Readings from the Lunatic Fringe


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)

“Biff him one, Harry.” (Pvt. Compton to Pvt. Carr, Ulysses ‘Circe chapter)

The Passage:

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.

Its Context:

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):


Bruno (from Batman: the Dark Knight Triumphant by Frank Miller)

Pidgeon Woman

Pidgeon Woman (from All-Star Comics #67 – author unknown)

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)

Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods – wearing the latest in Nike rain-gear

The Passage:

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.

Its Context:

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.

Earwicker Golfers

Left: Fuzzy 1979 / Right: Tiger 2002 / Center: Earwicker forever

 #3) “The Abnihilisation of the Etym” (FW353.22-32)


The nightmare of history never looked so pretty.

The Passage:

[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.]

Its Context:

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 “expolodotonates“, 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)

Black Liz

“Ga Ga Gara. Klook Klook Klook.” -Black Liz, Ulysses ‘Cyclops’ chapter

The Passage:

—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.

Its Context:

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:

Absolutely not.

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 in point of fact.

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 this 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.

Bloomsday Lives! – a Postmortem

David Norris & friends, Dublin, Ireland

What is Bloomsday, and why the big ruckus?

Last week, JoyceGeeks from around the world either traveled to Dublin or gathered in their various hometowns to read from and generally celebrate a true nerd’s holiday: Bloomsday – the anniversary of a bunch of fictional events depicted in a single 24 hour period: June 16, 1904. Readings from Ulysses, music from Ulysses, pints from Ulysses, and food from Ulysses. As to this last, Bloomsday cuisine often includes gorgonzola cheese sandwiches with mustard, half-masticated seedcake from the mouth of a better-half, and for the really bold: pork kidneys fried in butter, a little burnt on one side. Eccentric maybe, but we do it all with relish and absolutely no apology. Explaining why does take a bit of doing, though:

Colbert at Bloomsday

Stephens Colbert and Lang, Symphony Space, NYC

For one thing, literary events don’t generally get marked down on calendars for annual observance, let alone full-blown celebration. Really famous writers’ birthdays and publication dates are sometimes taken note of on NPR, but only if the anniversary happens to be a multiple of 50, or maybe 25 if the author is super-famous. The only birthday to be consistently rolled out every year for festivals and the like is Shakespeare’s. Ultimately, academic conferences are about as far as most celebrations go. This makes 16 June 1904 a real anomaly: it’s the only date in literature to be annually celebrated, and it’s not only celebrated, it’s HUGELY celebrated, not just in Dublin but world-wide – just about everywhere: New York, Sydney, Beijing, Zurich, Tokyo, Trieste, Boston, Buenos Aires, Chicago, Santa Fe. And it doesn’t matter what year it is – newspapers run articles on Bloomsday every mid-June, every year. Why is this?

Bloomsday Paris

Paris, France

It can’t simply be because of the date’s biographical significance, which is of course no small matter; it is after all the day Joyce fell in love with his future wife Nora Barnacle – erotic details of which can be found in the famous 1909 letters. But countless other great works of literature are dedicated to better-halves: Zelda Fitzgerald, Carlotta Monterey, etc. Plus, autobiographical though it may be, Ulysses does not contain any account whatsoever of Stephen Dedalus (Joyce’s self-portrait) meeting or even acknowledging the presence of a potential life partner. His interactions are nearly exclusively with men: Mulligan, Haines, Deasy, Crawford, McHugh, Russell, Eglinton, Lyster, Best, Artifoni, Lynch, Carr, finally Bloom. Stephen’s encounters with the feminine amount to barely a handful: the milkwoman, Dilly, the whores, the ghost of his dead mother. Molly Bloom, the character most strongly associated with Nora, barely even appears on his radar.

Bloomsday Melbourne

Melbourne, Australia

So if anything, the 6/16/04 of Ulysses is an anti-biographical date, a “what if” scenario in which Joyce has to navigate the day without the grace of budding love to see him through. In fact, Joyce swapped out his 16 June love-encounter with a much less pleasant one, the biographical counterpart of which actually took place six days later. It’s worth noting that on June 22, 1904, Joyce was punched in the face by an unknown Irish ruffian and was dusted off and tended to by one Alfred Hunter, a local Dubliner with a natural inclination towards kindness, and upon whom Joyce patterned some of the makeup for Leopold Bloom. It is this encounter, not the romantic tryst, that’s given extensive and expanded treatment in Ulysses.

