Finnegans Wake 1.1

by Paul Mathers

Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.

Yes, it is a dense work. Yes, it is slow reading. Yes, it does not make conventional sense nor is it in conventional English. But about ten pages in, as I was struggling with the text in the way I’m sure everyone struggles with the text, I thought to myself, “Yes, but am I enjoying it?”

And I found that I was. Much like Ulysses, in spite of the overly reported difficulty of the book it also strikes me as a highly joyful book. The wordplay is sweeping, cosmic, immense, sublime. The comparison I imagined was Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, another overly reported difficult work. If one were to buy a ticket to that opera, one finds one’s self in the opera house for around five hours observing a piece that is famously both minimalistic and abstracted. People have made all sorts of accusations against the work of Philip Glass, some of which I can intellectually understand where they are coming from, but I’ve never been able to shake the fact that I simply enjoy his sound. When one realizes this, one can settle back into enjoying the next five hours or six hundred pages.

Well, I guess that remains to be seen.

As I predicted, the Oxford World’s Classics edition has proved invaluable. There is one passage early on:

“This is camelry, this is floodens, this is solphereens in action, this is their mobbly, this is panickburns. Almeidagad! Arthiz too loose! This is Wellingdone cry. Brum! Brum! Cumbrum!”

What on Earth is Joyce on about? Well, in the introduction there is a Chapter by Chapter Outline of the, as it were, plot. In regards to this section “Finnegan’s ‘mild indiscretion’ projected onto the battle of Waterloo”. These sections, these plot fragments, flow not nearly so neatly as they are delineated in the introduction, but, having read this and knowing it was coming, at one point I realized “Oh! The Duke of Wellington!”

YOU HAVE TO HAVE THIS! You cannot travel this land without a Virgil! I am convinced of it and I think Joyce meant for it to be. I think he meant to open a deep deep mine and throw the reader into it, leaving it up to the reader to find the tools to mine anything from it or even a lantern. I think I read someone somewhere compare the first 29 pages to learning a new language. It is daunting, but I am assured that it’s also rewarding. I’ve also heard it compared to a dream, the night-twin of the day of Ulysses. Considering the intersections between the lives of Joyce and Jung, this interpretation has a rather startling edge to me.

Also, onomatopoeia is one of Joyce’s chief playthings in this work. Famously, at the beginning, he makes a joke about The Fall of Man:

“The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur-nuk!)”

The “word” in parenthesis is, perhaps, the thunderclap of God’s wrath over Adam’s sin or, an option that made me chuckle when I read it, the written sound of someone falling down a flight of stairs. The book is brimming with this kind of “joke.”

This book does require a great deal more digging than Ulysses required. Indeed, people can spend a lot of time and energy… well, I suppose a better way to put it might be to say that what one gets out of it depends upon what one puts into it, much like life (and, as Tom Lehrer observed, a sewer). I discovered that someone actually put this moment to music:

<p><a href=”″>Thunderclap for Six Kinetic Light Drums + Finale</a> from <a href=””>Jenn Figg</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

People have devoted a lot of time and energy to this book. I am thankful for so many civic minded individuals who have traveled this path and left landmarks.

And speaking of music, it is helpful to know the song from which the work takes its title. In the first 29 pages, I think the lyrics of the song have cropped up nearly a dozen times:

The Fall of Man seems to be a motif. Since this is Joyce, it is transposed over a common Irishman with a problematic relationship with religion whose sin is succumbing to sexual urges. In this we see both an indictment of and an attraction to the baser instincts, which reflects the nature of Original Sin, that is to say the inclinations towards impurity. Also since this is Joyce, these themes are going to go into the high speed blender. As form meets content, we are warned of this. The first lines seem to reference the beginning of Tristan und Isolde and we who read the introduction know that the daughter of the… I suppose we should call him the title character although Finnegan morphs into a man named HCE for most of the book (I think), anyway the daughter is named Isolde. Also knowing that Joyce’s daughter Lucia, upon whom he doted, was descending into schizophrenia as he was writing this, we are prepared to see this theme of Original Sin in this form permeate every human in the story like sunlight through glass.

And looking back on the sentences I just wrote makes me keenly aware of how difficult it is going to be to talk about this.

I suppose one of the hotly debated, polarizing questions surrounding this book is whether a work of literature should demand this much of a reader. I would hazard a guess that out of nine billion people, only a thousand some people on Earth have read it at any given time. I have six hundred daunting pages to go still and I’m wary of making any hubristic statements at this point (picturing myself as Stephen Icarus), but I think that this is a fine use of the form. If I wanted everything presented to me on a silver platter, Western Civilization is chock full of entertainment outlets happy to provide for a fee. Should a book be difficult as this? Sure! Should a book be simple as Hemingway? Sure!

Am I going to make it through this book?

Am I going to make it through this book?



Is this thing on?