Performance anxieties: on failing to read Finnegans Wake.
Put very crudely, this book is understood to be the epitome of difficulty. It would be fatuous, certainly, to deny or even to marginalize the fact that the level of estrangement projected by the text itself is considerable (who isn't afraid of Finnegans Wake?). In his contribution to Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, Frank Budgen looks at the issue of "difficulty," if you will, from the text's point of view rather than from the piteous reader's:
The difficulty of entering into the imaginative world of Work in Progress lies in no unessential obscurity on Joyce's part but in our own atrophied word sense due in large measure to the fact that our sensibilities have been steam-rollered flat by a vast bulk of machine made fiction. The reader is becoming rarer than the writer. The words of dead poets are read and confirmed like the minutes of the previous meeting, with perhaps the dissentient voice of one Scotch shareholder. Taken as read? Agreed. Agreed. (41)
"Taken as read" is precisely what Finnegans Wake is not, in any sense of that phrase. Instead, this literary work's primary notoriety is its status as the most prominent exile in the colony of unread books--a status perpetuated by the publishing and pedagogical warning signs that blockade so many points of entry. A very good example of such scaffolding is Roland McHugh's The Finnegans Wake Experience. McHugh's title alone suggests that there is something unusual about or more involved than simply reading this book: I have yet to come across The Three Musketeers Experience or A Reader's Guided Tour of Mansfield Park. Yes, reading the Wake is different, but are its readers? McHugh makes a point of explaining how he himself is, at any rate.
I spent almost three years reading Finnegans Wake . . . before looking at any kind of critical account. I contrived to retain this innocence until I had formulated a coherent system of interpretation. I was then able to evaluate the guidebooks from a neutral vantage point and elude indoctrination. Of course, I learned valuable things from them, and had often to discard illformed conclusions in consequence. But this seemed a healthy process, although its duration grotesquely exceeded the time any reasonable person would devote to a book. I hardly intend that my present readers should repeat my example, but I feel that the experience qualifies me to introduce [Finnegans Wake] to them in a particularly helpful manner. (1-2)
The bizarre hypocrisy of this grandstanding gesture--to appoint oneself a reliable guide after eschewing the idea of such a function--notwithstanding, I want to draw attention to some of McHugh's other, equally dissatisfying assumptions. The first is the invocation of the "reasonable person," a character understood at least to have only so much time for any given book. Virginia Woolf's "Common Reader," whose "deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out" (12), may be the most defined form of this apparition: these constructs are ghost readers, rhetorical spectres that generally serve either as something with which to bludgeon writers or as straw-man targets themselves. Budgen's point about the decline in reading needs to be taken--a point made at an historical moment that made it more prescient than similar statements made, usually with more bombast, in the decades following--and set against such contrivances as the "Common Reader" and even the "reasonable person." Our Exagmination effectively does this by including as it were, "the dissentient voice of one Scotch shareholder," the self-confessed "Common Reader," G. V. L. Slingsby, a journalist whose expression of dissatisfaction was commissioned by Sylvia Beach:
Whether or not the public can ever be trained to absorb this kind of thing seems to me extremely doubtful. The sort of person who will spend time in the exercise of a new set of muscles such, for instance, as for ear wagging, might be interested in developing a new set of brain or reciving cells [sic], always supposing such cells exist. (190)
What agency administers this training? There are more active adherents of intentional fallacy than are dreamt of in poststructuralism. Consider Benstock:
Much happened during the 1930's to prevent Joyce from mapping out the exegetical attack on the bastion he has built; it is obvious that he did not expect to die without providing many further hints and suggestions for understanding Finnegans Wake. . . . It does not seem too soon to predict that Finnegans Wake will never be fully read by any reader (no matter how ideal he might otherwise be). (40-1)
The connection offered between the absence of the author and the (projected) absence of readers is distressingly facile, and Richard Rorty would be the first to identify this view as one of weak pragmatism. As the book sinister admits, "I know it is difficult but when your goche I go dead" (FW 251.26-7): the reader is "left" to his or her own devices. Or so it seems.
