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!]

Joseph Campbell
Comparative mythologist, scholar

On his earliest encounters with Work in Progress, he reminisced: “No one in the world knew more than what James Joyce knew of what I was trying to find out!” (A Fire in the Mind, p. 84)

Published A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake with Henry Morton Robinson in 1941.

Developed his most famous work The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) from the “monomyth” (FW 581.24) of HCE.

Discussed Finnegans Wake frequently in many of his works, especially Masks of God: Creative Mythology and The Inner Reaches of Outer Space.

Jean Erdman
Dancer, choreographer, theatre director

After her husband Joseph Campbell published A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, Jean Erdman became preoccupied with studying Finnegans Wake herself.

In the late 1950s Erdman wrote, directed, and choreographed a “musical play” inspired by Finnegans Wake entitled The Coach with the Six Insides. This “dance-drama” or “musical drama” featured dance, mime, and stream-of-consciousness following the life cycle of Anna Livia Plurabelle. The Coach with the Six Insides premiered in New York City in 1962 and won an OBIE award (Off Broadway theater award).

Marshall McLuhan
Media philosopher, eloquent bard

According to McLuhan scholar William Kuhns, “The Wake was McLuhan's vade mecum [manual or guidebook always kept on hand for consultation]. In later years he kept one copy unbound, with each page pasted onto a sleeve of 3-ring paper. The stack stood in an accessible spot just outside the door of his office. McLuhan was forever plucking fresh pages like a gambler toying with oversized cards. He liked to snap the pages into new configurations, up, down, across, and read the phrases in a kaleidoscopic collage, much as Joyce himself had written them.” (“Reviewing the Reviews: Giordano Bruno and Marshall McLuhan,” McLuhan Studies, Issue 2)

McLuhan was a medieval scholar who'd grown up steeped in the classics, mastering grammar and rhetoric from his mother who taught elocution classes. He fell in love with Finnegans Wake and used it to augur the unfolding of the digital age. WIRED Magazine named him their patron saint in the 90s.

The Wake features extensively in most of McLuhan’s major works, especially War and Peace in the Global Village which introduced McLuhan’s novel theory on the ten thunderwords: “Each is a cryptogram or codified explanation of the thundering and reverberating consequences of the major technological changes in all human history.” (Later expanded by his son Eric into his excellent The Role of Thunder in FW book.)

He wrote that FW “is a verbal universe in which press, movie, radio, TV merge with the languages of the world to form a Feenichts Playhouse of metamorphoses.” - p. 115, Counter-Blast

McLuhan scholar Bob Dobbs explained:

McLuhan writes to PLAYBOY in 1970 that FINNEGANS WAKE has not entered the "waking life of our world" for people of the 20th Century. They are not aware of it. It's a hidden environment. It's a hidden organism, a hidden nutrient, a hidden guide to media ecology, just sitting there waiting to be understood. That's why people will only read ULYSSES. They can't handle FINNEGANS WAKE, they don't know how to get into it.

Anthony Burgess
Prolific novelist, literary critic

Author of A Clockwork Orange with its own brand of Finneganese pidgin language.

He wrote:

Finnegans Wake is as close to a work of nature as any artist ever got---massive, baffling, serving nothing but itself, suggesting a meaning but never quite yielding anything but a fraction of it, and yet (like a tree) desperately simple.

---From ReJoyce (p. 185), his wonderful in-depth discussion of Joyce's novels.

Burgess even had the temerity to edit Joyce, publishing A Shorter Finnegans Wake, “garnished with an introduction and a running commentary.” (p. 5)

Samuel Beckett 
Playwright, novelist

Joyce's amanuensis during composition of the Wake.

His first published piece was in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress arguing for the artistic value of the Wake.

He wrote:
Here form is content, content is form. You complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read - or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something; it is that something itself
When the sense is sleep, the words go to sleep. (See the end of “Anna Livia”) When the sense is dancing, the words dance.

John Cage

A lover of Joyce's "mujikal chocolat box" (FW p. 13) from its serialized stage, Cage considered FW "without a doubt the most important book of the twentieth century." (Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage, p. 294) He obsessed over it for years at a time and corresponded with fellow Wakeans Marshall McLuhan and Norman O. Brown.

