‘Illuminating the Wake’ is a way of sharing my reading of Finnegans Wake, a reading I do through notational drawing. The whole project values the reader’s unmediated thoughts about the text as they occur in the reading moment. It’s about what can be discovered when we’re not too concerned with what we are supposed to find in the Wake but what we actually encounter in it for ourselves. After all Finnegans Wake is a book and can be read for the pleasures and insights it offers everyone. Granted, it takes some patience and getting used to, but as a work of great humour that knows how it wants to be read there is a lot to be gained by yielding and just going along with it until you start to catch on. In this spirit and the hope of directly recording something of my own experience of the Wake I’ve developed my own way of drawing what Joyce’s marvellously visual text evokes in my imagination.
I left my last post at page 119.9. From this point through to the end of ‘Chapter V’ there is yet more about ALP’s ubiquitous letter. This is given through a parody of philological analysis that echoes an introduction to The Book of Kells developing into a description of punctuation which is simultaneously highly farcical and very disturbing. The chapter critiques the very act of interpretation, prompting questions about what it is to read anything, and concludes by finally revealing the identity of the author of the letter.
The paragraph 119.10 – 123.10 begins with a description of what seems to be a flamboyant lettering style reminiscent of an illuminated manuscript. This typographic analysis serves as a self-referential armature for the kind of dense layering of allusions we are familiar with in the Wake. It progresses to include the famous system of sigla associated with the main ‘characters’ and mystifyingly associates these with key numbers (432 and 1132) recurring in the book and with Chinese pictograms. This is all done in a way that implicates much of the rest of what we find in the book into the letter we initially thought of as merely a part of the book. For me this brings book and letter into a curious relationship akin to the apparently double but actually single surface of a Moebius strip.
It is no surprise then that in this paragraph there are some key, widely referenced descriptions of Finnegans Wake, its reading and its reader:
‘; a word as cunningly hidden in its maze of confused drapery as a fieldmouse in a nest of coloured ribbons;’ (120.5 – 6)
‘; and look at this prepronominal funferal, engraved and retouched and edgwiped and pudden-padded very like a whale’s egg farced with pemmican as were it sentenced to be nuzzled over a full trillion times for ever and a night till his noddle sink or swim by that ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia:’ (120.9 – 14)
‘; the lubricitous conjugation of the last with the first;’ (121. 30 – 31)
In this paragraph we find Joyce’s own typographic play in the form of the rotating ‘F’, with its accompanying speculations, and the hilariously, farcical passage with Roman numerals and accompanying abbreviations:
‘:the gypsy mating of a grand stylish gravedigging with secondbest buns (an interpolation: these munchibles occur only in the Bootherbrowth family of MSS., Bp – Cod IV, Pap II, Brek XI, Lun III, Dinn XVII, Sup XXX, Fullup MDCXC: the scholiast has hungrily misheard a deadman’s toller as a muffinbell)’ (121.31 – 36)
Further on, in a deft and audacious inversion, the letter is proposed as an actual inspiration for the Tunc page of The Book of Kells, an idea which plays with the timelessness of the letter (or a kind of temporal ubiquity) and its status as a metaphor for all acts of writing (122.20 – 23). The paragraph ends with a disturbing, bluntly gendered reading which speculates on the disciplining of female sexuality through casual male sexual violence depicted in the very style of the letterforms.
The next paragraph switches tone again (though retains its themes) as we are treated to some great lampooning of scientific interpretation, complete with arcane citation, in which physics and psychoanalysis seem to be particular targets.
The topic of punctuation and the attribution of authorship is raised with the discovery of previously invisible marks which have been discovered through their exposure to ‘our worlds oldest light’ and the notion of the text being ‘pierced not punctured’. There follows a richly layered passage which brings together and further heightens simultaneously both farcical and deeply transgressive possibilities in the text. Typically, but perhaps more overtly here than elsewhere in the Wake, the reader can join different sets of dots to bring different accounts to light. The farcical reading traces the interpreters solipsistic misreading of his own accidental piercing of the letter with his own breakfast fork. There is also the incorporation into the document of the peck marks of Biddy the Hen as she unearthed it from the midden heap. The imminence of a hermeneutic nightmare is implied here in which the handling of the document and each act of interpretation is unendingly enfolded into the thing to be interpreted – a prophetic vision of Wake studies? The darker, transgressive reading is one of sexual coercion and abuse, possible thoughts or memories of attempted rape. In challenging confronting the reader to accommodate this simultaneity of farce psychological disquiet, uncomfortable questions are raised about what we choose to see in the text, what we want from it, and why. There is a sort of denouement to the penultimate paragraph of the section, a pulling back in which the letter, having been the focus of such attention and contention, appears to be almost returned to its original situation, re-covered by the status quo.
And so in the final paragraph of ‘Book’ I, ‘Chapter 6’ after a roundabout reassurance that the son responsible is not Shaun the Post the author of the letter is revealed to be none other than Shem the penman.
Until next time…