Critic’s Notebook: The Wake without training wheels

Jack Burton: I don’t get this at all. I thought Lo Pan—

David Lo Pan: Shut up, Mr. Burton! You were not brought upon this world to “get it!”

Big Trouble in Little China (John Carpenter, 1986)


Earlier in my life, I read Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses, all by James Joyce. This year I decided to read Finnegans Wake, a novel notorious for its inaccessibility. Like The Cantos by Ezra Pound, it is a text many know, few read, and less understand.

While the Wake is difficult, this shouldn’t be seen as a deterrent to actually reading it. It is a singular creative artifact, overflowing with meaning. A cornucopia of languages, puns, and parody, the Wake will probably never be fully understood, at least not in any conventional sense.

Unlike my reading of Ulysses – a version heavily annotated – I decided to read the Wake without any guides, skeletons, and such. As noted Joyce scholar John Bishop states in the Penguin edition, “There is no agreement as to what Finnegans Wake is about, whether or not it is ‘about’ anything, or even whether it is, in any ordinary sense of the word, ‘readable’.” Perhaps reading the Wake isn’t about “getting it.” Without resorting to the trope, “All art is incomprehensible,” Bishop asserts the rather obvious point that the text will mean different things to different people. I’m a bit of a language nerd, collecting foreign language dictionaries, slang dictionaries, subculture- and/or industry-specific dictionaries (gay slang, soldier slang, etc.). The only real prerequisite for reading the Wake is a love for language. Language in and of itself. (Something I picked up reading Anthony Burgess and watching Monty Python.)

Conceived in a circular form – the last sentence of the novel begins the first sentence at the beginning of the novel – allows the reader to pick up and leave at any point. This circular form reinforces the works character as polyvocal, polysemic, and polymorphous.

Choice passages like:

“Male partly masking female. Man looking round, beastly expression, fishy eyes, paralleliped homoplatts, ghazometron pondus, exhibits rage.”

What does it mean? I don’t know. Not sure what Joyce meant either, although ghazometron sounds like a mashup of Arabic and Hebrew (ghazal = the poetic form + metron … could be based on Metatron the angel and/or the word metronome, the device that keeps the beat). Pondus relates to weight. Even within this sentence, chosen at random, meanings abound.

The Wake represents a gleeful effrontery against the reader’s desire to be told what a passage means. Meanings literally flood from the book, a logorrheaic gushing, and a smack to the face for those seeking to master a text. Like an ancient mystical text (The Zohar) or visionary art works (William Blake’s large-scale prophetic works), critics, specialists, and readers alike will be parsing and dissecting the work for years to come. While Samuel Beckett’s work plumbed the depths of the human experience through a merciless linguistic subtraction, the Wake represents the pinnacle of an encyclopedic intellect, the work of two decades, an orgy of obscurantist obfuscation.

Don’t think of the Wake as a literary Everest, an epic one slogs through to get an achievement badge. Read it because it is fun. Remember fun? See parsing the language and the multilingual puns not as an attempt to master the meaning, but as literary spelunking, exploring an infinite rabbit hole / Moebius strip / ouroboros. Finnegans Wake is a novel that encompasses everything, about the night and sleep and dreams written in a dream-language and embracing a punny dream-logic all its own. It is understandable only in the way dreams are. In the end, we will find meaning(s) in the text even Joyce never dreamed of.


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