I’ve spent the last few months slowly reading Finnegans Wake, which has been the biggest reason for the sparseness of posts. I didn’t find it suitable for the sort of episodic reflections that I was able to make with Proust, and anyway, my experience was biased by having one particular guide’s view as I read it. Hell, it was tainted by taking one particular approach to the book, that of the old-time Joyceans like Roland McHugh, Clive Hart, and Fritz Senn. I like this approach–it may be the best first approach these is–but clearly the exercise of reading in this manner is very different than the one that spurred John Bishop’s idiosyncratic reading in Joyce’s Book of the Dark, which abandons most of the purported thematic elements (Vico, fathers and sons, etc.) to focus on the quiddities of sensory perception.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The idea of writing for “those other people who’ve read the Wake” seems silly even on a little blog like this one. And I don’t know if I’d say that I’ve read it, but I can say that I am now familiar with it. I feel like I have an idea of the shape of the book, and how the verbiage ebbs and flows over the course of 600+ pages. I know that the second book (of four) is an absolute cauchemar of impenetrability, while parts of the first sometimes approach clarity.
One thing I’ll say, though, is that calling it nonsense is a bit perverse given Joyce’s attitudes. Joyce was a obsessive conceptualist and list-maker, and he organized his lists by even more concepts. The trend is there, buried, in Portrait, and it’s rather straightforwardly present in Ulysses, which lays at least one big analogy on top of one big story. Finnegans Wake, then, was Joyce’s attempt to lay all analogies on top of all stories and to revel in the contradictions rather than making the pretense of resolving them. He let puns and portmanteaus be his serendepitous guides in associating ideas, but he never left it at that. If Buckley and Berkeley happened to sound the same, Joyce would be damned if he didn’t create a conceptual schema behind them linking the two…or, more likely, several contradictory schemas. One term of Joyce’s that’s been suggested for this is “transaccidentation.”
Now, of course these things collide constantly, but they’re always there. Given determined effort, meaning and allusion start pouring out of the text, and they do so in structured ways. It’s when the structures start overlapping and colliding that the book becomes genuinely baffling. Add to that the constant knowledge that there’s plenty that you’re missing, and you grow tentative. Since it is clear that any sense of the book lies in the contradictions and not in any one interpretation, there is the sense of boring through a wall of infinite depth with a variety of implements. Whether with a toothpick or with a jackhammer, there can be slow progress and fast progress, but you’re not going to see the end of it. I think Fritz Senn has it right:
FW goes so much against the grain of the binary, digital predominance
all around us. It shows that the world is never to be resolved into either/or, cannot be reduced to 1′s and 0′s. There is no doubt a need for ambiguity and indeterminacy. FW cannot be dominated, controlled, domesticated, in spite of our efforts.
Q9: Can we learn something by reading it?
I suppose it reinforces a sort of skepticism. Its basis seems (to me) instant contradiction, or a choice of alternatives. Antidote to dogmatism. It may also teach that all is vanity, the same anew, but somehow must go on.
The book is easier than its reputation would have you believe because it exudes purposeful meaning: everything is there for a reason, and usually several reasons. It’s more difficult than its reputation because underneath the surface text, there is no single plot, character, or explanation for what is buried under the opaque verbiage. This becomes most noticeable in most of Book III, where the text tends to be a lot less abstruse than in Book II, but in which the situations being portrayed are even less realistic than before, culiminating in the grandiose fantasia of III.3, in which four senile old men seem to be excavating the mound of history itself, until a litany of betrayals and suffering pour out. I found this section tremendously moving, however little I understood it. Though the book may be impenetrable, Joyce is not the most philosophical of writers: he constantly references the physical and the commonplace, and as much as we all know these things, we can read ourselves into bits and pieces of the Wake.
Why did I do it? As a reader, as a writer, as a student, I want to read things that are sui generis. This was looming large on that list.
What did I get from it? Among other things, a sense of limitless possibility.
Was it worth it? Yes. But I have only invested a couple months, not the decades that others have.
To be continued…
(To all: please comment with your thoughts and experiences on FW! The book, more than any other I know, is a collective experience.)