Bloomsday Berkeley

Berkeley, CA

Acts of kindness are certainly worth writing about, but again, why haul the date out to be annually celebrated with readings, music, Guinness, Edwardian dress et cetera over an event that actually happened six days afterward? If I were a world historian, I’d be tempted to say that nothing happened on June 16, 1904, and I think Joyce would have seconded my motion. Even the most dramatic details of Joyce’s own 1904 experience – his falling in love with Nora, his departure for Trieste, his estrangement from longtime friend Oliver St. John Gogarty because Gogarty fired gunshots over him while he was trying to sleep – all these would have made for spectacular fiction and could have easily been worked into the fabric of his book.

Bloomsday Bryant Park

Bryant Park, New York City

But no – they were all without exception deliberately left out of the June 16th of Ulysses. Gogarty and Nora appear in the novel as Buck Mulligan and Molly, of course, but Joyce’s explosive encounters with them are softened, even excised. What we’re left with are a series of utterly pedestrian events; nobody dies, nobody falls in love, no plots are hatched, no-one even so much as wins at the racetrack. It’s a day that shows no sign of changing to a better tomorrow nor even warning us to wake up to the changes that need to be made. It’s neither rewarding nor cathartic for anyone, really…

Bloomsday Northampton

Northampton, England

…unless of course you include that awkward, nearly failed attempt at kindness that Bloom offers Stephen near the end of the novel. There’s no indication that the event itself will be remembered by Stephen, who is out-of-his-mind-drunk by then, nor even by Bloom, who will eventually have to forget the day’s events in favor of more pressing matters: his shaky finances, his troubled marriage, his daughter’s potential teen-pregnancy. That Bloom should set these matters aside for a few hours in favor of bucking up Stephen Dedalus – a man he hardly knows – is not in itself particularly wise, but it is kind.

Bloomsday Philly

Philadelphia, PA

And without that kindness, I don’t think Joyce would have been able to endow his prose with the heroic qualities he did. Bloom’s taking a moment to masturbate on the beach in the ‘Nausicaa’ chapter would not have been treated by Joyce as a magnificent flourish of Don Giovannism were Bloom not kind-hearted, and his escape from a group of antisemitic rakes in the ‘Cyplops’ chapter could certainly not have been described as a rapturous ascent to heaven. In fact, I would say that none of Joyce’s grand prose experiments would have worked at all had he not placed a genuine, decent character at his novel’s epicenter.

Bloomsday Boston

Boston, MA

At it’s core, Ulysses is one man’s at-times-feeble-but-never-wavering daylong attempt to positively contribute to the community upon which he depends. To allow us to witness and celebrate such effort as it would happen on an average – as opposed to extraordinary – day is perhaps Joyce’s greatest contribution to world literature. And lest we forget, the term “Bloomsday” is itself an inversion of cruelty, being a play on “Doomsday”, humankind’s great nightmare-slash-fantasy in which such concepts as kindness and community are rendered utterly moot. Well to that I say: Bloomsday is coming. Let it thrive.

Bloomsday at Sandycove

Dalkey (Sandycove), Ireland

Here’s to June 16, the great day on which a small but nevertheless global community gathers to read from the greatest novel of the 20th century and share in its truly magical prose. Actors and scholars are often called upon to do the heavy-lifting, but properly the day belongs to clergy and laity alike. Here in my beautiful hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico, readers included actors, educators, writers, performance artists, filmmakers, painters, dancers, musicians, poets, journalists, iconoclasts of all ilk. I have them listed below by name with hyperlinks to each – some have their own websites, a couple even have their own Wikipedia pages, while still others have yet to build a web-profile – in which case a review or press release for some project they were part of is inserted. Without exception though, they are all of them ferocious participants in making their community a better place to live:

Acushla Bastible, Garrick Beck, Daniel Bohnhorst, Letitia Chambers, Melissa Chambers, Mary-Charlotte Domandi, Lisa FosterDeco Bernadette Freeman,  Charles Gamble, Michael Graves, Maureen Joyce(!) McKenna, Pen La Farge, Bruce C. Mckenna,  Vanessa Rios Y VallesBird ThompsonAlice Van Buren, Max Walukas, Alaina Warren Zachary, Elizabeth West, and Mary Woods.

Big thanks to all who helped to make it real.

