Genesis, Geniuses, and Guinesses: James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake

Jospeh Campbell’s brilliant classic, A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (a wonderful tome of literary criticism that glossed Joyce’s Sphinx-like final novel through the lens of mythology) had been out of print and impossible to find for years–until it was resissued two years ago as part of Campbell’s collected works.  Being a fairly active Joyce fan, I asked my local library to order a copy.  Three months later, they emailed to say it was in.  That was yesterday, and I picked it up this morning.

Bliss.

Reading this seminal text reminds me of a silly but useful introduction to the Wake that I wrote a few years ago, and which was published in the Fall 2005 Common Review.  The idea was to structure my favorite trivia about it and advice for enjoying it around a parody of the first verse of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (see the bold headings in the piece below).  To tickle your logophilic fancy, here it is:

Genesis, Geniuses, and Guinnesses

ONE OF THE AMERICAN masters of horror fiction, H. P. Lovecraft, once wrote about a book so alien to our finite minds that reading it for too long would drive you insane. He was referring to the mythical Necronomicon, but the description applies just as well to James Joyce’s 1939 opus, Finnegans Wake.

That weirdness makes Joyce’s last work inordinately unpopular. Finnegans Wake is rarely acknowl­edged, and even then often reluc­tantly, like Grandma’s collection of potato chips that resemble St. Jude. In the Modern Library’s infamous list of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century, Joyce’s two earlier novels, Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ranked first and third, respectively. However, Finnegans Wake came in at seventy-seven. A companion list created by online vot­ing also included Ulysses and Portrait, but left the Wake off entirely.

What gives? It’s not as if Joyce’s earlier works were easy to read. (Ulysses was only the second Eng­lish work of fiction to use the word honorificabilitudinitatibus—Shake­speare’s play Love’s Labour’s Lost was the first). But readers with some small measure of persever­ance could make sense of them. At least both Ulysses and Portrait had some semblance of order, with a plot, settings, and characters…Finnegans Wake has none of these.

Instead, the reader gets more than 600 pages of pure puns, allusions, and whimsi­cal riddles, whose loose association comes in the context of a dream (Joyce called the Wake the “night” companion to Ulysses’s “day”). In this dream, we find human archetypes interacting amid references to ev­ery tidbit of trivia you can imagine, with scraps of dozens of languages thrown into the mix just for fun.

In its most famous feature, Finnegans Wake abruptly ends in the middle of a sentence that continues on the first page, creating a circular story with no true beginning or end. Joyce couldn’t have told us any more clearly to leave our linear expecta­tions at the door.

So perhaps readers don’t like the Wake because they don’t understand it. My advice: give up! Comprehension is a counterproductively quixotic quest, to say the least. That’s because there is not much to understand. It’s best enjoyed simply as a swiftly flowing river of wordplay, and at this level of ecstatically abstract linguistic celebration, Finnegans Wake is the richest work in the English language. You’d be selling yourself short by ignoring it altogether, so here’s some advice for getting something out of it.

Load up on puns. Master word­smith Joyce had the time of his life creating his portmanteau “slanguage,” often sounding more like lyrics from Nirvana or REM than English litera­ture. Some favorite puns: a decidedly negative Yuletide wish (“End a muddy crushmess!”) and a snide insinuation about the morals of a Mormon prophet (“bringem young!”). Truly, Joyce had a well-rounded inventory of words, or a “volupkabulary.” Keep your eyes open for thousands of these.

Bring your friends.Want to one-up Oprah’s bold book club choice of Faulknerian fables? Round up your overeducated cohorts and throw the snarkiest literary discus­sion the world has ever seen. Take turns reading out loud, and brain­storm every interpretation and association you can. Nobody can find all the possible meanings of the text, much less notice its infinite references, on their own.

