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 gone 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.

The Lost Joyce Websites: a Lamentation

The ‘Information: Good-Bye’ Way

The following two-and-a-half-minute chestnut took my Performa-600 Macintosh desktop computer approximately 90 minutes to download back in 1995, and the poor thing was nearly as hot as a car radiator when the download was complete. It was worth it, though:

The passage being recited is from page 65 of Finnegans Wake, and the man performing it is one Albert Wiggins, at least according to the website I downloaded the file from: http://www.sonarchy.org/archives/wiggins.html.

Click the above link and you’ll immediately see why that audio-file was worth downloading and my soon-to-be-obsolete computer was worth overheating. Like so many others, the site is gone, and I don’t think it’s ever returning. A shame, for it was a true anomaly: just a single page with a banal sentence, something like “Albert Wiggins recites a passage from Finnegans Wake” – no date, no description of where the recitation took place or even who this Wiggins fellow was. Just a link to the audio-file, the sentence, and a cartoon caricature of Joyce wearing a wife-beater and a creepy leering facial expression were all it contained. It may wind up being the internet’s sole evidence that Albert Wiggins ever existed – I’ve been unable to find out any more about him. (If you’re reading this and knew/know him, please do drop me a line.)

So many Joyce websites that I used to frequent are gone now that I’ve gotten into the habit of taking precautions. For one thing, I copied the data from fweet.org onto my word processor – it’s just too precious to risk losing. If you think that might have been a bit paranoid of me, just consider the other websites we’ve lost from the 1990s…

The James Joyce Database

Reginald Webber’s simple (hence truly useful) e-text archive of Joyce’s published works is a truly lamentable loss. Webber had his archive set up in such a way that you could type in a word or phrase and all occurrences of that word or phrase would be listed – whether they occurred in Portrait, Dubliners, Ulysses, Finnegan, Exiles, Stephen Hero, Giacomo Joyce, the poems, or the critical writings. Webber announced in 2001 that he was planning to add the published letters to the archive, and less than a year later the site was taken down – presumably over copyright issues. The only thing I retrieved from it was a solitary e-text.

The Ulysses Hypermedia Project

Michael Groden’s spectacular vision for what the web could become died in the incubator – again because of copyright. Ulysses Hypermedia was going to be a one-stop annotation/genetics/e-text/edition-variora website for all readers of Ulysses, from beginners to veterans alike. Hardly any point in weeping for what never was, but still…

The Brazen Head (see addendum below)

The crash of Allen Ruch’s truly beautiful website on all things Joyce is a loss which I only just recently found out about and truly could not believe; it was the impetus for this blog entry in fact. No description I can give would do this site justice – it had image galleries, book summaries, newsflashes, links and references to everything you could hope to find on the web and elsewhere. The photo gallery alone was enough to make this my go-to website, and now that I think about it, its green and white color scheme was without question the model I used for JoyceGeek. As a stand-alone website The Brazen Head was unrivaled in terms of design and content, and believe it or not, it was only one of a whole network of pages Allen had created under the rubric The Modern Word, which served as homepage for sites dedicated to at least a dozen 20th century authors, including Samuel Beckett, Jorge Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez – all without exception gone down the “error 404” rabbit-hole.

The loss of this family of sites was so shocking that I actually contacted Allen as well as Tim Conley (his assistant on the Joyce and Beckett pages), who had both long since moved onto other projects but I never imagined would let the site decay. Allen told me that The Modern Word and all of its content had been hacked and that his CMS people were working to get it back up, so there is hope, I suppose. I have to say however that these six long and lonely weeks have me worried that we’ll never see it again.

Here’s hoping I’m wrong. I put those dead links into this blog-post for a reason; keep clicking them and maybe one will reappear some day.

So until then, we move ahead. I’ll do what I can to make this site as useful as possible, starting with something I lifted from Bill Cadbury’s and the late Donald Theall’s now defunct Finnegans Web Line Reference page. Cadbury and Theall had taken about fifteen books on Finnegans Wake and created a small database whereby you could travel from a passage in the Wake to where a scholar – say James Atherton, John Bishop, John Gordon, Roland McHugh, Margot Norris, etc – had made reference to that passage and in some cases had thoroughly explicated it. This web-page was so useful to my Wake studies that I finally just downloaded its content onto my own word processor. I had found most of the books in their list using bookfinder.com (still around, thank God), and with its help my Wake library grew. I added line references with each new book I received, editing for redundancies and misprints, and by the time I was ready to move onto other projects, “Finnegans Workbook” (as I had come to call it) had grown into an absolute behemoth – it is now about fifty times its original size. So for the sake of keeping it alive (and yes, the following link actually does work)…

HERE IT IS.

Enjoy.

