Sunday, December 9, 2012

On Completing Finnegans Wake

"Booms of bombs and heavy rethudders"
- Finnegans Wake, p. 510

Welp, I've finished my first full reading of Finnegans Wake.

Took almost exactly six months, reading each chapter in a non-chronological order (detailed here) along with a few guides and some other relevant books. The experience was a rewarding and enlightening one, certainly. I had an awe and strong curiosity for the book before actually reading it and now those feelings have only deepened.

It's going to take a while for me to assimilate all of my observations and notes into a full piece about the experience and I will in fact be starting up a separate blog to be entirely devoted to Finnegans Wake stuff. But for now I'd just like to share a few reflections.

I read the chapters in order of difficulty, the final chapter being the longest one, Chapter 3 of Book II, known as "HCE's Tavern". It's in the middle of the book, in the deepest and darkest part of the night's dream and so it's the densest and most obscure portion to read. Amid all of the layered dream language, though, is some of the most shockingly prescient material you'll find in any book. It made for an eye-opening finish to the journey through the Wake.

The chapter takes place in a tavern in which the rowdy drinkers are all gathered around a massively powerful and complex electronic device described as a "tolvtubular high fidelity daildialler, as modern as tomorrow afternoon and in appearance up to the minute ... equipped with supershielded umbrella antennas for distance getting and connected by the magnetic links of a Bellini-Tosti coupling system with a vitaltone speaker, capable of capturing skybuddies, harbour craft emittences, key clickings, vaticum cleaners" (FW p. 309) and so on. Essentially, the book's main character HCE, or Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, has an extremely powerful television in his tavern, possibly with DirecTV. Strangely, television was only just starting to be developed and sold during the time Joyce wrote this book. But good ol' HCE certainly had the hookup "in his umbrageous house of the hundred bottles, with the radio beamer tower and its hangars." (FW p. 380)

So the scene (in a book published in 1939) takes place in a sports bar with a massive plasma TV with satellite connections.

Most striking of all, though, are the many references to the atomic bomb inside a chapter that's mostly about war. The "verbivocovisual" entertainment on "the bairdboard bombardment screen" is a comedy show starring Butt and Taff playing out the book's apocryphal allegorical story of when Buckley shot the Russian General during the Crimean War (Robert Anton Wilson, who has written much great material on this chapter, points to Joyce's use of the Crimean War because it contains the word "crime" which for Joyce represents all war). In that story, a soldier named Buckley caught an unsuspecting Russian General in his crosshairs but didn't have the heart to shoot him when he saw the General in a most human position, squatting to take a dump.

That little tale is loaded with symbolism, certainly, as the predominance of the anal territorial level (think of animals marking their territories with shit) of consciousness underlies the problem of war but it's also striking how the General looked more human with his pants down taking a shit than he did with his uniform on. Of course, Buckley ends up shooting the General after the latter rips up a clump of Irish sod to wipe his butt.

Amid all of this, the chapter is loaded with tons of references to wars, famous battles, etc. This is the war chapter of the Wake. And so you can imagine how stunning it is to be going through it, amid the "slopbang, whizzcrash, boomarattling" (p. 356), the "missledhropes...grenadite, damnymite, alextronite, nichilite" (p. 349) explosions we find the following:

"the abnihilisation of the etym... explodotonates" (p. 353)

"pang that would split an atam" (p. 333)

"blown to Adams" (p. 313)

and then on page 315, just a few lines apart we see "it had a mushroom on it" and "nogeysokey" in a part of the book with lots of Japanese words. Let me remind you this book was written between 1922 and 1939.

Perhaps the key thing I learned from all of this is that Joyce was not human. He had to be some kind of cyborg to compose this book. Or at least he was tuned into something, some force granting him powers far exceeding the heights of human capability. The texture of Finnegans Wake is like an encyclopedia containing not only everything that's ever happened but everything that will ever happen. As unfathomable as it seems, it's perhaps not totally surprising as he was attempting to represent the deepest levels of the dreaming mind, a realm that is outside the bounds of time and space.

*   *   *

My reading process consisted of reading each chapter straight through, jotting notes, doodling in the margins plenty, and underlining what words, sentences, paragraphs struck me. To examine the multilingual fabric of the text, I consulted the search engine.

I read much of the book out loud, even if it was sometimes a low whisper, and also listened to huge chunks of the text via the reading of Patrick Healy whose full recording is available online for free here. Bringing the text to life by hearing it or reading aloud was definitely an essential part of the process.

