Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Recap of the Diasporic Joyce Conference in Toronto (Part 2 of 2)

Victoria College at the Univ. of Toronto where all of this took place.

(Continued from part 1 here.)

The cool, damp Toronto air was a welcome respite from the oppressive summer heat in Texas. It rained a few times, with heavy thunderstorms one night, but we couldn't have been happier with our time in Toronto. While I'd been there once many years ago, I was amazed during this trip to discover how great a place Toronto is. It's got great food, with restaurants catering to every dietary need or preference in every ethnic style all over the place. Being an academic hub, there are more enticing bookstores in the city than I was able to make it to. Most impressive of all was the architecture and city design. Old Gothic buildings intermingling with enormous, postmodern skyscrapers. And somehow within all that, the residential neighborhoods are quiet, quaint---homes have yards and gardens full of exotic flowers and trees. It felt like an idealized version of Manhattan. Far fewer homeless people and vagrants. Lacking that vibe of pedestrians rushing around all stressed out or angry. Drivers were a little whacky but there was far less angry horn-honking than NYC. Also, I didn't get quite the sense of the haves-and-have-nots polarity being as extreme as it is in Manhattan. Toronto seemed like a fairly prosperous, comfortable, laid-back place (noticed lots of people smoking weed in public). And it's a noticeably clean city.

I point all this out because the experience of walking through the city each morning to the University of Toronto campus was something I tried to savor. No matter which path you took there'd be interesting stuff to see, whether museum edifices or streets full of elegant old houses with jungle cube front yards.

On Thursday morning 22 June my lady and I made our way to Victoria College for the day's first panel, "Wormholes in the Wake," featuring a quartet of unique papers involving Finnegans Wake. I went third. Right before me, Prof. Jesse Meyers of NYU presented his findings from the portraits of Joyce created by Frank Budgen during the years Joyce was writing his Work in Progress. The portraits are archived in the Joyce collection at the Harry Ransom Center here in Austin, TX so already Austin was being well represented. Meyers noted the many thematic elements from the Wake that are embedded within Budgen's impressionistic portrait-landscapes of Joyce, such as the inn, the four old men with their ass, and some hermetic symbols evocative of the Book of Kells. As Meyers' laser-pointer aided analysis brought these rather vague impressionist paintings to life it was captivating to witness, even my fiancée who doesn't care about this kinda stuff at all was digging it.

So I had to follow that up. It went fine, though. Having spent months researching and writing my paper, discussing it with my reading group, and even presenting early drafts at literary salon-style events in town, I was eager to finally share it with the Joycean community. Was also certainly anxious about how it might be received. The room was full of some of the most respected Joyce scholars and academics alive. Two people who I'd quoted throughout my paper and inspired some of the views I expressed were present in the room. I didn't manage to say this because I wanted to get right to the paper, but it was a privilege and an honor of the highest order to have that opportunity to present my work in that setting to that group of people. I feel extremely grateful.

My paper, "Waging Peace from the Inkbattle House: Finnegans Wake in the Shadow of War" examines how Joyce's history of the world confronts the cycles of warfare, invasion, and cultural displacement that have shaped history while using subversive mockery and incisive humor as a weapon against those forces. It's an enormous, extremely rich subject and I've got far more to say about it than I could have possibly fit into a 20-minute presentation. What I presented was a truncated version of the paper, unfortunately having to leave out some key material, but overall I'm very proud of how it all went. The response was better than I could have hoped for. Lots of people offered very positive feedback, some of it outlandish, and I felt extremely humbled and somewhat stunned. Experienced academics who've published plenty and whose opinion I trust as honest told me it feels like a complete piece that ought to be published somewhere. My attempts to garner any constructive criticism from folks brought only nitpicking small aspects of it. Some esteemed Joyceans whose opinions really matter to me said they loved it. Again, it was just an absolute honor and a pleasure to deliver my writing to this group of people. Was interesting to observe their reactions, what made people laugh, etc. At the end I told a quick story about Sylvia Beach and a woman in the last row was nodding the whole time like "Oh hell yes, I know this story." It was great.

