Yesterday read this piece by Michael Chabon about Finnegans Wake. Afterward I took out my copy of the book and considered it again, which seems to happen once every few years.
Finnegans Wake is not unloved because of all the puns and convolutions; they’re certainly overwhelming, but they’re not what make it really hard. It’s actually hard and unloved for the same reasons and in the same ways as the “Eumaeus” chapter from Ulysses, which seems to me to be a clear precursor to the style. Here’s how “Eumaeus” begins:
Preparatory to anything else Mr Bloom brushed off the greater bulk of the shavings and handed Stephen the hat and ashplant and bucked him up generally in orthodox Samaritan fashion, which he very badly needed. His (Stephen’s) mind was not exactly what you would call wandering but a bit unsteady and on his expressed desire for some beverage to drink Mr Bloom, in view of the hour it was and there being no pumps of Vartry water available for their ablutions, let alone drinking purposes, hit upon an expedient by suggesting, off the reel, the propriety of the cabman’s shelter, as it was called, hardly a stonesthrow away near Butt Bridge, where they might hit upon some drinkables in the shape of a milk and soda or a mineral. But how to get there was the rub. For the nonce he was rather nonplussed but inasmuch as the duty plainly devolved upon him to take some measures on the subject he pondered suitable ways and means during which Stephen repeatedly yawned. So far as he could see he was rather pale in the face so that it occurred to him as highly advisable to get a conveyance of some description which would answer in their then condition, both of them being e.d. ed, particularly Stephen, always assuming that there was such a thing to be found.
It’s one of the longer chapters and the whole thing is like that.
“Eumaeus” is sort of the black sheep chapter in the book, nobody’s favorite, talked about relatively seldom. With all that textual oversharing there’s not as much room for academics to insert themselves, so they tend not to. It is hard to read not because it is complicated but because it is blather, and blather is alienating. This is the real sense in which Finnegans Wake is hard, and would still be hard even if it were written in English.
For all that I say that I’ve read Ulysses, I have never actually made it all the way through “Eumaeus.” It always pushed a button in my brain that said “skip,” and pushed it hard. I think that’s true for many people. One recognizes that Joyce is pushing that button intentionally, but that’s exactly what makes it all seem to be some kind of big shaggy-dog joke. Possibly, like the parody of saccharine junk in the “Nausicaa” chapter, the joke is at someone’s expense, or possibly it’s just a kind of obnoxious playfulness. (“The language is tired just like the characters are tired” is a standard pat explanation for the chapter.) That’s as far as I have generally gotten with it, and of the critical commentaries I’ve read, many don’t get much farther.
But I’ve always kind of known that this was insufficient. In the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter Joyce flies through many much more rich and specific stylistic parodies at a much faster pace. He was too interested in his own skill and too dedicated to craftsmanship to simply set it aside in favor of willful asininity for an entire long chapter, just to prank the reader, or vent his disgust with bad writing, or to evoke the experience of having one’s patience tried by a bore, or, god knows, to depict that “the characters are tired.”
Clearly, he found this kind of blather somehow aesthetically rewarding in its own right. Variants of the style occur in other places in Ulysses. This language is impersonal almost to the point of being uncanny: Who is it coming from? Who could such language possibly ever come from? We associate blather with pomposity but Joycean blather is so pure, so untethered from any coherent ego or intention, that it doesn’t even manage to be pompous. Its recurrent pretenses to being folksy or personable or clever are so transparently superficial that they aren’t really even there; these impressions are just artifacts of the cliches themselves. This blather has no subconscious and no ulterior intention. It simply is.
It is, I think, meant to be the sound of language heard and not of language spoken. “Blah blah blah” is the way we indicate the same. “This is what it sounds like when you hear that talking sound in the world. You know, that weird and evocative blah-blah-blahing?” It is a kind of defamiliarized language, like the thing that words become after you say them too many times to hear their meanings intimately anymore (“milk milk milk milk milk milk milk milk milk milk milk milk milk”) – Joyce I think was fascinated by the thing that syntax and rhetoric would become on the other side of the same curtain of intimacy: clause upon clause, weirdly numb. Like the dancing of creatures under a microscope, simultaneously motivated and unmotivated, organic but soulless. There is no “thou” there for us to grab on to.
Why did this blather-transcendence fascinate him so utterly? I don’t know, but some guesses are 1) because it approaches the condition of music; 2) because he was going blind, and was being gradually cut off from the mimetic – which is to say sensory, which is to say visual – aspect of art, and this focus on the autonomous life of language offered an escape from that depressing thought; 2b) because he was going blind and increasingly found himself hearing and processing the world this way; 3) because he felt like this was virgin artistic territory and that was appealing to his ego; 4) because it was an extension of his lifelong interest in art as the refinement of real-world materials.
To elaborate on that last idea – and this is the crux of the thought I am trying to record here – I have the strong impression that he did find it specifically and deeply appealing that this kind of transcendence could be gotten at by digging down through parody and out the bottom. That you can get dumber, and dumber, and dumber, and dumber, and dumber, until something becomes so dumb that it is transporting. That out beyond the most absurd parody is something so pure and strange that the essentially petty idea of “parody” falls away from us, along with much else, and we find ourselves open to stranger and more essential impressions than most art can manage.
Beth and I have been reading Harry Stephen Keeler lately and the other day I said that, in addition to reminding me of Raymond Roussel, Keeler reminds me of the stapled compendiums of student writing that my elementary school would distribute every few months, which my family used to devour with delight. We didn’t know or care about most of the authors, so we were free to experience their absurdities as a natural phenomenon, and a wonderful one. I remember thinking, even then, “since we love this so much, why doesn’t that make it good for real? Or does it?” I’m still not done with that question.
