Crossing the Deadly Line: an Overdue Rant

Something I’ve come to understand about creating and understanding art: Deadlines can really suck. If you’re not careful, they can suck the precision right out of your work, making it sloppy, inattentive to detail, and prone to snap judgements & outlandishly foolish interpretations.

Granted, no artwork invites snap judgement and outlandish interpretation quite like Finnegans Wake, but even the Wake has its limitations. Take for example Patrick Healy’s interpretation of the following rather lengthy Wake sentence (FW 51.21-52.7):

It was the Lord’s own day for damp (to wait for a postponed regatta’s event­ualising is not of Battle­cock Shettle­dore-Juxta-Mare only) and the request for a fully armed explan­ation was put (in Loo of Pat) to the porty (a native of the sisterisle ⎯ Meathman or Meccan? ⎯ by his brogue, ex­race eyes, lokil calour and lucal odour which are said to have been average clownturkish (though the capelist’s voiced nasal liquids and the way he sneezed at zees haul us back to the craogs and bryns of the Silurian Ordovices) who, the lesser pilgrimage accomplished, had made, pats’ and pigs’ older inselt, the south­east bluffs of the stranger stepshore, a regifugium persecutorum, hence hindquarters) as he paused at evenchime for some or so minutes (hit the pipe dannyboy! Time to won, barmon. I’ll take ten to win.) amid the devil’s one duldrum (Apple by her blossom window and Charlotte at her toss panomancy his sole admirers, his only tearts in store) for a fragrend culubosh during his week­ensd pastime of executing with Anny Oakley deadliness (the con­summatory pairs of provocatives, of which remained provokingly but two, the ones he fell for, Lili and Tutu, cork em!) empties which had not very long before contained Reid’s family (you ruad that before, soaky, but all the bottles in sodemd histry will not soften your bloodathirst!) stout.

There’s so much to say about this reading – the stammering, the monotonous drone, the break-neck speed at which he mumbles out the text, etc. – but notice at around the 00:55 mark: Healy reads the perfectly comprehensible and surprisingly undistorted phrase: “executing with Annie Oakley deadliness” as “executing with Annie Oakley deadlines“, rendering it completely nonsensical and ludicrous.

Well, nonsensical and ludicrous if you’re trying to understand where Joyce is coming from; understanding Healy’s perspective is easy enough if you read producer Stephen Rennicks’ liner notes to the 17 CD  “unabridged recording” box-set:

It was important to [Patrick Healy] that [his Wake recording] should be done in as little time as possible in order to maintain the momentum and rhythm of his performance. […] There were no rehearsals. There were no retakes. The performance took four days to record.

Whatever is meant here by “momentum and rhythm”, it’s clear the four-day timetable is a point of great pride for Healy and Rennicks – even a selling point – so with this ambition at the forefront of Healy’s mind as he reads, his omission of the second “s” from “deadliness” can be easily understood, even treated with sympathy…

Actually, No.

This kind of nonsense is totally inexcusable. According to Rennicks, “Over the course of the past ten years [Healy] has given one-day readings of the entire text of Finnegans Wake in front of small audiences in in several European cities”. Ten years, huh? Such an obvious straightforward phrase can be misread for that long a time only by someone who has no interest whatsoever in the content of what he is reading.

Published by Rennicks Auriton in 1992, this abominable recording remains largely misunderstood to this day – nearly 23 years later – either by people who, never having opened the book themselves, admire Healy’s reading by default, or worse: by Wake nay-sayers who argue that lovers of Finnegans Wake are nothing more than intellectual narcissists, that the reason for our irrational attachment to the book is that it serves as a kind of linguistic Rorschach ink-blot whereby we can gaze at ourselves. Healy’s uber-Freudian “deadlines” slip gives this last group precisely the fuel they seek.

Incredibly, Joyce scholars have wound up making the situation even worse. Excitement over the advent of what was falsely advertised as the first-and-only unabridged audio recording of the entire book (Patrick Horgan [see below] had it beat by seven years) was apparently intoxicating enough to garner nearly universal acclaim from a number of Joyce scholars who clearly should have known better: Peter Costello, David Hayman(?!?!), Allen Ruch, etc. Perhaps they were under deadline pressures of their own, and so didn’t have time to listen to any of the 17+ hour recording. I wish they had – it would have saved me $350.

