Reverse-Reading: Beautiful, Fierce, Unkempt

Start to Finish

Go, Set, Ready!

There are lots of ways to read Joyce, and really, none of them are conventional.

After all, Joyce’s writing remains outside even today’s boundaries of convention – a full century later. So for the nonce (but not really), I’d like to recommend the following programme: Start by reading Finnegans Wake, and when that’s done, read Ulysses, then A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and finally Dubliners. Do this as if these books were written in this order, as if they were intended to be read in this order, as if this were their natural order of ascending complexity, and no fool in their right mind would dare even crack open Dubliners without first having fully immersed themselves in the later works – particularly Finnegans Wake.

It’s a little something I like to call Reverse-Reading, a practice that brings insights into the earlier works that quite simply would not be possible otherwise. I wouldn’t be surprised actually if the term has been used before, for the practice itself certainly has. Some of my favorite Dubliners studies are in fact by Finnegans Wake scholars: John Gordon and Margot Norris come immediately to mind (links are to the books I recommend). John’s wonderfully dense reading of A Little Cloud pairs itself beautifully with the “Issy” character outline in Finnegans Wake, and Margot has a brilliant Reverse-Reading of Two Gallants that places the events it describes after those of Ulysses – as if it were a sequel. Plus, a great many Wake scholars – John and Margot included – have observed that the washerwomen of Finnegans Wake who “tuck up” their sleeves as they prepare for their day’s work at the beginning of chapter 8 (FW196.8) are later seen “pulling down” those same sleeves as they come in from their day’s work at the beginning of Clay.

I discovered a really cool Reverse-Reading of my own a while back – it’s of a single short story, the second in the Dubliners collection – An Encounter. The story itself is a short and simple read – one of the quickest in the book – and while it is celebrated for its visceral depiction of youthful awakenings, it’s often misunderstood as one of the “lesser” Dubliners installments, generally when compared to ArabyA Little CloudThe Dead, etc. A straightforward Reverse-Reading of An Encounter from a Wakean should hopefully – well – reverse this misconception.

So why is this story so often marginalized? Most complaints center around the seeming lack of structure. An Encounter is a bit of a structural salmagundi for non-Wake readers; as John Wyse Jackson and Bernard McGinley so well observe (p. 20):

…this is not one story, but two half-stories. A narrative that starts out about the Dillon brothers loses one of them, then the other: the business of miching from school is then bolted on to the account of the strange meeting. Most exasperating of all, [the story has] no conclusive ending. The inconclusive petering out shows how much Joyce needed catching up with by the contemporary reader. He still does.

“Contemporary readers” might very well be stumped, but none of these “inconclusive peterings-out” should hold the least amount of concern for the Finnegans Wake reader. Conclusive endings? Who needs endings at all? Half-stories bolted together? Pshaw – try half-words bolted together. And so what if Joe Dillon is completely vanished from the narrative before the first page is half-over? Do Wake readers care that “Sir Tristram, violer d’amores,” the first character to be introduced in Finnegans Wake (3.04), makes no further appearance? Hardly.

For one thing, “Sir Tristram” doesn’t really vanish at all – his ‘love-violations’ continue deep into the book and even build in scope – it’s only his name that changes. Granted, his name changes a lot – at every available opportunity in fact – as many as five times within the book’s first full paragraph alone: “topsawyer’s rocks”, “tauftauf thuartpeatrick”, “a bland old isaac”, “twone nathandjoe”, “Rot a peck of pa”, etc. In Joyce’s world, characters are identified by their actions; names are as interchangeable as playing cards.

