Friday, April 26, 2019

Interview: Derek Pyle and Gavan Kennedy discuss upcoming "Finnegans Wake-End" celebration & "Finnegan Wakes" film project

Artwork by Boris Dimitrov.

[The 80th birthday of Finnegans Wake is next week, May the 4th. (Yes, Finnegans Wake day is also Star Wars day.) With the 80th anniversary of Finnegans Wake approaching, Dublin has been buzzing with events celebrating James Joyce's greatest and weirdest masterpiece. Two pals of mine, Derek Pyle and Gavan Kennedy, will be involved in an upcoming event called Finnegans Wake-End orchestrated by the James Joyce Centre in Dublin. Central to the festivities will be Gavan's ongoing documentary project "Finnegan Wakes" wherein a Here Comes Everybody array of random readers around the world are filmed reciting a page from the text alongside music. I did a Q&A with Derek and Gavan via e-mail discussing the upcoming Finnegans Wake-End event, Gavan's experience with the film project, and their love for Joyce's nightmaze. I'm excited to share this discussion here. Derek's words are in orange, Gavan the Irishman's words are in green. Enjoy! - PQ]

PQ: What is Finnegans Wake-End? What will be your involvement in Finnegans Wake-End? 

Derek Pyle: Finnegans Wake-End is all about celebrating the 80th publication anniversary of Finnegans Wake, which debuted May 4, 1939. We've lined up a series of happenings to take place at the James Joyce Centre in Dublin from May 3rd thru May 5th -- panel discussion, walking tour, reading workshop led by Terence Killeen, performances -- and three nights of filming for Gavan's project "Finnegan Wakes," which is really the heart of the thing, but I'll let Gavan talk more about that. The May 4th weekend is a bank holiday in Ireland, so we are including a special Sunday film shoot at Sweny's Pharmacy---the pharmacy is famous in that other book, where Leopold Bloom buys the soap. The place is maintained now by volunteers who host Joyce readings every day of the week.

My role, I'm co-producing the Wake-End with the Joyce Centre, so wearing various hats. I'm here in Ireland for five weeks, and was recently at Trinity College creating an installation for the academic conference Finnegans Wake at 80, organized by Sam Slote. There was a maker station where people created birthday cards for the book, to be placed in a coffin, and people got really into that. It's fun to tie threads between the academic, artistic and so-called popular approaches to the book - at some point, you realize the boundaries are not as solid as they seem!

Gavan: I’ll be bringing the Finn Wakes Project, filming performances of Wake pages each night. Also talking about project on the Friday night panel.

PQ: Is the event something you guys were involved in organizing or were you invited? How'd you become involved with it? 

Derek: The James Joyce Centre has been really supportive of Waywords and Meansigns, so I've collaborated with them in a variety of different ways over the past few years. They got a new director last spring, Jessica Peel-Yates, who's been really fantastic, and she and I started talking about the Wake-End when I was in Ireland last summer. I immediately thought it would be a perfect thing for Gavan's film so we invited to him join us and now Finnegan Wakes - The Film is really the weekend's heartbeat.

PQ: Is there any purposeful pun on the word "end" in Finnegans Wake-End? Since the book itself never ends and turns "end" into "and"... 

Gavan: That’s one for Jessica at JJ centre. But I would suspect so. The End Again. In the Bruno sense, the coincidence of contraries. “The End”? Well.. neti neti!

Derek: I think the Joyce Centre used that name before - they had Fritz Senn for a Wake-End a few years back. Or maybe it came from UCD first - I can't say the origins for sure. But I've been thinking lately about the death of the book - 80 is pretty old after all - and what happens after that...

PQ: What were your earliest encounters with Finnegans Wake? How did you hear about it? 

Gavan: Not sure how I first heard about it. I do know that well before I first picked it up in 1995, I had some awareness that there existed this mysterious Joyce codice that sounded like it contained some great but obscure secret within. My first time out, I turned to the second page, only to see if it was a practical joke. So I fell at paragraph 2 of page 2 on my first attempt. My abiding memory was one of dismay, even anger at Joyce. But in retrospect, a great lesson: If art pisses you off, there’s a golden nugget for self-knowledge there. It means art is doing its job. It just requires a little digging. Took me 20 more years before I took up the spade proper.

