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.

The Rosetree Principle

I have said elsewhere (and often) that Finnegans Wake is far too dense and multi-layered a book to be understood through anything less than careful examination of its details, and that most if not all attempts at summarizing, condensing and paraphrasing it are doomed to bore most readers off at the outset. I stand by that statement – I’ll even reiterate it, but “dense and multi-layered” should not be misconstrued as tortuous and impenetrable. Details happen to be fun, and there are a number of simple and straightforward strategies a newbie reader can employ to facilitate understanding the book as a whole even while being forced to read at the obligatory snail’s pace Finnegans Wake requires.

For example, the book is absolutely saturated with musical references that 20 years ago would have basically required pitching a tent at the library of congress to fully absorb. With today’s technology, nearly all of the Wake‘s more than 2000 references to over 800 songs are a mere click away, and if you sit with this music a while (in the comfort of your own home no less) patterns emerge that help to illuminate not just what Finnegans Wake sounds like, but what it has to say about the inner workings of the human experience.

So of the many musical threads contained in Finnegans Wake to choose from, it makes sense to go with the thread that eventually leads to the titular song of the book. The audio file in the link below is excerpted (as are all of the recordings on this post for copyright purposes) from a tune entitled “The Rose Tree”:

The Rose Tree – Ryan Thomson

Chances are this tune sounds familiar: “Turkey in the Straw” or “Zip Coon” or perhaps “The Girl I Left Behind Me”. But no – this one is called “The Rose Tree”, and its melody can be clearly distinguished from the other three if you set them side by side:

Turkey in the Straw – Dick Kimmel
Old Zip Coon – Japher’s Original Sandy River Minstrels
The Girl I left Behind Me – The Princeton Trio

There is no question that all three songs stem from the same source. Uncovering the true identity of this source song (what it was called when it first emerged, what it exactly sounded like, etc) is pretty much impossible, but the mind’s ear can clearly hear the common undercurrent these songs share: With some minor melodic and tempo variation, they follow a very strict pattern: they start with an opening phrase (unresolved), followed by a 2nd refrain that echoes the opening phrase (but this time is resolved), then a bridge (unresolved), and then a final refrain (echoing the 2nd refrain and resolved). For the sake of shorthand as well as an uncannily useful metaphor, I’ll refer to this family of songs as “The Rose Tree” family.

The song itself has a fascinating and polymorphic history. According to The Fiddler’s Companion, “The Rose Tree” first appeared in sheet-music form with that title in 1782 (pre-dating the other versions by only a few years) as part of an opera entitled The Poor Soldier. The opera’s composer William Shield quite specifically did not claim authorship, listing the melody as “traditional”. Here’s the Shield version:

A Rose Tree in Full Bearing – David & Ginger Hildebrand

A few decades later, Thomas Moore wrote his own lyrics for it (fun fact: the musical arrangement for the recording below was composed by none other than Ludwig Van Beethoven):

I’d Mourn the Hopes That Leave Me – DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama

And somewhere along the line, a marching-band version was written:

The Rose Tree – The Trail Band

…and so on. Clearly, this tune was the 19th century equivalent of “#1 on the Billboard Charts,” and the anonymous authorship made it fair game to bastardize and distort at will, very often by other anonymous songsters. So eventually this happened:

Tim Finnegan’s Wake – Tom Kines

Give a song a hundred years of this kind of treatment – reworkings, distortions, colorings, augmentations, etc – and you’ll eventually have an entire family of song-branches so distinct from one another that a single musician could cover them all and not seem the least bit redundant. Ronnie Drew alone covered at least three recognizably separate “Rose Tree” branches (and yes, I do have something of a man-crush on Ronnie Drew – viz. my Thundervideo #8):

Turkey in the Straw/Zip Coon:

Phil the Fluter’s Ball – The Dubliners with Ronnie Drew

The Girl I Left Behind Me:

Rare Old Mountain Dew – The Dubliners with Ronnie Drew (and Shane McGowan)

The Rose Tree:

Finnegan’s Wake – The Dubliners with Ronnie Drew

A sentence on page 304 of Finnegans Wake is very much worth mentioning here – it can be found in the fourth footnote at the bottom of the page. Here it is:

If I’d more in the cups that peeves thee you could cracksmith your rows tureens.