This program of identification is not arbitrary randomization – it has movement toward a purpose, and is key to understanding Joyce’s revolutionary method of character development, which he actually gives a name to in Ulysses:


That’s right – Metempsychosis – the only ten-dollar word in Ulysses that you don’t have to look up in the dictionary, for Leopold Bloom himself gives it a full and extended definition in the ‘Calypso’ chapter: reincarnation, “the transmigration of souls”, the phenomenon whereby an individual’s psychological value is transferred from one persona to another. This is how Cranley from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man can transmigrate to Buck Mulligan in Ulysses and then on to Shaun the Post in Finnegans Wake, for example. My favorite description of how the transmigration works comes from Ananda K. Coomaraswamy who, like Bloom, ties the concept of transmigrating to that of karma:

Snooker[Imagine] a series of billiard balls in close contact: if another ball is rolled against the last stationary ball, the moving ball will stop dead, and the foremost stationary ball will move on. Here precisely is Buddhist transmigration: the first moving ball does not pass over, it remains behind, it dies; but it is precisely the movement of that ball, its momentum, its karma, and not any newly created movement, which is reborn in the foremost ball. […] Nothing is transmitted but an impulse, a vis a tergo, dependent on the heaping up of the past. It is a man’s character, and not himself, that goes on.

Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism, pp. 107-108

Returning to An Encounter, Joe Dillon does indeed appear to completely vanish from the story with a simple two-sentence paragraph:

Everyone was incredulous when it was reported that he had a vocation for the priesthood. Nevertheless it was true.

Appearances however can be deceiving. True, Joe Dillon – much like the billiard ball in Coomaraswamy’s metaphor – has been ‘stopped dead’; it’s as if entering the seminary is tantamount to a death sentence in fact, for no further mention is given to Joe or his “war dance of victory”. But even here in this brief half-page of text, Joe Dillon’s actions have already ‘heaped up’ enough momentum so that the karmic impulses he started – a morbid blend of aggression and piety – are easily transmitted to the character of Father Butler on the following page, who, though he no longer wears a tea cozy on his head shouting “Ya! yaka, yaka, yaka!”, is indeed found humiliating his students as he teaches them Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars as if he expected them to memorize it:

—This page or this page? This page? Now, Dillon, up. Hardly had the day… Go on! What day? Hardly had the day dawned… Have you studied it? What have you there in your pocket?

No simple change of plotline can eliminate the influence of this future priest; it remains ubiquitous throughout the story: Mahoney bullies the smaller children in the street in likely response to being bullied himself by the even bigger Joe Dillon. The narrator’s haughty attitude towards “National School boys” is lifted directly from Father Butler’s ‘rebuke’, and Leo Dillon’s cowardly choice to forgo the miching adventure is influenced most likely by both brother and priest. Mahoney’s question, “what would Father Butler be doing out at the Pigeon House” is not nearly so rhetorical when viewed in this light.

Then there’s younger brother Leo Dillon, who like Joe before him, is also vanished from the narrative after brief prominence as its central figure. This second disappearance craves the question as to whether Leo’s character transmigrates as well, and again, if we look to the behavior patterns, especially the specific role Leo plays up to the point the other boys abandon him, the answer should be obvious. One has almost to look twice at the phrase: “…the confused, puffy face of Leo Dillon awakened one of my consciences” to notice that the word our first-person narrator employs here is ‘consciences’, a word not often paired with ‘awakening’. ‘Consciousness’ would be a much tighter semantic fit given the context of the enclosing passage, but the story’s central issue has less to do with awareness per se than than it does with moral rectitude. After all, An Encounter‘s final sentence shows us a ‘penitent’ (i.e. ‘conscientious’) narrator – the direct result of having seen another ‘confused’ face, this time with “bottle-green eyes peering…from under a twitching forehead.” If we concede that metempsychosis is the story’s established pattern, then this nameless and deeply troubled stranger in the field at Ringsend should properly be the abandoned and transmigrated soul of Leo Dillon.

A number of similarities bear this out: Soon after his appearance, the stranger’s behavior is observed as unusual: “I wondered why he shivered once or twice as if he feared something…” As his attitude is “strangely liberal,” maybe this phantom fear is of humiliation or castigation from the likes of Father Butler or Mr. Ryan. That “his accent was good” indicates higher, perhaps Jesuitical education, but the strongest argument for the stranger’s metempsychotic link to Leo Dillon is his warped sexuality and sadism, which could easily be an advanced stage of what originated in childhood as overeating, idleness, and inability to adapt in an environment of constant bullying, derision, and oppression.

