Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Secret Life of Mushrooms in Finnegans Wake

Amanita muscaria aka Fly agaric.

Fellow Austin Wake group member Gus Strozier sent me an extremely fascinating article that sparked many ideas for me so I must share the article and some thoughts on it here. David Rose, in his essay "Cryptogrammic Cryptogams: Fungi in Finnegans Wake" explores some of the fungal references in the Wake "to ask if Joyce was really up to something, mycologically speaking" and uncovers some startling insights and tantalizing speculations.

You can read the full essay here.

Rose explicitly channels the amusing NY Times article "You Spigotty Anglease?" where Robert H. Boyle insists that the Wake is in fact all about fly fishing, providing evidence of references to fish and fly fishing on nearly every other page. It's one of the most fascinating characteristics of Finnegans Wake that you can view it through a certain biased lens and find confirmations of your theory all throughout. (I'm still assembling a pile of references to the book as a simulacrum of the globe.)

The evidence for a mycological network underlying the text is evident from its first page: Rose cites the lines "rot a peck of pa's malt" and "oranges laid to rust upon the green" (FW pg. 3) as referring to rotting, fermentation, and parasitic fungi. Those lines are familiar to Wake heads, but who among us has contemplated the mycological aspect lying therein? Or the word "holocryptogam" from page 546----I had always thought it was suggestive of the Wake as a hologram and a cryptogram or encoded text, completely overlooking the word "cryptogam" which literally means "hidden reproduction" and denotes plants that reproduce through spores, like fungi.

And now the text of Joyce's nightbook seems to respond to our inquiry and begins to bloom with fermenting flora. Rose describes this revelation through the eyes of a mycologist:
From the umwelt of the Wake’s quashed quotatoes (183.22) the ricorso of pan-etymological meanderings through the preconscious formation of meaning is oceanic and fluid, recycling through mind and history, recycling through the words themselves. Finnegans Wake is not a disquisition on mycology, but a mycelial mat in which fruiting bodies are knotted deep in the sclerotia of words. 

For the latest edition of the "Waywords & Meansigns" project, my friends and I recorded a selection from pages 613-615 (listen to "Vicocyclometer" at the bottom of this page) which included an extraordinary passage that took residence inside my brain. The passage continues to live in my head and I even recited it from memory at an event during the last Joyce conference in Toronto (it also featured prominently in my essay on war in the Wake). Rose highlights this glorious passage in his essay:
A spathe of calyptrous glume involucrumines the perinanthean Amenta: fungoalgaceous muscafilicial graminopalmular planteon; of increasing, livivorous, feelful thinkamalinks; luxuriotiating everywhencewhithersoever among skullhullows and charnelcysts of a weedwastewoldwevild…  (FW p. 613)
Rose cites John Bishop who describes this passage as a "compressed history of the evolution of botanical life." The passage indeed encapsulates the entire plant world, the planteon, with special focus on fungi and the growth of life feeding on decay and death. A constantly reiterated message in the Wake is that life springs forth even out of the deadest heaps of hollow-skull charnel piles.