Bloomsday Santa Fe

Santa Fe, NM, 2015 – left: Dan Bohnhorst (Stephen Dedalus) and Acushla Bastible (narrator) reading from the ‘Telemachus’ chapter with a powerpoint libretto running behind / center: your host / right – Vanessa Rios Y Valles, one of eight Molly readers, approves of the final word.

Addendum 06/18/2018:

Each year since I first published this post, Bloomsday in Santa Fe (as we’ve come to call it) has continued to grow and flourish. Many additional readers and artists have contributed their energies to this event, including Gerry Carthy, Leslie Dillen, Sabina Dunn, John Flax, Grant Franks, Martha Franks, Larry Glaister, Lynn Goodwin, Rod Harrison, Scott Harrison, Glenna Hill, Tara Khozein, Kent Kirkpatrick, Dylan Marshall, Westin McDowell, Jono Manson, Scott Plunket, Kirste Plunket, Alexandra Renzo, and Karina Wilson.

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.


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?


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


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.


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.

Joyce Wrote Shakespeare: a Conspiracy Theory


JoyceGroup Santa Fe will be launching into the ninth chapter of Ulysses this week, which takes for its Homeric counterpart the ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ dilemma: Odysseus must choose between two impossible paths, Scylla (a vicious six-headed monster sure to devour his crew) on the one hand, and Charybdis (a massive whirlpool sure to destroy his fleet) on the other.

Treacherous waters indeed, and no fitter metaphor for a discussion of the authorship of Shakespeare’s works. If you thought the Joyce Wars were bad, just start speculating on the Shakespeare authorship issue in mixed company. I’ve seen people shout, pound tables, even storm out of rooms when this topic is broached. The great Peter Brook himself recently described any and all alternative authorship theories as “completely idiotic,” adding that such theorizing is solely motivated by the selfish desire for academic prestige in a soon-to-be-deflated but presently burgeoning scholastic industry.

With surprisingly little variation, Brook’s is by far the most common argument against alternate Shakespeare claimancy, and in my opinion, it skirts dangerously close to the ad hominem fallacy. What difference does it make that a theorist might be motivated by self-advancement? Show me the evidence; that’s where I’ll be convinced, one way or the other. I would much rather hear a theory on how the man: William Shakespeare – through his own ruminations, motivations and struggles – came about writing any given work.

Well as it turns out, Stephen Dedalus (autobiographical counterpart of James Joyce) lays his own authorship theory (that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare) before a small audience of elite members of the Dublin intelligentsia in the ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ chapter. Given what he has to work with, Stephen’s portrait is astonishingly vivid. Just consider: virtually no documentation of the life of Shakespeare the man exists; other lives contemporary to his own were much better chronicled – Edward DeVere, Francis Bacon, Mary Sidney, etc. – and so provide much more grist to the adventurous theorist. By contrast, Shakespeare’s biography is woefully patchy, and Stephen’s plaster is at times so thin that he himself admits when cornered that he doesn’t actually believe his own argument. But by the end of Stephen’s dissertation, a far greater purpose has been served: William Shakespeare has become nearly as real a character in the novel as Leopold Bloom himself. Using what very little documentation exists on Shakespeare (his last will and testament, his appearance on the Globe stage as Hamlet’s ghost, his son’s death, etc) Stephen manages to construct a gripping portrait of the artist – a writer who has worked the detritus of his utterly chaotic and grief-ridden life into one of the all-time greatest bildungsroman portraits in English literature: Hamlet.

You might very well see in this portrait the echoes of another writer, and you wouldn’t be mistaken. James Joyce had his virtues, but humility was certainly not one of them. He knew perfectly well that he was onto something big with his Shakespearean reconstruction – much more than mere authorship theory or semi-oblique self-portraiture. By creating in the imagined person of William Shakespeare an echo/reflection of himself (i.e. a man with an intense investment in his personal integrity as well as deep-set insecurities), Joyce created something with which we can all potentially identify – not just some floating head in a ruffled collar and dorky hairdo that we all bow down to as some kind of iconic “genius.” It is no mistake that Stephen’s portrait of Shakespeare (cuckold, son-less father) has as much in common with Leopold Bloom as it does with Stephen himself.

So then we have the following amalgam which, if taken out of the above context, is of course mere cinematic goofiness:

(Stephen and Bloom gaze in the mirror. The face of William Shakespeare, beardless, appears there, rigid in facial paralysis, crowned by the reflection of the reindeer antlered hatrack in the hall.)

