Welcome to ‘Illuminating the Wake’ where I get to share my personal approach to reading Finnegans Wake, a process of ‘reading-through-drawing’. Like many Wake readers, as I work my way through the book I habitually add my own annotations. These scrawled notes usually represent immediate responses to what I find in the text, rather than scholarly references. I think its important for readers to value their unmediated thoughts and not be too concerned about what other commentaries indicate should be found in the text. Some contextual reading is useful to get started, but Finnegans Wake is after all a book, capable of being picked up and read for its own attributes and pleasures. Granted, it takes some effort to get used to, but it does signal to the patient reader how it wants to be read. My approach involves synthesising points from my annotations into a sketchbook and then making rapid pictorial notations of what the words of the text suggest to my imagination at the point of reading. I have been doing this in the hope of capturing something of the direct imaginative experience and visuality of this extraordinary book.
In this post I continue with ‘Book’ 1, ‘Chapter’ V, with a focus on pages 113 – 119, in which discussion of the all-important letter develops into an examination of its appearance, its lack of a signature, various interpretations of its contents, the establishment of its authenticity. We are then asked to consider the way that the letter manages to accommodate constant change, interconnectedness and difference within some sense of its own order, thus (and despite appearances) avoiding being entirely random and chaotic
Having scratched it up from the midden heap, Biddy ‘the hen’ Doran reads the letter. She recognises a crudeness but fundamental honesty in what she takes to be ALP’s writing. The shock of Biddy’s encounter with literature confirms that whatever it is the ‘letter’ is more than simply a letter. This seems to bring on another of the Wake’s notorious ‘thunderwords’ (p.113.9 – 11). Biddy relays her understanding of the letter as she reads it to the other examiners, and us. She sees Anna Livia as a woman not out to impress or beguile with fancy language or allusion but intent on giving a plain account of things, ‘to tell the cock’s trootabout him’, ‘him’ being H.C. Earwicker (p.113.12.). ALP appears to accept her husband’s appetites and his tendency to live life to the full. She also recognises this as the old story of a larger than life man who found conventional relationships too constraining.
Another voice enters the discussion (a policeman?). He takes an authoritative tone and calls for straight talking. He notes the differing reliability of ears and eyes as witnesses, differences between evidence by ear and evidence by eye. The eyes often have difficulty believing what they see. The speaker encourages his listeners to draw even closer to the document, which has been damaged during its time underground, to see what remains to be seen (p.113.23 – 33).
A tombstone mason pipes up with his opinion. He acknowledges the inevitability of difference, encompassing these in a broader perspective by recognising map-like qualities and a kind of incremental civilising intent in the letter. His interpretation includes a description of the behaviour of the writing and of the palindromic properties of the various directions it takes. There is a strong resonance here between his description of the letter and experiences one has when reading Finnegans Wake itself.
In addition to the qualities of material substrate and the techniques used to write the letter, various other features seem to be perceptible such as places, views room, objects, as if these have also become stuck to the letter as it has waited retrieval from the rubbish heap. In lieu of a signature, the final mark or ‘teatimestained terminal’ (p.114.29 – 30) appears to be both a place and a mark of ambiguous origin. It is regarded as a significant clue to the identity of the author(s). Other accidental and circumstantial marks are forensically read by the examiner for evidence of activity on the principal that behaviour and habits indicate identity just as well as footprints.
The interpretation then takes on a darker tone with speculation about possible misinterpretations others might make concerning the content of the letter. There are references to Illicit passions: incest, gerontophilia, the seduction of an old curate by a young girl (Joyce’s undisguised dig at psychoanalysis) ‘…we grisly old Sykos who have done our unsmiling bit on ‘alices, when they were yung and easily freudened…’. It is a line pursued a little too breathlessly by the speaker of this passage, who seems to get carried away with his own ‘word of warning’(p.115.21-23). After a brief moment for this particular analyst to collect himself we are off again, this time to revolutionary Russia and another of those half-buried references to Buckley shooting the Russian general (p.116.6 – 10).
In contrast to the previous passage the paragraph that follows offers a kind of resigned lament laden with death, betrayal and the unfairness of life and love. The familiar romantic motif of the thunderstorm is here conflated with the uncomfortable pathos of venereal disease and the recurrent sad lot of the wife and mother (p116.36 – 117.9).
The discussion moves on to the point that, although in a society of free opinions there may be doubts as to the sense of the letter and varying interpretations of any phrase or word it contains, what cannot be in doubt is its authorship and authority – i.e. somebody wrote it and it seems to matter. It exists and is definitely there for the reader’s eyes to read (p.117.33 – 118.17). The difficulty therefore seems to be is in the way that the document is written; with the way it represents the ever changing movement and interconnectedness of things; the ‘inetrmisunderstandings’ of its ‘anticollaborators’ (those who despite their differing opinions inevitably produce a collective reading) and those interpretive changes which occur over time due to the ever changing nature of language itself. The letter only appears to be chaotic and accidental. In fact, according to this voice, we are lucky to have it and for it to have survived amidst all the chaos and catastrophe of the world. Here the letter is addressed as if it were language itself; letter, alphabet, literature, the very means of writing anything at all. The speaker hopes that things will soon become clearer, and is optimistic because there is a limit to all things. Presumably and simultaneously this includes both the current state of affairs and the opacity of language pushed to its extremity (p.118.18 – 119.9). Again we are presented with unavoidable similarities between the ubiquitous ‘letter’ and the nature and experience of Finnegans Wake itself.