The most astounding revelation in the essay comes from Rose's interpretation of this passage from pg. 51 of the Wake invoking the guilt-ridden Earwicker in Phoenix Park or "fungopark":
Those many warts, those slummy patches, halfsinster wrinkles, (what has come over the face on the wholebroader E?), and (shrine of Mount Mu save us!) the large fungopark he has grown! Drink!
Rose sees this as Joyce referring to the hallucinogenic toadstool Amanita muscaria---warts, slummy (slimy), patches, and wrinkles being some of the notable characteristics of the iconic mushroom. And there is also an element of ritual present, as Rose explains:
supplication at the shrine of Mount Mu[shroom] and the imperative Drink!, adumbrating the shamanic use of Amanita muscaria in Siberian cultures where the urine of a person under mushroom intoxication is recycled by the acolyte to perpetuate its intoxicating effects. This is later recapitulated in Mount of Mish (131.01) and sacred sponge (516.25).
Rose speculates on whether Joyce knew about the Amanita muscaria, arguing that he must have because in the "Museyroom" passage (note the hint of mushroom in "Museyroom") he brings in a Tom, Dick, and Harry trio where one of them is called "Touchole Fitz Tuomush" (p. 8) which contains the French word for fly agaric, Tue-mouche (pronounced "too moosh"). I can add further that Joyce seems to reference this again on p. 485 in "Tootoo moohootch!" In his 1968 book Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality, R. Gordon Wasson theorized that the Amanita muscaria was in fact the Soma drink of the Rigveda. Rose also informs us that Peter Lamborn Wilson followed that up in 2001 with a study comparing Vedic and Irish literature, suggesting "that an Amanita muscaria cult may have existed in prehistoric Ireland." As is often the case, Joyce in Finnegans Wake seems to have discovered this before anyone even began to search for it. Further fueling this hypothesis, Rose cites the phrase on pg. 229, "megafundum of his tomashunders" which combines important aspects of Wasson's theory, mushrooms and thunder. The word "tomashunders" is an anagram for "soma thunders" and of course thunder plays a powerful role in the Wake. Rose's suggestion of Joyce's foreknowledge of prehistoric Irish cults using a Soma drink made from mushrooms also gives a whole new meaning to the line at the bottom of page 265 about someone testing out a bowl of soup "to find out if there is enough mushroom catsup in the mutton broth." Marinate on that.

Another creative reading by Rose feeds into this mushroom fascination. In the closing pages of the text, as ALP and HCE walk in the woods they spot mushrooms. "Mch? Why them's the muchrooms, come up during the night." (FW p. 625) Proving a very astute Wakean, Rose suggests rotating the "M" in "Mch" 90 degrees counterclockwise (the rotating E appears throughout the Wake representing the main character in different states of being) which would give us ECH, the familiar initials of HCE, whose "Mch" is then reiterated in "muchrooms." I noticed a few pages earlier HCE is described as being "gentle as a mushroom" (p. 618).

Since HCE the mushroom man and monomythic hero also embodies the sacrificial symbol of Christ, whose body is turned into food and ritually eaten multiple times in the Wake (see p. 7, for example), it seems Joyce was tuned into another anthropological mystery that wasn't revealed until after the Wake's publication. It was not until 1970 that the Dead Sea Scrolls scholar John M. Allegro published his notorious book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross where he argues that Christianity originated with European cults devoted to the celebration and ritual consumption of the hallucinogenic Amanita muscaria mushroom.

Giving some further intrigue to all of this is Terence McKenna's preoccupation with Finnegans Wake and mushrooms. The Irish bard and ethnobotanist McKenna frequently lectured on the history and pharmacology of mushrooms. He also considered Finnegans Wake an essential guidebook. As described in his book True Hallucinations, when Terence and his brother Dennis ventured deep into the Amazon Basin to indulge in shamanic rituals and ingest ungodly amounts of hallucinogenic plants, they brought only two books---the I Ching and Finnegans Wake. The McKenna brothers felt "that Finnegans Wake represented the most complete understanding yet achieved of the relation of the human mind to time and space." (True Hallucinations, p. 147) If only they'd known about the book's revelations about secret mushroom cults.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Some Fun with "riverrun"

Norse Vegvisir rune.

Our local Wake reading group recently cycled from the somber lines of Anna Livia Plurabelle's bittersweet closing monologue back over to the first page of Finnegans Wake: "A way a lone a last a loved a long the [...] riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs." (FW 628-3)

The experience of deciphering the opening paragraphs of the Wake has been a slow, steady and joyful slog through a swamp thick with references, meanings, and suggestions. The information we've been pulling out from the words in these pages has been seemingly endless. It's gotten me thinking deeply about the text's very first word, the axis on which the Wake rotates---"riverrun." For a fun experiment in excavating meaning out of Wake words and appreciating Joyce's intricate chemistry of word construction, let's closely examine "riverrun."

First thing you'll notice is that this opening word of the book begins with a lowercase letter, indicating we are entering in media res (Latin "in the middle of events"). There's an immediate sense of befuddlement---one is struck with the feeling that they've been dropped into something that's been going on for a while, stepped into a stream whose source is unknown, one which is flowing toward an unknown destination. It's all a vast mystery. Much like our entry into the river of life upon birth---the world has its own history, it has been going on for a while, it has its own trajectory and momentum, and we're compelled to try to figure out what is going on, what is all this?

