Tuesday, 21 June 2016


This strange passage is on page 379 of Finnegans Wake, at the end of the pub chapter. It comes in the middle of a long speech attacking HCE who, threatened by a hostile mob, has shut himself in his pub after closing time.

Curious about those capitalized words, which look like sound effects, I thought I'd see what the commentators had to say.  I started with the earliest one, Campbell and Robinson in The Skeleton Key:

'These capitalised syllables represent the fall of Finnegan, the rocking of a boat at the bottom of the sea of sleep, also a series of stiff punches that the prizefighters are throwing at each other; in sum, a combination suggesting the ultimate collapse and doom of HCE.'

He fell from the ladder and he broke his skull and they carried him home his corpse to wake

So they're suggesting the fall of Tim Finnegan from the wall on the book's opening page, maybe with his head making the first 'BENK' and the dropped bricks the following sounds.  The Skeleton Key authors like to bring Tim Finnegan in whenever possible.

The 'rocking of a boat at the bottom of the sea of sleep' idea made me wonder how a boat at the bottom of a sea of sleep would be able to make a 'benk' sound. And why would a boat rock at the bottom of the sea? And why would this boat suddenly appear at this point in the text? And how would it suggest 'the ultimate collapse and doom of HCE'?

And here are 'a series of stiff punches that the prizefighters are throwing at each other'. But who are these prizefighters? There's been no mention of them before in the Skeleton Key, and not clearly in FW either. Perhaps they were suggested by 'It's our last fight Megantic' (from the song 'It's Your Last Trip, Titanic, Fare You Well ').

It strikes me that all three suggestions are guessescreative readings, presented as statements of fact. It would have been better if Campbell and Robinson had said, 'These capitalised syllables suggest to us the fall of Finnegan' etc.
None of the other commentators have accepted the Skeleton Key interpretations – instead they've all come up with their own creative readings, which similarly weren't taken up by other commentators.  Every creative reader makes their own Finnegans Wake. As Finn Fordham says, 'We produce a wake by the way we steer, but we also steer by the Wake that we produce.'

David Hayman wrote that the sound effects were 'suggestive of stones being thrown at the pub by the clients'. I prefer that to the Skeleton Key's readings because it has been inspired by the actual situation on the page – HCE hiding from the hostile mob. It would also explain why the first sound has an exclamation mark (because of the surprise effect of hearing the first stone hitting) while the others don't. But it's a shame that Joyce didn't provide any other evidence ('Take that HCE!').

E.L.Epstein argued that the sounds combine the ringing of the 'midnight Angelus' with 'blows landing on the hump-backed scapegoat'. My problem with that is that HCE is inside the pub, protected from the mob outside. However there is a bell ringing earlier on the page at 379.08 'Bing bong!' –  the Zurich Sechseläuten festival bell, a Wake motif. Perhaps that bell, which is rung at 6pm rather than midnight, set off all these BENK! sounds. 

In the first draft, the bell's  'Beng!' goes directly before the 'BINK!' (Later Joyce switched the order of BENK and BINK)

David Hayman's First Draft Version of Finnegans Wake

The most eccentric reading is by John Gordon, who believes that HCE is lying in bed, having visions of a ghost. He sees the long angry speech from 373-80 as a shouting match between HCE and his man-of-all work, Sackerson, culminating in the slamming of shutters: 

'The figure lying in the bedroom has had enough of the weather coming in through the blown-open windowboards and has called for (Sackerson), who had 'hord from afar a piping' to come close them up. Meanwhile the roistering of the cast-out customers bodes ill for the would-be returner/haunter: they are overheard from outside 'marshalsing'...'The dumb he shoots the shopper rope. And they all pour forth' indicates that far from closing the shutters the oafish Sackerson has made things worse – perhaps he heard 'shut them up' as 'shutter open'. In the boisterous paragraph from 373.13 to 380.05, shouting master and servant are trying to make themselves understood to one another over the noisy weather, and things don't start to quiet down until, with a 'BENK!...BINK...BUNK...BENK BANK BONK' (379.27-30), the servant finally succeeds in slamming (or hammering – the sound echoes Christ being nailed o the cross) the windowboards shut...'

Gordon's book is misleadingly titled Finnegans Wake: A Plot Summary. It should be called A New Plot Applied to Finnegans Wake.

Joyce would probably have enjoyed all these interpretations (he said the Wake could 'satisfy more readers than any other book because it gives them the opportunity to use their own ideas in the reading').



