Tuesday, 2 June 2015

The Great Kiswahili Controversy of 1962-3

Let me take you back to the the Great Kiswahili Controversy, which set the pages of the Wake Newslitter ablaze in 1962-3.

I first came across this historic dispute in Roland McHugh's gripping 1981 book, The Finnegans Wake Experience, which is out of print but can be found on google books. For this blog, I've also gone back to the Newslitter, which you can download for free from the wonderful Joycetools webpage.

The back cover of McHugh's book

The beginning of the 1960s was a momentous time in the Wake world. 'In the 1950s,' writes McHugh, 'it had been really difficult to publish articles about FW: editors balked at the ravings of late Joyce....Then in 1962, Clive Hart and Fritz Senn founded A Wake Newslitter, and a new age began.'

The new age marked the end of what the Wake-loving Connecticut housewife, Adaline Glasheen, called 'the amateur's age of unriddling': 

'It was a time when Finnegans Wake was yet outside literature, criticism, scholarship, when it had no price on the literary exchange, when it seemed capable of solution or dissolution at any moment....Work was imaginative, unstructured, freely shared, and great delight was taken in our unexampled chance to explore a charming and enigmatic landscape....It is commonly said...that because Finnegans Wake was so hard to read and so uncertain of permanent literary value that only the amateur could afford to unriddle it....The amateur age was over when Mr Hart and Mr Senn published A Wake Newslitter.'

Adaline Glasheen, Introduction to A Tour of the Darkling Pain: The Finnegans Wake Letters of Thornton Wilder and Adaline Glasheen, University College Dublin Press, 2001
Here's Newslitter co-founder, Clive Hart, described by Roland McHugh as 'an Australian of a jovial and genial disposition...like myself trained in the sciences – physics in fact – and...also a major international authority on medieval kites and windsocks.'

Hart in 1967, from flickr
He's one of the two main figures in our Kiswahili Controversy.

The second figure is Jack P. Dalton, a New York textual scholar, notorious for his vituperative attacks on fellow Joyceans. There are some astounding stories about Dalton's behaviour in Fritz Senn's Joycean Murmoirs, where I found this photograph of him.   

The cantankerous Jack P. Dalton lays down the law

Here's a typical blast of Dalton, from his 1963 Newslitter review of David Hayman's First Draft Version of Finnegans Wake: 

'Damn it, Hayman, you make me ill with rage. The creation of such monstrous vile filth as this, and all the rest of it, should be a criminal offense, necessarily capital. That it is not is a grave defect of our society.'

Dalton and Hart were co-editors of Twelve and a Tilly, a 1966 book of essays marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of the Wake. Dalton submitted a preface for it in which he maligned every single one of his contributors! 



The controversy began when an amateur Wakean, Philipp Wolff, a Swiss who had lived in Africa, recognized a number of Kiswahili words in the Anna Livia Plurabelle chapter. His list was published in the Newslitter in December 1962. Here's an example, from the washerwomen's discussion of the contents of Anna Livia's bag of gifts:


'But what was the game in her mixed baggyrhatty? Just the tembo in her tumbo or pilipili from her pepperpot? Saas and tass and specis bizaas.' 209.11 

Wolff writes:  '(here they come thick and fast): tembo = native beer, also elephant; tumbo =belly; pilipili = pepper; saa = hour, watch, clock; taa = light, lantern; bidhaa = trade goods, merchandise. ' 

Dalton responded to Wolff's post with a revised Kiswahili list, published in the April 1963 Newslitter, with a typically snooty introduction:

'It is unfortunate that this note is so lengthy and detailed; especially so, since the original list, had it been done correctly, would have occupied less space than it actually did, and the necessity for this paper would have been obviated....I am not so much interested in Kisuahili, or in Herr Wolff’s performance, or the Litter’s performance, as I am concerned with the foundation of logical principles and practices on which FW scholarship must come to rest, if it is ever to amount to anything more than a stumbling block to the serious student, and a butt of derision for scoffers.'

Using Kiswahili dictionaries, Dalton then confirmed 80% of Wolff's findings. Yet he scornfully rejected others, such as the 'elephant' reading of 'tembo in her tumbo':
'I see no reason for calling ‘tembo’ ‘native beer,’ when it is universally, and correctly, called ‘palm wine'....Also, though fun is fun, I’m afraid I’ll have to draw the line on there being an ‘elephant’ in ALP’s belly. Is Herr Wolff serious?