-‘Circe’ chapter

This kind of stuff happens all the time in Finnegans Wake. Character identities become so fluid as to literally shift from persona to persona without any apparent justification. In the above passage, Stephen and Bloom amalgamate to become Shakespeare, and in the passage from Finnegans Wake which JoyceGroup Santa Fe is presently working on, Sir Tristan and St. Patrick amalgamate to become Anna Livia Plurabelle.

Or perhaps Shakespeare splits in two to become Bloom and Stephen, and Anna Livia gives birth to twins – I’m happy to go in either direction. That’s what happens with continuous exposure to Joyce, particularly the Wake. The mind elasticizes. After 20+ years of working on this stuff, I’ve come to a place where I generally welcome all theories – especially if they can help me to connect to the text I’m trying to understand. The price may very well be credibility: As anyone who dares to venture beyond Shakespeare’s authority must face Peter Brook’s vicious rebuke, so too must Stephen face universal dismissal as a crackpot at the end of “Scylla and Charybdis.” But the reward – flexibility of mind and spirit – is pretty invaluable. So if you happen to be an Oxfordian, a Baconian, a Sidneyite, or even a Shakespearean, you have nothing to fear from me.

Just keep yourself pliable, and let’s theorize.

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.

A Knotty Issue

Our reading group here in Santa Fe is lucky to have as a regular member one Bernadette Freeman, a graphic artist whose remarkable collage work can be seen at, and this past Saturday, Bernadette had a fairly unique and I think accurate reading of the following paragraph from the Lestrygonians chapter in Ulysses:

     His downcast eyes followed the silent veining of the oaken slab. Beauty: it curves: curves are beauty. Shapely goddesses, Venus, Juno: curves the world admires. Can see them library museum standing in the round hall, naked goddesses. Aids to digestion. They don’t care what man looks. All to see. Never speaking. I mean to say to fellows like Flynn. Suppose she did Pygmalion and Galatea what would she say first? Mortal! Put you in your proper place. Quaffing nectar at mess with gods golden dishes, all ambrosial. Not like a tanner lunch we have, boiled mutton, carrots and turnips, bottle of Allsop. Nectar imagine it drinking electricity: gods’ food. Lovely forms of women sculped Junonian. Immortal lovely. And we stuffing food in one hole and out behind: food, chyle, blood, dung, earth, food: have to feed it like stoking an engine. They have no. Never looked. I’ll look today. Keeper won’t see. Bend down let something drop. See if she.

This is Leopold Bloom’s famous interior monologue riffing, as usual, on whatever visual input happens to be in front of him. In this case, it’s a hardwood counter-top where he has just eaten a cheese sandwich and is finishing off a glass of Burgundy wine. As usual, the paragraph’s journey takes us from the concrete to the abstract and then back to the concrete, but with a difference.

Bloom’s journey can be outlined as follows: He sees the curvature of the wood-grain and imagines in its patterns the fleshy curvature of an idealized female body. There are statues of nude goddesses outside the national library (where Bloom is headed) just around the corner from Davy Byrne’s pub (where Bloom is presently located), and Bloom speculates on the lifestyle, the behavior, and ultimately the physiognomy of these goddesses – the sentence fragments near the end of the paragraph can be completed like so:

They [the goddesses] have no [anuses]. [I’ve] Never looked [to see if they do, though]. I’ll look today [at the statues]. [I’ll take precautions to ensure that the] Keeper won’t see [me ogling them]. [I’ll] Bend down let something drop. [And then I’ll] See if she [has an anus].

The comedy here is obvious. Even by contemporary standards, statuary postures are almost never so shameless as to allow for such detailed examination, and considering the kind of statues that would have been on public display in 1904 Dublin – forget it. Besides, statues are pure externality; the best Bloom can hope for here is to enjoy the outer curves of the female form.

So while the oaken curves at the beginning of the paragraph may be seen as invoking for Bloom the curves of a thigh, a hip, a breast, a rump, etc. Bernadette Freeman pointed out what wood grain looks like when it makes way for a knot, like so:

OakPut the caption “vulva” or “anus” under this photograph and the image becomes pretty indelible. Bloom is definitely prone to what Dan Savage calls “kinks,” and when he does visit the statues, his present kinkiness is unfortunately discovered – and broadcast – by none other than Buck Mulligan, who rather inexplicably infers from this encounter that Bloom is a homosexual who lusts after Stephen Dedalus.