Among other things, this sentence describes a shrewish domestic squabble somewhat similar to the events in “Tim Finnegan’s Wake”- kitchen utensils and pottery are thrown about. More to our purpose, however, it distorts Thomas Moore’s “I’d Mourn the Hopes That Leave Me” and its source “Rose Tree” into “I’d more in the cups that peeves thee” and “rows tureens”. This is a practice Joyce employs throughout the novel: nearly every time a Thomas Moore Irish Melody is mentioned, its source melody can be found nearby – even when its title is given by Moore as ‘unknown”, so that for example the song listed by Moore as “Sing, Sweet Harp, Oh Sing to Me (air unknown)” becomes “Sing, sweetharp, thing to me anone!” [p. 224, line 16 from the top].

Joyce here is clearly encouraging his reader to meditate on the genesis of popular music. He makes references in Finnegans Wake to every single one of the above songs.  For the record, here they are:

The Rose Tree: FW p. 304, footnote 4 (see above)

I’d Mourn the Hopes That Leave Me: 304 fn 4 (ibid), 439.34

Zip Coon/Turkey in the Straw: 176.14-15

The Girl I Left Behind Me: 9.33, 184.25, 234.7-8, 341.7, 469.1-2

The Mountain Dew: 372.28

Phil the Fluter’s Ball: 6.18-19,28, 12.34-35, 26.1-2, 58.11-14, 63.27, 76.28, 230.21, 240.23, 277.25-278.3, 297.18-19, 318.16-17, 319.13-14, 341.10, 351.14-15, 363.14-15, 444.9-10

Tim Finnegan’s Wake: book’s title, 4.26-34, 6.7-9,26-27, 15.24-26, 24.15, 70.12-13, 74.8, 93.35-36, 105.21, 176.16,20, 258.8-9, 276.21-22, 315.2, 317.3-4, 321.17,29, 350.2, 358.23, 375.16-17, 379.34, 382.25, 415.15, 453.4, 487.20, 496.36-497.1, 499.13,17-18, 511.15,23, 512.23, 531.25-26, 537.34, 565.14

That’s around 60 references to what amounts to a single song – or at least a single family of songs. And the Wake gives similar treatment to other root song families – “Rosin the Beau”, “Lillibulero”, “The Shan Van Voght”, and “The Wren Song” all come to immediate mind. Given the variety of genres Finnegans Wake makes reference to – music hall songs, classical art songs, arias, children’s songs, hymns, lullabies, anthems, jigs, reels, planxties, ballads, sea shanties, work songs – it’s surprising how many songs can be grouped together under a single folk rubric.

Songs in Finnegans Wake amalgamate and shift identities every bit as much as the book’s characters do, so much so that many of them start sounding like the same song. But this new amalgamated song is by its very definition nameless. The song we call “Rose Tree” probably doesn’t actually have an “original” name at all.

Or perhaps – and here’s the real point – it has more original names than can be counted.

So what’s to do? James Joyce’s answer: Call it “Tim Finnegan’s Wake”, take out the ‘Tim’ and the apostrophe so that it can contain more scenarios and linguistic possibilities than merely one man’s funeral, and use it for the title of your book.

 More on this topic to come…

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.

Genres, Genres Everywhere

Genre Quartet

One of these authors is not like the others.
Can you guess which one?

That’s right: the correct answer is Agatha Christie – the only female of the group.

One thing all four do have in common, however, is that they’re all masters of genre fiction, especially James Joyce, whose novel Ulysses explores countless genres – some of which hadn’t even been invented yet when Ulysses was first published. Here are just a few examples:

Zombie Apocalypse:

(Stephen’s mother, emaciated, rises stark through the floor, in leper grey with a wreath of faded orangeblossoms and a torn bridal veil, her face worn and noseless, green with gravemould. Her hair is scant and lank. She fixes her bluecircled hollow eyesockets on Stephen and opens her toothless mouth uttering a silent word.)

