Friday, April 18, 2014

Sense or Sensibility

I have chosen foolishly.  I have begun Finnegans Wake.  In fact, I've read about a tenth of it.

Now it seems to me, to begin with, that there are two ways to approach this book.  The first is to arm yourself with one or more of the commentaries, guides, keys, glosses, and the like, that abound in both written and electronic form.  The second way is to simply dive in, and try to make sense out of it as best one can.

I have chosen the second way, because I balk at the idea of having to read one book (or five) in order to read another one.  I guess I am also concerned that the guidebook approach runs the risk of reading, not Finnegans Wake, but another writer's work as excavated therefrom.

Let me explain.  The text is largely senseless, and has remained so.  It has been described as a work written in an invented language, but I don't think that that's quite the right way to put it.  The book is in English.  The words, most of them, are recognizably English, and the occasional bursts of other languages are recognizably French or German or whatever.  There is no invented language, but a good portion of the book is written in invented spelling:  "The house of Atreox has fallen indeedust."  Well, "indeedust" is plainly not an English word itself.  But, just as plainly, it can signify "indeed" or "in the dust" or some other expression I'm missing.  Is "Atreox" "Atreus," the house of Agamemnon and Menelaus?  Seems likely, especially from what follows:  "(Ilyam!  Ilyum!..."

These enigmatic strings of almost-sentences seem to cluster around themes.  Here there is a riot of Islamic terminology, there references to the Normans who came to Ireland.  But they don't form a narrative.  And great swatches are as opaque as mud.  Occasionally I come across a reference to something that would be utterly incomprehensible if I didn't already know something particular from outside of the book (like, for instance, a line from the music hall ballad, "Finnegan's Wake.")  Most places I struggle to find any referent at all, even when the invented words are transparent enough.

So, back to what I was saying above, about forsaking the guides:  Whatever Joyce thought he was doing, I seem to be imposing some meaning, some sense, some patterns, some interpretations into the text.  It is "eisegesis," not exegesis.  I have little confidence that what I am recognizing here or there is remotely similar to what Joyce thought he was laying out. But at least, by forsaking the guides, I am imposing my own mistake, not that of my learned predecessors.

That's not to say that I have entirely avoided those general pronouncements on the interpretive frame of the text that anyone contemplating tackling the Wake is bound to come across.  One generally accepted idea is that Joyce has taken up the notion of a four-stage circular theory of history proposed by an eighteenth century Italian writer, Giovanni Battista Vico.  Knowing that, I can't help but look for references to four-fold cyclical patterns, in this passage or that.

Here is something that I came across last week, for example:

"Wroth mod eldfar, ruth red stillstand, wrath wrackt wroth, confessed private Pat Marchison retro."

Now, by some chain of reasoning, which now escapes me, I became convinced when I first read this, after puzzling over it in its context, that these four phrases referred to the four stages of the sacrament of penance:  contrition, confession, absolution and satisfaction.  Yes, I know, very questionable.  But that "retro" at the end suggested a return to the first.  And how?  Sin again, Finnegan!     

And although some have called this Joyce's "book of the night," I have found that my initial thought, that it might be best read late at night, while dozing off, letting its nonsense phrases make their own sense automatically, didn't work out.  I'd call it a morning book--or at least one that yields whatever meaning it has, best, when read alert and refreshed, and at a rate of no more than two to three pages at a sitting.

Despite the difficulties and frustrations, its stubborn lack of sense, I still find myself returning, which surprises me.  It brings back to mind something that I've actually quoted on this blog before, Dr. Johnson's reply to being told that Richardson's Clarissa was "tedious":

"If you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment."

To some extent I am of the same mind about the Wake.  If you try to read it for the "sense," you will go nuts.  But, read for the "sensibility"--the playfulness, the circularity, the strange randomness, the oracular quality--it yields a unique kind of satisfaction (but not one, I would add, that could be gotten away with by anyone less that the author of Ulysses.)

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