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.)

Saturday, April 12, 2014

To the Happy Few

In addressing my readers, I hope you are happy, but I know you are few.

I know that when I check in on those blogs I enjoy, I am often perturbed when more than a few days goes by without a post.  As lag times increase, so also my own checking in become less frequesnt.  For that reason I understand that my waiting months and months between posts discourages those who might share some common interests.

So, I am going to try to put something up at least every few weeks.  If it starts to look like "filler," please let me know, and I'll return to the previous practice of occasional Delphic outbursts.

de Pontis

The divide that needs bridging is that contained in Pascal's famous exclamation:  "Dieu d'Abraham, Dieu d'Isaac, Dieu de Jacob, non des Philosophes et des savants."  "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not the God of philosophers and scientists."

Pascal, one of our conventional precursors of the existentialist mood, sets the distinction as a choice, and he, a philosopher and scientist of the first rank, chooses the historical God in whom the Patriarchs placed their faith.  It is a choice that our contemporary world, for all its deference to science, tends to prefer, at least when the third path of atheism is shunned.

It is not that the God of the philosophers was ever necessarily intended, at least by Jewish and Christian philosophers, to be different from the God of the biblical revelation.  But Aristotle's Unmoved mover, Anselm's that-than-which-no-greater-can-be-conceived, Thomas' breaker of infinite chains, Leibniz's chief Monad, Spinoza's universal Substance, Kant's postulate of practical reason--these entities seem far removed from the one for whom the prophets spoke, or the Son of Man.

I have been reading Karl Rahner's Grundkurs des Glaubens, and I am about a quarter of the way through.  (Attentive readers will note that, for better or worse, I tend to talk more about books I'm reading than about those I've finished.  This is a weakness of mine.  I ought to linger more, and reflect back when I finish, but I'm unhappily more inclined to breathlessly run on to something else when that final page is turned.)

Rahner seems to be approaching Christianity through two distinct philosophical streams.  He follows Kant in developing the implications of human transcendence--freedom and subjectivity presupposing a realm outside of the categoreal, historical world of objects, things, beings, subject to the categories of space, time, number, modality and causation.  God is the horizon, the referent, the ground, the necessary presupposition, whose well of infinite potentiality makes possible the creaturely world we inhabit, the world which we dimly intimate is not the whole of what is.

Rahner also draws on Heidegger, presenting human being, in time, as radically free, and radically threatened by the guilt that necessarily accompanies the responsibility of continually choosing when there is no certainty about which choices one ought to make.

So far, so good.  This is another version of the God of the Philosophers, a pretty difficult one, but one responsive and intelligible to our time.  How, then, does Rahner, the Catholic, the Jesuit, bridge the obvious gap between the transcendental boundary of what is universally human and the Catholic notion of a God who works in history and, in the fullness of time, became flesh and dwelt among us?  

His answer seems to lie in human existence.  The transcendent is not in time, and has no history.  But human beings, who apprehend the transcendent, do live in time, and our experience of the transcendent itself has a history, which in turn becomes the history of revelation.  And it is my guess that it is that unique bridge of human existence, between the transcendent and the historical, that gets its fullest expression in what becomes the most distinctively Christian dogma, the incarnation.  We shall see.