In my review of John Bishop's landmark study Joyce's Book of the Dark I discussed Bishop's theory that the river of Anna Livia Plurabelle refers to the flowing river of blood inside our bodies. This constantly pulsing river within us, which confronts us every night when we fall asleep with the sound of a heartbeat in our ears, contains the whole meandering, migrating history of our ancestors. Thus when we descend into sleep, into the hereditary millennia of our bodies, we encounter a running river whose origin far precedes us, highlighting how our experience of living in the flesh is also in media res, or as the Wake describes it, we are "all repeating ourselves, in medios loquos." (FW 398)

William York Tindall, in his Reader's Guide to Finnegans Wake, suggests that the chain of "the   riverrun" not only binds the end of the text with the beginning, it also "includes all betwixt and between." (Tindall 328) Much like the form of the circle which seems to be ubiquitous in all levels of existence from spiral galaxies to solar systems and spinning atoms, "the riverrun" is a universal structure. The last time I wrote extensively about one single Wake word, I focused on "anastomosis"---a term used in a wide range of sciences and disciplines (medicine, biology, mycology, geology, geography, architecture, etc) to describe an interconnection of streams or veins or branches.

FWEET gives us more to think about with the resonances of "riverrun" in different languages:

riverranno (Italian) - (they) will come again
rêverons (French) - (we) will dream
reverrons (French) - (we) will see again, (we) will meet again

"We will dream" is certainly a fitting way to open Finnegans Wake. The presence of "again" in the other words is also appropriate.

Reading the closing monologue of ALP evokes a somber feeling. She's dying, descending toward oblivion, hoping for just a few more moments of life. In our group, we couldn't help noting that the final lines in the Wake were essentially the last lines Joyce wrote before his own death in 1941 followed by the mass destruction of WW II. To continue that final sad sentence with, in the above sense, "they will come again" or "we will meet again" at the start of the book strikes a note of hope for renewal (a vital sentiment in our current dark times).

John Gordon's own Wake annotations add the following:

“rive” - English for “to split.”
“river” - French for “to join.”
FW is a book of “Doublends Jined” (20.16)
[double-ends joined]

The splitting apart and re-joining certainly fits with the "anastomosis" aspect I mentioned. It also recalls the lines from the end of the ALP chapter: "We'll meet again, we'll part once more." (FW p. 215) Gordon also mentions the German erinnerung for "memory" echoing "mememormee" from the closing lines of the text.

Bill Cole Cliett's excellent book Riverrun to Livvy adds some further threads of meaning. He describes ALP as "the river of life, the universal solvent in which all dissolves to mix and mingle and recombine, ever changing, ever the same." (Cliett p. 110) He mentions that Joyce likely got his "riverrun" from Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan":

"Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
  Down to a sunless sea."

"Alph" certainly suggests ALP. Cliett notes that Alph is supposedly "based on Alpheus from Greek mythology, a river that was believed to run under the sea. In a similar sense, ALP may run under a literary sea from page 628 to page 3." (Cliett p. 111)

Cliett also cites Petr Skrabanek who suggests "riverrun" is evocative of the Italian rivivranno for "they will revive" or "they will live again" and also reads it as the French rêvê-rond meaning "dream-round."

To break the word "riverrun" into its constituent elements also yields a range of interesting resonances:

Like "re-" it suggests a return or recurrence ("Finn, again!" FW p. 628). We find "re-" throughout the first page with "recirculation" and "rearrived" and "retaled."

"Ver" from Latin refers to spring time (vernal or primavera), the coming forth of life (French vivre which is also hinted at in "riverrun") out of the dead of winter. "Ver" is an active verb (even the word "verb" itself probably comes from the root "ver")---in Spanish it could mean to see, to watch, to hear, to try. It also hints at verity or truth. The etymological dictionary also notes that ver- as a Germanic prefix denotes "destruction, reversal, or completion."

