The author of such literary classics as Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, James Joyce (1882–1941) was one of Ireland’s most celebrated novelists known for his avant-garde and often experimental style of writing.
A James Joyce scholar at London’s Royal Holloway University, Finn Fordham specializes in Finnegans Wake and genetic approaches to various texts.
Simply Charly: James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is perhaps the 20th century’s most famously unreadable novel. Its stream of consciousness style, literary allusions, free dream associations, and idiosyncratic language have confounded readers since its initial publication in 1939. Yet it’s regarded as one of literature’s great books. Where does its greatness lie if no one seems to know what it’s about, much less gets through it?
Finn Fordham: Its greatness lies in the visionary games that Joyce plays with an immense range of language—and of languages. It is a celebration of the possibilities of language, a reminder of how language is not a fixed structure but a fluid plastic material that any of us can play with: this is subversive of all dogma and, in my view, it is a great thing. Joyce is a champion player and a supreme designer of new games—though the games of Finnegans Wake did almost defeat him. In the Wake, the games produce a magnificently strange soundscape and a unique textual appearance, each page resembling an elaborately illuminated manuscript from a medieval codex like The Book of Kells (a book Joyce had at his elbow and which he said inspired him). Just as there are circles within circles, so there are tales within tales. Single words, complex sentences, or extended passages offer themselves as windows that open onto a wide and rich mosaic of world history as a cycle of conflicts and resolutions, of tyrannies emerging, revolutions arising, and chaos ensuing. The vision is local and global, of a world in flux, and of a world-history which is consoling, offering a reassurance that literature can affirm the human spirit against its own inhuman tendencies; that Finnegans (the children or subject of the hero/leader “Finn”; i.e., the littler people) can and do Wake. Its greatness also lies in its broad sense of humor and its rich characterization.
Finnegans Wake is widely and deeply read, by individuals and groups around the world, stimulating scholars and artists, critics, filmmakers, and musicians; it inspires studies, translations, interpretations, performances, and illustrations. It’s never been out of print, and there are several editions out there. The judgment that it is “unreadable” is a sad hangover from a terrible period in the 20th-century history, when an intensive war spread around the world, and the function of language—except in a few protected pockets—was reduced to providing “information” rather than being expressive and “communicative.” It is, in fact, highly readable—in the sense of both “performable” and, especially, ”interpretable.” The former sense has been richly illustrated recently by Adam Harvey:
SC: Joyce labored 17 long years on Finnegans Wake. When it was finally published in 1939, it met with mixed reactions—much of it negative. Ezra Pound said after wading through it: “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 that circumambient peripherization.” Even Joyce’s own brother called it “the work of a psychopath or a huge literary fraud.” Now that 75 years have elapsed, what’s the verdict on Finnegans Wake?
FF: The question contains inaccuracies: Pound never “waded through it,” nor did Joyce’s brother Stanislaus. They came to these partial judgments after reading just a short section, which Joyce published in 1924, as the work was still in progress. They were dismayed that Joyce was not doing what he’d done in Ulysses—or, at least for Pound—in its earlier “realist” chapters.
Strictly speaking, you can’t really ask for a “verdict” on the Wake. Verdicts issue forth from the mouth of one member of a jury towards the end of the process of a trial, but the process of reading Finnegans Wake is on-going, and the judges are multiple readers. Even averaging out these responses, the verdict can never be final. Perhaps one could say of verdicts on literature that they emerge according to whether a text is read or not read. So, to be read is to be “not guilty”—let off, free to roam, to converse within society, and encouraged to do so. To be not read is to be “guilty,” punished by an everlasting indifference, potentially released because of good behavior, after doing time for a certain time. In that case, the verdict is changed to “not guilty.”
But it is read—in spite of being a tough one to teach, even at the Master’s Degree level. The ambitious and imaginative student or reader always has—and I’m confident will always—take to it, and pursue some feature of it into doctoral work. It has a somewhat protected canonical status because of its direct association with Joyce and Ulysses—a work that is frequently taught.
