Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: June 2006

Inquest on Left-Brained Literature

Excuse me while I get all Franco Moretti on you readers here. I work among engineers, and many of them are voracious readers who, nonetheless, have little connection to any prevailing literary trends. Rather, there appears to be a parallel track of literature that is popular specifically among engineers, which I’ll call “left-brained literature” for lack of a better term. The provisional definition of the term is simply those books that fall into the category of my having empirically observed them being read by a multitude of engineers with a literary bent. My conclusions are tentative, but I think that it’s valuable just to construct this sort of list.

I’m excluding all genre science-fiction from the category, because I don’t find it particularly revelatory. I’m interested in that subset of “mainstream,” “non-genre” fiction (these relative terms having been established by social consensus), and within that set, which novels of some notoriety and good PR happen to attract members of the engineering professions.

(Another scholar who also works amongst engineers produced near-duplication of this list when queried. Some affinities were further verified by use of the “similar items” feature on Amazon. Give me a research grant and I’ll confirm further and conduct a less ad hoc census.)

After each name I’ve given a list of a couple general elements of the author’s work, which I think might be useful in considering their inclusion.

Richard Powers. Uses “science” (and scientists) with a minimum of “science-fiction.” Yet of course this does not explain his comparative left-brained success. By far the most popular of his works amongst engineers: The Gold Bug Variations and Galatea 2.2. Emotionally pathos-laden works. Clear stylistic and thematic affinities with Douglas Hofstadter (see below). A key figure in that he appears to be more popular with engineers than with almost anyone else.

Umberto Eco. Only popular for his fiction, and mostly for his first two novels. Use of generic material (mystery and suspense) towards metafictional and postmodern ends. Rather dispassionate.

Milorad Pavic. Portrays history, myth, and religion as game. Most popular for Dictionary of the Khazars, but this is also his most famous work, a self-described “lexicon novel.” Emotionally sterile, but historically panoramic. Experimental means but clear empiricist ethos.

Georges Perec. Life: A User’s Manual is the ur-text for many spatially architected novels to follow. Mathematical (and other Oulipo-esque approaches) methodologies deployed in fields of the humanities. Hesitant about traditional psychology, abandoning it after the early work A Man Asleep. Controlled emotion, especially notable in W: The Memory of Childhood.

Haruki Murakami. Genre-elements of science-fiction and mystery used in psychological phantasmagorias. Imaginative but construction is often less than rigorous. Linear plots with plenty of momentum. Heartfelt and sincere, if sometimes clumsy. Literal writing sytle.

Colson Whitehead. Quite popular just on the basis of his first novel, The Intuitionist. Not yet categorizable, but shows a tendency to sublimate emotion in allegorical assemblages. Pristine, detached style belies strong messages.

David Mitchell. Heavily influenced by Murakami and has lived in Japan. Also heavy use of phantasmagoria, complemented by very sophisticated narrative construction. Prefers simple, visceral, classical themes approached in flashy, novel way. Heavy use of pathos.

Don DeLillo. Highly acclaimed by literary establishment, but not as popular amongst engineers as some of those above. Heavy allegorization, usually irony-laden. Socio-political commentary, often delivered through the voices of characters who tend to sound the same. Virtuosic stylist, but the prose can drag.

Italo Calvino. Favored mostly by engineers for post-1965 experimental work reminiscent of Borges such as Cosmicomics, Invisible Cities, The Castle of Crossed Destinies, and If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Heavy mythological content; light math/science content. Some “new novel” influence via Robbe-Grillet. Wonderful, breezy stylist.

Douglas Hofstadter. Non-fiction writer, but importance of Godel, Escher, Bach, which partly uses fictional forms, is too great not to list. Brilliant computer scientist and popularizer, but suffers from a glib, punny style and a lack of verbal taste (see his translation of Eugene Onegin) that render his works unreadable to many. His ideas, drawn from logic, music, mathematics, and elsewhere, suffuse the works of many other American authors on this list.