After finishing each chapter, I read the chapter summaries contained in both William York Tindall's A Reader's Guide to Finnegans Wake and Edmund Epstein's A Guide Through Finnegans Wake to figure out what exactly was going on. For the last few chapters, I also picked up Philip Kitcher's book Joyce's Kaleidoscope which contains walkthroughs for each chapter. All three books differ in their interpretations, sometimes to a large degree, and I occasionally disagreed with some of their assertions. Epstein, especially, has a very unique outlook that he seems a little too sure about. I quickly learned to not take him so seriously (though he does also catch things that the other guys don't). 

I also read a few books about the Wake as a whole, including J.S. Atherton's Books at the Wake (which is such a better book than its simple title indicates), Bernard Benstock's Joyce-Again's Wake (one of my favorite books on the subject), and Roland McHugh's The Finnegans Wake Experience.

I've also been reading the unpublished manuscript of a massive study on the theme of love in Joyce's work by a Joyce scholar friend from Denmark. I'll have more to say about all of these books once my Finnegan blog gets underway.

Now that I've made it through the book, I'm about to dive into John Bishop's much heralded Joyce's Book of the Dark (widely considered the best book written on the Wake) as well as a few other studies.

*   *   *

To make a short story long, here is my history with Finnegans Wake.

It all starts with Joseph Campbell. During a time when I was getting deep into studying eastern religions, someone recommended I check out Campbell's lectures and I was immediately hooked. I spent more than a year devouring all of his books, reading some of them two or three times, and it was in Campbell's The Inner Reaches of Outer Space that I first heard of James Joyce. The way Campbell would talk about him, I wasn't sure if Joyce was a painter, a poet, or both but I knew he was among the greatest artists of all time.

Eventually I read Campbell's Creative Mythology which is loaded with discussion of Joyce's three novels and this led me, in 2007, to pick up and read Campbell's excellent book Mythic Worlds, Modern Words, a collection of transcripts of lectures covering all of Joyce's work. In the summer of 2008, unemployed and spending each day on the beach in San Diego, I first read Campbell's Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake and was mostly baffled though highly intrigued.

Here is how the Skeleton Key opens:
Running riddle and fluid answer, Finnegans Wake is a mighty allegory of the fall and resurrection of mankind. It is a strange book, a compound of fable, symphony, and nightmare---a monstrous enigma beckoning imperiously from the shadowy pits of sleep. Its mechanics resemble those of a dream, a dream which has freed the author from the necessities of common logic and enabled him to compress all periods of history, all phases of individual and racial development, into a circular design, of which every part is beginning, middle, and end.
In a gigantic wheeling rebus, dim effigies rumble past, disappear into foggy horizons, and are replaced by other images, vague but half-consciously familiar. On this revolving stage, mythological heroes and events of remotest antiquity occupy the same spatial and temporal planes as modern personages and contemporary happenings. All time occurs simultaneously ...
Eventually, in the summer of 2009, I conceived of an idea to write a novel. First, though, I would have to read Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for ideas and inspiration. Well, once I finished Portrait I couldn't help but jump right into its sequel, Ulysses. I finished Ulysses on New Year's Day 2010 and decided I had to write a book or paper or series of blog posts detailing my reflections on each chapter of Ulysses and Joyce's artistic approach as a whole.

That massive task began with an analysis of Portrait, which became the most popular post on this blog. That piece eventually sprung forth another study of Portrait comparing it to Salvador Dali's painting The Temptation of St. Anthony (which I then got to deliver at the 2011 North American James Joyce Conference at Caltech) and when that was done, I finally settled down to begin writing my study of Ulysses.

When I was in the midst of reconnaissance study for the Ulysses writeup, I came across something on Jorn Barger's IQ Infinity page that struck me and knocked me off my path. Though I can't locate the specific link to what he wrote*, he made the assertion somewhere that the key to understanding Ulysses lies in Finnegans Wake. Anyone who reads or is familiar with the Wake is aware of its staggeringly deep undercurrents but not everybody sees this in Ulysses. In other words, there are most likely hidden messages, symbols, etc. in Ulysses that haven't been fully picked up on yet because one has to read Ulysses with the trained mind of a Wake reader. Most people, even the brightest scholars, give up after Ulysses citing the Wake as impossible to read/understand.

