16 April, 2008


Last week at the Wake reading-group. Turned into a fine bloody spectacle! For who should show up but Ben Watson and Bob "Bob Dobbs" Dean? They were recording for a radio programme. Which one? Forgot to ask.
— Arra irrara hirrara man, weren't they arriving in clansdestinies for the Imbandiment of Ad Regias Agni Dapes, fogabawlers and panhibernskers, after the crack and the lean years, scalpjaggers and houthhunters, like the messicals of the great god. . .
Arra irrara hirrara, said Watson; it's someone clearing their throat, isn't it? Yes, we said. Very important, clearing the throat, said Watson. Started talking about a Frank Zappa song which begins with the sound of someone (Zappa?) clearing his throat. It's a rhetorical gesture, said Watson, it gets the audience's attention. It's very powerful. At this stage I was looking round the room, but no one caught my eye. The point is, added Watson, that he's clearing his throat.

And so it continued. Messicals, said W., presiding. 'Musicals', someone said. 'Messengers', said another. 'Mass', I said. Just throwing it out there. 'Vesicles', said Watson. Alright, said W., and all those things you've said are doubtlessly in there. (Except 'vesicle'.) But all the free-association in the world won't elucidate the text. What you need is a rationale, some way of distinguishing good guesses from bad ones. W.'s preference, for instance, is for looking at drafts, and considering themes on a broader level. Watson found this hierophantical. (Did he use the word?) You just want to impose your reading as the correct one, he said. You've got the draft books in front of you as a key to the meaning, and they've solved the riddle. What's the point? Watson himself knew better. When I read the Wake to the average person, he said—you know, not necessarily intellectual, academic types, but just ordinary people with life experience, they get it immediately.

Watson, it later turns out, said much the same on his website:
Yet everybody to whom you read a sentence of the Wake will provide some information from their own particular walk of life which will illuminate your understanding—of the Wake, of themselves, of the world.
I actually tried this today. I took my trusty Penguin Wake onto the streets of London in search of the vox populi. At first I thought I'd surprise people. Unuchorn! Ungulant! Uvuloid! Uskybeak! I barked at a passing Rastafarian, who gave me such a terrifying look that I decided to stick to gentler passages from then on. I picked out an attractive middle-aged proletess and approached her with Any dog's life you list you may still hear them at it—but she only turned her head and snapped Fack orff!! at me. (For a while I thought she was quoting back Joyce, but sadly I couldn't locate the phrase in the Wake concordance. . .) Finally I took an elderly gentleman aside, with a tie and checked shirt and tweed jacket, and asked his opinion.

— Tugbag is Baggut's, I said, when a crispin sokolist besoops juts kamps or clapperclaws an irvingite offthedocks. A luckchange, I see.

He was still looking blankly at me, so I continued; only I'd lost my place and had to start somewhere else, hoping he wouldn't notice.

— That pekumiary pond is beyawnd my pinnigay pretonsions. I am resting on a pigs of cheesus but I've a big suggestion it was about the pint of porter.

— Ah, he said, his eyes lighting up. Porter! I did use to like a good pint of the stuff. But you can't get it like it used to be. Mass-produced now. It's all them brewing corporations. Run by Yanks. And the Irish. (His eyes darkened again.)