I am in no position whatever to state “for a fact” that Joyce was premeditating metempsychosis when writing this story – I don’t have a time machine. I can only reiterate that this is a Reverse-Reading, that these kinds of imaginative insights can only be fostered by Reverse-Reading, and – even setting the question of Joyce’s intentionality aside – this particular story now has a sense of cohesion that it did not before, very much thanks to Reverse-Reading.

And by no means do the Reverse-Reading insights stop there. Any Finnegans Wake reader should recognize an early Shem/Shaun study in the diametrically opposite temperaments of the Dillon brothers, and if you want to get extra geeky about it, there’s a Shem/Shaun sub-category that fits the Dillon brothers so perfectly as to be a little spooky: the Jiminies from the ‘Prankquean’ passage (FW pp. 21-23) which I blogged about a few posts ago. In the ‘Prankquean’, we have a pair of brothers (“Jiminy” = Gemini: twin brothers), one of which is comic (“Hillary” = hilarity), the other tragic (“Tristopher” = Italian/Spanish/Portuguese: triste, sad). Each in their turn are “kidsnapped up” (= vanished) by the Prankquean and returned with a difference: Hillary (= Joe) is “convorted” (= converted/distorted) into a “tristian” (= sad christian = Fr. Butler), and Tristopher (= Leo) becomes “provorted” (= perverted/distorted) into a “luderman” (German: scoundrel-man + Irish: luderamain, lazy idler = Ringsend pedophile).

I argued in my “Prankquean Matrix” blogpost that the ‘Prankquean’ passage in Finnegans Wake is in fact a storytelling template – based on the “rule of three” – that Joyce used throughout all of his writings:

  • Once upon a time, a thing happens
    Jarl von Hoother is holed up with his three charges: the jiminy Tristopher, the jiminy Hilary, and the dummy.
  • As a result, three things happen, one after the other
    The Prankquean riddles Jarl and kidnaps his charges.
  • The first thing goes POW
    he prankquean nabs a jiminy.
  • The second thing also goes POW
    he prankquean returns the first jiminy and nabs the second.
  • But the third thing goes BOOM
    She is presumably about to nab the dummy when a thunderclap brings the story to an abrupt end.
  • And we all learned a new thing
    A number of “morals” are given.

In order to bring An Encounter in line with this trebling pattern, Joyce had to include a third character – not one of the brothers, but rather a kind of placeholder, a “dummy” if you will, and yes, this ‘dummy’ can be found in An Encounter as well. As the narrator himself explains, the ‘rule of three’ is not to be trifled with:

When we came to the Smoothing Iron we arranged a siege; but it was a failure because you must have at least three.

Our third is of course Mahoney, described by the narrator at one point as ‘stupid’, and like the Dillon brothers before him, is also vanished from the narrative when he runs off to chase the cat. For a full two pages – taking us nearly all the way to the end of the story – the young narrator’s interaction with the pedophilic stranger so completely dominates the narrative that Mahoney himself seems to forget he’s still part of it:

My voice had an accent of forced bravery in it, and I was ashamed of my paltry stratagem. I had to call the name again before Mahony saw me and hallooed in answer.

Note that for a moment at least, Mahoney here becomes ‘Murphy’, a very brief identity-shift which, while it falls just short of outright Dillon-style metempsychosis, nevertheless touches on the story’s pattern of exile and transformed return. This is not just a clever storytelling trick – it actually points us toward the nature of the narrator’s final penitence, for the real karmic momentum of An Encounter is built-up not by Mahoney or the Dillon brothers, but by the narrator himself. It is the narrator’s personal agenda – his longings for a sense of personal agency, for adventure abroad, for distinction from the common rabble – that drive the plot forward. Notice, too, that in the three stories which he narrates, we never learn his real name – the only name we’re ever given is a pseudonym – ‘Smith’:

—In case he asks us for our names, I said, let you be Murphy and I’ll be Smith.

The good Reverse-Reader should recall here the finale of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where Stephen Dedalus, obviously one and the same as the narrator of the first three Dubliners stories, likens himself to a blacksmith:

I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.

