March 9, 2013

What Is Finnegans Wake?

Some thoughts for those about to enter the river of life or dig in the mudmound for the first or the five-hundredth time.

By Karl Reisman, author of “Darktongues”: Fulfulde and Hausa in Finnegans Wake and more.

Many people begin their journey carrying as baggage certain preconceptions: about books, about novels, about characters and even about plots and their roles in such novels or books. True, Finnegans Wake has characters and plots but to focus on them, while sometimes enlightening, is often to miss the larger stream in which they are involved.

Also. as the wisest readers have discovered, it is not possible to make a consistent story or cast of characters that carries you through your reading - although sometimes the story line is very clear.

So the first notion that has to be abandoned is that Finnegans Wake is about something.

It is not about Life, it is life.

As Samuel Beckett said in the short profound essay he wrote for Mr. Joyce: "His writing is not about something; it is that something itself."

Scientists dealing with difficult concepts sometimes build a kind of "model" of what they are contemplating. The model behaves in the way that their object of study behaves and by understanding the model they are able to understand things about the world they have made a model of. Niels Bohr's model of the structure of the atom was one such. As even earlier the model of the solar system which most of us have in our head.

In that sense we might, although it is limiting, say that Finnegans Wake is a "model" of Life. It behaves the way life behaves. Finnegans Wake, then, is not a book in the traditional sense. It is a living object.

Finnegans Wake has many identities - it is, for instance, a river. Joyce lets us know this in the first word, "riverrun".

One feature of the world Joyce has created is that it is built pervasively on ironies - what Giordano Bruno called "the coincidence of contraries". We can see this immediately in understanding life as a river. There is the river of Heraclitus, constantly changing so that one can never step into the same river twice. But there is also the river that endlessly repeats the same process of moisture from the clouds down the same path to the sea, that takes us "by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs." Both are present and one in the structure of Finnegans Wake.

The book and its parts in many ways share features with stages in the life of human beings. At the end for instance as death approaches we come to see that much of what we have thought important in our lives is not so important, and life becomes much clearer and we see clearly the answers to questions we thought so difficult, so at this point the writing in Finnegans Wake becomes much clearer and simpler, until the final catastrophe of death itself on page 628.

The book is its own teacher. The keys to it have been given in the book.

"Lps. The keys to. Given!" (page 628.15)
As with rivers so with roads - or "ruads". And here the thing is that there are so many. There is no right road to the book. As it says on page 497: "from Rathgar, Rathanga, Rountown and Rush, from America Avenue and Asia Place and the Affrian Way and Europa Parade and besogar the wallies of Noo Soch Wilds and from Vico, Mespil Rock and Sorrento," ...

And so also it is a book of many languages all of which contribute to the multiple meanings of its sentences. When different languages come in contact they often break down the structure of language itself. One example that Joyce uses is the African based Creole languages of the West Indies and other plantation societies with African slaves. These languages often break words into syllables and play with the meanings that emerge - as Joyce himself does in Finnegans Wake. This book is "an earsighted view", you have to hear the sounds of the different languages as your are able, and at the same time see the words on the page, with their special and peculiar spellings. Each person brings different perceptions to this process.

Although as you become more and more familiar with the book you will find that you begin to speak its language.

For the language of Finnegans Wake is some of the most beautiful ever written, and it sounds in your head and becomes engraved in your memory, so that eventually it transforms from a written work into an oral one.

And of course Finnegans Wake is a book of the night and of the dark. Whether approached psychologically as John Bishop does in his remarkable Joyce's Book of the Dark, or mythologically or by any analysis of dreams and dreamers.

And then the remarkable mind of Joyce takes us far beyond all these.

Because it is such a living work, all reading of Finnegans Wake in which one finds pleasure, or enlightenment, or beauty or particularly laughter, is valuable reading whether by novice or longtime reader.

One consequence of what I am saying is that Finnegans Wake is not a "difficult" book. It may be unfamiliar at the start, but it speaks the language of us all.

So to answer the question in my title, Finnegans Wake is far more than a "book". It lives, it talks to us, it finds us new things. And we talk to it. And eventually it changes us and lives in us.

As I said the book is its own teacher, although one may be lead to discover many things through curiosity aroused by the book.

The only other "teachers" I would recommend to the beginner are Samuel Becket's little essay "Dante ... Bruno . Vico .. Joyce" from Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress and the remarkable and loving book by James Atherton, The Books at the Wake.