16 Years of JoyceGroup Geekery

JoyceGeeks at the Hotel St. Francis From left: Ned Sudborough, me, David Norris, Nancy Haydock, Bud Ryan, Joan Harvey, Elaine Mingus, Jim Paulsel, Bill Wible

JoyceGeeks outside the Hotel St. Francis, February 2003 From left: Ned Sudborough (d. 2009), me, David Norris (visiting dignitary – not a member), Nancy Haydock, Bud Ryan, Joan Harvey, Elaine Mingus (d. 2014), Jim Paulsel (d. 2008), and Bill Wible. Other 2003 JoyceGroup members not depicted: Tamar Stieber and Elizabeth West

JoyceGroup Santa Fe was founded in the late spring of 1998, when a 72-year old widow and retired astrologer named Elaine Mingus (shown above) papered the town with flyers for a Bloomsday celebration she was organizing. The soirée took place on Tuesday, June 16 at the Unitarian Church on Barcelona Road, where Elaine promptly distributed more paperwork, including a reading group sign-up sheet. Our first meeting took place on Friday the 19th at the home of retired teacher and Korean War Veteran Ned Sudborough (also shown above). There were a total of five of us in attendance, and we resolved to meet once every other week to discuss a new chapter of Ulysses.

That’s right: one two-hour meeting, one chapter – next meeting, another chapter, etc. It was very ‘book-of-the-monthish’ starting out. I personally wasn’t keen to move so quickly, but then again, I was under half the age of the next youngest member, and we had a goal in front of us: finish the damn thing so we could have bragging rights. Ulysses itself started dictating a more realistic pace, however, and it was nearly a year-and-a-half later that we actually reached the end of the book. By then we were taking turns reading out loud, and skipping passages was becoming less and less desirable. Still, there wasn’t a whole lot of discussion, and our next projects –  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dubliners and Exiles – were more read-out-loud than discussed. It was all part of the timetable-for-bragging-rights issue. The price we paid for this haste was of course knowledge, but I suppose every reading group should want bragging rights, and we were fast reaching a place where we could make some pretty mighty claims.

You might imagine what happened next.

We took a vote (it was all very democratic in those days) and decided we were ready to move on to FInnegans Wake. Having studied the book a great deal for the past ten years, I knew that once we were in, there would be no getting out, so I suggested we spend only one hour per session on it and use the other hour to focus on another Joyce book. I suggested Stephen Hero (how cool would we be if we could say we’d done that?), and a new era of microscopic discussion was slouching towards Bethlehem.

Stephen Hero did go by quite quickly (the group wanted it back on the shelf as soon as possible), but there was no sense of deadline pressure with Finnegans Wake. So we started actually giving ourselves a chance to breathe a little and ponder things a bit before moving on. This marked a fairly important change in our tactics. After Stephen Hero, the next logical move was to return to Ulysses, and by then we were starting to enjoy the relaxed pace, so we launched our second read-through with no agenda except to understand what we were reading. Every Don Gifford note was read out loud, and people started actually talking about things they knew.

It took well over five years to complete this second run-through, and the pace was not for everyone. The first to bail was Ned, who threw us all out of his house one day during a particularly knotty passage in the Wake, and we never met there again. Dedicated members took turns hosting, and we even made occasional trips to Albuquerque, where Elaine had relocated to be with her daughter.

By 2008, Elaine’s health was such that she could no longer travel to Santa Fe, so she started her own reading groups in Albuquerque – one for Finnegans Wake, and one for Joyce’s other works. With our de facto leader now bowing out, the Santa Fe group underwent something of a schism – Tamar Stieber wanted to return to the round-robin-read-out-loud approach, and I wanted to slow the pace down even more. We agreed to split, and both reading groups are alive and well to this day. Tamar runs her group with a considerably more democratic approach than I do – she even allowed the majority to determine which author they would focus on. If I’m not mistaken, they’re presently working on Proust. Important to note, however, that they still consider themselves a Joyce reading group, and in my opinion, this is a completely valid claim. One must reach outside of Joyce’s literature in order to fully appreciate it.

I’m much more of a dictator. The rules I’ve established (and which I shamelessly enforce) are simple enough:

  1. We read James Joyce, and if something relevant to Joyce emerges (Mark Twain, Shakespeare, Flaubert, The Easter Rising, etc), we will of course take a brief excursion down that path in order to come to as full an understanding of the passage in front of us as we can. But yes, we are here to read Joyce.
  2. We read Finnegans Wake. Whatever else we may be reading, we always (or almost always) close out with as much as an hour’s worth of Finnegans Wake.
  3. Discussion is paramount, reading the text out loud is not. This is not a policy against the oral tradition or anything like that – I’m an actor, after all, and more than that, I am an actor who specializes in James Joyce. But my ability to perform the text is utterly bound by my understanding of its nuances, and these nuances can never come to light if we just blow through the text for the sake of being able to say that we covered it. Never more than a single page goes by without there being some point of interest worthy of discussion. This policy sometimes slows us to a snail’s pace (a full 90 minutes can go by without so much as a full sentence being covered), but knowledge and understanding are the real and lasting goals here, not coverage.

If you’d like an idea about how slow JoyceGroup Santa Fe can actually move, you can have a look at this chronology. I’ve learned from hard experience that this pace isn’t for everybody, and if there’s one thing Joyce has taught me, it’s that the world is big enough for everyone. Elaine had her way, Ned had his, Tamar has hers, I have mine.

But this is my blog, so I get the final word. Here it is:

Joyce’s genius is only accessible if you’re willing to examine the details, and details take time.

But that’s just one voice among many.

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