More ideas came from  FWREAD, the page-a-week reading group. Peter Reichenberg suggested that the sounds could represent the interference on HCE's pub radio.  Hen Hanna discovered that 'Google.Books shows some hits for "benk bank bonk".  I think they are old Nordic (Swed. dial.) cognates for bang (strike)  bungle (strike clumsily)'. Eric Rosenbloom wrote, 'The B-NKs struck me as the knocking of a boat that The Four are launching (or carrying away).'

I suggested that they may be the sound of HCE, as High King Roderick O'Conor, falling over inside his pub, or knocking over the glasses (an event which follows immediately after, on p 382, where 'he came acrash a crupper'). But I have no idea if Joyce intended that.

There was an an-depth interpretation from Orlando Mezzabotta, the Italian actor and Wake performer, who is the most creative reader of Joyce I know. Orlando came up with a typically brilliant interpretation which, unlike John Gordon's, is based on a close reading of the text. His is the only reading which relates the words to the surrounding text:

'Well, I myself have been quite intrigued (and still I am) by B-NK series at the end of page 379. They seem obviously to be onomatopoeic sounds.

But first we should note that the first sound is BENK!, with an exclamation mark (MARK: king Mark), which seems indeed a KNOCK. That is probably in relation to 379.24-26

"But of all your wanings send us out your peppydecked ales and you'll not be such a bad lot."

Now it seems that after the insults the gang  (as a matter of fact I am convinced that the paragraph beginning with "He should be ashaped..." and ending with "fear you will." p. 379 is a long monologue of Hosty's - Hosty, namely Host Jr, against his father the Host; a violent tirade very similar to the one of the "unsolicited visitor" of the end of Chapter 3 - pages 70-72); the gang, led by Hosty, seems ready to make peace, provided HCE send them savoury drinks (send us out your peppydecked ales ).

There's indeed an ironic reference to Genesis 19,5. 

'They called to Lot, Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.'
Lot and "bad lot". Where "wanings" are "weanings", hinting at "children". And "ales" is "Alice"; thus: "of all your children send us  peppy Alice". Which is a further invitation to the father who does not want to listen, the deaf father [379.21  Yus, sord, fathe,], to loose to them his daughter (whom, in Genesis, Lot will have sex with).

So they want their drink/sex and they knock violently at the door:

BENK! In fact it's a sort of "BANG", with a "K" that enhances the noise.
And since "benk" is Norwegian "bench", that may hint also at a bench beaten against the door, a sort of ramming (the siege of HCE's castle/tavern).
But the B-NK series may also be a variant of Italian "bianco" (white), French "blanc", English "blank"; connected with the  "wheateny one" (379.26-27) the white flesh of the young girl, versus the browny one (rye) of servile women. A possible reference to the hen of 379.23:

"You keep that henayearn and her fortycantle glim lookbehinder."

(A lady with a glaring posterior! -- although in this case it's probably just a vulgar fat-assed woman, to underscore the difference from the jewel eyed girl: 379.24 "We might do with rubiny leeses" - lenses, eyes)

After the first, evident knock there is the series of five B-NKs in a vocalic succession (I-U-E-A-O) which is not the usual A E I O U. I don't think there is a purpose in this, unless we suppose that the "disorderly" gang does not follow the prescribed rules. I am more inclined to think that the sounds are related to specific situations.
First the gang addresses ALP  (that Missus with the kiddies of sweet Gorteen). I wouldn't exclude that "putty our wraughther" of 379.21 is in fact ALP, the mother. "wraughther -> wrought her" : she/her who created/wrought. And "putty" may hint at Italian "puttana", Spanish "puta". Thus: that whore of our mother! In Italy we say "Puttana Eva" (Eve, that whore!). An insult to both the parents. (b.t.w: wraughther  hints also at "wrougther - rorter :
[Australian] a small-scale confidence trickster)

The gang seems to beg the lady's pardon for the noise,  hoping not to have disturbed her:

"we sincerely hope that the Missus has not at all (at the very least) been (BINK) [note, please, "bing": the delicate, rosy (pink) banging!]  disturbed (deranged) by the noise (tittles: names, titles) we made in case she were sleeping (BUNK: bed)". Then the gang addresses HCE, calling him sarcastically "majesty" (Meggers), ramming furiously at the door, with the BENK (Norwegian: bench - which is also Dutch "BANK"), with a thunderous BONK. They may indeed remind of the hammering of the lid of a coffin (doornail), or of the building of the barge (sloop)  which shall carry the old Viking's corpse:

To speed the bogre's barque away
O'er wather parted from the say.'