Movement, flow, speed. The word run as noun (as in, a spell of running) derives from Old English ryne meaning "a flow, a course, a watercourse." The noun run also means a continuing series or continuous stretch of something. Fittingly for our purposes, the term run is also important in baseball, used when a runner has completed a full cycle around the bases.

Run carries a myriad of other meanings, but I want to specifically mention the suggestion of Old Norse rún or rune which refers to magic, mystery, or secrets contained within letters. Rune: a verse or song, especially one with mystical or mysterious overtones; an incantation, or a spell. This is a perfect description of Finnegans Wake.

Lastly, let's examine the numerology underlying "riverrun." I've discussed once before how the number 8 in Joyce's numerology is associated with the female, the feminine life-renewing energy, probably because the number 8 is a rotated infinity symbol (among the many numbers associated with ALP is 1001, where the 1's are seen as the banks of the river and the 00 is the infinity symbol representing the river). Molly Bloom's birthday is September the 8th and her famous Penelope episode is the 18th chapter of Ulysses. In Finnegans Wake, the chapter devoted to the mother goddess is the 8th chapter.

Now with this in mind, consider "riverrun." It contains 8 letters. It begins with "r" which is the 18th letter of the alphabet.

Furthermore, if we calculate a numerological value from the word "riverrun" it would look like this:

R = 18
I = 9
V = 22
E = 5
R = 18
R = 18
U = 21
N = 14

Total =  125

1 + 2 + 5 = 8

I'm sure there's lots more to be found here. Feel free to add on in the comments.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Waging Peace from the Inkbattle House: Finnegans Wake in the Shadow of War

(Note: A truncated version of this essay was presented at the North American James Joyce Conference at Victoria College in Toronto in June 2017.)

“Enough...have I read of augur in the hurry of the times” (FW 356)

This essay stems from my deep fascination with the years surrounding the publication of Finnegans Wake---James Joyce’s struggle to complete his 17-year magnum opus in the late 1930s as World War II erupted. In 1936 he told a friend that “the disturbed conditions now abroad in the world” made it hard for him to work, “It has been almost impossible for me to continue writing with such terrible anxiety night and day.” (Bowker, 484) Once he finally handed in the finished manuscript of Finnegans Wake in 1939, Joyce lamented, “They had better hurry. War is going to break out, and nobody will be reading my book anymore” (Ellmann, 721). The convergence of humanity’s grandest literary construction appearing in conjunction with man’s most destructive conflict feels highly significant to me. Finnegans Wake was finally published on May 4th 1939 and within four months World War II began.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Returning with Some News

Djuna Barnes illustration.

This blog has been dormant now for nearly three months while I've been tied up with full-time employment, home ownership, unfinished writing projects, and immersive reading experiences, including the pursuits of our local Finnegans Wake Reading Group. To blow the dust off this space, I want to quickly share a few nuggets of Joyce-related news with you.

For one, our Finnegans Wake Reading Group here in Austin is reaching a milestone. We've been meeting regularly now for over five years, engaging in close readings of the text together in our bi-monthly two-hour sessions. We started out doing two pages per meeting, but once we hit the final chapter of the text (Book IV), the material was so dense we started doing one page at a time to fully soak it all in. Lately, we've been reading the final pages of the Wake, Anna Livia Plurabelle's bittersweet monologue as the river of life drifts out into the sea of the unknown. In our next meeting, we'll be reading the famous final page, leading into the ricorso back to the beginning.

(Note that we are not completing a full cycle of the text yet, though, because we've been navigating through the Wake using the "treasure map" outlined here. Basically we've been reading the chapters from easiest to hardest. This is actually the seventh chapter we're completing as a group.)

My inspiration to create a Finnegans Wake group in Austin came from my experiences attending meetings of the Marshall McLuhan-Finnegans Wake Reading Group in Venice, California. Our gradual style of closely reading one or two pages at a time, kicking off the meeting with each participant reading two lines aloud in a circle---that all came from the Venice group led by my friend Gerry Fialka. His group has been deciphering the Wake now for 22 years and they recently received a great writeup in The Argonaut, a Los Angeles newspaper. Here's a snippet:
Fialka, formerly an archivist and production assistant for Frank Zappa, says the club isn’t invested in the author’s intended meanings — that’s impossible to know for sure — but unwrapping various layers of meaning throughout. Dozens of languages mix with English, weaving a tapestry of religious, pop culture, literature and mass media references. Puns, riddles, songs, jokes and allusions surface every which way. The plot, of which arguably there is none, is circular.

