Saturday, December 2, 2017

Some Fun with "riverrun"

Norse Vegvisir rune.

Our local Wake reading group recently cycled from the somber lines of Anna Livia Plurabelle's bittersweet closing monologue back over to the first page of Finnegans Wake: "A way a lone a last a loved a long the [...] riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs." (FW 628-3)

The experience of deciphering the opening paragraphs of the Wake has been a slow, steady and joyful slog through a swamp thick with references, meanings, and suggestions. The information we've been pulling out from the words in these pages has been seemingly endless. It's gotten me thinking deeply about the text's very first word, the axis on which the Wake rotates---"riverrun." For a fun experiment in excavating meaning out of Wake words and appreciating Joyce's intricate chemistry of word construction, let's closely examine "riverrun."

First thing you'll notice is that this opening word of the book begins with a lowercase letter, indicating we are entering in media res (Latin "in the middle of events"). There's an immediate sense of befuddlement---one is struck with the feeling that they've been dropped into something that's been going on for a while, stepped into a stream whose source is unknown, one which is flowing toward an unknown destination. It's all a vast mystery. Much like our entry into the river of life upon birth---the world has its own history, it has been going on for a while, it has its own trajectory and momentum, and we're compelled to try to figure out what is going on, what is all this?

In my review of John Bishop's landmark study Joyce's Book of the Dark I discussed Bishop's theory that the river of Anna Livia Plurabelle refers to the flowing river of blood inside our bodies. This constantly pulsing river within us, which confronts us every night when we fall asleep with the sound of a heartbeat in our ears, contains the whole meandering, migrating history of our ancestors. Thus when we descend into sleep, into the hereditary millennia of our bodies, we encounter a running river whose origin far precedes us, highlighting how our experience of living in the flesh is also in media res, or as the Wake describes it, we are "all repeating ourselves, in medios loquos." (FW 398)

William York Tindall, in his Reader's Guide to Finnegans Wake, suggests that the chain of "the   riverrun" not only binds the end of the text with the beginning, it also "includes all betwixt and between." (Tindall 328) Much like the form of the circle which seems to be ubiquitous in all levels of existence from spiral galaxies to solar systems and spinning atoms, "the riverrun" is a universal structure. The last time I wrote extensively about one single Wake word, I focused on "anastomosis"---a term used in a wide range of sciences and disciplines (medicine, biology, mycology, geology, geography, architecture, etc) to describe an interconnection of streams or veins or branches.

FWEET gives us more to think about with the resonances of "riverrun" in different languages:

riverranno (Italian) - (they) will come again
rêverons (French) - (we) will dream
reverrons (French) - (we) will see again, (we) will meet again

"We will dream" is certainly a fitting way to open Finnegans Wake. The presence of "again" in the other words is also appropriate.

Reading the closing monologue of ALP evokes a somber feeling. She's dying, descending toward oblivion, hoping for just a few more moments of life. In our group, we couldn't help noting that the final lines in the Wake were essentially the last lines Joyce wrote before his own death in 1941 followed by the mass destruction of WW II. To continue that final sad sentence with, in the above sense, "they will come again" or "we will meet again" at the start of the book strikes a note of hope for renewal (a vital sentiment in our current dark times).

John Gordon's own Wake annotations add the following:

“rive” - English for “to split.”
“river” - French for “to join.”
FW is a book of “Doublends Jined” (20.16)
[double-ends joined]

The splitting apart and re-joining certainly fits with the "anastomosis" aspect I mentioned. It also recalls the lines from the end of the ALP chapter: "We'll meet again, we'll part once more." (FW p. 215) Gordon also mentions the German erinnerung for "memory" echoing "mememormee" from the closing lines of the text.

Bill Cole Cliett's excellent book Riverrun to Livvy adds some further threads of meaning. He describes ALP as "the river of life, the universal solvent in which all dissolves to mix and mingle and recombine, ever changing, ever the same." (Cliett p. 110) He mentions that Joyce likely got his "riverrun" from Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan":

"Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
  Down to a sunless sea."