Nicholson Baker. Obsessively detail-oriented. Near-autistic categorizing and cataloguing of quotidian material, especially in his early work. Baroque style, flattened emotions.

Neal Stephenson. Crossed-over from science-fiction into information-laden historical epics of chiefly science history. Most beloved for Snow Crash, but Cryptonomicon is also important. Appropriately-titled Baroque Cycle remains unread even by most engineer fans of his. Competent stylist, light on character and emotion.

William Gibson. Another cross-over. “Cyberpunk” tendencies disguise lack of rigorous science content. Aggressive use of technology, but fundamentally rhapsodic and character-driven. Innovative, influential stylist, but often narratively lax.

Bruce Sterling. A third cross-over who may not yet have crossed over. Parallel career to Gibson, but weak style, emotional shallowness, and lack of character development may have hindered mainstream acceptance. Compensates with greater science and technology content.

Jorge Luis Borges. Literary genius who wrote conceptual, highly-compressed short stories. Not as widely-read as some of the others on this list, but has influenced so many of them that he must be included. Lack of emotion, character, and plot; stories are often driven by a single, revelatory idea.

There were a few other candidates that I excluded from the list either for lack of confirmation data (Cortazar, Pynchon, Auster) or due to the work falling into the realm of “trash,” to use the term descriptively (Danielewski, Coupland). I’d be willing to reconsider. And as much as I racked my brains, I could not come up with a single woman writer that fit.

One obvious conclusion is that engineers tend to like novelists that deal in math and science material, but that does not explain many of the names on this list, notably those that use science in a “soft” form, such as Calvino and Gibson. Certain common traits do seem to recur, such as verbal literalism and a lack of irony, but even these are contradicted by some members of the list above.

I have no definite conclusions to draw at the moment, but I do believe that this is more than just an exercise. Within this overlap, I believe one can observe two different forms of reading, one more particular to engineers and one more general. While they may not be discrete, I think they separate cleanly enough to merit deep investigation.

[How do you all like the new list-making Waggish? It’s only a temporary phase, probably brought on by reading Finnegans Wake, which contains many, many lists itself, particularly the list of names of ALP’s letter (i.e., the book itself) and the list of titles for
HCE. These tendencies will be further explored in a forthcoming post
on listmakers and architects.]

Update: more suggestions and hypotheses from readers in the comments.

More Books on the (Finnegans) Wake

Finishing up a few more sources from last time. Personally speaking, I enjoy reading books on Joyce more than on most authors, because of the sense of the shared quest to unearth sedimentary layer after layer and the willingness of scholars to lean on one another in doing so.

Joyce-again’s Wake, Bernard Benstock. Invaluable for the outline Benstock gives, which is useful in carving up the monolithic chapters of the Wake into more manageable chunks. It also contains a fantastic analysis of the Prankquean fable located on pages 21-23. The rest of the book both summarizes previous scholarship and elaborates on it in a rather freewheeling fashion. There’s plenty of good stuff, but Benstock sometimes is too exclusive about his readings, and I read them with more salt than I did Hart or Atherton. On Issy, the topic I researched, I disagree with him.

A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake, William York Tindall. I confess I did not find this book all that useful. Like Blamires’ Bloomsday Book, it explicates the Wake page by page. Unfortunately, what’s left out is far greater than what remains, and Tindall often makes controversial interpretations without appearing to do so. It’s less of a problem in Blamires because the narrative of Ulysses is reasonably uncontroversial, but since narrative in Finnegans Wake emerges from linguistic confusion and contradiction, Tindall’s approach makes the Wake appear smaller than it is.