I need to polish the paper up a bit, put some finishing touches on it then try to get it published somewhere. If that doesn't happen quickly enough I will post the whole thing here because it needs to get out there soon. The themes of "Waging Peace from the Inkbattle House" have occupied my brain for most of the year, I'm ready to share it now (and move on). Although, the topic is certainly rich enough to warrant an entire book if not a whole series of books---war and peace in Finnegans Wake. My friend Benjamin Boysen's immediate feedback was to recall a chapter from War and Peace that resonated for him with the end of my paper, where Tolstoy likens the rebuilding of a war-shattered Moscow to ants resiliently rebuilding the city of their ant-hill. Speaking of building cities, I befriended an architect named Marcin Kendzior who's an ultra-passionate Wakean with a fascinating outlook on the text (his presentation was one of my favorites at the conference)---he described to me the resonance between my discussion of flowers and their life source of decay with the observations in "The Language of Flowers" by Georges Bataille. In the panel I immediately went to, I heard a paper entitled "Language of Flowers: Ulysses, Globalism, and the Botany of Empire" by Greg Winston that featured a reading of the perspective on flowers in Ulysses, discussing botany as an "imperial science of conquest and commerce." There I also heard a very intriguing paper from Barbara M. Hoffman on "Australyians in Island: Australia, Diaspora, and National Identity in Finnegans Wake" where she investigated a Wake paragraph clustering references to a few Irish poets who'd gone astray of the law to be imprisoned in Australia, "astraylians in island." (FW p. 321) It was super fascinating, resonating a vast wave of ideas for me.

Later that day I witnessed Layne Farmen's reading of Richard Linklater's Slacker as an adaptation of Ulysses (one drab day in Austin, one drab day in Dublin) which was very cool for a variety of reasons. Being an Austin resident who's familiar with Slacker, I enjoyed his readings of scenes from the film. His sharply constructed arguments allowed me to see scenes differently. Plus he discussed a scene I've always loved where the characters actually break out a copy of Ulysses and read a passage from Ithaca. My friend from the Austin Wake group, Scott Rhodes, was the editor for Slacker and has told me the background for this scene before. In fact, there's a video of Scott discussing the scene and then reading the Ithaca passage at a Bloomsday event last year (starts at 18:30 mark here).

That panel also featured a talk from noted Joyce scholar John Gordon taking a closer look at the story "An Encounter" from Dubliners (Joyce's short story collection seems to get short shrift in these conferences, such that someone presented a paper amusingly titled "Is There Any Hope for Dubliners This Time?") I must mention here that professor emeritus Gordon---author of Finnegans Wake: A Plot Summary and numerous articles on the Wake---has created a blog where he is assembling his own line-by-line annotations to Finnegans Wake to accompany those of Roland McHugh/Fweet. He has already gathered annotations for Books I-III. I encourage you to check it out HERE.

The last panel I experienced that Thursday focused on the Jewishness of Bloom and led to one of the better Q&A discussions of the conference with plenty of back and forth over the vague Jewish roots of Bloom, the book's treatment of antisemitism, and Joyce's view of religion in general. Everything so far described in this post was encountered in just one day, and I've left out quite a bit. Every day of the conference was like this---jam-packed with abundant food-for-thought feasts, such that by the end of the day my brain was taxed, craving both to recharge batteries and let the day's experiences soak in. Yet the Diasporic Joyce Conference was also a rare opportunity to hang with fellow Joyceans from around the world who'd gathered in the welcoming confines of Toronto's metropolis. That Thurs night, having gone through delivering my paper in the morning then absorbing many other presentations throughout the day, I ended up staying out until 3 AM getting extremely drunk with some fellow Joyceans then walking home through a torrential rainstorm with lightning and thunder. A memorable time indeed.

The view from our room in downtown Toronto.