Derek: Growing up in suburban California, late 1990s and early 2000s, I loved my Marilyn Manson. He pushed against everything that didn't make sense in America. I kept his biography hidden under my pillow, and took mental notes on all the films and bands he mentioned. It was like finding a map to some weird dark underground. I really developed a love of learning, and a quality of mind that enjoys synthesizing maps, understanding contexts, all that. Later when I got into the Grateful Dead that took me on another adventure of discovery, into a much more brightly-lit underground tunnel. The book got on my radar that way - the Dead were big Wake-heads. Plus my mom turned me on to Joseph Campbell, and that all collided in high school when I discovered Campbell did a thing with Jerry Garcia and Mickey Hart in the 1980s. In the tapes Campbell mentions the Wake. But my first proper encounter was at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. I was taking a class with two really brilliant professors, L. Brown Kennedy and Annie Rogers, on Joyce and Jacques Lacan.

PQ: We are approaching the 80th anniversary of Finnegans Wake on May 4th. In your opinion, how would you characterize the way Finnegans Wake has been received by the public through its 80th year of existence? 

Gavan: Or not received! Because who wants their brain utterly addled for 40 hours, only to be shown that ‘things’ are not what they seem? Reactions to Wake seem to be polarized. Is anyone ever ambivalent to it? Did anyone ever say: “I just finished Wake. It was OK”? I would love to do a poll to find out Wake’s attrition rate. My guess is maybe 1 in 20 completes it. But is there any other book that spits out more readers than it swallows? Yet those who surrender into the belly of Whake seem to be regurgitated on a further shore which is life-changing. I suspect the problem is that people approach Wake thinking that it’s primarily just a book. And many have perished on that rock. Personally, the only way I have gotten to ‘the end’ is by listening to Pat Healey’s audio version. I’m now on my 5th listening and it’s radically revealing, every time.

Derek: It depends on who you take to be the public, but I think the celebratory answer is - the book's made a huge impact on the States, Canada, Western Europe. A lot of this hasn't been properly documented, though. Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes has written an epic book on Joyce in modern art that shows his monumental echo there - and a lot of that is the Wake - and you could write the same book about the book through music, philosophy, poetry, whatever. A lot of the people who shape so-called culture, at least white culture, seem interested in the Wake - the cultural illuminati, if you will, and I mean that in the most gracious of ways. But is that the public? When Johnny Depp and Brie Larson read the Wake, does that tell us anything about the thing's reception? Maybe that's more how celebrities and other cultural icons influence our perception of popularity, value, all that. But how do you quantify an impact, where cultures are so subdivived into their own ecosystems - like the Wake versus Hulk Hogan or Selena. I don't know - I think the Wake asks those questions, in it's own way.

PQ: This would be a good place for me to suggest folks read my piece "The Pantheon of FINNEGANS WOKE (or Why Read Finnegans Wake? Testimonials from Famous Wakeans)." 

What do you think will be the role of Finnegans Wake in the world over the next 80 years? (If we make it that far.) 

Derek: Eighty is a long ways! But I can predict that this, right here and now, is the golden age renaissance of Finnegans Wake. I'm writing about that in a few places - but that doesn't answer your question. I wonder about the Wake's online presence and what that means for future archaeological records. I don't know if I'm joking or serious, but lately I've talked about digital data as a form of genetic code---or maybe a disease---that gets transmitted into space, sort of like Voyager record meets that Cause of Cambrian Explosion paper published last year, where scientists re-enlisted the idea of ongoing microbial evolution across galaxies. 

Gavan: Wandering rocks! Things were dodgy in 1939. But 80 years later, by most analyses, the Human Project is now at its most egocentric, self-reverential since the caveman was caught in the act. So what will Wake’s legacy be if we’re partying in 2099? Wake’s legacy will be correlated to the extent to which it enters the mainstream. So there’s a challenge. 

My sense of Wake is that JJ realized the tragic trajectory of humanity and the inevitable outcome – The End - if we didn’t wake up. And soon. So, sacrificing himself and family, he built Wake in order to save humanity from itself. The complexity of the work is countered by what I see as the simplicity of his solution: the transrational realization that on a most basic level, on the level Paul Tillich referred to as our “ground of being’, we are not really separate from each other. It is, after all, Joyce’s answer to the final question in The Quiz (I.6): ‘Semus Sumus!’ It is the final answer. He has given us the key. Incidental? Possibly. Volitional? Probably. He didn’t mince words… accidentally. 