It also has an aggressive set of detractors, of which Pound is an early example. And there is something of a standoff between them and its admirers. These two facts are intriguing. For the detractors, I find, it’s not just that the book gets up their noses—it’s the fact that people like it! It’s as if there’s something perverse in the cranky people who like it, and it would be better for the world if it wasn’t liked, and could be punished with indifference. This is an interesting illustration of the deep intolerance that can be expressed when it comes to questions of taste. I hold to a simple principle: the more distinctive cultural forms that there are in the world and that are admired, the better. The opposing view is totalitarian and should be resisted. Also, I believe that the unique form of Finnegans Wake actually embodies one mode of such resistance.
SC: You’re one of a handful of brave scholars who’ve devoted many hours to the study of Finnegans Wake having co-edited an Oxford edition of it, as well as several other studies. What important insights have you gleaned from it that would justify your painstaking efforts?
FF: The difficult work was really done by the textual wizards, Robbert-Jan Henkes, and Erik Bindervoet, though it’s true that I’ve worked long and hard with the archive of Joyce’s manuscripts, notes, sketches, drafts, proofs, etc. I suppose it’s “painstaking”, but it’s rewarding too, as any absorption in detail should be. Along with the fine psychologist, Adam Phillips, I believe that absorption is a much better aim for humans than “happiness,” and that the pursuit of “happiness,” as he points out, is making us unhappy:
I also think, and I suspect that Adam Phillips would agree with me, that Finnegans Wake offers a wonderful object for a kind of devoted absorption.
As for “insights” into this work, it is, as I’ve said above, funny and visionary. One tends to develop insights into the book and how it works, rather than having insights into how the world works with assistance from the book. In that way, it’s not like the natural sciences, which might give us insights into why the apple falls from the tree, or why one’s cup of tea cools down (but not why men and women argue). On the other hand, these different systems (one of the word, and one of the world) do overlap. Let me try to illustrate an insight into the workings of Wake’s words, before seeing whether it provides an insight into the world beyond:
“we may catch ourselves looking forward to what will in no time be staring you larrikins on the postface in the multimirror megaron of returningties, whirled without end to end.”
This is mind-bogglingly dense stuff, and I will focus chiefly on only one small phrase within it: “the multimirror megaron of returningties.” A “megaron” is an ancient Greek word for the main hall or central room of a palace. A main hall with many mirrors evokes two things (at least): first, a hall of mirrors such as you find in a fun fair, the kind which offers distorted funny reflections of yourself, or where mirrors placed precisely opposite each other produce the effect of a “mise en abyme,” where reflected images are repeated and stretch ad infinitum—a notion echoed in the word “returningties,” which conceals the word “eternities.” Secondly, it evokes one of the most famous halls of mirrors in the world—that of the Palace of Versailles. This is a room that witnessed both the declaration of William I as German emperor after the Franco-Prussian war in 1871 and also the signing of The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 that marked the conclusion of World War I. The mirrored room observed and victory for France and defeat for Germany. The latter Treaty undid many of the “results” of the former, especially in returning those lands around the borders—often shifting—between France and Germany (the banks of the Rhine, and the Saar region, for instance). So certain “ties” to the land, or obligations to it, are “returned,” before these mirrors. Standing before a mirror is where you might turn your tie or re-turn your crooked tie. Here the small domestic drama of preparing one’s image before a mirror, an image which is rather uncannily being multiplied by an excess of mirrors, is being fused—or multiplied—with a drama on a much larger scale of international relations. This gives us an insight into the book’s layering of the local domestic with the global international. It also provides a sublime vision, in its complexity, of the deceptions involved in the production of order, an order whose other—disorder—is hovering just behind the shoulder, and in a ghostly fashion reproducing itself, representing a threat that a singular truth will be contradicted by multiple versions or visions. Somehow the insight into the working of the words does provide an insight into the world, or at least a reminder of it—a reminder that our belief in our ability to produce eternal peace and order is a deceptive illusion, and that the other, the twin reflection, will eternally return. For further possible insights that I may have had into the Wake’s words, or the Wake’s world, please refer to my book (mentioned below).
SC: Since the Finnegans Wake’s publication, a number of guides to understanding it have been produced. Is there any truth to the story that Finnegans Wake was Joyce’s big joke on critics because he wanted to invite endless critical interpretations?
