book, but it also has, on every page, the type of humor that would make schoolchildren laugh.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Links: Finnegan Wakes at Burning Man and the Birth of the Wake in South France


One of the highlights of the International James Joyce Symposium that took place in Antwerp a few months ago was the "Finnegan Wakes" recording project organized by Gavan Kennedy. This ambitious documentary production involves intrepid readers sitting in front of a camera with a musical selection of their choice playing in their ears while they recite a page of Finnegans Wake aloud. Gavan's project sprung up at Burning Man last year and now for this year's (currently ongoing) Burning Man event they will gather burners from all backgrounds to bring the Wake to life.

Gavan wrote a piece for the Burning Man Journal blog describing the project:
Finnegans Wake is a resurrection story: a man presumed dead, laid out at his own funeral (or ‘wake’), is brought to wakefulness by the noise of his mourners as they fight over his reputation. Each time the work is read and wrangled over, the same thing happens: it arises off the page. The performance of every Burner gives birth to new participatory art that wakes Finnegan-again.

This year's event notably features a lecture and a series of workshops given by Finn Fordham, one of the world's foremost scholars on Finnegans Wake. Finn authored the excellent book Lots of Fun at Finnegans Wake: Unraveling Universals and also edited and provided the introduction for the Oxford edition of the Wake. An expert on the genesis and development of Joyce's masterwork, Finn delivered a fascinating presentation in Antwerp on the late stages of the book's production and Joyce's response to the harrowing world events of the late 1930s, while essentially debunking the notion the Joyce had planned to write a subsequent novel, something simple about the sea (instead, as Fordham compellingly suggested, Joyce wanted to write something on the Greek revolution).

The lecture Finn is set to share at Burning Man sounds extremely fascinating from his preview provided in Gavan's article:

What can participating in the great text-machine of Finnegans Wake tell us about the theme of artificial intelligence and the human-machine interface? A great deal, it turns out, because Joyce imagined his work as a machine. 
In my talk I will explore this idea of a text as a machine — a machine of memory and of meaning, which seems to have a life and an intelligence of its own. Intelligence can be understood as a consequence of an evolved complex arrangement of matter. We tend to locate intelligence within the bounds of the human body, especially the brain, or mind. But this very intelligence also imagines itself elsewhere: in a thunderclap, a burning bush, a crowd, a termite colony, a computer, a corpse, and also a text — all can seem to have their own intelligence. Joyce was fully aware of such magical thinking.

Hopefully this lecture will be recorded and available online soon.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Baseball in Finnegans Wake?

George Herman Ruth pitching for the Red Sox, circa 1915.


"Holy cow!" 

- Phil Rizzuto

Being that Baseball and Finnegans Wake are two of my favorite things in the universe, naturally I've tried to seek out connections between the two from time to time. Years ago at my other blog I speculated on connections between Joyce and Baseball focusing specifically on Ulysses (which led to a mention on ESPN.com!), but lately I've been contemplating whether there are any significant connections between Finnegans Wake and Baseball. The Wake contains everything and Baseball was certainly very popular during the years (1923-1939) while Joyce was composing his all-encompassing book, therefore Baseball must be in the Wake someplace.

Finnegans Wake features dozens of very specific references to cricket, including many names of star players (see pgs. 583-584), there are also clusters of soccer and rugby references---but what about Baseball? Well, there is at least one verifiable (and very interesting) allusion to Baseball in the Wake and a few other more vague ones.

The most obvious Baseball allusions occur in chapter 5 amid the long, rambling, dream-distorted archeological inquiries into what exactly the text of Finnegans Wake actually is...or is not: "it is not a miseffectual whyacinthinous riot of blots and blurs and bars and balls and hoops and wriggles and juxtaposed jottings linked by spurts of speed: it only looks as like it as damn it." (p. 118) Similar to a Baseball diamond, the Wake is a square around whose four sections one advances until completing a full circle around the square (Joyce: "It's a wheel I tell the world. And it's all square"), ending and beginning again at "riverrun." I've mentioned before how the run in riverrun, the word the Wake starts and ends with, coincides with a run in baseball indicating a cyclical journey around the square completed by returning across home plate.

