[A page from The Sigla of Finnegans Wake by Roland McHugh.]
I realized at some point today that somethings gone a bit wrong in my head when pages of text like this start to make sense. To take two sentences at random –
Between the extremes one recognizes various numbers of sigla as ‘real’. Perhaps the most important level accepts the twelve questions of I.6 as the absolute values, but we then miss that most useful siglum /C and are obliged to take -| and o as quite distinct.
So I decided to try to share whatever’s gone wrong inside my head with you as well.
Since finishing my reading of Finnegans Wake – or, as I’ve come to think of, since looking at all the words in Finnegans Wake (since reading at some level implies comprehension of a greater percentage of the intended meaning than I likely did) I’ve delved into the secondary literature. I’ve tried to make a somewhat chronological (though my no means exhaustive) study of what others have written about it. One of the neat things about Finnegans Wake is that reading about it in the secondary literature is in a way something already captured within the book itself. The processes of interpretation and transmission of the story are very much a part of that story, and so in some way Joyce insulates himself from criticism by writing it into things.
Even so, there is a place where Finnegans Wake ends and talk about it begins. I’ve read five books:
Our Exagmination Round his Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (pdf here) – multiple authors but the best piece is by Samuel Beckett, called “Dante… Bruno. Vico… Joyce.” There is also a “letter of protest” likely written by Joyce himself, complaining of the incomprehensibility of the book. This was published during Joyce’s lifetime (before Finnegans Wake had that name – it was still Work in Progress – and being printed serially, you know, sort of like Dickens I guess…). It’s mostly just boosterism but there are some helpful bits.
A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake – Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson – surprisingly, this is often referred to in the literature, though to me it felt pseudo-scholarly and slapdash. It treats Finnegans Wake too much like some sort of oracular pronouncement, a obscure text to be read esoterically. That’s a tempting posture but it becomes too precious and beholden to an arbitrary interpretation. Maybe arbitrariness isn’t the problem, it’s that it reduces the three-dimensional experience of reading the book to a two-dimensional “plot summary,” casting aside complexity and thereby producing an orthodox reading. Its early publication date (1944) and its reductionist project probably pushed Finnegans Wake scholarship in an initially wrong direction. Again, that’s fitting given that that very phenomenon happens again and again within the book itself.
Joyceagain’s Wake – Bernard Benstock – This was actually pleasant in its ambivalence and willingness to avoid direct acts of textual “translation.” Benstock’s organized his observations around a cluster of themes that roughly echo the book’s structure without being beholden to it. He also starts to actually make arguments about the purposes Joyce intends to argue for in this book. OF course in doing so he’s on shaky ground, as interpretation must precede evaluation, and as he readily admits, he’s barely scratched the surface.
Finnegans Wake – A Reader’s Guide – William York Tindall – This was a tedious pseudo-summary a la the Skeleton Key but in the even more nefarious guise of scholarship. If the Skeleton Key is the book of Shaun, this is that of the four old scholars (or even better, the book of their trailing donkey). There’s a pretentious good-old-boy’s mid-century English department vibe about this work, one that feels free to say things like “but what woman isn’t that way?”
The Sigla of Finnegans Wake – Roland McHugh – This book actually attempts the process of manuscript and notebook excavation, with very satisfying results. McHugh has uncovered Joyce letters and notebooks that generalize the character-clusters into sigla – non-verbal hieroglyphic-type symbols Joyce used in his drafts. The picture above is from a page of this book. The idea is that we need to stop reading this as a book of characters, and start reading instead as a book of sigla that themselves sometimes are coincident with some characters. We thereby avoid becoming committed to any one name/interpretation. For example – “Anna Livia Plurabelle” actually never occurs in the text in that form (or only once or twice of it does). But the delta symbol (ALP’s siglum) appears all over Joyce’s notes. The sigla do at one point appear in the text itself. Though McHugh cites this as potential support for his reading, it actually may erode that support: they are referred to as “the Doodles Family” and then the sigla are listed. But if we privilege the characters-as-sigla reading, don’t we thereby, highlight only one of their aspects at the expense of others, something he thinks is bad about calling characters by names like “Shem” and “Shaun”? Won’t we just see them as doodles, when they’re only doodles sometimes? And so isn’t this a reading the book itself entertains and thereby cannot be captured in such an interpretation? Still the book was fascinating and suggestive of just how crazy Joyce probably was by the time he finished this book.