Cage created a number of FW-inspired compositions including Roaratorio, an Irish circus on FW (1979) and The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (1942). For me, though, nothing surpasses his performance of the acrostic poems he crafted from Wake words where he perfectly captures the book's magic for making letters into sound and music:

Writing for the Second Time Through Finnegans Wake by John Cage from Franklin Furnace on Vimeo.

Norman O. Brown
Philosopher, scholar

Nobby was a Wakean par excellence. As a professor at UC-Santa Cruz, he put on an all-night festive Finnegan funeral where he arose from a coffin exclaiming, “Did ye think me dead?!”

Among his many eccentric and intriguing tomes, is a beautiful little book called Closing Time that essentially places the Wake and Vico’s New Science in conversation with each other sprinkled with commentary from Brown.

Hugh Staples wrote in the JJQ:

FW assumes for him a character very like that of Holy Writ… His work...has a special relevance for Joyceans… To Norman O. Brown belongs the credit, I believe, to be the first serious writer to utilize FW rather than to explicate it, and to take for granted an understanding of its sometimes torturous arabesques as philosophical utterance…. Let us hope, however, that he is not merely preaching to those who have already been saved.
(JJQ, Vol. 11, No. 4, 1974)

Delmore Schwartz

As devoted as any Wakean in this Pantheon. Schwartz always carried around a copy of FW, as his biography describes it, “a work he read and annotated with such intensity that the copies would fall apart; he went through several in his lifetime.” (Delmore Schwartz: The Life of An American Poet)

Peter Chrisp's excellent Swerve of Shore blog has a post on Delmore and the Wake. One anecdote describes NY native Schwartz sitting at a baseball game in the Polo Grounds jotting annotations into his Wake. (A story I adore since baseball and FW are two of my utmost favorite things.)

Lou Reed wrote a piece in remembrance of his teacher, “O Delmore How I Miss You,” where he invoked the following image: “We gathered around you as you read Finnegans Wake. So hilarious but impenetrable without you. You said there were few things better in life than to devote oneself to Joyce.”

Scans of one of his annotated Wakes are available online at the Beinecke Library archives. Here's page 8 & page 176:

Thornton Wilder
Playwright, novelist

Three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, recipient of the National Book Award.

His Broadway hit The Skin of Our Teeth (1942) was attacked in a Saturday Review article by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson accusing Wilder of blatantly appropriating FW’s characters and themes without acknowledgment.

Edmund Wilson said Wilder “explored the book more thoroughly than anyone else I have heard of.”

Wilder the Wake scholar once wrote:

Every century has its underground books which have permeated thought. Often they have been transmitted through relatively few readers…. Finnegans Wake is going to be passed on through its ardent enthusiasts to generations still unborn. It will take its part in the emergence from parochialism and nationalism and the complacencies of ‘our system’ and ‘our technological superiority.’
(from “James Joyce and the Modern Novel” essay)
{See JJQ Vol 31, No. 4 (1994) article “Deeply Indebted: On Thornton Wilder’s Interest in James Joyce”}

His correspondence with Adaline Glasheen about FW was recently published into a 762-page book entitled A Tour of the Darkling Plain.

Here's an image of a Wilder Wake page, courtesy of Yale's Beinecke Library again:

Terence McKenna
Ethnobotanist, lecturer, scholar

McKenna is responsible for providing an introduction to FW for many through his popular lecture “Surfing Finnegans Wake" available on YouTube.

His book True Hallucinations describes a journey where he and his brother ventured deep into the Amazon Basin to indulge in shamanic rituals and ingest enormous quantities of hallucinogenic plants. For this journey, they brought only 2 books: Finnegans Wake and the I-Ching. 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 and that therefore Joyce, at his death, had somehow been shouldered with the responsibilities of overseeing this corner of God’s universe.” (p. 147, True Hallucinations)

“Only FW gives some idea of the reality of the paradoxicum as we experienced it by virtue of being able to pierce beyond time’s double face.” (p. 162)

Robert Anton Wilson
Guerrilla ontologist, novelist, philosopher, author of Coincidance and The Illuminatus! Trilogy

This interview response (endless thanks, Maybe Logic blog) essentially inspired this entire paper:

Yes, FW is what I call “The Good Book”, and I’m only half joking. To me it’s not only the greatest novel ever written, it’s the greatest poem ever written, the greatest detective story ever written, and the most entertaining work in all literature, and as William York Tindall of Columbia says, it’s the funniest and dirtiest book in the world. People are intimidated by it. If the publishers just had the sense to put on the cover, “the funniest and dirtiest book in the world - Tindall, Columbia”, it would sell a lot better, and people would make the effort to decipher it. 