Here's the most obvious Baseball reference in the Wake, from page 119:

"...after a good ground kiss to Terracussa and for wars luck our leftoff's flung over our home homoplate, cling to it as with drowning hands, hoping against hope all the while that... things will begin to clear up a bit one way or another within the next quarrel of an hour..."
There's a lot of interesting stuff in this little cluster and it also opens the rest of the text up to other Baseball-related readings. It sounds like a left-handed pitcher kissing the ground for luck before flinging a baseball over home plate at someone trying to reach at the ball with their hands clinging to a bat, hoping to come out ahead in this quarrel. The word "homoplate" is a pun on home plate and omoplate, a Greek word from physiology that literally means "shoulder blade." That carries a little extra relevance for Baseball junkies since a pitcher's shoulder is such a regular part of Baseball talk these days with hurler's arms so often injured and surgically repaired. The phrase "a good ground kiss to Terracussa" could be a ground ball that kissed the earth (hit toward the shortstop perhaps? hence the SS in "Terracussa"?). A stat head like me can't help but notice the fascinating synchronicity in the way the Wake describes the efforts of Baseball players "for wars luck." The most authoritative advanced statistic measuring Baseball players is called WAR (or WARP, for Wins Above Replacement Player). A simple and cynical observation of Baseball would be that it's a battle between WAR and luck, i.e. established reliable statistics versus the dice-roll of luck inherent in each pitch. In Baseball, anything can happen.

"juxtaposed jottings linked by spurts of speed"...or a Baseball scorecard.


If we follow the Wake's advice to "Wipe your glosses with what you know" (p. 304) we can begin to read other appearances of Baseball in its pages. A couple lines after "our leftoff's flung over our home homoplate" the phrase "ten to one" could be giving the score of a ballgame. And the aforementioned "riot of blots and blurs and balls and hoops and wriggles and juxtaposed jottings" now sound like inscribings in a Baseball scorecard recording the outcomes of a ballgame. I envision the pitcher versus hitter duel being invoked in this line on the previous page: "the continually more and less intermisunderstanding minds of the anticollaborators." Prior to our lefty delivering the pitch across home plate, the pitcher and catcher are communicating in sign language, deceiving the opponent and deciding on the next pitch using "changeably meaning vocable scriptsigns." (p. 118)

The lefty flinging a pitch over home plate takes on new meaning in the context of a potential Baseball reference two pages prior. Page 117 mentions the Broadway hit No, No, Nanette with "Highho Harry" in the same sentence. Fweet and John Gordon's annotations both suggest this is referring to Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee who, according to legend, sold off his star player Babe Ruth to the Yankees in order to finance his 1919 musical No, No, Nanette. I've long felt there must be a reference to Babe Ruth somewhere in the Wake because he was such a huge global celebrity throughout the 1920s and '30s. The No, No, Nanette stuff is certainly compelling. John Gordon's notes suggest "our leftoff's flung over our home homoplate" might indeed be a reference to Babe Ruth, who was a left-handed pitcher for the Red Sox before "Highho Harry" sold him to the Yanks. Another reference to No, No, Nanette appears on page 567 surrounded by some Baseball-sounding terms like "buntingcap" and "glover's greetings" and "streamer fields." (It's worth noting as well that the song "Tea for Two," which recurs frequently throughout the Wake, is from No, No, Nanette.)

On the topic of left-handed pitchers in Finnegans Wake, I must mention the piece I wrote after Kansas City Royals pitcher Brandon Finnegan made his debut in the major leagues. The lefty donned the number 27 for the Royals and if you open to page 27 of the Wake you'll find mention of "a blue streak over his bourseday shirt" which fit well for the kid whose #27 jersey had "FINNEGAN" written in blue letters. Even better, if you go to page 327 of the Wake it seems to proudly mention the pitcher, "our goodsend Brandonius." As of this writing, Brandon Finnegan has flamed out and is now pitching out of the bullpen in the minor leagues. In Baseball circles he is an afterthought, or what the Wake might call a "bullpen backthought." (FW p. 359) Yes, the annotations suggest that is indeed a "bullpen" reference that Joyce took from Baseball lingo.

