I read Book One of Finnegans Wake and was lost most of the time. I picked up curious little impressionistic bits in the overall flow but couldn’t string them together into anything coherent. I suspect this is, in part, the effect Joyce was shooting for. This suspicion was confirmed upon hearing John Cage’s “Roaratoria: A Circus on Finnegans Wake,” which captures that experience perfectly – a hypnotic flow of musical bits and half-heard words and melodies impressionistically breaking to the surface of a rich but unintelligible tide of sound.
I did get some general themes about the book from commentaries – the recurrent references to archetypal gods and heroes, and to that great archetypal event, the Fall. I could glimpse how the deepest archetypal nodes were being reworked through fragments of Irish culture and Irish characters. But much more than that I could not get, as far as reconstructing any kind of coherent narrative. It seems almost as if Joyce set it up so that external commentary would be integral to the fabric of the novel, with obscure references, misleading phonetic spellings in multiple languages, flows of language that follow no discernible logic, etc. If so, it is an interesting twist on the porous nature of the literary work, but with that gained interest is a loss, as I suspect I am not the only reader who had a hard time staying engaged. (I was fully engaged by the John Cage composition, though, where the surface incoherence did not hinder but actually enhanced the feeling of something going on at the archetypal depths. Go figure.)
One thing I did notice that I did not see in the commentaries, so maybe a Joyce scholar (or a Finnegans Wake fan) can weigh in. The invisible symbolic center of the work seemed to be a hidden stain of guilt. The commentaries did mention how Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, or HCE (as much the main character as anyone else), was accused of exposing himself to girls in a park, but to me this element – both the accusation (and we don’t know if it was true, just the accusation itself is sufficient to create a symbolic center of hidden guilt) and other apparently unrelated hints at unspoken guilt – seemed more haunting in the text than in the commentaries. The idea of buried unconscious guilt as the symbolic center resonates both with the recurring motif of the Fall archetype and with Freud, whose ideas hung over the literature of the day. (Virginia Woolf’s press was offered Joyce’s Ulysses and was printing translations of Freud’s work as soon as they came out – one can see Freud’s ideas, e.g., all over page one of To the Lighthouse.) Indeed, the basic style of Finnegans Wake can be seen as an enormous amount of incoherent clutter designed to obfuscate some hidden guilt at the center, which is a perfect literary expression of Freud’s ideas of displacement, condensation, and screen memories, all of which are designed to obfuscate and plaster over some hidden trauma or guilt that the subject cannot face. In Joyce’s case, the obsession with lists, with doubling and tripling of names, with malapropisms and misheard words – what better way to enact displacement, condensation, and screen memories into a literary landscape? At the very least, this would explain the difficulties posed to the reader as intentional, since the whole point is to continually conceal the hidden meaning, as in a cups and balls performance.
To tie back to the John Cage composition, the difficulty in Finnegans Wake seems related to a kind of sonic entropy. Language normally carries meaning and sentiment. In Finnegans Wake, language and words still have a residue of meaning and sentiment but are always deteriorating into sculptures of pure sound. The reader’s anxiety about meaning is built into that entropy, but for the luckiest of readers the sculpture of pure sound remains as an aesthetic marvel in its own right. I am not so lucky, but my new (unpublished) poetry collection, The Day We Met in Earthly Time, is organized into groups of thirteen, is anchored to a poem called “Finnegans Luck,” and is haunted by the idea that all the heavy emotion and intimacy of the collection is in constant danger of disintegrating into sculptures of sound and vanishing memories of sentiment. If you think that sounds interesting, hold your breath and buy my previous collection, Schematics and Assemblies of the Cosmic Heart. Go ahead. Do it. Bring me luck.
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You’re a better man than I, Gunga Din. My only affiliation with Joyce is my middle name. I find all his writing incoherent. Maybe inchoate as well.
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Hahaha. I can’t say you’re wrong 🙂
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Well, MY guilt isn’t buried OR unconscious. It’s right on stage in a spotlight, lol. Of course, I’d say it’s more regret than guilt, but they’re pretty similar, no?
What an in-depth look into Joyce. Props, sir!
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I have avoided this and all other James Joyce’s works because they strike me as too much work. However, I was glad to read your thoughts on Finnegan’s Wake. Cheers to you for slogging through it!
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Hahaha. Thanks. Yeah, it’s definitely work 🙂
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