David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Reflections in/on Finnegans Wake

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.)


  1. Glad to see you’re back!

    Have you seen this attempt to put FW into a wiki? At least the beginning is thoroughly annotated, which might make an argument for reading the book online in this manner rather in the print edition. Have been saving the book for myself, but I might give in soon . . .

  2. ‘Culiminating’–is this wonderful portmanteau unintentional?

    Anyway, the particular qualities of FW were well illustrated to me when I joined a nascent Wake reading group a couple of years ago, spearheaded by a prominent Joyceophile, Derek Attridge (I don’t find his printed comments on Joyce very interesting–but he knows his stuff). Those who’d never seen it before were no worse at making suggestions than experienced Wakeheads like myself. I’d found the book on my parents’ good bourgeois bookshelf (they’d never read it of course!), aged 16 or so, thought it was hilarious drivel… until an English teacher in my last year of school brought in the last page (my leaves are drifting from me, etc.), and the things he said about it blew my tiny mind.

    One has the Samuel Beckett reaction: “What the hell next? How can anybody do better than it?” You can’t, of course. In a way, one begins to realise the superficiality of J’s understanding of intellectual history (eg. Bruno, Vico); but what he lacks in scholarly acumen (and his essays on lit are pretty mediocre too) he makes up for in his command of the language. I almost imagine him as a superhero–whose special power is being able to do *anything* with language.

    For what it’s worth, my favourite parts are still the last page (which fills me with as much sublime joy as the last page of Penelope), and also the home-school sequence with the two boys: Euclidean geometry, kabbalah, etc., just magic. Usylessly unreadable blue book of Eccles.

    Incidentally, have you heard the audio recording, either Joyce’s rendition of ALP (there’s a link on my website), or the Naxos multi-disc set, which covers about 1/4 of the entire work? Some lady wrote a play-for-voices version of FW; I once saw the text in the Columbia Bookstore, NY, but it was too expensive. Vocally, I heard an amazing performance of ALP by two actors on Bloomsday 2002–the entire thing, memorised perfectly (or as good as I could gather) without any flaws, impressive even at that!

    Finally, I treasure a rare copy of the original French translation by Beckett et al, a fascinating document if you can get a hold of it.

    Sorry to go on. FW does inspire this type of thing.

  3. Thanks for this! A while back Marilyn French wrote a study of Ulysses titled “The Book as World”; it would be an even better epithet for FW. My sense of the indeterminacy and contradiction is that Joyce wanted his last two books to have the form not of an account of the world, but of the world itself: in juxtaposing as many contradictory accounts as possible, he presents not an interpretation but an opportunity for interpretations. It’s true that Joyce isn’t a philosophical writer in the sense of his books turning solely on abstractions; Conrad is also right to point out that his view of intellectual history was pretty wonky, and that he was one of the few great modernist writers who was not also a notable essayist. But the philosophical implications of his method are notable because they are so different from those of his contemporaries, and I think have more in common with Wittgenstein and Heidegger: less emphasis on consciousness and subjectivity, more on language as a basic constituent of the world. The same goes for narrative, which most of the modernists held in suspicion as a falsification that we impose upon the basic stuff of the world. I think Joyce’s implicit argument, by contrast, is that the world is nothing but narrative. Our mistake simply lies in imagining that these narratives are univocal, or that we occupy a privileged position in the narration of our own lives.

  4. I love the way the breaks in the clouds come with scraps of great poetry or humour; so much of the thing is so simple and moving, so much of the thing is just plain hilarious.

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