Awe-inspiring though Stephen’s declaration here may be, it is also dangerously arrogant, even bordering on self-apotheosis, and contains within it an actual seed of his Icarus-like fall in Ulysses. Who is this young upstart to think he can create his race’s conscience? Even given such a power, what’s to prevent him from abusing it? It is the narrator himself who ejects the Dillon Brothers and Mahoney from his story, and his motivation for doing so should be obvious: this is his adventure, and he’ll do whatever it takes to eliminate any and all rival protagonists. Ethically, his actions are highly questionable; he in fact commits all three types of “sin” as defined by the Catholic church:

  • Sin by thought:
    Elitism and bigotry; “I was afraid the man would think I was as stupid as Mahony.”
  • Sin by word:
    Malice and gloating: “We revenged ourselves on Leo Dillon by saying what a funk he was and guessing how many he would get at three o’clock from Mr. Ryan.”
  • Sin by deed:
    Deception and theft: He pockets Leo Dillon’s sixpence.
    (An interesting side note: The law of karma – being the equivalent of ‘sin’ in Buddhist theology – requires that this stolen sixpence eventually be forfeited, and it can be no coincidence that the narrator winds up paying an unnecessary sixpence at the bazaar’s turnstile in Araby:

I could not find any sixpenny entrance and, fearing that the bazaar would be closed, I passed in quickly through a turnstile, handing a shilling to a weary-looking man.

Thus do the various stories in the Dubliners collection start to inter-connect.)

So An Encounter‘s principle meditation – be it Buddhist, Christian, secular or what have you – is undeniably moral: All actions reap consequence. The final sentences show us a narrator who has truly reaped as he has sown, whose actions in thought, word, and deed have succeeded in forging his friends into monsters – one of which is about to grab him by the ankles. His only hope of escape from the smithy-of-his-soul’s own creation, then, is to return to Mahoney and relinquish to his friend that which he had up to this point so zealously coveted for himself – the title of True Hero:

How my heart beat as he came running across the field to me! He ran as if to bring me aid. And I was penitent; for in my heart I had always despised him a little.

That the nearly forgotten Mahoney with his paltry catapult and boorish ways should wind up charging to the rescue here is perhaps the most touchingly ironic detail of the entire Dubliners collection. No conclusive ending? I say it again – pshaw. The stunning irony here is that Joe Dillon and his ferocious tactics never really vanished at all; the narrator may have tried to write them out of his story, but by the end, he finds himself very much needing them, and much like Little Chandler and Gabriel Conroy, must then endure a profound humbling. An Encounter‘s ending is every bit as powerful as those of A Little Cloud or The Dead – perhaps even more so.

As I said before, I don’t have much interest in defending my metempsychosis reading in terms of being definitively what Joyce intended when composing An Encounter. After all, the narrative elisions in this story can be filled in any number of ways, and if this reading somehow interferes with other alternate readings, then into the dustbin it goes, no further questions asked.

There are some uncanny insights I could throw out to further bolster it, though:

For example, the original “new age” movement, spearheaded by Helena Blavatsky, W. B. Yeats, and Lady Gregory was very much vogue in Dublin during the period of An Encounter‘s composition, and while Joyce couldn’t ultimately stomach all of the mystical mumbo-jumbo, he did spend some time studying it; he was even seen walking about Dublin carrying a copy of H. S. Olcott’s Buddhist Catechism as if he were a clergyman carrying a prayerbook. Metempsychosis was a concept Joyce certainly would have been well familiar with.

There’s also that whole issue of gender in the “Prankquean Matrix” which I blogged about a few months ago. I argued there that Joyce’s use of the “rule of three” always cast a female in the role of instigator against a stubborn male protagonist. On the surface, An Encounter appears bereft of any female characters whatsoever, but females are by no means completely absent – the story contains a total of three very striking yet etheric invocations of feminine power:

  • “…the peaceful odour of Mrs Dillon was prevalent in the hall of the house.”
  • “I liked better some American detective stories which were traversed from time to time by unkempt fierce and beautiful girls.”
  • “I watched him lazily as I chewed one of those green stems on which girls tell fortunes.”