The warning signs posted by critics are never as flexible, applicable, or simply as fun as those Joyce himself introduced. The failures of expression and the suggestions of incomprehensibility invite not a "coherent system of interpretation" but opportunities to savour the neglected delights of wonder, puzzlement, and uncertainty: "the spoil of hesitants, the spell of hesitency" (FW 97.25). Consider how Joyce keeps incubating within his work prototypes of possible readers, slouching towards actualization, waiting to be born. (And we are all of us, I propose to argue, limited to errant possibilities in and of reading when it comes to the Wake, the exhortations of guidebooks notwithstanding.) The examples of bad or error-prone writers provided in Ulysses are many--Mr Deasy, Milly, Martha, Rumbold the hangman--and fairly well-documented in critical studies, but perhaps greater attention ought to be afforded the case of Denis Breen, obsessively bad reader. His desperate scuttling-about, "hugging two heavy tomes to his ribs," is a prescient caricature, a warning of sorts to determined readers of the novel. Like Breen, a reader may go "[o]ff his chump" (U 201) in furiously pursuing a supposed meaning in even two juxtaposed letters, "U.P." (let alone, say, a one hundred-lettered "word"). Breen's palpable dementia bears fruitful comparison with Rudy Bloom, found reading "from right to left inaudibly, smiling, kissing the page" (U 702), the very picture of an "ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia" (FW 120.13). What better "ideal insomnia" than the thoughtful repose of the afterlife; or, as Rudy is more speculation than spectre, an imaginative extension of Bloom, what more ideal anything than the ideals of fiction? (In this regard, to relegate the appearance of Rudy at the end of "Circe" to a mere hallucination--rather than to appreciate it, say, as an epiphanic vision--is also to reject the "ideal reader" as a red herring, or a rhetorical sniff of contempt for the reader of limited attention span. It is to miss the promise of renewal offered by the synergy of the book of life and the book of the dead.) In his oft-cited volume of annotations, Don Gifford notes that the "question of which sacred book Rudy is reading has been worried to little avail; it could be any Jewish religious text with the name of God in it" (529). I think there is basis for further argument here, and would suggest that the book is Ulysses itself. (1) That Joyce's consecutive texts each have an awareness--and in the instance of Finnegans Wake, a muddled one--of its predecessors has been ably demonstrated by many critics, and even premonitions of or gestures towards the successive text are ably found. Less examined, though perhaps more scintillating, is the notion that each text develops a sense of connective exteriority, the hors-texte denied by Derrida, to its own textual matter. Put more plainly, Joyce's consecutive texts become progressively more contingent upon themselves as texts. Dubliners ends with a tale of a writer presented with an antecedent, external story to his own, and he is haunted by it and the possibilities of others:
Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling. (D 225)
Gabriel learns that there have been stories other than his own, and he deduces that these stories, which do not run concurrent to his own, must have ended. In a sense he syllogises: Gabriel is a fiction. Fictions are mortal. Therefore, Gabriel is mortal. And there his story ends; but this is not at all what happens to Stephen Dedalus, the would-be writer whose diary entries unexpectedly emerge as narrative device at his Portrait's end. The text literally becomes his, but Ulysses is too vast for him, or any other single character in it, to contain. It reads itself, turning back the clock on occasion to revisit another scene, another consciousness, while giving characters inexplicable access to words and ideas that do not cross their paths (Bloom on the "Rose of Castille," for example: the joke of Lenehan's replays in his mind though he was not present at its telling). (2) Finnegans Wake, finally, gets ahead of itself by writing and curiously reading its reader and refuses to let itself end. The text indicts itself and decrees that it will be "sentenced to be nuzzled over a full trillion times for ever and a night till his noodle sink or swim by that ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia" (FW 120.12-4), perhaps the book's most famous phrase. Joyce's writers and writing probe the exterior of the text in which they exist for the reader, seeking to incorporate him/her.
