Monday, January 28, 2013


During our last Finnegans Wake Reading Group meeting here in Austin we covered what is no doubt one of the more fascinating pages of the Wake, coming at the conclusion of Chapter 5 (Book I) which discusses in myriad detail the exotically inscribed letter dug up out of a garbage heap by a hen and now being examined by all kinds of archaeologists, scholars and forensic experts. This letter, "a polyhedron of scripture" (p. 107), a "radiooscillating epiepistle" (p. 108) written in "anythongue athall" (p. 117) and considered to contain "as human a little story as paper could well carry" (p. 115) is, of course, representing Finnegans Wake itself.

It's the first chapter we dug into for the group, chosen because it serves perfectly as an introduction to the text as it frequently describes the nature of the Wake, stressing the need for "penelopean patience" (p. 123) for a reader perusing its "toomuchness, the fartoomanyness" (p. 122) in which every word is "as cunningly hidden in its maze of confused drapery as a fieldmouse in a nest of coloured ribbons" (p. 120). At one point the book frankly asks the reader, "You is feeling like you was lost in the bush, boy? You says: It is a puling sample jungle of woods" (p. 112).

In examining the letter we manage to go through the whole history of writing, paper, manuscripts, printing, etc. as we study the palimpsest-like document which "has acquired accretions of terricious matter whilst loitering in the past" (p. 114). Direct comparisons are made to the Book of Kells (especially its so-called Tunc page), another exhumed text whose pages are densely packed with intricate details and arabesques.

As the chapter approaches its conclusion, an expert breaks out "his dectroscophonious photosensition under suprasonic light control" (p. 123) to closely examine the "debts and dishes" or dots and dashes of this "new book of Morses" and we soon witness some of the most textually strange lines of any book ever made. We are told that "The original document was in... unbrookable script, that is to say, it showed no signs of punctuation of any sort." This led to interesting interpretation and discussion at the meeting as we considered what exactly is punctuation? Little symbols inserted in text to break up its flow, generally agreed upon signs that are there to direct literary traffic.

This perfectly weird selection soon follows:
accentuated by bi tso fb rok engl a ssan dspl itch ina, — Yard inquiries pointed out → that they ad bîn "provoked" ay *V* fork, of à grave Brofèsor; àth é's Brèak — fast — table; ; acùtely profèššionally piquéd, to=introdùce a notion of time [ùpon à plane (?) sù ' ' fàç'e'] by pùnct! ingh oles (sic) in iSpace?! (p. 124)
Getting the easy part out of the way, the first phrase uses broken text in a hilarious manner to depict "bits of broken glass and split china." The rest of it was marinated on for a while among the meeting participants. The notion of breakfast is popular throughout the book as the sleeping hero will soon Wake to break his fast, probably with a fork. Joyce also seems to mock the "grave" serious professors who would no doubt comb his book's pages missing the important element of humor.

Considering the medium of writing, to carve streams of symbols or letters across the space of a page is to "introduce a notion of time upon a plane surface." What is, of course, most stunning here is the appearance of the word "iSpace" which sounds perfectly like an Apple product that Joyce is describing in a book published in 1939. It's one of the book's most blatant examples of puncturing holes ("punct!") in time and space, momentarily poking its head deep into the future.

I'm happy to say that after only 5 months, the Wake group here in Austin has already attracted some very colorfully minded folks with interesting approaches to unraveling streams of meaning out of the buzzing, lively words of the Wake. One participant sent me her further thoughts upon reflecting on the iSpace theme and they really perfectly represent the kind of creative exegetical brainstorming that I hope to incite through this group, so I will close with those words:
I-space is internal space, as in the interior life, the dream state, the void, the womb, or the undifferentiated space of the spirit of God over the waters in Genesis. The pronged instrument of the fork is literally a fork (two paths) signifying differentiation or duality, good and evil, male and female, the two brothers in FW. The pronged instrument is also phallic (in the procreative act) or the writer’s pen (in the creative act) which “punctures” the page, or creates meanings through punctuation (note that Tunc is contained in punctuate), making order out of chaos. The fork of the “grave” Brofesor is the spirit of inquiry, like the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. The I-space of unknowing is punctured by knowing: the dreamer awakes, the innocence of the Garden is ruptured, the amniotic sac tears and there is birth. There’s a pun on the word “grave”, i.e., death punctures life, Adam and Eve’s inquiry produced death. You could also say that coming into being punctures the void. Of course FW is a wake, which is both a funeral (death) and waking up. The circularity of FW is punctured by choosing to read the work in a certain order or by attributing meanings to the words. Also, Shem is “Shame”- Adam and Eve’s shame in the dualistic/differentiated/knowing state.


  1. I like the image of Joyce puncturing the veil and peeking up into "Now".

    Sounds like the group is taking off. I liked the associativeness of the emailer's revery (and your own good thoughts as always)My only disagreement might or could be that no fork of Joyce's would only have two prongs! Or it would and it wouldn't...

  2. The Austin group is ever so gradually starting to take off. Last week I started up a page on and a bunch of eager people signed up right away.

  3. You seem like the ideal leader of an ideal insomniac Wake group, PQ. I really enjoyed reading this post, and I LOVE this particular section, as a non-academic who is often mistaken for an academic, who is fascinated by the culture of intellectuals, and who finds my own attempts at exegesis - on whatever subject - on some cosmic level hilarious.

    I liked your iSpace female's interpretation, too. Good group ya got there.

    Passages like this one always make me wonder about the personal reasons why some writers wrote so densely, so allusively, with such opacity. I do not think Joyce had anything to hide from the State. I do think he had codes to embed from the Shaun-Professors who played their intellectual careers relatively safely, looking for tenure and fat pension. (But that is merely my beginning reasonings for why FW...)

  4. I think he enjoyed wrapping the simplest, most humdrum, humane, and affirming themes in the most dense, erudite, allusive material possible. He clearly got a kick out of making the "grave professors" scour his books for their lifetimes picking them apart piece by piece while the answer to his puzzle always remains simple (as in Ulysses): the ordinary as dazzlingly mystical.

  5. Has anyone considered that iSpace might be a reference to the notion (Einstein's special relativity) that time is an imaginary dimension of space in the mathematical sense: i=square root of minus one; time=literally i x space=iSpace?

  6. Writer, I haven't seen such an interpretation but I think it works perfectly. Thanks for the comment!