Ulysses (1922), Finnegan’s Wake (1939), by James Joyce


Much scholarly exegesis has irresistibly been spent on Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, just as the tireless and obsessed puzzler-trapper Joyce planned, and much of it a pointless contest of miniaturist interpretation of lines and paragraphs for chest-thumping among literary scholars and acolyte diviners, just as Joyce must have guffawed about during his presumably frequent and easily prescient imaginings thereof–laughter tempered perhaps by Joyce setting out that scholar’s pedagogical bait as his strategy for literary immortality gratis scholars and graduate seminars in our protean, cruelly destructive, accelerating times demanding insular, difficult, rebellious, radical, enormous, and stunned experimental fictional narratives stubbornly preservative and conservative as high culture less and less attracts urban/world audiences for literary fiction, audiences of readers who merely want to know what happens next. Radical literary fiction is lucky to attract coteries of bookish moles for whom suspense has become no longer the outcome of dramas of grand changes that mark worlds from the Antique to the Postmodern but only the struggle for localized minute interpretation, the better sort of these field workers pedagogical. Much of what Joyce wrote in Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, those two literary Joyce-word puzzles so irresistibly inviting of pedantic reading, is mental masturbation. It seems to bring no new news about us and our history but rather a simplistic if ingenious rewrite of Homer and Shakespeare most prominently and these rewrites mildly dramatized as an ugly modern expulsion in our sad and newly barbaric twentieth century, an expulsion from the grace of romanticized classical days.

Joyce famously says that history is a nightmare from which he tries to awaken, a renowned sentence but, when you think about it from your readings of historians, one which is an undistinguished observation, melodramatically rigged in its dismissal of the few happy awakenings from the Nightmare, interludes which make all the difference, but which are forgotten in the confusion of the dismal Joycean narrative.

Here is a typical example–analogies to it are on every page of the novel–from Finnegans Wake, a “semi-continuous” dream narrative of a dream by an Everyman named Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (AKA Here Comes Everyone with the Everyone–each of us–of and from a den of chimps [a long, long way from Rousseau and Jefferson]) whose dreamscape plot remains a continuing scholarly controversy in which Joyce tries to compress History itself as a dream. That dream is rendered in an idiosyncratic English intended to convey the dream experience but which in its essence must paradoxically possess wakeful literal meaning if only it can be teased out sentence-by-sentence in a  pedantic interpretation of a Freudian-like analytic intensity:

“By earth and the cloudy but I badly want a brandnew bankside, bedamp and I do, and a plumper at that!”

Here is the great literary scholar Harold Bloom’s dead-on interpretation of this key sentence, an interpretation underpinned by another, earlier such scholar, James C. Atherton, a sentence standing as one of the more revealing ones in Finnegan’s Wake:

“Bankside puns on ‘backside,’ bedamp on ‘bedamned,’ and since this is the Liffey River (which runs through the center of Joyce’s Dublin) speaking as well as Earwicker’s wife, (the Joycean scholar) Atherton’s comment is apt: ‘What Joyce is saying is that he wishes the Liffey had a South Bank where literature was appreciated as it was by Shakespeare’s Thames.'”

Here is another example from Finnegan’s Wake which makes one grateful for the obsessed exegesis in the scholarly monasteries:

“It is the circumconversioning of antelithual paganelles by huggerknut cramwell energuman, or the caecodedition of an absquelitteris puttagonnianne to the herreraism of a cabotinesque explosure?”

Good luck. However, unless you want to leave the quiet park of The New York Times crossword puzzle for a polar expedition possessed only of a heavy coat and a Swiss Army knife, it is not worth it. Remember, should somehow you return to southern latitudes from your trek, you’ll not have discovered other than a rather barren whiteness up there, even though you may be invited to speak at the Explorer’s Club about the experience itself.

But Joyce did make an essential, great contribution to the artistic tradition, a device but no mere slight device, a huge, seminal one that secures him a place in the Pantheon if as the half-mad Eccentric among eccentrics: foregrounding the inner cognitive experience of humans, Joyce struggling vitally and valiantly to render in words the waking and sleeping Show Between Our Ears: the “stream of consciousness,” “the stuff of dreams.” Before Joyce there is the Greek Chorus and there are Shakespeare’s heroic monologs (Hamlet talks profoundly to himself [and, of course, to us] about what he really thinks in his inner being about his experience, his very being here), both of these earlier literary devices rendering the human cognition, the “inner monolog,” ambitiously. But in scope and scale Joyce is superior here. All writers should say back to him his own lovely words from Anna Livia’s reminiscences as Finnegan’s Wake concludes: “Carry me along, taddy, like you done through the toy fair!”

No Joyce…no Nabokov, no Pynchon, no Updike, no Ellison, no Bellow…just to stay on our shores.

Yet Joyce wavered in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake from this leaping-forward ambition and for that reason along with others, most prominently his dogged cultural conservatism, made his two famous, praised, highly influential novels such erudite slogs (e.g., Ulysses scrupulously as well as cynically parallels Homer’s Odyssey in its structure; and, I believe, Joyce’s revealing, clinging conservatism here both forces and entices him to write a novel far longer and denser than it need have been written, a supreme showing of the curse on some Old World literary fiction masters who, in a sort of grand slog of imagination, often do forced labor staggering about carrying a large burden of the Past and for whom that idealized Past becomes a journey back to olden Eden from its East of Expulsion, not a shoulder-shrugging plunging outward and forward against the waves on a transport–Virgil’s Guided Tour of the Afterlife, Rocinante, the Pequod, a raft on the Mississippi–with a sallying, entrepreneurial spirit.

It should not finally be nostalgia over adventure. Something in stale air?