Naturally, what qualities constitute this "ideal reader" has been the favorite subject not just of many writings on Joyce or even literature in general but of studies in aesthetics, semiotics, cognitive studies, and computer programming. Eco has written much on this problem and deals with it most cautiously in The Limits of Interpretation, where he seeks to balance the role of the text with the role of the reader in interpretation. He suggests a polyvalency to a "Model Reader":
when I say that every text designs its own Model Reader, I am in fact implying that many texts aim at producing two Model Readers, a first level, or a naive one, supposed to understand semantically what the text says, and a second level, or critical one, supposed to appreciate the way in which the text says so. (The Limits of Interpretation 55)
This distinction is intriguing, however simplistic it may seem. Not only does Finnegans Wake--and many other texts, according to Eco--demand the powers of the ideal/critical/semiotic reader, it also explicitly asks for the attention of the less-than-ideal/naive/semantic reader: "Come on, ordinary man with that large big nonobli head, and that blanko berbecked fischial eksprezzion" (FW 64.30-1). The rules of drama require that a mystery have a Watson for a Holmes, and mystery is the genre Eco uses to make his case for the two-in-one Model Reader principle. As playful and pyrotechnically deceitful as the mystery story may be, however, its genre most firmly of all genres in fiction irreversibly predicates a determinable, "correct" reading: the answer to whodunit, or some variation thereof.
If the text "designs its own Model Reader," does it necessarily share or express these designs? Characterizing any text as exclusive in its design of a reader is to refute the experiences of a reader external to the text. When it comes to the case of an author such as Joyce, part of this "experience" involves, with possibly very rare exceptions (but even they are doubtful), clambering through the scaffolding of commentary. McHugh's quest to "elude indoctrination" is futile, not to mention in bad faith, since it would be rude even to try to come to any sort of Wake empty-handed. The guides and skeleton keys themselves point to other texts that collectively form contexts for the ominous subject text. Prejudices are not only brought to texts, they are insidiously assigned them. John Bishop, in one of the best books written on the Wake, exposes one of his own prejudices in his introduction:
It seems to me impossible for any reader seriously interested in coming to terms with Finnegans Wake to ignore The Interpretation of Dreams, which broke the ground that Joyce would reconstruct in his own "intrepidation of dreams" and, arguably, made Finnegans Wake possible. . . . [Freud's is] an indispensable text to bring to Finnegans Wake. (16)
Finnegans Wake is popularly understood to be madly intertextual, and every critic and key-forger perhaps necessarily flags certain works as at the very least supplementary and most fiercely as "indispensable" and imperatively prefatory. Why, if the Wake does connect with so very many other texts, there should be any evident hierarchy of supplements is not altogether clear. The Wake plays upon the neuroses of any reader, no matter what wide reading experience is under his or her belt. The devoted student of Bruno, Vico, and/or, for that matter, Freud, is just as tormented as a reader of no acquaintance with those thinkers by the distortive mechanisms of a book that remains, punningly, "above your understandings" (FW 152.04-5). Insofar as the critical scaffolding continually being assembled around the text isolates and barricades it, the specialized Wake guides effectively keep trespassers at bay by launching bibliographies at them, often keeping silent on the fact that even the most extensive critical incursions have by no means ceased identifying allusions, references, and sources. (3) For these reasons, as well as the inevitable fact of simply human limitations, to speak of ignoring a text like Freud's in the context of the Wake is fatuous. Finnegans Wake dares us to ignore or dispense with anything.
