Finnegans Wake 1.4 and 1.5

by Paul Mathers

Yes, decidedly the month in which I move was not the appropriate month to try to start reading this book. It’s a book that demands more attention than just about any other book I’ve read, and I’m reading it in a time when I have as little attention to give as I’ve had in the past 7 years. But I keep reminding myself that there is no deadline for this book. There is a deadline for this move.

Before I address this section specifically, I saw an article about someone who has decided to illustrate Finnegans Wake. The illustrations are wonderful, but I’ve been kicking around a quote by the artist:

“Joyce was deeply influenced by music in his writing, and I think it’s fine to appreciate some of the book quite passively, as if it were music. I would agree that there’s no such thing as “understanding” the book entirely. Partial incomprehensibility is part of its design.”

The music connection has made itself abundantly clear to me in my reading. The tempo of the language is musical and Joyce peppers the text with musical references. But the quote above brought to my mind the musical philosophical differences between Richard Wagner and Johannes Brahms. Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk ideal was a realization of the sort of musical storytelling that Disney employed in Fantasia. Sit back, close your eyes, and picture what story this music might be telling. But, of course, you wouldn’t be closing your eyes because he was creating these great, mad opera events. One concept he introduced and we, his successors, have adopted wholeheartedly is the leitmotif, which is sort of to a character or concept or object what the daemons are in Philip Pullman. Here’s a bit of music that means Frodo is going to put the ring on again, here’s the tune that tells us, without looking at the screen, that Darth Vader just entered the room.

Brahms, on the other hand, argued for “pure music.” You go, you listen to the music, and that is the experience. He felt that was more than adequate and that Wagner was drowning the dish in seasoning and condiments. The music is not “about” anything else. It’s “about” being a piece of music.

In my opinion, both of them won, but I feel like both of them would be surprised and possibly a little dismayed on how their camps played out. I might be in the minority, but I think Wagner would not be a fan of John Williams and I certainly don’t think Wagner would compose film scores (unless they were films in which he was also the director, producer, cinematographer, and author). I think in the world of, I’ll be so snobbish as to call it, Serious Music, Brahms won more of the day. But I can imagine a pleasant 8 hour car trip with nothing to play but Brahms. I cannot so easily imagine a pleasant 8 hour car trip with nothing to listen to but Schoenberg, Scriabin, and Berg. These Modernists would be in agreement with Brahms on “pure music.” Not so much on tonality.

Which brings me to my comparison. A book is a book and music is music, and so any comparison is a little unfair. But I think, to me, and in light of what the illustrator up there said, Finnegans Wake puts me more in mind of John Zorn.

It is recognizable as music. There are notes and rhythm, played on recognizable instruments. One way to look at it is as discordant, but there is something… well, pleasant might be an overstatement, but it certainly keeps the ear interested. But this also isn’t an entirely satisfactory comparison because it lacks some key elements of Joyce, which is playing and making jokes with the actual language and form. A bit like Macaronic Poems (the form which I’m currently stalled out on in my poetry writing project). Or a bit like the music of P.D.Q. Bach maybe?

But I’m still not entirely at home with the comparison because, as the illustrator also says, it is not just gibberish. To enjoy it for the sound of the words seems to me like listening to scat music. Or Brahms. It’s lovely and enjoyable, but the meaning is exclusively that. Joyce is communicating. He is using his words advisedly and he is even attempting to tell a story. But that’s not all he’s doing. I think what I’m coming to is that Finnegans Wake is beyond all of this. All of these comparisons work, but it is even more than that.

I say all of this having just finished two sections where the wading gets deep.

In 1.4, HCE seems to get assaulted by someone called the Festy King. Festy King is then taken to court over the assault (I would note that this section in particular nearly shifts into straight, traditional narrative). The judges might be the apostles who wrote the four gospels. And they might be drunk. And they might have let the Festy King off while HCE went into hiding. The judges may have called for a letter from HCE’s wife ALP, a letter in which she declares his innocence. This item is an important item in this book. It might suggest forgiveness, absolution, and the key to freedom from guilt. Naturally, it is missing.

The next chapter might be about ALP and introducing the letter. This section seems to contain some clues about how to read this book. He writes:

“the sudden spluttered petulance of some capItalIsed mIddle; a word as cunningly hidden in its maze of confused drapery as a fieldmouse in a news of coloured ribbons:”

Which is nearly a functional thesis statement for this work!

“by that ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia: all those red raddled obeli cayennepeppercast over the text, calling unnecessary attention to errors, omissions, repetitions and misalignments:”

Which would nearly work as an endorsement to quote on the back of this very book!

Next up: Joyce has created a quiz to review what we’ve learned so far.