His book Coincidance contains many in-depth essays on FW. He hosted a FW Reading Group in Santa Cruz for many years. And in his “stand-up philosopher” performances he was known to flip to random FW pages to read aloud and riff on.

Enterprising RAW disciple and Joyce fanatic Steve "DJ Fly Agaric" Pratt created a sampling program BloomJamm that allows you to mix music, sound effects, and clips of RAW reading/discussing FW.

Timothy Leary
20th century cultural pioneer, Harvard psychologist turned psychedelic philosopher

"Joyce's prose prepared me to enter psychedelic space."
- (Flashbacks)

Huston Smith recalled Leary “was a marvelous performer and...could read Finnegans Wake with such a flawless Irish brogue that he could have gone on stage.”

That's from Outside Looking In (p. 249), a collection of essays in remembrance of Leary. In the same book, Leary’s friend Frank Barron shares a memory from a St. Patrick’s Day celebration on the last weekend before Leary’s death from cancer. There was Irish music and old sentimental songs, folks reciting Yeats to music. And Timothy Leary, in the final days of his life, recited the end of Finnegans Wake, the river ALP fading out to her sea-death.

Joe Biden
American politician

Was gifted a rare first edition of the 1929 “Anna Livia Plurabelle” booklet autographed by Joyce. He claimed Joyce was his favorite poet.

David Norris
Irish Senator, Civil Rights activist, Joyce scholar

Murray Gell-Mann

Derived the name for the sub-atomic particle "quark" from FW page 383.

Matt Mullenweg
Founder of Wordpress blogging service

This is unconfirmed, but I'm quite sure the name for Wordpress was derived from FW page 20.

Daniel B. Weiss
TV producer, co-creator of Game of Thrones

Before he created the smash-hit Game of Thrones television series, D.B. Weiss was a Joyce scholar obsessed with Finnegans Wake, hence why the name "riverrun" was prominently featured in Game of Thrones. He earned a master's degree at Trinity College in Dublin where he wrote his thesis on Finnegans Wake and hypertext. You can read that thesis, entitled "Understanding the (Net) Wake" here. Weiss met his fellow GoT co-creator David Benioff while they were literature students in Dublin, "obsessed with Irish literature."

Johnny Depp

From a 2013 Rolling Stone profile:

"he always carries around a copy of Finnegans Wake, which he’s been puzzling through for years."

Brie Larson

After winning an Oscar she told People Magazine the first thing she wanted to do next was read Finnegans Wake.

(One of my favorite surprises here:)

Rian Johnson

Wrote and directed Star Wars: The Last Jedi in 2017. Recently signed on to create a whole new Star Wars trilogy.

In 2008, he wrote and directed The Brothers Bloom whose characters were named Bloom, Stephen, and Molly.

In 2009, he created this video montage featuring Joseph Gordon Levitt reciting page 439 of Finnegans Wake:

Page 439 from rcjohnso on Vimeo.
(Posted on his personal Vimeo account.)

A creative reading of The Last Jedi can find some Wake references, the most obvious of which is the film’s original opening (as seen in the deleted scenes)---Finn awakens. Or if you count Finn's awakening in episode VII, it would be Finn Again Wakes.

John Lennon

According to Thomas Staley (heard during a lecture in Austin), John Lennon was one of the earliest subscribers to the James Joyce Quarterly. The song "I am the Walrus" was supposedly inspired by FW.

Phil Lesh
Grateful Dead bassist

2005 interview with Chicago Tribune asked him “What reading material would we find in your bathroom?” to which he replied Finnegans Wake by Joyce.

Patti Smith

WSJ photographed her favorite things, among them her first edition of FW.

In 2017, she told the LA Review of Books:

“I’ve read a lot of Joyce, but it’s just that Finnegans Wake is more than a book. It’s like it contains the world. You open it up and it’s incomprehensible, a lot of it, but the language — it’s like the whole of the world in this book. So owning it is like having the essence of everything. I feel like it might just as well be a Sumerian text.”