And here's one more, a line I don't think has been noted by the scholars as a reference to Baseball but certainly sounds like one to me, from page 213: "number nine in yangsee's hats." The New York Yankees ("new yonks" FW p. 308) launched into the public consciousness during the 20s and 30s, mainly thanks to the exploits of Babe Ruth, so perhaps this is referring to ballplayers in Yankees hats, with "number nine" appropriate for nine players on the field.

Lastly, I must mention another convergence of my two favorite things, Baseball and Finnegans Wake, that comes from Peter Chrisp's fantastic blog post about the poet Delmore Schwartz. Delmore was a devoted Wake head, known to carry along a tattered copy of the book everywhere he went, scribbling annotations on every page. He was also a huge baseball fan. One anecdote mentions Schwartz sitting in the stands at the Polo Grounds, watching a New York Giants ballgame while jotting annotations into his copy of Finnegans Wake (my love for this story is immeasurable). I wonder if he thought to look for Baseball references in the book.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

The Pantheon of FINNEGANS WOKE (or Why Read Finnegans Wake? Testimonials from Famous Wakeans)

[A modified version of this piece was presented at the XXVI International James Joyce Symposium at the University of Antwerp, Belgium on June 15, 2018.]

In the wake of her husband’s death, Nora Joyce once remarked, “What’s all this talk about Ulysses? Finnegans Wake is the important book.” Eight decades later, even within the sphere of Joyceans it seems Finnegans Wake doesn’t often receive its due recognition. A recent example, on the back of the beautiful brand new fully annotated edition of Ulysses from Alma Books we find the following description of Joyce’s writing:




“...most famously Ulysses, Dubliners, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” They completely omitted Finnegans Wake!

When Joyce was finishing up with Finnegans Wake, he worried to a friend, “Perhaps it will end in failure, be a wreck or ‘catastrophe’ ...and perhaps in the years to come this work of mine will remain solitary and abandoned, like a temple without believers." (Portraits of the Artist in Exile, p. 160-161) In the spirit of the Wake, a book full of lists and catalogs, I have gathered this somewhat scattershot survey of notable Wake lovers. This is intended to be a celebratory assemblage, a panegyric of the tribe of Wakeans or FINNEGANS WOKE. The emergent pattern suggests an undercurrent of Anna Livia’s branching streams has been undulating in the unconscious of our art and culture for decades, perhaps a fitting fate for Finnegans Wake after all. 

[Please note: This is certainly not intended as an exhaustive list of Wake heads, just a representative segment of notable Wakeans and their expressed fondness for Joyce’s final book. Please feel free to add onto the list in the comments section!]

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Finnegans Wake and Child's Play

"Hide-and-Seek" (1942) by Pavel Tchelitchew.

I've been in Belgium for the past few days, enjoying a nice vacation and preparing for the XXVI International James Joyce Symposium taking place this week in Antwerp. My experience thus far in this wonderful country has led to some thoughts about Finnegans Wake and child's play. There are at least three ways Joyce brings out the child in all of us when we read Finnegans Wake:

1. The first way is the childlike wonder and confusion we experience when encountering this bizarre dream-distorted polyglot language. I touched on this in Part 3 of my review of John Bishop's fantastic book---as Bishop says "Joyce puts his reader into a position roughly analogous to that of a child encountering an unknown language for a first time." Here in Europe I've been experiencing that same feeling listening to passersby chattering away in French or Flemish or German or what have you. As a typical ignorant American who speaks only one language, I've been sort of awestruck and fascinated hearing everyone around me communicating in foreign tongues I can barely understand a word of. During down time on this trip I've been reading Finnegans Wake and noticing that same feeling. The text itself well captures this sense of befuddlement on p. 112: "It is a puling sample jungle of woods." A pure and simple jungle of words. While reading the text, as I'm trying to comprehend what it all means, I'm also constantly tantalized by the bizarre medium itself, the digressive and opaque clusters of etyms that seem meaningless yet which are in fact densely packed with meaning.

