The retired Berkeley professor and legendary James Joyce scholar who wrote Joyce's Book of the Dark, John Bishop, passed away on Friday May 15th, 2020 after suffering complications due to Covid-19. He had been fighting through health maladies the last several years. Read his obituary here.
It is safe to say John Bishop's book Joyce's Book of the Dark made a huge impact on me. I owned the book for many years before I committed to reading all of it, but it always inspired me. My initial discovery of the book was right around the time I fell in love with Finnegans Wake around 2009 when I was living in San Diego, unemployed for months at a time, living in tiny apartments, spending days reading at the beach, nights reading at the library. I used to make the long drive up to LA to attend a Finnegans Wake reading group in Venice and drive home the same night. It was right around that time when I first started writing a blog. In fact, part of my inspiration to write a blog stemmed from my feeling that there was such a book as Joyce's Book of the Dark by John Bishop out there in the world and hardly anybody on the internet was talking about it. I write for people like me who are searching for discussions about this exact thing. The name of this blog "Finnegans, Wake!" and that little quote "you have nothing to lose but your chains" that sits atop this blog, that all came from John Bishop's book.
By the time I finally got around to dedicating myself to reading Joyce's Book of the Dark back in 2012 (the same year I started this blog), the book struck me so much that I then spent a full year slowly re-reading the whole thing, taking copious notes and trying to comprehend it all. It's a huge book, peppered with various diagrams and word-trees, and stuffed with footnotes that are as rich and informative as the text itself. Bishop builds up his Wake theories so thoroughly that his book is easy to get lost in. I think it's tough to make an argument against Joyce's Book of the Dark being the greatest book ever written about Finnegans Wake. That book alone, I would hazard to surmise, has launched many academic and literary careers. The sharpest and most ardent Finnegans Wake readers across the globe hold Bishop's book in the highest regard. It helped open up the text of the Wake for all of us to read our own theories into it, while expounding thoroughly on Bishop's own profound and fascinating interpretation of the book.
After studying Bishop's great book I wrote a 4-part review attempting to summarize some of its most eye-opening aspects in my view. That review consumed an immense amount of time and energy, it was not an easy thing to write but I felt a need to do so and the final result became one of the things I feel most proud to have written.
Here are the links to my review of John Bishop's masterpiece Joyce's Book of the Dark:
At the bottom of Part 4 there I shared some links to more material from John Bishop including an old lecture he gave on the Prankquean section of the Wake, a rich and enlightening interview with Bishop conducted by my friend Gerry Fialka (wherein Bishop reflects on FW p. 287: "If we could each always do all we ever did"), and the full recording of a literature course taught by Bishop at UC-Berkeley in 2008.
At some point after I began writing about the works of James Joyce, partly inspired by John Bishop, I started writing papers to deliver at academic conferences focused on Joyce studies. Though I have now been to a handful of conferences around the world and met many accomplished and inspiring Joyceans, I never did get to meet John Bishop. But I did get to see him. The first time I attended a Joyce conference was back in 2011 at Caltech in Pasadena, CA. Sadly, Bishop had recently suffered a stroke so he was unable to attend. His friends among the professors there channeled him in via Skype though, to have a Finnegans Wake reading group one afternoon during the conference. He was confined to a wheelchair, his physical faculties had taken a hit but his mind remained sharp. Years later when I was at a Joyce conference in Toronto in 2017, once again the professors channeled in their friend John Bishop via video conferencing. This time he delivered a paper on a panel about magic in Finnegans Wake (where there was also a great paper about the Wake as grimoire).
By that time I had already written the big review of Bishop's book, I was a huge fan of his (I had also been contacted by some of Bishop's caretakers who mentioned he had read and loved the review I wrote) so I sat there listening to him on a live-feed expound off the top his head all about one little line in the Wake ("Poor little brittle magic nation" spoken on FW p. 565 by a mother who comforts her child after he awoke from a nightmare, telling him it's only his imagination) and I tried to take as thorough notes as I possibly could, practically jotting down every word the man said. This is because, while there are many great exegetes of Joyce out there, no other has ever struck me to the degree Bishop has. And this would likely be my last chance to hear him share fresh insights about Joyce and Finnegans Wake. That short talk he gave totally blew me away. I think about it often. I wrote a summary of what he said at the end of this recap of the Toronto Joyce conference.
Afterwards I sought out Bishop's friends, the professors who had arranged his talk. I told them I was someone with an immense appreciation for Bishop's work and let them know that, last I'd heard (in the interview Bishop did in 2009 that you can listen to here) Bishop said he was finishing up a sequel to his Book of the Dark and also writing a book about what he had learned in his four decades studying Ulysses. I asked if they knew anything about those projects and implored them to ensure Bishop's notes for those projects are located and safeguarded. I maybe seemed a little crazy.
That was June of 2017. A year later at another conference, this time in Antwerp, Belgium, I got to have lunch with another great Joyce scholar whose work I admire, professor Vincent Cheng who wrote the powerful book Joyce, Race, and Empire. He also was a roommate with John Bishop when they were in grad school together. We talked for a long time, professor Cheng is a really nice guy, friendly and accommodating, he told me many stories. He mentioned how Bishop would stay up all night writing his thesis. That thesis is what became the book Joyce's Book of the Dark, but professor Cheng emphasized that the material in the book was only the first half of his thesis. There was a whole other part to it.
Here's hoping we haven't seen the last of John Bishop's unique angles of explicating the depths of Finnegans Wake. Regardless, the man leaves behind a legacy of having inspired and sparked the passionate interests of many readers around the world. I hear stories all the time about the Wake reading group he hosted in Berkeley. I can only hope to carry on the tradition of enjoying and celebrating Joyce's book of the dark and spreading the spark of inspiration and excitement for Joyce's work that Bishop provided.