"Alph" certainly suggests ALP. Cliett notes that Alph is supposedly "based on Alpheus from Greek mythology, a river that was believed to run under the sea. In a similar sense, ALP may run under a literary sea from page 628 to page 3." (Cliett p. 111)

Cliett also cites Petr Skrabanek who suggests "riverrun" is evocative of the Italian rivivranno for "they will revive" or "they will live again" and also reads it as the French rêvê-rond meaning "dream-round."

To break the word "riverrun" into its constituent elements also yields a range of interesting resonances:

Like "re-" it suggests a return or recurrence ("Finn, again!" FW p. 628). We find "re-" throughout the first page with "recirculation" and "rearrived" and "retaled."

"Ver" from Latin refers to spring time (vernal or primavera), the coming forth of life (French vivre which is also hinted at in "riverrun") out of the dead of winter. "Ver" is an active verb (even the word "verb" itself probably comes from the root "ver")---in Spanish it could mean to see, to watch, to hear, to try. It also hints at verity or truth. The etymological dictionary also notes that ver- as a Germanic prefix denotes "destruction, reversal, or completion."

Movement, flow, speed. The word run as noun (as in, a spell of running) derives from Old English ryne meaning "a flow, a course, a watercourse." The noun run also means a continuing series or continuous stretch of something. Fittingly for our purposes, the term run is also important in baseball, used when a runner has completed a full cycle around the bases.

Run carries a myriad of other meanings, but I want to specifically mention the suggestion of Old Norse rún or rune which refers to magic, mystery, or secrets contained within letters. Rune: a verse or song, especially one with mystical or mysterious overtones; an incantation, or a spell. This is a perfect description of Finnegans Wake.

Lastly, let's examine the numerology underlying "riverrun." I've discussed once before how the number 8 in Joyce's numerology is associated with the female, the feminine life-renewing energy, probably because the number 8 is a rotated infinity symbol (among the many numbers associated with ALP is 1001, where the 1's are seen as the banks of the river and the 00 is the infinity symbol representing the river). Molly Bloom's birthday is September the 8th and her famous Penelope episode is the 18th chapter of Ulysses. In Finnegans Wake, the chapter devoted to the mother goddess is the 8th chapter.

Now with this in mind, consider "riverrun." It contains 8 letters. It begins with "r" which is the 18th letter of the alphabet.

Furthermore, if we calculate a numerological value from the word "riverrun" it would look like this:

R = 18
I = 9
V = 22
E = 5
R = 18
R = 18
U = 21
N = 14

Total =  125

1 + 2 + 5 = 8

I'm sure there's lots more to be found here. Feel free to add on in the comments.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Waging Peace from the Inkbattle House: Finnegans Wake in the Shadow of War

(Note: A truncated version of this essay was presented at the North American James Joyce Conference at Victoria College in Toronto in June 2017.)

“Enough...have I read of augur in the hurry of the times” (FW 356)

This essay stems from my deep fascination with the years surrounding the publication of Finnegans Wake---James Joyce’s struggle to complete his 17-year magnum opus in the late 1930s as World War II erupted. In 1936 he told a friend that “the disturbed conditions now abroad in the world” made it hard for him to work, “It has been almost impossible for me to continue writing with such terrible anxiety night and day.” (Bowker, 484) Once he finally handed in the finished manuscript of Finnegans Wake in 1939, Joyce lamented, “They had better hurry. War is going to break out, and nobody will be reading my book anymore” (Ellmann, 721). The convergence of humanity’s grandest literary construction appearing in conjunction with man’s most destructive conflict feels highly significant to me. Finnegans Wake was finally published on May 4th 1939 and within four months World War II began.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Returning with Some News

Djuna Barnes illustration.

This blog has been dormant now for nearly three months while I've been tied up with full-time employment, home ownership, unfinished writing projects, and immersive reading experiences, including the pursuits of our local Finnegans Wake Reading Group. To blow the dust off this space, I want to quickly share a few nuggets of Joyce-related news with you.

For one, our Finnegans Wake Reading Group here in Austin is reaching a milestone. We've been meeting regularly now for over five years, engaging in close readings of the text together in our bi-monthly two-hour sessions. We started out doing two pages per meeting, but once we hit the final chapter of the text (Book IV), the material was so dense we started doing one page at a time to fully soak it all in. Lately, we've been reading the final pages of the Wake, Anna Livia Plurabelle's bittersweet monologue as the river of life drifts out into the sea of the unknown. In our next meeting, we'll be reading the famous final page, leading into the ricorso back to the beginning.