I had to concede that the gentleman had, indeed, managed to tell me something about the world, and about himself; but if he had any pearls about Joyce's experimental masterpiece, I was not astute enough to catch them. However, let us attribute the failure of my experiment to mere chance. Or perhaps I didn't affect a convincing Dublin accent? After all, we are all fond of that persistent story that the Wake is perfectly lucid when read aloud in a good brogue. We can try again next week. As for Watson, he hasn't finished, oh no:
Joyce evaded the British wartime censors. . . by producing a book of "incomprehensible gibberish"—incomprehensible to every "educated" person, that is, who's forgotten that everything written is merely a transcription of something said in lust or anger or accountancy or pure punning fun.
(Mostly pure punning fun, though.)
[Finnegans Wake] has of course has been roundly condemned and squarely rejected as "unreadable" or "difficult" by politicans, academics, journalists and mass-media spokepersons who wish to keep alive the desiccated, non-lived, duped and BORING spectacle of life supplied to us by those who rule. But the Wake has been celebrated and pored-over and disputed and read—read read RED—by all true REVOLUTIONARIES, SURREALISTS, BEATS, POETS, FREE IMPROVISORS, ZAPPA FANS & COCKROACH-FANCIERS as the Bible of Post-Capitalism, our glimpse of a humanist democracy beyond war, exploitation, media manipulation and the money form, where MATERIALIST RECOGNITION OF OUR ACTUAL LIVES (what the Communist Manifesto called "facing with sober senses our real conditions of life and our relations to our kind") becomes the open swinging-bar door on a limitless realm of play, adventure, learning, social contact and sexual bliss.
I can assure the reader that I am not quoting Henry Miller. Nor an eighteen year-old—this is a man in his fifties. But you just have to quote this stuff at length to get a feel for the SHOUTY REPETITIVE BORINGNESS of it. His own position he encapsulates as follows:
Joyce and Zappa explode the boundaries of bourgeois politesse and a rational public order sustained by legal contracts between supposedly equal citizens. They reveal an actuality of lust, greed and lies beneath the bourgeois veneer.
Watson is of course the sort of bloke for whom 'bourgeois' is the worst possible insult, because it can only ever denote a 'veneer'. Lucky for Watson, he can find enough in Joyce to agree with him. He quotes a letter to Stanislaus (conveniently located in Ellman's biography, p. 204):
You have often shown opposition to my socialistic tendencies. But can you not see plainly from facts like these that a deferment of the emancipation of the proletariat, a reaction to clericalism or aristocracy or bourgeoisism would mean a revulsion to tyrannies of all kinds?
All well and good, and more on Joyce's antiburgherism can be found all over the internet. Still, the conflation of Finnegans Wake with soixante-huitard social and artistic ideals is terribly unimaginative. You can find it all in there: drugs, sex, pop music, dreams, satire. But so what? Watson wanted from the group a polyphonic clamour of voices, each member adducing suggestions, each enriching the text with additional meanings, each making it still bigger, more colourful, more like the very world itself. Only for Watson, none of these meanings might become authoritative—because to be authoritative is to limit other possibilities. Watson wants chaos. His friend, Dean, who claimed to have been Marshall McLuhan's archivist, and who seems to have led a rather Munchhausenish life on the internet, babbled about the Wake being a single sentence from start to finish ('No, it isn't', W. drily observed) or a fractal or a technicolor explosion of vortex patterns or a chaotic radio transmission of all history or a space-time singularity of psychedelic laser language or something very grand like that.

Later, W. used the word 'characterisation', and Watson sneered, Oh! I'm just allergic to your way of thinking! You academics, you find a work of art you can't categorise, and you try and reduce it to a bourgeois novel. Characters! This isn't a novel! And so on, like a petulant teenager. We were all a bit nonplussed. The whole room was bristling and eager to see what would happen next. Joyceans gegen killjoyceans. Like I said, it was a fun evening.


