On the whole I take a benign view of gibberish. I've read actual articles arguing that Heidegger's Sein und Zeit has no discernible meaning. I've sympathized with the view that Hegel's Phaenomenologie des Geistes is just a circle of self-referring generalities. Accepting those views as at least supportable, it is nonetheless undeniable that such philosophical gibberish has changed our civilization, has trickled down from the Olympian heights of the lecture room to politics and religion and the general outlook of the most philosophically indifferent, transforming the way we see our world.
Something of the same can be said of at least some modern painting, and of some modern literature. I think of Pound's Cantos, whose sentences are intelligible enough, but whose overall impression can be a puzzled disorientation. But real gibberish? For that we have to come to the one, true master, the archetype, the undefeated champion of the world, the subject of this post, the work that even Pound thought too unhinged from meaning: Finnegans Wake.
I haven't read it. I haven't even started it. I don't even have my hands on it yet. The question addressed here is whether it is even sane to consider getting involved with the thing.
The occasion is the book's publication this spring by the Folio Society, which I've been a member of these past 25 years. Folio's books are rarely bargains, but they are handsome and sturdy, and though they often rely on older, established texts and translations, in this case Folio is publishing a new text which, like many new texts, was rolled out in a super-deluxe, super-expensive edition by a more exclusive luxury press a few years back.
I have always had a fairly conventional appreciation of Joyce. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses I read in the mid-1980's, and "The Dead" regularly re-read. But so many who hailed those as definitive works threw up their hands at the Wake. Is it worthwhile finding out why?
Age is probably an advantage here. Yes, I already own more books than I can finish in my lifetime. But a lifetime of reading--history, fiction, philosophy, theology, geography, mythology (and yes, being a Catholic undoubtedly helps)--even if it only slightly intersects with what Joyce crammed into this last book, it's frankly put me into a position to have the best chance ever to appreciate the thing, compared to when I was twenty, or forty. And at eighty I will probably be too cranky.
I did, in fact, on the occasion of thinking this thing through, pull out my old Ulysses, and went to some of the more difficult passages, and found that, yes, there were things there that I would have just skimmed over at thirty. But it wasn't the better ability to do the puzzles that decided it for me. I remembered how Joyce can break your heart. I end this post with an excerpt from the second chapter of Ulysses. Yes, it has references beyond the schoolroom scene. But alone, all alone, it demonstrates why even a Joyce going off his head may be worth a listen:
Sargent who alone had lingered came forward slowly, showing an open copybook. His thick hair and scraggy neck gave witness of unreadiness and through his misty glasses weak eyes looked up pleading. On his cheek, dull and bloodless, a soft stain of ink lay, dateshaped, recent and damp as a snail's bed.
He held out his copybook. The word Sums was written on the headline. Beneath were sloping figures and at the foot a crooked signature with blind loops and a blot. Cyril Sargent: his name and seal.
—Mr Deasy told me to write them out all again, he said, and show them to you, sir.
Stephen touched the edges of the book. Futility.
—Do you understand how to do them now? he asked.
—Numbers eleven to fifteen, Sargent answered. Mr Deasy said I was to copy them off the board, sir.
—Can you do them yourself? Stephen asked.
Ugly and futile: lean neck and thick hair and a stain of ink, a snail's bed. Yet someone had loved him, borne him in her arms and in her heart. But for her the race of the world would have trampled him underfoot, a squashed boneless snail. She had loved his weak watery blood drained from her own. Was that then real? The only true thing in life? His mother's prostrate body the fiery Columbanus in holy zeal bestrode. She was no more: the trembling skeleton of a twig burnt in the fire, an odour of rosewood and wetted ashes. She had saved him from being trampled underfoot and had gone, scarcely having been. A poor soul gone to heaven: and on a heath beneath winking stars a fox, red reek of rapine in his fur, with merciless bright eyes scraped in the earth, listened, scraped up the earth, listened, scraped and scraped.
Sitting at his side Stephen solved out the problem.