I thought about illustrating Orlando's reading, but it was too much of a challenge!

What do you think these words represent? Please post any theories below!

Monday, 20 June 2016

Who is Dreaming Finnegans Wake?

Going to the symposium last week reminded me of J.S.Atherton's wonderful lecture, 'The Identity of the Sleeper', which he gave at the very first James Joyce Symposium, at the Gresham Hotel, on Bloomsday in 1967.

James Stephen Atherton (1910–85) was an English scholar, from Wigan, whose 1959 work, The Books at the Wake, is my favourite of all the critical works on Finnegans Wake. He's also the subject of Dottir of her Father's Eyes, the graphic memoir by his daughter, Mary Talbot, illustrated by Bryan Talbot.

Here's the text of Atherton's lecture, as given in A Wake Newslitter Vol IV no 5, October 1967.
'I do not wish to deny any of the theories which have been put forward as to the identity of the dreamer: they are all true up to a point. For, as I see FW it is everyone’s dream, the dream of all the living and the dead. Many puzzling features become clear if this is accepted. Obviously we will hear many foreign languages: Chinese will be prominent if we know Chinese; German if we know German, and so on. The Wake never stops: the last sentence circles round to become the first and the whole work revolves to reflect the nature of the world of sleeping humanity which travels around with the dark side of the globe—“the owl globe” (6.29), that is to say the dark side, where the bird of night flies, “wheels in view”. So it is that Shaun, about whom we are all dreaming, can be told, “thou art passing hence, … ere the morning of light … to the inds of Tuskland … ” (427.18), and we visit, or seem to hear from Australia, America, and New Zealand. This is the space aspect.

This is the best book on Finnegans Wake!
Now for the time aspect. Joyce wrote in Scribbledehobble, “Dream thoughts are wake thoughts of centuries ago.”  Shakespeare’s thoughts, Dante’s thoughts, circle around in the Wake along with those of all other writers. Each of the characters we are dreaming of shifts and changes, for they are made up by and of all characters; yet “There are in a way no characters. It’s like a dream.” So Joyce told a journalist named Vinding in Copenhagen (Ellmann, 709). He seems to have seen himself as catching these drifting fragments and combining them, “sewing a dream together” (28.7), as one of his characters says. And I must mention little Nuvoletta who “made up all her myriads of drifting minds in one”. (159.7).

To my mind, the most revealing statement Joyce ever made about his work was: “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.” (Givens, p.13, quoted Kenner, Dublin’s Joyce, p.327). This is stressed, once you start looking for it, in the Wake itself. It is “us.” who are brought back to “Howth Castle and Environs” in the third line of the book. The washerwoman says: “of course, we all know Anna Livia”. It is easy to miss the “we”. Chapter 2 has “we are back” in line 3. In fact all the first five chapters use “us” or “we” by the ninth line at the latest—and the sixth chapter ends “Semus sumus.” We are Shem. All of us. The phrase “us, the real Us” occurs twice (62.26; 446.36); and when one episode ends it is “we” who are left “once amore as babes awondering” (336.16) .Joyce wrote to T. S. Eliot about “the marvellous monosyllable” SIC he had added to the margin beside “Whom will comes over.” (260.4), and the first line of this chapter is “As we there are … ” In fact the Wake is an event in which “the all gianed in with the shoutmost shoviality” (6.18). You expect it to say “They all” and rnost people read it as “They all”, but it is “the all” that Joyce wrote: everybody joined in.

Frank Budgen has written that a dream he once described to Joyce seemed to him to have started Joyce off on the theme of the Wake. It seems likely to me that Mr. Budgen is right; I am certain that Joyce wanted him to think that his dream was in the Wake, for he wanted all dreams to be there. Budgen gives, in his James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses, a quotation from De Quincey’s The English Mail Coach: “In’ dreams …each child of our mysterious race completes for himself the story of the original fall.” I am sure that Joyce suggested the extract to him, for it should read “treason” not “story”, and “treason” would not fit into Joyce’s view of the fall.

