Welcome to the latest ‘Illuminating the Wake’ in which I will be sharing more of my visual approach to reading Finnegans Wake. Readers of previous posts will be familiar with how I go about this. Basically its a page by page process of annotation, pictorial notation and drawing which builds up a graphic representation of what I experience as I read the Wake. By synthesising my annotations into a sketchbook and making rapid pictorial notations of what is suggested to my imagination at the point of reading, I’m trying to capture and develop something of a direct imaginative view of Joyce’s marvellous and richly unpredictable masterwork. One motivation behind this is the idea is that Finnegans Wake is, after all, a book and thus available to be picked up and read directly, on its own terms for its own distinctive attributes and pleasures. Admittedly this requires effort and some getting used to. But as I have found, with persistence the book itself does actually help by indicating to the patient reader just how it wants to be read.
Last time I ended with the notorious letter being called for after the acquittal of Peggar Festy. The letter itself being enigmatically posed as a kind of puzzling, exclamatory absence:
What is it?
In this post I will pick up at the same point and show some of the work made in response to reading pages 94.23 to 103, which will bring us to the end of ‘book’ 1 ‘chapter’ IV. In this section of the text the four judges from the trial have retired to their chambers where they gather around a table to drunkenly reminisce. This is followed by an account of Earwicker, fled and in hiding, and a report of the hunt for him conducted across the land. Dublin menfolk speculate as to his fate as rumours abound about his whereabouts and possible demise. Womenfolk talk about ALP, her long-suffering relationship with Earwicker and how ultimately it will be she who defends him. Finally, ALP, who has been waiting her moment, is brought in.
I’m including images of all the sketchbook spreads for this section as an indication of the way that my reading process unfolds once notes have been transposed from annotations I have made in my tattered copy of the Wake. I think the right hand pages register a general feeling of the textural surface and what each page ‘looks’ like in terms of the mental impression formed whilst reading. I equate these very much with textual surface of the book, though a more abstract representation of this could also be made.
Re-reading and sampling details from each drawn page is an important part of my method. In the midst of reading the text while simultaneously trying to capture the mental images provoked by it there isn’t time to dwell on any particular configuration of marks, certainly no time to be concerned with line quality or composition. There’s only time and capacity enough to note the fleeting internal image response as accurately as possible. Revisiting the resulting passages of drawing (the residue of reading) can therefore be full of surprises, seeing what I have actually managed to capture of the experience of the text. For me this equates with selecting particular passages in the text to re-read and appreciate anew. The selected sketchbook details are potential starting points for more developed investigations of particular passages, sentences, phrases or even individual words.
The larger charcoal drawings provide another opportunity to revisit selected passages, but with more room to manoeuvre and exploiting the responsiveness of a simple yet highly sensitive and flexible medium. As with the sketchbooks, I find it revealing to closely re-read and resample these larger drawings to gain insights on my interpretation of certain details in the text.
Although there is a sense of narrative, and at least some indication of forward momentum to the story (i.e some definite things seem to happen) this occurs more through coalescent moments coming to the surface of the text than by any clear linear progression or straightforward plotline. These coalescences are comprised of elements that can be found in some way echoed or refracted throughout the book. So recounting them too simplistically as a linear sequence is very one-dimensional and misses the rich layering of possibilities that occur at every point.
The judges drunken reflections on the case give full vent to their contempt for Earwicker. They regard him as a malodorous presence, the stink of which announces his coming from a distance and which, like his reputation, is an essential and inescapable aspect of his identity. Their account of him is threaded with the numerical configuration of 1,2,3, familiar from many other parts of the book and signifying Earwicker’s voyeuristic misdemeanour in Phoenix Park. The four men seem to lasciviously conflate this incident with their own voyeuristic ‘memories’ of HCE and ALP’s courtship and developing sexual relationship. This forms another 1,2,3 configuration – Earwicker with the young and old aspects of ALP (Issy and Anna Livia) through a confluence of streams. The mixing of the source and early course of the Liffey with the streams of water passed by the two girls observed by HCE relieving themselves amongst the bushes in the Park.
HCE is hunted like a fox, with all the historical and political allusions that this implies. A report is given of the progress of the hunt across the land, culminating in a reference to the pivotal misspelling of ‘hesitancy’ associated with another, more infamous event involving a potentially incriminating letter, persecution, exposure and forgery.
Gossiping men air the varied rumoured accounts of Earwicker’s adventures and encounters on the run, along with speculations on the ways in which he may have met his end. Illness? Suicide? But Just as it is decided (or hoped) that he’s dead and buried deep under water a shout and a smoke signal go up announcing his return.
In a prelude to ‘chapter’ VIII the womenfolk commence their own gossipy discussion of ALP. This is layered over with allusions to Buckley shooting The Russian General but seems principally to concern all that ALP has suffered and done for HCE. A short poem laments how she has thrown in her lot with him and, despite or because of their tumultuous relationship, how she will defend his reputation. And the women at least are prepared to listen to her testimony, what turns out to be the ‘mamafesta’ of the next section of the book and which I will be looking at next time.
I hope you have enjoyed my guest blog and the images I have shared so far. Please do get back to me with any comments via the response box below, or through the James Joyce Centre Facebook page, or by direct email to firstname.lastname@example.org.