The next day, Fri 23 June, I was physically a wreck, but the sun was shining on Toronto and another day full of Joyceana awaited at the Univ. of Toronto campus. Conscious and upright at last, I made my way over there where I immediately ran into Prof. Garry Leonard, one of the conference organizers, and we had an engaging chat all about what exactly makes the city of Toronto so special (city-planning foresight, for one). Then I witnessed a presentation from the aforementioned architect Marcin Kedzior whose talk was one of the most memorable and exciting of the conference. He opened by reciting---performing---from memory, with emphatic embellishment, the closing of Finnegans Wake and the opening two pages, followed by a cornucopia of ideas and insights into the Wake's "hierarchitectitiptitoploftical" (FW p. 5) construction, recalling the mythic master builder designing a city next to the river. As he put it, when a word has 100 letters like Joyce's ten thunders, it's more of a construction using letters as bricks. Marcin touched on so many topics and sparked so many ideas in my head I couldn't cover it all here, hopefully I'll write it up in a separate post. In the same panel, editor of the James Joyce Quarterly Sean Latham gave a talk that was sort of a primer on the current state of Joyce studies around the world. Was interesting to hear how proliferant this stuff is---the JJQ has submissions coming in from all over the world and with the recent publication of a Chinese translation of Finnegans Wake, Joyce studies have begun to bubble up over there. It's all in addition to the already steady production of Joyce studies churning out of the UK and North America.

Friday evening found us all gathering in the chapel for the plenary presentation from Valérie Bénéjam, a wide-ranging talk that seemed to touch on almost all of Joyce's works, mainly revolving around the theme of diaspora. One little factoid that stuck with me was the suggestion that Joyce may have used exactly 70 or 72 languages in Finnegans Wake because it's a symbolic number, the number of scattered languages following the fall of the Tower of Babel. The reasoning behind this assertion was that Joyce's notebooks contain a number of words from other languages that he decided to leave out.

The chapel was subsequently the setting for a fun event arranged by Derek Pyle of Waywords & Meansigns called "Quashed Quotatoes" that was a sort of Joycean karaoke. With live music playing, the king of Finnegans Wake performances Adam Harvey provided a theatrical reading of some Wake passages, followed by an entertaining reading from Robert Amos, and a mesmerizing sequence of interpretive dance performed by a representative of the Joyce bloodline, a young Irish girl named Lucia who is James Joyce's grandniece. I too got up there and did some live readings of some passages from Book IV. I don't think my performative skills hold a candle to any of the previous presenters, but I did have a lot of fun standing on stage in a chapel reading the Wake on a mic with live music.

Saturday 24 June was a fittingly excellent conclusion to the event. At the start, I witnessed a very intriguing panel on animals in Joyce's work. Rob Brazeau contemplated how we turn animals into commodities of the marketplace and engaged in a very fascinating close reading of the Telemachus episode in Ulysses. The insights were flying faster than I could take notes, but from what I recall he noted that one of the uniting factors of the Telemachus and Calyspo episodes (parallel in time and surely in subtextual themes) is the exchange of animal commodities for money---milk in the former, meat in the latter. He also pointed out how the mythopoetic pastoral Irish crone, the milkwoman, becomes obscured by metropolitan economy, payment for the commodity of milk as she's seen calculating the details of their bill.

The afternoon featured what was undoubtedly the most popular and hilarious panel of the conference, all about scatology in Joyce, featuring three luminaries sharing their insightful papers. Claire Culleton's analysis of the socioeconomic factors involved in Bloom's defecation in Calypso felt like standup comedy. Tim Conley pushed the envelope further with references to Gargantua and Pantagruel's inquiry into what's the best material to use for a good ass wipe ("none in the world comparable to the neck of a goose, that is well downed, if you hold her head betwixt your legs"). And Austin Briggs---a gentleman in his 80s wearing a skin-tight black t-shirt that said "Shit Don't Mean Shit!"---analyzed the Molly Bloom chapter, suggesting there is actually a period punctuation mark in the middle of the episode (something I'd never heard before) which would somehow, between the closing black dot at the end of Ithaca and the final period to end the text, make an infinity symbol with a dot in the middle. That dot being Molly's anus. 

Lastly, I want to discuss one of my favorite papers from the conference. In the midst of a panel about magic in the work of Joyce, we were granted the privilege of a paper shared by eminent Joyce scholar John Bishop who is recovering from a stroke and provided his talk via pre-recorded video (followed by Skype'd Q&A). If you've read this blog at all, you must know I have an immense appreciation for Prof. Bishop's work. He is my favorite Joycean so I was very excited to experience his presentation. Due to his physical condition, he was unable to recite from a paper so (incredibly) he recited it all from memory.