The obvious reaction in the 30’s to such a theory was to say that it was simply Jung’s “collective Unconscious.” Joyce indignantly denied this and has been taken as denying that his book concerns the collective unconscious. What he was denying was any influence from Jung for he saw the theory as much older than Jung. There is not time to discuss his sources, partly Eastern writings, partly from Yeats. Certainly Joyce read with interest everything Jung wrote including the references to “Images in the great memory stored” or “out of Anima Mundi”, and knew the importance Yeats assigned in “Towards Break of Day” to the sharing of a dream between two people. It was this aspect of Yeats’s work Joyce most admired, the Yeats who wrote that “the borders of our minds are always shifting, tending to become part of the universal mind.” And Joyce’s use of Yeats has never been adequately studied. For example Bloom’s famous remark about love being “the opposite of hate” comes from Yeats (Mythologies, p.365: “The books say that our happiness comes from the opposite of hate, but I am not certain, for we may love unhappily.”).

It is the universal mind which Joyce assumes as the identity of the dreamer; he, of course, is writing it all down but everyone else contributes. Sometimes the contributions are those of “the … intermisunderstanding minds of the
Teilhard de Chardin
anticollaborators” (118.25), but they are made all the same. The idea may seem strange. Like many of Joyce’s ideas it is spreading. The Jesuit biologist, Teilhard de Chardin, wrote “Taken in its entirety, the living substance spread over the earth—from the first stages of its evolution—traces the lineaments of one single and gigantic organism. To see life properly we must never lose sight of the unity of the biosphere that lies beyond the plurality and essential rivalry of individual beings.” I can suggest no better introduction to FW than Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man from which these words are taken.

One final word about my theory. It may also give the Wake (I say this with some diffidence) a purpose and a message. Joyce is saying that mankind is one. We are “humble indivisibles in this grand continuum” (472.30). It is customary, or was until a year or so ago, to speak of Joyce as entirely uninterested in politics. He was an ardent pacifist; he saw the world as a single family. Can we not also see it as one in which it is time the boys grew up and stopped fighting? If so the Wake is not a “crazy book” but a work of importance for all of us. But I don’t insist on this. If I have persuade you to try reading the Wake again with the idea that you, and everyone else, is sharing in it, my visit here has been worthwhile.

Addenda for AWN readers.

This version omits the first two paragraphs which outlined the theories  previously set forward by Edmund Wilson et al. on the identity of the dreamer. I did not read out the references given here. Owing to shortage of time I omitted some sentences from my original script. The only one I wish to add here should have followed “German if we know German and so on”. It read: Much work has been done lately in identifying and translating these foreign words. It was felt that if all these were explained the “secret of the Wake” would somehow be revealed. But they turned out, in general, to be saying again what the rest of the context in which they occurred was saying. In a word like that describing Anna Livia’s “Vlossyhair” (265.21) “vlossy” is simply the Polish for hair, although, of course it suggests flossy. The phrase “a bad of wind and a barran of rain” (365.18) includes the Turkish and Arabic words bad for wind and baran for rain. If you don’t recognise the foreign words the same meaning still comes over, but less complexly. The important thing is to know that everyone is joining in.'

From Mary Talbot's book. That's a British Library reader's card

Friday, 17 June 2016

Gatecrashing the James Joyce Symposium

This year I celebrated Bloomsday by gatecrashing the 25th James Joyce Symposium. It was held in London University's Senate House – a towering Stalinist building used in WW2 as the Ministry of Information - inspiring both George Orwell's Ministry of Truth and Graham Greene's Ministry of Fear.

The Joyce symposium has been going ever since 1967, and there's a very entertaining account of the 1969 Dublin one in Roland McHugh's Finnegans Wake Experience. At the time he went, McHugh was starting a Phd on grasshopper acoustics:

'Grasshopper sexuality is primarily acoustic: a female will walk away from a silent male towards a loudspeaker emitting male song. So each male surrounds itself with a fluid territory which it keeps saturated with its own song. I eventually discovered that professors at James Joyce symposia behaved similarly....  
  The Symposium itself was safely ensconced behind the walls of Trinity College. In its distance from reality it resembled the district attorneys' conference in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. As I sat listening to American professors reading papers in which they paraphrased the plots of stories in Dubliners or compared Ulysses with the novels of Faulkner I sensed a kind of gap....As far as the (FW) Newslitter went, most of them had barely heard of it. They read something called James Joyce Quarterly, a glossy production, largely devoted to the early Joyce industry....
   It was impossible to get down to intelligent conversation about FW at any point during the week. People shied off, as though talking shop was bad form. Much of the conversation I heard was of the order, 'Say! How much dough do you make?''