FF: It’s true that certain critics thought it might be a joke on critics or readers: Oliver Gogarty, for instance, Joyce’s former friend, described the book as “a collosal leg-pull.” I don’t believe there’s any truth that Joyce himself intended it as such. It would be an odd thing to spend 17 years doing. Joyce wanted to provide pleasure to people. Leg-pulls can be funny, if you see the joke, and if you’re not too proud of having been deceived by having your expectations raised, which are then subverted. Gogarty’s judgment upset Joyce, I believe—and I’m not surprised. For with a leg-pull, once you’ve heard it, you don’t want to revisit it as an audience – perhaps only if you can laugh at other audiences for also being tricked. But Joyce wanted people to come back to this object, explore it and find something different each time. The circularity indicates that. And readers do return. This might be what you mean by “endless critical interpretation”—but I don’t see why that’s a “big joke on critics.” That seems to be a very generous thing to have done.
SC: You’ve written your own exegesis entitled Lots of Fun at Finnegans Wake in an attempt to unravel much of the hidden meaning that lies behind Joyce’s opaque language. Has any consensus been reached among scholars as to the plot and meaning of Finnegans Wake?
FF: There’s not much consensus about the plot or the meaning—perhaps the best one can say is that “it’s about someone falling for being too pompous,” and part of their fall is into language itself. But I think there’s a growing consensus about certain “principles” or ‘”characters” in the book. These comprise a family with three children—two male twins, and a girl; two servants, four old, boozy and moralistic men; a bunch of customers, and a bunch of schoolgirls. There’s a lot of disagreement about whether it’s a dream or not. If it is a dream, it’s of that medieval literary kind which goes on and on for ages, like Piers Plowman, so it’s not of a “naturalistic” form. This means Joyce can do anything and go anywhere he wants, an alibi for poetic license.
SC: Poet Paul Muldoon has suggested that Finnegans Wake should be treated more like a musical composition and read out loud. He likens much of the passages found in it to what he calls mouth music. Would you agree?
FF: Yes, reading it loud is great, and has inspired musical interpretations and performances. The sound of it is extraordinary—because it often draws on the rhythms of speech while blurring them with learning, allusion, distortions of language, and multilingual puns. But the sonic dimension is just one among many. And while you can sit back and let the music of it flow over you, it’s harder than to be an active reader, unraveling its tightly wound textual complexities.
SC: Much of the playfulness and wordplay found throughout the pages of Finnegans Wake bears a striking similarity to the works of Lewis Carroll. Was Joyce influenced in any way by Carroll?
FF: I don’t think it does bear a striking similarity to Carroll, and I don’t think Joyce was influenced by him. He was interested in him, certainly: especially because Joyce was interested in relationships between older men and younger girls, with all the doubts that accrue—increasingly—around them. So there are many references to Lewis Carroll—and to Charles Dodgson, as he was actually called, and to Alice, and her original Alice Liddell, to the two wonderland books renamed “Alas in Jumboland” and “Alicious through alluring glass,” to Humpty Dumpty (who is on the first page), and to Dodgson’s photography. Joyce took notes from a biography of Carroll. Interestingly, Joyce precedes William Empson in offering something of a daring psychoanalytic reading of Carroll’s novels.
SC: Joyce’s main influence for the structure of Finnegans Wake is said to have come from Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico’s cyclical theory of history. What exactly is Vico’s cyclical theory of history and how did it impinge on Joyce’s Wake?