Anyway, I think Joyce, at a slightly different pitch, was addressing himself to the same thing. Anyone who actually began a sentence with “preparatory to anything else” because he thought it sounded smart would no doubt be a terrible bore and his sentence a terrible one. But if this person is anonymous or nonexistent, if there’s no pyschology or intention, behind it, there starts to be a kind of ecstatic quality in the idiocy – when we discard the idea of “error,” it becomes joyous. And yet the mode by which we’ve reached it is unmistakably derived from parody, and so that hint of superiority and disappointment lingers in the air. I think that was a part of his worldview and seemed right to him.
So: fans of Finnegans Wake often talk about it as though its message is “look at us dancing in the gloriously hallucinatory garden of language!” I think it might actually be saying something closer to “look at all this awful awful bullshit you hear people saying! Don’t you love it and hate it?”
Here is a sentence from the beginning of Finnegans Wake book I, chapter 4:
It may be, we habben to upseek a bitty door our good township’s courants want we knew’t, that with his deepseeing insight (had not wishing oftebeen but good time wasted), petrified within his patriarchal shamanah, broadsteyne ‘bove citie (Twillby! Twillby!) he conscious of enemies, a kingbilly whitehorsed in a Finglas mill, prayed, as he sat on anxious seat, (kunt ye neat gift mey toe bout a peer saft eyballds!) during that three and a hellof hours’ agony of silence, ex profundis malorum, with unfeigned charity that his ouxtrador wordwounder (an engles to the teeth who, nomened Nash of Girahash, would go anyold where in the weeping world on his mottled belly (the rab, the kreeponskneed!) for milk, music or married missusses) might, mercy toprovidential benevolence’s who hates prudencies’ astuteness, unfold into the first of a distinguished dynasty of his posteriors, blackfaced connemaras not of the fold but elder children of his household, his most besetting of ideas (pace his twolve predamanant passions) being the formation, as in more favoured climes, where the Meadow of Honey is guestfriendly and the Mountain of Joy receives, of a truly criminal stratum, Ham’s cribcracking yeggs, thereby at last eliminating from the oppidump much desultory delinquency from all classes and masses with directly derivative decasualisation sigarius (sic!) vindicat urbes terrorum (sicker!): and so, to mark a bank taal she arter, the obedience of the citizens elp the ealth of the ole.
But here is Joyce’s first draft version of this sentence, from about 16 years earlier:
With deepseeing insight he may have prayed in silence that his wordwounder might become the first of a long dynasty, his cherished idea being the formation, as in more favoured climes, of a truly criminal class, thereby eliminating much general delinquency from all classes and masses.
Once the reader has been put on to the fact that the surface of the former is only so hideous because it has been subjected to a process of fractal growth, based on insertions and punning overlays, it becomes a fairly straightforward task to extricate an underlying English-language text like the latter. And, like I’ve been saying all along, the essentially hard thing about this sentence is its blather.
With this in mind, the “fractal growth” starts to seem more obviously like an extension of the same principles, a kind of endless buildup of the needless in the spirit of “preparatory to anything else.” Similarly the dreamy vagueness of the actual meaning is kind of a conceptual equivalent: that someone would wish a curse on an enemy who wounded him is cliche, and that the curse might have to do with his offspring is also cliche, and that the offspring of a criminal would be more criminals is cliche, and that society is divided into criminal and non-criminal classes is cliche, but the loopy way these things link up in the sentence is governed by the dream-logic of the listening mind, not by the rational logic of the speaking mind.
The book is meant to be experienced as pure disembodied art, an escape “out the bottom” from all the foolish worldliness of which it is so elaborately and parodically derived. Its extravagance is meant to be fungal rather than virtuosic. Of course, in an esoteric sense, fungus is virtuosic. Joyce’s great 17-year labor was to empathize with the virtuosity of fungus so that he could write it, but I don’t think he expected the reader to try to follow him there. He seems to have expected only academics and twits (“puzzle hermits and know-it-alls,” in Chabon’s essay) to try to chase him down the rabbit hole of getting inside his authorial head, and liked the idea that they’d be stuck there forever, undone by their wrongheaded approach to literature. This perhaps was his mistake.
The genuine aesthetic difficulty of the work – the difficulty of crossing into and maintaining an awareness of language in its “milk milk milk milk milk milk milk milk milk” defamiliarized state in order to experience art that lives and functions only on that far side of the curtain – is a difficulty for the irrational, observing mind, which is the only part of the self that can make the journey. Unfortunately, when the mind is confronted with a challenge, it applies its rational half. Joyce seems to be have believed that the more he distorted the language, the more he signaled the irrelevance of the task of unraveling it, and helped to guide the reader toward the mode of reception he had in mind. In this sense, Finnegans Wake attempts to be less difficult than “Eumaeus” because it doesn’t leave as much room for the reader to think psychologically and come to the conclusion that he is in the company of a bore. Joyce wanted us to understand deeply that we are in no company at all so that we could have the transcendent experience of language without source. But that’s the problem – he was alone with it, and so it worked for him, but he is the only one. For the rest of us, he is there. He has ostentatiously absented himself from every convoluted syllable, such that we can think of nothing but him and his peculiar intentions. This I think was a failure of his social imagination.
This thought is here recorded mostly because when I googled to see what other people had said in this direction (i.e. the style of the Wake being an extension of Eumaeus), I didn’t find much (apart from a couple pages by Hugh Kenner here). But google has its limits, and I didn’t dig too hard. If passers-by can direct me to critical writings that cover this ground, go for it.
I was real, real, real tired when I wrote this and wasn’t trying very hard to rein myself in, so I might come back later and prune and edit. I know it goes on. This is how all my papers used to be back in the old minimum-page-count days.