Joyce knew that transrational means were required to deliver a transrational epiphany. So he purpose-built a machine capable of delivering the message in the only form he knew how - a book using transrational language. If Wake’s prophecy is correct, we may be on the verge of quite interesting times. Joyce modifies Vico’s cyclical theory of history in the structure of Wake, elevating and extending the lacuna between successive cycles into a fourth Age : the Chaotic. It would follow the collapse of our current Democratic Age (when the masses come to realize that government is not representative of them; it is controlled by the rich, whose political agents maintain power thru rhetoric, division and fear-mongering; appealing to the most base, tribal instincts of the electorate). 

By any analysis, tribal identity politics (us vs them) is gaining traction, even in the ‘advanced’ democracies of the world. The UK voted for Brexit. The US elected Trump to ‘Build The Wall.'  30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, eastern European countries such as Poland, Austria, Czech, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Hungary are witnessing a dramatic rise in support for far right nationalist parties. The Israel/Palestine issue seems to be becoming more intractable by the day. The east-west (Islam/Christianity) divide is widening. In a recent event in Toronto billed as “the debate of the century” between psychologist Jordan Peterson and philosopher Slavoj Žižek, they both agreed that the outlook for humanity seems bleak. “We will probably slide towards apocalypse,” said Žižek. Peterson concurred: “It is not obvious to me that we can solve the problems that confront us.”

So can the center hold or are we slouching towards Bethlehem, as Yeats envisioned 100 years ago? Are we on the verge of anarchy being loosed upon the world? According to Wake, the little people may be about to arrive at Trumps’s hotel door any day now:

So snug he was in his hotel premises sumptuous
But soon we'll bonfire all his trash, tricks and trumpery
And' tis short till sheriff Clancy'll be winding up his unlimited
With the bailiff's bom at the door,
(Chorus) Bimbam at the door.
Then he'll bum no more.
(FW, p. 46)

Who knows what a Chaotic age may look like. History seems to indicate that empires do tend to fall. So what happens if the people rise and democratic empires are overthrown? Well death does seem to be an inevitable and necessary component, according to Vico. But from that death springs new life. Cropse from a corpse. So perhaps we might see a return to decentralization of current power structures, equitable redistribution of the world’s wealth, and community-oriented societies living for each other and subsisting with the land instead of attempting to conquer both. Time will tell.

Following the Chaos, Vico and Wake tells us there will be the ricorso; a return to rule of the gods. My sense is that Wake is telling us that if the Human Project is going to survive for another cycle on the merry-go-round, there must be a change in the collective mindset - humanity must return to honoring the God of compassion, forgiveness, and unity, represented in Wake by the divine feminine figure of Anna Livia Plurabella, as she returns to Dublin Bay and into the arms of her “cold mad feary father." 

Wake is a dream; a work of the imagination where all great achievements begin. It carries a powerful message of redemption. We’ve now got multiple US Presidential candidates singing Joyce’s name. Such wonderful irony. Powerful texts have influenced the river of history before. Perhaps now it is Wake’s turn.

PQ: Gavan, you recorded Finnegans Wake readings at Burning Man last year. Tell me what that was like. 

Gavan: ‘Twas an adult portion. We were blessed to have been granted space for our filming studio @ Entheos on Esplanade, the center circle avenue facing the Man structure. Basically front row seats exposing the project to huge passing traffic with the Playa lunacy – marauding, sinning humanity - serving as the spectacular backdrop. We filmed for 7 hours every night and there was always a queue for the hotseat. Burning Man Journal has now featured two articles about the project, so Wake’s word has gotten out and, in our third year of filming there, a group of recidivists has developed who return every year to perform again. There’s a few who come back night after night to give it another lash. Wake and Burners are born bedfellows. More than a few seasoned Burners have said performing a page was their greatest Burning Man experience ever. And, in the giant playground of BM, geared toward the primacy of immediate experience, that is supreme testament to Wake’s potential. Wake@Work

PQ: I saw that noted Wake scholar Finn Fordham was there and gave a lecture about artificial intelligence and Finnegans Wake. Is there a video of this lecture? I'd like to hear more about that.