“No ‘Finnegans Wake’ reading club is exclusively about ‘Finnegans Wake,’ because ‘Finnegans Wake’ is about everything,” Fialka declares.

Joyce spent 17 years writing the book during a wave of new media technology, and taps into notions of a somnambulistic populous, no longer attentive to their environments. One possible message of the book is “all you Finnegans wake the F up,” Fialka says. “It’s about everything that happened and will happen.”

Another eminent Wakean and friend of mine, Derek Pyle, recently began writing a column in the James Joyce Quarterly covering Joyce-inspired projects in contemporary arts and media. His piece in the latest JJQ (Vol. 52, No. 3-4) included a nice writeup of the Austin Classical Guitar Orchestra performance I participated in last year that was inspired by Finnegans Wake. He even gave this blog a shout out!

The article also discusses the efforts of Polish translator, scholar, and musician Krzysztof Bartnicki to translate Finnegans Wake into a musical composition. "In Da Capo al Finne," Derek explains, "Bartnicki removes all the letters from the Finnegans Wake text except for ABCDEFGH, turning the remaining notes into a musical score (in keeping with German key notation where H indicates B natural and B means B flat). Bartnicki says the resulting text contains snippets of Frederic Chopin's compositions, 'Yankee Doodle,' and lots of themes from Star Wars."

Derek contemplates Bartnicki's observations, leading to an eloquent appraisal of the nature of Finnegans Wake as a living text. He mentions how some academics will scoff at Bartnicki's reading, since Joyce's book does not and could not contain all these things, and provides the following counterpoint:

Imagine, however, that there is a Finnegans Wake that exists not simply as a book but is somewhere in the ether---a wondrous, confused, endless gesture toward the ongoing events during human eons. Perhaps this oceanic tide is ingrained in the book but is ultimately much larger than and independent of the text's specificity. Perhaps this essence is what affects some readers so deeply, evoking imagination, creative inspiration, bemusement, and frustration. Such speculations might prompt the deification of Joyce, but Bartnicki opposes this by further questioning the very nature of authorship, suggesting that the reader's responses to the Wake do not 'belong' to Joyce any more than they 'belong' to the reader.

Lastly, I must mention the news that there is a new film in the works---James and Lucia, set to star Game of Thrones actor Aidan Gillen in the role of Mr. Joyce. The film will center on Joyce's life as he was composing Finnegans Wake in the late 1920s-early 30s, which: a) is a movie idea I've talked about for years, b) will likely take most of its material from Carol Loeb Schloss' book on this subject (which I wrote about here), and c) will hopefully not suck. I'm honestly more nervous about the film than I am excited for it. I worry they'll make it too sad, dark, grim, leaving out the infinitely humorous and energetic force of the Wake. Or they may try to portray Joyce's relationship with Lucia as incestuous for shock value. Or the movie might just suck and be boring, further reinforcing the notion to the general public that Joyce and Finnegans Wake should be ignored. Although, ya never know, maybe the exact opposite could happen...

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Recap of the Diasporic Joyce Conference in Toronto (Part 2 of 2)

Victoria College at the Univ. of Toronto where all of this took place.

(Continued from part 1 here.)