Add to these Mahoney’s boast about having “three totties” (i.e. girlfriends) and the Reverse-Reader is basically compelled to seek a prankqueanish structure to An Encounter. If the jiminies are the Dillons, the dummy is Mahoney, and Jarl Van Hoother is narrator ‘Smith’, then the prankquean must then be the very phenomenon of metempsychosis itself. Recall that metempsychosis is introduced in Ulysses on a absolute platter of feminine energy in the ‘Calypso’ chapter – a chapter rife with meditations on feminine processes and symbols of feminine power. When asked by Molly to define the word, Bloom turns to a picture of a bathing nymph he has hanging over the bed, and gives a very odd but tellingly associative definition:

—Metempsychosis […] is what the ancient Greeks called it. They used to believe you could be changed into an animal or a tree, for instance. What they called nymphs, for example. (U 4.375)

Typically, Bloom here confuses his concepts – his nymph analogy is much more like metamorphosis than transmigration, but the nymph’s presence here serves Joyce’s overall purpose by permanently associating metempsychosis with the feminine. This imagery in fact builds throughout the novel, so that when we reach Bloom’s hallucination in ‘Oxen of the Sun’ we have a near-literal apotheosis:

And lo, wonder of metempsychosis, it is she, the everlasting bride, harbinger of the daystar, the bride, ever virgin. It is she, Martha, thou lost one, Millicent, the young, the dear, the radiant. How serene does she now arise, a queen among the Pleiades, in the penultimate antelucan hour, shod in sandals of bright gold, coifed with a veil of what do you call it gossamer. It floats, it flows about her starborn flesh and loose it streams, emerald, sapphire, mauve and heliotrope, sustained on currents of the cold interstellar wind, winding, coiling, simply swirling, writhing in the skies a mysterious writing till, after a myriad metamorphoses of symbol, it blazes, Alpha, a ruby and triangled sign upon the forehead of Taurus. (U 14.1099)

Notice how Bloom’s associative cluster links the feminine not just to metempsychosis, but to the very concept of mutable identity, whether it be through transmigration, “myriad metamorphoses of symbol,” or what have you. This is nothing less than a portrait of the Goddess Metempsychosis, the Goddess Metamorphosis, Molly, Milly, Martha, Seaside Girl, Pleiadean queen, etc. By naming her differently at nearly each occurrence – thus making her as formless and mutable as water itself – Joyce gives us the freedom to assign to her whichever epithet we want. ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ is the general first choice for most Finnegans Wake readers, particularly when Joyce comes up with a sentence likes this:

In the name of Annah the Allmaziful, the Everliving, the Bringer of Plurabilities, haloed be her eve, her singtime sung, her rill be run, unhemmed as it is uneven! (FW 104.1-3)

For present purposes I’ll simply call her The Prankquean. Unkempt, fierce, and stunningly beautiful, her matrix is given its very first full expression in Joyce’s canon with An Encounter:

  • Once upon a time, a thing happens
    A young boy (the narrator) seeks adventure. In his words,”I wanted real adventures to happen to myself.”
  • As a result, three things happen, one after the other
    Three schoolmates threaten to usurp his position as chief protagonist.
  • The first thing goes POW
    He vanquishes Joe Dillon, who returns as Father Butler via metempsychosis
  • The second thing also goes POW
    He vanquishes Leo Dillon, who returns as the “queer old josser” – again via metempsychosis.
  • But the third thing goes BOOM
    He vanquishes Mahoney, who returns as “Murphy”  – to the rescue.
  • And now it’s a new thing

So I’ll let Joyce himself have the final word here. As you either watch the following video or read Finnegans Wake pp. 21-23 (on which it is based), consider how the events of An Encounter are echoed in its narrative:

Prankquean Video Screen

The ‘Prankquean’ Video – by JoyceGeek

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 “explodotonates“, 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, now that I come to think of it.

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 the 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.

Interview With a VoiceGeek: Patrick Horgan

From whence comes artistic immortality for the actor?

I suppose we should be glad to take it where we can get it, but the great fantasy of being the next Marlon Brando or Meryl Streep with triumphs registered in the historical archive under The Godfather, Sophie’s Choice, etc. is rather hard to shake. God forbid we should go down as, say, Nazi-guy-in-helmet standing behind Leonard Nimoy in this scene from Star Trek season 2 episode 21: Patterns of Force:

Patterns of Force still Helmet-Guy-Number-Two is probably leaning to the left in order to make certain he’s in the shot, completely unaware that he is in fact over-compensating and that the frame is cropping him off at the left eyeball. I should know – I’ve been there:

LongmireLongmire, season 2, episode 1, approx. 7½ minutes in.

