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uncontrollable nighttalkers

Skertsiraizde with Donyahzade: finding one’s motive for reading Finnegans Wake

By Grant Maierhofer.


One great part of existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cuttanddry grammar and goahead plot.

James Joyce, quoted by Nicci Haynes


Recently while reading Vito Acconci’s Language to Cover a Page, the notion of the work as difficult gave me pause. Difficult for whom? The reader, this instance seemed to imply. The writer? While Acconci’s work is clearly in conversation with an avant garde he no doubt read and experienced to reach it, the work from a compositional perspective seems arguably simple. Doing away with narrative or poetic conventions, Acconci’s work seems to establish a form all its own, and though convincing oneself as author of the worth of this work might prove difficult, the slate is wiped, the canvas is blank, and the difficulty now is left to those bogged with desire to interpret.

I see something similar in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. While, on one hand, its sea of references to history, printed texts of religious myth and doctrine, Ireland’s biography and slew of figures make it a feat of intellect, the product of a mind obsessed with certain strains of information; the work is also a thing entirely its own: a novel following no traditional pattern for the novel beyond separation into sections–at that, it’s argued the work matches the structure of The New Science, a work by Giambatista Vico that, frankly, I’m only interested in for the potential sense and structure it offers a reading of Joyce, and thus I don’t really care–a set of characters as manifold and shifting as a randomly opened phone book in another language, a piece of fiction apparently wholly disinterested in storytelling.

Joyce did something new, so new in fact that newness’s frantic champion Ezra Pound stood back in doubt. Something, I’d argue, still too new to be read like just about anything printed as “literary”.

The question, when faced with this and all its warped bells and whistles, becomes why bother? One might read along with Joseph Campbell or find artful coreaders in John Cage’s FW-centric projects to parse the text; but I’m curious about the prospect of entering FW largely on its own, perhaps backpedaling with secondary sources en route but finding motive to read it as a book (un)like any other.

For myself, and my yearly forays into the book–I’m admittedly pretty uninterested in Ulysses, though most Bloomsdays I read what of it I can, and I’ve long loved Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and certain of the Dubliners pieces–this question of why is as much a part of reading the printed text as doing so. I’ve reached certain conclusions that I’ve found helpful, even invigorating in reading it, and thus I thought I’d begin what’ll ideally be a lifetime of interpreting what is, to my mind, one of the most human, important, and applicable texts to one’s life ever written.

I once sat in a dark theater with an old friend watching a redone print of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. I’d seen Geoff Dyer earlier in week discussing his book on the film, the film’s precedents, as well as analyzing various scenes. I watched the film and I could understand simple elements: three men in a bar, a pilgrimage into an abandoned area of wilderness strewn with slabs and tunnels of militaristic cement, a dog wanders up alongside a creek, the three men sit in a room and the camera pulls from them into another where it starts to rain heavily, overwhelmingly, washing out whatever critique I’d tried to manage by then until their trip home amid further ruins, and one of the fellows who’s become a sort of protagonist returns to family, and within their kitchen his daughter apparently forces a glass of milk across a table as the film dies down. My sense throughout that I was misunderstanding what I’d seen seemed further amplified by my friend’s apparent certainty as to the film’s contents. We drove home and listened to the Kinks and spoke.

I think of that film often, its moments, my likely misunderstanding. I purchased too a book of Tarkovsky’s photographs certain I in turn misunderstood these as I flipped through. Later, and perhaps it is ongoing, I come to realizations that I wasn’t watching something procedural, and wasn’t likely meant to pick apart its every inch for some meaning innate to the film as my reward. To my mind, this is how a text like FW asks to be read: not as one puzzle constructed by one steady hand to be solved and set aside, but rather as many puzzles as unfolding and shifting as language itself, constructed by the evolving and eroding hands of an active human animal over a decade plus of his existence. One might call this reading of the text a copout or failure, then, but it’s that impasse that draws its line between an appreciation of this mindbending work, or a return to dominant narrato-fictive modes that provide more readily available creature comforts.

I became stuck, too, in my most recent attempt to read FW at Joyce’s apparent evocation of Scheherazade and the Thousand and One Nights. While my understanding of that text is at best a second-hand thing bound up in my worship of Pasolini’s Arabian Nights, it’s clear enough to me the device that bears discussing in relation to Joyce. Scheherazade, to stave of punishment and likely death, begins to tell stories, and these in turn become the Thousand and One Nights. Joyce, after conquering the day in Ulysses, and arguably the limits of literary art so far as it then existed, set himself the challenge of keeping both metaphorical and literal death at bay by composing Finnegans Wake. The literal aspect is less certain, though Joyce did perish two years after the text of FW was published, and his letters at the time to friends do seem to indicate the project was steeped in desperation, hard luck, and a sense of his task as impossible, but metaphorically it speaks volumes. Every time a writer, artist, or otherwise composes their work, they bring into the world something that theretofore had no place being here. They’re effectively birthing an object that runs counter to all established art and texts by simply existing, and work in Joyce’s vein ran so aggressively counter to dominant modes as to be tried for obscenity, cast aside as nonsensical rubbish, and praised as redefining what printed language could and ought to do. Finnegans Wake, by its compounding, neologistic, obsessive nature, is then not unlike a voice creeping out from the void at life’s death knell, asserting its necessity while setting fire to most of its precedents in a glorious affirmation of the human head. Finnegans, wake! Fine again, wake! Fin! Again! Wake!