The cool, damp Toronto air was a welcome respite from the oppressive summer heat in Texas. It rained a few times, with heavy thunderstorms one night, but we couldn't have been happier with our time in Toronto. While I'd been there once many years ago, I was amazed during this trip to discover how great a place Toronto is. It's got great food, with restaurants catering to every dietary need or preference in every ethnic style all over the place. Being an academic hub, there are more enticing bookstores in the city than I was able to make it to. Most impressive of all was the architecture and city design. Old Gothic buildings intermingling with enormous, postmodern skyscrapers. And somehow within all that, the residential neighborhoods are quiet, quaint---homes have yards and gardens full of exotic flowers and trees. It felt like an idealized version of Manhattan. Far fewer homeless people and vagrants. Lacking that vibe of pedestrians rushing around all stressed out or angry. Drivers were a little whacky but there was far less angry horn-honking than NYC. Also, I didn't get quite the sense of the haves-and-have-nots polarity being as extreme as it is in Manhattan. Toronto seemed like a fairly prosperous, comfortable, laid-back place (noticed lots of people smoking weed in public). And it's a noticeably clean city.

I point all this out because the experience of walking through the city each morning to the University of Toronto campus was something I tried to savor. No matter which path you took there'd be interesting stuff to see, whether museum edifices or streets full of elegant old houses with jungle cube front yards.

Friday, July 7, 2017

A Recap of the Diasporic Joyce Conference in Toronto (Part 1 of 2)

One of the ten thunder words, by Robert Amos.

Last week I had the honor of participating in and experiencing the 2017 North American James Joyce Conference in the fantastic city of Toronto, Ontario. It was a wonderful time, akin to a Joycean Disneyland with displays of masterful artwork, insightful papers, and music-accompanied performative readings in a chapel (the centrality of the chapel in Finnegans Wake---HCE+ALP in Chapelizod---I don't think was lost on the conference organizers). I'm going to provide a brief recap (as brief as I can make it) here of my experience at the conference while sharing links to the work of some of the participants as an attempt to both digest everything I took in and provide a resource for the world of Joyceans and Wakeans who I know would be interested in some of this stuff.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Interview: Bruce Woodside Talks Finnegans Wake Reading Groups, Animation, and the New Edition of 'Waywords & Meansigns'

Waywords art by Sara Jewell.

[Bruce Woodside is an animator/writer/musician out of Los Angeles, California. Beyond his career contributing to such notable films as 'Space Jam,' 'Beauty and the Beast,' and 'Ghostbusters,' Bruce has been an avid student of 'Finnegans Wake' for many years. He's participated in numerous Wake reading groups, regularly shares insightful commentary in the FWread study group, and most recently contributed a recording of HCE's monologue from pages 540-550 to the newest edition of 'Waywords & Meansigns.'  What follows is a recent chat we had about his background with Joyce, his creative career, the new recording, and some his favorite parts of Finnegans Wake. Enjoy. - PQ]

PQ: I’m always interested to hear readers’ background with the Wake, so tell me a bit about your first encounter with Finnegans Wake.

BW: My introduction to the Wake came as a result of becoming fascinated with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when I was fourteen. That book shaped my imagination in a way and at a time in my life when I desperately needed it, although I didn’t fully understand its impact on me until much later. My small town Ohio background and upbringing were completely different from Joyce’s, and much of the political and religious context of the novel went right over my head, but the book struck a chord. For better (and worse), it altered my life. In pursuit of gaining a better understanding of it, I picked up a copy of Anthony Burgess’s ReJoyce, and his brief guided tour through the entirety of Joyce’s body of work was actually my first encounter with the Wake. Based on his description, I ordered the hardbound Viking edition and have been turning its pages and wading through its waters ever since.

I saw on your Waywords & Meansigns bio you’ve participated in some Finnegans Wake reading groups. Which ones have you partaken in? What were they like? Ever been to the Finnegans Wake/Marshall McLuhan reading group in Venice?

My first experience with a reading group was an off-and-on flirtation with a group of academics in Boulder, Colorado, who decided to stage a live reading of the Wake for the public on Joyce’s birthday, sometime in the early 70’s. It was the first time I’d ever heard anyone reading it out loud, and the concluding soliloquy, in particular, performed by a woman with the loveliest melancholy Irish brogue, was extraordinarily powerful.

After moving to Los Angeles, I began to haunt the bookstore at UCLA (where they were selling things like Glasheen’s Third Census and the Classical Lexicon before McHugh became available) and discovered that there was a regular group meeting on campus, working its way through the book at a pace of a few pages each month. This included occasional visits from scholars like Margot Norris and Vincent Cheng. And there was Guinness involved. Everybody had their own copies of the book with tiny little notes and annotations scrawled in the margins and scribbled between lines, a practice I never adopted. I attended as often as I could, until family and career intervened.

