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.