Syntax and Sigla: Shem part three

Another four minutes of animation:

The above clip covers a single paragraph from Finnegans Wake – the one starting near the bottom of p. 172 and ending near the top of p. 174 in most editions. Parts one and two are embedded in the previous blogpost, which also discusses this project’s genesis and the collaboration with Mike Watt.

While I hope that viewers will find the animation here fun and entertaining, I especially hope they find it illuminating. This paragraph contains only two sentences, the second of which is nearly a page-and a-half long, and while its actual word-distortion is fairly tame by comparison with other parts of the book, readers can still get get dizzy just trying to parse out the syntax. Joyce does this quite a lot in Finnegans Wake – often burying the subject and verb deep in a sentence’s middle amid a polyglot of modifiers, prepositions, subordinate clauses, parentheticals etc. – so my priority with this sentence was to demonstrate its basic structure without compromising any of its spectacular phantasmagoria.

Another feature I hope will prove instructive is my inclusion of the various hieroglyphs Joyce created as thematic building blocks for the Wake:

K38965MICHELAN-3One can think of these glyphs quite literally as “characters” – not only in their typographical sense: e.g. “280 characters per tweet max,” but in their dramatic sense as well: i.e. “players in a story.” For the record, Wake scholars generally refer to them as sigla, a plural Latin word basically meaning “characters.” Its singular form is siglum.

The “star” of part three, obviously, is the fifth siglum from the left, the one that looks like a square missing a side. This is the symbol Joyce used in his notebooks, letters, manuscripts etc to denote his autobiographical counterpart in the Wake and protagonist of chapter seven: Shem the Penman.  This little character afforded me the opportunity to literally dramatize Shem’s exertions as he wards off vilification and scandal, and in doing so, I found myself deliberately borrowing images from the video games of my childhood – Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Asteroids, Missile Command, etc. Much like Finnegans Wake itself, these games were by their very nature studies in overwhelm, and their stories never ended happily. Part of me wanted to lift letters from the pile at the end to spell “game over” rather than “end of part three.”

But the chapter is far from over, and there is much left to depict as well as blog about. WordPress unfortunately doesn’t allow for special font uploading, so I can’t write about the sigla here as I’d like to. A real shame: They’re an extremely helpful tool for mapping one’s way through Finnegans Wake, so my plan is to eventually put up a series of youtube tutorials – similar to my thunderword pronunciation guides – discussing each of these glyphs/characters/sigla in detail.

In the meantime, enjoy the third Shem installment.


The Shem Project

It’s been a year-and-a-half since the last JoyceGeek blog, but not for want of JoyceGeek activity. Sometime back in 2015, Derek Pyle, the project director over at Waywords and Meansigns, introduced me to punk bassist Mike Watt of ‘Minutemen’ fame, and the three of us embarked on a journey which, after much hard but wonderful labor (and at the expense of what would otherwise probably have been more JoyceBlogging) is at long last ready to be shared with the general public.

It’s a verbo-musical rendering of the entire seventh episode of Finnegans Wake, commonly referred to as ‘Shem the Penman’, and it is now available for free download at Waywords and Meansigns. The piece in its entirety is 75 minutes long, which may be a lot to take on for some, so I’ve made a ‘teaser” of sorts – a short five-minute film depicting the first page-and-a-half. I hope to eventually animate the entire chapter and present it in full-length, but animation is really time-consuming work, so we’ll all need to be patient. In the meantime, enjoy what I’ve done so far:

If you like what you see and you have 75 minutes to spare, you might enjoy listening to the whole chapter:

So why a film? After nearly twenty years of performing Finnegan live, I’ve come to realize that people need all the help they can get. Not to overstate the obvious, but Finnegans Wake is an extremely difficult book to read even when – as in the ‘Shem’ chapter – the language is comparatively simple. Much has been said about the importance of hearing the Wake read aloud, and while it’s true that a great deal is lost if a reader can’t at least create some kind of aural experience – with audiobooks or even imaginatively – for herself as she reads it, it’s equally true that the reader who relies solely on audio versions without a visual text to consult is likely to lose even more. Spoken word and printed word are the yin and yang of understanding Finnegans Wake – readers ultimately need both.

As the project grows, there is much to celebrate and there are many to thank:

Derek Pyle – I don’t know how he does it, but the man is a social network unto himself, and I’ll never be able to thank him enough for hooking me up with Mike Watt. Derek also gave some badly needed beta-testing input last year at a time when the audio mix was finally starting to take its proper shape.

Mike Watt – I still can’t believe I’m typing that name. This initially started as his project, and when Derek introduced us, my proposal to him was simply to offer my help with stuff like pronunciation and the like. Watt’s no-caps reply was “wanna do the spiel?” – and off we went. So I have that to thank him for, but so much more than that – the music he wrote, that simple, minimalist bass-line – a total of twenty bars looped into a river of sound – I’ve been working with it for over a year now, and I never tire of listening to it.

Jono Manson – His vast pro-tools knowledge and truly good nature made working on what was supposed to be the “tedious” stuff a real and absolute joy.

Everybody Else – David Beron, Grant Franks, Deco Freeman, Ord Morgan, Martha Franks, Charlie Keleman, Carla Cooper, Howard Schwartz, Ann Lacy, Vince Ciotti, John Mugford, Max Walukas, John Burciaga, Joan Harvey, all the members of JoyceGroup Santa Fe, and so many more – you all know who you are. Thank you.

Addendum – 02/24/2018

It’s funny I should wait to post part two on my website nearly a full year since I first put it up on YouTube. It just goes to show you how all-consuming this animation stuff is. Part three is still under construction and won’t be ready for another month or two. In the meantime, enjoy:

Addendum – 04/21/2018

Okay, I made the two month deadline I gave myself – just barely. Part three is up and available on youtube and I’ve written about it with a link to the clip here.