In the 90’s, I heard about Gerry Fialka’s McLuhan/Wake group that gathered on a monthly basis at the Venice library, and sat in on a few sessions, but distance and my work schedule precluded regular attendance – and the Internet became a primary location for the gathering of the Wake clans. I was an early participant in the FWRead online group, and have continued to contribute when I can. Retirement from the movie business and a renewed interest in McLuhan’s media theories have lured me back to Gerry’s group (after twenty years) which now meets on the first Tuesday of each month in Marina del Rey. We’re up to page 518.

Do you have a favorite chapter/section/passage/sentence in Finnegans Wake?

My favorite chapters are ALP (chapter 8) and the introduction (chapter 1), which I have literally read countless times, as opposed to, say, chapter 14 (Jaun’s sermon), which I’ve probably only read completely through twice. Not my favorite.

Chapter 1 is terrific – how anyone could read that chapter and not be drawn into the rest of the book is a mystery to me. I mean, I get it: this novel is probably the most deliberately obscure and difficult work of literature ever committed to paper, and reading it is an act of faith – in Joyce’s skill, in his commitment to the truth of immediate experience (even the experience of being immobilized in sleep), and in his ability to control his technique and not drive it over the cliff into total incomprehensibility. Boredom and/or anger are two fairly common responses (is it a put-on? can any novel be worth so much effort?), but for me, an almost ecstatic vision of ordinary everyday human experience can also be evoked, and that has made it an essential part of my reading over the better part of a lifetime. Oh, and I think it’s fun. And funny.

How did you decide upon your selection for Waywords & Meansigns? Tell me about the experience you had creating the recording.

I was a little late to the party, and the section (“Haveth Childers Everywhere”, pp. 540-550) was unclaimed. I would have preferred to take it right to the end of the chapter, but the remainder was already spoken for. Still, I think it’s a coherent piece, given over for the most part to a single voice: after pages and pages of Yawn dodging questions from the Four, misunderstanding and misinterpreting the nature of the ritual inquest, darting in and out of various channeled personalities in a tortured séance, he finally sheds his confusion of disguises and emerges as HCE, pretty clearly making the case, as no one else can, that he isn’t such a bad guy after all. Except that he is, of course, and can’t quite conceal in his peroration the nature of the crimes to which the city of Dublin and his river/wife bear witness. The city itself becomes both a testament to his accomplishments and evidence of his inevitable defeat. To me, despite the increasingly meaningless intrusions of the Four (who I decided to treat as radio static), it feels triumphant: the hero reclaims his title, despite all the usual reservations. “Book to besure,” he concludes [FW p. 550].

Anyway, that was the emotional throughline I decided to take with it. I’m fairly certain it could be interpreted in a variety of other ways, but that was the one that made sense to me, even when I couldn’t figure out exactly what he was saying. The reading came first; the music was designed to underscore the places in the text where I perceived emotional transitions taking place, e.g., from Humphrey’s initial lyrical boasts into the depressingly repetitive passages describing the “respectable” citizens of Dublin who have benefited from his city-building efforts.

The experience was rather like doing a deep reading of any page of the Wake: what starts out as a bizarre and confusing collage of barely recognizable English, smudged with overlays of other sounds, other senses, dimly connected by obscure distortions of dissolved grammar, eventually emerges into a foreground of tentative understanding – not a final identification but something closer to a kind of dark energy, an indicator of the invisible engine of an unconscious mind. The wonder of it, for me, is that real characters emerge out of that darkness, with real relationships, even though their outlines are blurred and they are in a near-constant state of transformation.

Your reading has the same lilt and tone as Joyce’s recording of Anna Livia Plurabelle---was this style intentional?

I read somewhere once that the Wake is best read out loud with a kind of “stage Irish” accent, this rough approximation of which was the best I could manage. I have listened to Joyce’s recording of ALP many times, and I did take my cue from what clearly seems to me to be a performance of the piece rather than a straightforward reading – it’s his notion of what Dublin washerwomen sound like, and he should know. I, on the other hand, am probably doing something closer to a parody of an Irish accent, but I have no way of judging it. An actual Irish speaker will probably wince.