I noted briefly some often sought appendices taken up while reading Joyce’s text. The most common, I’d hazard, is Joseph Campbell’s Skeleton Key for Finnegans Wake. I understand the impulse here, but I find it problematic. I myself have attempted to read along with Campbell’s text and while I found its parsing of Joyce’s language engaging, and its knowledge of Joyce’s approach to the work helpful, I think the existence of Campbell’s and others’ keys for interpretation indicate a larger issue many skirt when reading works on this order. Campbell’s book, and others like it, to my mind, make Finnegans Wake into fascinating party and coffee shop banter, while reducing a linguistic morass into some essence that merely proves you’ve tried to work to read FW. More compelling, I think, is the notion of sharing the text directly, honing in on individual words or phrases that perplex or evoke laughter and appreciating them on their newfangled terms. It is, after all, a work of art, and not one of mere intellectualism, history, or political statement. A ready supply of portmanteau words exist in most every paragraph, each of which could as easily be slapped up on white boards in classrooms as they could be jotted in notebooks for mutual perusal, but instead people seem to search for key terms, anecdotes, phrases or explanations that point toward their engagement with secondary texts more than they do FW proper, all of which tend only to enact repetition of the novel’s original interpreters rather than expanding and warping our reading into something applicable, novel, human.

John Cage, late in life, acknowledged he couldn’t make his way through FW until then, needing his “Writing Through Finnegans Wake” project to make sense of Joyce. There, he uses a mesostic, an invented poetic form to spell out J-A-M-E-S-J-O-Y-C-E consecutively, writing through the middle of every page and spelling out the words referred to be each letter in James Joyce’s name. Nicci Haynes, a contemporary artist and language-worker, compiles sections of text, ribbons of phrasing, physical iterations of Finnegans Wake to remake the text proper for a new environment, to personalize the mass of language and rework it for one’s own meaning. Finnegans Wake as its own dictionary, then, its on structural system of signs for each reader’s imbibing. I’ve always questioned the impulse to read it linearly. I remember somewhere, perhaps Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein, reading that L.W. thought the ideal work of philosophy would be the kind of text you’d throw against the wall halfway through. Here it’s similar, though perhaps, like Haynes, you might start by throwing it at the wall, crawling across the floor and ripping the work to a human, frantic state and putting it back together while listening to Joey Ramone singing “The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs.” My reason, then, my impetus for reading, is as open as you like. I’ve struggled through enough of it disemboweling every phrase, so that now the textual pleasure lies in undoing that stance: the reader as detective, interpreter, seeker of one way out.

In Haynes’ Jests, jokes, jigs and jorums for the Wake, fragments of Joyce are reworked into a book that looks quite like how I imagine FW in retrospect: the words veer off the pages in ribbons and coils that make it seem imprisoned, and terribly frustrated at its container. I think of William Gass’s hope that The Tunnel be printed in a script like barbed wire, “bound in rough black cloth, with a spine like Viking Press’s edition of Finnegans Wake,” and that the reader “should be holding a heavy, really richly textured lump of darkness.” These are writers offering a fictive work as a kind of bible, a book-as-object to lug around and mine depending on one’s mood, and Haynes has rendered it as the implosive thing it is. I used to think a great deal about permission. I wanted permission to write things that ate themselves. I read The Place of Dead Roads and found small comforts there. Now, though, I think of permission in reading, an openness to interpretation that lets the mind be whatever it might while poring over texts, and it’s through works like this that I’ve found it, and artist and writers offering their sense in turn. Life is too abominable to read linear nineteenth century novels exclusively: we must allow ourselves to be eaten by the texts being eaten.

I’ll admit to a bias here: I see the composition of Finnegans Wake as a largely humanitarian effort, not dissimilar from something like Benjamin’s Arcades Project, or even Studs Terkel’s Working. While it’s certainly a “night book” to Ulysses’ day, an ode to Ireland’s history and historical figures as well as its language, the English language, and all language as it’s described experience prior to and including Joyce’s time, the book is also arguably performative. Burgess’s declaration that there’s laughter to be had on every page goes beyond Joyce’s deft ability to blur sacred and profane notions into the same thunderclapping erotic mot justes. Reading FW is a bodily thing, and strangely so. I tend to find I’ll begin with resistance, certain I’m misunderstanding every letter until suddenly a dreamy rhythm overtakes me and I’m able to stomach paragraphs in breaths. I’ll often slow to crawls in turn and view the pages as discrete, visual, concrete passages rendered as micro- and macrocosms for diligent poring and slackjawed stupor alike. The text seems to work on these levels because Joyce had thought the bulk of his life about what printed text might venture to do. He’d explored poetics, drama, short fiction of a more realistic/naturalistic variety as well as dreamy, experimental works like “Araby,” he’d created a novel that aged in language along with its protagonist in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the sense of a sprawling metropolis, shifting and gleestruck in Ulysses. I read Finnegans Wake, then, as an ode to forms, forms explored by Joyce himself and referenced throughout the text; forms shattered and rendered useless to traditional interpretive means by intuitive, heartily experimental—almost spiritually so—pages of linguistic forest fires simultaneously enacting and subverting their own interpretation; and forms Joyce still saw as viable means of depicting, defining, and recording human experience in a language at once the stuff of dreams, Esperanto, and music to which, I’ll agree, all art aspires.

Grant Maierhofer lives in Idaho. He is the author of Postures (Publication Studio, 2015), Grobbing Thistle (2016), and Flamingos (ITNA). His work is available via The Fanzine, Berfrois, 3:AM Magazine, and elsewhere. He is on Twitter @g_maierhofer.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 10th, 2017.