You might want to create a backup, though…

…just in case…


Addendum – February 13, 2015:

All hail the great Quail: The Brazen Head and all of its sister sites on The Modern Word are debugged and back in working order! Click the image below to go there, but be prepared to blow through a few hours just clicking around:

brazenhead


Addendum – March 3, 2015:

…AND… it’s down again. Damn damn damn. This poor website is clearly in need of some kind of major overhaul therapy. Well, at least I got a snapshot of it.


Addendum – March 19, 2015

Alright – it looks like The Modern Word might be up again. The Brazen Head link seems to still be broken (at least that’s how my 2014 Macbook Pro reads it), but I found something of a back-road to its content. Here’s a link to D.B. Weiss’s Trinity College dissertation on the Wake:

http://themodernword.com/joyce/joyce_paper_netwake1.html

You should be able to access most if not all of the Brazen Head content from there. Any of the sub-pages would have worked, but what with all the Game of Thrones brujaja, I figured that a link directly to the Weiss article would be fun. Thanks goes out to William K. Bohan for the heads up on the Weiss link, and enjoy.


Addendum – November 14, 2015

How very depressing – the entire Modern Word site is almost certainly gone forever – including the Weiss dissertation. It crashed four-or-so months ago, and I sent another email to Allen Ruch. He never responded.

The lesson here – digital archives are every bit as susceptible to destruction as the Library at Alexandria.


Addendum – November 26, 2018

Apparently Mr. Peabody is real, and the Brazen Head isn’t lost forever after all:

Follow this link.

Big thanks to “Shan” (see his post in comments below) for his link to the Wayback Machine and bringing it to this cyber-novice’s attention.

It really is an information super-highway, folks – you just have to dig for it.

The Mathematics of Art / The Aesthetics of Math

Document2The above diagram is the result of working through “Proposition Number One” from Euclid’s Elements, in which ruler and compass are used to construct an equilateral triangle. The steps are simple enough: Draw two circles – one with A as center and AB as radius, the other with B as center and BA as radius. Let where they intersect be called C, and there you have your equilateral triangle: ABC.

Question:

Why does Euclid specify complete circles? Seems a bit superfluous – wouldn’t arcs be more efficient? For one thing arcs would take up less paper – no small concern for an ancient Greek if the historians are correct. Plus, drawing complete circles creates two intersections, giving us redundant and potentially confusing data. So why?

Answer:

Euclid is not just a mathematician, he’s also an artist. The above illustration is much more aesthetically pleasing than its ‘efficient’ counterpart:

Yuck.

Euclid knew: If you want something to last, make it beautiful. Never once in the entire Elements does he say “sweep an arc”, it’s always “draw a circle”. Circles are prettier, more satisfying. They give a sense of fulfillment, as if a journey has been undertaken and, once completed, has left absolutely nothing unfinished in its Wake.

No surprise then that circles should be ubiquitous in Finnegans Wakefrom the frequent use of words like ’round’, ‘ring’, ‘circle’, etc. in its pages to the circular structure of the book as a whole. Joyce was pleased when his book wound up being exactly 628 pages long, for 6.28 is – the formula for the circumference of a circle. And look at page 293:

Microsoft Word - Finnegans Wake.doc

What a pleasant page to look at. And notice that Joyce is gracious enough to complete the symmetry Euclid was forced to leave out as extraneous to his proposition. I suppose Euclid could have proposed something like “Construct a pair of equilateral triangles sharing one side or “Construct an equilateral rhombus” or something like that. But being mostly a mathematician, Euclid was not quite so bound to aesthetics as Joyce; he had other fish to fry.

Joyce however was mostly an artist, and his placement of this diagram in the center of page 293 has me convinced that this is the real center of the book. That’s right: after more than two decades of reading Finnegans Wake, I now conclude that 628 ÷ 2 = 293. Flimsy math, you say? Maybe, but there are ways to reach this conclusion. For one thing, the book’s final chapter (which starts on page 591) is set off from the rest of the book as a “ricorso” (a term Joyce borrowed from his favorite Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, who posited that history is cyclical rather than linear) and so could feasibly be placed at either end of the book. So 590 ÷ 2 = 295: Take into account those numbered pages where no text appears (pages 1, 2, 217, 218, and 401-403), and there you have it: the gravitational center of the book is page 293, whose own center is occupied by an image which I’ve heard described as everything from colliding planets (viz. Lars von Trier’s Melancholia) to a dividing embryonic cell. It’s the beginning of the world, it’s the end of the world, and it all takes takes place in the middle of the book!

