[the simpleton]

February 2, 2005

A Guide of Guides

Finnegans Wake reconsidered


One of the best arguments for a short artistic career is that the longer you stick around, the narrower your interests will appear to be. Fans who once were bowled over by your aesthetic innovations will gradually realize that these innovations aren't so much highly developed skills as no-longer-fresh habits. The first-time viewer of Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot hears abundant wit in the play's eloquent silences, detects essential truths about human life in its madcap, circuitous dialogue. But expose yourself to a couple more Beckett works, from Endgame to Krapp's Last Tape to Happy Days to the novels in the Molloy series (which I suspect nobody, not even the author, has ever actually ever read), and you realize silences and circuitous dialogue are all this author has to offer.

What's disheartening isn't that you see the limits of an artist's skill or material, but that you see the limits of his interests. When the David Lynch classic Blue Velvet first hit screens, who wasn't impressed by that movie's mixture of outdated pop detritus, wilted Populuxe-era glamour, and menacing, violent pathologies? But as the Lynch pictures piled up, how many creepy characters in cowboy hats, torch singers doing Roy Orbison songs in Italian or Portuguese, and evil dwarfs did you really need to see before you realized you'd seen all of this particular director's tricks? The first couple times Spike Lee rolled out his patented "people mover" closeup, everybody puzzled over what the significance of this odd setup might be. Nobody puzzles anymore, because the meaning of the people mover is clear: It means Spike Lee doesn't know what else to do.

You could find examples like these in books, movies, TV shows, but it's especially pronounced in popular music. I take no position on the controversy over whether The Strokes actually sucked, but I do think one thing is clear: The first time you heard whatever the Strokes' big hit was called, the song sounded like a witty and artistic take on garage rock stylings. But after the fourth or fifth song came out, sounding exactly like the first one, you realized that what seemed like deft artistry was in fact a repetitive habit so apparently undeveloped it could barely be called art at all.


For me, the most dismaying example of this form of familiarity and contempt is the reading of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, today's birthday boy (and a writer for whom I have demonstrated considerable regard). For adventurous readers, Finnegans Wake is generally the next stage after Ulysses, and so high is my estimation for Joyce that I have now read the book through two-and-a-half times, though I have never enjoyed it and have gotten nothing of value out of it.

I do not want to pronounce finally on Finnegans Wake. I hold out the hope that in some post-apocalyptic future the book will be viewed as the greatest summation of our time. My pal Mr. Cutlets has suggested such a possibility in his litany of superlatives for Joyce: "He wrote the greatest short stories of the nineteenth century, the greatest novel of the twentieth century, the greatest novel of the twenty-fourth century, and the worst play ever written."

I also have some respect for the way Joyce rounded out his career, at least in contrast to the way the other modernists ended up. Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf both committed suicide. Ezra Pound became a fascist stooge and lunatic. T.S. Eliot gave up the promise of literature in favor of religious orthodoxy—and even managed to do this by a half-measure, converting to the Anglican Church rather than to the Roman Catholicism he clearly yearned for. (Who but an American with an Anglophilic inferiority complex would have considered the desiccated Church of England a classier establishment than the RCC at that late date?) Gertrude Stein remained a ton of fun, but in comparison to the modernist mean, Joyce's late career—still out there in the blue, still exploring new literary territory, undaunted by an unbelievably discouraging publication history, censorship battles, and non-existent sales—seems heroic.

But the hard truth is that I get nothing out of the product of that late career. This is not to say I am overly baffled by Finnegans Wake. If anything, I get too many of the book's allusions, multilingual puns, portmanteau words, and intricate self-references. I know who ALP is, and HCE; I can recognize the difference between Shem and Shaun, I know all about the Wellington Museum (or Willingdone Moozeum), and the "litter" from Boston. I understand that there's something going on in the book, and I understand a great deal of what that is. I just don't care.