Pusha T

(Shown discussing FW with poet Kenneth Goldsmith, from HERE.)

Jack White

Received the James Joyce Award from University College Dublin's Literary & Historical Society. A photo in Rolling Stone magazine showed him with his award and described him as a "Finnegans Wake superfan."

(Thank you to Heather Ryan Kelley for sharing this!)

Don Shirley

Recently depicted by Mahershala Ali in the award-winning film, Green Book, Don Shirley composed a tone poem called "Recorso of Finnegans Wake" in 1959.

From my friend Gerry Fialka at “Viggo Mortensen is a big supporter of Venice CA's Beyond Baroque, one of the oldest poetry centers in the multi-verse, and a venue where I preach the Wake. He is getting praise for his acting in the 2018 film Green Book, about Don Shirley who composed a symphonic tone poem based on Finnegans Wake.”

Samuel Barber
American composer

Created several adaptations of Joyce’s work, including “Nuvoletta” (1947) and “Fadograph of a Yestern Scene” (1971).

John Buller
British composer

Created adaptations of FW including “The Mime of Mick, Nick, and the Maggies.” His obituary in The Guardian states “John's discovery of Joyce fueled him for most of his creative life, and I think what became fundamental to everything he composed was the Joycean notion that imagination is nothing but extended memory, that the commonplace of our musical or aural consciousness is virtually infinite, so that the task of the composer is to go down to the elements of musical consciousness and reorder them.”

Ben Watson
British writer

Frank Zappa scholar, avowed Wakean. Dedicated a 2004 radio program to blending the music of Frank Zappa with readings from FW.

{See Waywords & Meansigns' excellent resource “The History of James Joyce Music” for many many more musicians inspired by FW.}

Dora Garcia
Spanish artist

In 2013, she directed “The Joycean Society” a documentary about a Zurich FW reading group.

“The first thing that drew me to Finnegans Wake is my enormous curiosity about the relation of Joyce with his readers. For whom is this book written? Why a writer spends 17 years—after the publication of the acclaimed novel Ulysses—in a book he must necessarily know is not going to be popular, and got warnings enough about that from his brother and his longtime supporter Ezra Pound? How could he be so convinced he had to do this, working 10 hours per day, unfailingly, while his family collapsed? Where is that faith coming from? A book as the most important thing of the world, something that sustains reality, something that needs to be done above everything else. The utmost importance of this book seems to be shared by its readers, spending 30 years to read a book again and again. And on top of that they seem to have a lot of fun reading it. For me this was a paradigm of the artwork and its relation to its audience.”
(From here:

Mary Manning Howe
Novelist, Playwright, Film Critic

Childhood friend of Samuel Beckett, she wrote “Passages from Finnegans Wake” for the theater in 1955 which The Harvard Crimson praised for being “a truly successful adaptation which never fails to be entertaining.”

Susan Howe

Daughter of Mary Manning Howe. Her newest book of experimental poetry is entitled Debths---a word taken from Finnegans Wake, and it opens with an epigraph from FW.

Mary Ellen Bute

A self-described "Finnegans Wake girl" from Texas, she was a pioneer experimental filmmaker known for her innovations with animation. She spent a decade working on her final film, Passages from Finnegans Wake which won her an award at Cannes in 1967.

From NY Times film review:
The surprising aspect of Finnegans Wake is that so much of its difficult text works on screen--a tribute to the loving care of scripter/director/editor Mary Ellen Bute, who while preparing this film spent her waking hours picking the brains and burrowing through the resource materials of the James Joyce Society.

Read more about Bute & FW here:

Frank Gehry

According to Empire State of Mind: How Jay Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office, while Frank Gehry and Jay-Z were in discussions about designing a new basketball arena in Brooklyn for the Nets, Gehry “suggested to Jay-Z that James Joyce was the first rapper. ‘When I listen to the tapes of his voice doing Finnegans Wake, it sounds like rap.’” Jay-Z had not heard of Joyce, so Gehry sent him a heap of Joyce novels, including FW. Jay-Z replied that he doesn't read fiction.

