Illuminating the WAKE with Clinton Cahill: Part 2

Welcome to the second post of Illuminating the WAKE!

One of the many things that appeal to me about Finnegans Wake is its accommodation of highly structured and whimsically random elements. New ‘nodes’ of meaning and their associated visual impressions form with each reading – familiar motifs emerge in different guises and in re-arranged ‘views’.  As mentioned in my previous post from time to time I’d like to show a selection of images made in my earlier readings of the Wake reflecting something of the ad hoc nature of how they appeared to me from the text.  I think this also indicates something of the way that reading this book can be approached by abandoning any expectation of a linear unwinding of ‘storyline’ but enjoying fragments of sense as you come across them, collecting these into contingent relationships  – a kind of montage of what you think is going on.  Although I absolutely maintain that there is nothing like the experience of reading directly from Joyce’s text and valuing what occurs to you (no matter how unfamiliar, indescribable or specifically odd) some of the standard exegetical works can lend a framework upon which to place the montage of your own impressions.

In contrast to my page-by-page reading/drawing process, which I will describe later, these initial images are not associated with specific lines in the text but arose as cumulative impressions of it.

Shem,Shaun & Mamalujo oil sketch_

Untitled montage

Shem monoprint

The Fissioning of HCE monoprint

On Starting to Read the Wake

In his eminently readable A Reader on Reading, Alberto Manguel offers the following thought about starting to read any book.  For me though it seems (almost ludicrously) appropriate to include here, at the beginning of our opening of the Wake,

Every time a reader opens a book on the first page, he is opening the countless series of books that line our shelves from the morning on which writing was invented to the last afternoon of the future. It is all there, every story, every experience, every glorious and terrible secret: we lack only the perspicacity, the patience, the strength, the space, the time.  All of us, except the Wandering Jew.

Although they are useful in getting to grips with what kind of book Finnegans Wake is and can certainly help with orientation and following up on ideas that occur as you explore the book, I don’t think you can really read the Wake through the various available guides, concordances, annotations etc.  They are definitely not substitutions for the original. Sooner or later you have to take the plunge and start reading the Wake itself.

One of the first things that anyone even vaguely interested in this book discovers is that it ends in the midst of its first sentence  – or begins in the midst of its last  – or, more accurately given its nature – it does both simultaneously.  If you are looking for a ‘go ahead plot’ with neat episodes, clearly defined characters and a satisfying resolution you have definitely picked up the wrong book. The Wake’s text famously has no end, although the book, being a book, does (I’ll be returning to this point from time to time) so there is no final destination; and disorientation is all part of the fun.

Much has been said and written about the ‘demands’ that Finnegans Wake makes of the reader – the challenges of its language, its elaborate digressions, its embedded codes and buried references and even the boredom it induces – but in my experience these are only negatives if we expect the Wake to offer a conventional literary journey. Expect to feel lost, out of your depth, bored (Heideggar has some very interesting things to say about boredom) puzzled and confounded; but also astounded at sudden profundity, wild spectrums of humour, lyrical beauty; astounded above all by what language can do and what a man can do with language.  With a little persistence the reader will find that the book teaches them how it can be read (I think this is so with any good literature) – with the Wake we have to remain really open to this. There’s a real act of trust here, essential of course in sustaining a worthwhile relationship.   As a reader the primary relationship you have is with the book and its text – from the inside. This is different from observing the relationship between the book and, say its critics or some literary academics  – from the outside.  So for me it’s important, particularly when embarking on a reading of the Wake, to make the book your own.

The French theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes, referencing Nietzsche, once wrote ‘…basically, it is always the same question: what is it for me?..’

I have just three editions of Finnegans Wake: The first one I read was a 1975 Faber and Faber British paperback with a black cover which got a nice web of fine white cracks across its surface from handling.  It has no forward or other commentary but gets straight to the text. Like other Wake readers I scribbled annotations on the endpapers, in the margins and other available spaces.  I also have a 2010 Penguin Classics hardback edition, with notes by Seamus Deane, preface and afterword by Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon, and appendices by Hans Walter Gabler and David Greetham.  This, so far, has been only slightly defiled by my pencil  – I keep it for best, which means reading for the pleasure of the flow of it, without pausing to mark up or otherwise interrupt the fluid play it’s words.  If I could ride I’d make the analogy of taking the text out for a canter – for its benefit as much as mine.  The edition I have read most frequently, and most heavily annotated, is the Penguin Classics 2000 paperback. This has the text from the 1939 first edition and also includes textual notes and a foreword by Seamus Deane.  This is the edition I draw from and the one I’ll be referring to from now on.  It has, despite and because of its slow disintegration, become quite precious to me  – physically representing one of the things I mean by making a text ‘your own’.