Bishop's phrase, "seriously interested in coming to terms with Finnegans Wake," is an unusual one on two counts. Reading a book like the Wake "seriously": I wonder whether this feat, like Benstock's "fully read," can be accomplished, or even actually conceptualized. (4) Maybe the use of "seriously" here reflects a disdain for dilettante gestures--both of Joyce's last titles are, sadly, treated by those who have had no experience with them (and even by some who have) more as signifiers of intellectual credentials than as emotionally stirring works of art--but it seems conspicuously incongruous with so raucously comic a book: imagine someone claiming to have "looked seriously at Rabelais." And is "coming to terms with" a euphemism, or should it be taken as synonymous with "reading"? The Wake is, before everything and after all, "where terms begin" (FW 452.22), and to the reader's amusement and distress, the beginning of terms is continuous. Stabilized attitudes, language, and theories brought to the text inevitably become ridiculous in the interminable course of study. Although Bishop's phrase is more applicable in describing or denoting interactions with this particular book because it is more direct than many others used to the same purpose (McHugh's title again fits here), it still feels somewhat unsatisfactory. (5) In his contribution to Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, Beckett remarks how it is "inadequate to speak fo [sic] `reading' Work in Progress" (15). The "fo," faux-"of," manages to express the inadequacy with fullest impact. To speak fo "reading" Joyce is not merely naive, as Derrida suggests (148), but mistaken. The fallen language of the Wake flows against and over the makeshift dams of "corrective" language and ultimately undoes them by provoking errors: "reversing the findings of the lower correctional" (FW 575.33-4).
In many ways Our Exagmination continues to be the best volume of Wake criticism. As a collective whole it makes none of the noxious assumptions about Joyce's book or its readership to be found, sometimes only implied, in many later writings. The lack of consensus and vicariously enjoyable degree of bafflement among the contributors prevent them from stating, indeed, that anyone can, should, or want even to attempt to read whatever this thing Joyce is putting together actually is (Victor Llona's essay is blissfully titled, "I Dont Know What to Call It But Its Mighty Unlike Prose"). Joyce's critics in this volume have their sights set on other critics, too, best exemplified in William Carlos Williams's rejection of Rebecca West: in her dismissal of Joyce, she shows that she "can only acknowledge genius and defect, she cannot acknowledge an essential relationship between the genius and the defect" (Williams 178). Furthermore, the responsive use of Our Exagmination within the Wake--various metonymic nods in the direction of its title and the voices of a dozen irreverent disciples--reveals an awareness of the text's production within its production and constitutes a remarkable, perhaps entirely unique dialogue between critics and text.
Of course, not even Our Exagmination has what McHugh calls "a neutral vantage point"; but neither does it claim to. Those readers of "Work in Progress" including but also besides the contributors to Our Exagmination should not be denied their own individual critical agencies and dismissively painted as duped ground soldiers in the imperious author's advance. Consider Jean-Michel Rabate's proposal that Harriet Shaw Weaver "not only rendered the writing of the book possible but also provides the paradigm for the ideal reader intended by Joyce. This reader is a genetic reader, a reader who uses the notebooks and the drafts of Finnegans Wake" (488). Weaver's being singled out here strikes me as somewhat peculiar--why not those who took the dictation, or those who scanned the proofs, or even those who translated the book into French under Joyce's supervision?--but Rabate's overall point about a "genetic" reader is the salient one. Reference to pre-publication materials is, it might be objected, unfair to the text of the Wake, but given the Wake's obsessive interests in intertextuality and its own composition, this objection has little weight. A. Walton Litz writes very cogently on the matter of approaching manuscript evidence in this case:
The evidence of an early version is essentially historical (like the evidence of Joyce's reading or his personal experience): it shows that which is possible or probable, and stands in no absolute relationship to the finished work. But given Joyce's particular methods of word-synthesis and accumulated associations, the degree of probability in the relationship is quite high. (102-3)
I can here fuse together two of my earlier points: that Finnegans Wake overreaches itself, grasps at what seems external to itself, and that the Wake rejects no intertextual offer. The Wake is a lexical and literary centrifuge, and the "last word in stolentelling" (FW 424.35) is an omega to be perceived but never reached. This, finally, is why "reading the Wake" is an impossible task, or, rather, an unending process.
Critical discourse, and especially the kind of discourse I have been calling scaffolding, has a hard time conceding such qualities to any literary work or its interpretation, since to do so would constitute at some level an admission of failure or error into the discourse. Instead, then, more or less Procrustean attempts continue to fit a work like Finnegans Wake into traditionally recognized parameters for marketing and interpretation. Consider the ways in which the two fairly simple-minded questions below are variously answered.