Third Census of Finnegans Wake, Adaline Glasheen. The exact opposite of Tindall’s book, this is nothing more and nothing less than a catalogue of all the proper names in the Wake that Glasheen could identify. (It also includes another summary with, as is to be expected, some contentious interpretations.) Glasheen’s list of references is exhausting, if not exhaustive, and while I wouldn’t recommend the book to neophytes (such as myself), I’m sure it’s incessantly useful in generating ideas when analyzing passages. It poses thousands of questions along the lines of, “Why did Joyce connect person X with person Y?”

Joyce’s Book of the Dark, John Bishop. This book probably deserves its own entry. While schooled in the above traditions of Wake scholarship, Bishop goes in another direction entirely, focusing on Joyce’s linguistic methods as theme, particularly as they relate to sleep, the body, and the five senses. Bishop is fond of making extremely short citations and combining them from all over the Wake in close succession, which emphasizes Joyce’s sea of language while downplaying any potential linear continuity. Bishop also analyzes two key mythologies that influenced the Wake, the Egyptian Book of the Dead and Vico’s New Science, but his interpretations are highly heterodox and not especially structural. Consequently, Bishop has the effect of making Finnegans Wake seem even weirder than the other books make it out to be. I recommend the book, with the proviso that it may leave you, as it implies, in the dark.

Finding a Replacement for the Soul, Brett Bourbon. I wrote on this book last year, and while it is not exclusively concerned with the Wake, it invokes Finnegans Wake as a central example for Bourbon’s non-propositional view of fiction. Bourbon, I believe, was a student of Bishop and locates Bishop’s nighttime uncertainty in the processes of language itself, taking Bishop’s argument even farther. Not an exegesis of Finnegans Wake, but a reflection on what the Wake says (or shows) about readers and reading.

Carl Schmitt

Long Sunday has been running a series of posts on Carl Schmitt. I am not at all a fan or a student of Schmitt, and I am not intimately familiar with his work. From what I have read of his work, however, I believe there is far more to learn about politics and political philosophy in the 20th century from, for example, Karl Polanyi, Richard J. Bernstein, Joseph Schumpeter, Fernand Braudel, Randolph Bourne, Benedict Anderson, Leszek Kolakowski, Barrington Moore, Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Walzer, and Robert Musil. Conveniently for me, these thinkers are all free of the Nazi baggage with which Schmitt is saddled. While I don’t plan to participate in the discussion, I do want to examine some of the axiomatic statements that have been made, especially around Schmitt’s Nazi involvement.

Whatever their differences, there is one undoubted similarity between Schmitt and the Left (I capitalize it to distinguish its doctrinaire manifestation from the all-encompassing anti-Bush, pro-competence anti-imperialism that passes for leftism in the United States these days, on which I hope we all agree): their anti-liberalism. As I said, I think Stanley Fish’s recent op-ed is one of the more concise statements of this position. Craig picks up this thread when he says:

Perhaps, then, the fascination with Schmitt qua Nazi has more to do with the aspirations of left politics than with any real danger – at least insofar as that danger is fascist. Thus, the point in such ‘critiques’ isn’t fascism, but rather those who do not have the common sense to be decent, complacent liberals.

I.e., people who are attacking Schmitt for being a Nazi are really attacking him because he threatens their complacent liberal world-view. This is also something of an old saw, recently enshrined more convincingly in Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, which was in essence a vicious attack on those who would try to work within a rotten system to change it. It reminds me of those lyrics that Lester Bangs quotes in his review of Chicago at Carnegie Hall (probably his defining moment):

For the “preaching” vocal improvisition in the Fourth Movement of “It Better End Soon”–“We’ve gotta do it right / Within this system / Gonna take over / But within this system”–the They Got the Guns But We Got the Numbers Award.

But this is a conception of liberalism not as an ideology but as a class phenomenon, that of sheltered middle-class complicity. Interesting how the term “liberal” slides from being an ideology to that of a generalized accomplice, much as it has to the extreme right factions in this country: not liking Bush makes you a liberal. At any rate, I don’t think this criticism really flies, since there are plenty of non-Nazi anti-liberal thinkers who are being mostly ignored as well. (Herbert von Karajan was far more of a Nazi than Wilhelm Furtwangler, but I do not believe that Furtwangler is less famous than Karajan these days because he was a vastly better and more challenging conductor.) But I digress; this is more a matter of positioning.