Going through the Wake, you quickly learn that it is indeed impossible to read it with your daytime rational mind. Like an enormous Zen riddle, the Wake attempts to crack open the hard shell of your rational mind so you can directly soak in the unconscious streams of "the hitherandthithering waters of. Night!" (FW p. 216)

On July 4th of this year, having lunch at the home of a friend who I met through this blog (he had come across my post on the Tunc page in the Wake), he and his wife were shocked to hear that, despite all the yapping I tend to do about Finnegans Wake, I hadn't actually read the book in its entirety yet. They urged me to do so and that night I began. Six months later, I can officially say I've successfully navigated through the most difficult book in the English language.

*(Edit: I found that quote from Barger. He says: "Joyce-studies commonly treat the interval between Ulysses and Finnegans Wake as a perfect discontinuity, with no shared motives or techniques between the two books. This can't be true-- it was less than a year!-- so we need to search for hidden simplicities in the origins of FW, and hidden complexities in the final form of Ulysses.)


  1. Thanks for your great investigative reporting, really excellent!

  2. It's my pleasure, thanks for checking it out!

  3. Congrats on finishing FW (which is never finished, is it?), maybe the best blog post I've ever read on reading FW, and for resurrecting Jorn's idea of the key to Ulysses being in the 17 yrs-later FW.

    Stellar writing, PQ!

  4. That's high praise, Michael, thanks a lot!

    I tried to avoid mentioning the whole circular, endlessness of the book but, yes, this is really just my first go-around with it. I'm sure I'll still be thumbing through it on my death bed.

    Many more posts about reading FW to come soon in a new blog (just trying to decide what to call the thing at the moment---it will be the homepage for my Austin FW Reading Group but also, hopefully, a massive content farm for FW stuff).

  5. Wanted to make sure I was fully awake and alert before reading this long post, and am glad I did. Great stuff. I don't think he was a cyborg though--I think he was a shaman. And human.

    The war prescience is scary.

  6. Thanks for commenting, Seana.

    What's so baffling about it is that, even leaving aside the prescient aspect of the text (I saw someone refer to FW as "the Western I-Ching" which seemed perfect), he somehow stuffed FW full of multiple encyclopedias worth of information on a staggering variety of subjects.

    I'm about to start reading a book (by Donald Theall) on the mechanical engineering aspect of the Wake, which describes itself as a "tetradomational gazebocroticon" (p. 614). Joyce referred to himself as the greatest engineer who ever lived, Robert Anton Wilson called him the greatest archaeologist who ever lived, and he seems to have been one of the greatest linguists (something like 70 or 80 languages in FW) while certainly among the greatest poets/writers ever.

    If you dwell primarily on his work long enough without considering biography, it's hard to fathom that he was a human being. (Though, when you do look at the bio aspect it becomes easier to fathom how he went blind and aged very quickly before essentially dying from stress.)

  7. I believe that Bishop book is supposed to help us understand the process of his writing it.Maybe a magus as well as a shaman, then.

    I remember Robertson Davies had one of his characters talk about research for creative projects. He said something to the effect that you gather a huge amount of information and use it, but then it's gone. You sound like an expert for awhile, but you don't retain it. I can relate to that in my own writing efforts, though Joyce probably gathered it and retained it.

  8. Great Post!You've inspired me to read the Wake sometime in the distant future. But right now I'm reading Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man and I'm enjoying it quite a lot more than Dubliners, the only other work by Joyce I've read yet.

  9. His books only get better (and weirder) from there, SatoriGuy. Thanks for commenting.

  10. Congratulations on completing the Wake! I finished reading it just last year, but it continues to shape the whole process of my thought and to provide a kaleidoscopic lens through which I see the world.

    Partly inspired by your excellent blog, I've also started a blog over the last year mainly involving synchronicity and the Wake.

    Thanks for all your great posts and I look forward to future entries on your new Wake blog.

  11. thanks PQ! I've embarked on FW (foolish me)in a linear fashion--maybe I should do it yr way--w Campbell's Skeleton Key--PS: I'm a Buddhist!

  12. @znore: your comment reached me via the black monolith magic machine iPhone while I was on a ferryboat headed to Alcatraz Island last week. I've perused your blog since and been thoroughly blown away. Really original, exciting, mind-blowing stuff. Please keep it up! I'm honored and very humbled that my work had any impact or inspiration that led to such a cool blog as yours. The writing and synchronicity-journeys are scary good. Literally: the stuff really scares me, but in an awestruck-at-the-workings-of-the-universe kind of way.

    @Bird Thompson: Good luck on your excursion through the Amazonian jungles of Joyce's nightmaze. You'll find hundreds of references to the Buddha and his story along the way.