I understand you’re an illustrator who’s done work for Disney and Warner Bros.---can you tell me a bit about your job and how you got into it?

I spent nearly forty years in the entertainment business as an animator, traveling a career arc that took me from a lightbox on which I drew cartoons with a pencil on sheets of punched paper all the way up to a digital screen on which I helped design always-on persistent virtual reality worlds in 3D that could be entered via an Internet portal. In between those two poles, I worked a variety of jobs as the nature of the business slowly (and then all at once) shifted from analog to digital technologies.

I started out in Denver, Colorado, after graduating in 1971 with a degree in English Lit., hoping to write and direct live action films, but my entrance into the field came by way of cartoons, after which I decided that drawing films as opposed to shooting them on location was a more pleasurable (and less strenuous) way of earning a living. I relocated to Los Angeles in the late 70’s, moving from commercials to feature projects. The advance of computer technology was a huge disruption for many people in the cartoon business, but somehow I managed to transition during the 90’s from animation into storyboards and, eventually, direction in the new CG environment, which included working for Disney Imagineering on their VR projects. And then, right out the door into retirement, although I still animate for my own pleasure and for distribution on the Internet (and even occasionally do so with a pencil on paper.)

Has your Joyce fanhood ever factored into your creative career at all?

On the whole and in a word, no. When I first began writing (poetry, novellas, eventually unproduced screenplays) Joyce was, of course, an inspiration; but attempting to model one’s writing on Joyce in any way can be an enormously exhausting and eventually dispiriting endeavor. Had I single-mindedly pursued a career in writing, I might have worked my way through the difficulty and found my own voice, but Joyce’s writing sets a very high bar, and unfortunately it isn’t a bar that is of much value in what passes for a lot of writing in the medium of film.

While I find Joyce’s writing to be a model of scrupulous clarity, it is precision acquired at a cost. It takes real discipline (and time) to remove all the extraneous material and arrive at a linguistic approximation of the truth, without offering your reader the helping hand of explanation or the familiar scaffolding of a neat three-act structure. Hollywood in general is a land of lazy readers, of fifteen-second plot synopses and elevator pitches. The image is king, language its court jester.

I’ve always thought the only way to really film FW would be in that kind of quasi-animated Waking Life/A Scanner Darkly style. Have you ever contemplated that kind of endeavor?

I don’t think Finnegans Wake needs to be a film (I think the Wake has probably achieved its ideal form as a book), but that won’t stop people from trying to turn it into one, including yours truly who has for years nursed the dream of animating to Joyce’s reading of ALP. Animation (though not necessarily the rotoscoping of Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly) seems the correct medium for the continual watery transformations a Wakean film demands, and I think some animated efforts have gotten close (Adam Harvey’s version of Chapter 7,, strikes me as one of the best to date), but most (like Mary Ellen Bute’s Passages) are still too solid and well-defined to render the slippery and playful quality of the fluid dream. Joyce solved the problem by inventing a new language that only just barely resembles the old one, but translating it into some visual counterpart tends to nail down the meanings to a limiting singular point of view. Taking a cue from the Waywords project, it might work best as an anthology, soliciting a variety of stylistic takes from individual directors. Amazon? Netflix? Are you listening?

Lastly, what other authors and books do you love besides Joyce and Finnegans Wake?

When I was a kid growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, my imagination was nurtured by comic books, movies, cartoons, science fiction, TV shows – the entire junk floodtide of popular media that saturated the consumer landscape pre-Internet. Hence: my career. So my tastes are all over the place, but there are other authors who from time to time have managed to seize my attention: William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Hart Crane come to mind, as well as Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, H.G Wells, William Faulkner, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon – and one minor little shout-out here to the once-famous, now forgotten fantasy writer James Branch Cabell, whose elegant mock-romantic prose in Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice, was the subject of an obscenity trial in this country several years in advance of the battle over Joyce’s Ulysses.