For '
And what was the wyerye rima she made!' (200.33), Wolff had suggested 'rima: pit for catching large animals.'

Here's Dalton's withering response

'I suggest, for instance, that an extended explanation of just why ALP should be digging a ‘pit for catching large animals’ would (or should, at any rate) bring such a plethora of hearty guffaws as to render further discussion unnecessary.'

This is extraordinarily mean-spirited. Dalton wouldn't even have been looking through Kiswahili dictionaries if Wolff hadn't spotted these words in the first place!

Dalton called for a new 'professional' approach to Wake interpretation, based on the evidence of Joyce's manuscripts.

'Now the list I have presented...stands quite perfectly on its own two feet...However, there is a most interesting aspect of it not yet noted – all the words in the list were added to FW at the same time.'

Dalton knew about the composition process because he was a professional academic, who spent much of his time studying Joyce's manuscripts in the University of Buffalo (according to Fritz Senn, Dalton 'considered its Joyce holdings his own territory and guarded them fiercely').  

But most 1960s Wake readers did not have access to Joyce's manuscripts. McHugh writes that when Dalton's paper appeared, 'it must have seemed that the right of the layman to present his guesswork in the genial Forum of the Litter was threatened.'

An elephant I photographed in the Phoenix Park Zoo


Dalton's paper drew an eloquent response from Clive Hart in an article titled 'An Elephant in the Belly' published in the next Newslitter, and later reprinted in A Wake Digest:
'Mr Dalton says, first: ‘I’m afraid I’ll have to draw the line on there being an “elephant” in ALP’s belly’, and then hopes for a plethora of guffaws at the idea that Anna should be seen digging a Very Dip Pit for Heffalumps. These rejections show, I think, three things: first, rather too much insistence on a rational reading of the text; second, a certain lack of artistic sensibility; third, the unwarranted ignoring...of Joyce’s use and abuse of the surrealist mode which was so popular during the heyday of the book’s composition, and which he so richly parodies and cunningly pillages....We must not dismiss too lightly Joyce’s delight in the chance meanings of words, the peculiar interaction often caused by their juxtaposition, and the power of verbal circumstance. That the accidents of language could stuff an elephant into Anna’s world-bearing womb was the kind of thing that delighted Joyce....Whether Joyce himself ever knew about the stuffing, in this particular instance, is quite beside the point. To dismiss such a reading as ridiculously incorrect is to ignore the better half of the book.'

Hart here makes the striking claim that it is irrelevant whether Joyce knew about the 'elephant in the belly' meaning when he wrote the sentence - the reading can still stand. Dalton had wanted to minimise the range of meanings, based on Joyce's conscious intentions, revealed by the composition process. To Hart, this is an example of what the New Criticism called the 'intentional fallacy':

'It is certainly possible, by means of a reversal of Joyce’s process of composition, rationally to extract and isolate the deposits of discrete pieces of denotation from which the book was originally compounded.... What I am suggesting, however, is that it constitutes a most restrictive form of fallacious intentionalism.'

(The 'Intentional Fallacy' is a 1946 essay by W.K.Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, who wrote, 'The design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.')

McHugh quotes a letter that Hart sent him in 1968:

'Most modern critics will say, rightly or wrongly, that it doesn't matter a damn what any author intended, except in so far as that intention is borne out by the work itself. ''For all we know, JJ may have intended FW to be a cookery book. Who cares what he thought? What are the book's intentions?'''

Back to Hart's Newslitter article, where he cites Joyce himself in support of anti-intentionalism:

'An anti-intentionalist reading of the text seems, paradoxically, to have Joyce’s sanction—to have been, as it were, part of his intention....He seems to have wanted meanings to accrete in his text by hindsight as well as by means of his own constant redistortions of the vocabulary....How else are we to interpret his delight in the Finns and the Russian Generals?....Joyce wanted to be a prophet.'

Here Hart could also have cited Joyce's use of chance as a collaborator, and his statement, 'Really it is not I who am writing this crazy book. It is you, and you, and you, and that man over there, and that girl at the next table.'
Joyce also wanted his readers to be creative. He told Adolf Hoffmeister that his work could 'satisfy more readers than any other book because it gives them the opportunity to use their own ideas in the reading.' 

Here's Hart's conclusion:

 'Joyce’s comments in his letters and in conversation make it quite clear that he had the common reader in mind as much as the literary sophisticate. He intended the book to contain something for everybody, hoped that readers from any part of the world would find rivers they could recognize, dialects with which they were familiar. He said that he was writing in a ‘Big Language’....There seems every reason to approve of Mr Wolff’s approach as well as of Mr Dalton’s. Part of Joyce’s aim, with his Big Language, was evidently to provide a level of significance to readers familiar with Swahili as living speech....The scholarly approach, which attempts to clarify and define with precision... is a highly artificial way of reading FW. We are bringing literary experience to bear on it, rather than personal experience, and I have no doubt which of the two Joyce would prefer to see used.'


Dalton's intentionalism and Hart's creative approach are two very different ways of reading Finnegans Wake. It's always struck me that most books about the Wake, and even Wake readers, tend to fall either on one side or the other. McHugh comes down on the side of Dalton's intentionalism, welcoming its restrictiveness:

'For most readers, a satisfied conviction that a particular interpretation is apt will rarely occur without at least a suspicion of authorial intent. And Anti-intentionalism is a fearful stimulus to what is known as the 'lunatic fringe' of FW studies. As Hart himself observes of the Wake, 'Too often its convolutions have been treated as a kind of endless verbal equivalent of the Rorschach Ink-blot Test.' Against this backdrop, the restrictive quality of the manuscript approach seems a welcome curb.'

In his account of a 1971 Wake reading session, McHugh describes himself as a 'minimizer':

'At an early stage Matthew Hodgart underlined a distinction: the maximizers, such as himself, were delighted at every additional level that could be envisaged....On the other hand minimizers such as myself tried to cut the allusions to the smallest number which would account for all the letters in the word.' 

So in his Annotations to Finnegans Wake, McHugh only accepted readings which could be shown to be intended by Joyce - using the evidence of his notebooks, letters and authorized glosses. The same approach is now taken by Raphael Slepon on his fweet website (to the occasional frustration of creative readers, when they have their findings rejected). 

The 1978 publication of facsimiles of Joyce's manuscripts and notebooks as The Joyce Archive (right) gave a big boost to the intentionalist approach. 

The same year, Danis Rose brought out The Index Manuscript, an accurate transcription of the notebook with Joyce's original Kiswahili wordlist.  In his introduction, Rose defines Finnegans Wake as 'an ordered aggregate of elements each of which can be identified with a unit entered in one of the notebooks....The notebooks are primarily compilations of units, each of which can be identified with a fragment appearing in some external source.' 

Rose makes the extraordinary claim that, without the notebooks, it's impossible to read Finnegans Wake. 

'By relating textual elements (comprising drafts) to units (comprising notebooks) and units to referents (external sources)...the primary meaning...can be established....Without a knowledge of the referents these structures are ultimately vacuous and induce in the reader mental exhaustion (through the strain of supplying forced referents).'

Rose's is an extreme version of Dalton's intentionalist, anti-creative, position. A creative interpretation of the Wake involves 'forced referents' inducing 'mental exhaustion'!
By the time I subscribed to the Newslitter, in 1979, it had been largely taken over by notebook scholars like Rose and McHugh, tracking down those external sources.

I caught the last years of the Newslitter, subscribing from 1979 to 1984

Here's how the Genetic Wakean, Geert Lernout, justifies the notebook approach:

'This type of discovery differs fundamentally from that of the literary critic who finds a thought or a formula to describe a poem or a novel, or who manages to apply a fashionable theory to a text. The results of such interpretations are more or less interesting. Findings that derive from a radical philological approach belong to a different category: they are true in a different sense for the simple reason that they can be proven wrong. That is why a small number of Wake critics are turning to the notebooks: we are doing a type of research that is falsifiable and therefore scientific in Karl Popper's sense of the word.'

'The Finnegans Wake Notebooks and Radical Philology', Genetic Studies in Joyce, ed Hayman and Slote, p.48


To finish, let's look again at that phrase, 'tembo in her tumbo'.

'But what was the game in her mixed baggyrhatty? Just the tembo in her tumbo or pilipili from her pepperpot? Saas and tass and specis bizaas.' 209.11 

If you read this aloud, you can see that Joyce probably chose these particular words because of their sound as much as their Kiswahili meanings.

Here's Joyce's original Kiswahili (spelled yet another way!) wordlist transcribed in Rose's Index Manuscript:

This shows that Joyce thought 'tembo' meant 'palm-wine'  – Wolff's 'native beer' – rather than 'elephant'.


But  below 'tumbo' Joyce has 'utumbu', meaning 'bowels', a reading which might have startled Dalton even more than 'belly'!