FF: Big question. What the theory is exactly, I’ll leave to Viconian scholars, such as Leon Pompa, Giuseppe Mazzotta, or Donald Verene. But for a plausible idea of what Joyce found in Vico, I refer you to Samuel Beckett’s essay on Finnegans Wake (then, in 1929, known as “Work in Progress”) called ‘Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce” (watch those dots—they’re actually significant in an absurd way, pointing to the number of centuries between each writer). Beckett writes the following, almost certainly under the closely guiding hand and shadow of Joyce:
“Vico was a practical roundheaded Neapolitan. …His division of the development of human society into three ages: Theocratic, Heroic, Human (civilized), with a corresponding classification of language: Hieroglyphic (sacred), Metaphorical (poetic), Philosophical (capable of abstraction and generlatiosation), was by no means new, although it must have appeared so to his contemporaries. He derived this convenient classification from the Egyptians, via Herodotus. His exposition of the ineluctable circular progression of Society was completely new…. In the beginning was the thunder: the thunder set free Religion, in its most objective and unphilosophical form—idolatrous animism: Religion produced Society, and the first social men were the cave-dwellers, taking refuge from a passionate Nature: this primitive family life receives its first impulse towards development from the arrival of terrified vagabonds: admitted, they are the first slaves: growing stronger, they exact agrarian concessions, and a d despotism has evolved into a primitive feudalism: the cave becomes a city, and the feudal system a democracy: then an anarchy: this is corrected by a return to monarchy: the last stage is a tendency towards interdestruction: the nations are dispersed, and the Phoenix of Society arises out of their ashes. … This social and historical classification is clearly adapted by Mr. Joyce as a structural convenience – or inconvenience. … Part I. is a mass of past shadow, corresponding therefore to Vico’s first huan institution, Religion, or to his Theocratic age, or simply to an abstraction – Birth. Part 2 is the lovegame of the children, corresponding to the second institution, Marriage, or to the Heroic age, or to an abstraction – Maturity. Part 3. Is passed in sleep, corresponding to the third institution, Burial, or to the Human age, or to an abstraction – Corruption. Part 4 is the day beginning again, and corresponds to Vico’s Providence, or to the transition from the Human to the Theocratic, or to an abstraction – Generation. Mr Joyce does not take birth for granted, as Vico seems to have done.”
It’s interesting that Joyce actually wanted Beckett to say more about the heretical 16th-century philosopher Giordano Bruno. If Beckett had done this, the critical heritage would have been quite different. But Beckett focused on Vico, and this has determined readings of Finnegans Wake in a way that will be hard to reverse.
SC: Despite its idiosyncratic language, Finnegans Wake has been translated into several languages. Last year, it was translated into Chinese, an effort that took its translator, Dai Congrong, eight years to complete. The book quickly became a literary hit reaching number 2 on the bestsellers list. But the translation wasn’t without its critics. Jiang Xiaoyuan, a professor at Shanghai’s Jiaotong University, said that “Joyce must have been mentally ill to create such a novel.” Is this reaction typical of those who come to Wake for the first time? And is a faithful and accurate translation of Wake even possible?
FF: It’s typical of a certain type of intolerant critic (I mention them above), but it’s not typical of all reactions to the book, which frequently fills people with a profound sense of wonder. There’s a lovely quote of Vladimir Nabokov’s from a letter he wrote to his wife Vera in 1936 that has been very recently published: reading the Wake (actually while it was still “Work in Progress:” he says: “wit sets behind reason, and while it is setting the sky is marvellous, but then it’s night.” As for translations, Joyce is said to have remarked somewhere (I hope I’m not making it up) that everything can be translated. This is an intriguing perspective on human communication and assumes the universality of experience and the possibilities of rendering experience into language. It may be Utopian, and I hope it’s true—though it might be unknowable. Joyce’s own attitude to the translation of Finnegans Wake seems to have been very liberal, not necessarily seeking exact sense in the translation, as if acknowledging that there was no such thing, or no need to be tied to it. So he would tolerate idiomatic phrases that were not equal to the idioms in the original, but which nevertheless carried the sonic balance and a demotic quality that phrases often have. Sound mattered more than sense—which is not to say that sense didn’t matter, but rather that the sense would look after itself. In a translation, it seems to me that what matters the most is the sound, but also the sheer reach of the language and its content.
SC: For the uninitiated coming to Finnegans Wake, how would you suggest they approach it?
FF: With open arms and open mind, with open ears, with an open bottle, in an open house, with a group of diverse like-minded people (many cities around the world have reading groups: see https://www.finneganswake.org/ReadingGroups.shtml). There are also many open web pages (especially www.fweet.org), with Roland McHugh’s annotations open at your elbow; using the edition I prepared for Oxford World Classics with Robbert-Jan Henkes and Erik Binderyoet; curled up in an armchair at the Gotham Mart Book Store in New York; or at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris; or Blackwells in Oxford; or Hodges and Figgis in Dublin; or the Bookworm in Beijing, or any good bookshop in any good city, or on the open deck of a boat to Ireland; on the upper deck of an open-topped bus going around Dublin; on a bench by the Seine, or in Phoenix Park, in the grounds of Howth Castle; in the Mullingar Inn, Chapelizod (where the book’s principal characters live); with a Guinness. And if you’re in that pub and you don’t like it, you can order another drink and read the paper.