-‘Circe’ chapter

Superhero Goth:

The figure seated on a large boulder at the foot of a round tower was that of a broadshouldered deepchested stronglimbed frankeyed redhaired freelyfreckled shaggybearded widemouthed largenosed longheaded deepvoiced barekneed brawnyhanded hairylegged ruddyfaced sinewyarmed hero.

-‘Cyclpos’ chapter

Steam-Punk Science Fiction:

The disk shot down the groove, wobbled a while, ceased and ogled them: six.

‘Wandering Rocks’ chapter

Teen Vampire Romance:

Should a girl tell? No, a thousand times no. That was their secret, only theirs, alone in the hiding twilight and there was none to know or tell save the little bat that flew so softly through the evening to and fro and little bats don’t tell.

‘Nausicaa’ chapter

Any of the given quotes would work just fine within the genres I gave them, especially that last one. It’s kind of spooky, really, and it’s enough to convince me that a close watching of HBO’s True Blood might yield some overt references to ‘Nausicaa.’ After all, True Blood executive producer Alan Ball is said to have configured both American Beauty and Six Feet Under around Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, respectively. This is only conjecture, however. I tried watching True Blood not long ago, and just couldn’t get into it – probably never will.

My point, however, is that Joyce’s influence on our present culture might best be localized in our our genre-based storytelling. Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey and the Cohens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? both shamelessly ape Joyce’s use of Homer’s Odyssey, and the recent release of the Australian horror movie The Babadook has me strongly suspecting a Joycean influence in its title. It’s an amazingly well-made film, and I highly recommend it to anyone who can stomach the horror genre. I would put it up there with The Shining and Blue Velvet. Frightening, yes, but masterful, genuinely moving, and highly thought-provoking.

Anyway, “Babadook” is basically a nonsense word meaning “bogey-man” (or “boogy-man” as we Yanks would have it), and it appears in the film as both title and main character of a strangely satanic children’s pop-up book; here’s a link to a New York Times article about the book’s design. The video clip included in that article (which I would have embedded here had it been possible) shows a mother and child reading out loud from the book, which explains Mister Babadook’s name like so:

A rumbling sound and 3 sharp knocks
ba Ba-ba DOOK! DOOK! DOOK!
That’s when you’ll know when he’s around
You’ll see him if you look.

It could be my 20-plus years of Joyce-geekery informing the following observation, but I’ll make it anyway. The above quote – particularly the second line – has an uncanny resemblance to the “Black Liz” passage in Ulysses, which could easily be included in my genre list at the top like so:

Children’s Pop-Up Book:

     Ga Ga Gara. Klook Klook Klook. Black Liz is our hen. She lays eggs for us. When she lays her egg she is so glad. Gara. Klook Klook Klook. Then comes good uncle Leo. He puts his hand under black Liz and takes her fresh egg. Ga ga ga ga Gara. Klook Klook Klook.

-‘Cyclops’ chapter

Add to this the nearly identical resemblance Mister Babadook’s knock has to the opening syllables of thunderword #1 in Finnegans Wake, and you’ve got yourself a seriously Joycean echo, whether filmmaker Jennifer Kent intended it or not.

Of course then the question arises: Is hearing a mere echo really enough to justify a full blog entry? What if “Babadook” really is just nonsense? For that matter, what if Kubrick and the Cohens had their own ideas about Homer’s Odyssey, utterly independent of what Joyce did?  And what if Alan Ball had never even heard of Joyce? What if James Joyce didn’t influence any of these filmmakers, who haven’t attributed any influence to him anyway? What are we Joyce-champions to do then?

Answer: Celebrate!