Penguin Classic edition

Why start at the beginning? – There is a beginning

As mentioned in the previous post, one of my intentions with this blog is to go through the page-by-page notations and sketchbook work that I have made as a sort of visual reading of Finnegans Wake, hopefully prompting discussion about how we imagine what we read in literature and how this can be illustrated or otherwise visualized.  Now with the Wake – if its text nominally has no beginning or end – I could commence this on any page or on page 628, the last page in the book. It might be interesting to do either of these but I’ll start at ‘the beginning’ on what should be page 3, although numbering doesn’t commence until overleaf on page 4. Reasons for starting here?  To acknowledge that Finnegans Wake  was and is published in printed book form – a codex – as distinct from parts of versions of its text published separately in different formats under the earlier, contingent title of Work in Progress. This form has direct bearing on our experience of reading the text, which is, with literature, conventionally done from front to back (not so with reference works, A-Z map books or even magazines).  There is a tension here between the notion of an ideal cyclical text (regarding the text abstractly, somehow detached from its material constituents and therefor from a real experience of it) and its physical realisation in a vehicle or container – the book.  There are many circles in the Wake and a lot of circle-squaring, perhaps it ‘starts’ here.  So there is a beginning to the book of Finnegans Wake, if not one intended for its text.

It could be said that the circle is also incomplete because of a hiatus, the gap caused by the page space following the last words on page 628, blank endpapers, covers, the outside world – the reader leaving book and text then re-entering through front cover, front matter blank space – then into the middle of that sentence.  Joyce also provides another quicker exit point on 628 by way of ‘PARIS, 1922-39.’ A small hole in the corner through which we might fall from the text into the space of our imagined author.

If we see the Wake as a ‘night book’ starting at dusk and taking us through to dawn, then another gap in the circle must be the intervening day – the space of Ulysses.  We might consider Finnegans Wake using other geometries – a spiral or a sort of broken ovoid, with the gap as the space for the reader.

Being visually orientated I’ve found it useful to sketch out the broader structures of the Wake, using analyses of literary scholars, to help get a personal sense of its totality how things might fit together.  I know this is in fact fallacious – any notion of real ‘completeness’ would be misleading – but attempting to cast a loose shape around the Wake to help me imagine its form has made visualising the text conceivable, at least to me.

The artist Lazlo Moholy-Nagy used a representation of Finnegans Wake in his 1947 pedagogical text Vision in Motion. It’s an interpretive schematic of the structure of the Wake prepared for him by Leslie L. Lewis.  I find the idea of graphically mapping the Wake particularly interesting because of its potential in enabling us to experience it (or at least a representation of its structure) as form and surface – an extent or expanse of language and therefore possibly an image.  There is something about this that makes me think that the codex, the book form, is not quite the right ‘container’ for the work.

EPSON MFP image

EPSON MFP image

Using this basic division of the circle into the four sections of the Wake (some refer to them as ‘books’, others as ‘parts’, which are sub-divided into ‘chapters’, some editions leave the sections unmarked) I sketched out a general structure incorporating ideas from Roland McHugh’s The Sigla of Finnegans Wake.  I developed this into a page-by-page schematic of what appeared to be going on in the book, according to different commentaries. This was quite a while back, circa 1995. It helped me navigate the text and allowed me to ‘scan’ and appreciate the whole work as a surface. Although it went over several A1 double page spreads in a sketchbook it did enable me to comprehend something of the mandala-like form of the text.

EPSON MFP image

EPSON MFP image

My usual method of reading the Wake is to think with a pencil in the text, pointing up any snippet or connection that occurs to me.  This is a good reason to start with a cheaper paperback edition so you don’t feel precious about annotating it.  Freely marking it is also a good way to make the reading your own  – even when putting in points and observations made by others you are locating them in the text and incorporating them into your reading.  This manual aspect of reading has become one of the pleasures I associate with the Wake, but don’t think it should become a crossword puzzle – there has to be that literary/imaginative aspect or it’s pointless. The Wake demands an unprecedented state of involved openness in its reader – if you are new to the book don’t censor your thoughts while reading just because you feel inexperienced, ‘unqualified’ or possibly ‘mistaken’.  It’s a common experience to dismiss an idea as too bizarre or obscure on one page only to find it reinforced or validated further along.  One of the many marvels of the book is its generative quality – permutations of small and often simple units of association that develop into more elaborate themes as reading progresses. My annotations range from the blatantly obvious to the guiltily personal. Marking and re-marking my edition has built up a graphic skein over the original text.  This skein traces and ‘depicts’ my reading.