Joseph Beuys
German sculptor, installation artist, performance artist

A Joyce fanatic, Beuys sought to “extend” Ulysses and FW through his work. An essay by Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes analyzes Beuys’ collection of drawings Lifecourse/Workcourse for its many references to FW.

Beuys declared that “what permeates things with life in Joyce's works. . . is almost always something spiritual...The process of expansion [that Joyce uses is] a spiritual form of movement." (Joseph Beuys: Life and Work, p. 29)

Philip Smith
Bookbinding artist

Has created not one but TWO pieces of bookbinding art for FW.

Elsa de Brun aka Nuala (pronounced “Noola")
Visual artist

A Swedish woman who painted under a Gaelic name, Nuala did not become a recognized artist until she was a grandmother. She was married to Patric Farrell, the former director of the Museum of Irish Art and the Irish Theater in Manhattan, and the couple were prominent figures in the art scene of mid-20th century New York City.

Among her major works are abstract illustrations for Kierkegaard’s Either/Or and a set of 43 abstract pastel illustrations of Finnegans Wake, called “A Valentine to James Joyce.” (These incredible pieces are housed in the Harry Ransom Center here in Austin. Our local reading group is working on getting these images out to the public.)

Jim Harrison
Novelist, poet

From an interview with The Paris Review (no. 107, 1988):

In my formative years, when I was eighteen or nineteen, my religion was Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. I wore out two copies. I was insane for that book.

Sylvia Plath

Her novel The Bell Jar features a character studying and contemplating Finnegans Wake. Plath discusses her appreciation for FW in her letters, describing herself as a Joyce “devotee.” In one of her letters she wrote: “I sometimes wonder if it would be a human possibility to go beyond the ‘funferal’ with HCE and ALP as far as language is concerned, and the multifoliate meanings…” (Read more here.)

Edna O'Brien
Irish novelist

Wrote a short biography of Joyce and last year wrote a feature in The Guardian on how “Anna Livia Plurabelle shook the literary world” where she wrote:

Joyce’s rapturous description of Anna’s bridal preparations belongs easily in The Song of Songs.

[[Edit---I realize there are not enough women on this list---as I've said, this is not intended to be an exhaustive list of notable Wakeans and I deliberately steered away from lumping in all the Wake scholars, many of whom are women. I also mostly tried to stick to the criteria of including those for whom I could find documented remarks or artistic expressions of Wake appreciation. Joyce Carol Oates (as was pointed out to me on Twitter), Hélène Cixous, and Julia Kristeva all belong in this Pantheon. Beyond the Wakeans, notable feminist author Marilyn French has written an extensive study of Ulysses and the Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan is known for bringing Joyce's words to life, I once witnessed her read a story from Dubliners that nearly brought me to tears. And, as I mentioned, many of the finest Finnegans Wake scholars are women, for example: Adaline Glasheen and Margot Norris wrote important books on the Wake and, more recently, Colleen Jaurretche, Vicki Mahaffey, and Alison Lacivita have contributed fresh insights on Joyce's nightbook. The newest book on the Wake I've been reading is a collection of scholarly essays written mostly by women. And, to conclude this brief interlude, while reading a book on the poet Charles Olson recently I learned about his close companion, Frances Boldereff, a seemingly forgotten Joyce scholar who wrote seven books, most of them about Finnegans Wake.]]

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Legendary American poet, founder of City Lights bookstore, prolific author. Ferlinghetti often used Anna Livia Plurabelle as his muse, she appears frequently in his works of poetry starting from A Coney Island of the Mind (1958). His latest book Little Boy: A Novel (2019) contains several allusions to Finnegans Wake, in fact the book seems to be his own version of the Wake. I have compiled some of the more noteworthy Joyce references from that book here. I have also published a review of Little Boy: A Novel in the James Joyce Quarterly focusing on the Finnegans Wake elements. Read more about that here.

Jack Kerouac

Conceived his long narrative poem Old Angel Midnight as an attempt to continue Joyce’s mission from FW. His idea was "to make a try at a spontaneous Finnegans Wake with the sounds of the Universe itself as the plot and all the neologisms, mental associations, puns, word-mixes from various languages scribbled out in a strictly intuitional discipline at breakneck speed." (from Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats by Barry Miles)

Michael Chabon

Wrote a long-form essay “What to Make of Finnegans Wake?” for the NY Review of Books where he surmised:

The limits of language are not the stopping point, says the Wake; they are the point at which we must begin to tell the tale.