So I’m very excited to announce that JoyceGroup Santa Fe will be opening our books to page 293 this coming Saturday. And let me tell you – it’s been no easy task getting here. Just have a look at the pages leading up to it, starting on page 286:

Finnegans Wake

Notice in the middle of 286: “Problem ye ferst, construct ann aquilittoral dryankle”. Euclid’s proposition is stated, and it looks like we’re going to get underway with it fairly quickly with “unbox your compasses” on page 287. But then notice how those fun marginal notes are pushed out by a bulging parenthetical body text, which makes no reference to the proposition whatsoever and goes on for a full five-and-a-half pages without so much as a single full-stop to give the reader any breathing room whatsoever:

Finnegans Wake

Enough to make…

Finnegans Wake

… your brain hurt…

Finnegans Wake

…like Gumby.

Gumbys

We’ve been working on this monster parenthesis since mid-June – a total of 19 sessions – plodding through some of the most confusing and jumbled writing ever put to print. It’s one thing to distort vocabulary items; that can all be worked out with fweet and Roland McHugh. With their help, you’ll notice the usual thematic signposts: St. Patrick, Buckley/Russian General, Dermot/Grania, etc., but there’s no annotations project yet that can parse out all of the ambiguous pronoun references and muddy syntax this passage contains. I consider it to be by far the most difficult part in the book – almost pure chaos.

But to quote John Guare, the Kandinsky is painted on both sides. The elegant models of Euclid are elegant only when contrasted with the chaos that they are not. This all goes towards Joyce’s other favorite Italian philosopher, Giordano Bruno, who posited that polar opposites are not only defined by one another, but are in fact borne from the exact same substance; and this goes for all opposites – male/female, angel/devil, order/chaos, everything.

So I think reconciling the dichotomy of order/chaos is exactly what Joyce was working with when he wrote pp. 586-593, and this is perhaps what I’ve come to appreciate more than anything about his writing in general. Until Joyce came along, literature was always so elegant and ordered: Sonnets, villanelles, rondeaus, Freytag pyramids and the storytelling tropes of foolish cuckold, doomed adulteress, flower-sniffing poet, etc. Thanks to Joyce, these all became aesthetic options rather than requirements. An ordered universe can be beautiful, but it’s not always truthful.

I should remind myself of that when I find myself trying to force 293 into being exactly half of 628.

The Rosetree Principle

I have said elsewhere (and often) that Finnegans Wake is far too dense and multi-layered a book to be understood through anything less than careful examination of its details, and that most if not all attempts at summarizing, condensing and paraphrasing it are doomed to bore most readers off at the outset. I stand by that statement – I’ll even reiterate it, but “dense and multi-layered” should not be misconstrued as tortuous and impenetrable. Details happen to be fun, and there are a number of simple and straightforward strategies a newbie reader can employ to facilitate understanding the book as a whole even while being forced to read at the obligatory snail’s pace Finnegans Wake requires.

For example, the book is absolutely saturated with musical references that 20 years ago would have basically required pitching a tent at the library of congress to fully absorb. With today’s technology, nearly all of the Wake‘s more than 2000 references to over 800 songs are a mere click away, and if you sit with this music a while (in the comfort of your own home no less) patterns emerge that help to illuminate not just what Finnegans Wake sounds like, but what it has to say about the inner workings of the human experience.

So of the many musical threads contained in Finnegans Wake to choose from, it makes sense to go with the thread that eventually leads to the titular song of the book. The audio file in the link below is excerpted (as are all of the recordings on this post for copyright purposes) from a tune entitled “The Rose Tree”:

The Rose Tree – Ryan Thomson

Chances are this tune sounds familiar: “Turkey in the Straw” or “Zip Coon” or perhaps “The Girl I Left Behind Me”. But no – this one is called “The Rose Tree”, and its melody can be clearly distinguished from the other three if you set them side by side:

Turkey in the Straw – Dick Kimmel
Old Zip Coon – Japher’s Original Sandy River Minstrels
The Girl I left Behind Me – The Princeton Trio

There is no question that all three songs stem from the same source. Uncovering the true identity of this source song (what it was called when it first emerged, what it exactly sounded like, etc) is pretty much impossible, but the mind’s ear can clearly hear the common undercurrent these songs share: With some minor melodic and tempo variation, they follow a very strict pattern: they start with an opening phrase (unresolved), followed by a 2nd refrain that echoes the opening phrase (but this time is resolved), then a bridge (unresolved), and then a final refrain (echoing the 2nd refrain and resolved). For the sake of shorthand as well as an uncannily useful metaphor, I’ll refer to this family of songs as “The Rose Tree” family.

