"News, news, all the news." - FW p. 28.21
"old the news of the great big world" - FW p. 194.23-24
Ever since the coronavirus shut everything down, our local Finnegans Wake Reading Group transferred to online conferences and since the reading group is one of the most fun and fulfilling things going on for many of us right now, we shifted our twice-monthly meetings to now meet every week. The online venue allows us to branch out and bring in people who are outside of Austin, so now we regularly have people joining us from California, Ohio, and even Taiwan. It's been extremely satisfying having these weekly gatherings and doing digital group excavations of pages from Finnegans Wake.
One aspect of being involved in a regular Wake reading group that always intrigues me is how, without any intention on our part, we always manage to encounter material on the page we're reading that seems to speak directly to what is happening in the news that day. I've written about this phenomenon before (most notably when the Wake seemed to offer commentary on our Trump predicament), it is a quality about Finnegans Wake that has interested me for a long time, ever since the first time I attended a Wake reading group many years ago in Venice, California where the guy sitting next to me made a bunch of notes about contemporary references on the page we were reading. The upcoming Super Bowl, Bush and Cheney, oil wars in the Middle East, it was all there on the page. My mind was blown.
Oddly, these synchronicities never stop popping up. Like I said, these connections happen when you aren't looking for them. Finnegans Wake simply cannot help itself, it always has something to say about the news. I want to give you three examples from the last few weeks of our reading group to show you what I mean.
- Usually we read one page per meeting, but when we were on page 66 we found it to be so dense and overflowing with allusions and references and topics for discussion that we split that one page into three separate sessions. So in our last session we read the final paragraph which begins with "The coffin, a triumph of the illusionist's art..." and so on. We spent about two hours unpacking just that one paragraph and what we took from it, if I remember correctly, was that the paragraph was saying even though somebody was in a coffin it was an illusion in the sense that their legacy was only just beginning, their legacy would go on to have a life of its own, giving birth to new cycles of life (through their memory, through their children and their descendants, etc) even while their body was left to decay, consumed by subterranean creatures and reduced to ashes. This is an important theme throughout James Joyce's work, that absence can be the greatest form of presence, that the dead take on a more powerful life after death. Of course, it so happened that the day we read this passage was the day of George Floyd's memorial service where he was mourned as he lay inside a golden coffin. And George Floyd, in death, has now become an incredibly powerful figure, a name known across the world, the impact of his tragic killing has sparked an enormous uprising intent on societal change. I think of Floyd's sweet little daughter sitting atop the shoulders of Floyd's friend Stephen Jackson and proclaiming "Daddy changed the world!"
- The following week we were reading page 67 which features a special constable or policeman taking the stand in a trial and giving an eyewitness account of some occurrence in the book. At one point while the policeman is speaking, Joyce uses the phrase "he guntinued." The presence of this constable character opened up a whole discussion about police and the history of policing, which apparently originated from British colonialism and the need to keep colonial subjects in line. Of course, this discussion about the police and their history sprung up amid the backdrop of heated debates going on in the United States about the need to reform our police system. In a bizarre coincidence, the passage on 67 with the policeman features the phrase "You are deepknee in error, sir" which we couldn't help but connect with the horrific image of the policeman Derek Chauvin putting his knee on George Floyd's neck for nearly ten minutes until he died.
(I should also mention that this same passage with the policeman and subtle appearances of police violence featured the word "tailliur" which conjures up Breonna Taylor, the young black woman who was killed while sleeping in her home in Louisville, Kentucky.)
- The most recent one really struck me as being uncanny. While we were reading page 68 we stopped at this sentence and chewed on it for a while: "Nor needs none shaft ne stele from Phenicia or Little Asia to obelise on the spout, neither pobalclock neither folksstone, nor sunkenness in Tomar's Wood to bewray how erpressgangs score off the rued." It is a very dense and difficult sentence to unpack, but there are some good clues in there. That word "stele" refers to a type of ancient monument, a stone slab with inscriptions. You've got an obelisk, another monument, in there. The portmanteau word "pobalclock" combines two Irish words which basically translate to "folk stone" and there is "folksstone" following right after "pobalclock." Fweet mentioned that there is a stone pillar monument in the town of Folkestone in England marking the spot where Saxon invaders landed on the shores. You see where this is going? The sentence essentially says we don't need monuments to mark where the invaders landed, we don't need to recognize those "erpressgangs"---a word combining the German erpressen meaning "to blackmail or extort" and also press-gangs which were groups that kidnapped men and forced them to enlist in the military. All of this stuff rung an uncanny echo with the ongoing debates in the United States about removing statues and monuments that commemorate Confederate generals or slave owners or other historical figures known for their roles in perpetuating America's history of bigotry and racial oppression. Page 68 is very rich and fascinating, there's a lot to it, but for me it was pretty mind-blowing to come upon this sentence about statues and monuments and how we don't need them if they're commemorating invaders and oppressors in the midst of what is happening in America right now. Finnegans Wake never disappoints.