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.


Simon Loekle’s Finnegans Wake Audio Archive

Loekle Dazibao Charicature

Simon Loekle – self-caricatured at left with his cat, Clancy – leaves in his wake a truly impressive body of original work. You can read about some of his other achievements here, but the topic of this JoyceGeek blogpost is his Finnegans Wake audio project – a painstakingly methodical reading of the book which, at the pace he was working at, would have taken an additional 50 years to complete. While nobody expected him to actually finish this thing, we were all expecting he’d at least get through book three. But Simon suddenly passed away a couple of days ago (11/28/2015) at the age of (almost) 63.

Starting in 1996, Simon would spend as much as two months preparing for his “As I Please: The Year-Out Wake Show” – which took place on the final Saturday of every year – the final hour-or-so of which would be dedicated to a few pages from Finnegans Wake. Had fate’s fickle finger not forced such an early departure, we might have actually seen an earlier completion than 2065, for Simon was in fact starting to pick up the pace. He included a special “Shem the Penman” reading a few months before his usual Year-Out Wake Show, and the last time we talked, he indicated that he would be making it a habit to dedicate more than one hour a year to the Wake.

But this is it: everything he is known to have recorded of Finnegans Wake covers just under six of seventeen chapters. For the sake of accessibility, I’ve broken his recordings down into smaller audio files based on paragraph breaks. The original files were downloaded from either FWEET, WBAI, or in one case Simon himself, who very graciously sent me his earliest recording – book one chapter eight: “Anna Livia Plurabelle” when I complained about the audio quality of the file he sent to Raphael Slepon for FWEET.

A couple of notes about the recording itself: Incomplete though it may be, I still count it as unabridged – each chapter is done in its entirety with the exception of “Jaun” (pp. 429-473, truncated by that aforementioned fickle finger) and “Shem” (pp. 169-195, which he was pressed for time to squeeze into a single show, and so skipped the ‘song’ on page 175 and the Latin passage on page 185). I’m not here to review Simon’s work, but I do have to say that his reading of book two chapter three (FW309-382) – an absolute behemoth of a chapter which took him seven years to record – is a particularly impressive achievement. Most audiobook recordings of the Wake avoid this chapter altogether, but Simon attacks it with gusto, even including incidental music during parts of the Butt/Taff exchange (FW338-355). The ending of that particular section is an absolute treat – my personal favorite in fact. If you only have time to listen to one file, go straight to “FW354.07-36 (2004)”.

A final note: I suspect Simon was aware that December 27, 2014 would be his last Year-Out Wake Show, for he does something at the end of that broadcast he had never done before. For the better part of twenty years, Simon would always find a convenient and comfortable stopping place at the end of a paragraph and pick up the next year’s reading with the following paragraph. For his 2014 recording, however, not only does he stop reading before reaching the end of the paragraph, he stops mid-sentence. Typical Joycean.

So enjoy the audio files, and remember to thank Mr. Loekle as you do so. His was the very portrait of generosity, and we’re all very lucky to have had him.

Part I Episode 7 (pp. 169-195, recorded 2013)

Part I Episode 8 (pp. 196-216, recorded 1996-1997)

Part II Episode 3 (pp. 309-382, recorded 2001-2007)

Part II Episode 4 (pp. 383-399, recorded 2008)

Part III Episode 1 (pp. 403-428, recorded 2009-2011)

Part III Episode 2 (pp. 429-461, recorded 2012-2014)

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…


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 come 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.


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 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.

Simon Says: Challenge Yourself

In the nearly 2,500 Saturdays I’ve had in my life, never once have I gotten up at four o’clock in the morning to listen to the radio.