I'm interested in this trope—that the academics have it all wrong, and that we have only to open our eyes to see the truth. Of course it stems from a Romantic mindset, that education is really indoctrination, that society and capital (both perpetuated by educators, and especially academics) are denying us our authentic proletariat freedoms. I found the same basic idea in M. J. Harper's The History of Britain Revealed, which I purchased yesterday. (It has also been published in America under the title, The Secret History of the English Language.) Harper's basic thesis is that our picture of language history is all wrong: English doesn't come from Anglo-Saxon—it's obvious how different the two languages are—but has been around since the Ice Age; French and Italian and Spanish don't come from Latin—for they are more similar to each other than to Latin, with which they have only a lexical affinity—but from English, while Latin was invented by Italians as short-hand for trading purposes; and so on and so on. Language Hat noticed the book a while ago:
I didn't have time to read it, but I flipped through it and noted that it purported to be claiming that Middle English never existed and that English was the ancestor of the Romance languages, among other things so silly I assumed it couldn't be serious.
Hat says:
If the book were claiming that Queen Elizabeth was the illegitimate son of Rasputin, or that mixing salt and sugar provides an inexhaustible source of energy that will replace oil and gas, no one would take it seriously; if it were reviewed at all, it would be as an example of how absolutely anything can get published. But equivalent nonsense about language is reviewed respectfully, and it makes me despair.
This is pretty sloppy. After all, just look at the responses to Anatoly Fomenko's History: Fiction or Science?, which claims that Christ was born around 1000 AD, and that a thousand years of history have just been invented. (Incidentally, Harper makes similar claims, p. 84: 'Rum things crawl out from the historical record when several hundred years of spurious history have somehow got themselves inserted into the real world', referring to the period 1250-750 BC.) Or to Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics, which claims that ancient Indian gurus had mystical foreknowledge of modern quantum physics. Or to Martin Bernal's Black Athena, which claims that the highlights of Western culture came from Egypt, and a black African Egypt at that. (The book was taken seriously enough that a formal refutation was published.) Or look at the respect accorded to Judith Butler, merely for being a feminist lesbian and looking like one too. Patrick "Pyramid Power" Flanagan, let us not forget, was vaunted in Time magazine. And what was that about polywater? The fact is, Mr. Hat, nonsense about every subject under the sun has been reviewed respectfully. There's really no need to despair!

Now Harper, like Watson, hates academics, whose disciplines are 'cosy niches for intellectually unenquiring people'. Sometimes he lets rip:
You should, throughout this book, be asking yourself why the blindingly obvious things outlined here from time to time are so studiously ignored by professional historians and, having come to the conclusion that this is a moderately scandalous situation, you should then apply these thoughts to academics and academia in general. And rise up and kick the rascals out.
For Harper, academics (or 'historians') have been perpetuating 'creation myths' about the origin of the English people and their language, not to mention the other Europeans, from the beginning. They aren't malicious—just foolish and blinkered, which is to be expected, as their training necessitates it. On the idea that English evolved from Anglo-Saxon via 'Middle English':
Of course we mustn't be too harsh on the generations of linguists, philologists and etymologists who produced this stuff. . . Every last one of them was intensively instructed on this matter in their first year as undergraduates (by certified experts), given an examination to see if the information had taken firm root (they all passed), lived their entire professional lives among people who believe it to be self evidently-true. . . and have never given the matter another thought from that to day to this (and, believe me, they're not about to start now).
As Harper observes, universities are intellectually conservative; change is slow, and revolution very rare, unless of course your name is Noam. All institutions, in fact, are conservative. It is in their nature: it is how they remain corporate, and how they are preserved from every passing fancy that might trouble their hulls. Sometimes this is a bad thing—the canonical example might be the dogmatism of the Church regarding Copernican and Galilean science. But often it is good, as demonstrated by all the cranks—and here linguistics is a great field—whose silly contributions made no dent at all on taught wisdom. The problem is that it is very difficult to distinguish the one situation from the other at the present time. The rather worthy Sally Thomason bemoans, more naïvely than Mr. Hat, the positive reviews garnered by Harper on amazon:
In any case, we find again that Harper and his ilk make "so damn much sense", while linguists, contaminated by Establishment connections (like, academic training and jobs relevant to that training), are hide-bound types blinded by meaningless tradition, and therefore sure to be wrong. (One might ask why the public is so ready to believe someone who asserts that "the experts" are deluded on a whole raft of issues but who offers not one single piece of evidence in support of his assertions; but one would be foolish to bother asking.)
It is useless expecting the public to be able to evaluate evidence on technical matters. Either they listen to those who call themselves experts, or they listen to those who give reasons to doubt a priori the authenticity of this expertise. When in 1686 Bernard de Fontenelle wanted to convince the intellectual world that they had been completely wrong on the subject of the pagan oracles, he did two things: first, he showed why earlier historians might have believed what they did, despite being mistaken; and second, he painted an entirely speculative, but nonetheless convincing picture of what really happened at the oracles. Fontenelle has been portrayed for centuries as an intellectual hero, while his contemporary adversaries made much the same point as Thomason:
In this Age one may be sure, a new Opinion, however ill prov'd, will not fail to gain its Followers, provided it favours the inclination Men have to Incredulity. . . Thus those who believe are induc'd to examine the Reasons against believing, to deliver themselves if possible, from this so measly Bondage; and they who do not believe, thinking it a great Happiness to be freed from this troublesome Yoke, do naturally avoid all that might bring them under it; and are much more inclin'd to inform themselves of the Reasons against believing, that they fortify themselves still more in their Incredulity, than of those which might oblige them to believe.
This is why Harper's book is advertised as appealing to 'anyone who has ever thought twice about what they've learned in school'. The rhetoric is that, if you learn at school, you are just swallowing opinions—and that swallowing opinions doesn't produce Newtons or Einsteins, or Fontenelles, or Harpers or Watsons. Bacon thought like this, so did Descartes, so did Voltaire. And indeed there's some truth to it, man. But it is a teenager's truth, or a Romantic truth, which amounts to the same. There is also the truth of the Church and the Academy to compete with it: and that too is a truth. Therein is the problem. Everywhere I turn, I meet it again: do I trust the rhetoric of novelty, or the rhetoric of experience and expertise? Boris or Ken? Obama or Clinton? It is inescapable, and rules for deciding cannot be formulated in advance.