McHugh attended a second symposium, at Trieste in 1971, where he gave a lecture dissecting pages 338-341 of the Wake:

'The audience had copies of the FW passage to follow it with, and the whole thing went on for an hour. There were no questions from the floor.  The quality of scholarship was noticeably down on last time....It was the end of my involvement with Joyce Symposia and I have never been to another.'

The symposium is very different today,  where several papers were being given about the Wake, one of them about Roland McHugh himself.  The one I'd love to have gone to was by Derek Pyle, the man behind the wonderful Waywords and Meansigns musical setting of Finnegans Wake (motto 'a manyfeast munificent more mob than man nourish your inner world and follow your weird'). Derek, who lives in Boston, was visiting Dublin and the UK for the first time, and was presenting live performances, including this event at Usurp Art in Harrow.

Although I wasn't planning to go to the symposium (it costs £180), I arranged to meet Derek for an afternoon drink in my favourite Soho pub, the Coach and Horses.  I told Derek I'd be wearing my Finnegans Wake 100 Letter thunderword t-shirt. 

When Derek arrived, I discovered that he had the same word tattooed on his forearm! It was like a meeting between freemasons, sharing secret signs.

Over Guinnesses, he told me all about the symposium, saying that a high point was 'First We Feel, Then We Fall', Jakub Wroblewski's amazing new multimedia adaptation of Finnegans Wake, launched on Bloomsday. Jakub also has Wake tattoos on his forearm – the Euclid diagram from page 293, the symbol of FWFTWF and the combined sigla for Shem and Shaun. Jakub posted this picture on facebook of their tattooed forearms.

Derek and Jakub's Wake tattoos
There'd also been a talk by the great genetic Wakeans, Erik Bindervoet and Robbert-Jan Henkes, on the problem of editing Finnegans Wake. Terence Killeen, from the Dublin Joyce Centre, spoke about 'The Heroic Age of Wake Studies: The Roland McHugh Archive'. 

Derek wanted to get back to the symposium at 6, for a plenary talk by Iain Sinclair. He suggested I tag along and sneak in, which is just what I did.  

We sat in the front row, beside Debbie Weiss, who'd presented 'A Conversation Between James Joyce and Marcel Proust'. She's also from Boston, where she belongs to the Thirsty Scholars Wake reading group.

When Iain Sinclair was introduced, it was announced that his talk was being put on as The John Coffin Memorial Lecture, which means that it was a free public event – so it was ok for me to have sneaked in! 

Sinclair's talk was titled 'James Joyce, Our Dad, Alas: a late modernist autobiography of Bloom fugues in simultaneous cities, London and Dublin.'

The theme, like a lot of Sinclair's writing, was walking – walking in Ulysses, and walks Sinclair took as a young student in Dublin - along the Liffey to the Phoenix Park. He had some interesting stories about being at Trinity in the early 1960s, when Ulysses was still seen as a dirty book. Though you could get copies, they were kept under the counter. 

He lived near the Martello Tower, then a private home, where one of his neighbours was a lady who drank vodka continuously – he later decovered that she was Eleanor Philby, wife of the spy Kim, who'd just fled to the Soviet Union.  I googled Eleanor Philby and Dublin, and this story came up, from the Milwaukie Journal.
The whole talk was an entertaining ramble, bringing in Ezra Pound's Cantos, David Jones's Anathemata, drinking in McDaid's, where you could see Brian O'Nolan (Flann O'Brien) and the grumpy Patrick Kavanagh. At Trinity, Sinclair edited the student magazine, and managed to get William Burroughs to submit a piece – his first publication in Ireland.

Sinclair's talk was followed by a wine reception (where I was technically more of a gatecrasher!). Here I met the Genetic Wakean, Erik Bindervoet and Ollie Evans, who've both done readings for Derek's Waywords and Meansigns project. Ollie told me about his Birkbeck Phd project, 'The Performance of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake'. As part of it, he does his own performances, including one on Madame Raphael, the French secretary who transcribed Joyce's illegible notebooks.

Wake Performer Ollie Evans
Many thanks to Derek Pyle for suggesting that I gatecrash the James Joyce Symposium the first one I've visited since the wonderful Dublin Joyce centenary in 1982.