Putting language to sleep in Finnegans Wake

One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot. – James Joyce

Ezra Pound was tirelessly interested in, and supportive of, original and imaginative literature, but with Finnegans Wake he reached his limit, complaining to Joyce that ‘Nothing so far as I can make out, nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clapp, can possibly be worth all the circumambient peripherization.’

He dubbed it Joyce in Regress, a pun on Work in Progress, as FW was known before publication. Unfair, perhaps, but we can recast the charge of regress as an evocation of return rather than retrogression and degeneration. Where Ulysses was Joyce’s daytime novel, the Wake was his work of the night and its sleeping mind – a restorative regression into which we all slide cyclically, more or less.

Every night we fall out of the familiar world, and every day we awake from our adventures with little or no recollection of what has gone on. Yet in sleep we are just as authentically ourselves; guilty and guileless, paralysed, periodically telling ourselves stories in dream-fragments of promiscuous trivia and significance that take some unravelling. A bit like Finnegans Wake.

To the American writer Max Eastman, Joyce said:

In writing of the night, I really could not . . . use words in their ordinary connections. Used that way they do not express how things are in the night, in the different stages – conscious, then semi-conscious, then unconscious. I found that it could not be done with words in their ordinary relations and connections. When morning comes, of course everything will be clear again. I’ll give them back their language. . . . I’m not destroying it for good!

Using Giambattista Vico’s cycles ‘as a trellis’, Joyce created what Richard Ellmann in his great biography called ‘a wholly new book based upon the premise that there is nothing new under the sun’. Marilyn French, in The Book as World, suggests that Joyce tried to turn the nightmare of eternal recurrence (which torments Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses) into a hymn. Think of it as a chaotic lullaby, a cryptoglossic nocturne for insomniacs.

Finnegans Wake qualifies as metafiction, defined by Linda Hutcheon as ‘fiction that includes within itself a commentary on its own narrative and/or linguistic identity’. Including, in the case of the Wake, the acts of writing and revising it, and readers’ reactions to its previewed parts. A page and a half here, for instance, offers many examples, such as:

it is not a miseffectual whyacinthinous riot of blots and blurs and bars and balls and hoops and wriggles and juxtaposed jottings linked by spurts of speed: it only looks as like it as damn it

The book has a plot – many of them, even, on top of one another – but amidst the polyglot puns, novel portmanteaus and taxing syntax, it is very hard to find and follow narratives and characters without the use of a guide or through a very close reading that sends you on endless etymological detours. ‘There are in a way no characters,’ Joyce said. ‘If one had to name a character, it would be just an old man. But his own connection with reality is doubtful.’ For an excellent guide to its nature and structure, see Anthony Burgess’s Here Comes Everybody.

The Wake is peppered with parts of cognates from scores of languages, more English than others but equally accessible (or inaccessible) to speakers of many languages, and deliberately so. Its style is so freed from familiar norms of structure, though, that the moment we begin to ‘follow’ it, it becomes something else and draws our thoughts in several directions at once, like a dynamic hypertext.

It took me a long time to read Finnegans Wake, and I took breaks. It’s an amazing book, but not one I’d recommend as readily as I would Joyce’s earlier fiction. It’s very pleasurable, strange and slippery and sensual, especially to read aloud, but it’s also exasperating. I never felt it was an elaborate joke (a ‘colossal leg pull’, as Gogarty claimed) – it has too much music and humanity and depth – but it’s cryptic, halting, ambiguous throughout, and it is a very long throughout.

Anna Livia Plurabelle, AKA the river Liffey, in the form of a fountain in Dublin. Sculpture by the late Eamonn O’Doherty.

Critical reactions were mixed and sometimes severe. H. G. Wells wrote to Joyce asking (affectionately) who the hell was he ‘who demands so many waking hours of the few thousands I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?’ He acknowledged it was an ‘extraordinary experiment’, even if it resulted only in ‘vast riddles’ from his point of view.

Harriet Weaver did not care for ‘the darknesses and unintelligibilities’ of Joyce’s ‘deliberately-entangled language system’, and thought he was wasting his genius. Nabokov hated the book. Even Joyce’s brother Stanislaus threw his hands up in frustration at it, describing it as ‘unspeakably wearisome’ and ‘the witless wandering of literature before its final extinction’:

With the best will in the world I cannot read your work in progress. The vague support you get from certain French and American critics, I set down as pure snobbery. What is the meaning of that rout of drunken words? It seems to me pose, the characteristic you have in common with Wilde, Shaw, Yeats, and Moore.

Others defended it, celebrated it, but it never gained the devotion Ulysses inspired. Its widely unread status is understandable but unfortunate. Michael Wood, in the London Review of Books, quotes John Bishop saying that the only way not to enjoy it ‘is to expect that one has to plod through it word by word making sense of everything in linear order’. (This would be impossible, even to Joyce.) But Wood describes the Wake as ‘hard not to enjoy – it’s just even harder to cope with one’s bewilderment.’