Umberto Eco

Italian scholar, semiotician, best-selling novelist

Author of The Name of the RoseFoucault’s Pendulum.

From NY Times (10/19/2002): “Umberto Eco is something of a practical joker. He is also Italy's best-known living novelist and, almost as famously, a philosopher... and a semiotician who says he learned his excellent English by reading Marvel Comics and Finnegans Wake.”

Eco in his book The Aesthetics of Chaosmos writes of the Wake:

FW is the book of an epoch of transition, a time in which science and the evolution of social relations propose a vision of the world that no longer obeys the schemas of other, more secure epochs yet lacks any formula for clarifying its own situation. The Wake attempts to paradoxically define the new world by assembling a chaotic and dizzy encyclopedia from the old one and filling it with explanations that once seemed mutually exclusive. Through his clash and the ‘Big Bang’ of these oppositions, something new is born.
Finnegans Wake rebels against the narrow-mindedness of modern methodologies which permit us to define only partial aspects of reality, thus eliminating the possibility of an ultimate and total definition. The Wake attempts to compensate for this with an assemblage of partial and provisional definitions that syncretically collide and combine in an enormous ‘world theater,’ a clavis universalis [universal key] in which ideas are so arranged that the structure of the work results in a ‘mirror’ of the cosmos.”
The question is whether this repertoire of n-dimensional definitions is valid for us, for no one, for the author, for the eye of God, for the dream of a fool, or for the readers of tomorrow---for the readers of a possible society in which exercise in the multiplication of signs will not appear as a game for the elite but as the natural, constructive exercise of an agile and renewed perception.
(p. 83-85)

William Gass

A novelist well known for his eloquent and stylistic essays on literature, he discussed the Wake frequently including among his “Fifty Literary Pillars” in The Temple of Texts where he declared:

The conclusion of the Wake is among the most poignant I know, and the idea that it is a cold labor of anal obsessiveness is all-the-way-round wrong. FW is the high-water mark of Modernism, and not to have been fundamentally influenced by it as a writer is not to have lived in your time.

A scientist on the structure and beauty of sentences, Gass made a spindle diagram for a sentence from the Wake in his book Life Sentences.

Guy Davenport
Author, translator, painter, illustrator

Davenport discusses FW often throughout his books of collected essays on art. For example, from his essay “Ariadne’s Dancing Floor” where he discusses the Wake as “a game, often a comic riddle of outrageous fun and ingenuity”:

At the very root of all Joyce’s styles is the wondering apprehension that there must be all over the world phrases, rhythms of speech, and ideas older than any other trace of man’s past. Joyce’s faith was that these midden meanings are not lost but sleeping, and that the most daring challenge of the artist was to grasp the reality of this fabric of the imagination. (Every Force Evolves a Form, p. 61)

A page of FW is the voice of the century, the polyglot murmur of Buchenwald, the Babel in the corridors of the UN, the Russian short-wave voice jamming a Hungarian poem. (The Geography of the Imagination, p. 172)

Harold Bloom
Literary critic

It should come as no surprise that Bloom talks about FW often. He even suggests (in The Anatomy of Influence) that Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1836) bears the influence of the much later Finnegans Wake (1939), as if the ripples of the Wake made an impact 100 years backward in time.

Philip K. Dick

Spoken by a character in conversation with a HAL-esque computer:

You think James Joyce was crazy, is that what you think? Okay; then explain to me how come he mentions ‘talktapes’ which means audiotapes in a book he wrote starting in 1922 and which he completed in 1939, before there were tape recorders! You call that crazy? He also has them sitting around a TV set --- in a book started four years after World War I…
I'm going to prove that Finnegans Wake is an information pool based on computer memory systems that didn't exist until centuries after James Joyce's era; that Joyce was plugged into a cosmic consciousness from which he derived the inspiration for his entire corpus of work. I’ll be famous forever.

- The Divine Invasion , p. 9

Also, Dick in his book Shifting Realities shared the following advice for writers: “by all means intently study James Joyce, everything from his early short stories to the Wake."