2. One of the pleasures of visiting Europe has been sitting outside at a café or restaurant while people-watching all the pedestrians. It's always funny to notice, in the constant stream of people strolling by, a little boy or girl skipping or jumping around as they follow their parents. The world is all about play for them. Finnegans Wake seems to take a similar approach to things. The sound of its language always seems to mimic fairy tales or folklore, stories told in a playful kiddie language. Of course, there are a number of fables told throughout the Wake (the Ondt and the Gracehoper, the Mookse and the Gripes, the Prankquean, etc). In our Austin Wake Reading Group we recently read the Museyroom section and I was struck by how silly and playful Joyce renders what essentially consists of a museum tour guide detailing the events of the Battle of Waterloo. The text is overloaded with references to countless wars from the careers of Napoleon and Wellington and their legendary clash at Waterloo, yet our tour guide describes this grave material in a manner that reduces the belligerents to children playing games. Here's a sample from page 9:
This is the jinnies' hastings dispatch for to irrigate the Willingdone. Dispatch in thin red lines cross the shortfront of me Belchum. Yaw, yaw, yaw! Leaper Orthor. Fear siecken! Fieldgaze thy tiny frow. Hugacting. Nap. That was the tictacs of the jinnies for to fontannoy the Willingdone. Shee, shee, shee! The jinnies is jillous agincourting all the lipoleums. And the lipoleums is gonn boycottoncrezy onto the one Willingdone. And the Willingdone git the band up. This is bode Belchum, bonnet to busby, breaking his secred word with a ball up his ear to the Willingdone. This is the Willingdone's hurold dispitchback. Dispitch desployed on the regions rare of me Belchum. Salamangra! Ayi, ayi, ayi! Cherry jinnies. Figtreeyou!

3. Speaking of children's games, the Wake is loaded with references to old street games. Page 176 contains a cluster of a couple dozen London street games listed out, games like "Eggs in the Bush, Habberdasherisher, Telling Your Dreams, What's the Time, Nap, Ducking Mammy" etc and of course "Battle of Waterloo" is listed among them. More broadly speaking, reading the Wake itself is a sort of game. In the recently published essay collection Joyce's Allmaziful Plurabilities: Polyvocal Explorations of Finnegans Wake, Sean Latham examines Book I, chapter 6, the Quiz chapter, describing it as an "interactive gamespace." That chapter features questions and answers regarding the book's "sigla"---the symbols embodying the core elements of Finnegans Wake. Latham describes how the sigla become elements in a game of interpretation:

Readers or players of the text succeed by exploring the ways in which they can interact with this data by shaping it into more or less successful interpretive configurations. [...]
In this sense, reading Finnegans Wake requires a very specific kind of cognitive activity often associated with gameplay (and other kinds of complex information processing) called 'chunking.' Put simply, this is a process in which an experienced player combines small elements of a closed system into patterns or objects---chunks---that can be processed more quickly.[...]
Like chess masters, readers who become familiar with the text learn to assemble chunks of their own that enable them to play more and more skillfully with the text, recognizing, for example, the importance of the letters HCE (even when in different order or scattered across or between different words). For an adept player of the Wake, in other words, the text resolves into something other than a chaotic jumble of words and letters, becoming instead an intricate array of informational chunks that recombine in shifting patterns as the 'collideorscape' turns. (pgs 96-98)

I woke up today with all of this on my mind because as I've been reading the Wake during this trip and contemplating my passion for Joyce and this book in particular---having traveled all the way from Texas to Belgium for a James Joyce conference---I keep thinking about why the Wake is so appealing for me and the answer is simply: it's so damn fun! You can't read the book for very long without breaking out in laughter merely at the silly sound of it. And I can't overemphasize how much fun we have in our reading group when the interpretations and references are flying around and there's blends of the most profound wisdom with the dirtiest sexual or scatological jokes. The joys of this book are inexhaustible. That oft-repeated chorus line from the song "Finnegan's Wake" couldn't be more apt: There's lots of fun at Finnegans Wake!