Craig notes two black marks on Schmitt’s record:

1933 and 1945. These two years have overdetermined the subsequent reception of Carl Schmitt’s thought and influence. In 1933, as we all know, Schmitt joined the Nazi party; the same month as Martin Heidegger. In 1945, Schmitt was released from internment at Nuremberg, at which point he entered exile, never again to teach in West Germany or to hold an academic position.

Craig implies that this list covers all the big-ticket items, but it does not. To make a case for Schmitt, it would first be necessary to lay out a few other ignominious dates. October, 1936, when he declared to a convention of law professors that German law must be cleansed of the “Jewish spirit.” June, 1934, when he called Hitler’s “Long Knives” purges “the highest form of administrative justice.” September, 1936, when with much contemporary resonance, he defends the Inquisition (though not its methods of torture) as a model of justice, since it requires confessions before convictions. October, 1936 again, when he quoted Hitler: “In that I defend myself against the Jews, I struggle to do the work of the Lord.” And many of the months and years after the war in which he wrote in his journals such statements as “Jews remain Jews while Communists can improve themselves and change. The real enemy is the assimilated Jew.” Edmund Fawcett writes:

Unlike the involvement of Heidegger, who largely fell silent after early pro-Nazi encomiums, Schmitt’s engagement with Hitlerism was nevertheless lasting and open. He re-edited his publications, playing down references to Jewish or left-wing thinkers and adding anti-Semitic asides. In October 1936, he spoke at a conference on “German law in the fight against the Jewish intellect”, ending with Hitler’s words, “By fending off the Jew, I struggle for the work of the Lord”. After 1940, Schmitt lectured in Occupied Europe on Nazi legal and cultural policy.

[In his post-war journals] He derided returning exiles who “treasured their virtue like booty” and mocked the German historians who were trying to tell the truth about what had happened. Thomas Mann came in for special scorn, a hated symbol to Schmitt of high-bourgeois probity, whom he called “a reputable fraud”.

That’s not to mention 1938, in which Schmitt wrote that Jews sit around waiting for Christians to die in battle and “then eat the flesh of those killed and live off it” (The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes).

So by all means, attempt to distinguish Schmitt’s philosophy from his Nazi activities, but let’s not downplay the latter when attempting to explicate them.

Craig asks a couple of rhetorical follow-ups, which I think deserve answers. The questions are in italics.

Why, then, is Heidegger spared the assault that Schmitt has suffered? Insomuch as there can be a distinction, I too find Schmitt to have been a more vigorous Nazi and anti-semite than Heidegger (or even Celine), but I see little point in measuring sins. My answer would be that Heidegger has not been spared such an assault. In his well-written introduction to Heidegger, George Steiner looks unflinchingly at the problem of Heidegger’s Nazism and excuses nothing. Contrast it with Craig’s remarks.

What about others who were either sympathizers or full members of the party? What about them indeed? As always in life, justice was not done. People like Karajan got off far too lightly, while people like Klages and Baeumler were justly marginalized. De Man and Heidegger have suffered their share of trouble as well, as well they should. We should be more than troubled by these things.

Why is it acceptable for artists, such as Eliot and Pound, to have had fascist sympathies? Is it? The problem of fascist, anti-semitic or otherwise repellent sympathies plagues the histories of all disciplines. Pound forever will stand with Wyndham Lewis and Lord Haw-haw as one of the more nauseating British fascists. Kipling was a colonialist. Dostoevsky and Celine were anti-semites. So was Thomas Edison. Their beliefs are inscribed in their records and we read them with that knowledge.

