Hello and welcome to my inaugural blog for the James Joyce Centre, Dublin and thanks for checking it out – I hope you find it interesting. Thanks also to Robert Berry of the Ulysses “Seen” project and to Mark Traynor from the James Joyce Centre for inviting me to create this blog and for their work in making it happen.
Some background: I first met Robert when we shared a ‘panel’ at the Eire on the Eirie North American James Joyce Conference in Buffalo in 2009. To a small but receptive audience of Joycean academics Robert and his colleague Mike Barsanti presented the work they had done on Ulysses “Seen” up to that point and I showed too many images of work I had done in response to Finnegans Wake. Both presentations were unscripted and extemporized and I remember feeling a strong sense of being an interloper explaining my pictures to that gathering of literary types. I had no idea how my approach to Joyce would play in that situation so it was very reassuring to have Robert there as one who would ‘get’ what I was about. To my surprise and delight the audience seemed to really appreciate our presentations and engage with the ideas that concerned us. This was encouraging and validating, and was something of a milestone for me.
Robert and I met again this year at The Bailey pub in Dublin where he was showing original artwork for Ulysses “Seen” during his very hectic Bloomsday week schedule, and later during a round table discussion chaired by Professor Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes which was organised by the James Joyce Centre and hosted by the Darc Space Gallery on North Great George’s Street. I guess we picked up where we left of in Buffalo, as artists discussing the growing interest in visualizing Joyce’s late works, the different ways this could and was being done, but also with a sense that things had moved on and that this was a great time to be opening up this area – getting more Joyce readers involved and more people reading Joyce. It was no longer a question of persuading anyone about the legitimacy or relevance of the visual adaptation of Joyce, people were interested, but of exploring ways that this might be done. I think we recognized in each other the strong visual response provoked by reading Joyce and how this might be engaged with to a similar extent to the auditory qualities of his text. We were also very interested in the representation of Joyce outside ‘the academy’. And so it was that Robert suggested that a blog about my visual work on Finnegans Wake might bring an interesting dimension to Centre’s website just as Ulysses “Seen” has come under its prestigious auspices.
With this blog my initial intention is to introduce my drawing-based reading of the Wake to a larger community of Joyce enthusiasts and to share my adventure in Wake-reading. I hope we can explore illustrative interpretation as a valid way of approaching Joyce’s last book and to contribute to the developing dialogue about its visuality. Using this blog to describe my practice and the outcomes from is sure to develop my own understanding of its implications and possibilities and how it might relate to what others are seeing in the Wake. I’d like the blog to create a space linking those of you interested in this kind of approach to literature and to foster some productive connectivity in this area.
My plan is to contextualize recent work by showing a range of images – in mappings, drawing, print, bookwork etc. – that I have made response to Finnegans Wake over the years and write about my motivations for these. There will also be an in depth look at the reading-drawing processes I am currently using. For this I’ll start at the beginning with notations and drawings from the beginning of the book and work on through subsequent pages and episodes until I’m asked to stop! I’ll be sharing my experiences of reading the Wake along the way and diverting into any area of interest that seems relevant. No doubt I’ll introduce other features as the blog develops and as people respond with suggestions.
For those of you who have not yet opened the Wake, it’s a difficult work to summarize in brief but many pithy descriptions of it have been given over the years – a book of the night, Joyce’s ‘hypermachinic Engine’. To Anthony Burgess it was ‘A novel about an innkeeper who lives, with his wife Ann, his children Izzy and Kevin and Jerry, and the cleaning woman Kate and the barman Sackerson, in Chapelizod, just outside Dublin’ but also ‘as close to a work of nature as any artist ever got – massive, baffling, serving nothing but itself, suggesting a meaning but never quite yielding anything but a fraction of it, and yet (like a tree) desperately simple’; or ‘that tremendous comic nightmare, that fabulous vivisection of language’ according to a review in John O’London’s Weekly.
My own fascination with Finnegans Wake began around 1994 when I began reading it and some standard works about it in preparation part of part of a Masters History of Art and Design project. I had read Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses. I enjoyed Ulysses immensely but my attempts to read Finnegans Wake gave me a very different experience. Before I got anywhere near being able to ‘follow’ it in any sustained way or even to appreciate its flow and rhythm, i.e. before the reading of it afforded me any pleasure, I found myself wanting to celebrate its mere existence as an object in the world. By this I mean that I was glad that someone had written such an absurdly glorious and extraordinary work that didn’t want to behave like other books did. I remember having a strong sense of its texture, density and layering long before making any ‘sense’ of the sentences it contained. The standard exegeses I read gave me tantalizing glimpses into possible interpretations of the text.
There is a rich history of visual art influenced and inspired by James Joyce. For an extensive and comprehensive analysis of this I recommend reading Christa – Maria Lerm Hayes’ Joyce in Art. I am mainly concerned with direct visual responses to and interpretation of Finnegans Wake more than works that reference or develop ideas from the text in some way. I’m particularly interested in figurative and illustrative approaches, having a secondary agenda of extending the standard definition of Illustration to include graphic processes that enhance reading, not just illustration as finished image accompanying text.
Some of the books that influenced my early readings of the Wake and that others might find useful as introductions are A Shorter Finnegans Wake and Here Comes Everybody by Anthony Burgess, Bernard Benstock’s Joyce -Again’s Wake, Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson’s A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake. Also A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake by William York Tindall, but there are quite a few that offer ways to approach the text and which will no doubt be mentioned as we proceed. For me the experience of trying read directly from an edition of Finnegans Wake without interpretations, others’ annotations or reference material at hand has become a key aspect of my reading drawing process – I’ll be explaining more about this in subsequent posts – but suffice to say I think it’s good to just pick up the book, encounter the writing and make of it what you will.
Prior to developing a way of working through the Wake page by page my responses were sporadic and intuitive – drawn to personages, episodes, situations, settings and other aspects of the book in no particular sequence. I don’t think there was anything particularly wrong with this – it did reveal to me the immense potential that the book has for visual artists and I could have just continued on and on – mining the Wake for images – making more and more of my own images from it. But I felt that there was more interesting things going on in the way that the particular language of the text forced me to dwell on how words provoked imaginative visual impressions – something oddly made more apparent in the Wake than with other books, perhaps because we fall too readily through other texts to a more readily accessible mental depiction of events, characters, situations etc. Maybe the Wake has some affinity with music in this way. So I decided to make a closer page-by-page reading and attempt to capture something about these mental images at the point of reading and to develop these as my individual understanding of the text.
So the idea is that every month I’ll post work and commentary from my visual reading of the Wake, reflections on its process and implications, along with connections to other artists and the dialogue about visualising this text which I hope will grow out of these posts. Come back in the new year for my next post in which I’ll be looking at how I relate to my copy of the Wake as a book and how I visualise its opening pages.