The Permission to Free-Associate

Let’s start by taking a close look at the following photograph:


Taken in January 1992 by Bruce Ryder at Dublin’s Bow Lane Studios during the mastering of Patrick Healy’s Finnegans Wake audiobook recording, this photo’s primary subject is producer Stephen Rennicks (front center), flanked by engineers Paul Waldron (left) and Hugh Drumm (right). One might gather from the context that the book Rennicks is holding is the Wake itself, that he is following along with Healy’s recitation, that he is checking for accuracy etc.

But no. Rennicks fully admits in his liner notes to having had no interest whatsoever in checking for errors:

The mastering process involved reformatting the 120 minute sections recorded on DAT tape onto 70 minute compact discs.  It was sometime necessary to end a CD in the middle of a paragraph but this was avoided where possible, and in general each CD starts and ends in a convenient place in the text. This was the only editing involved, and what you hear in the recordings is exactly how the text was performed by Patrick Healy in the studio.

(I wrote about the final product in my last blog-post. To briefly recap: In my view, Healy and Rennicks are responsible for what is arguably the worst book-on-tape of all time, notable only for its badness, viz. Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, Florence Foster JenkinsQueen of the Night aria, etc.)

Anyway, as Rennicks’ own admission reveals, the only reason to have the book open at all was to mark page numbers for track listings – not a very dynamic or interesting thing to take a photograph of, let alone devote an entire page of your liner notes to.


Let’s now lay a detail of this snapshot alongside another, much more iconic image, and then free-associate:

Reading Joyce on CameraNo points for guessing who the photo on the right is of, but notice how spookily similar the Ryder pic detail is to Eve Arnold’s legendary 1955 shot of Marylin Monroe reading Joyce’s Ulysses, how the mixing board behind Rennicks forms an angle nearly identical to the iron bars of the playground carousel behind Monroe, how a book by Joyce is opened to its final pages, how the back-lighting on unkempt hair forms a halo over a shadowed face, etc.

These similarities can only be partially accidental, for the subliminal message conveyed is essentially the same for both photos:

‘Look at this artist. See how he/she disregards the camera in favor of exploring Joyce’s wild and challenging prose. The disheveled hair and loose fitting clothes are further indications of a commitment to inner self-improvement and artistic excellence. How admirable – enviable even – to allow one’s self to be photographed so.’

This is advertisement, pure and simple, and in the case of Rennicks, truly masterful advertisement. The playground setting and the multicolored swimsuit betray something of the “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” side of Ms. Monroe that a grainy, black-and-white, coffee-cup-in-foreground photo would never have betrayed. Rennicks is smart – his liner notes are well-written and the packaging for the 17 CD box-set is tastefully designed. And it’s not entirely unreasonable to think that the recording itself has merit, especially if you don’t bother listening to it, which – let’s face it – most people haven’t; they just take Rennick’s packaging (and false claim that his is the first unabridged Wake recording) at face value.

Bear in mind too that this was very early in Rennicks’ career when he was still building his resume. It takes a seriously strategic and creative mind to come up with a scheme like this, so I don’t suppose I should have been surprised to discover last week that 22 years later, Rennicks would be photographed like so…Rennicks Regnant…accepting the 2014 British Independent Film Award (BIFA) for his contribution to Lenny Abrahamson‘s film Frank, starring Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender and Maggie Gyllenhaal. It’s the one with the big papier-mache head:Frank posterI loved this movie; it’s one of the most touching studies of erratic genius and the perils of artistic collaboration I’ve ever seen, and the music Rennicks composed for it is masterfully appropriate to the subject matter. Here’s a snippet:

So surprise: Rennicks is in fact a real artist, probably always was one. His BIFA is well earned, and I very much look forward to his future work.

If you find this last revelation somewhat shocking, imagine how I felt. I watched Frank for the first time only eight days ago – less than a week after posting my review of the Healy recording – and the synchronicity alone had me basically rethinking my world outlook.

For one thing, the lyrics to the song in the above clip indicate that Rennicks did take a serious look at the Wake:

The Ginger Crouton
by Stephen Rennicks
by Lenny Abrahamson
(see addendum)

In the soup
Ginger crouton
Cover him in grease
Raw limby sausage
Bobbing poulet
Salted joints
Tuna in brine
Deep dark swell anoints
Undertow the broken ford
Back to garage help him, Lord
Eels are jellied, bloated belly
Scallops seared, wrinkled skin
Comb the cockles from his beard
Notify the next of kin
Push the baby, cut the cord
Spread the feast upon the board
Coming out, emerging
Beat the swelling, camel watch

Experienced readers of Finnegans Wake should recognize some thematic signposts here – a cannibalistic feast/fune­ral/nati­vity in an aquatic/amni­otic/culi­nary setting, etc – so maybe the 1992 Ryder photograph really is of Rennicks actually reading the text in front of him. We should at least give him the benefit of the doubt.

Whatever the case, and regardless of Rennicks’ initial motive in producing the Healy recording, it is clear that his 1992 experience had influence. Even without the thematic elements (which after all could just as easily have been lifted from Yeats, Eliot, Blake, Beckett, even the New Testament) there’s also the free-ranging associative structure of the piece itself – the deeply subjective and only covertly justified movement from image to image and thought to thought – that Joyce championed not just in Finnegans Wake but in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses as well.

It’s the kind of stuff our brains do all the time actually, and its use is one of Joyce’s most important contributions to 20th century letters. Free-association – the great modernist tradmark – scarcely existed in art before Joyce came along, and now, thanks mostly to him, narratives are no longer bound by mere plot points or straightforward syllogisms. For all that’s said about ‘stream of consciousness’ and ‘internal monologue’, these techniques wouldn’t be nearly so revolutionary had Joyce not allowed himself, his characters, and by extension his inheritors to free-associate.

Stephen Rennicks owes Joyce BIG-TIME for this, and he knows it.

At least I think he does.Frank head

Addendum – February 14, 2015:

Stephen Rennicks has posted some very helpful stuff in the comment section below – among other things correcting the authorship of “The Ginger Crouton”.

Addendum – February 29, 2016

I think the next person to ask about the Wake’s influence on Frank is Lenny Abrahamsson himself, especially with regards his latest leading lady, Brie Larson, Oscar winning star of his (and Rennicks’) latest film, Room, who’s first statement after winning the statue should make all Wakeans’ hearts quop a bit:,,20985752_20990434,00.html.

Crossing the Deadly Line: an Overdue Rant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actually, No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally:

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

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

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

Addendum: 3/15/2015

This blogpost has something of a surprise sequel.