This is a problem that the book's many fans, or "Wakers" (you know them because they always refer to it as "The Wake" and respond to any questions with quasi-religious dogmas about how great and fun it all is), never address. The question isn't What's going on in this book? It's Does this book have any value? I am not only unsure that it has any value; I actually resent the book for giving aid and comfort to the many detractors of Ulysses, who claim, wrongly, that there's nothing going on in that book either. Ulysses deserves its spot at the top of all those best-of lists not because of Joyce's linguistic abilities, but because it puts those abilities at the service of a traditional, meticulously observed novel. With Finnegans Wake the author is untethered to any form, and the result is very much like the disappointment I noted at the beginning of this article. You see Joyce opening up the engines, engaging his interests at the most elemental level; and as a result, you start to hate Joyce.

Finnegans Wake has had many detractors over the years, and some of the most zinging putdowns have come from Vladimir Nabokov, a great admirer of Ulysses who described Finnegans Wake as a blot on his memory, a "petrified superpun" and most accurately, "a persistent snore in the next room." But the most thorough dissent from Finnegans Wake comes, surprisingly, from a one-star Amazon reviewer. As Ookie Cookie of Charlotte, VT writes:
When you get past all the strange words and polyglot puns, Finnegans Wake just isn't that interesting of a book. The ideas expressed are contrived and uninteresting, and many have been already been treated, better, in Ulysses. "But how do you get past the language?" is the rejoinder I'm expecting to hear. It's true that very few people understand every word in the book... Some people have come pretty close- MacHugh's "Annotations" goes a long way with individual words, and Campbell's "Skeleton Key" well give you the overarching meaning (yes, there is meaning) if you read it with a critical eye. These two books pretty much have FW cracked, end of story.

Now many people will also argue that one shouldn't read FW for the meanings or ideas, like other books, but rather that simply the sweet sounds of the language are enough to give it value as a literary object-- essentially, even if we don't understand a word, it sounds nice. This is just silly. If you want an auditory experience listen to music or the sounds of nature. If euphonious words is your thing, read some poetry. But for heavens' sakes don't spend the time required to read 680 pages of garbled words simply because they sound cool...

The style of FW is idiotic. It was a nice idea at the time, sure, and probably it had to be done when considering the progress of literature as a whole, but these points don't mean that the style is of any aesthetic worth.... Now I don't mind foreign language quotes in my books, and I'm as big of a fan of witty word-play as anyone, but when you're essentially inventing a language arbitrarily as you go along you've made a huge and pointless mistake. Why stop at the level of words? Why not write using a whole new alphabet? And the kicker is that the many of the puns are incredibly POINTLESS! A "bad of winds," for example-- "bad" is Persian for "wind," apparently. So this means what, a "wind of winds"? Come on, this is lame! and a far cry from true wit. In another "celebrated" passage, Joyce weaves the names of a bunch of rivers into a conversation between two washerwomen. I.e., "kennet," meaning "ken it" or "know it", and the Kennet river in England. But what's the point? That rivers are cool? That Joyce is cool because he looked up a bunch of river names? That we're cool for figuring them out? Such puerile and mechanical displays of erudition are a waste of time for everyone involved. The common response to attacks on FW's style is that Joyce was attempting to convey the nebulous and polysemous state of dreams. If so he failed miserably. I don't know about the rest of you but I don't dream in portmanteau words...

FW, depending on who you ask, attempts to do a lot of different things. The problem is that it fails at all of them. As music it is necessarily inadequate, as poetry it is far surpassed by real poetry, as a novel it is incomprehensible, and as a myth or an allegory it is highly derivative and essentially boring...

I'm sorry to say that I disagree with not one word of Ookie Cookie's review. I have pushed through Finnegans Wake 2.5 times solely as a Joyce completist, and with occasional or more than occasional reference to some of the many guides that orbit the book. And the book consistently fails to move me, to make me laugh, to generate any impression on me at all other than a basic observation of linguistic functions. I may give the book another crack one of these days, but with one exception (noted in a moment) no admirer of Finnegans Wake has ever answered for me the most important question I have about the book: Why should anybody care about such a colossal waste of time?

If you are interested in giving Finnegans Wake a shot yourself, here's a roundup of the essential guidebooks:

Our Exagmination round his factification for incamination of Work in Progress. I have never read this, the first study of Finnegans Wake, published by Beckett and other luminaries when the book was still appearing in serial form. My reason for avoiding it is simple: There are puns in the title. Joyce himself has already done enough wordplay; I don't need to hear any more from his explicators. It's like the one word you can't say in a riddle whose answer is "chess." If you can't explain Joyce in non-Joycean language, the hell with you.