(1) What is Finnegans Wake about?
(2) What language is Finnegans Wake written in?
McHugh's wish for "a coherent system of interpretation" takes form in the widespread treasure-hunting reaction to the next two problems. I have elsewhere advocated a sustained suspicion of all statements of what the Wake is "about," though this is really a necessarily exaggerated form of the stance I would assume towards any other literary text. (6) Here, in addressing the first of my above questions, I will limit repetition of this caution to a look at the stratifying approach to alleged content in the Wake. Surveying with suspicion Campbell and Robinson's Skeleton Key, Tindall's Reader's Guide, and Glasheen's Census, Benstock (5-6) compares the "titles" given by these authors to the constituent parts of the Wake in the mode of chapter titles adopted from Homer for Ulysses. The differences are telling, whether they are very clearly disparate (such as those of the twelfth chapter, recognized as "Bride-Ship and Gulls," "Mamalujo," and "Tristan" by Campbell and Robinson, Glasheen, and Tindall, respectively) or apparently slight (chapter 8: "The Washers at the Ford," "Anna Livia Plurabelle," "A.L.P."). Also, the uneven distribution of language and expressions borrowed from the Wake is at odds with the use of a word like "Recorso," which does not even appear in the Wake (Tindall probably means ricorso). In the 1999 reissue on the occasion of the book's sixtieth anniversary, readers are provided with an "Outline of Chapter Contents"--how tellingly elliptical that phrase is!--which is more expansive than the three above guidebooks' chapter titles only by word count. (7) I reproduce here only a sample, for brevity's sake:
[Book I, Chapter III] Earwicker's version of the story filmed, televised and broadcast--HCE's wake--Reports of HCE's crime and flight--Court inquiries--HCE re--viled--HCE remains silent and sleeps--Finn's resurrection foreshad-owed [Book I, Chapter IV] Burial of Lough Neugh--Festy King on trial--Freed--Reveals his deception--The letter is called for--ALP is brought in [Book I, Chapter V] ALP's mamafesta--The interpretation of the letter--The Book of Kells (FW xxxi)
The strangeness of these titles and summaries ultimately points to the old adage of tactical training: the map is not the territory. "We have looked for keys, or else clung to vague analogies," writes Harry Levin, "rather than approaching [Joyce] through his boundless particularity" (58). This "boundless particularity," which in Finnegans Wake is called "a meticulosity bordering on the insane" (FW 173.34), is the spirit of the writing, and the immediacy of the text. Ludwig Wittgenstein wonders about the legitimacy of calling a secondary, corrective gesture-and I think the construction of these wobbly tables of contents is just that--an interpretation: "Der Zerstreute, der auf den Befehl "Rechts um!" sich nach links dreht, und nun, an die Stirn greifend, sagt "Ach so--rechts um" and rechts um macht.--Was ist ihm eingefallen? Eine Deutung?" (Wittgenstein 139: "The absent-minded man who at the order "Right turn!" turns left, and then, clutching his forehead, says "Oh! right turn" and does a right turn.--What has struck him? An interpretation?"). Is an interpretation of one's interpretation not what McHugh offers as The Finnegans Wake Experience? Indeed, is not interpretation but an act of annotation or remediation of a prior interpretation? I suggest that the continuousness of interpretation represents a fluid series of anxious mis-takes that the waters of the Wake reflect back to us. We are always "struck"--to use Wittgenstein's term--by this text.