My advice, when bewilderment hits, as it often will, and must, is to enjoy what you can and investigate further if ever and wherever you feel inclined. There’s no shortage of notes and analyses to delve into, should you wish. But the book has infinitely more meanings than can ever be catalogued, so unless you’re a scholar in search of scholarly kicks, don’t feel obliged to try to understand it all or even a modest fraction of it. Trust your own feelings about it. Especially your ear’s.

In April 1925, while Joyce was in a clinic after his seventh eye operation, he was chatting with a visiting friend, Helen Nutting, about earwigs, which he associated with the Earwicker character of his work in progress. Nutting told him of a Yorkshire word for the insect, twitchbell, which delighted Joyce. He put it in the manuscript:

Aminxt that nombre of evelings, but how pierceful in their sojestiveness were those first girly stirs, with zitterings of flight released and twinglings of twitchbells in rondel after, with waverings that made shimmershake rather naightily all the duskcended airs and shylit beaconings from shehind hims back.

Lovely, isn’t it? Joyce wanted it to be possible to open the book anywhere and recognise it immediately. On that point, he succeeded.

Nutting, on another occasion, told Joyce she liked Eliot’s Waste Land but couldn’t understand it. He replied: ‘Do you have to understand it?’ We can ask the same rhetorical question of his Wake. It’s a challenging enough read without the burden of expecting to know what’s going on the whole time. Seamus Deane, in his introduction to the Penguin edition, says Joyce was indicating

that all language that is given to metaphor, trope, poetry (or puppetry) is inescapably secondary. If there is an origin, it is the body. But language is closest to the body, is almost body-language, when it is at its most material, when it loses, as in sleep or dream, the distance that waking conventions, of syntax, grammar, trope and so forth, impose. Indeed, language then begins to lose its word-shapes and melts down to the letters that constitute words. It is these letters that, in their slippages and combinations, most intimately represent desire.

‘I have put the language to sleep,’ Joyce once remarked. It seems almost contrary to dissect it with the stark acuity of the waking mind, unless bound by a sense of duty. There is instead the option of attending more passively to the fun of the text’s shapes and sounds and polymorphological perfarcity. ‘Lord knows what my prose means,’ Joyce wrote to his daughter, Lucia. ‘In a word, it is pleasing to the ear. And your drawings are pleasing to the eye. That is enough.’

Read the Wake – or raid it – for the odd and unique pleasure of this comical musical monsterhythmedley. Far more than many a book I’ve read that makes more immediate sense, Finnegans Wake practically has a pulse: the language is obscure and maddeningly multivalent, but it comes alive in the reading, and sometimes lifts into sudden lucid simplicity, like a momentary emergence from a dream that is just as quickly forgotten:

And low stole o’er the stillness the heartbeats of sleep.


Further resources, subject to updates: alphabetical index; FWEET; illustrated Wake in Progress; Jorn Barger’s shorter FW; online text; and again (errors); annotated text; a new, critically emended edition; the James Joyce Centre; a Finnegans Wake film; a reading by Joyce; Anthony Burgess on Finnegans Wake; previous posts on Joyce and Bloomsday.

Michael Chabon has a lovely essay in the NYRB, in which he writes: ‘The limits of language are not the stopping point, says the Wake; they are the point at which we must begin to tell the tale.’

Epilogue: Many thanks to Frank Delaney for including my tweeted summary of Ulysses among the winners in his Bloomsday Challenge: ‘A man dissolved in many resolved in Molly comes to charms with a day in the life of a city all senses in Bloom.’

[image source]

18 Responses to Putting language to sleep in Finnegans Wake

  1. For me, a lot of literature has that quality you get when the mind is released from the obligation to understand and at liberty to simply enjoy the sensation of the words. At one extreme, I might listen to a recording of speech in a language unknown to me, in which I understand nothing at all and experience nothing but a phonetic treat. Alternatively, I might read from a book in the English of a couple of centuries ago, in which I understand a great deal but miss many connections, filling my mind with disjointed images. Both experiences, I find, can be pleasant and relaxing. I’m willing to believe that Finnegan’s Wake falls somewhere between these two as an experience, and I’d consider listening to an audio version, but it’s not something I’m inclined to read with my eyes open.

  2. P.S. I know the apostrophe was in error, but it’s 3am here, have mercy. :-)

  3. Marc Leavitt says:

    Many years ago at university, I took an honors reading course in which I decided to write a paper about the first thirty-five words of the book. Across all these years I recall nothing of what I wrote, but I still remember the first thirty-five words.

  4. johnwcowan says:

    “Beware the man of one book,” said my father often, and for him the book was the Wake, so I literally learned it at my father’s knee. He would read from it often in the evenings, and his voice changed from his normal Philadelphia-flavored American to something else, which bore little resemblance to the Stage-Oirish that I heard in the movies, but still less to the modern accents I heard when I went to Ireland myself in the 1980s and hear on the tube now. I think it must have been 19th-century American-Hiberno-English, the genuine but now almost forgotten accent that Stage-Oirish must have been based on, for my father was born in the Irish ghetto of South Philadelphia (it’s still a ghetto, but not Irish) in 1904, and hardly met an “American”, as the non-Irish were called, until he went to college.