What was so dangerous about Schmitt that he was interned at Nuremberg in preparation for trial and then prohibited an academic job after the war? I confess to not understanding this question, as this fate befell many (but not all) of those who had similar Nazi memberships and sympathies. Neither Germany seemed to want much to do with them. Some (let me bash on Karajan some more, for example) were unfairly rehabilitated.

Why does such a pariah, such a horrendous figure appeal so greatly to certain segments of the left? “The enemy of my enemy is my friend?”

I do ultimately find the Left’s tolerance for Schmitt somewhat ironic. In a Leftist arts community where there has been a litmus test of whether one’s poetry helps to establish socialism in the world today, it’s hard to imagine a litmus test that Schmitt could ever pass. Personally, I find the work of disentangling his political philosophy from his Nazi viewpoints to be unrewarding and possibly futile. Personally, I simply find Heidegger to be a far more original thinker, and I spend my time worrying about his Nazi associations rather than Schmitt’s. There is much room for disagreement on these points, but we must at least be honest about the degree and mode of Schmitt’s Nazi involvement and respect critiques based on them inasmuch as they are factual, regardless of motive. And to those who would say that my distaste towards Schmitt owing to his Nazi views has anything in the least to do with his challenging of my complacent liberalism, I cry bullshit.

Shohei Imamura 1926-2006

Imamura deserves much more space than I can give him here, and one should start at this overview, with some great quotes:

I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure on which the reality of daily Japanese life obstinately supports itself.

If you’d asked me two weeks ago, I would have called him my favorite living director. Now he’s probably my favorite dead director. There are very few other directors who deal with the world in such an all-encompassing totality, without the desire to tie it down into a preconceived structure. As I’ve said elsewhere, Imamura convinces you that the world continues infinitely beyond the frame, and that he could show you any part of it if he so desired. He was also one of the very few Japanese directors I know of to transcend the dragon-lady/martyr dichotomy of women that overwhelmingly prevails in Japanese film from Mizoguchi to Suzuki to Miike. (“Self-sacrificing women like the heroines of Naruse’s Floating Clouds and Mizoguchi’s Life of Oharu don’t really exist.”) There are no obvious comparisons, but thinking of him as a more proletarian Renoir or a more consistent Altman may not be so far off the mark. Emir Kusturica also owes him quite a debt.

My own thoughts on some of his films follow; I have my favorites, but I honestly recommend you see them all. There are still films of his that I haven’t seen: The Profound Desire of the Gods, A Man Vanishes, A History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess. Not to be melodramatic, but I feel that they’re necessary for me to watch.

Pigs and Battleships (1961). I already wrote about this one, but it’s portrait of decadent post-war Japan is unlike anything else I’ve seen. While others were making self-flagellating exercises in remorse (see Kobayashi’s The Human Condition), Imamura ignored virtue and duty to show the intersecting forces of opportunism and greed.

The Insect Woman (1963). The most acute example of his treatment of women in traditional Japan, showing one woman’s progression from exploiter to exploited as a factor of environmental and survival instincts, not as the product of some abstract human nature. Crushes Mizoguchi and Ozu. (There’ll be plenty of time to like Ozu when I’m an old sentimental geezer.)

The Pornographers (1966). Unbelievably bizarre disquisition on Japanese family life and sexuality. Incest, porn, fish, sex dolls. This one is famous because of its sheer lurid oddity, but I don’t apprehend it as intuitively, and I suspect that it travels with more difficulty than his other films. Still brilliant.

Vengeance is Mine (1979). A comparatively restrained study of a serial murderer, played brilliantly by the underrated Ken Ogata. Imamura resists psychologizing Ogata’s character, preferring to leave him as a overt manifestation of what Japan would rather keep quiet, much like Moosbrugger in The Man Without Qualities. It plays as a travelogue through various sorts of physical and spiritual despair, all made visceral.