Bishop's discussion sprung from one line from one of the most tender sections of Finnegans Wake, p. 565 where a mother comforts her child who'd been having a nightmare. "Poor little brittle magic nation," she says. Little Britain, as opposed to Great Britain, is poor little Ireland, whose dream of being a nation is not a reality. There's also a juxtaposition here as Great Britain is too pragmatic, doesn't have enough imagination, as opposed to little Britain, Ireland with its treasure trove of fairy tales and myths, hence "magic nation." Bishop noted that the magical intention of Joyce's art is invoked right from the epigraph of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, taken from Ovid's Metamorphosis. Stephen Dedalus sees himself as "a priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life." This metamorphosis is a form of magic, a transubstantiation which Joyce enacts on a grand scale in Ulysses where a regular 20th century day is imbued with the theophanic (Bishop's word) mystery and glory of a Homeric epic. Bishop quipped, maybe realism itself is magical; the conjuring up of lives and voices of dead people. For Joyce, whatever he takes up turns to magic. He gives words all the magic of a living thing.

Friday, July 7, 2017

A Recap of the Diasporic Joyce Conference in Toronto (Part 1 of 2)

One of the ten thunder words, by Robert Amos.

Last week I had the honor of participating in and experiencing the 2017 North American James Joyce Conference in the fantastic city of Toronto, Ontario. It was a wonderful time, akin to a Joycean Disneyland with displays of masterful artwork, insightful papers, and music-accompanied performative readings in a chapel (the centrality of the chapel in Finnegans Wake---HCE+ALP in Chapelizod---I don't think was lost on the conference organizers). I'm going to provide a brief recap (as brief as I can make it) here of my experience at the conference while sharing links to the work of some of the participants as an attempt to both digest everything I took in and provide a resource for the world of Joyceans and Wakeans who I know would be interested in some of this stuff.

I was attending the conference to present my paper, "Waging Peace from the Inkbattle House: Finnegans Wake in the Shadow of War," scheduled to be part of the first panel of papers, "Wormholes in the Wake," on the morning of Thursday June 22nd. I didn't realize going into the conference that I'd also find myself making a couple other presentations throughout the week.

(I should quickly note that this was all coming on the heels of a very eventful Bloomsday week back home in Austin. We had our Finnegans Wake Reading Group meeting at Malvern Books on Thursday June 15th, followed by a Bloomsday party on June 16th featuring bibliomantic readings of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, then an Irish music concert in an arboreal setting with the Here and Now and the Piper Jones Band on Sat June 17th where I was invited to take the stage, discuss Leopold Bloom and Ulysses, and read passages from the text along with a couple other members of our reading group. A great way to get the Joyce momentum rolling prior to the conference.)

The Diasporic Joyce conference officially kicked off on Wednesday June 21st. My new fiancée and I were staying in a charming top-floor apartment a few blocks away from the University of Toronto. We had arrived Tuesday night after spending the afternoon at Niagara Falls where we got engaged (pic above). We had the best time in Canada. I was completely blown away by Toronto, it has to be one of the coolest cities in the world. Architectural brilliance all over, academic excellence, an artistic vibe, and a multicultural mixture so rich that it led our street art tour guide to describe Toronto as "the most multicultural city in the world" because 50% of its residents hail from other countries.

Wednesday afternoon I walked through the busy streets of Toronto (it was a great time to be in Canada, during the 150th anniversary celebration) over to the beautiful Victoria College campus within University of Toronto where the Joyce gathering was being held. The campus of Marshall McLuhan, Donald Theall, Hugh Kenner, Northrop Frye. Walked into the 150-year old Gothic Victoria College doors and immediately saw my friend Robert Brazeau from the University of Alberta. Met two friendly Joyceans one hailing from Iran, the other from Brazil, fellow devout fans of Finnegans Wake, Decio a retired architect Joyce scholar and Madhi an academic in Edmonton. We had a great talk about Joyce's omnitext before going upstairs where the conference organizers had prepared exhibits of some of the Joyce-inspired artwork to be experienced during the conference. Things had barely begun and I was already blown away.