What an amazing author is James Joyce – to somehow prefigure whole aesthetic movements even down to the smallest details, so that whole volumes the size of Gifford’s annotations could be filled detailing all the amazing, uncanny corollaries with the post-Joycean world. Nobody dares attempt such a compilation for fear of morphing Joyce into some kind of art-prophet, but I think a happy middle ground can be reached:

Joyce went to mind-blogglingly meticulous lengths to demonstrate his vast knowledge of the great works of literature that preceded and influenced him. What if this wasn’t just to show off? What if he was attempting to demonstrate something? The evolution of artistic movements is not, as many would argue, particularly linear. “Modernism” has been around since at least the middle-ages, and even post-modernism isn’t exclusively bound to our day and age – just look at Laurence Sterne, Thomas Carlyle, etc.

So by allowing his language to exhibit enough elasticity to travel seamlessly from genre to genre, movement to movement, style to style etc, Joyce also allows a connection to be made from era to era. Given the tremendous elasticity of the language in Finnegans Wake in particular, it should naturally stand to reason that movements, words, and even events from the post-Joycean era would occasionally – and uncannily – be referenced, even if only by accident.

Believe me, it happens more often than you might imagine with Joyce.

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

Shifting things around a bit

I just now rearranged things here at Now that my thunderword tutorial web-series is complete, I can return (at least for a while) to simple Joyce-Blogging.

The thunderword project became much bigger than I had originally envisioned (only natural considering the subject matter), so I decided to remove my old “Why JoyceGeek?” page to make room. I quite like what I wrote there, however, so here it is again:

Why JoyceGeek?

You may well ask: Of all the things to geek out on, why James Joyce? Why not Proust? Why not Derrida? For that matter, why not something useful, like oral hygene? Good questions all; here are my answers, point by point:

1) Why not Proust?

Proust is good, but Joyce’s world encompasses a vastly larger field. If you geek out with Proust, you’ll certainly come to know quite a lot of ephemera applying to someone sealed inside his cork-padded study voyeuristically imagining other people’s lives, but Joyce brings the noise of the street with him, and makes it absolutely sing. Like Proust, he lived in obscene luxury at times, but just as often found himself in the direst poverty, and his literature never shied away from all aspects of the human condition. It’s true that Joyce could speak French as fluently as any native speaker, but he was also natively proficient in Italian, Triestino, Swiss-German, and Latin. Plus, he could get by in Dutch, Spanish, German, Greek, Hungarian, and countless bario-dialects, never settling for where he was – or who he was – always reaching. Oh yeah, he was also really good with English.

2) Why not Derrida?

Because Joyce is easier to read than Derrida. Plus, you’ll never understand the PoMos until after you’ve read some Joyce anyway.

3) Why not something useful, like oral hygene?

You may have me on this one. Joyce’s teeth rotted so badly that the infection spread into his sinuses and eventually caused terrible iritis. Twenty-plus eye operations later, Joyce may have been asking himself this same question.
But I digress. Joyce’s top order was to explore language and its potential for human expression, and he did it like no other author. This website’s primary purpose is to put forth the argument, in as many ways as it can, that Joyce was indeed onto something truly useful.


Scott Elliot, who occasionally joins us for reading group here in Santa Fe, gave me a copy of Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, which pokes some pretty serious holes in my oral hygene/eye infection hypothesis. Birminghan apparently discovered fresh evidence that Joyce’s eye infections were caused primarily by syphilis.

Ouch. It was easy enough to dismiss Kathleen Ferris’s syphilis claim. Her book: James Joyce and the Burden of Disease had the nerve use Finnegans Wake as her primary “evidence,” suggesting that Joyce was a syphilitic madman when he wrote it. Birmingham, thank God, suggests no such idiocy. He simply reports his findings from the medical history he culled from reading Joyce’s various correspondence, and the conclusion you would draw from reading his book is the direct opposite of Ferris’s: Joyce didn’t write Finnegans Wake because he had syphilis, he wrote it despite that truly painful and debilitating disease.

Ultimately, we’ll never know for sure about the syphilis – it certainly wouldn’t be surprising if it were true. But brain damage was definitely not one of its symptoms – anyone who spends any time at all with Finnegans Wake can see that.