With Harper, it is easier to make a judgement because so many of his individual claims are weak. His book demonstrates another principle: that it is much harder to make small corrections to a big picture than to paint it again from scratch. Harper wants to make one correction—that French doesn't come from Latin—and this forces him to make another correction—that French must come from English—and therefore another—that English is ancient—and another—that English is not from Anglo-Saxon—and by the way the theory of evolution is wrong, and so is the OED, and so on and so on, until (superficially) the linguistic facts have all been saved. It's an enormous juggling act. And it is incredibly easy to see how it might convince an intelligent person, who is seduced first by one proposition, then another, which seems to follow so easily from it. But to suggest, as Thomason does, that linguists are fighting a 'battle with unreason', whether they are losing or not, is grossly complacent. At least Mr. Hat admits that one can take pleasure from the book, spoof or not: 'I'm keeping it around for my own amusement, after all'.


Language said...

The fact is, Mr. Hat, nonsense about every subject under the sun has been reviewed respectfully. There's really no need to despair!

I feel better already!

Aaron Haspel said...

If Watson wants to make out Joyce as anti-bourgeois, he can help himself, I suppose, so long as he doesn't drag Frank Zappa into it. To choose among many possible instances, a passage from the classic You Are What You Is will serve:

Freedom means you don't have to pay for nothing or do nothing...
[Chorus] We want to be free, free as the wind!

emordino said...

Ahh, that's why I had trouble with Finnegan's Wake - I don't fancy cockroaches.

John Cowan said...

Polywater doesn't really belong in this list, Conrad: it wasn't patent nonsense like the others. There is nothing preposterous about the notion that water might take a different form in tiny little tubes than it does in bulk: the variant crystalline form called ice VIII can actually exist as a solid at temperatures greater than 100 deg. C, provided you turn up the pressure enough.

Polywater was put before the international chemistry community as a hypothesis, got some traction when some labs could replicate the results (though others could not, the usual situation), became subject to a counter-explanation (that it was ordinary water with biological contaminants such as sweat), and was eventually refuted conclusively by further, more careful experiments.

Crucially, even the scientists who originally proposed it then agreed that polywater did not exist.