On the walls of a classroom were the jaw-dropping creations of Peter O'Brien who had taken the pages of the Anna Livia Plurabelle chapter of Finnegans Wake and artfully filled them with colorful annotations and illustrations. A physical representation of what the Wake describes as "a speechreading from hisminiated vellum, alfi byrni gamman dealter etcera zezera eacla treacla youghta kaptor lomdom noo, who meaningwhile that illuminatured one, Papyroy of Pepinregn"(FW 568)---papyrus of "illuminatured" vellum palimpsests of all the notes, echoes, resonances, anastomosaic river branchings of ALP. Here are some samples:

(Peter O'Brien is apparently doing this for every page of the text. I told him I'd love to have an entire book of this. He shared with me a sneak preview of some of the other pages and they're incredible. He's also collecting copies of annotated pages of Finnegans Wake from folks like Marshall McLuhan, Northrop Frye, Michael Groden plus anyone else who's interested in sharing their own personally annotated Wake pages. Send a copy of yours to

The first panel to commence the conference proceedings that Wednesday afternoon somehow found me up there ready to speak off the cuff to a room full of Joyce scholars about my contributions to the Waywords and Meansigns project. This wasn't in the original schedule but my pal Derek Pyle, the W&M mastermind, was a little under the weather and had lost his voice, so I agreed to get up there with him and discuss the project. Managed to articulate a few words about the creation of the "Yawn Under Inquest" chapter for the first edition of Waywords (which can be heard here and read about here). The rest of that panel featured one talented artist after another sharing their Joyce-inspired work (plus the digital design brilliance of Boston College students who'd crafted a virtual reality rendition of scenes from Ulysses, Martello Tower, 7 Eccles Street, Sandymount, etc). Tasha Lewis detailed how she created collage illustrations for each page of Ulysses with different styles for the 18 episodes over 8 weeks of intense creative effort, leading to her enormous book Illustrating James Joyce's Ulysses in Eight Weeks. She: Illustrated. Every... Ulysses! 644 illustrations each inspired by a certain passage from the text. The New Yorker celebrated it and Tasha deserves an art achievement award of some kind. Another gifted collage artist, Heather Ryan Kelley, shared an enticing little black cube called The Midden Heap Project containing booklets of abstractly illustrated episodes from Finnegans Wake, namely these:  

Chapters One and Two, pages 3- 47, coptic binding 
The Trial of HCE, pages 48-74, accordion 
Chapter Four, pages 75-103, accordion
 In the Name of Annah the Allmaziful, pages 104-125, accordion 
The Quiz Show, pages 126-168, deck of cards
 Shem the Penman, pages 169-195, accordion 
The Washers at the Ford, pages 196-216, accordion.

Peter O'Brien talked about his aforementioned arabesques of annotations on the pages of ALP and amusingly shared his passion for Joyce (mentioning this important video clip), as did Robert Amos who somehow stole the show with his stunning calligraphic renditions of Joyce quotes either etched on the furniture of the James Joyce Bistro in Victoria, BC or rendered in the style of Japanese paintings. He's currently working on an illustrated version of Eric McLuhan's landmark study on The Role of Thunder in Finnegans Wake (!!!) and once recorded himself reciting the entirety of Finnegans Wake. I can confirm he is a precise and humorous reader of the text. (Check out Robert's own recap of the Toronto Joyce Conference here.)

Art by Robert Amos.

By now, having overcome sweaty anxiety to speak to a room full of people and subsequently absorbed the mind-blowing, stunning artwork of one master creator after another, I was gassed. A quick breather preceded the next session featuring the unveiling of a piece from Adam Harvey's new film 'Shemsong,' an interactive textual animation featuring Adam's performance of the Shem chapter delivered over the music of Mike Watt. Former Disney illustrator Bruce Woodside told me Harvey's animated reading "strikes me as one of the best [animated efforts] to date" and it is indeed incredible, see for yourself:

(To be continued...)

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Interview: Bruce Woodside Talks Finnegans Wake Reading Groups, Animation, and the New Edition of 'Waywords & Meansigns'

Waywords art by Sara Jewell.

