Attention: the following blog-post contains sketchy, inaccurate, and in some places downright faulty interpretations of passages in Finnegans Wake. DO NOT COPY AND PASTE THESE READINGS INTO YOUR OWN TERM PAPER. Never mind the plagiarism issue; no self-respecting college professor would ever give these readings a second thought; they’ll simply circle the year of the Wake‘s publication (1939) or perhaps the year of Joyce’s death (1941) and give you an ‘F’.
But these readings are a good deal of fun, and they happen all the time in Wake reading groups, so here we go:
#1) “Batman’s Biff” (FW336.34-337.3)
—All to which not a lot snapped The Nolan of the Calabashes at his whilom eweheart photognomist who by this sum taken was as much incensed by Saint Bruno as that what he had consummed was his own panegoric, and wot a lout about it if it was only a pippappoff pigeon shoot that gracesold getrunner, the man of centuries, was bowled out by judge, jury and umpire at batman’s biff like a witchbefooled legate. Dupe.
This paragraph is transitional, taking place as it does between two major sections of the chapter in which it occurs. The preceding section, known as “Kersse and the Norwegian Captain” (pp. 311-332) describes what Adaline Glasheen calls a “comedy of love-intrigue,” and is full of goofy cadences and sing-songy repartee. The passage that follows it – known as “Buckley and the Russian General” (pp. 337-355), concerns warfare and assassination and so is much darker in tone.
The lunatic reads it like this:
“The Nolan” here is Christopher Nolan, celebrated Hollywood filmmaker (“photognomist“) who with his “Batman” movie trilogy once and for all “bowled out” the cheesy campiness of the 1960s style Batman of Bob Kane and Adam West fame – with its tailored spandex costumes and its “pow,” “bash,” “biff“, and “pippappoff” sound-effect word-bubbles — in favor of what is often called “comic-noir”, a style brought to the fore in the 1980s by Frank Miller, Alan Moore and others, presenting a much grittier, darker, and more violent Gotham City. These two opposing styles are epitomized by the female arch-villains “Pigeon-Woman” (left: campy) and “Bruno” (right: noir):
Also, the presence of female antagonists in this paragraph points to a major theme that runs throughout Finnegans Wake, in which the male-dominant mindset perceives itself as under constant threat of being undercut – or “witchbefooled” – by the feminine element.
Why Joyce didn’t use better-known Batman villainesses like Catwoman and Poison Ivy here is something of a mystery.
#2) “Tigerwood Roadstaff” (FW35.1-11)
They tell the story (an amalgam as absorbing as calzium chloereydes and hydrophobe sponges could make it) how one happygogusty Ides-of-April morning (the anniversary, as it fell out, of his first assumption of his mirthday suit and rights in appurtenance to the confusioning of human races) ages and ages after the alleged misdemeanour when the tried friend of all creation, tigerwood roadstaff to his stay, was billowing across the wide expanse of our greatest park in his caoutchouc kepi and great belt and hideinsacks and his blaufunx fustian and ironsides jackboots and Bhagafat gaiters and his rubberised inverness, he met a cad with a pipe.
This sentence occurs in a chapter which – taken as a whole – describes the arc of the patriarch’s rise to power as well as his fall from grace. Written in the idiom of hearsay (“They tell the story…” is typical for this section of the book), the cause of the patriarch’s fall is attributed in some places to political corruption, in others to sexual scandal, and still others to the ascendancy of a younger, more vibrant generation. As to this last, several figures supplant one another in rapid succession in this chapter, creating something of an amalgam that Wake readers have come to know as H.C.E., Earwicker, Persse O’Reilly, etc.
The lunatic reads it like this:
The most beautiful golf-course on the planet (“our greatest park“) can arguably be found in the wealthy U.S. Georgian town of Augusta (“happygogusty“) and, being the host of the annual Masters tournament (held around mid-April – or “Ides-of-April” – every year), it is also the most prestigious.
Plus (Condoleeza’ Rice’s recent membership-approval notwithstanding), the Augusta National Golf Club is also notoriously racist, so much so that club member Frank “Fuzzy” Zoeller, who himself donned the green jacket (his “mirthday suit“) on 15 April 1979, allowed himself to freely make fried-chicken-and-collard-green remarks about the recent assumption of one Tiger Woods (“tigerwood“), an African-American/Korean hybrid who soundly trounced the competition with the tournament’s lowest ever golf score: -18, in 1997 and would go on to become the world’s first billionaire athlete.
