by Derek Pyle
The crown of Hipster Creation, I guess: nonsensical, witty, I-don’t-give-a-fuck cool. Finnegans Wake by James Joyce is the ultimate “shit on canvas and call it art.” An honest admission of admiration for the book seems too arrogant–because after all, I really don’t know what’s going on–and yet I can’t simply write off the work as gibberish. Mirroring this internal conflict, when discussing the book with others I unwittingly slip into a pretentious yet self-effacing brogue. As if arcane is equated with cool, I say stupid shit like, “It’s the most difficult book in the English language.” From Wikipedia:
The entire book is written in a largely idiosyncratic language, consisting of a mixture of standard English lexical items and neologistic multilingual puns and portmanteau words… Despite these obstacles, readers and commentators have reached a broad consensus about the book’s central cast of characters and, to a lesser degree, its plot.
As Roland Saint-Laurent writes, “In a way, the plot to Finnegans Wake is similar to Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster: small groups of people swear it exists, but the vast majority laugh at them and tell them to get a life. ” Why read such a strange book? It’s hard to convey my sincere interest to others, but I try. In what has now become a biannual tradition, last weekend I organized a 19-hour marathon to hear the whole thing on audiobook. This year, the listening party also coincided with the 75th anniversary of the book. My first time listening to the book all the way through, I was most impressed by the momentous cadence. As far as I know, the only unabridged audio version is the one read by Patrick Healy and published by Rennicks Auriton. Read at breakneck speed, the pace is not for everyone; in his review of the audiobook, “The Shittiest Fucking Audiobook I’ve Ever Listened To,” Roland Saint-Laurent writes, “I have never, ever, ever in my life had a more annoying experience with an audiobook. It almost made me want to fly to Ireland so I can kick this guy in the nuts, even though I don’t know if he even lives there.”
But joking aside, I think there is a beauty to Healy’s reading, as he captures the behemoth nature of Joyce’s book. His reading transmits into the listener a visceral kind of Dionysianfrenzy. Healy’s stylistic interpretation of the Wake is hinged then not on the reader’s intellectual grasp of the text, but works in the way of other non-linguistic forms of expression (as is found in art and music). Listening to the book this way is like being transported through the cosmos in a spaceship–the individual words, stars flying by at lightspeed. Nonetheless, it is hard to articulate my thoughts and feelings about a book I understand so poorly. During my first year of intensive reading and listening to Joyce, I was moved by a guiding vision. I felt that Joyce was playing with language in a way that mirrored the elemental processes of creation and destruction. He is building castles out of the sand, smashing them, then re-building new statues. The forms (the different castles and their moats) change, but the fundamental elements (the sand) remain. It is something like the image of Ozymandias, a testimony to the power as ewell as the brevity of humanity, and of the cosmos. As Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson write in their seminal Skeleton Key:
Finnegans Wake is above all an essay in permanence. From its perspective, the hopeful or fearful may learn to behold with a vast sympathy the prodigious upsurging and dissolution of forms, the continual transvaluation of values, the inevitable ambiguities, which are the stuff of life and history. Through notes that finally become tuneable to our ears, we hear James Joyce uttering this resilient, all-enjoying, all-animating “Yes”, the Yes of things yet to come, a Yes from beyond every zone of disillusionment, such as few have had the heart to utter.
Healy’s reading, with the continual rush of the river as its cadence, exemplifies this interpretation of the text. Lost, however, are the layers of nuance and interplay between the words. Finnegans Wake is dense poetry, with webs of interrelated and self-referential words, lines, and images; to read too fast foreclosures the opportunity of watching the dewdrops reflect each other, and the surrounding world, along the spider’s web. In any given line of the Wake, there are multiple images, like a hologram that shifts between different scenes. Take, for example, the following passage:
The Gracehoper was always jigging ajog, hoppy on akkant of his joyicity, (he had a partner pair of findlestilts to supplant him), or, if not, he was always making ungraceful overtures to Floh and Luse and Bienie and Vespatilla to play pupa-pupa and pulicy-pulicy and langtennas and pushpygyddyum and to commence insects with him… (414.22)
Three different images come to my mind. There is the picture of a grasshopper, hoping along joyously, with his long legs (findlestilts). Then there is the connotation of a “Gracehopper”, i.e. one who prays for divine Grace, perhaps through the Christian/Catholic ritual of supplication (the verb, supplant). Yet this man full of grace is like Michael–from the TV show The Office–a rather oblivious man who, while believing in his own good worth, is quite the fool. The ignorant man who is unaware of his “ungraceful overtures,” coming on to the women of The Office with unabashed flirtations (“to play pupa-pupa and pulicy-pulicy”), stuff that would be creepy if it wasn’t so pitiful. This man of “Grace” is also that image of a good, moral Christian who acts with impudent lechery, yet believes that his behavior is pious, redeemed simply because of his belief in Divinity. This is the aloof man who sees no contradiction sinning on Saturday and going to Church on Sunday, provided his moral character is rejuvenated each week through the Grace of communion, or confession.
Joyce is interested in such contradictory layers of meaning and awareness, but rather than discuss this interest from a secondary, reflective position (i.e. rather than simply saying, “Once there was an idiot who didn’t know he was an idiot”), Joyce actually re-builds the contradictory scene, whilst intentionally leaving the fourth wall unconstructed. This is actually more helpful to the process of learning, and the leaving behind of obliviousness. Because when I am the oblivious in day-to-day life, I am generally unaware of my obliviousness, but Joyce, in his prose, works to make us oblivious while being simultaneously aware of this obliviousness. Finally, I know that I don’t understand! Thus, the transmission of confusion is one of Joyce’s aims. Yet whereas the con-artist uses confusion to swindle the uninitiated, Joyce employs his prose to reflect back to us how often we attribute shallow, hodgepodge narratives to that which we actually don’t get. The Gracehoper makes up a shallow story about himself being happy-go-lucky and full of grace, continually missing his own lecherous reflection, but as readers we can see in one breath these two contradictory perspectives, watching them collide–and collude–together.
And with such a thesis, I stop here before too pompously proclaiming that I understand more of Joyce’s aims than my own readings merit. The discussion of Finnegans Wake–incorporating psychoanalytic perspectives on the cryptic messages of psychotic communication, and other musings about structures of language–will be continued in Parts 2 and 3 of this article, coming soon. [Part 2]