[Bruce Woodside is an animator/writer/musician out of Los Angeles, California. Beyond his career contributing to such notable films as 'Space Jam,' 'Beauty and the Beast,' and 'Ghostbusters,' Bruce has been an avid student of 'Finnegans Wake' for many years. He's participated in numerous Wake reading groups, regularly shares insightful commentary in the FWread study group, and most recently contributed a recording of HCE's monologue from pages 540-550 to the newest edition of 'Waywords & Meansigns.'  What follows is a recent chat we had about his background with Joyce, his creative career, the new recording, and some his favorite parts of Finnegans Wake. Enjoy. - PQ]

PQ: I’m always interested to hear readers’ background with the Wake, so tell me a bit about your first encounter with Finnegans Wake.

BW: My introduction to the Wake came as a result of becoming fascinated with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when I was fourteen. That book shaped my imagination in a way and at a time in my life when I desperately needed it, although I didn’t fully understand its impact on me until much later. My small town Ohio background and upbringing were completely different from Joyce’s, and much of the political and religious context of the novel went right over my head, but the book struck a chord. For better (and worse), it altered my life. In pursuit of gaining a better understanding of it, I picked up a copy of Anthony Burgess’s ReJoyce, and his brief guided tour through the entirety of Joyce’s body of work was actually my first encounter with the Wake. Based on his description, I ordered the hardbound Viking edition and have been turning its pages and wading through its waters ever since.

I saw on your Waywords & Meansigns bio you’ve participated in some Finnegans Wake reading groups. Which ones have you partaken in? What were they like? Ever been to the Finnegans Wake/Marshall McLuhan reading group in Venice?

My first experience with a reading group was an off-and-on flirtation with a group of academics in Boulder, Colorado, who decided to stage a live reading of the Wake for the public on Joyce’s birthday, sometime in the early 70’s. It was the first time I’d ever heard anyone reading it out loud, and the concluding soliloquy, in particular, performed by a woman with the loveliest melancholy Irish brogue, was extraordinarily powerful.

After moving to Los Angeles, I began to haunt the bookstore at UCLA (where they were selling things like Glasheen’s Third Census and the Classical Lexicon before McHugh became available) and discovered that there was a regular group meeting on campus, working its way through the book at a pace of a few pages each month. This included occasional visits from scholars like Margot Norris and Vincent Cheng. And there was Guinness involved. Everybody had their own copies of the book with tiny little notes and annotations scrawled in the margins and scribbled between lines, a practice I never adopted. I attended as often as I could, until family and career intervened.

In the 90’s, I heard about Gerry Fialka’s McLuhan/Wake group that gathered on a monthly basis at the Venice library, and sat in on a few sessions, but distance and my work schedule precluded regular attendance – and the Internet became a primary location for the gathering of the Wake clans. I was an early participant in the FWRead online group, and have continued to contribute when I can. Retirement from the movie business and a renewed interest in McLuhan’s media theories have lured me back to Gerry’s group (after twenty years) which now meets on the first Tuesday of each month in Marina del Rey. We’re up to page 518.

Do you have a favorite chapter/section/passage/sentence in Finnegans Wake?

My favorite chapters are ALP (chapter 8) and the introduction (chapter 1), which I have literally read countless times, as opposed to, say, chapter 14 (Jaun’s sermon), which I’ve probably only read completely through twice. Not my favorite.

Chapter 1 is terrific – how anyone could read that chapter and not be drawn into the rest of the book is a mystery to me. I mean, I get it: this novel is probably the most deliberately obscure and difficult work of literature ever committed to paper, and reading it is an act of faith – in Joyce’s skill, in his commitment to the truth of immediate experience (even the experience of being immobilized in sleep), and in his ability to control his technique and not drive it over the cliff into total incomprehensibility. Boredom and/or anger are two fairly common responses (is it a put-on? can any novel be worth so much effort?), but for me, an almost ecstatic vision of ordinary everyday human experience can also be evoked, and that has made it an essential part of my reading over the better part of a lifetime. Oh, and I think it’s fun. And funny.

How did you decide upon your selection for Waywords & Meansigns? Tell me about the experience you had creating the recording.

