On May 4th, 1939 – 75 years ago this year – James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake was published to a world deeply preoccupied with other matters. While Joyce did receive a copy in time for his birthday on February 2nd, as with Ulysses, this was an advance copy; unlike the earlier book, actual publication came a little later. Indifference and bafflement were the prevailing responses, and this is hardly surprising given the nature of the text: even the blurb of the publishers, Faber and Faber, more or less stated that there was nothing they could say about the book: here it is and that is that. A particularly unfortunate contretemps occurred at The Irish Times, where the work was listed among “Books Received” as being by Sean O’Casey. Joyce and O’Casey were equally indignant; the editor, Robert Smyllie, apologised to Joyce for the apparently entirely innocent mix-up.
Though there were of course some dismissive comments, the work did not, at the time, even create much of a scandal. The reason for this was that its nature was already pretty well known through the numerous extracts from it that had been published in the course of its writing (in this case again replicating Ulysses), mainly in the avant-garde journal, transition. So the scandal had already happened: positions around the book had become polarised very early on, with supporters and detractors equally vehement, and in many ways that position remains the case to this day.
A rare example of a critic who “switched sides” – and then partially switched back again – was the great American critic Edmund Wilson, who began, in his book Axel’s Castle, as a supporter, then decided, in his later work The Wound and the Bow, that Finnegans Wake was a failure, only subsequently to revise his opinion again and admit he had missed several important features of the work – an admirable instance of critical modesty.
Finnegans Wake is, it must be said, an intrinsically polarising work: those who “go for it” really like it; many others decide, from the very first page, that there is nothing to relate to here, that it’s unintelligible gibberish not worth the trouble of trying. There is nothing gradual about Finnegans Wake: it doesn’t attempt to lure the reader into its world. That world is present and presented, in all its intricacy and strangeness, from the first page. Finnegans Wake takes no prisoners: as Stephen Dedalus says in Ulysses: “All or not at all.”
It is interesting to chart the shifting approaches to this shape-changing work among those who have decided to devote at least some of their lives to it. The initial reception of Finnegans Wake had a heavily mythological slant to it. The authors of the first book on it, Joseph Campbell and Henry Robinson, laid heavy stress on this dimension. It had obvious benefits: since the figures in the Wake were clearly not characters in any conventional novelistic sense, it made sense to think of them as larger than life, namely mythological. The text gave plenty of support to this view, with much stress on the colossally large size of the main figure, HCE, for instance. Moreover , the famous cyclical movement of the text – going through phases of history and then repeating this movement over and over – lent itself easily to a mythological dimension.
There was also considerable interest in the psychoanalytic elements of the text – e.g. the fairly clear indications of incestuous relationships involving HCE’s children, especially his daughter, and their father. And finally there was a perception that this was a night book, a dream book, and the psychology of dreaming etc became a strong focus.
All of these approaches remain valid and alive, but they have been supplemented by an interest, at once broader and narrower, in the writing of the work, both in theory and in practice. In theoretical terms, the sheer production of the extraordinary text of Finnegans Wake, rather than what lies behind it, has become an object of attention and speculation in its own right, and in practice, there has been a great deal of research into the actual sources of the work, the newspapers, books, casual remarks that Joyce drew on to feed into the work’s composition.
All this has led to a looser sense of the book’s ultimate “meaning” or goal; a sense that one can get a great deal out of it without the possibly vain quest for a sense of aesthetic integritas which it may not even be designed to possess. Or, rather than, in the much overused phrase, the devil being in the detail, it is precisely in the detail that divinity resides.
My favourite comment by Joyce on his last work is a remark about the title, when he finally, reluctantly revealed it: “I think I can see some lofty thinkers and noble livers turning away from it with a look of pained displeasure.” Joyce is referring here to the demotic, common-or-garden nature of the title, which is also, of course, that of a well-known Irish-American ballad. And this gives us an important clue to the nature of Finnegans Wake itself: despite the formidable difficulties, it is not meant to be a closed, esoteric work accessible only to the initiates; it is meant to be open, inviting, entertaining, offering “lots of fun” to those who try it. Although the claim of “lots of fun” may seem excessive, it is true that there is huge enjoyment, huge amusement in here.
One thing that has eased access to that enjoyment is the ending of copyright in the work at the start of 2012. Although not everything that has flowed from this has been positive – not everything in the garden is rosy, as it were – it has provided great opportunities for innovative approaches to the work. An obvious recent one is Olwen Fouere’s Riverrun. Another is an illustrated edition of the tale of “The Ondt and the Gracehoper” from the Wake that is due to be published by Lilliput Press in June. It is being undertaken by illustrator Thomas McNally and his highly original images will greatly enhance the text. More funding is needed to see this project through and contributions can be made through http://fundit.ie/project/james-joyce-illustrated-book .
Events that definitely are going ahead are gathered under the rubric “FW75 – a hubbub caused in Joyceborough”. They are occurring throughout May and many of them, very appropriately, are set in the Phoenix Park, where much of the book “happens”. They include an exhibition in the park’s Visitor Centre, as well as a discussion between writer Dermot Bolger and actor Barry McGovern in Farmleigh. There will also be song recitals in Dublin City libraries. Further information is available from www.joyceborough.org The Joyce Centre’s commemorations will also occur in May and details will appear on this website. On Mondays 1pm the volunteers of Sweney’s have their lunchtime readings of Finnegans Wake. And the members of the James Joyce Institute of Ireland, with this blogger among them, are making their way through the text on Tuesday evenings at the Joyce Centre at 7.30. All those interested are welcome.
Finally, let’s ask the unanswerable question: why Finnegans Wake? Whatever else one can say, it is surely the product of one of the most extraordinary, creative, contorted (not to say twisted) minds that have ever existed. In fact, the question “why” is asked in the text itself (Finnegans Wake only discusses itself – perhaps can only be discussed – on its own terms). On page 597 the question is asked five times, the questioner clearly not being satisfied with previous answers, which involve much reference to dialectical oppositions etc. To the final “why”, the respondent appears to give up and merely answers “Such me” – including of course “Search me”, but also “Such am I”, “That’s what I’m like”. It is hard not to hear the voice of the author himself behind this statement – and perhaps this is as close as we will get to a final word on Finnegans Wake.