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Review: Wakians and Ulyssians

Author(s): Michael Finney

Review by: Michael Finney
Source: NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Autumn, 1975), pp. 81-84
Published by: Duke University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1345029
Accessed: 13-05-2015 03:01 UTC

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Wakians and Ulyssians

and DAVID HAYMAN, eds. Ulysses: CriticalEssays (Berkeleyand Los Angeles:
University of California Press, 1974), pp. 433, $15.00.


H. BEGNAL and FRITZ SENN, eds. A Conceptual Guide to Finnegans Wake (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1974), pp. 236, $11.95.

Recently, a Harvard sophomore with an empty summer ahead of him asked me if it

would be worth reading Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. I must have looked
a bit puzzled because he continued with something like: "I mean, is it like Ulysses or
Finnegans Wake, where you have to read a bunch of keys and guides and stuff before
you can even start the book." After I had assured him-with no certainty it was still
true-that the critics hadn't had time to do to Pynchon's latest novel what they had
done to Joyce's works, I asked him what guides he had found particularly helpful in
preparing him to read Ulysses and Finnegans Wake and if he thought it required the
same kind of preparation to read Ulysses as Finnegans Wake. As it turned out, he
had done no more than glance at either, being put off by what seemed to him the
Herculean task of sweeping through the stables of Joyce criticism in order to uncover
the significance of his works. He was, then, of little help in my present labor, the
review of new guides to Joyce's major works, except that he raised in my mind two
questions: of what use might these new guides be? and to whom might they be of any
use? These questions were honest, not rhetorical, at the time that I formulated them.
It does smack of collusion-cosmic, commercial, or critical-that books of essays on
Ulysses and Finnegans Wake with identical formats and superficially similar goals
should appear in such proximity. The Hart-Hayman book includes eighteen essays by
eighteen different authors, each essay on a single episode in Ulysses; the Begnal-Senn
book contains thirteen essays by thirteen authors, each essay on a section or sequence
of sections in Finnegans Wake. Five of the essayists in the Begnal-Senn collection also
author essays in the Hart-Hayman collection. There, however, any real similarity ends.
The editors of Ulysses: Critical Essays state modest goals, make modest claims
about the achievement of the collection, and the collection exceeds in some respects
the claims they make for it. The editors-although I should point out that even though
Fritz Senn's name graces the dust jacket, he contributes neither preface nor essay-the
editor, then, of A Conceptual Guide to Finnegans Wake sets impossible goals, makes
extravagant claims about the achievement of the collection, and the collection falls so
short of the claims the editor makes that it is difficult to believe he read the essays
before he wrote the Preface.
Let me do the dirty work first. The title, A Conceptual Guide to Finnegans Wake,
itself does not make a great deal of sense. A Guide to the Concepts in Finnegans
Wake? A Guide to the Conceptualization (Conception) of Finnegans Wake? The first
makes some kind of sense, but not as a title for this book. The second leaves begging
the question, whose conceptualization? I think Mr. Begnal is trying to clarify the title
when he, indirectly, states the purpose of the collection of essays: "Concentration on
specific allusions or thematic patterns has tended to draw attention to the detail, the

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part rather than the whole, when what seems needed now is a work which will serve
to enhance the reader's conception of Joyce's work as a novel." A Guide to Finnegans
Wake, Designed to Enable the Reader to Conceptualize the Novel as a Whole, then.
An apparently noble purpose, and one which, no doubt, sounds reasonable to the
reader who knows little about the Wake or the activities of Wake scholars. But Mr.
Begnal's statement of the purpose obscures its real significance, and it should be read
in the appropriate context.
In the pages of A Wake Newslitter, where Wake scholars debate such issues as
whether Sommerfugl contains the German or the Swiss dialect variant of the German
or the Danish word for bird, there recurs a controversy over whether it is better to
expend one's energies to decipher the oddities of the language of Finnegans Wake or to
transcend the "superficial" difficulties of the language and to get at the real meaning
and significance of the text. The controversy is silly, of course, because there is no way
to get to the real meaning of the text except by means of deciphering the language.
Those Wake scholars who do make statements about the meaning or significance of the
whole work or whole sections of the work either have (whether they admit it or not)
deciphered the language of the text or are indulging in pure fabrication. And, of course,
the real point is that it is impossible for a reader who has not deciphered the language
to distinguish legitimate interpretations from the fabrications.
So, when Mr. Begnal says, later in the Preface, that he hopes that "each of these
thirteen essays will provide entry into a section at something deeper than the surface
level," he makes something sound easy which is, in fact, difficult or impossible.
Essentially, he skips a step which every reader of the Wake, with or without the aid of
lexicons and the sort, must take for himself.
If all the essays in the collection conformed to the editor's intention, it would be a
useless book indeed, useless to anyone except the small circle of Wakians (most of the
contributors are, according to Mr. Begnal, "established Wakians") who have in some
sense already mastered the book. Fortunately, some of the authors deviate from the
editor's purpose, and their essays might be of some real use to the less accomplished
readers of the Wake. Particularly, Bernard Benstock's essay on I, v, "Concerning Lost
Historeve," contains a narrowly focused discussion of the version of "the letter" that
appears in I, v and of the other obvious features of the text. And he is careful to relate
all his generalizations and abstractions to specific sentences and passages in the text.
In his essay on I, vi ("the Question chapter"), E. L. Epstein provides a brief but clear
description of the way Joyce combines catechism and list in the section, and, in his
analysis of the details of the section, follows the text even more closely than Benstock.
J. S. Atherton's essay on III, i, "Shaun A," is a bit tedious to read, but is possibly the
most useful essay in the collection, because Atherton, intentionally ignoring Joyce's
description of the structure of the passage, examines in detail the language of the
text and, relying on his vast knowledge of the source-material Joyce used, identifies
and explains many of the arcane allusions in the passage. M. J. C. Hodgart's essay is
also useful. He limits his discussion of II, i (The Mime of Mick, Nick and the Maggies)
to a part of the section, and after providing a brief sentence outline of the part he has
chosen to discuss, gives a useful analysis of the musical and magical allusions, organized by type and source.

