Monday, June 11, 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.)

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