The song itself has a fascinating and polymorphic history. According to The Fiddler’s Companion, “The Rose Tree” first appeared in sheet-music form with that title in 1782 (pre-dating the other versions by only a few years) as part of an opera entitled The Poor Soldier. The opera’s composer William Shield quite specifically did not claim authorship, listing the melody as “traditional”. Here’s the Shield version:

A Rose Tree in Full Bearing – David & Ginger Hildebrand

A few decades later, Thomas Moore wrote his own lyrics for it (fun fact: the musical arrangement for the recording below was composed by none other than Ludwig Van Beethoven):

I’d Mourn the Hopes That Leave Me – DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama

And somewhere along the line, a marching-band version was written:

The Rose Tree – The Trail Band

…and so on. Clearly, this tune was the 19th century equivalent of “#1 on the Billboard Charts,” and the anonymous authorship made it fair game to bastardize and distort at will, very often by other anonymous songsters. So eventually this happened:

Tim Finnegan’s Wake – Tom Kines

Give a song a hundred years of this kind of treatment – reworkings, distortions, colorings, augmentations, etc – and you’ll eventually have an entire family of song-branches so distinct from one another that a single musician could cover them all and not seem the least bit redundant. Ronnie Drew alone covered at least three recognizably separate “Rose Tree” branches (and yes, I do have something of a man-crush on Ronnie Drew – viz. my Thundervideo #8):

Turkey in the Straw/Zip Coon:

Phil the Fluter’s Ball – The Dubliners with Ronnie Drew
 —

The Girl I Left Behind Me:

Rare Old Mountain Dew – The Dubliners with Ronnie Drew (and Shane McGowan)

The Rose Tree:

Finnegan’s Wake – The Dubliners with Ronnie Drew

A sentence on page 304 of Finnegans Wake is very much worth mentioning here – it can be found in the fourth footnote at the bottom of the page. Here it is:

If I’d more in the cups that peeves thee you could cracksmith your rows tureens.

Among other things, this sentence describes a shrewish domestic squabble somewhat similar to the events in “Tim Finnegan’s Wake”- kitchen utensils and pottery are thrown about. More to our purpose, however, it distorts Thomas Moore’s “I’d Mourn the Hopes That Leave Me” and its source “Rose Tree” into “I’d more in the cups that peeves thee” and “rows tureens”. This is a practice Joyce employs throughout the novel: nearly every time a Thomas Moore Irish Melody is mentioned, its source melody can be found nearby – even when its title is given by Moore as ‘unknown”, so that for example the song listed by Moore as “Sing, Sweet Harp, Oh Sing to Me (air unknown)” becomes “Sing, sweetharp, thing to me anone!” [p. 224, line 16 from the top].

Joyce here is clearly encouraging his reader to meditate on the genesis of popular music. He makes references in Finnegans Wake to every single one of the above songs.  For the record, here they are:

The Rose Tree: FW p. 304, footnote 4 (see above)

I’d Mourn the Hopes That Leave Me: 304 fn 4 (ibid), 439.34

Zip Coon/Turkey in the Straw: 176.14-15

The Girl I Left Behind Me: 9.33, 184.25, 234.7-8, 341.7, 469.1-2

The Mountain Dew: 372.28

Phil the Fluter’s Ball: 6.18-19,28, 12.34-35, 26.1-2, 58.11-14, 63.27, 76.28, 230.21, 240.23, 277.25-278.3, 297.18-19, 318.16-17, 319.13-14, 341.10, 351.14-15, 363.14-15, 444.9-10

Tim Finnegan’s Wake: book’s title, 4.26-34, 6.7-9,26-27, 15.24-26, 24.15, 70.12-13, 74.8, 93.35-36, 105.21, 176.16,20, 258.8-9, 276.21-22, 315.2, 317.3-4, 321.17,29, 350.2, 358.23, 375.16-17, 379.34, 382.25, 415.15, 453.4, 487.20, 496.36-497.1, 499.13,17-18, 511.15,23, 512.23, 531.25-26, 537.34, 565.14

That’s around 60 references to what amounts to a single song – or at least a single family of songs. And the Wake gives similar treatment to other root song families – “Rosin the Beau”, “Lillibulero”, “The Shan Van Voght”, and “The Wren Song” all come to immediate mind. Given the variety of genres Finnegans Wake makes reference to – music hall songs, classical art songs, arias, children’s songs, hymns, lullabies, anthems, jigs, reels, planxties, ballads, sea shanties, work songs – it’s surprising how many songs can be grouped together under a single folk rubric.

Songs in Finnegans Wake amalgamate and shift identities every bit as much as the book’s characters do, so much so that many of them start sounding like the same song. But this new amalgamated song is by its very definition nameless. The song we call “Rose Tree” probably doesn’t actually have an “original” name at all.

Or perhaps – and here’s the real point – it has more original names than can be counted.

So what’s to do? James Joyce’s answer: Call it “Tim Finnegan’s Wake”, take out the ‘Tim’ and the apostrophe so that it can contain more scenarios and linguistic possibilities than merely one man’s funeral, and use it for the title of your book.

 More on this topic to come…