The Johns of ’86

The above photograph was taken at the 2005 North American James Joyce Conference at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Like many such photos, it contains the usual Joyce conference benchmarks: paper plates, plastic cups, square napkins, Joyce scholars, Joyce scholars’ spouses.

This particular pic is pretty singular, though. In the mid-ground is a certain detail which, thanks to Photoshop, can be given a touch of dramatic weight:

Meet the Johns:Bishop Gordon closeup

John Bishop (left) and John Gordon (right) were both dependable fixtures at Joyce events from the 1970’s through the naughts – until Bishop’s health dictated less travel. It therefore seems odd that this is the only photo I have, or for that matter have been able to find, of both men sharing the same frame – let alone “chatting it up” over strawberries and wine.

It’s not so odd, however, if you read their respective books on Finnegans Wake. Almost point by point, Bishop’s Joyce’s Book of the Dark: Finnegans Wake and Gordon’s Finnegans Wake: a Plot Summary differ from each other – radically. One difference: Bishop’s argument sees the Wake as a textual reenactment of sleep (body recumbent, senses shut down, etc.), while Gordon’s sees it as a textual collection of activities that can only be performed while awake (eating breakfast, going to the the privy, having sex, etc). Another difference: For Bishop, the text describes the experience of a single individual with other “characters” appearing as mere sub-components of the main protagonist, while for Gordon it depicts the interior monologues of a great many characters, individual identity exploding into  plurality.

Take the books’ titles away and you would almost have the impression that the Johns were writing about two different books. Add Phillip Kitcher’s Joyce’s Kaleidoscope: Finnegans Wake and Margot Norris’s The Decentered Universe of Finnegans Wake into the mix, and now you’ve got four different books, and then Donald Theall, Grace Eckley, and Frances Boldereff make seven books, etc. – all with the same title: Finnegans Wake. Anti-Wake naysayers might see this as evidence that the Wake is some kind of amorphous and vague ‘word soup’ that can just as easily be read backwards as forwards…

WRONG.

Finnegans Wake is chockablockfull of specifics and structural underpinnings – much like the universe itself. But just like the universe it can hardly be fathomed at a single go. Plurality of interpretation is a necessary step to understanding most anything, and it’s an absolute survival tool with the Wake, particularly if you’re trying to maintain a Wake reading group – which, as I’ve stated repeatedly, is hands down the best way in. Besides, side-by-side examination of contrary theories happens to be a major motif in Finnegans Wake, particularly the first few chapters, viz. FW 49.36. Specifics are the key, and what I find so thoroughly engaging about the Johns’ books is their commitment to understanding Joyce himself, the world he came from, and the language he used.

This is not rivalry – at least not in the sense that we Westerners have traditionally understood how rivalries come into being: As early as the ancient Greeks (probably earlier), thinkers have generally come about one-upping one another by a fairly predictable process: It starts with a thesis (viz. Homer’s Iliad: “War sucks”) which gets bandied about for awhile – generally enough time to make the reference commonplace – and then a counter-thesis will emerge (viz. Plato’s Republic: “War rocks”) which then uses the original as a kind of punching-bag. If the hierophants are contemporary with one another, a kind of back-and-forth pugilism will often ensue, viz. Joyce and Wyndham-Lewis, Hans Gabler and John Kidd, etc.

This was never* the case with Bishop and Gordon. For one thing, they’re not just contemporaries; their publications were essentially simultaneous – 1986 to be exact. They never needed each other as foils, so this “rivalry” was kind of foisted upon them. Make no mistake, the Johns of ’86 vehemently disagree with each other, and each John will gladly defend his thesis when pressed, but never in terms that refer to the other as “that guy over there that’s wrong” or anything even close to that. I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in the same Wake reading group with both of them, and they’re always polite, respectful, and downright amiable with one another. Whatever the reason for their so rarely being seen together, it certainly has nothing to do with animosity. Both books remain in print nearly 30 years after their original publication and are equally admired by readers to this day. The Johns seem quite comfortable sharing the throne, disagree though they might.

I’ve read both books through a number of times and gladly recommend them both. Personal preferences are allowed, of course, and perhaps because I’m an actor, I prefer Gordon. He gives me more to work with in terms of how to imagine the text up and on its feet – an exercise that Bishop’s reading by its very definition precludes. For a good Bishop-oriented perspective, see fellow Wake-blogger Peter Quadrino’s Review.

Warning:

These books are tough reads – both of them. In my opinion the best way for a beginner to use them is to work with a given Wake passage and see what the Johns have to say about it using The Workbook.** It puts them in dialogue with each other, creating a kind of “chat room” if you will. The more books you use, the more pluralized your understanding becomes – it’s as good as a reading group, actually.

* Well, almost never. Gordon apparently wrote a fairly harsh review of Bishop’s book back in 1987. He freely admits it was not one of his prouder moments, and Bishop never retaliated.
** For more on “Finnegans Workbook” and how it came to be, see last week’s blogpost.

One comment on “The Johns of ’86

  1. Many thanks for sharing a link to my Bishop review!

    Also: great stuff, keep it up!

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