The second of my simple-minded questions is a favorite of the Wake itself. "Are we speachin d'anglas landadge or are you sprakin sea Djoytsch?" (FW 485.12-3): the pronoun change here is often overlooked. Finnegans Wake and its critics--the scaffolding is only the most egregious case--do not speak the same language, and genuine attempts to reconcile the two tongues, rather than neglectfully subordinate that of the text by overwriting and paraphrase, are rare. Tindall, for one, refuses to acknowledge this difference: "whatever the Breton and Telugu, words from such languages are rarely essential; for the Wake is `basically English' ([FW] 116.26) and Webster's dictionary, preferably the second edition, is our handiest guide" (20). Checking the quotation, one finds a rather more conditional phrase, "however basically English," just as a few lines later one finds "however basically Volapucky" (FW 116.31), which Tindall neglects, along with all other similar jibes about the text's "most unenglish" (FW 160.22) nature. If Finnegans Wake is English, those who adopt this view tend to reason, then it is an English in need of repair. Margot Norris offers a representation of the comprehension-by-compensation dynamic when she claims that ungrammatical Wake sentences "still communicate because the reader unconsciously recognizes the slot and knows the correct filler" (127-8). Treating the text like a crossword puzzle is to a certain extent an understandable temptation. Wolfgang Iser writes that the reader's decision as to how to fill "gaps left by the text" "implicitly acknowledges the inexhaustibility of the text; at the same time it is this very inexhaustibilty that forces him to make his decision" (280). (8) But "inexhaustibility" here can also connote the countless distortions that can be rendered, and Iser chooses not to see the violence inherent in the etymology of "decision."
A more cautious method for "coming to terms" with the Wake is the three-step program advocated by keymasters Campbell and Robinson:
The task of opening the way into any passage [of Finnegans Wake] . . . divides itself into three stages: (1) discovering the key word or words, (2) defining one or more of them, so that the drift of Joyce's thought becomes evident, (3) brooding awhile over the paragraph, to let the associations running out from the key centers gradually animate the rest of the passage. (359-60)
(The assumption that the Wake is somehow closed I will address in a moment.) The verbs here, as well as that nagging "key" metaphor Levin wisely recommends dropping, seem--not least for their italicization--forced and inappropriate, particularly "brooding," which is naturally reminiscent of that line of Yeats that haunts Stephen in Ulysses: "And no more turn aside and brood"(U 9). I find another linguistic strategy in Bishop's Joyce's Book of the Dark. Examining the possibilities of the phrase, "this is nat language at any sinse of the world" (FW 83.12), Bishop postulates that if "nat language" suggests "not language,"
the phrase indicates that the language of Finnegans Wake will work heavily by oppositional negation. Unlike English, that is, which conveys meaning in its ideal form by indicating the presence of corresponding ideas and things, this "not language" operates largely by indicating their "Real Absence." The "lexical" parallels into which the "outlex" [FW 169.03] of Wakese can be translated, accordingly, indicate largely what the Wake is not about. (51)
That the Wake is about what it is not about complements well my earlier argument that the Wake is, or at least attempts to be, more than it is. These recognitions make the Wake no less intimidating, for every interpretive step forward into the text (as it were) is fraught with tripwires that detonate contradictions elsewhere in the book. Readers are free to associate, but Joyce offers no endorsement to these associations. Eco wonders:
Can we speak of unlimited semiosis when we recognize the same technique [the exegesis employed in Hermeticism] implemented by contemporary readers who wander through texts in order to find in them secret puns, unheard-of etymologies, unconscious links, dances of "Slipping Beauties," ambiguous images that the clever reader can guess through the transparencies of the verbal texture even when no public agreement could support such an adventurous misreading? There is a fundamental principle in Peirce's semiotics: "A sign is something by knowing which we know something more." . . . On the contrary, the norm of Hermetic semiosis seems to be: "A sign is something by knowing which we know something else." (The Limits of Interpretation 28)
Eco's pun, "Slipping Beauties," constitutes a sidelong look at the exegetical fervor brought to passages of Finnegans Wake such as this one:
For it was in the back of their mind's ear, temptive lissomer, how they would be spreading in quadriliberal their azurespotted fine attractable nets, their nansen nets, from Matt Senior to the thurrible mystagogue after him and from thence to the neighbour and that way to the puisny donkeyman and his crucifier's cauda. And in their minds years backslibris, so it was, slipping beauty, how they would be meshing that way (FW 477.18-24)
Campbell and Robinson boil this down to "For it was in the back of their minds how they would be spreading their nets to mesh his issuing fish breath" (290). Tindall presents it as the "first attempt on Yawn, that `slipping beauty'" (258). These glosses are certainly "something else," at least in the sense that they are English replacements for the troublesome texts. As liberating as it sounds, "unlimited semiosis" can lead to derangement, that of the studied text when paraphrased (roughly, the narrative of interpretation refuses to work with the signs provided), and even that of the mind, which is the cautionary tale of Denis Breen (the imposed narrative demands signs that suit its purpose, rather than the other way around).