Leaving this business aside, however, the question of where Bloom’s meditation is located is still not completely clear. Does the wood-grain immediately and fixedly represent orifices? This is Bernadette’s contention, but I see it a little differently. We can assume that Bloom’s visuaI cortex is on the wood-grain the entire time, but since knots are fairly rare in oak, I think Bloom starts with the conventional imagery of hips, thighs, buttocks etc. and eventually arrives at orifices through his own gustatory experience. Having just swallowed the last of his meal, he is in the process of “moving things along,” as it were, and as he digests, the passage becomes increasingly borborygmous in its tone. Bloom then sees the knot and resolves to examine the statues. As if to confirm this reading, he then gets up to relieve himself:

     Dribbling a quiet message from his bladder came to go to do not to do there to do. A man and ready he drained his glass to the lees and walked, to men too they gave themselves, manly conscious, lay with men lovers, a youth enjoyed her, to the yard.

The erotic, the etheric and the gustatory have all blended into a morbid harmony for Bloom, who is now ready for the final leg of his Lestrygonians walk.

Anyway, that’s my interpretation of how the passage unfolds. What moved me to write this, however, was the suggestion by Bernadette that the wood-grain remains present during the entire meditation, not just the opening sentence. I’m reminded of John Gordon’s Finnegans Wake readings, in which he sees a straightforward sensory input informing every passage in the book, no matter how esoteric its prose may appear to be at first.

But that’s for another post

Bloomsday at the Lannan with Heff

It was a fairly quiet affair this time around. A bomb scare on the plaza turned out to be nothing more than an excuse to move Jim Heffernan’s annual Bloomsday lecture from the New Mexico History Museum to the Lannan Foundation HQ on Read Street. And yes, it does appear to be a “regular annual” now: I was there to overhear when Patrick Lannan invited him back for 2015. The boss had good reason: Even with all the confusion downtown, Jim’s lecture was packed, and the man delivered with one of the most beautifully ironic Bloomsday presentations you could imagine.

Ironic? Well, for one thing it wasn’t really Bloomsday. This happens every now and then; whenever June 16 falls on a Monday, everything gets pushed to the preceding weekend. So in a sense, it was a good thing, as it allowed for an extended Joycean celebration.

But the real irony of Jim’s lecture was its content. June 15th, the day of the lecture, was Father’s Day, and Leopold Bloom, hero of Ulysses, is rightly considered one of western literature’s great father figures. So what does Jim do? Answer:

Gender Flip!

For all of his fatherliness, everything Bloom does on June 16th, 1904 is indicative of a man with deep maternal instincts. He serves coffee and cocoa to Stephen Dedalus, whom he nurtures and encourages much like a mother would. This turns out to be very much the kind of thing Stephen is in need of. Unlike his Homeric counterpart Telemachus, Stephen is haunted by mother issues – the father doesn’t really enter into Stephen’s thoughts except in the most perfunctory and academic way.

But Stephen Dedalus was not the focus of Jim’s lecture, and this is the big surprise – I had already made the above observations in my own reading. What Jim brought to the mix that I hadn’t considered (and certainly should have) was that Bloom’s wife Molly also has deep mother issues, perhaps even more biting and painful than Stephen’s. The only thing she knows of her own biological mother is her name: Lunita Laredo, and it is Jim’s assertion that Molly’s vicious isolation from every other woman in the book (merciless attitudes are expressed even towards her own daughter), comes from a deep unspeakable resentment stemming from maternal abandonment. Molly’s ability to commune with her fellow women was stunted at birth, and so it is this very communion that she yearns for most. She gets along with men just fine, so what is her only hope? – a “new womanly man,” as the Circe chapter would have it. Leopold cooks for Molly, cleans up after Molly, and generally encourages Molly to be and do whatever she likes. And Joyce, never one to be subtle about anything, has Bloom give birth to eight offspring in an hallucination in the Circe chapter, crying as he does so, “O, I so want to be a mother.”

There is much more to say on this, but we can let Jim himself do the talking once posts his Father’s Day lecture. Know for now that, as always, Jim was rich in detail supporting his argument, and truly masterful in his reading. This is the mark of a true Wakean, by the way – a readiness to accept gender ambiguity as a norm, not an aberration. Jim doesn’t read Finnegans Wake; sadly he excused himself from our reading group on Saturday when it was time to move on to the Wake. But the man’s instincts are primed. He really should try it on.

That said, I’ll close this post with a final statement: Support the Wake – have a look at my Kickstarter page, and don’t be shy: