Art, Books, Finnegans Wake

‘A Knot of Coherent Nonsense’: Reading Joyce’s ‘Finnegans Wake’…Again


This week I decided to have another go at reading James Joyce’s massive book Finnegans Wake, and bought an old second-hand copy from a beautiful antiquarian bookshop here in Wellington, NZ. Since I’ve been away traveling in the past few months and living minimally out of a rucksack, this will pretty much be the only real book I’ll be carrying around with me (the rest of my books are on my Ipad!). I’ve tried to read Finnegans Wake a number of times before and I’ve always failed to get much beyond the first handful of pages. I really have tried. The book itself is notoriously and willfully obscure, consisting of dense pages of seemingly senseless neologisms, streams of total nonsense, puns, and mysterious geographical, historical, and literary allusions. And this is absolutely unrelenting for each and every one of its 628 pages.

I first read Joyce’s Ulysses back in college after being partially inspired by reading and enjoying Malcolm Lowry’s stream-of-consciousness masterpiece Under the Volcano, Virginia Woolf’s modernist novel To the Lighthouse, and Samuel Beckett’s Absurdist play Waiting for Godot. I had also been intrigued by the figure of Joyce himself in Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties, where he is a cypher for genuine artistic creativity and integrity in the face of the Dadaist Tristan Tzara’s nihilistic iconoclasm. In fact, I think Stoppard’s characterisation of Joyce made a deep and lasting impression on me, as I’ve always subsequently held Joyce in the highest regard. At the age of seventeen, in the midst  of devouring pretty much any difficult and challenging literature I could get my hands on – Artaud, Lawrence, TS Eliot, Plath, Burroughs, Lovecraft – Joyce’s Ulysses was by far the most challenging thing I’d ever read at that point. I remember spending days reading interminably long sections of impenetrable prose interspersed with the occasional passage of absolute magnificence. But overall I’m not sure I really could say I understood Ulysses when I first read it.


I re-read it a few years later, and it a great deal more made sense and I was much more able to become immersed in the meandering density of its prose this time around. But Finnegans Wake has remained utterly impenetrable to me. At times I’ve been swayed towards the opinion of some critics who just see the whole thing as a monumental joke, or a ponderous exercise in nihilistic prose-death. This is a view not really challenged by Joyce’s own quip for those puzzled by the book when extracts from it in progress were first published- ‘If I can throw any obscurity  on the subject let me know.’ In fact, at some points I’ve even recommended the book as a reasonably effective cure for insomnia.


But a few things have kept bringing me back to Finnegans Wake over the years:

(1) The memory of the absolute magnificence of Joyce’s earlier book Ulysses. This is a book that remains with me and continues to haunt the mind, and I figured if Joyce was capable of writing such a glorious and beautiful book, surely his final book must be worth the monumental effort of actual reading.
(2) The fact that Joyce was utterly devoted and worked ceaselessly on this book for nearly two decades. Surely the the fact that he spent such a huge amount of his life putting together this novel must signify something. It cannot just be an elaborate modernist literary joke, neither intended to be read or appreciated, can it?
(3) Terrence McKenna’s idiosyncratic psychedelic analysis of Finnegans Wake, which I found provocative and suggestive (he claimed that it was ‘about as close to LSD on a page as you can get’).
Like McKenna, I really hunger after books which challenge me so absolutely. I figure it’s the literary equivalent of the mountain peak’s challenge for the climber. It exists, it is out there, it is massive, dense, obscure and seldom read – I cannot resist the challenge.
(4) Finally, it has been the fortuitous discovery of one of the best commentaries on Joyce that I’ve ever read which has really persuaded me to to go back to Finnegans Wake. This is John Bishops’s 1986 study Joyce’s Book of the Dark: Finnegans Wake (University of Wisconsin Press). Bishop absolutely celebrates the work’s obscurity, which he calls its ‘essence and glory’.

Bishop suggests that Finnegans Wake is a book about the night, an attempt to affectively capture and express what happens in the abyss opened up by sleep. The obscurity of the work, Bishop suggests, is entirely a feature of the terrain Joyce surveyed (i.e. the abyss of the night), rather than with his treatment of it. The essential obscurity of the work is the darkness of night rendered verbal, and the night is of course ‘intractably obscure.’ When compared with the text’s obscurity, or even with other attempts to transcribe the dream state, the lengthy intervals of absolute darkness of our sleep in the night are qualitatively of a different order of obscurity. To support his reading Bishop cites numerous examples of Joyce explaining with some degree of sincerity his efforts in Finnegans Wake (or Works in Progress, as he referred to it throughout the entire 17 years of its completion):

‘A nocturnal state, lunar. That is what I want to convey: what goes on in a dream, during a dream. Not what is left over afterward, in the memory. Afterward, nothing is left.’ (Joyce)

Joyce’s final monumental work is about nothing more or nothing less than the night itself – a monumental effort at affectively describing the (non)experience of darkness – an effort which Joyce memorably refers to as a ‘mountainy molehill’. Bishop argues that Joyce, whilst influenced and engaged with Freud and psychoanalysis, fundamentally resists pursuing that path in favour of another unique literary direction. Joyce’s reservations about Freud’s interpretation of dreams echo Wittgenstein’s own sceptical comments. Wittgenstein was highly critical of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, and expressed his own discomfort with Freud’s habit of interpreting dreams by seeking to provide an explanation of them in their entirety. Wittgenstein remained deeply suspicious of theoretical and linguistic reconstructions that viewed the dream as a whole object, or tried to provide narrative coherence to something so implicitly fragmented. In a dream, Wittgenstein writes,

‘It is as though we were presented with a bit of canvas on which were painted a hand and a part of the face and certain other shapes, arranged in a puzzling and incongruous manner. Suppose this is surrounded by considerable stretches of blank canvas, and that we now paint in forms: say an arm, a trunk, etc. leading up to and fitting onto the shapes in the original, and that the result is what we say: ‘ Ah, now I see why it is like that, and what those various bits are’. (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief (Wiley-Blackwell, 1970), pp. 45-6)

Wittgenstein’s point here is not only that Freudian dream analysis (the ‘linguistic’ painting in of forms) is suspect on account of its desire for creating familiar pictures; it is also that the Freudian technique proposes a solution where no problem has been offered. For Wittgenstein the effect of this process of interpretation is the gradual erosion of the specific nature of the dream canvas, which had originally represented only fragments and was intrinsically disjointed and incomplete. Elsewhere Wittgenstein remarks:

‘What is intriguing about a dream is not its causal connection with events in my life [as Freudian dream analysis posits], but rather the impression it gives of being a fragment of a story … the rest of which is still obscure.’ (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (Wiley-Blackwell, 1998), p. 68)

It is clear that for Wittgenstein there is a fragmentary quality associated with the dream and this solicits an impression of a unified story that doesn’t actually exist. The actual elements that would make the story a unity are always hidden, obscure and mysterious, and any attempt to linguistically fill in those blanks (to paint in the forms) risks subsuming the quality of the dream. The coherent and unified interpretation only nullifies its specific energy. The dream must be maintained in its essentially fragmented state giving only the impression of a unified and coherent story. How is it possible to preserve the fragmentary quality of the dream? Even more challenging, Bishop suggests, is how to penetrate, commune with, and express that seemingly impenetrable abyssal darkness beyond even the recollection of the dream.

For Bishop a book so fundamentally about the absoluteness of night would, by necessity, ‘have to undertake an intricate and wondrously obscure inquiry into language.’ The gauntlet laid down by Joyce is one regarding the question of how language can possibly be used to capture the ‘nothing that language, constantly about something, is not.’ The dense neologistic terrain of Finnegans Wake is an exercise in challenging the essential referential quality of language in favour of its ambiguously associative and affective nature. It is an exercise in impressionistic linguistic associationism, where the ‘dim particles of the dark standing out in “m’m’ry” and evoking others, and still others, until, by a process of mnemonic linking, one has filled the gaps and reconstituted a spotty “m[e]m[o]ry”. (“m’m’ry’ is Joyce’s wonderfully playful neologism which is so suggestive of the failing memory of the abyssal night we all experience.

Bishop Joyce

As you start to read Finnegans Wake, which Joyce said could be started anywhere since it has no beginning, no end, and no linear sense whatsoever, you enter immediately into absolute obscurity and language that only hints darkly at being referential. There are a whole series of disjointed impressions presented in a deeply strange and unfamiliar language, often playfully vernacular, full of puns and dense linguistic, geographical, historical and literary allusions (or ‘elusions’). As you read on, the experience becomes deeply oceanic, and you find yourself gliding into a weird state akin to being between wakefulness and sleep. This is not, I hasten to add, the experience of nodding off to a deeply boring book. Not at all. In fact it resembles a strange new state of wakefulness. Often, when in that state of mind hovering between sleep and wakefulness, you enter into an almost hallucinatory state of clarity and freedom, shifting seamlessly between incommensurable thoughts, ideas and feelings that somehow feel as if they ‘make sense’. It is a kind of waking dream – with all of the allusions to different meanings associated with awake, wakes, waking. The sheer density you are confronted with in the first few pages of Finnegans Wake has the effect of pulling you into this odd state, and this is where you either give up (as I have so many times before) or you sail along with it. Nothing makes any sense whatsoever at first, and then suddenly, as Bishop writes, ‘particles of immanent sense stand out from the dark’ which then suggest connections and associations with other ‘particles of sense’ in the text, and then still more others, until ‘not necessarily in linear order – out of a web of items drawn together by association, a knot of coherent nonsense will begin to emerge; and upon this coherent nonsense, some interpretation will have to be practiced in order to discover an underlying sense.’

As you submit to the work’s absolute linguistic obscurity the effect is absolutely exhilarating – and the feeling of floating along within this ‘knot of coherent nonsense’ really does begin to give you a mysterious and clear sense of the other side of things, the darkness of the night, the abyss. It becomes, as Joyce writes (playing upon the word chiaroscuro), ‘clearobscure’. I feel like I’ve discovered a massive old rusty key to a forbidding old castle door, and I’m barely passed through the entrance, but this might well be the time I actually begin to penetrate some of the real mysteries of Finnegans Wake once and for all, and spend time enjoying the ‘epistlemadethemology for deep dorfy doubtlings.’ (Joyce)




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