January 18, 2005

Goodbye, Riverend

Clarence (The Riverend) Sterling died on January 7. A nice obituary appeared in the January 16 Ventura Country Star (registration required). He was much loved by the people around Ojai, California. The Ventura Red Cross disaster operations center was named for him in December. He died of esophageal cancer at the age of 59.

His humanity set him apart from most scholars of Finnegans Wake, which he elucidated along with Joyce's other works with fresh and penetrating insight, supported by a wide range of interests. He was extremely generous with his knowledge and enthusiastic about the work of others. I corresponded with him while working on my book about Finnegans Wake. Not just about that book but also about our respective lives on our respective mountains. He had wonderful tales from his family's past, particularly one about a great-aunt's dance date spontaneously combusting (if I remember correctly). He also wrote about the people of the region, including the native Chumash.

He showed James Joyce to be a humane writer who gave voice to the victims of history's brutality. Notably, he realized that the central number in Finnegans Wake, 1132, referred to the sacking of Kildare, the house of St. Bridget, on the eve of her saint's day of that year. The abbess was raped. The event contains all the violence -- political, sexual, technological -- inflicted by humans on each other and the earth. The famously beautiful Book of Kells, a model for Finnegans Wake, may have been produced at Kildare. Sterling wrote that all of Joyce's work invoked the ancient mother Brigid (who became St. Bridget).

Joyce gave voice to that which is lost. Clarence Sterling helped us to hear it.

... there fell a tear, a singult tear ...