Tom Robbins

The main character in his novel Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates is obsessed with FW. Switters is a CIA operative who’s always reading the Wake or talking about it. He participates in a Wake reading group described as “a secretive society with branches in Hong Kong and Bangkok, whose members met periodically to imbibe strange beverages and discuss Finnegans Wake.” (p. 26)

He describes a meeting in Bangkok in February 1993 where he opined to the group “that the syntactic word-clusters in FW aren’t sentences in the usual sense, but rather are intermediate states in a radiating nexus of pan-linguistic interactions…” (p. 56)

Later on he derails a casual conversation about the arts by “expounding upon ‘the mythological and historical echoes’ that resonated in the most overtly skimble-skamble phrases of FW.” (p. 224)

“Life was Finnegans Wake, to be sure, except for those times when it was Marvel Comics.” (p. 271)

Switters harbors intentions of completing a doctoral thesis on the following topic: “That the human species was apparently evolving beyond the civilized limitations of analogic perceptions, heading toward a Finnegans Wake state in which its thinking and acting would manifest in terms of perpetually interfacing digital clusters.” (p. 342)

Charles Bukowski

"history will find, I say, that he wrote only one decent book: Finnegans Wake"

(Selected Letters: Volume 2)

Joseph Mitchell

Known for his portraits of NYC eccentrics published in The New Yorker.

Longtime member of James Joyce Society in NY. Named his daughter Nora.

“I am an obsessed reader of FW---I must’ve read it at least half a dozen times---and every time I read the Anna Livia Plurabelle section I hear the voices of my mother and my aunts as they walk among the graves in old Iona cemetery and it is getting dark.” (Up in the Old Hotel, xviii)

David Markson

His “Notecard Quartet,” a tetralogy of experimental novels composed of art historical facts and cultural bric-a-brac, begins with an epigraph from the "museyroom" passage in FW and the four books are absolutely filled with quotes from and reflections about the Wake. The first book of the quartet, Reader’s Block, is essentially an ode to FW. The second book of the quartet refers to itself as a "synthetic personal Finnegans Wake." Recently I have become a huge fan of Markson's work, check out my post on him at my other blog.

Sam Savage

Perhaps taking inspiration from FW 120.05, “a word as cunningly hidden in its maze of confused drapery as a fieldmouse in a nest coloured ribbons” he wrote a novel, Firmin, about a rat born into a nest of a shredded copy of Finnegans Wake. “I was birthed, bedded and suckled on the defoliated carcass of the world's most unread masterpiece."

William Irwin Thompson
Historian, poet, former MIT professor

Considers Finnegans Wake the greatest book ever written (see The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading by Phyllis Rose, p. 91).

The climactic text, the one that finishes the Atlantic cultural ecology and its mentality so that there is nowhere to go but into a new planetary mentality is James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake—the last novel, and almost, in its way, the ultimate book. […] Joyce is one of those great literary geniuses, like Aeschylus, whose work consummates the whole process of the development of literature.
(Coming Into Being, p. 145)

Tom McCarthy

Asked by The Independent to name his favorite author and why, McCarthy replied:

James Joyce. Finnegans Wake isn't the end of literature, as even Joyce liked to think, but rather the beginning: the source-code and very possibility of the book become manifest.

McCarthy has written a fascinating article about money in FW.

In an interview with BOMB Magazine he said the following about FW:

For me, Joyce is more than just a good, or great, writer; his writing is a seismic event that totally reshapes the landscape of literary possibility. It is to the late-modern period what Shakespeare is to the earlymodern: a “togethergush of stillandbutallyouknow” (to quote the Wake) in which language and subjectivity are radically and irreversibly meshed with communication technology, postcolonial politics, new global cartographies—all these systems whose emergence we’re still, falteringly, coming to terms with now. Just as it took a century or more to work through Shakespeare (if, in fact, we ever stopped), so the Wake provides a set of codices and templates whose unraveling might map not only the field of literature’s potentiality and scope, but also that of our whole digital (or whatever you want to call it) era.

Arno Schmidt
German Author

A Joyce scholar with special interest in the Wake, he translated parts of FW into German and discussed the Wake extensively in his Radio Dialogs I & II.