It’s one to muse. Don’t plan on reading this book cover to cover. That kind of compulsive guilt is sim­ply not worth the cost. You might as well pick a random number between 3 and 628 and start on that page. Don’t plan on going quickly, either. Like Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, read­ing too much at once will only burn you out. It might take years before you read it all. You might never read it all. Just pick at it and find things you like, then let them marinate in your mind’s stew for a while. Joyce’s juices are exotic; let them simmer.

And use a pen. Before long, your copy of the Wake should look like some endlessly recycled poetry text in a college bookstore—hopelessly un­derlined, highlighted, dog-eared, sticky-noted, coffee-stained, and an­notated in your own swanky style. It will help your self-esteem to keep track of parts you liked and things you understood. Throw in some doodles and the Wake is yours.

Read far more lore. Each page of the Wake has enough winks at both serious academia and pop culture to make Ken Jennings dizzy. Make a game of it: see how many references to music you can find on 359.31–360.16. Don’t worry that you don’t know as much as he did. Joyce’s notes for the Wake spanned forty-seven note­books, and he spent seventeen years writing it. The most accessible guide to Joyce’s myriad references is Wil­liam York Tindall’s A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake. Get it.

Be self-absorbed. The Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone “shows us noth­ing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts.” Finnegans Wake does the same. That’s the plus side of a book so dense that it can only be understood as a subjective riddle. Whatever your memories and experiences, you’ll find tons of the Wake directed squarely at you. Say you come across the word “guenneses.” The former Sunday School student’s memories suggest the biblical book of Genesis. The linguistic puz­zler sees geniuses. And the drinker sees Guinness. All three are cor­rect—if only because Joyce was all three of those people.

If you haven’t seen your cup of tea yet, don’t fret; Joyce has something on the menu for you. That’s why the Wake is so long. Because it plumbs the murky depths of the common human soul, Finnegans Wake is every bit as universal as any play by the Bard (or, as Joyce refers to him, “Shapesphere”). As Joyce explicitly puts it in the text, “Here Comes Everybody.” (This is also why there’s no apostrophe in Finnegans–Joyce wanted to emphasize plurality, not personal possession.)

And now you read aloud the words. Joyce’s prose was his best po­etry. Like all good nonsense nursery rhymes, it’s even more fun to hear than to see. (Like warming up before a workout, you might try reciting Lewis Carroll’s “Jaberwocky” before tackling the Wake.) You will be surprised at how well it rolls off your tongue, like Irish honey. Listen to Joyce read some of it himself at http://www.finneganswake.org/joycereading.htm.

One more thing is worth noting to help you enjoy the ride. Joyce sug­gests a sort of setting for all of this monumental literary effort: the “chaosmos.” Get it? Chaos + cosmos = the whole crazy universe. What could be more welcoming? So relax, let go of your rational hang-ups, and get ready for a no-hassles guided tour of humanity’s collective id. Only in the Wake can you dream like this.

In Praise of Math

In 2004, 19% of Nevada high school seniors didn’t graduate because they couldn’t pass the math proficiency test. That’s actually an improvement from 2003, when 25% of seniors—fully one in every four—failed. Of course, the improvement came because the state, embarrassed and impotent, lowered the passing score. 

And now we find that about 90% of teenagers in Algebra I can’t pass a basic test of those math skills: http://www.lvrj.com/news/17044911.html

It’s no coincidence that the decline of math in America has held hands with a parallel decline in logical thinking. When someone gets malnourished, you look for what’s lacking in their diet; when students lose the ability to think above an elementary level, you notice which proficiency test repeatedly causes the most problems.

An example from class this year: Last month I held a class discussion about the decline of literacy. One boy defensively declared that people who don’t read much are just as smart as people who do. “How do you know?” I asked.

He looked confused. “It’s just my opinion.”

“No it’s not. You made a statement of fact. Either you’re right or you’re wrong. In fact, your inability to explain yourself suggests that your ‘opinion’ is just wishful thinking. Let’s put it this way,” I said, thinking I was being helpful, “why do you have this opinion instead of some other view?”

He thought for a moment. “It’s just my opinion!” 