(Note that we are not completing a full cycle of the text yet, though, because we've been navigating through the Wake using the "treasure map" outlined here. Basically we've been reading the chapters from easiest to hardest. This is actually the seventh chapter we're completing as a group.)

My inspiration to create a Finnegans Wake group in Austin came from my experiences attending meetings of the Marshall McLuhan-Finnegans Wake Reading Group in Venice, California. Our gradual style of closely reading one or two pages at a time, kicking off the meeting with each participant reading two lines aloud in a circle---that all came from the Venice group led by my friend Gerry Fialka. His group has been deciphering the Wake now for 22 years and they recently received a great writeup in The Argonaut, a Los Angeles newspaper. Here's a snippet:
Fialka, formerly an archivist and production assistant for Frank Zappa, says the club isn’t invested in the author’s intended meanings — that’s impossible to know for sure — but unwrapping various layers of meaning throughout. Dozens of languages mix with English, weaving a tapestry of religious, pop culture, literature and mass media references. Puns, riddles, songs, jokes and allusions surface every which way. The plot, of which arguably there is none, is circular.

“No ‘Finnegans Wake’ reading club is exclusively about ‘Finnegans Wake,’ because ‘Finnegans Wake’ is about everything,” Fialka declares.

Joyce spent 17 years writing the book during a wave of new media technology, and taps into notions of a somnambulistic populous, no longer attentive to their environments. One possible message of the book is “all you Finnegans wake the F up,” Fialka says. “It’s about everything that happened and will happen.”

Another eminent Wakean and friend of mine, Derek Pyle, recently began writing a column in the James Joyce Quarterly covering Joyce-inspired projects in contemporary arts and media. His piece in the latest JJQ (Vol. 52, No. 3-4) included a nice writeup of the Austin Classical Guitar Orchestra performance I participated in last year that was inspired by Finnegans Wake. He even gave this blog a shout out!

The article also discusses the efforts of Polish translator, scholar, and musician Krzysztof Bartnicki to translate Finnegans Wake into a musical composition. "In Da Capo al Finne," Derek explains, "Bartnicki removes all the letters from the Finnegans Wake text except for ABCDEFGH, turning the remaining notes into a musical score (in keeping with German key notation where H indicates B natural and B means B flat). Bartnicki says the resulting text contains snippets of Frederic Chopin's compositions, 'Yankee Doodle,' and lots of themes from Star Wars."

Derek contemplates Bartnicki's observations, leading to an eloquent appraisal of the nature of Finnegans Wake as a living text. He mentions how some academics will scoff at Bartnicki's reading, since Joyce's book does not and could not contain all these things, and provides the following counterpoint:

Imagine, however, that there is a Finnegans Wake that exists not simply as a book but is somewhere in the ether---a wondrous, confused, endless gesture toward the ongoing events during human eons. Perhaps this oceanic tide is ingrained in the book but is ultimately much larger than and independent of the text's specificity. Perhaps this essence is what affects some readers so deeply, evoking imagination, creative inspiration, bemusement, and frustration. Such speculations might prompt the deification of Joyce, but Bartnicki opposes this by further questioning the very nature of authorship, suggesting that the reader's responses to the Wake do not 'belong' to Joyce any more than they 'belong' to the reader.

Lastly, I must mention the news that there is a new film in the works---James and Lucia, set to star Game of Thrones actor Aidan Gillen in the role of Mr. Joyce. The film will center on Joyce's life as he was composing Finnegans Wake in the late 1920s-early 30s, which: a) is a movie idea I've talked about for years, b) will likely take most of its material from Carol Loeb Schloss' book on this subject (which I wrote about here), and c) will hopefully not suck. I'm honestly more nervous about the film than I am excited for it. I worry they'll make it too sad, dark, grim, leaving out the infinitely humorous and energetic force of the Wake. Or they may try to portray Joyce's relationship with Lucia as incestuous for shock value. Or the movie might just suck and be boring, further reinforcing the notion to the general public that Joyce and Finnegans Wake should be ignored. Although, ya never know, maybe the exact opposite could happen...