Eijanaika (1981). An awesome achievement and my second favorite. Nineteenth century Japan as seen from the view of the peasants. Neither sentimental nor revisionist, it subtly builds to a futile but profound peasant revolt that is everything you never see in Kurosawa. Words fail me. Again, what is remarkable is the absolute structural conviction and integrity. Imamura never falters.

The Ballad of Narayama (1983). Imamura’s greatest film, and probably my favorite film of all time. It is so close to me that I’ll give up on describing it. Just watch the damn thing, and please, someone issue it on DVD.

Black Rain (1989). Imamura’s treatment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Japanese’s psychological exile of the victims. Less incisive than his prior work, it evinces more overt compassion than he had previously allowed. As such, I think it shows cracks in the perfection of his earlier work, but it’s still fine, fine stuff.

The Eel (1997). Imamura became famous all over again for this one, but I think of it as a minor work, telling a simple tale of a man’s (successful) attempt at redemption. Imamura sacrifices his panoramic talent for more intimate human interest, and while the result is still compelling, it does not stand up to what went before.

Dr. Akagi (1998). It seems deceptively minor at first, but this is a much more substantial film than The Eel. A series of tales focusing around an apolitical doctor in World War II, it displays for the first time what Imamura believes constitutes virtue in the rotten world he’d portrayed for the previous forty years. It is his most hopeful film, but as you’d expect, it’s a guarded hope.

Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (2001). A disappointing final film. Beginning with a fairly ridiculous premise, Imamura here is far sunnier than he has ever been before, but alas, he is out of his element in these realms, and the film doesn’t cohere. Yet I have to wonder if it was Imamura’s final taunt at the recurrent theme of disgust and fear of open, healthy female sexuality in Japanese culture (though the sentiment is hardly unique to Japan).

The Books on the (Finnegans) Wake

I was asked today about contemporary reaction to Finnegans Wake when it was published, and I had to say that I didn’t think that there was much of one. Borges dismissed it as incomprehensible while asking for a guidebook for it, much as Stuart Gilbert had published one for Ulysses. Others genuflected and tried to forget about it as soon as they could. In the absence of any sort of key with which to decode the novel, most understandably could not be bothered. Edmund Wilson supposedly put the most effort in, though I have not read his review. Anyone have a copy?

It’s a sign of Joyce’s naivete, I suppose, that he didn’t foresee this. He was disappointed by the reception, but I can’t imagine what else he could have expected upon publishing a book that would take decades of effort by hundreds of people to begin to decode. Some have speculated that Joyce intended to make much supporting explanatory material available, as he did with Ulysses when he passed out chapter schemae to Gilbert et al., but that Joyce died before he could do so, two years after publication. I wonder, especially since a lot of Joyce’s explanations tended to be after the fact, as though he were interpreting, non-definitively and not without humor, his own work.

The essays by many famous and less famous names included in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (Work in Progress being the then-title of the Wake) are more interesting as a sort of Rorschach test for the authors involved than for the light they shed on the book. With the possible exception of Beckett, who probably knew a lot more about the book than the others, the efforts by William Carlos Williams, Eugene Jolas, and others attempt to describe Finnegans Wake based on selected fragments, and it’s as though they were looking at a one-inch square of Guernica.

Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson were the first to have a real go at it in A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, which features a great close reading of the opening sections, followed by a dubious but good-hearted attempt to extrapolate the rest of the book. I didn’t get much out of it, but Robinson and Campbell set the style for the two main types of criticism to follow, attempted summarization and word-by-word glossing. To quote David Pears: “Some fly, while others struggle to crawl.”

