|Happy (belated) Birthday, James Joyce!
Recently I finished reading Eric McLuhan's extraordinary work of scholarship, The Role of Thunder in Finnegans Wake, after having thumbed through it for about five years. An extremely rich, thoroughly detailed, original and astute analysis, it's not always easy reading but its insights are manifold. It ranks up there with Joyce's Book of the Dark by John Bishop and Wake Rites by George Cinclair Gibson among the best analytical Wake studies I've ever read. Eric McLuhan, son of the famous Canadian media philosopher and Wakean Herbert Marshall McLuhan, takes his father's theory on the meaning of the Wake's ten thunderwords (1,001 letters in all) and explores it in thorough detail for the reader, breaking down the elements of each thunderword to their most discreet etymological units, examining the hundreds of polylingual resonances therein, proving how each successive thunderword piles on the themes of its predecessors and encapsulates the themes of the section of the text where it appears while also signaling a shift into a new technological age.
McLuhan's The Role of Thunder in FW opened up many portals for me. I'm sure you'll be seeing references to it pop up in my upcoming posts here and hopefully I can write a full review of my experience with the text sometime soon. For now, I just want to touch on one of the core aspects of McLuhan's study that left an impact on me and which resonates with the name I chose for this blog, "Finnegans, Wake!" McLuhan's book focuses on the Wake as being part of the tradition of Menippean satire, a form of Cynic parody which aims to jolt the reader into a renewed, heightened awareness of how their senses have been numbed, leading to a clarified perception. Finnegans Wake performs this action by putting daytime rational language to sleep, "otherwise the 'conscious levels' would obtrude upon or obliterate all the others." (McLuhan, p. 30) We are all somnambulantly wandering thru the conscious surface of our hyper-rational language, stuck in the world that cut-and-dry system of words and meanings creates for us. Joyce instead turns language into a wild circus, throwing every verbal trick imaginable into the mix and demanding that we not merely look at the words on the page but speak them aloud, awakening the auditory sense and adding new dimensions to our experience of words. Every part of the Wake is a pun, including the title. The name of the main character, Earwicker, carries many meanings, I often think of it as "ear-waker" awakening the ear. McLuhan points out that the German ihre Wecker means "alarm clock." The Wake's thunderwords contain its densest concentration of these forces.
The Wake enacts the aim of the ancient Cynic philosophers who sought to shake humans into an awareness of their dull adherence to systems of learning, leaving them stuck in a state of numbness. McLuhan points out:
The Cynics' constantly reiterated message stressed three things:
- To the great and powerful, remember you're human.
- To the proud, remember you're mortal.
- To the rest, discard all your pretences and illusions. (McLuhan, p. 7)
McLuhan also quotes Eugene Kirk who describes the core characteristics of Menippean satires, essentially describing the nature of Finnegans Wake:
"The chief mark of Menippean style was unconventional diction. Neologisms, portmanteau words, macaronics, preciosity, coarse vulgarity, catalogues, bombast, mixed languages, and protracted sentences were typical of the genre, sometimes appearing all together in the same work. In outward structure, Menippean satire was a medley---usually a medley of alternating prose and verse, sometimes a jumble of flagrantly digressive narrative, or again a potpourri of tales, songs, dialogues, orations, letters, lists, and other brief forms, mixed together." (McLuhan, p. 8)Key in all of this is the combination of low satire and highbrow learning, as McLuhan writes, "never so serious as when at riot of play, combining low sham with profound learning and the trite and trivial with the quadrivial. ... It can quickly be seen that every technique in the descriptive catalogue aims at the same jolt or sudden flash of awareness by irrationally flinging the reader from one situation or mental posture to another." (p. 8)
A main source of ridicule in all of this is the intellectual fraud, the theorizing intellectuals who think they've got it all figured out. This resonated with me as I've noticed more and more how irritated I am by the pedantry and pompousness of overly rational or scientific thinkers. As the Wake says, "Latin me that, my trinity scholard"! (FW p. 211) Finnegans Wake is kryptonite to people with that mindstate. Of course the western scientific tradition is immensely valuable, but to be so locked into that framework as to think the nature of reality consists of only what has been verified in peer-reviewed scientific research is, to me, a form of madness. McLuhan talks about the Menippean/Cynic approach as intending to wake the reader up using the Book of the Word in order to allow them to actually study the Book of the World. It can't all be explained away in theories and conclusions. McLuhan writes:
Menippean satirists simply deploy the one text, the written book, to cleanse the Augean stables of their readers' sensibilities, and then set the reader to work on the other text, the Book of the World: in all, an intensely grammatical enterprise, and no less so because they do it with language. Of these two books, one, the satire, is an entirely human production, while the other, the world, has been remade and re-uttered by man in and by his own speech and technologies and culture. Civilized man is so enveloped by his own artefacts and technological whims that he has forgotten himself, has lost the ability to perceive and read them as 'signatures' or signs, has become subject to them and spends his days ignorant that he lives in a wild fairyland of his own making. Restoring awareness is a Herculean labour. (p. 10-11, emphasis mine)One last thing I want to mention here is McLuhan's discussion about the Letter at the center of the Wake as being a red herring. Joyce confounds and frustrates the reader looking for a literal meaning for the Letter and its importance, making us focus instead on the linguistic games used to obscure our pursuit of meaning.