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Two more essays are interesting, even though they do not deal particularlywell with
the sections they are supposed to cover. Robert Buckalew, in his essay on II, ii ("the
schoolroom chapter") begins with the generalization that the subject of II, ii is
language and devotes most of his essay to a general introduction to the language of
Finnegans Wake. It is a pretty good general introduction,but not specific enough to
allow the reader to apply the information himself. Father Robert Boyle, who is
supposed to be covering I, vii and I, viii, takes as his text two sentences from I, vii and
expounds on Joyce's crypto-Catholic aesthetic for eleven pages without once even
mentioning the text of "Anna Livia Plurabelle" (I, viii), the best-known section in
Finnegans Wake and possibly the only one about which enough is known to justify
the kind of essay Mr. Begnal proposes.
In the conclusion to his Preface, Mr. Begnal makes the apparently modest claim:
"Doubtless this book is not the final word on FinnegansWake, as it is not the first, but
it does make a solid statement as to where we stand right now." Unfortunately, his
next sentence proves the falseness of his modesty: "A few loose ends may remain...."
A few loose ends indeed. This volume of essays is clearly premature. Unlike the
shrewd Penelope who had the good sense to undo her work nightly, Wakians persist in
publishing the fantasies they fabricateon the text, and there is so much materialnow, it
would take a conscientious neophyte reader as much time to unravel the criticism as
it would to unravel the language of FinnegansWake itself.
The Prefaces to A ConceptualGuide to FinnegansWake and Ulysses: CriticalEssays
are a study in contrast. Messieurs Hart and Hayman, while recognizing the difficulty
of the task of ignoring what one knows, asked the contributors to their collection
"each to treat his chosen chapter as an analysable unit, to come upon it afresh." They,
too, confess that "this book is not the last word on Ulysses," but they hope only
"that it is a fresh word, a pointer that will lead readers back from a concern with
particular patterns or themes toward an investigation of . . . the manifold mysteries
of its texture. .. ." The difference in editorial attitude is telling. There are no truly bad

essays in the Ulysses collection.

Even Father Boyle's subjective and over-apologetic musings on the state of his
troubled meditation on Molly Bloom (he no longer considers her simply a bitch) are
entertainingand instructive. And some of the essays are extremely good. To do honor
to the editors first, Clive Hart's essay on "The Wandering Rocks" contains the results
of the most pleasant research project I have heard of in some time. Stop-watch and
graph-paperin hand, Mr. Hart walked the routes through Dublin taken by each of
the charactersin "The Wandering Rocks," imitating (on occasion, apparently, to his
public embarrassment)their various gimps and paces. His researchhas allowed him to
assess the accuracy of Joyce's description of the movements of the charactersin this
episode, to infer additionalinformationabout their speed and activities, and to produce
a minute-by-minute chart of their positions and activities in relation to one another.
And I particularly appreciate David Hayman's essay on "Cyclops," because I once
found myself on the losing end of a silly argument, maintaining that Bloom's exit at
the end of "Cyclops" ("like a shot off a shovel") does not undercutbut enhances his
dignity. Hayman's careful analysis of the tension between the attitudes of the characters
(particularlythe various degrees of their anti-semitism) and the mock-heroic elements

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of the episode shows just how and just to what extent the interactionof the parts of the
episode function to enhance or deflate Bloom's character.
In his essay on "Circe,"Hugh Kenner,with unusual succinctness and with his usual
disregard for the conventions of ordinary criticism, synthesizes an image of Joyce
playing the roles of his charactersand creates a useful distinction between the roles
which the charactersplay consciously and the roles (principallyHomeric) which Joyce
imposes on them. The distinction allows him to distinguish more clearly than anyone
has before the "naturalistic"and "hallucinatory"elements of the events in the episode.
Robert Kellogg, in his essay on "Scylla and Charybdis," charts quite clearly the
symbolic poles of the episode and illuminates the interpenetrationof the details of
Joyce'sbiographyand of Dublin life in 1904 with the events in the episode. I could go on.
The collection of essays falls short of the hopes of the editors in one respect only.
It is not truly a fresh reading. It is still too sophisticatedto function as a guide for the
beginning readerof Ulysses, but, then, I don't believe that a readerneeds a guide to his
first reading of Ulysses, aside, possibly, from a quick and skeptical glance at the
organizationalcharts which appear in Stuart Gilbert's study of Ulysses or in Richard
Ellmann's Ulysses on the Liffey. But I do believe that any reader, however accomplished, would benefit from this collection of essays before or along with his second or
any subsequent reading of Ulysses. And more, this collection of essays on Ulysses
accomplisheswhat Mr. Begnal claims for the collection of essays on the Wake: it "does
make a solid statement as to where we stand right now."
It is not difficultto account for the disparity of the quality of the two collections of
essays. Ulysses has been available to the reading and academic public for nearly
twenty years longer than Finnegans Wake; the formal or structural experiments and
arcane allusions in Ulysses do not constitute the same kind of barrier for the reader
who wishes to analyze its significanceand meaning as do the linguistic experimentsin
Finnegans Wake, which obscure the arcane allusions themselves, as well as their
function in the text, to say nothing of whatever structuralexperimentsthe Wake may
contain. Ulyssians have had less homeworkto do, and they have done it.

University of South Carolina at Aiken

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