See, the decline of math is the decline of concrete thinking, which rots away our logic and reason, the foundation of all Western civilization. Without logic and reason, we’re left in a weird wasteland where subjectivity reigns supreme. They think this way because they’re imitating the culture from whose shallow trough they feed.

After the 2004 presidential election, I saw a network reporter interview rapper P. Diddy, whose “Vote or Die” campaign for MTV had sought to get more young people to vote, and to vote for a certain candidate. The reporter informed him that exit polls showed that, despite MTV’s incessant marketing, more young people had notvoted, nor had more of them voted for the party MTV favored. She asked P. Diddy what he thought of this. Without skipping a beat, he calmly explained that he thought his work had been successful because he felt that more young people had voted.

I couldn’t believe what I’d heard—was she interviewing a three-year-old? He had just blatantly contradicted her research results with a statement of his feelings. I wonder how good P. Diddy is at math.

I’m reminded of a passage from a book I read called A Thomas Jefferson Education. To paraphrase the author, the benefits of learning math include learning to:

  1. Seek and recognize patterns
  2. Explore the relationships between information
  3. See similarities and differences clearly
  4. Analyze information logically (love those word problems!)
  5. Understand that there are correct answers out there to be sought after
  6. Avoid jumping to conclusions
  7. Seek evidence for conclusions (I wish the boys in my classes could do that. Also, P. Diddy.)
  8. Figure things out for yourself without just accepting whatever you’re told
  9. Remain open to new possibilities
  10. Think like the greatest creators in history.

If more people had these skills, imagine how many of the nation’s problems would vanish overnight. Imagine how much progress this nation could make. Imagine how much deeper and more meaningful our lives would be.

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How I Learned to Love Bruce R. McConkie in Just Five Easy Steps (And You Can Too!)

Twelve years ago a shock got me to come back to church, but I didn’t really want to change. I’d obey the letter of the law, but (I thought, indoctrinated by worldly platitudes) I’d do it “on my own terms.”

 

I resolved that no matter what, I would cling to the counter-culture and never become some “suit” like that paragon of old-fashioned Mormons, Bruce R. McConkie. I’d heard a lot about Elder McConkie, and he seemed to naturally fill the role of the “oppressor” that I’d been trained to expect. Not really knowing much about him, I set him up as my model of what not to become.

 

STEP #1

 

Comfortable with this preemptive defensiveness, I thought re-activity would be easy. Fortunately for me, repentance is an inherently unnerving process, and I guess I was softened a bit by the time I received the Melchizedek priesthood. The Elders Quorum priesthood manual at the time had an appendix in the back that contained Bruce R. McConkie’s essay “Only an Elder.”

 

The title intrigued me and I read it. That was my first lesson in loving Elder McConkie. Three things impressed me. First was that McConkie hallmark, straightforwardness. Maybe it should have riled me, but I had already been reading some bits of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and they were both also given to strong statements. Should a man following them in the Apostleship just footnote their messages, or shouldn’t he follow their example and also be bold?

 

His focus on personal responsibility also struck a responsive chord. I was starting to understand the need for society to pay more attention to this area, and I’ve become grateful for the first gospel teacher who made it clear to me: we are responsible for our own salvation.

 

McConkie’s explications always had a clean symmetry that resounded deeply, not unlike hearing the missionary discussions for the first time. Error tends not to be so succinct. As I read that essay, I knew that I had found something strong to hold onto. This definitely was not the culture’s meandering pontification.

 

Another aspect of the message impressed me. The title of the essay—“Only an Elder”—referred to a common lament McConkie had heard that left a sour taste in his mouth, that a man in the Church didn’t really have much authority. McConkie eloquently described each rank and file elder as an equal partner in a brotherhood that included the apostles and prophets of history. That was the first time I had to consider my opportunities and responsibilities in terms of having a “ministry.” It was a sobering thought.