I suppose I should admit at this point that I have a dog in this fight, for I too have made a specialty of performing Finnegans Wake and hope one day to lay down a few tracks of my own. But I would never be possessed of such hubris as to claim that the whole book could be done in four days.

For one thing, the whole book wasn’t done – not really. Healy completely omitted one of the Wake‘s most celebrated sentences: “And low stole o’er the stillness heartbeats of sleep.” (FW403.5):

…and his garbled and prattling attempt at even the simplest thunderword (#5 on p.113) bears almost no resemblance to what Joyce wrote:

…not to mention the other nine. Just one example should suffice, but they’re all just as bad. Here’s Healy’s attempt at thunderword number one:

…and there are places, such as FW369.2-21, where his reading is so rushed as to be downright comical:

Enough. The crimes against Joyce in this recording are absolutely ubiquitous. If you want to listen to more you can go to ubuweb, where the entire recording has been archived and is available for download. If, like me, your ears actually hurt after listening to this, I’d like to make amends by offering all of the above snippets rendered by people who actually know what they’re doing:

Joseph Campbell – reciting (from memory) paragraph 3 from the first page:

     The fall (bababa­dalgharagh­takam­minar­ronnkonn­bronn­tonner­ronntuonn­thunntrovarrhoun­awnskawn­toohoohoor­denenthur­nuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy. The great fall of the offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan, erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes: and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since dev­linsfirst loved livvy.

Jim Norton – giving a truly unabridged reading of the opening section of part 3 on page 403:

     Hark!
     Tolv two elf kater ten (it can’t be) sax.
     Hork!
     Pedwar pemp foify tray (it must be) twelve.
     And low stole o’er the stillness the heartbeats of sleep.
     White fogbow spans. The arch embattled. Mark as capsules. The nose of the man who was nought like the nasoes. It is self tinted, wrink­ling, ruddled. His kep is a gorse­cone. He am Gascon Titubante of Tegmine – sub – Fagi whose fixtures are mobil­ing so wobiling befear my remembrandts. She, exhibit next, his Anastashie. She has prayings in lowdelph. Zeehere green egg­brooms. What named blautoothdmand is yon who stares? Gu­gurtha! Gugurtha! He has becco of wild hindigan. Ho, he hath hornhide! And hvis now is for you. Pensée! The most beautiful of woman of the veilch veilchen veilde. She would kidds to my voult of my palace, with obscidian luppas, her aal in her dhove’s suckling. Apagemonite! Come not nere! Black! Switch out!

Simon Loekle – taking twice as much time as Healy did to recite the passage on p. 369:

     With however what sublation of compensation in the radifi­ca­tion of interp­retation by the bye­boys? Being they. Mr G. B. W. Ash­burner, S. Bruno’s Toboggan Drive, Mr Faixgood, Bell­chimbers, Carolan Crescent, Mr I. I. Chattaway, Hilly Gape, Poplar Park, Mr Q. P. Dieudonney, The View, Gazey Peer, Mr T. T. Erchdeakin, Multiple Lodge, Jiff Exby Rode, Mr W. K. Ferris-Fender, Fert Fort, Woovil Doon Botham ontowhom adding the tout that pumped the stout that linked the lank that cold the sandy that nextdoored the rotter that rooked the rhymer that lapped at the hoose that Joax pilled.
     They had heard or had heard said or had heard said written.
     Fidelisat.
     That there first a rudrik kingcomed to an inn court; and the seight of that yard was a perch­y­pole with a loovah­gloovah on it; last mannarks maketh man when wandshift winneth womans: so how would it hum, whoson of a which, if someof aswas to start to stunt the story on?

Patrick Horgan – executing the paragraph given at the top of this post with real Annie Oakley deadliness:

And finally:

You at Home can recite the fifth thunderword yourself – it’s easy. If you really think you need help with it, you can always take a tutorial.

Actually, you’re free to work on reciting any passage you like, but there’s no point in trying to do the whole book; Patrick Horgan’s unabridged recording for the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped has already done that (more about this extraordinary recording in a future post). And for God’s sake, take your time with it.

It’s not like anyone’s holding a gun to your head.Annie Oakley


Addendum: 3/15/2015

This blogpost has something of a surprise sequel.

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