Monday, February 13, 2012

Lots of Fun with Finnegans Wake

Before I go much further reading FW, I should probably give a short primer on the book. Again, I’m trying not to read about the book this time through, so I’m going by memory of the hearsay I’ve picked up over the years. Which means I may be wrong, so please feel free to correct. Although the thing about FW is, even if you’re wrong, you might be right.

OK, first the title. It's a reference to an Irish song. Here's a video with lyrics [I fixed the link--it's a video now]. Tim Finnegan, who is known to enjoy a drink now and then, falls off a ladder and cracks his head. He's presumed dead, laid out on a bead, and is given a wake.When things get rowdy, Tim is revived with a splash of whiskey. [My wife pointed out that I had spelled ladder in this paragraph as latter (in the original version of this post), which I tried to justify by saying that it's the Irish pronunciation. She didn't buy it.]

The second thing to keep in mind is that this is a dream. It’s Joyce’s book of the night. Ulysses is known as Joyce’s book of the day because it all takes place in one day (June 16, 1904). It covers around 24 hours, so a lot of it actually takes place at night, but the characters are awake (though sometimes they are, let's say, delirious). For much of it, Joyce uses the famous “stream of consciousness” technique, which is a worn out phrase but extremely useful when talking about Ulysses and FW. The conscious thoughts of the characters in Ulysses are very stream like. They flow from one thought to another, and not always in an obvious, easily understandable way. In other words, the prose flows the way our thoughts actually do flow--by association. Which works sometimes under the light of consciousness and sometimes in the darkness of the subconscious.

I know this is all very abstract, but I’m going somewhere. If the conscious brain is (let’s say for the sake of argument) best represented in narrative form by a flow of obvious and not so obvious associative connections in the mind, how would one go about representing the mind when sleeping? This is the question Joyce posed himself when writing a dream book. His answer was to throw out the obvious, easily understandable associations we would recognize in a coherent mind that's awake, and leave the rest. I.e., the flow of associative connections that the conscious mind isn't even aware of. The subconscious. 

Dreams are weird. We are all familiar with the weirdness. FW is just a man dreaming. That’s why it's weird and you can‘t understand anything. There’s no story. No plot. Give up trying to find one. At least that’s my suggestion.

But once you get over the plotless and (seemingly) chaotic nature of the book, it may be possible to get something out of FW. That’s my hope anyway.

For example, in the first page, appropriately enough, there are references to the beginning (Adam and Eve, recirculation) and references to the fall (literally, twice, “the fall”). Also, river is in the first word, and the man whose dream we are reading shows up here and throughout the book whenever we see the initials HCE (Howth Castle and Environs).

We are reading HCE’s dream, listening to the murmuring river of his subconscious, and for some reason he’s got Adam and Eve and the fall on his brain.


Kenneth W. Davis said...

You're a great reader, S-S-L.

One of my several Joyce teachers, the late Guy Davenport (recipient of one of the McArthur "genius" grants), was a colleague of mine in the English department at the U. of Kentucky. I sat in on his doctoral seminar on JJ one spring semester. He ended the course with a brief intro to the Wake.

That intro so inspired me that I spent the summer reading FW. The first day of that fall semester, I burst into Guy's office, full of myself. "Guess what I did this summer, Guy! I read Finnegans Wake!"

"No you didn't," Guy replied. "You may have looked at all the words. But nobody has READ it."

Yet another important lesson about Joyce's work.

Sub-sub-librarian said...

Yeah, it does seem like it’s unreadable, especially the first time through. Not that I’ve made it all the way through even once, but I end up reading every page probably 5 times before I can record myself. That means, once I get through the entire thing, I will have (kind of) read it at least 5 times. And reading it out loud is different than just hearing your inner voice. Not saying you have to read it out loud (or read every page several times before moving on to the next), but it seems to be working for me. I’m catching much more this time around.

Sub-sub-librarian said...

But yeah, I guess Guy's point was that there's no way you'll ever comprehend all of the possible meanings in FW. Practically (or as it turns out maybe inpractically) speaking though, it takes many readings before you get a sufficient amount of meaning out of it. And in my mind, sufficiency is about time-spent-reading vs return-in-literary-value. But what do I consider literary value? I'm digging myself into a hole that I won't be able to get out of in a comment. Point being, Guy was probably right.