 

This was an important theme in McConkie’s work that I’ve ever cherished—the idea that gospel knowledge wasn’t just a list of facts to memorize so we can pass some kind of celestial standardized test, but that it would lift us up and bring us closer to God in every moment of our lives.

 

So it was harder not to like him after that. But knowing the disdain with which intelligent people in America are supposed to regard seriously “fundamental” interpretations of religion, I tried.

 

STEP #2

 

Until I was invited to choir. One Sunday, a counselor in my bishopric testified of the sustained spiritual growth enjoyed by active members of the ward choir. So I tried it out. The piece we were practicing was Elder McConkie’s hymn “I Believe In Christ.”

 

Nobody had ever told me that this “suit” was a poet! The words were simple, but they communicated a maximum of emotional impact in a minimum of words. Poetry indeed. A thousand theology Ph.D.’s working for a thousand years could not have crafted so supple a paean to the majesty and intimate efficacy of the Lord’s power in our lives.

 

It was a turning point and a blessing to sing that song. It’s been one of my favorite hymns since.

 

STEP #3

 

Several years ago I thought I’d challenge myself by studying the scriptures cover to cover. When I got to the New Testament, I knew I was likely to be wading in deep waters. This little collection was the source of two millennia of divisive debate. I knew some sections would be difficult to understand, and that some passages might even seem hard to reconcile with our doctrine. I would definitely need a reliable guide, and when solid spiritual scholarship on the scriptures was needed, guess who was most natural to turn to for help?

 

Elder McConkie’s Doctrinal New Testament Commentary was the third and most important turning point in my opinion of him. I spent a lot of time being nurtured by his elemental combination of mental acuity and spiritual sensitivity with DNTC.

 

What did I get out of it? His authoritative explanations simply floored me. Ancient mysteries were easily resolved in a sentence or two. Reading McConkie explain justification by faith was like watching Einstein solve a third-grade subtraction problem.

 

Hundreds of pages of interpretation flew by; they were not only cohesive, but compellingly lucid. Just to see such bold assertions at all was a refreshing, invigorating experience. On top of that, to see such assertions articulated in a style as fluently incisive as McConkie’s added another level to the increasing awe. In my experience, people who are pulling weak material out of nowhere just don’t write that powerfully.

 

Doctrinal New Testament Commentary went even further than that, though. His writings excelled on multiple levels of brilliance. In Volume III, McConkie’s comments on James 1:22 contain a list of New Testament euphemisms for “keep the commandments.” Besides learning a major, oft-ignored Biblical theme from that little list, I realized then that I had never searched the scriptures as deeply as McConkie had.

 

If we’re to benefit from the scriptures and become more like Christ through them, shouldn’t we follow the example of those who have mined these texts the most and gotten the most out of them? Such scrupulous examination tends to be the domain of the devout, and to them we may best look for role models. I’ve since tried to make lists and chains in my scriptures like McConkie may have done, as well as copying some of his most salient thoughts into the margins of my scriptures.

 

You can get to know someone surprisingly well by what they write. As I read more of McConkie’s work, I began to see shades of every color in the man I’d assumed to be an icon of black and white.

 

One of my favorite passages of his own prose comes from Volume II of DNTC. Elaborating on Acts 21:17, McConkie says, “conversion is a gradual process…. If there is a lesson for us in these events, it is that staunch and stable members of the Church should be tolerant and charitable toward persons newly coming out of the darkness of the world into the light of the gospel.” That wasn’t the McConkie I’d assumed him to be.

 

STEP #4

 

I had heard of McConkie’s final Conference address, “The Purifying Power of Gethsemane,” but I had never really interacted with it until I read it in a collection of popular Conference talks a few years ago.

 

By this time, I was approaching his work with respect and anticipation, even if I still harbored some doubts about his personality as I still misunderstood it. This last talk of his opened my heart to him more. There’s not much I could say of this talk that hasn’t already been said. Needless to say, I was as moved by it as I ever have been moved by anything.

