30 May, 2006

On the inevitable

Mr. Waggish, who writes about 20th-century fiction, European cinema, and a bit of philosophy, has been quiet of late, but he's broken his silence with an opening salvo (and another) on everyone's favourite hexception-cum-epigome, Finnegans Wake. Paul Kerschen of Metameat, himself a Joyce fan, comments:
My sense of the indeterminacy and contradiction is that Joyce wanted his last two books to have the form not of an account of the world, but of the world itself: in juxtaposing as many contradictory accounts as possible, he presents not an interpretation but an opportunity for interpretations.
A spark of the old Joyce flame, dear reader, was reawakened. I completely agree with this proposition—how could anyone not?—and so it occurs to me now to write a skit about the Wake, and about books as worlds. Joyce capitalised on that maxim (1925) of Archibald MacLeish that 'a poem should not mean / But be.' MacLeish, incidentally, was one of the few to take Joyce's prospective Wake seriously, back in the 20s when it was first hatched. Appropriately then, Samuel Beckett (amanuensis to Joyce, lover to his daughter) could provide a lovely snatch of bibliobole for the back cover of Anna Livia Plurabelle, Joyce's second printed installment of the Wake:
Here form is content, content is form. . . When the sense is sleep, the words go to sleep; when the sense is dancing, the words dance.
It makes sense. As Paul says, Joyce wasn't writing about the world, he was writing the world. He was doing the reverse of the literary archaeologies being peddled by Auerbach, Curtius and Spitzer—stuffing the arcane and inaccessible, his own mind, back into the stylistic fabric of his text. He was uploading, where the Germans were downloading. Naturally, many authors had stuffed their brains into monumental novels before, the usual suspects—Rabelais, Melville, Sterne, Joyce in his own Ulysses. These were writers who wrote the world, and explicitly so: compare Rabelais's description of the utopian-microcosmic Abbey of Thélème to the physical properties of his own book, with its 'belles grandes librairies' carrying texts in six languages, its inscription in Gothic blackletter (a more demotic typeface than Roman, still in the 1530s), and its mirrors which reflect 'véritablement. . . toute la personne'. Even that mirror analogy is telling, echoing the great mediaeval encyclopaedias titled Specula, 'mirrors [of nature]'. Sterne, likewise, had done the book-within-the-book routine which delighted Borges, and Joyce had his microcosmic schemas for Ulysses, laying out Dublin, June 16, 1904, as the entire universe.

But the Wake goes further. As Northrop Frye observed, the book is not just an 'anatomy' or encyclopaedic work, like Ulysses, Gargantua and Pantagruel and Moby Dick, but rather the quintessence of all forms—novel, romance, confession and anatomy—in fact an anatomy of anatomies. One doesn't read it; this is the hardest thing to explain. One can only gaze at it, like the most beautiful of spectacles, or in other words, like the world. It's the type of work which will inspire most to call it the exception, but a Derek Attridge to insist that it's the most typical book ever written, at least if Empson is right that literature is defined by ambiguity, if Bakhtin is right that literature is defined by polyphony. Derrida could hardly help revealing his fannishness—it legitimated his career.

(I spent a younger night attempting a summary of the world as:
Their feed begins. (p. 308)
It didn't work. It's impossible. Look, there Joyce is, the anticheirst, taunting you with footnote 228, 'the free of his hand to you'. He's made the whole text so thick you could drown in the first paragraph alone. So don't even get started on p. 293, Elements 1.1 as a map of Dublin and 'figuratleavely the whome of your eternal geomater', the great cipher of the allwombing tomb; nor the twelve impossible questions set by the fractious schoolmaster Jockit Mic Ereweak, aka. (apparently) Wyndham Lewis, Joyce's modernist nemesis. It is comforting, nonetheless, to hear that Joyce hoped a schoolgirl in any part of the world might peer into Anna Livia Plurabelle, woven together from rivernames, and find her own local river in there somewhere.)

I once was asked by Patricia Palmer about literary theory, in one of the many piss-poor graduate seminars I suffered at York University. I replied, at some length, that I knew very little about theory or criticism, with the exception of Joyce scholarship, which I enjoyed reading, because exegesis of the Wake felt to me like exegesis of the whole world.

This kind of response was once reserved for the Bible. Everything is in the two Testaments—as Sir John Harington delighted to observe, Leviticus even includes details on where to defecate in the wilderness. If the Bible contains the world, then it might replace the world. Same with the Wake. In fact, I once referred to it in a letter as my Holy Babel, a pun which I'm sure has been made countless times before (I don't dare google it), and no doubt by the old bastard himself. In the olden days they used to answer questions by opening pages of the Scriptures at random, and interpreting the passage as a divine response, a kind of literary magic 8-ball. The mediaevals did it with the works of that necromancer Vergil, too, they called it the sortes Vergilianae, and Petrarch did it famously with Augustine's Confessions. There is no doubt in my mind that a text far superior to these for the purpose would be Finnegans Wake; perhaps we could institute the sortes Joyceanae.

I'd like to think that this blog too, in all its disparate pieces, might one day constitute a world entire, the universe plotted as words.


A Little Thought said...

Wonderful post! (I found you via Heaven Tree).

As someone who has tried to read the Wake, your advice to look instead is duly noted!

By the way, are you speaking of York University here in Toronto?

Anyway, thanks for the great, insightful work!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Very kind, sir. Actually no, this would be York University, England. A high reputation richly ill-deserved. Nice place, though.

Gawain said...

wow, conrad, what a beaute. thanks. makes me want to post on my favorite Polish author. come to think about it, i think i will.

A Little Thought said...

AH! I asked because a number of my friends who have been through grad programs at York here in Toronto said exactly the same thing!

Paul Kerschen said...

Thanks for the response! Reminds me of Joyce's own primary prescription for approaching FW: "Now, patience; and remember patience isthe great thing, and above all things else we must avoid anything like being or becoming out of patience." (108)