A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake. Ordinarily I'd have no time for Joseph Campbell and his wheezy Jungian monomyths, but he did an excellent job in this early effort to explicate Finnegans Wake. I referred to this book when I first plowed through Finnegans Wake, and I recommend it for one simple reason: Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson are almost entirely straightforward in their efforts to puzzle out the book. Their reading is accurate enough, and you don't have to put up with the purse-lipped wordplay to be found in William York Tindall's Reader's Guide, the book that has largely displaced this one as the leading Finnegans Wake introduction.

A Reader's Guide to Finnegan's Wake. I read William York Tindall's book with constantly shifting feelings of impatience and appreciation: Impatience at the silliness of his self-delighting apercus and tiresome jokes and puns; appreciation that he really tries to go through the book page by page to explain the workings of the plot (or maybe just "structure") and themes. In fact, I suspect it was the exhaustion that attends having to go through Finnegans Wake at such a detailed level that prompted him to lay on the japery so thick. This is the beauty and the downfall of Tindall's book: If you want a thorough grasp of Finnegans Wake, his book is an essential guide; unfortunately, that thorough grasp makes it even more clear how little the book has to offer.



Annotations to Finnegans Wake. Roland MacHugh's encyclopedia of allusions and references is a truly impressive achievement. He doesn't catch everything, but MacHugh clearly spent a lifetime of hard work trying to track down the double and triple meanings in a variety of languages. The form of the book tracks the text of Finnegans Wake page-for-page and renders all definitions and explications in an abstract form that is easy to use after you get the hang of it. In fact, you might be better off skipping Finnegans Wake entirely and just reading through MacHugh's book.

The Shorter Finnegans Wake. The great Anthony Burgess masterminded this work, which abbreviates the book and contains section headers clueing the reader in to what's going on and what you should watch for. I love Burgess, but a concise version of a book whose whole point is to be long, rich, and excessive seems like a pretty counterproductive exercise. If you're going to suffer through Finnegans Wake, you should at least suffer through the real thing.

All these books (and the great Joyce fans over at the Brazen Head list many more) will give you a pretty good idea of what's going on in Finnegans Wake. None of them do anything to persuade you that there's anything worth reading in the book. For that, you need to turn to a really impressive piece of scholarship, to my mind the only book that comes close to demonstrating that there is some value in Finnegans Wake:

[joyce's book of the dark]

Joyce's Book of the Dark. John Bishop starts out with one stunningly obvious observation: That Finnegans Wake is about nighttime, about sleeping and dreaming, and that, like Ulysses, it is not just describing those states but seeking to render them as fully as possible. (It is not, that is to say, a description of a dream, but a construction of the entire process of a night, from drowsiness through sleep through dreaming, REM, etc.) It seems simple, since everybody knows this was the night/sleep book, but Bishop, a professor at Berkeley, demonstrates that the entire process of trying to clear up the book's obscurity is a lost cause, because obscurity is essential to the book's meaning. All very post-modern, no doubt, but Bishop takes it further. He is one of the few scholars who have actually read Giambattista Vico's New Science, the Egyptian Books of the Dead, and the other source materials for Finnegans Wake. His greatest contribution may be in showing how the Wakers have misunderstood these sources and passed the misunderstandings on to other Wakers. Joyce's Book of the Dark does what I don't believe any other critical study has done: demonstrated that the book has a real subject, meaning, value, and wholeness.

It still hasn't been enough to persuade me that there's much going on in Finnegans Wake, but if I ever give the book another shot, it will be thanks to Bishop. Which is the best tribute a writer can receive on his birthday, or any other day.

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Previously in simpleton:

I Investigate the Miracle Detective
A review
Earthshaker Accused
Tsunami blamethrowing goes out of this world
The simpleton writes
Recent efforts all over
Bloom Movie
A new director brings Ulysses to the screen again
Reagan Memories
My favorite anecdotes about the 40th president
Watertown Found
The Chairman of the Board's personal Waterloo

A century of simpletons in the simpleton archive.

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