Only white men had ever worn a green jacket before then, so this “confusioning of human races” proved a sizeable fly in Zoeller’s elitist ointment. Perhaps the only black person he had seen on a golf course prior to Tiger Woods was his caddy (“cad“), and perhaps his truly idiotic remarks were informed by a subconscious fear of being mugged “with a pipe“. As it turned out, however, Zoeller had much less to fear from Tiger Woods than he did the news cameras that recorded him, for his status as a public figure was irreparably decimated as a result of their capturing for all posterity his little racist gaffe. If only he had read Finnegans Wake beforehand, he might have seen that “calzium chloereydes” anagramizes into “H.C.E. Zoeller, U is my cad”, and so would have kept his mouth shut.
It is now the year 2015, and the soil of history has been turned over once again. Tiger Woods is no longer the regnant sports idol he once was, for a 2009 sex scandal put an end to his squeaky-clean image, his massive advertisement contracts, and even his heretofore impeccable golf-game. The next sports super-hero to come along will no doubt think himself immortal as well, but history knows better, as does the Wake.
#3) “The Abnihilisation of the Etym” (FW353.22-32)
—[The abnihilisation of the etym by the grisning of the grosning of the grinder of the grunder of the first lord of hurtreford expolodotonates through Parsuralia with an ivanmorinthorrorumble fragoromboassity amidwhiches general uttermosts confussion are perceivable moletons skaping with mulicules while coventry plumpkins fairlygosmotherthemselves in the Landaunelegants of Pinkadindy. Similar scenatas are projectilised from Hullulullu, Bawlawayo, empyreal Raum and mordern Atems. They were precisely the twelves of clocks, noon minutes, none seconds. At someseat of Oldanelang’s Konguerrig, by dawnybreak in Aira.]
This bracketed paragraph is part of the aforementioned “Buckley and the Russian General” section – all about war, bloodshed and general bellicose behavior – and marks the climax of the story in which a lowly enlisted private stumbles upon an enemy commander in the act of relieving himself and, after some hesitation, eventually takes aim with his rifle and pulls the trigger. To mark the occasion, the above paragraph is placed immediately following the moment of assassination.
The lunatic reads it like this:
Many major cataclysmic events of World War II are peppered into this paragraph, including the bombings of Coventry (“coventry plumpkins“), Piccadilly Circus (“Landaunelegants of Pinkadindy“), and Honolulu (“Hullulullu“). Most notable of them all is of course the splitting (“abnihilisation“) of the atom (“etym” as well as “Atems“, with “mulicules” thrown in for good measure), giving birth to the atomic bomb – mankind’s most terrifying invention – which, when it “explodotonates“, is capable of creating a second sun in the sky (“dawnybreak in Aira“), and putting all of us on doomsday watch, anxiously awaiting that dreaded moment when the clock’s hands reach the “twelves of clocks, noon minutes, none seconds“.
#4) A Puling Sample Jungle of Woods (FW112.3-8)
—You is feeling like you was lost in the bush, boy? You says: It is a puling sample jungle of woods. You most shouts out: Bethicket me for a stump of a beech if I have the poultriest notions what the farest he all means. Gee up, girly! The quad gospellers may own the targum but any of the Zingari shoolerim may pick a peck of kindlings yet from the sack of auld hensyne.
The chapter in which this paragraph appears takes for its subject a lost letter which, once found and deciphered, is rumoured to uncover the truth about the nature of Earwicker’s fall from grace. The letter’s contents are hardly discussed – only the paper, the handwriting, the type of ink used, the envelope in which the letter was sent, the diacritics, etc are described at any length. A few elements of the letter’s contents are given on the page immediately preceding the above paragraph, but they prove sketchy, trite, and unenlightening.
The lunatic reads it like this:
Joyce is directly addressing his readers here, empathizing with our frustration; he hears us complaining that Finnegans Wake is nothing more than a jumble of words, pure and simple (“a puling sample jungle of woods“). He counsels us, however, that while academics may be the official watchdogs of Wake exegesis (“The quad gospellers may own the targum“) we pedestrian lay-readers (“any of the Zingari shoolerim“) can take inspiration (“pick a peck of kindlings yet“) from whatever interpretation we please.
So sure: Christopher Nolan, Tiger Woods, J. Robert Oppenheimer – throw them all into the mix. They’re in there, whether Joyce knew of their existence or not.
Lunatics have their place in the world.
