Thursday, May 22, 2014

Joseph Campbell on How to Read Finnegans Wake

The approach described below could serve as a primer for how to study Finnegans Wake. In fact, Campbell very accurately describes the way we study the book in our Austin Finnegans Wake Reading Group.

In the Conclusion of The Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, Campbell first describes Joyce's style of combining multiple words and punning on many different languages, often with rhythms that echo nursery rhymes, songs, prayers, etc. Following this, he shares these instructions:
This complex fabric of semantics, associative overtones, and stem rhythms is merely the materia prima of Joyce's communication. To this, add an enormous freight of mythological, historical, and psychological reference. It would be well-nigh hopeless to attempt to trace the design of any page were it not that a thread of logic runs through every paragraph. True, the thread always frays out into lateral associations which in turn disappear into almost inaccessible tenuities of meaning. Yet the main lines can all be followed. Joyce provides an answer to every riddle he propounds. In every passage there is a key word which sounds the essential theme. This word is supported, augmented, commented upon by other expressions in the same passage. Taken together, they not only indicate the mood but convey the meaning. The task of opening the way into any passage thus divides itself into three stages: 
1) Discovering the key word or words. 
2) Defining one or more of them, so that the drift of Joyce's thought becomes evident. 
3) Brooding awhile over the paragraph, to let the associations running out from the key centers gradually animate the rest of the passage.
Presently, the whole page will be alive with echoings and amplifications, re-echoings and sudden surprises. 
Amidst a sea of uncertainties, of one thing we can be sure: there are no nonsense syllables in Joyce! His language means so much that any intelligent reader can shave off some rewarding layers of meaning. The clarity and scope of the discoveries will depend almost wholly on the perception brought to bear; as the Master himself says: "Wipe your glosses with what you know." (FW p. 304).
Certainly there are many ways to approach the Wake. Mainly, I think you can break these down under two categories which we may call Horizontal and Vertical (as Scott from our Austin group termed it). Vertically, you dig down into each paragraph, sentence, or word to extract the dense meanings and references which may then bring meaning to the rest of the page or section. Horizontally, you just stream on through the musical, playful prose and let the sounds wash over you, triggering emotional or cerebral responses as they may.

The Night Owl speed-reading Wake group in Los Angeles I described here once certainly used the Horizontal approach. There is, no doubt, lots of fun to be had doing it that way. In our group here in Austin we use the Vertical approach, sticking with two pages which we examine and excavate thoroughly, just as Campbell describes. After two hours of discussion, usually we've identified the key words and phrases, defined them, pieced apart some puns, and eventually discovered the thematic "thread of logic." To close our sessions, we have one or two readers recite the pages in full, a touch of the Horizontal method. Just as Campbell describes, the pages do indeed come alive with echoings and surprises as we realize the thread of meaning is weaved intricately all over it.

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