Gavan: Unfortunately, there’s not a video. But on opening night, Finn introduced the project with a talk about how Wake remarkably embodied BM’s theme of AI that year, based on Asimov’s I, Robot. (You can read a few Finn quotes here.) Finn, in a feat of remarkable endurance, also gave a talk every night revealing the depths and mysteries of Wake. To observe him so charmingly and eruditely deal with the inevitable “but what is it all about?”, 10 times a night, was worth the price of admission alone. He cracked open the door to Wake for hundreds of Burners which really rounded out the shoot. The performer created new art AND got the chance to understand a bit about the book which they had just extended. 

PQ: Gavan, in your "Finnegan Wakes" recording project how are you deciding on which passage or passages from the book to have participants recite?

Gavan: The project requires about 13-15 performances of every page to provide sufficient footage to take into edit. We are working, chapter by chapter. So Stephen McIvor from Derry and Conor Malone from the County Clare, who have worked on the project from its inception, have the unenviable task of keeping tabs on page count, assigning the required page to the performer, while also preparing them and their tune for the camera. Picture prepping 20 people waiting to perform at Burning Man at 2AM. Herding mice at a crossroads.

PQ: I got to partake in the "Finnegan Wakes" recordings when we were in Antwerp, Belgium together and it was a really fun experience. Where else have you gotten to record this project? What are some of the more memorable experiences you've had with it?

Gavan: Shoots include Antwerp, Kiev, Trivandrum, thrice at Burning Man, and now back in Dublin for the Wake-End and UCD’s Text/Sound/Performance conference on April 27th. That will be the 8th shoot in 2 ½ years. I can honestly say that the approx. 770 performances so far have ALL been memorable experiences. Going back thru the catalogue, I instantly remember all of the performers. There is something quite compelling about a complete stranger spontaneously agreeing to appear on camera to perform a page to music from the most difficult book in literature, often having never seen the page or book before. And most likely never having performed on camera before. Without the music element, it just would not be possible. 

The performances seem to fall into categories: Among them would be: 

Gigglers: fall-out-of-the-chair laughers. And, curiously, when asked what exactly was so funny, they’re never quite sure. 
Screamers: More than once, Burners from afar have come running thinking there’s a crime in progress. 
Runners: Some performers seem to get into a groove and refuse to stop. We’ve had one who kept going for over 4 pages, even when told the camera battery was dead.  (You were there, I think.) [PQ--Indeed I was. I tried to get him to stop. I regret that.]
Weepers: At BM 2018, the tears flowed freely on four occasions. Quite remarkable. One particular performer took 26 minutes to get thru the page, weeping freely. 
The Pros: Actors who happen never to reveal their trade beforehand. 
Baulkers: More than a few freeze, mid sentence. Some resume, others just called it as it was: a night. There’s been one or two who just stopped in the first line and shook their heads.  
Twins and triplets: We’ve had a page performed by a pair a few times but just the one ménage à trois. So far. 
Sisyphusites: The real heroes. Out of their comfort zone, agonizing all the way, but when they get to the top (of the next page), catharsis! Possibly the most rewarding performances. 
PEDers: There’s been allegations that one or two performers may have been using Performance Enhancing substances; wine, whiskey, etc. Often ridiculously sublime. 

PQ: What's the endgame for "Finnegan Wakes"? What does the completion of such a project look like? 

Gavan: The concept is to let the project take its own course; to let the river find its own way. So the biggest challenge is to not get in its way. The only golden rule we adhere to, in honor of the vision, is to film performances only between sunset and sunrise. And that the project be a game without end, Amen! So "Finnegan Wakes" is a machine geared for perpetual motion. 

There are two necessary components: the process (recording performances) and the product (a film version of the entire book). The ultimate goal is to set in motion a never-ending, ever-evolving, living, breathing, pulsating, online portal to Wake

The process (performances) is an invitation to frivolously drop a toe on the daunting Wake terrain, and have fun doing so while also birthing an utterly unique piece of art for a greater good. 

The product: the final film, aims to make Wake’s Word flesh again; accessible and alive for Everybody. The project is designed to self-perpetuate, slowly unfolding into cycle-wheeling infinite history. 