In looking over Eco's semantic/semiotic division of reading, Rabate suggests that a
pragmatic approach would be closer to Joyce's insight into an auctoritas operis which can be developed for its own sake. It would thus recommend not a semiotic interpretation, but only a semantic interpretation, developed when we learn to play with the text. The reading process becomes indeed a learning process, with its own specific pedagogy, in the way one learns (first making all sorts of errors) to play games such as bridge, scrabble or interactive video-programs. (495)
I would go further than Rabate on the point of semiotic abstention and argue three seemingly small but very important points of difference.
My first contention is that Finnegans Wake defies Eco's well-known, convenient designations of "open" and "closed" work(s). The Wake's hybridist nature extends beyond genre, even beyond portmanteau words, indeed to the most atomic level of text (letters, punctuation, sigla of all forms). Because what is "clearobscure" (FW 247.34) is neither "clear" nor "obscure," and yet both, the unhalting dialectic recognized by Kenneth Burke as the constituent force behind irony (512) is also in operation between what the text may signify and what it may not. In the Symposium, Alcibiades "compares Socrates with the Sileni, those carved figurines with satyrlike and grotesque images on the exterior, but pure gold inside" (Behler 80). While reading Finnegans Wake might be the learning experience Rabate suggests--it may even be an "indoctrination" such as that from which McHugh recoils--its quasi-Socratic pose offers no guarantee of "pure gold," or anything at all, inside.
I also have some skepticism about the semantic/semiotic reader distinction proposed by Eco, because I am unwilling to concede that semantics--or even, if you like, the very look of the print on the page as it is glimpsed by an illiterate--possesses no opportunities for semiotic or critical consideration. Finnegans Wake's project to "keen again and begin again to make soundsense and sensesound kin again" (FW 121.14-6) challenges this distinction, leaves us with what might be called the Dogberry Question, after the delicious double-malapropism made by the constable in Much Ado About Nothing: "our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two aspicious persons" (3.5.45-6). At this point in the play, the defaming (suspicious or auspicious) villains have been caught (apprehended or comprehended) by the clowning agents of justice. Yet can it be said that Dogberry is wrong to suggest the villains have been "comprehended"? How tangible is the separation between the process of seizing upon something, be it rogue or text, and recognizing it, as "aspicious" or otherwise? Guy Davenport writes, "[y]ou do not read Ulysses; you watch the words" (287), to which can be added, in the case of Finnegans Wake, one watches the moving letters, watching like Dogberry's lieutenants, who are told: "to be a well- / favoured man is the gift of fortune, but to write / and read comes by nature" (3.3.14-6).