 

Even McConkie’s critics have to allow that this talk is special. It says things that simply could not be said by those of less faith, knowledge, and experience. Such is the nature of language—it molds itself to the spiritual ability of the writer. No wonder so many of the world’s substitutes for McConkie are little more than “tinkling cymbals and sounding brass.”

 

By this point, I’d hoped my journey from being just another narcissistic, cynical outsider to being another pilgrim on the path was making progress. I’d like to think any reservations I still held about McConkie as someone to emulate on our way to becoming Christlike, a sort of landmark to reach for first on the long journey, was blissfully evaporated. If not, a fifth and final epiphany did the trick.

 

STEP #5

 

A few years ago I was browsing at an LDS bookstore and found a new biography called Bruce R. McConkie: Reflections of a Son, by Joseph Fielding McConkie. I actually wondered if, despite all I had learned, my old assumptions might finally be vindicated. Eagerly, I turned to the chapter that covered the controversy surrounding the first edition of Mormon Doctrine. What shouldn’t be surprising by now is that I learned there really wasn’t much controversy.

 

Church leaders had some reservations about a few of McConkie’s comments, and requested that he edit them for a second edition. He did, and that was that. Most of the chapter focused on how humbly McConkie submitted to this very subtle chastisement, and I couldn’t help but be impressed by the obvious contrast between what so many had assumed and what the truth really was.

 

Reflections of a Son was full of other fascinating ideas from McConkie that I wanted to copy; for example, when he was stuck with a few minutes to kill, he would plan talks on a variety of subjects that could be given later at a moment’s notice. The theme throughout was a striving to be not simply active, but as active as possible, and to increase that ability.

 

Another one of those vague convictions that had been incubating in the back of my mind finally found a solid form just then: McConkie’s strict adherence to the letter of the law was a good thing. Why do so many of us set up this arbitrary conflict between the letter and spirit of the law? The all-too-popular philosophy that some elements of gospel living are excessively rigid can only serve to excuse wicked behavior. Period. How did I not see that before?

 

My youthful worldly attachments and immature desires often led me to be tempted by “cultural” strains of the faith. But now it seemed so clear: if the Restoration is true and years of miracles, martyrdom, and service had led to this point, was the true path of discipleship really to be found in fashionable skepticism or half-hearted partial activity?

 

Perhaps these intersections of Elder McConkie’s works with my life were no coincidence. Perhaps his insights and crystal clear examples were exactly what I needed to take the building blocks of accumulating adult experience and turn them into a growing testimony.

 

In this case, the new guideline for living prompted by Elder McConkie was that, in a world of snowballing immorality, maybe a higher bar of old-fashioned tradition is just what we need. When the sickness is relative, revisionist hedonism, maybe the best medicine, maybe the only medicine, is a comprehensively conservative lifestyle focused on the Savior and grounded in the teachings of His current prophets.

 

In the April 2001 General Conference, Elder Richard G. Scott spoke of striving to create an “ideal” family in the proper way. Doesn’t it seem reasonable that we should also be striving to become ideal disciples, ideal gospel students and servants, in the Lord’s proper way? And who might be a reliable model to help us realize that ideal?

 

So McConkie was orthodox. Maybe this world could use a little more orthodoxy. Maybe it could use a lot. After all, would we be better or worse off spiritually if we tried to be more like him?

 

My “bucket list”

I recently came across the fun web site 43things.com.  It inspired me to work out my own list of life-long goals.  Like this blog, I’m hoping it pushes me to do more with myself.  Check out my list, with some updates: http://www.43things.com/person/Huston

This reminds me of the huge, impressive life list by John Goddard, the adventurer who, at 15, wrote a list of over a hundred things and worked on nearly all of them overt the next several decades.  I love this list: http://www.johngoddard.info/life_list.htm

If anyone makes a list of their own, let me know so I can cheer you on!

Overused Prepositions and the Ubiquitous “On”

A linguistics professor I knew as an undergrad had a theory that in the future, all vowels would turn into the laziest possible sound–“uh.” His theory rested on the observation that language in cultures tends to devolve into simpler forms.

