Saturday, January 24, 2015

Some more thoughts on reading Finnegans Wake

How do you read Finnegans Wake? This has to be the single most troubling question of the whole book. In my last post I talked about the idea of “experiencing”it without necessarily understanding it, which is certainly an important aspect of Joyce’s composition, but it’s hardly a satisfying response to the question. After all, you’d have to be crazy to uncomprehendingly slog through a book of over 600 pages on the vague promise of some intangible psychic reward. So how do we read it? Or to aim a little lower, how do we define the appropriate attitude of a reader to this book in a way that I can summarise in a short blog post?

In his essay on Joyce’s as-yet-unfinished Work in Progress, Samuel Beckett suggested a different word for the process: “apprehending,” by which he meant reading not for the meaning of the words themselves but for the associations produced by their sounds:
It is not to be read – or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something; it is that something itself... When the sense is sleep, the words go to sleep. (See the end of ‘Anna Livia’) When the sense is dancing, the words dance.
I recommend you read whole thing, where he gives a great example of drunk language producing the idea of drunkenness.

But there’s still something missing. There’s a certain passivity to Beckett’s description, less so than in my description of “experiencing,” but still much more than anyone who’s made a serious attempt to read the book would recognise. Trying to follow the flow of sounds feels less like following the current of a river, and more like tumbling down a waterfall. You have to slow down, and make your descent slowly at your own pace or you’ll be drowned.

In his excellent book on Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s Book of the Dark, John Bishop describes reading it in very different terms from Beckett: not as a poem, but “as a rebus, a crossword puzzle,” a dense series of interconnected riddles to be solved through a combination of research and free association. “Everything manifest on the printed page of the Wake points to a second, concealed text.” (To which I would only add that one concealed text might be a conservative estimate.)

So which is it: do we experience, apprehend, or decipher? Well, obviously, it’s all three, isn’t it? (And probably more that I haven’t even thought of.) As Bishop exhaustively argues, Finnegans Wake is a “nightynovel,” addressed not to our conscious waking minds, but to the unconscious mind that wakes when we’re asleep. At the same time, it’s a myth, addressed not to the rational minds of sophisticated tea-drinking newspaper readers, but to the primitive consciousness of prehistoric humans. (Joyce, following Giambattista Vico, believed the two to be equal: that before the invention of reason, our waking minds were ruled by the same emotional drives that direct our dreams.)

Reading Finnegans Wake means learning to read – and more importantly to think – in a new way, in a way that’s both alien and deeply human. It isn’t, like a cryptic crossword, a hollow intellectual exercise, but an arduous and rewarding exercise in empathy, which challenges us to understand at the same time an important but nigh-incomprehensible aspect of our own mental life, and a vast and forgotten portion of our intellectual history as human beings.


Robert said...

When I read the Wake, I kept the various guidebooks available at the time right alongside it. (This was in the 1970s, so there weren't very many). I'm hoping to re-read it soon, but this time I think I'll just dive in all alone and let Joyce speak for himself...

Stephen Crowe said...

I don't think much of those "guidebooks", but at the very least I'd recommend you read A Word in Your Ear by Eric Rosenbloom. It's a great little book that aims to provide a foundation for reading and enjoying the book by yourself.

Really, I think the more wider reading you do, whether it be good quality secondary texts (like Rosenbloom or John Bishop) or Joyce's primary sources, like The New Science and The Golden Bough (and his own life, which you can access via Richard Ellman's biography), the more you'll get out of it.

Anonymous said...

And don't forget Shakespeare. There's Shakespeare on practically every page of the wake

PQ said...

There's fly-fishing on every page of the Wake:

There's everything on every page of the Wake.

Can't remember who said this...surely I'm misquoting it, on reading FW:

You have to read the whole book in order to comprehend one page, yet you can also read one page and comprehend the whole book.

Unknown said...

I began reading FW yesterday, and I'm bowled over by it. It's amazing, not a book so much as an experience, a world, an expedition into unexplored terrain - not tame terrain either, but a land full of endless variety. It's a sort of literary synaesthesia, a crossing of categories in the form of a book. It's intoxicating, in a life-enhancing eye-opening way. It's breath-taking.