Simon Loekle has me wondering if I shouldn’t be ashamed of myself. Here’s a guy who gets up every Saturday morning at four, not just to go to work, but to shower, trim and comb his beard, press his suit, and arrive at WBAI in New York at 6:00 am in time for his two-hour arts and literature program “As I Please” looking like this:



Actually, ‘geek’ doesn’t even begin to describe the man in this photograph. This is not Simon dressed up for anything in particular – this is Simon as you might find him on laundry day, or at the Oscars, or anything in between for that matter. Often seen sporting a wide-brimmed Panama hat and genuine ash-plant walking stick, Simon is the very portrait of a modernist – as much of an envoy from the mid-twentieth century as you can hope to encounter without an actual time machine.

Here are a few more descriptors:


That Sinatra-style-cigarette-hold is no mistake. Although “As I Please” always has plenty of music, readings and local announcements, Simon could easily fill both hours of weekly airtime with anecdotes alone. His is a voice you could actually get used to in the morning – Regis Philbin simply pales by comparison.


Again, think mid-twentieth century: Satchmo, Duke, Bird, Diz, Monk, Prez, Hawk, etc. – much more than just Old Blue Eyes, and usually taking as much as half of Simon’s airtime, especially if you include the music history anecdotes he always brings in.

(I’ll pass over Simon’s remaining descriptors – perambulator, cartoonist, pledge drive pugilist, etc. – to talk about what most impresses me about Simon, for it is here where Simon and I land on our most common ground):


The literature portion of “As I Please” generally goes straight for the hard stuff: Eliot, Pound, Beckett, Joyce. At least once a month, Simon makes a point of reading aloud from these truly challenging modernist writers, and not just their “easy stuff”: he’ll dive right into the Four Quartets, the Cantos, the Trilogy, the Wake, and he’ll make no apologies for doing so.

With regards to Finnegans Wake, Simon is well on his way to completing a full audio archive of Joyce’s final work. Once completed, this project will put Simon into one of the most exclusive clubs in existence: Patrick Horgan and Patrick Healy are the only two members at present. Of all the readers who have made efforts at committing Finnegans Wake to audio format – Patrick Ball, Patrick Bedford, Jim Norton, Marcella Riordan, Siobhan McKenna, etc., noone else has come even close to laying tracks down for the entire book.

But Simon is not a man to be rushed. Generally only once a year (the final Saturday to be exact), Simon reads around ten or so pages of Finnegans Wake into the microphone and archives it – his reading is slow, methodical, and passionate. Informed by a as much as two months of preparation, each annual reading is essentially flawless in its execution. And just consider – this is live radio; no chance to do a re-take if he flubs a word or phrase, and he never does.

He’s been doing this since 1996, and has covered around 150 pages thus far, so at this rate, he should be done with the project in about fifty years. Despite his slim frame and penchant for tobacco, he might very well live to see this project to completion without even picking up the pace – his energy and exuberance are a marvel to witness. But even if he doesn’t live to complete the project, Simon will have made his point abundantly clear:

If it’s not hard, it’s not worth pursuing, and the pursuit is all that really matters anyway.

So follow Simon’s lead: challenge yourself. Simon’s “Year-Out WakeShow” is coming up this Saturday morning at 6am eastern time, 3am pacific, and the passage he’ll be reading starts on page 448 (the paragraph break near the bottom), and will likely end somewhere on page 457. Those of you who live across the pond need not get up till noon – lucky you – and even we lazy North Americans have the option of tuning into the podcast on WBAI, which should be available until mid 2015, and by then of course Raphael will have put it permanently onto The point is: no excuses. If it’s good enough for Simon it should be good enough for you.

Smoking Geeks

Allow me to demonstrate. Here’s a little selfie Simon and I took this summer outside Simon’s favorite haunt: Swift’s Hibernian Lounge on 4th Street near Bowery. That’s me on the left, enjoying my lone cigarette of 2014:

Addendum: 11/28/2015

Simon passed away this morning at the age of 62 from pancreatic cancer. I will be posting another blog about this extraordinary man soon – meanwhile you can go to his facebook page which is presently covered in memorials.