Menippists often take a perverse delight in frustrating readers who try to educe 'right' meanings or coherent narratives from their work: techniques range from putting the preface late in the work, to jumbling the order of chapters or inserting blank pages as chapters... to instructing the reader to write the next few lines or paragraphs, etc. Joyce manages it in a more literary manner, by letting the very style of the Wake float a dozen levels of meaning simultaneously in every passage; so there is not one point of view at a time but many. Again, this ploy will keep the reader from becoming rigid, that is, from adopting a single fixed perspective on the text or the experience, and demands that the reader sustain maximal flexibility of response...I'll spare you any more of my scattered responses to McLuhan's book for now. I was sad to learn that Eric McLuhan passed away last year on May 18, 2018 at the age of 76. Now I wish I'd have taken the opportunity to get in touch with the man to discuss his richly fascinating perspective on Finnegans Wake, Menippean satire, and technology when he was alive.
'Our subject is not so much the letter's content, as how that content becomes obscured, and how we are urged to embark on what is tantamount to an archaeological investigation so as to piece its meaning together. This task is carefully made impossible by the Wake itself,' remarks Philip Herring (Joyce's Uncertainty Principle, 200). In true Menippean fashion, the fun and the play is the point, not the interpretation of the content; or rather the real meaning is the effect that the book has on the reader. (McLuhan, p. 301-302)
Check out the post "Remembering Eric McLuhan" over at the excellent "McLuhan Galaxy" blog to learn more about his life and career. Also go read this piece by Eric McLuhan's son Andrew in remembrance of his father.
You might also dig this this interesting piece by Robert Guffey in "Paranoia Magazine" that touches on McLuhan's theories on the thunders, Joyce's technological insights, and other adventures in thought.
* * *
RadioMOLI is now live!
The Museum of Literature Ireland (MOLI) has launched a 24/7 digital radio broadcast featuring discussions, interviews, radio plays, documentaries and more. Listen to it HERE. I have it on in the background right now, they are currently playing an audiobook version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The radio program launched last night for Joyce's birthday, kicking off with the famous recording of Joyce reciting the end of the Anna Livia Plurabelle episode and they even played a rendition of the "Ballad of Persee O'Reilly" from Finnegans Wake.
RTE "The History Show" discusses the legendary piratess Grace O'Malley
This RTE program featured a terrific segment on the history of the legendary pirate queen Grace O'Malley, the real life figure satirized in Joyce's fiery Prankquean character (discussed in my last post). Listen to the 27 January episode to hear the segment.
How Joyce gave Guinness a new slogan
Over at his always interesting "Swerve of Shore" blog Peter Chrisp details how Joyce provided Guinness beer with a new slogan in a passage from Finnegans Wake while touching on Joyce's penchant for devising new ideas for advertising.
Joyceans in Mexico City
The next James Joyce Symposium will take place this June in Mexico City. "Joyce Without Borders" is now accepting proposals for papers. I'm currently working on mine. The theme and location of this event promises something special. I've been to a few of these conferences now and they're like Disneyland for bibliophiles. Very much looking forward to it!
New online FW reading group "Blotty Words"
Carol Wade has been creating truly stunning paintings of pages from Finnegans Wake for a while now with her "Art of the Wake" project. Now she has launched an online FW reading group called "Blotty Words" which is being run thru this Facebook page.
Sweny's Pharmacy, one of the locations featured in Ulysses (where Bloom buys Molly some lemon soap) is in trouble as the surrounding neighborhood has experienced extreme gentrification and rising rents. The rent for Sweny's, which has been in the same spot since the 1850s, doubled in the past year. A cultural landmark that features daily readings of Joyce and hosts Bloomsday celebrations every year, they are asking for support to help them stay open. You can go HERE to pledge as little as $1 per month thru Patreon to help this landmark of Joyceana stay alive.
Finnegans Wake-End, May 3rd-5th in Dublin
"Waywords & Meansigns" mastermind Derek Pyle and documentary filmmaker Gavan Kennedy will be participating in a weekend celebration hosted by the James Joyce Centre in Dublin in honor of the 80th anniversary of the publication of Finnegans Wake which was officially released to the world on May 4th, 1939. Read more about this event HERE.
Finnegans Wake at 80
Another big event scheduled to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Joyce's masterwork will be this three-day symposium at Trinity College in Dublin, scheduled for April 11-13. Lectures and panels will focus on encouraging "a synthesis of thematic and formal approaches to the Wake through genetic approaches, that is, to look at its stylistic and linguistic complexity through the prism of the notes and manuscripts on which it was written during the period 1922–1939." Read more about this symposium HERE.