Putting language to sleep in Finnegans Wake

June 16, 2011

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!

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Joyce, Shaw, Pound and pence

June 16, 2010

In the early 1920s, when the soulful and fearless Sylvia Beach was preparing to publish Ulysses at Shakespeare and Company, she sought subscriptions from potential readers, and received among the replies a mighty refusal from George Bernard Shaw. Shaw had read part of Joyce’s book in serial form, and in his letter to Beach he described it memorably as “a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilisation; but . . . a truthful one”. His letter finished as follows:

I must add, as the prospectus implies an invitation to purchase, that I am an elderly Irish gentleman, and that if you imagine that any Irishman, much less an elderly one, would pay 150 francs for a book, you little know my countrymen.

Shaw said elsewhere that he wouldn’t pay three guineas for the book. Joyce, meanwhile, had a bet on with Sylvia Beach that Shaw would not subscribe. Losing the bet meant giving his patron a silk handkerchief; winning it meant receiving a box of Voltigeurs, his favourite cigars. He loved Shaw’s letter to Beach, and sent copies to several friends — including Ezra Pound, to whom he wrote:

if you imagine that the elderly Irish gentleman who wrote it (the letter not the book) has not subscribed anonymously for a copy of the revolting record through a bookseller you little know my countrymen.

Pound was far from satisfied, though, and exchanged about a dozen letters with Shaw on the matter. In March 1921 he grumbled to H. L. Mencken: “Shaw now writes to me twice a week complaining of the high price of Ulysses.” The correspondence ended with Shaw quipping: “I take care of the pence because the Pounds won’t take care of themselves” (also reported as: “I take care of the pence and let the Pounds take care of themselves”).

L–R: Ezra Pound, John Quinn, Ford Madox Ford, and James Joyce. In Pound's rooms in Paris, 1923. Photograph from Cornell University.

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Last year I said I had never taken part in Bloomsday — not in any official events anyway. This year is no different, but like Leopold Bloom I’ll be walking around taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the city (Nora’s Galway, not James’s Dublin). I might bring a Joyce-related book. That will do. If you’re on Twitter, you’ll find me making occasional Joyce-related tweets.

In a tradition I beganagain last year, I’ll finish with a poem — this time a Limerick from the pen of Pound:

There was once a young writer named Joyce
Whose diction was ribidly choice,
And all his friends’ woes
Were deduced from his prose
Which never filled anyone’s purse.

(Pound told Joyce that choice and purse would rhyme perfectly in certain parts of New York.)