The first goal of the project is to get a complete film edition of Finnegan Wakes online. Logically, we will begin with I.8. (ALP)! I aim to complete that this summer. Then we’ll progress from there, incrementally by chapter. 

A final edit for the initial edition of the full length film requires about 9,000 performances to get to that point. Then there will be a complete FIRST EDITION film version of Finnegans Wake available online where Everybody can watch and listen to Wake come alive to music, as Joyce prescribed. The dream is that, instead of coming home after a night out and maybe watching The Big Lebowski or The Blues Brothers, young people might stick on Finnegans Wake on the tv and allow their mind meander. Wake just needs to get a toe in the door and it will take care of the rest itself. 

Following the completion of the first full edition of the film, there will be an phone app Everybody can download where anyone can film themselves performing a page of their choice. They can then upload it to the project online and their performance will automatically replace the older performance of the same content, seamlessly blending their performance into the full length film. It’s a life and death process. Cropse! They are now a character in Finnegans Wake – The Film. Ideally, they’ll ask their friends to do the same. This allows the never-ending epic to continue; constantly evolving, renewing itself ufer and ufer, pulsating with new blood and life.

PQ: Have you guys taken part in a Finnegans Wake reading group before? What was that like? 

Gavan: Yes. There’s a twice monthly Wake group which meets in Washington DC and the craic, and perspectives, are mighty.

Derek: Yeah, lots. Living in Boston I'd frequent the Boston College group, led by Joe Nugent. There's no phones allowed, and they're not too wedded to the manuscripts or notebooks to guide meaning, and everyone just riffs off their associations. Joe guides it in a way that keeps the thing focused, but it's also fairly flexible - like jazz. As with all Wake groups, the collective knowledge in the room is astounding - medievalists, learned Catholics, you name it. I went to your satellite Austin group in Antwerp last year, which was cool to see - I really enjoyed meeting the Austin crew - awesome people. I've also had the chance to read the book with people like Sam Slote and Roland McHugh, and that's been astounding, just watching the way their minds work.

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

Gavan: "Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given!" (FW 628)

Derek: There's only a few passages I have memorized, but I really like the "abnihilisation" italics [FW 353.22.-32]. During the conference reading group last weekend, in the midst of this very fascinating but very academic, genetic reading of the text, Finn Fordham pointed out a line, saying, "This is one of the most beautiful lines in the book," and it really struck me. You could say the washerwoman are discussing family members, where they've gone off to, how their lives have unfolded, and there's this line about someone getting lost in a side strain of a main drain [FW 214.1-3]-- it just filled me with a sense of tenderness and sorrow, remembering friends who disappear from life like that. 

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

Derek: I just dug my teeth into Robert Anton Wilson, reading Coincidance and then the Illuminatus! Trilogy. The Wake was Wilson's so-called "bible," and RAW-heads were incredibly supportive of Waywords and Meansigns when I first launched the thing. They were really the first ones to get behind the project and support it - and PQ, I'd include you in that lot along with Steve Fly, Tom Jackson, a few others - so I've sort of circled around his work for a while, learning a lot about him through the oral tradition. The Illuminatus! books seem to have the same message as Finnegans Wake - they hold a key to unlock any door - but it's a bit like the One Ring to Rule Them All - you'll start seeing doors open and your own greed will corrupt you. But maybe that's part of its lesson. Anyway, last summer I read a book called When God Talks Back by Tanya Luhrmann. That rocked my world. 

Gavan: I’m more of a poetry than prose head. I never leave home without one of Seamus Heaney’s compilations in the bag. And can always find something in the poetry of Derek Mahon, David Whyte, Eliot, Mary Oliver, Michael Hartnett, Pat Kavanagh. In the last 2 years, I’ve read maybe 5 or 6 books which were not Joyce-related. A danger of Wake! Those I’ve enjoyed are William Richards: Sacred Knowledge, Adventures of a Waterboy: Mike Scott, Paul Tillich: The Power to Be, and Ken Wilber: Sex, Ecology and Spirituality.

More info:

Read more about Finnegans Wake-End.

Finnegan Wakes - The Film group page on Facebook.

Waywords & Meansigns project website.

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