For a variety of reasons, I stayed within the Joycean tradition of criticism while reading the Wake, avoiding all theory-based and non-specialist approaches. Joyce scholars can be a somewhat hermetic and monomaniacal lot: many of the people below study Joyce exclusively and exhaustively. I can think of no better example than that of Adaline Glasheen, a New England teacher who put together The Census of Finnegans Wake, which attempts to list every personage named or alluded to in the Wake, alphabetically. She remarked:

I hold to my old opinion. Finnegans Wake is a model of a mysterious universe made mysterious by Joyce for the purpose of striking with polished irony at the hot vanity of divine and human wishes…Joyce himself told Arthur Power: what is clear and concise can’t deal with reality, for to be real is to be surrounded by mystery.

The unpretentious Glasheen liberally peppers the text with remarks such as, “I don’t know who this is.” From her husband’s biographical note:

Adaline was born in Evansville, Indiana, attended the public schools there. Adaline and her mother borrowed armloads of books weekly from the public library. They were both able to recall every detail of their reading. Good books, trash they read ’em all. This proved to be a great help in her Joyce work. After a year of two at the University of Indiana, she transferred to the University of Mississippi. Adaline was hired to coach football players in English lest they flunk out and thus do harm to the football team. She continued the reading habits of her childhood. Later she felt that Joyce, too, was a great reader of trash; hence her ability to spot references and allusions in Joyce. She received her B.A. at Ole Miss. She took her M.A. at George Washington University. While I was in the army she taught at Wheaton College in Massachusetts.

Upon the birth of our daughter in 1946, Adaline was eager for a task which she could do in the few minutes between the incessant trivia of rearing a child. The ‘Joyce game’ enabled her to survive.

The advantage of the approach of such people that they tend to be rather open to heterodoxy and iconoclasm; the disadvantage can be a certain literalism and lack of generalization. Here then are the books that I found and my reactions to them. The James Joyce Scholars’ Collection is a great resource, as it contains some of the key works of Wake criticism in this tradition.

The Books at the Wake, William Atherton. Ultimately, I think this may be the best place to start. The Wake is inarguably loaded with tons of references to certain writers in particular: not just Vico, but Swift, Lewis Carroll, Blake, etc. Atherton goes author by author, which conveniently gives an overview of the continuities of the book (one of the more difficult things to grasp on encountering it) while not being beholden to one particular interpretation of it.

The Sigla of Finnegans Wake, Roland McHugh. McHugh is one of the most intense Wake scholars, and in The Finnegans Wake Experience he describes moving to Ireland to better understand the book. This slim volume describes, with much reference to Joyce’s notebooks, how the many personages of the book combine into sigla, a dozen or so symbols around which Joyce constructed the book. (For example, HCE in all his various forms is a wicket-shaped “M”, and ALP in hers is a triangle.) Joyce’s sigla changed as he wrote the book, and there’s room for interpretation, but McHugh, like no other analyst, gives the impression of truly grasping the whole damn thing, even as it streams between his fingers. Only my inexpert opinion, but McHugh seemed to be most in tune with Finnegans Wake.

Annotations to Finnegans Wake, Roland McHugh. Absolutely indispensible for writing a paper, but insanely frustrating to a newcomer. For those who haven’t seen it, this is an extensive gloss that maps page-by-page on to the original text with concise, sometimes cryptic notes. (You really have to see it to get the effect.) On first glance the Annotations are just as obscure as the Wake itself, but once I started catching recurrences of certain allusions, it becomes how impressively they match up with particular subjects and characters in the Wake. (For example, apparent Jonathan Swift and Lewis Carroll references occur absurdly often in any section associated with the daughter Issy.)

Structure and Motif in Finnegans Wake, Clive Hart. As the title suggests, Hart’s book contrasts with McHugh’s in tracing linguistic, spatial, temporal, and referential structure through the book rather than focusing on character or narrative. As such, Hart attempts to describe the macro-structure of the Wake with a minimum of interpretation–which invariably turns out to be quite a lot. Hart is in a lot of contentious territory, but his knowledge is solid and his pace careful. I think of Hart’s book as consciously open-ended: even where I find his interpretations uncertain, they are always provocative and spur even more future questions.

More books on the Wake next time…

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