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Recap of the Diasporic Joyce Conference in Toronto (Part 2 of 2)

Victoria College at the Univ. of Toronto where all of this took place.

(Continued from part 1 here.)

The cool, damp Toronto air was a welcome respite from the oppressive summer heat in Texas. It rained a few times, with heavy thunderstorms one night, but we couldn't have been happier with our time in Toronto. While I'd been there once many years ago, I was amazed during this trip to discover how great a place Toronto is. It's got great food, with restaurants catering to every dietary need or preference in every ethnic style all over the place. Being an academic hub, there are more enticing bookstores in the city than I was able to make it to. Most impressive of all was the architecture and city design. Old Gothic buildings intermingling with enormous, postmodern skyscrapers. And somehow within all that, the residential neighborhoods are quiet, quaint---homes have yards and gardens full of exotic flowers and trees. It felt like an idealized version of Manhattan. Far fewer homeless people and vagrants. Lacking that vibe of pedestrians rushing around all stressed out or angry. Drivers were a little whacky but there was far less angry horn-honking than NYC. Also, I didn't get quite the sense of the haves-and-have-nots polarity being as extreme as it is in Manhattan. Toronto seemed like a fairly prosperous, comfortable, laid-back place (noticed lots of people smoking weed in public). And it's a noticeably clean city.

I point all this out because the experience of walking through the city each morning to the University of Toronto campus was something I tried to savor. No matter which path you took there'd be interesting stuff to see, whether museum edifices or streets full of elegant old houses with jungle cube front yards.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

A Recap of the Diasporic Joyce Conference in Toronto (Part 1 of 2)

One of the ten thunder words, by Robert Amos.

Last week I had the honor of participating in and experiencing the 2017 North American James Joyce Conference in the fantastic city of Toronto, Ontario. It was a wonderful time, akin to a Joycean Disneyland with displays of masterful artwork, insightful papers, and music-accompanied performative readings in a chapel (the centrality of the chapel in Finnegans Wake---HCE+ALP in Chapelizod---I don't think was lost on the conference organizers). I'm going to provide a brief recap (as brief as I can make it) here of my experience at the conference while sharing links to the work of some of the participants as an attempt to both digest everything I took in and provide a resource for the world of Joyceans and Wakeans who I know would be interested in some of this stuff.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

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

Waywords art by Sara Jewell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 4, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Waywords & Meansigns Returns with a Third Volume, Featuring Contributions from FinWakeATX

(Art by Jacob Drachler from his glorious book Id-Grids and Ego-Graphs: A Confabulation With Finnegans Wake, reviewed at

The Waywords & Meansigns collective effort of setting Finnegans Wake to music via contributions from artists all over the world is set to release another new edition, its third rendering of the Wake, this one featuring over a hundred contributors from around the world each recording short selections from the text. I took part in this latest endeavor, creating a 17-minute recording of pages 613-615, produced and mixed by my friends Scott Rhodes and Luke Sanders-Self from the Finnegans Wake Reading Group of Austin (we dubbed our selection "Vicocyclometer"). The latest edition will be released on May 4th.

To celebrate the newest release, Waywords & Meansigns mastermind Derek Pyle has been spreading the good word in various Joycean outlets. Recently he wrote a few guest blog posts at the official James Joyce Centre blog featuring quotes from returning contributors to the Waywords project discussing their experience with the latest edition. I was among those quoted there and the other folks had some very interesting stuff to say about the Finnegans Wake immersion experience, so be sure to check that post out.

Here's a snippet from what I had to say about it:
Letting those kind of lines seep into your mind, you start to feel the incantatory magic of the Wake’s language. It affects the way you see the world, the way you hear language, it proliferates the Joycean perspective of epiphany. It’s extraordinary, to say the least.
(Derek also just appeared on the Resonance FM show "Sonic Imperfections" where he played a selection from our new piece and talked a bit about its background. This blog got a great shout out! I'm quite proud and honored for that. Check out that show HERE, skip to 14:22 mark for Derek's appearance.
---Edit: added, 4/26/17.)