(End note: I began this post by referencing my favorite Joyce scholar, John Bishop. Well, I just noticed that Boston University finally posted his wonderful lecture on the Prankquean episode to YouTube. This is highly recommended viewing, and of course it's called Child's Play.)

(Other end note: The picture included here is Pavel Tchelitchew's mesmerizing masterpiece "Hide-and-Seek" depicting a girl counting down as her friends are hiding. In his book The Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport analyzes this painting and compares it to Finnegans Wake.)

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Secret Life of Mushrooms in Finnegans Wake

Amanita muscaria aka Fly agaric.

Fellow Austin Wake group member Gus Strozier sent me an extremely fascinating article that sparked many ideas for me so I must share the article and some thoughts on it here. David Rose, in his essay "Cryptogrammic Cryptogams: Fungi in Finnegans Wake" explores some of the fungal references in the Wake "to ask if Joyce was really up to something, mycologically speaking" and uncovers some startling insights and tantalizing speculations.

You can read the full essay here.

Rose explicitly channels the amusing NY Times article "You Spigotty Anglease?" where Robert H. Boyle insists that the Wake is in fact all about fly fishing, providing evidence of references to fish and fly fishing on nearly every other page. It's one of the most fascinating characteristics of Finnegans Wake that you can view it through a certain biased lens and find confirmations of your theory all throughout. (I'm still assembling a pile of references to the book as a simulacrum of the globe.)

The evidence for a mycological network underlying the text is evident from its first page: Rose cites the lines "rot a peck of pa's malt" and "oranges laid to rust upon the green" (FW pg. 3) as referring to rotting, fermentation, and parasitic fungi. Those lines are familiar to Wake heads, but who among us has contemplated the mycological aspect lying therein? Or the word "holocryptogam" from page 546----I had always thought it was suggestive of the Wake as a hologram and a cryptogram or encoded text, completely overlooking the word "cryptogam" which literally means "hidden reproduction" and denotes plants that reproduce through spores, like fungi.

And now the text of Joyce's nightbook seems to respond to our inquiry and begins to bloom with fermenting flora. Rose describes this revelation through the eyes of a mycologist:
From the umwelt of the Wake’s quashed quotatoes (183.22) the ricorso of pan-etymological meanderings through the preconscious formation of meaning is oceanic and fluid, recycling through mind and history, recycling through the words themselves. Finnegans Wake is not a disquisition on mycology, but a mycelial mat in which fruiting bodies are knotted deep in the sclerotia of words. 

For the latest edition of the "Waywords & Meansigns" project, my friends and I recorded a selection from pages 613-615 (listen to "Vicocyclometer" at the bottom of this page) which included an extraordinary passage that took residence inside my brain. The passage continues to live in my head and I even recited it from memory at an event during the last Joyce conference in Toronto (it also featured prominently in my essay on war in the Wake). Rose highlights this glorious passage in his essay:
A spathe of calyptrous glume involucrumines the perinanthean Amenta: fungoalgaceous muscafilicial graminopalmular planteon; of increasing, livivorous, feelful thinkamalinks; luxuriotiating everywhencewhithersoever among skullhullows and charnelcysts of a weedwastewoldwevild…  (FW p. 613)
Rose cites John Bishop who describes this passage as a "compressed history of the evolution of botanical life." The passage indeed encapsulates the entire plant world, the planteon, with special focus on fungi and the growth of life feeding on decay and death. A constantly reiterated message in the Wake is that life springs forth even out of the deadest heaps of hollow-skull charnel piles.