As for the wake of the Wake, I hereby sentence all parties to read (or re-read) the Polemical Introduction [warning: huge, slow-loading page] (aka "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time") to Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, on the necessity nowadays of accepting polysemous interpretation in the criticism of all works. Here's a snippet:

The principle of manifold or "polysemous" meaning, as Dante calls it, is not a theory any more, still less an exploded superstition, but an established fact. The thing that has established it is the simultaneous development of several different schools of modern criticism, each making a distinctive choice of symbols in its analysis. The modern student of critical theory is faced with a body of rhetoricians who speak of texture and frontal assaults, with students of history who deal with traditions and sources, with critics using material from psychology and anthropology, with Aristotelians, Coleridgians, Thomists, Freudians, Jungians, Marxists, with students of myths, rituals, archetypes, metaphors, ambiguities, and significant forms. The student must either admit the principle of polysemous meaning, or choose one of these groups and then try to prove that all the others are less legitimate. The former is the way of scholarship, and leads to the advancement of learning; the latter is the way of pedantry, and gives us a wide choice of goals, the most conspicuous today being fantastical learning, or myth criticism, contentious learning, or historical criticism, and delicate learning, or "new" criticism.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Haspel: Careful, Watson is a trained Zappologist and can probably eat you or me alive on the subject. It did seem like In It For the Money was a pretty sustained attack on hippies, but...

Cowan: Not sure what role Frye is playing for you here. I didn't mean to suggest that I or anyone else is against 'polysemous interpretation'. Frye is an ambiguous figure, like all interesting critics: his Polemical Introduction advocates a systematic criticism, and Frye himself constantly tried to 'decode' meanings, famously with Blake and the Bible. Of course the Anatomy posits FW as the ultimate book--scholars and critics were just lining up to do this in the 50s and 60s, from Frye and Eco to McLuhan and Derrida, and I have a lot of sympathy for them. But contrast Watson's horror at the word 'characterisation' to Frye:

"The strong emotional repugnance felt by many critics toward any form of schematization in poetics is again the result of a failure to distinguish criticism as a body of knowledge from the direct experience of literature, where every act is unique and classification has no place."

Breffni said...

A small point of information: "Arra irrara hirrara" takes off from the Irish-English discourse marker "arra" (or "arragh"), whose function is roughly to introduce a dismissive response. It was very common in the Galway of my 1980s youth, probably still is, and it would most likely have been a feature of Nora Barnacle's speech. "Arra man, weren't they..." is well formed in that variety, whereas "Man, weren't they..." doesn't sound right - I don't think Irish-English "man" (probably now moribund) can be used to introduce an utterance. To me that rules out throat-clearing as a plausible interpretation.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, Breffni. Having two Irish in our group (a Wake group is pretty useless without at least one), we were well informed about 'arra'. Joyce uses it frequently, eg. p. 7, "Arrah, sure, we all love little Anny Ruiny", p. 28, "Arrah, it's
herself that's fine, too", etc. However, this doesn't rule out throat-clearing: see above about 'polysemous interpretation'. Joyce here turns 'Arrah' into an extended coughing, hiccoughing or throat-clearing of some sort. Among other things.

Greg Afinogenov said...

I think the thing to remember about this "screw the pointy-heads, just open your eyes, dude" claim is that the beginnings of modern science owe much of their success to its usefulness. 17th and 18th century people who wanted to associate themselves with the scientific or Enlightened movement never tired of making fun of Scholastics, Aristotelians, eventually philosophers in general. Not because the learned doctors were necessarily wrong, but because they represented a different approach to empirical and theoretical work. Thus it was necessary to constantly reiterate that they were out-of-touch, bogged down in books, whatever, while the scientists were in comparison just regular guys observing the natural world. It proved so successful that many people are still convinced today that medieval intellectual history is just a mound of useless debates about categories and whatnot, that nothing intellectually interesting took place at all.

Andrew W. said...

Conrad, it's great to have you back!

Isn't this also the skeptical problem being played out in an institutional setting?

In reading your post, I couldn’t help but think of the “anybody but Shakespeare” movement – Christ, even Derek Jabobi doesn’t think Shakespeare wrote his plays! So your point about intelligent people falling for these kinds of things is both well-taken and well-founded.

But when it comes down to it, doesn’t this all revolve around the fact that one can say, without contradiction, that the 2nd Earl of Essex really wrote Shakespeare’s plays, despite his 1601 beheading, that the evidence is there, you just have to look at it so, with a little charity in your thoughts as you read my outlandish thoughts? That nothing rules out the possibility of this logically?