That’s me peeking out fuzzily from behind actress Nicki Aycox, damn near cracking a rib over that counter-top trying to get my mug into the shot.

Comparatively speaking, I have nothing to complain about at all – the Longmire episode wound up being pretty good, and even “Cropped-Eyeball-Nazi-Guy-standing-behind-Nimoy” has joyful anonymity protecting him. I shudder to think what Nimoy himself – who was raised orthodox Jewish – could possibly have been thinking while wearing that SS uniform, probably something like “Please God don’t let me be remembered for this.” Well, as the present deluge of warm eulogies for Nimoy clearly testify, the man’s legacy won’t be terribly tarnished by Patterns of Force, or Spock’s Brain, or Transformers: Dark of the Moon for that matter.

No: Nimoy has much less to worry about on that account than the actor in the foreground of the above Trek still. Patrick Horgan’s number-one Google hit happens to be Patterns of Force – a laughably bad Trek episode – and his most memorable line comes near the end of the episode, with:

Patterns of Force 3“Wait, soldier. There’s been enough killing.
Now we’ll start to live the way the Fuhrer meant us to live.”

Ugh. For this to be what Mr. Horgan is primarily remembered for would be one of popular culture’s single greatest travesties. So it’s high-time for a corrective: Patrick Horgan had a helluvalot more to say than this, and at the age of 86, retired and living with his wife, Susan Bedsow-Horgan in rural Connecticut, he still does. I can personally verify this – for very much to my shock and honor, he allowed me to interview him last week.

HorganIn many ways, Mr. Horgan’s acting career simply dwarfs that of Nimoy’s: in addition to his steady television work and extremely prolific stage career, he recorded somewhere in the neighborhood of 1800 audiobooks (his account) – mostly for the National Foundation for the Blind. Sitting atop these achievements is perhaps the greatest single audiobook accomplishment of all time: his 1985 NFB recording of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. I argued in a previous blog that this is and will probably remain for eons to come the only accurate and completely unabridged recording of the book.

Inexplicably, however, obscurity threatens even this accomplishment. Here it is sitting atop its original packaging:

Horgan PackagingUgh. Worse, Mr. Horgan’s name is nowhere to be found on it. Flip the cartridge over, and the only thing printed there is “Property of U.S. Government – further reproduction or distribution is prohibited.” That’s right: as if the injury hadn’t been insulted enough, this recording is not legally available to the general public – I had to sign up for volunteer work at the New Mexico State Library just to have access to it.

I’ve gushed about this recording quite a lot, so the best thing to do here (and to Uncle Sam’s big stick I have but two words: FAIR USE) is to simply let it speak for itself. Below is Mr. Horgan’s reading of one of the Wake‘s most notoriously challenging passages: question #9 from chapter 6, found on page 143:

9. Now, to be on anew and basking again in the panaroma of all flores of speech, if a human being duly fatigued by his dayety in the sooty, having plenxty off time on his gouty hands and va­cants of space at his sleepish feet and as hapless behind the dreams of accuracy as any camelot prince of dinmurk, were at this auc­tual futule preteriting unstant, in the states of suspensive exani­mation, accorded, throughout the eye of a noodle, with an ear­sighted view of old hopeinhaven with all the ingredient and egregiunt whights and ways to which in the curse of his persis­tence the course of his tory will had been having recourses, the reverberration of knotcracking awes, the reconjungation of nodebinding ayes, the redissolusingness of mindmouldered ease and the thereby hang of the Hoel of it, could such a none, whiles even led comesilencers to comeliewithhers and till intempes­tuous Nox should catch the gallicry and spot lucan’s dawn, by­hold at ones what is main and why tis twain, how one once meet melts in tother wants poignings, the sap rising, the foles falling, the nimb now nihilant round the girlyhead so becoming, the wrestless in the womb, all the rivals to allsea, shakeagain, O disaster! shakealose, Ah how starring! but Heng’s got a bit of Horsa’s nose and Jeff’s got the signs of Ham round his mouth and the beau that spun beautiful pales as it palls, what roserude and oragious grows gelb and greem, blue out the ind of it! Violet’s dyed! then what would that fargazer seem to seemself to seem seeming of, dimm it all?
Answer: A collideorscape!

