In a Creative Writing course that began today, we discussed James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. As among the most difficult texts, it is a sprawling work of etymological wizardry, mythological references, and multiple emotional, fictional, and poetic layers. To say I understood some of it would even be false; it is a weighty treatise on the possibilities and limitations of language, a foldaway paper that keeps changing shape as you read on and on. Every word is purposeful; every letter connects to the larger themes of invasion, sexual tension, and cyclical historicity. Even the spaces, or lack thereof in many cases, are an artful decision, a choice that reflects Joyce’s playfulness and prowess.
For the most part, this mastery is lost in the dense layering and overtones. It is an inaccessible masterwork, a testament of the apex of writing for writing sake rather than reading sake.
This is of course the intention, but even the explanation seems dissatisfactory. Reading Finnegan’s Wake heightened possibility of human technique is great, but it may just be balderdash too and we might just be reading in the inferences and really, when we distill it down, the brilliance of the text is in fact nothing more than Joyce’s inability to say exactly what he wanted to in simple terms. Instead he had to distill his meanings in lyricism, manifold interpretations, and linguistic jargon. The layering led to noise, not clarity, a forgetful reminder that it is the single violin string that strums highest and most beautifully of all the instruments.
I don’t believe this is the case – it would be too convenient and an obvious ignorance to the fact of Joyce’s intentions – but in the possibilities that the text suggests, which really is anything and everything, a swelter of beginnings and endings, this may be a potentiality.
I mention this because at the end of the class, we had to write our own Finnegan’s Wake. In doing so, I felt pretentious and self-indulgent. I wasn’t writing for a reader – I was writing for myself. Still, it is below. Like the required explanations in Joyce’s magnus opus, I will provide similar justifications for my ‘work’ (if it needs explanations, hasn’t the piece failed in the first place?). Hopefully I will wake up from the nightmare of such self-gratification eventually.
Under a Devil’s Punch Bowl nailed ‘cross the red riven rural rump of a mountain stolen from and by, by and from the cough-coughing, keek-keeking somapuffs of gray, the sacrifice of a Brave New World, the tons of hammers banging, the apples wrought, the bony-fished escarpment, the Poles, the people, and the pests, Ken stands cough-coughing, keek-keeking, and He looks down at the pale blue dot of all.
Under a Devil’s Punch Bowl – an area of Hamilton which is emblazon with a white large cross, it is a place where many suicides happened, ‘under’ suggests the underworld, the Punch Bowl is a cult-like reference to the poison that seems peppering Hamilton
Nailed ‘cross – reference to the geography of the Hamilton mountain where the Devil’s Punch Bowl resides and to the biblical reference of Jesus being nailed to the cross (later referred to as sacrifice)
Red riven rural rump – red for the blood of the Jesus, riven because of the flesh being torn (through suicide and the cruxificion), rural because the Hamilton mountain is considered rural, and rump because it is considered the butt-end of Hamilton
Of a mountain stolen – Hamilton is referred to as the Steel city with its numerous factories, and once again the geography is being played upon
From and by, by and from – straight lyricism, no gimmicks (unless the whole thing is, of course)
The cough-coughing, keek-keeking somapuffs of gray – with the steel factories in Hamilton, the city looks as though it is perpetually coughing and this relates to the later pestilence of the city – steel is its industry but it also leads to its decay for both the people and the city itself. ‘Keek’ is Polish slang, which relates to the character referred to later. Somapuffs refer to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as well as the implication of soma – having a drug that leads to complacency as steel did to Hamilton
Sacrifice of a Brave New World – sacrifice refers to Jesus Christ as well as the Abraham sacrifice of Isaac (which would have led to a new world for Abraham and the Jewish people). Brave New World, while a literary reference, also stands as for North America 16th century America with its hopes and promises and unbridled potential, all of which Hamilton was built upon
The tons of hammers banging – refers to Hamilton’s industry as well as indirectly to Hamilton itself. A silly, silly play-on-words
The apples wrought – like the beginning of the new world suggested by Jesus’ sacrifice, there is an allusion to Adam and Eve, the Paradise of Garden of Eden (similar to Hamilton’s seemingly infinite possibility), and also to the decay – the apples are wrought (as though by hammering), which sounds like rot
The bony-fished escarpment – Hamilton Mountain, where this is all situated, is called the escarpment and most of Hamilton in primordial ages was a large sea. As a result, the escarpment is filled with fossils of previous life and industry. Also, escarpment suggests the decay of ‘carp’ – a fish which finds itself among the funeral of a bygone era
The Poles, the people, and the pests – A mass of Polish people inhabited Hamilton in the 1980s and there was various discrimination due to Cold War perceptions. The pests leads once again alludes to the moral, economic, and individual rot of Hamilton
Ken stands cough-coughing, keek-keeking, and He looks down at the pale blue dot of all. – Ken refers to my initials, the cough-coughing, keek-keeking to my own disease born from and because of Hamilton and being Polish here, and I, under Devil’s Punch Bowl, am like God looking at the world – referred by Carl Sagan as a blue dot (which is fitting for Lake Ontario is a pale, dirty gray) – a world which I myself have seen change over the years, sometimes for the better, sometimes not at all, and I, my own world of rot and growth, have changed all the same with it
That is all, class. Sorry for the exercise in pretention. I’m sure one of us got something from it. Here’s to hoping it was you.