This is an old concern of mine, so I will refrain from hijacking your comments and post something on this over at my place.

Ashley said...


If you ever need more love, just please ask for it, you daft bastard.

I'm so glad you've resumed your blogging. Once you left, of course, I only checked back once and again.

So, here I'm reading again, with great pleasure, your blogging.

Try to remember people give you love at about a 10% (or even less) solution. You have many more readers than you think you do.

I'm merely a morlock who enjoys you immensely. Keep posting.



Conrad H. Roth said...

Greg, yes, that was my point when I wrote, "The rhetoric is that, if you learn at school, you are just swallowing opinions—and that swallowing opinions doesn't produce Newtons or Einsteins, or Fontenelles, or Harpers or Watsons. Bacon thought like this, so did Descartes, so did Voltaire." Fontenelle, who I'm personally working on, is a perfect case of this attitude.

Andrew, thanks: we look forward to your further thoughts on the matter.

Ashley, I'm sure that's not the first time I've been called a daft bastard. Thanks for your interest.

Greg Afinogenov said...

Ah, I missed that sentence completely, Conrad. Sorry for the useless comment.

Conrad H. Roth said...

No need to apologise; always good to have you around.

Sid Leavitt said...

Conrad, you are amazing. So, I might add, are most of your commenters. I continue to enjoy your blog as I sit here agape -- in both senses. Gap-jawed at the erudition and muttering 'Jesus Christ' at its complexities.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Wow, Sid, thanks. I'm glad you're enjoying it!

pedro said...

I had a gut feeling this place would look anew when I typed the magic words up in the box. Glad you're back.

Steven Augustine said...


(Gentleman's-club hug, with lots of avuncular back-patting)

As a man whose then-girlfriend received a foot massage from Mr. Zappa in a hotel room in Mpls 20 years ago (I can provide her email address if you want a report; she's married to the CEO of an ISP now and probably eager to relive her wild-ish youth) and, who not only also took a mumpitz-dense seminar with the aforementioned Mr. Fritjof Capra, but played an *elaborate prank* on the class (again: corroborating email addresses can be provided; in fact, one of the co-pranksters now has a headlining magic act in Vegas)... I feel ideally suited to respond to this post.

That's all I'm prepared to say at the moment; along with, of course, "astonishingly good to have you at it again!"

(Finnegans Wake: isn't that the one about the one about the impecunious purblind Parnellite Onanist who wanted to schtupp his ironically-named and strabismical daughter-with-two-left-feet in front of Everyone?)

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, Steve!

"isn't that the one about the one about the impecunious purblind Parnellite Onanist who wanted to schtupp his ironically-named and strabismical daughter-with-two-left-feet in front of Everyone?"

No, that would be The Merchant of Venice.

Steven Augustine said...

omfg (oy mein ficking gott)

Steven Augustine said...

D'ya s'pose that's where we get the verb "tupping", as was used to graphic effect (with an ewe) in Othello? Or vice versa? Or merely an obvious onomatopoeia (depending on one's equipment or technique)?

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes, I think either explanation perfectly plausible!

Andrew W. said...

I hope this is not too much of an aside, but the comments in this CBC news story got me thinking about this post again.

It's all there, the armchair superiority over the arrogant expert. Who needs carbon dating when you have a skewed image of a painting on a website?

What is this Romantic longing for the non-Shakespeare?

Conrad H. Roth said...

Is such a longing really Romantic? Or is it some late reflex of a patrician disdain that someone of such humble birth could pen the Great Works of English Literature? I think that a Romantic mind would incline more towards Bardolatry.

Andrew W. said...

It's funny, but when I wrote that this morning I had a very specific idea in mind when I said Romantic, which I now cannot remember...

I think you are right about the patrician disdain, at least that is often how it has struck me, despite copious evidence showing that grammar school kids were likely better educated than the nobility in Shakespeare's day.

I think where I was thinking about Romanticism is connected to this, however not through class but through nationalism. However, my memory fails me right now...if it returns I will come back!