The most astounding revelation in the essay comes from Rose's interpretation of this passage from pg. 51 of the Wake invoking the guilt-ridden Earwicker in Phoenix Park or "fungopark":
Those many warts, those slummy patches, halfsinster wrinkles, (what has come over the face on the wholebroader E?), and (shrine of Mount Mu save us!) the large fungopark he has grown! Drink!
Rose sees this as Joyce referring to the hallucinogenic toadstool Amanita muscaria---warts, slummy (slimy), patches, and wrinkles being some of the notable characteristics of the iconic mushroom. And there is also an element of ritual present, as Rose explains:
supplication at the shrine of Mount Mu[shroom] and the imperative Drink!, adumbrating the shamanic use of Amanita muscaria in Siberian cultures where the urine of a person under mushroom intoxication is recycled by the acolyte to perpetuate its intoxicating effects. This is later recapitulated in Mount of Mish (131.01) and sacred sponge (516.25).
Rose speculates on whether Joyce knew about the Amanita muscaria, arguing that he must have because in the "Museyroom" passage (note the hint of mushroom in "Museyroom") he brings in a Tom, Dick, and Harry trio where one of them is called "Touchole Fitz Tuomush" (p. 8) which contains the French word for fly agaric, Tue-mouche (pronounced "too moosh"). I can add further that Joyce seems to reference this again on p. 485 in "Tootoo moohootch!" In his 1968 book Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality, R. Gordon Wasson theorized that the Amanita muscaria was in fact the Soma drink of the Rigveda. Rose also informs us that Peter Lamborn Wilson followed that up in 2001 with a study comparing Vedic and Irish literature, suggesting "that an Amanita muscaria cult may have existed in prehistoric Ireland." As is often the case, Joyce in Finnegans Wake seems to have discovered this before anyone even began to search for it. Further fueling this hypothesis, Rose cites the phrase on pg. 229, "megafundum of his tomashunders" which combines important aspects of Wasson's theory, mushrooms and thunder. The word "tomashunders" is an anagram for "soma thunders" and of course thunder plays a powerful role in the Wake. Rose's suggestion of Joyce's foreknowledge of prehistoric Irish cults using a Soma drink made from mushrooms also gives a whole new meaning to the line at the bottom of page 265 about someone testing out a bowl of soup "to find out if there is enough mushroom catsup in the mutton broth." Marinate on that.

Another creative reading by Rose feeds into this mushroom fascination. In the closing pages of the text, as ALP and HCE walk in the woods they spot mushrooms. "Mch? Why them's the muchrooms, come up during the night." (FW p. 625) Proving a very astute Wakean, Rose suggests rotating the "M" in "Mch" 90 degrees counterclockwise (the rotating E appears throughout the Wake representing the main character in different states of being) which would give us ECH, the familiar initials of HCE, whose "Mch" is then reiterated in "muchrooms." I noticed a few pages earlier HCE is described as being "gentle as a mushroom" (p. 618).

Since HCE the mushroom man and monomythic hero also embodies the sacrificial symbol of Christ, whose body is turned into food and ritually eaten multiple times in the Wake (see p. 7, for example), it seems Joyce was tuned into another anthropological mystery that wasn't revealed until after the Wake's publication. It was not until 1970 that the Dead Sea Scrolls scholar John M. Allegro published his notorious book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross where he argues that Christianity originated with European cults devoted to the celebration and ritual consumption of the hallucinogenic Amanita muscaria mushroom.

Giving some further intrigue to all of this is Terence McKenna's preoccupation with Finnegans Wake and mushrooms. The Irish bard and ethnobotanist McKenna frequently lectured on the history and pharmacology of mushrooms. He also considered Finnegans Wake an essential guidebook. As described in his book True Hallucinations, when Terence and his brother Dennis ventured deep into the Amazon Basin to indulge in shamanic rituals and ingest ungodly amounts of hallucinogenic plants, they brought only two books---the I Ching and Finnegans Wake. The McKenna brothers felt "that Finnegans Wake represented the most complete understanding yet achieved of the relation of the human mind to time and space." (True Hallucinations, p. 147) If only they'd known about the book's revelations about secret mushroom cults.