I’m reminded of that as I note one of my pet peeves: the generic application of prepositions in the speech of many Americans today.

First, consider the following phrases, ones so common that variants can be heard in nearly any setting, nearly any day: “He’s hatin’ on me” and “It’s cold up in here.” There are even two prepositions in the latter: up and in. The “on” is completely superfluous in the first, as is “up” in the second. Why are they there? They don’t add to the cadence of the statement, they serve no social function other than to mark the speaker as a rank and file member of America’s ignorant youth cult. Add to that the phrase “in here,” which is also mildly extraneous. Isn’t the location implied by the statement? If the speaker merely opined that “It’s cold,” would any of us, upon hearing, wonder what locale was being judged chilly? Siberia, perhaps?

Such bloated constructions have become the bread and butter of our pan-American dialect. No wonder editing is so hard to teach.

Even worse, let me draw your attention to the all-purpose preposition “on.” The dictionary tells us that it may well be used in a wide variety of situations, but does it bother anybody else that most people use it as their default choice?

Students tell me that they’ll do research “on” a topic, never the more specific “about” a topic. They get facts “on” the Internet, never “from” the Internet. They might copy and paste an entire essay “on” accident, but never the accurate (though still dishonest) “by” accident.” I even read a journal entry about “hanging out on the mall.” Egad! Has “at” been nefariously deleted from our collective vocabulary?

I’m not worried about society someday grunting to communicate. I’m saddened to live in one that has already abandoned its once-great appreciation for the nuances of our wonderful language.

Loyalty Despite Perceived Conflict: Avoiding Cognitive Dissonance

Utah newspapers have been reporting that the LDS Church is subtly campaigning for a “more compassionate” stance towards illegal immigrants (for example, http://deseretnews.com/article/1,5143,695253342,00.html).  Now, this could present a problem for me as I am strongly opposed to illegal immigration.  My understanding of the legal, social, and economic issues involved convinces me that it is a harmful trend. 

If I perceive that the Church is doing something that contradicts my own opinions, I could suffer cognitive dissonance: the mental stress caused by diametrically opposed ideas coexisting in a mind.  What should I do?  Easy.  If there’s a conflict between the Church and my political principles, the Church wins.  I’m wrong and I need to change.

Why are my researched and reasoned views of this issue automatically moot?  Go back to the basics of belief: the Church is true.  The Father and the Son appeared to Joseph Smith, and that means the Church is directed by living prophets today.  And if those prophets say to embrace illegals, then I’ll drive down to the border and pick up a few myself.

The word of the Church is the word of the Lord: “whether by mine own voice or the voice of my servants, it is the same” (D&C 1:38). 

Besides, I admit I’ve privately wondered how some good liberal Church members must deal with having some of their political positions refuted by doctrine.  If it’s time for this conservative to eat crow in order to keep his priorities straight, so be it.

Rejecting a Church that we know to be true, because of any personal issue: that’s the real cognitive dissonance.

To Blog Or Not To Blog

After much dithering and debate, I enter the murky waters of online weblogs.  Here’s a rundown of the thought process that led up to this momentous watershed in world history:

Cons of blogging:

  • eats up time that might be better spent
  • writing two steps below “rough draft” status will be forever etched into the Internet’s stone tome of shame
  • requires me to read and edit possibly-irritating comments by others
  • will lose my Luddite cred with students
  • worse, nobody will ever see it or care
  • worser, Interpol will see it and track me down

Pros of blogging:

  • will get me back into journaling habit
  • might help spur achievement in other goals
  • might connect with intelligent fellow-beings and meaningfully contribute to their quality of life
  • what’s to lose?

And thus, with that illustrious, inspiring burst of macho optimism, on the eve of the world’s remembrance of the new life given to us all by the sacrifice of God’s Son, I launch this heinous little spurt of frustrated thought into the void.  Significance, ho!