Check out the first edition of Waywords & Meansigns released in 2015, featuring the full text of Finnegans Wake set to music HERE where friends and I created a three-hour rendition of the "Yawn Under Inquest" chapter (Track 15 at that link). You can read more about my experience creating a chapter for the first edition in this blog post and this interview.

Overall, I'm thrilled with the whole Waywords & Meansigns endeavor and grateful to Derek for his work in managing it all. It gives me great satisfaction and hope for humanity to know that so many people all around the world (contributors come from 15 different countries) have been immersing themselves in Joyce's great cosmic love letter, puzzling through the psychedelic dream opera and working to capture its inspired essence through music. The more people spending time reading and enjoying Finnegans Wake on this planet, the better. Its power of upliftment and enlightening humor is nuclear.

Check this space again soon, as I will have a guest blog from my pal Scott Rhodes who produced our "Vicocyclometer" passage and wrote an exceedingly insightful essay on his experience.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Great Letter and the Infinite Process of Self-Embedding

"When a part so ptee does duty for the holos 
we soon grow to use of an allforabit." 
- FW p. 18-19

"Will you walk into my wavetrap? 
said the spiter to the shy." 
- FW p. 287

"Joyce wants his text to contain the whole universe with all its recursive times (recorso) and histories. He also wants the whole of the Wake to be contained in each of its self-similar parts. His ideal reader is supposed to grasp the text both in recursive loops of readings and in a holistic perception of the whole text in each part. If one wants to imagine a fractal text that entails the 'infinite self-embedding of complexity,' Finnegans Wake comes as close to it as possible. The Wake enfolds words into words that enfold other words, and all these imaginary word-worlds enfold narratives within narratives of other narratives, or characters that are the effects of other characters, and so on ad infinitum. Joyce even seems to tease us about this infinite process of self-embedding when he deposits the Great Letter in the muddy surface of his text. The Great Letter is figured as a miniature Finnegans Wake which in turn, contains the Great Letter which contains Finnegans Wake which contains the Great Letter which contains Finnegans Wake... Chaos theory has termed this well-known mise-en-abîme 'self-similarity.' Defined as symmetry across scale, self-similarity 'implies recursion, pattern inside of pattern' (Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science, 103). 'Fractal meant self-similar,' writes Gleick (...). The Wake drives this dream of infinite self-similarity to its extreme: as an enfolded replica of Finnegans Wake which, in turn, is figured as a text able to store all texts, sounds, and signs of all times, past and future, the Great Letter also embodies, somewhat self-ironically, the Wake's dream of being a written hologram of a self-similar universe."
- Gabriele Schwab, The Mirror and the Killer-Queen: Otherness in Literary Language, p. 76
(Encountered on p. 145 of Joyce & Liberature by Katarzyna Bazarnik, which I discussed further here.)

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Happy Birthday to James Joyce! (& The Feast of St. Brigit)

Happy Birthday to James Joyce! Born on 2/2/1882. And Happy Birthday to Ulysses! Published on 2/2/1922.

February 2nd is a very special day in Joyceana.

For James Joyce, February 2 was, in Richard Ellmann's words, a 'talismanic' day: a point on the great wheel of time where an event of the present could resonate in 'sacred coincidence' with correlative events of an earlier cycle, thus imbuing the present with a potency that is at once symbolic, mythic, or even numinous. On February 2, 1939, Joyce, with his family and friends, celebrated his own birth fifty-seven years earlier as well as the 'birth' of his magnum opus---the arrival of the first printed copy of Finnegans Wake.

This 'talismanic' day, February 2, also coincides with the ancient Irish feast of Imbolc, one of the four great holy days in the Celtic wheel of the year. (Imbolc's bowdlerized vestiges can still be found in both Candelmas and Groundhog Day.) Imbolc is sacred to the goddess Brigit, the one-eyed patroness of Ireland's visionary poets (the Filidh), her mythologists, and her storytellers. In pagan Ireland, Imbolc, birthday of the ancient goddess, observed the arrival of light after long darkness; Imbolc celebrated the birth of a new cycle of life and also honored the goddess whose gifts---poetic insight, mnemonic ability, linguistic skill, knowledge of the ancient lore, and 'fire in the head'---allowed her votaries to preserve and continue the ancient Irish tradition. Thus, the feast day of this archaic Irish goddess of poets is also the birthday of the modern Irishman who, perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, embodies the very gifts she was understood to bestow. 