    Later on, my habits of promiscuous reading made me useful to him, for he was constantly annotating his two hardback copies with things he discovered. Wisely he always insisted on seeing my source book when I suggested that some particular passage was a reference to something I had read about; but if I was right, down the new fact went into the margin. I still have those hardbacks, and occasionally think of publishing the annotations, but oh, the work.

  5. Now there’s a book that defeated me utterly. It amuses me that the keys to Finnegan’s wake are a lot more expensive than the book itself!

    I’ve just decided to try a different tack. There’s an abridged version on audiobook read by Bishop Brennan himself. It may be better to hear it than read it

  6. Stan says:

    Dragon: Very well said, and “phonetic treat” certainly applies to Finnegans Wake. Have you listened to Joyce’s reading from Anna Livia Plurabelle? It’s very sing-song, easier on the ears than the eyes (but you can read along or check a phrase here, if you like). Flann O’Brien wrote that Joyce’s end “was hastened by that same intrusive apostrophe”, but I am more merciful! I see it intrude all the time, and I don’t point it out unless the circumstances demand it.

    Marc: A fine choice for a paper! They are a memorable 35 words, and they set the scene well. I wonder what you wrote about them.

    John: That’s a lovely story. I imagine it was a great way to be introduced to the book – to hear it as a child, read aloud in a (part-Irish) accent. It’s a pity you couldn’t delegate an efficient team of reliable enthusiasts to do all that work preparing the annotations for publication.

    Jams: There’s an idea. In many (though not all) ways I think it would be better. I can’t see myself re-reading the Wake except a dip here, a passage there, but I would listen to it if it were read well.

  7. wisewebwoman says:

    I’ve read it and been read to in tiny chunks, a lot like a decadent dessert which lasts all evening.
    In reading your wonderful summarization, Stan, I was reminded, out of the blue almost, of a fabulous Spanish movie (my Spanish is minimal) which enthralled me several years back. I actually understood it all without subtitles.
    An emotional connection.
    Just like with Joyce.
    And like him, impossible to put words to.
    I think this is what he was after, don’t you. Talking of some things diminish them.

  8. Stan says:

    WWW: ‘decadent dessert which lasts all evening’
    Or all month, if dragged out! I don’t remember Talk To Her very well, but I remember enjoying it a great deal. Almodovar tells good stories well, and his films brim with life, loss, laughs and the whole shebang. Talking of some things does diminish them, but sometimes we can’t help trying to communicate them anyway. Films offer various routes by which to connect with an audience.

  9. Claude says:

    A great post, Stan. Many thanks! I never, never expected to understand Finnegans Wake. Why should I? How could I? But it never stopped me from opening it now and again, reading paragraphs here and there, writing down some of the words, trying to pronounce them, often with laughter…The book is a never ending, pure personal delight. What a man Joyce was to have trusted me with the splendour of his language. As Beethoven did with his music. A Gift to the world. And to my world…

    Truly enjoyed your tweeted summary of Ulysses. Félicitations!

  10. Stan says:

    Thank you, Claude. I’m very glad you wrote that about Finnegans Wake – that you love to dip into it – in part because it reminds me of something I meant to say and didn’t. Taking the book from start to finish isn’t for everyone, and can easily become a bit of an endurance test; but for curious readers who love wordplay and poetic, enigmatic prose, it’s a wonderful work to open at random and read.

  11. […] Bloomsday last year I wrote about Finnegans Wake, James Joyce’s last and least-read book. This year, being less blessed with free time, I’ll […]

  12. […] Finnegans Wake, meanwhile, confers on the word a customary twist that (for me) connotes the legendary Irish warrior Finn Mac Cool: […]

  13. I recently started a personal real-time review of Finnegans Wake and have so far reached page 159: http://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2014/02/05/finnegans-wake-james-joyce/

  14. […] games; tools; food and drink; plants and animals (including twitchbell, which James Joyce incorporated into Finnegans Wake); and adjectives such as lacklustre, breakneck, and breakteeth (= ‘difficult to […]

  15. […] love some of her husband’s work. She knew many of his poems by heart, and she sang the praises of Finnegans Wake, especially when read aloud: she liked its musicality and the fact that it made Joyce laugh – […]

  16. […] And how do peevers cope with the Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange, the Newspeak in 1984, or the idiosyncratic hyperinvention of Joyce’s later novels, to name a few well-known literary […]

  17. […] If you’ve made it through Ulysses and are unsure about tackling its successor, my earlier post on reading Finnegans Wake might help you […]

  18. […] Here’s an excerpt from an early chapter, on the comic–cosmic nature of Ulysses and the difficulty of that book and its successor Finnegans Wake, in which Joyce set out to put language to sleep: […]

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