…and the whole thing is this good. Talk about content outweighing form. According to Mr. Horgan, the project took less than a month:

I would record two to four hours a day, about five days a week. I don’t think it took more than three or four weeks.

Harrison Sherwood

Harrison Sherwood

Incidentally: Harrison Sherwood, the main recording engineer and producer for Mr. Horgan’s Finnegans Wake project, verified in an email to me that it all went by quite smoothly with nary a flub: “It was a pretty money-oriented environment for a nonprofit organization. The Library of Congress (our benefactors) were willing to put up X dollars for a recording of the Wake. We had to come in at or under that dollar amount. So there was an upper limit on the number of hours we could spend.” Sherwood, by the way, offers some great anecdotes about his experience with Mr. Horgan in a blog of his own. This blogpost is actually best if read in tandem with his. Why duplicate, after all? Here’s the link:

So this is clearly a man with super-human talent, yet somehow “talented” doesn’t really do Patrick Horgan justice as a descriptor – enthusiastic comes more to mind than anything else. When I started by asking him where (and if) he received any formal actor training, it took him all of fifteen seconds to start talking about the Wake:

Not really. I learned by doing it. It seems to me that acting is a very hard thing to teach. I was actually a medical student for 4½ years. Everybody in my family were all doctors, so I kind of had to do it. But I packed that up – I got sensible and realized there was a better way to go. And I think that was the first time I picked up a copy of Finnegans Wake – when I was a medical student – so I must’ve been, oh, 19, 20. I couldn’t understand a word of it – I got to about page 16 and I thought, I don’t even know what accent it’s in! Of course it didn’t need an accent, but I put it away for years and years and years.

Rita Gam

Rita Gam

Then I was looking at somebody’s books – they happened to be Rita Gam’s books. She was married to the head guy at Viking, so she had all the books that had anything connected with the Wake that were published at that time. I reckon I’ve been working on it for 42 years now – 1972 was when I first started work on it. And I had thought that after 42 not doing it, and then 42 years doing it that I would drop dead, but I didn’t. I’m still sort of clawing my way at it, finding new things every day.

Bear in mind that, in 1972, publication of the first edition of Roland McHugh’s Annotations to Finnegans Wake was still nine years away – and woefully sparse by today’s standards once it did come out. So Horgan was researching the Wake in a manner that we of the generation can hardly fathom: He relied mostly on his own storehouse of personal knowledge to gloss the text and make judgements concerning pronunciation. If you open McHugh to his acknowledgements page, you’ll find Horgan listed there among the others, Fritz Senn, Adaline Glasheen, Louis Mink, Brendan O’Hehir, et al.

To call Mr. Horgan’s reading of the Wake “flawless” would be wrong of course, for the Wake itself is in many ways a study in the art of flaw-making, and Mr. Horgan’s own attitude towards his 1985 recording reflects the kind of eternal dissatisfaction any artist has towards a completed work. He cited a number of examples:

I had various things that I wanted to change. Sometimes you find that the passage doesn’t mean what you thought it meant. A case in point of particular interest to me lately has been the end of the fifth chapter, the one where it’s telling you what the alphabet is about. Joyce says “very potably so” (p. 118 line 15), and I thought it meant “very possibly so” from the phrase before it, and I’ve discovered since then – and this is in McHugh’s book – that there is a whole bunch of [Rabelais’s] Pantagruel and Gargantua in that. Pantagruel was looking for a book which had the oracle called “Bacbuc” (and Bacbuc is there with “bacbuccus”). So it’s not “very possibly so”, it’s “very drinkably so”. The oracle is giving the thing in the form of drink. And that’s made very clear in the actual text of Gargantua. And I hadn’t realized that, I was saying “o very potably so” [short “O”] but it’s saying “o very potably so” [long “O”] saying how tremendously good it was, rather than just “ho-hum”. That sort of thing crops up all the time. You’ll find a sentence that you’ve been saying one way and thinking of one way that isn’t necessarily that way. But then anything can be at least two ways, any word in my view.