In 1970, he published Zettels Traum (Bottom’s Dream), a gargantuan experimental novel inspired by FW. It's perhaps literature's most serious attempt to one-up Joyce, overwrought with typographical experimentation, with three columns of text on every page. Edwin Turner at the Biblioklept blog shares a post about the experience of trying to read Zettels Traum, with good photos including a size comparison next to a copy of Finnegans Wake:


Steven Moore

Known for being a foremost scholar on the work of William Gaddis and publishing an enormous two-volume study, The Novel: An Alternative History.

Last year he published My Back Pages, a collection of his book reviews and essays from his years as a book critic for the Washington Post, the Review of Contemporary Fiction and other publications. This book is a goldmine.

From the introduction, discussing his first foray into Joyce:

... I quickly became a Wake addict, hoovering up everything I could read on it. I even began compiling a multivolume glossary to FW, and spent a few years working on it until I realized it would take a decade to complete and would probably be too long for anyone to publish.

{In 1978, David Hayman published a collection entitled In the Wake of the Wake gathering selections from authors Hayman describes as "Post-Wake" such as Phillipe Sollers, Maurice Roche, Christine Brooke-Rose, Julian Rios, and aforementioned avowed Wakeans William Gass and Arno Schmidt. That collection did NOT include these next two authors who both published Wake-inspired novels concurrently with Zettels Traum.}

Chandler Brossard

From Steven Moore’s wonderful book My Back Pages I learned about Brossard, a prolific author with the same birthday as me (July 18) who wrote for The New Yorker, Time Magazine, The Guardian, and wrote 17 books---among them, a novel called Wake Up. We’re Almost There, published in 1971, encompassing all aspects of the tumultuous 1960s. Moore declares Wake Up is “indisputably the novel of the ‘60s.”

In his in-depth essay on Brossard, Moore describes Wake Up as “a mammoth surrealistic epic (with 24 chapters, as in Homer’s epics) with a protean repertory company of characters improvising scenes ranging in time and space from the fields of Troy to the battlefields of Vietnam, from Renaissance Italy to Hitler’s Germany. Like Finnegans Wake (its closest literary analogue), Wake Up features a small group of archetypal characters in the dreamworld of a down-at-the-heels New Yorker…”

The form of Wake Up. We're Almost There, Moore explains, “challenges (and gleefully violates) most literary conventions of the traditional novel.” (see My Back Pages, p. 470-473)

William Melvin Kelley

A recent article in The New Yorker (1/29/18) deemed this Langston Hughes protégé turned experimental novelist “The Lost Giant of Literature" and described his 1970 novel dunfords travels everywheres as “ conscious thrall to Finnegans Wake.” Kelley uses this notable line from Portrait of the Artist for the novel’s epigraph: “His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech...My soul frets in the shadow of his language.”

dunfords travels everywheres is written in a heavily distorted style of dream language made of phonetic puns and African-American street slang.

The recently deceased author was born in 1937 in Staten Island, New York (my hometown!). The OED credited Kelley with coining the political term "WOKE" which means every time you hear someone use the term "woke" it was originated by a Wake head.

Seeing the vast range of the Wake's impact and influence, across pop culture to the literary underground and high-brow art, maybe it's time we re-evaluate how we characterize the Wake's reception. The temple is actually filled with believers.

(Special thanks to Gerry Fialka and Derek Pyle.)


  1. The Twitter user "joyceans woke" (who authors a number of essential Wake blogs) shares an interview with Joyce Carol Oates where she talks FW:

  2. Science fiction writer Philip Jose Farmer. His novella, "Riders of the Purple Wage," which won a Hugo, explicitly refers to "Finnegans Wake."

    Composer Robert Erickson, whose "End of the Mime" is a choral piece set to "Finnegans Wake." (It's not mentioned yet in Derek Pyle's Joyce music list, so I mention it here."

    -- Tom Jackson

  3. My friend Gerry put me onto another good one.

    Jack Kerouac---he conceived "Old Angel Midnight" as an attempt at continuing FW.

    His idea was "to make a try at a spontaneous FW with the sounds of the Universe itself as the plot and all the neologisms, mental associations, puns, word-mixes from various languages scribbled out in a strictly intuitional discipline at breakneck speed." (from Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats by Barry Miles)

  4. Hi Peter!
    So great to see you in Antwerp.
    Here's another for you David Mitchell's Number Nine Dream has a chapter with a sweet Biddy Doranesque chicken.

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