Third, finally, is my rejection of the mollifying "first" in the phrase "first making all sorts of errors," which itself is offered in parentheses, like a shameful thing. To read Finnegans Wake is to make mistakes, and to enjoy the Wake is to cherish what the mistakes reveal. Interpreting by "trial and error" is, in the words of Fritz Senn, "part of our survival strategies" (42), or, as Benstock calls it, "the prescribed if precarious method" (42). It seems to me that the reader of Finnegans Wake faces a paradoxical situation very similar to that of someone attending a performance of Tom Johnson's notorious 1975 composition "Failing: A Very Difficult Piece for Solo String Bass". (9) Ostensibly a soloist's piece, "Failing" is made up of a musical score and a written text for accompanying monologue. The text, which is to be read at a steady, calm pace often as not at odds with the varying string bass rhythms, is itself an explanation of and meditation on the composition's strategies. While the player tries to juggle the contrary demands of playing and speaking (interacting with two different kinds of text), the matter of the speech concerns the anxieties the performer inevitably has in attempting what is by its own admission "Very Difficult" and very likely impossible. What makes "Failing" most interesting is its inclusion of the audience in the self-consciousness of the performance. When the player contends, "I have practised the piece quite a bit, and that's a fact, as well as just simply a line in the text," the audience may wonder about the separation between the volition of the musician and that of the text before him or her. Again, the Dogberry Question in a different scenario: where does the interpretation (the player's and the audience's) begin? The player continues,
I should point out, however, that I am not obliged to fail. After all, the audience cannot see the score I am reading and no one would ever be the wiser if I were to simply leave out whatever passages I am unable to play. People might be very impressed by my playing and think that I had succeeded in playing a piece which the composer had thought could not be played successfully by any bass player.
The audience of "Failing" is made to realize that the pressures felt by the player emanate, at least in part, from themselves, and the performance of "Failing" projects it back to them, so that they cannot think of themselves as outside or external to the performance and its concerns. Readers of Finnegans Wake likewise find themselves contained within the process of interpreting the text. The idea that the performance of interpreting Finnegans Wake culminates in "understanding" is equivalent to the idea of playing "successfully" Johnson's "Failing".
Robert Sage's thesis that, in the Wake Joyce "brings to fruition what was foreshadowed in Ulysses; the possibility of a complete symbiosis of reader and writer" (143), can be best appreciated if the performance of reading the Wake is not separated from its accompanying anxieties.
(1) Why Rudy should be reading Ulysses backwards can perhaps be answered in two ways. Joyce's awareness of the reverence shown to both his texts and his authorial personality is usually mixed with a healthy dose of self-deprecation--there is certainly something grotesque and parodic about Rudy's appearance and occupation--and the strange installation of Ulysses as holy writ by an adoring constituency of literati might be partly explained by the potential for misreading (not to mention the good chance of not actually reading at all) such a complex text affords. From another point of view, readers of Ulysses may be invited to observe a similar liberty extended by the Wake: "the words which follow may be taken in any order desired" (FW 121.12-3).
(2) Maybe more as a personal fancy than a supportable argument, I suggest that the maddening "U.P." postcard may be the news, "Ulysses published," and Breen (who, like so many other characters in the novel, could be a portrait of a contemporary of Joyce's) in his fury foretells all other cases of indignation at the dear dirty Dubliners found in the novel. Breen's struggle with his own textual representation is perhaps suggested by his name: the OED recognizes breended as an obsolete form of brinded, "the sense [of which] appears to be `marked as by burning' or `branding.'"
(3) I don't wish to misrepresent Bishop, whose Joyce's Book of the Dark is not at all indicative of these trends, and the above passage is chosen for its anomalous nature within that volume.
(4) Again, to be fair to Bishop, I admit to twisting here his phrase "seriously interested" to make a point.
(5) My use of the term "interactions" suggests my own current preference, but I am sadly certain that even it will be invalidated by further critical engagements with the Wake.
(6) See my article, "`Oh me none onsens!' Finnegans Wake and the Negation of Meaning," forthcoming in the James Joyce Quarterly.
(7) John Bishop, who wrote the introduction to this particular reissue, may have provided this outline.
(8) Iser's use of the word "text" is at times confusing, alternating as it sometimes does with "work". For example, his claim that "[t]he work is more than the text, for the text only takes on life when it is realized" (274) would suggest that the "inexhaustibility" he refers to later ought to be attributed not to the text, but to the work.
(9) Note that the title appears differently on the recording cited below.
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TIM CONLEY is SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at SUNY-Albany. His essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Comparative Literature, James Joyce Quarterly, Studies in the Novel, The Midwest Quarterly, and Ariel. His book, Joyces Mistakes: Problems of Intention, Irony, and Interpretation, will be published by the University of Toronto Press in 2003.
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|Publication:||Papers on Language & Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2003|
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