That's from the wonderful first page of Wake Rites: The Ancient Irish Rituals of Finnegans Wake by George Cinclair Gibson, perhaps the most important and illuminating book that has been written about Joyce's opus so far. Ever since we came upon page 611 in our Austin Finnegans Wake Reading Group, beginning the climactic St. Patrick vs the Archdruid Berkeley debate, I've been absorbed in and astounded by the insights presented in Wake Rites.

In it, Gibson describes seventeen as "the sacred number of regeneration for the pagan Irish." Tonight, on Joyce's birthday and St. Brigit's Feast Day in the 17th year of the 21st century, on the 17th floor at the graciously accommodating Irish Consulate, reading from the 17th chapter of the book Joyce wrote over a 17-year period, we dug into what is generally considered the book's climactic scene. Page 612, depicting the legendary confrontation between the invading Catholic Patrick with his mumbling groaning missionaries ("mister guest Patholic with alb belongahim the whose throat hum with of sametime...cassock groaner fellas of greysfriarfamily" 611.7-8) crashing the ultimate pagan Irish ritual ceremony at the Hill of Tara and defeating the Archdruid in a debate in front of the High King of Tara, usurping the archaic order of the poets, knocking the sage on his ass, and banning the ancient Irish seer-poet's mysterious and magical Dark Tongue language forever.

It is in the final chapter of Wake Rites, in discussing the extra bizarre language of the Patrick/Druid debate, where Mr. Gibson gives the most convincing and comprehensive argument I've yet seen for the reason behind the absurdly obscure language throughout Joyce's most treasured work. Gibson posits that it is Joyce's revival of the ancient Irish Dark Tongue:

In Old Irish, this artificially constructed tongue was known as bélra na filed, 'language of the filidh,' and was striking in its outrageous presentation, colorful characteristics, and nearly impenetrable obscurity. Bélra na filed (also called the 'Dark Tongue') is a language nearly incomprehensible in its polyglot logorrhea; language sometimes blathering, at other times ranting, ribald, profound, or scatological, and everywhere laden with absurd catalogues of everything; language rife with riddles, and riddled with puns, neologisms, and a plethora of polysemes and portmanteaus..."

This is the language spoken by the Archdruid Berkeley or "Balkelly" on pgs 611-612 in his extremely dense, silly and scientific debate with Patrick on the nature of the visible world and the light spectrum. Joyce describes it wonderfully through a language that actually is the thing itself ("the Ding hvad in idself id est" (p. 611)): "in other words verbigratiagrading from murmurulentous till stridulocelerious in a hunghoranghoangoly tsinglontseng." (p. 611) A verbal rambling flowing like the Huang He river in a sing-a-along sing-song style. The Druid's language is representative of the riverine "riverrun" language of Finnegans Wake itself. The flamboyant, rainbow-flavored "heptachromatic sevenhued septicoloured" style of the Druid battles against the invading black-and-white perspective grey-frocked Catholic Patrick "shiroskuro blackinwhitepaddynger" (p. 612) in a confrontation carrying out a core argument for the style and essential purpose of the book itself. As Joyce wrote to his patron, "Much more is intended in the colloquy between Berkeley the archdruid and his pidgin speech and Patrick the [saint] and his Nippon English. It is also the defense and indictment of the book itself."

How unbelievably special it was for us to experience the exegetical exploration of this page, the recovery of the ancient past, the Druidic Irish language of the seer-sage-poet "Bilkilly-Belkelly-Balkally" whose patroness is St. Brigit, on February 2nd at the Irish Consulate. I'm thankful to Adrian Farrell at the Consulate for so kindly hosting us and sharing in the fascination of Joyce's revival of the ancient Irish poetic wisdom.


Read more about this important passage over at Peter Chrisp's essential blog where he outlines the evolution of what was one of the earliest sketches Joyce composed for Finnegans Wake.