EPSON MFP image

Annotative reading and sketchbook synthesis

I re-read my annotations then, with the text still at hand, make a rough hand-written synthesis of them in the left hand page of a sketchbook. Then I re-read these notes and scan the original text, trying to apprehend the mental impressions provoked and make rapid pictorial notations of them in the right hand sketchbook page.  I’m very interested in this fleeting, pivotal moment of transition from word idea to picture idea and the complexities of that transaction.  I think, for me, this is where ‘illustration’ as a verb, first occurs – the rest being a process of exploration or refinement.  There’s also another kind of exchange occurring – the swapping of physical body space i.e. being in my body, sitting in the studio perceiving the words on the page, operating the pencil  – for the notional space of drawing, infused simultaneously with both the immaterial mental impression and the materiality of mark on paper.  This seems to chime with the disembodied nature of any good literary reading experience – inhabiting the space of the text, being more conscious of textual occurrence than situational circumstances of your own body.  In re-emerging from the reading/drawing state it’s pleasurably surprising to untangle, isolate and review images that I have made in response to the text.  As with several of the topics here I’ll be returning to the notion of the sampled fragment in later posts.

Reading_drawing sketchbook page for FW p.3a

Annotative reading and sketchbook synthesis

I re-read my annotations then, with the text still at hand, make a rough hand-written synthesis of them in the left hand page of a sketchbook. Then I re-read these notes and scan the original text, trying to apprehend the mental impressions provoked and make rapid pictorial notations of them in the right hand sketchbook page.  I’m very interested in this fleeting, pivotal moment of transition from word idea to picture idea and the complexities of that transaction.  I think, for me, this is where ‘illustration’ as a verb, first occurs – the rest being a process of exploration or refinement.  There’s also another kind of exchange occurring – the swapping of physical body space i.e. being in my body, sitting in the studio perceiving the words on the page, operating the pencil  – for the notional space of drawing, infused simultaneously with both the immaterial mental impression and the materiality of mark on paper.  This seems to chime with the disembodied nature of any good literary reading experience – inhabiting the space of the text, being more conscious of textual occurrence than situational circumstances of your own body.  In re-emerging from the reading/drawing state it’s pleasurably surprising to untangle, isolate and review images that I have made in response to the text.  As with several of the topics here I’ll be returning to the notion of the sampled fragment in later posts.

Reading/drawing

Even treating this as a beginning, an entry point to the text there is a sense of a great spatial expanse and parabolic return –  a foggy curtain of amnesia about where the return is, from but definitely a broad, elemental, rhythmic sweep taking in an extensive landscape from an elevated and dynamic vantage point.  Something map-like but unfixed, protean – forming.  Rock, water, map. A landscape being written into existence from a set of elemental components – the weird and slightly-queasy-yet-fascinating optics of the diorama; a descent which is simultaneously a step into this world, a first step on to land. Landfall – homecoming to a place forgotten, needing to be reconstituted.  Then a sudden presence a singularity – figure and ground in the graphic sense, a gesture, a mark giving meaning to a space; a figure re-arriving. Immediately the form begins to multiply, becoming different things, people, pairs, parts of people, symbols.  Things seen from a distance – details isolated but far off and sudden close ups.  Fragments, sounds and layered imagery emerge at an increasing rate  – everything is also something else, is refracted, unstable.  This is where you have to let go of the linear reading habit used to engage most other literature and begin to move around the text, be prepared to regress back along sentences or back up the page, make connections, recognise patterns forming between words in different parts of the page.  For me this takes on some of the syntactical attribute of looking at an image.

Patterns and nodes of meaning emerge concerned with return, with distant places, isolation, circularity, water, love, sex, war, vision, rainbows, history, topography, family…with many of the words behaving like hypertext links, there ‘axis’ into rather than just across the page.  This is a beginning in that much is being introduced here that will be at play throughout the book – ‘character’ entities and mythical, historical figures such as Adam and Eve, HCE, Tom Sawyer, St. Patrick, Humpty Dumpty, Isaac, Vanessa, the ever-warring brothers, Shem and Shaun, Tim Finnegan; and Dublin itself.  There is also ‘the fall’ that is all falls – from street ballad to biblical text, from Humpty Dumpty to the water cycle. So we ourselves fall into the language and the universe of the Wake.

Reading_drawing sketchbook page for FW p.3b

EPSON MFP image

Sketchbook FW p.3 detail 3

Sketchbook FW p.3 detail 4

Sketchbook FW p.3 detail 5

FW p3 charcoal drawing a-1

FW p3 charcoal b

FW p3 charcoal Detail a

FW p3 charcoal Detail c

Dialogue

This blog is still in its introductory phase but I’ve already touched on quite a number of topics about how we might read and visualise this extraordinary book. Any of these is up for discussion and I’m interested in the feedback you have to offer.  If you have any questions or anything you want to pick up on from this post or the last one please leave a reply in the comments dialogue box.