Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Why understand when you can reenact?

In Joyce’s day, the Catholic mass that he attended as a child – and occasionally as an adult, for aesthetic appreciation – was given in Latin. You can read part of the rite of the Eucharist at the beginning of Ulysses: “Introibo ad altare Dei,” says Buck Mulligan, as he pretends to bless his shaving soap. In theory, everyone who had done their catechism should have learnt the parts of the mass and their meanings. But, in practice, I wonder how many congregants really understood what was going on, and how many simply memorised when to stand and when to kneel?

When we read a book – or a newspaper, or a post-it note, for that matter – there’s one question that always occurs first in our minds. “What does it mean?” Depending on the complexity of what we’re reading, we might not even have time to form the question in our minds before it’s answered. When we read Finnegans Wake, we might grow tired of the sound of our own voices saying it. But in the history of human thought and writing and speaking and singing, there is a vast and rarely thought-about tradition of ritual storytelling, in which understanding is the last thing on anyone’s mind.

The myth of Osiris was a story about a god with a name and a family, who experiences certain events, dies and comes back to life. So far, so much like Harry Potter. But we know the story of Osiris because it was written down not as an entertainment, but as a model, or a series of stage directions. As the god of the dead, Osiris was the archetype of all dead people, and his story was written by the ancient Egyptians again and again and again, not as his story, but as that of each individual corpse, who, simply by virtue of being dead, partook of his name and identity. In the Book of the Dead written for a scribe named Ani, he is referrred to as “The Osiris Ani”, and the story of Osiris’ journey to the Underworld is Ani’s story.

Countless ancient myths operated in this way, but the best known today must be that same rite of the Eucharist from the Christian mass. The priest recites the story of Jesus’ Last Supper while reenacting Jesus’ actions: blessing the bread and the wine and giving it to his apostles, “that you may enjoy everlasting life.” The priest becomes Jesus and his congregation the apostles. The purpose of the story is not to be understood, but to facilitate the blessing, an essentially magical operation that the priest conducts by channelling Jesus.

This approach to reading was certainly on Joyce’s mind during the writing of Finnegans Wake, and can go some way to accounting for its difficulty: that it’s meant primarily not to be understood, but to be experienced. I don’t know if that’s a helpful way to look at it, but I encourage you to give it a try, and to think about what “magical” operation you might be conducting when you channel the life and dreams of Here Comes Everybody.


Unknown said...

I agree completely with your assessment that Wake is meant more to be experienced than understood (i.e., in the sense of a plot to "get"). I would appreciate your comments on my theory if you have time to view it. Please see JoyceanOpusDay.blogspot.com

Thanks for your post.

Stephen Crowe said...

Thanks for your comment, Nick! I took a look at your website, but it looks like you haven't finished elucidating your theory yet. Although Joyce certainly pursued a lot of the same ideas throughout his work, I'm skeptical of your claim – if I understand it correctly – that he imagined the three novels as combining into some kind of single coherent work. I mean, Ulysses and the Wake are each complex enough by themselves, aren't they? He was only human!