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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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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…

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.)

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