I remember having problems with one of the first words in the book: “Violer d’amores” (page 3 line 4). Now should that be a violer (short “I”, pronounced like viola, the musical instrument), or should it be a violer (long “I”), someone who is raping someone? I didn’t know which one to do. And I found that sort of thing throughout the book – where you can’t be sure which one Joyce intended, so how are you to do it?

I found one the other day :“Tuwarceathay” (490.28) It looks like tu-WARK-a-thigh, but it isn’t – it could be “cathay” at the end, etc. But actually it’s “tuar ceatha”, which is “rainbow” in irish. Now I think McHugh has that one, but to look it up you find that it really means an “omen of mist” in Irish. And how would you pronounce it? Should it be pronounced Irish? Nobody speaks Irish that listens to the recording, so they wouldn’t understand it.

Another Irish one: the pronunciation of the word “devious” – in this case “devious” is just a word or two before “the original document” (p. 123.31). And “the document” refers to the one produced during the trouble between the Irish and the English at the end of the war; the English had a peace treaty, and that was the original document, and De Valera made a new document and called it “document number two.” So clearly “devious” has to indicate De Valera a little bit. You could say “devious” (short “E”) and it would sound peculiar, but on the other hand it’s up to the reader to make it anything they want. Anybody who’s reading it can put any interpretation they like on it. I think everybody should have that right.

The Irish stuff in Finnegans Wake is indeed quite troublesome for an actor, as anyone who’s worked on Thunderword #8 can attest. I should point out, though, that Mr. Horgan takes great delight in recounting his pronunciation conundrums; he didn’t indicate even slight regret at a single decision he made during his recording. And his fascination with unlocking the puzzles of Finnegans Wake goes far beyond anything that an audiobook reader ever need concern himself with:

I find everyday more stuff to add to my pile, and at the moment I’m working on something I started on five or six years ago when I discovered that there was DNA mentioned in the Wake. Joyce hides it very subtly, but it comes up several times. I found that always where there’s DNA, there was an alda as well. So you’ve got the three trees. – the Irish alphabet is all trees, and “D” “N” “A” means “oak” “ash” and “elm” in the Irish alphabet! It’s there on page 503 [line 32] with “Oakley Ashe’s elm”, but the Wake actually begins with: “The oaks of ald now they lie in peat yet elms leap where askes lay.” Now there you’ve got your oak and your ash and your elm, and now somehow an alda has crept into it as well. And I looked up the books on all this sort of thing and I found that the received wisdom was that “ald” just meant old, but I found that in the Norwegian mythology, Odin went along a beach with his pals, and he discovered a couple of tree branches and he decided to make people out of them. Now everyone says that they were an ash and an elm because embla sounds like elm, but it isn’t an elm; it means an alda! So there’s a great fight between the trees as to whether the elma is the one thing or the another. So each time you’ve got DNA, you’ve got it being an ash and an elm (regular), but every time it occurs there is also an elda somewhere lying around in the vicinity. And over the passage of time I discovered that they were there forming a diagram like the floor-plan of a cathedral, with seven of them on each side and a dome at one end and a portal at the other end! I discovered that just this morning and I feel pretty excited about it.

I can’t say that I was completely able to follow Mr. Horgan’s line of thinking all the way to the very end here, but this was something he had only just started formulating that very morning, after all, and I’m sure that he would have fleshed it out better given more time. Besides, enthusiasm is often a language all its own, and if there is one thing I would impart about our chat above all else, it would be his extraordinary enthusiasm – he has every right to let it get the better of him.

So I suppose all that stuff I said at the beginning of this blog-post about legacy, i.e.:Trek Trading Card…doesn’t amount to much. If you can claim at the age of 86 the kind of vitality and exuberance Mr. Horgan has, the rest can’t possibly matter one rattling damn.

The HorgansThe Horgans as photographed by Fenella Pearson

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.

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.