In truth, if you leave out that final conclusion, academic Wakeans interpret the paragraph on p. 112 pretty much the same as the lunatics, and they’ll even concede that the reading of example #3 is pretty darn hard to avoid. And actually, every Joycean I’ve presented #2 with has admitted that the Tiger Woods analogy is just plain uncanny. The only reading they would dismiss out-of-hand as utterly ridiculous is the whole thing about Batman. But even my fringe-reading of passage #1 (which I came up with on the fly in preparation for this blogpost, googling each word it contains for whatever Batman connection I could muster) can be contextualized within the major themes of the book, and to at least a certain degree, within the narrative journey of book II chapter 3 where it occurs.
So for a moment I’d like to step up and give the lunatic his due – albeit for just a moment. The concept of a “lunatic fringe” in Finnegans Wake studies is not my coinage – it actually comes from Roland McHugh who, in his extremely useful and informative book The Finnegans Wake Experience, uses the term to describe a kind of “anything goes” culture – quite prevalent in the 1960s – that would have utterly thwarted the exegetical project that he and so many other scholars were working to create back then. His Annotations books would never have come to light without a very strict set of guidelines by which glosses for a particular Wake word or phrase could be included in the formal list. And happily, Raphael Slepon has followed McHugh’s lead. While he always welcomes suggestions for additional FWEET elucidations (he only last week approved JGSF member Grant Franks’ suggestion of “nabla” for “nibbleh” at FW300.18), Raphael’s filters are notoriously – and rightly – tight. He has incorporated only four out of the seven suggestions I’ve sent to him over the years, despite the fact that I argued well for every single one.
But my point in presenting these lunatic Wake readings is to remind readers that formal exegesis will only get you so far if what you’re trying to do is actually understand what James Joyce was working to accomplish. When, in early 1940 – approximately one year after the Wake‘s publication – Finland was showing signs of successfully repelling a Russian invasion, Joyce fired off as many as five missives directing his friends’ attention to…
- “…Helsinki where, happily and as the prophet foresaw, the Finn again wakes.”
— letter dated 1/9/1940 to Jacques Mercanton (Letters III, p. 463)
- “…Helsinki […] where, as foretold by the prophet, the Finn again wakes.”
— letter dated 2/8/1940 to Frank Budgen (Letters I, p. 408)
- “…Helsinki where, as was predicted, the Finn again wakes.”
— letter dated 2/9/1940 to Constantine Curran (Letters III, p. 466)
Quite the crusader, Joyce. But does this mean that Finnegans Wake is actually a book about the Russo-Finnish wars, that Helsinki, not Dublin, is the locus of the book’s activity, or that Joyce saw himself as some kind of clairvoyant? Let me be clear on this:
Joyce was keenly aware of what his new, elastic language was capable of accommodating, and by keeping himself well-informed on the topics of the day (including quantum physics, which he had a good armchair understanding of), he ensured that at least some of his deliberate predictions would come true, i.e. the atomic bomb, the leveling of Honolulu, Coventry, Piccadilly, etc. All pretty amazing, really, but prophecy is a ridiculously iffy game; Joyce missed the mark far oftener than he hit it. Rome, Athens and Bulawayo are also included in the ‘prophecy’ on p. 353, and all three cities made it through WW2 un-bombed. And oops: It would seem that Hiroshima wasn’t on Joyce’s radar at all. That this blog should be published on the 70th anniversary of that awful day is mere serendipity.
But serendipity, ephemeral though it is, is still part of the natural world, and the natural world, chaotic though it may be, is actually somewhat predictable. A hundred years from now, even Tiger Woods will have faded completely from cultural memory – only golf history nerds will know anything about him. The passage on p. 35 will continue to describe Earwicker’s struggles which are in no way exclusive to Woods, Zoeller, nor anyone else. Perhaps the passage’s language will uncannily accommodate some new headline involving a scandalized public figure. Seems pretty likely, now that I come to think of it.
So no – the only supernatural thing about Finnegans Wake is its language, for language is itself a wildly bizarre phenomenon. The problem arises when real lunatics get hold of the book. I knew a guy once who believed that he himself was the hero of Finnegans Wake, that Joyce was writing about him and no-one else, and that all interpretations that differed from his own were wrong. And yet even here – in the blazing pit of solipsistic insanity – the Wake‘s yoke proves to be massively commodious; H.C.E.’s fall is, after all, as precipitous as the heights his megalomania allows him to climb. I think every Wake reader has at some point whimsically looked for their own name in the book’s pages – I know I have – and I’d be surprised if anyone has completely failed. If we don’t see a reflection of ourselves when we read the Wake – or really any book for that matter – we’re not looking hard enough.
We just need to be sane about it, is all.