I was a little late to the party, and the section (“Haveth Childers Everywhere”, pp. 540-550) was unclaimed. I would have preferred to take it right to the end of the chapter, but the remainder was already spoken for. Still, I think it’s a coherent piece, given over for the most part to a single voice: after pages and pages of Yawn dodging questions from the Four, misunderstanding and misinterpreting the nature of the ritual inquest, darting in and out of various channeled personalities in a tortured séance, he finally sheds his confusion of disguises and emerges as HCE, pretty clearly making the case, as no one else can, that he isn’t such a bad guy after all. Except that he is, of course, and can’t quite conceal in his peroration the nature of the crimes to which the city of Dublin and his river/wife bear witness. The city itself becomes both a testament to his accomplishments and evidence of his inevitable defeat. To me, despite the increasingly meaningless intrusions of the Four (who I decided to treat as radio static), it feels triumphant: the hero reclaims his title, despite all the usual reservations. “Book to besure,” he concludes [FW p. 550].

Anyway, that was the emotional throughline I decided to take with it. I’m fairly certain it could be interpreted in a variety of other ways, but that was the one that made sense to me, even when I couldn’t figure out exactly what he was saying. The reading came first; the music was designed to underscore the places in the text where I perceived emotional transitions taking place, e.g., from Humphrey’s initial lyrical boasts into the depressingly repetitive passages describing the “respectable” citizens of Dublin who have benefited from his city-building efforts.

The experience was rather like doing a deep reading of any page of the Wake: what starts out as a bizarre and confusing collage of barely recognizable English, smudged with overlays of other sounds, other senses, dimly connected by obscure distortions of dissolved grammar, eventually emerges into a foreground of tentative understanding – not a final identification but something closer to a kind of dark energy, an indicator of the invisible engine of an unconscious mind. The wonder of it, for me, is that real characters emerge out of that darkness, with real relationships, even though their outlines are blurred and they are in a near-constant state of transformation.

Your reading has the same lilt and tone as Joyce’s recording of Anna Livia Plurabelle---was this style intentional?

I read somewhere once that the Wake is best read out loud with a kind of “stage Irish” accent, this rough approximation of which was the best I could manage. I have listened to Joyce’s recording of ALP many times, and I did take my cue from what clearly seems to me to be a performance of the piece rather than a straightforward reading – it’s his notion of what Dublin washerwomen sound like, and he should know. I, on the other hand, am probably doing something closer to a parody of an Irish accent, but I have no way of judging it. An actual Irish speaker will probably wince.

I understand you’re an illustrator who’s done work for Disney and Warner Bros.---can you tell me a bit about your job and how you got into it?

I spent nearly forty years in the entertainment business as an animator, traveling a career arc that took me from a lightbox on which I drew cartoons with a pencil on sheets of punched paper all the way up to a digital screen on which I helped design always-on persistent virtual reality worlds in 3D that could be entered via an Internet portal. In between those two poles, I worked a variety of jobs as the nature of the business slowly (and then all at once) shifted from analog to digital technologies.

I started out in Denver, Colorado, after graduating in 1971 with a degree in English Lit., hoping to write and direct live action films, but my entrance into the field came by way of cartoons, after which I decided that drawing films as opposed to shooting them on location was a more pleasurable (and less strenuous) way of earning a living. I relocated to Los Angeles in the late 70’s, moving from commercials to feature projects. The advance of computer technology was a huge disruption for many people in the cartoon business, but somehow I managed to transition during the 90’s from animation into storyboards and, eventually, direction in the new CG environment, which included working for Disney Imagineering on their VR projects. And then, right out the door into retirement, although I still animate for my own pleasure and for distribution on the Internet (and even occasionally do so with a pencil on paper.)

Has your Joyce fanhood ever factored into your creative career at all?

On the whole and in a word, no. When I first began writing (poetry, novellas, eventually unproduced screenplays) Joyce was, of course, an inspiration; but attempting to model one’s writing on Joyce in any way can be an enormously exhausting and eventually dispiriting endeavor. Had I single-mindedly pursued a career in writing, I might have worked my way through the difficulty and found my own voice, but Joyce’s writing sets a very high bar, and unfortunately it isn’t a bar that is of much value in what passes for a lot of writing in the medium of film.

While I find Joyce’s writing to be a model of scrupulous clarity, it is precision acquired at a cost. It takes real discipline (and time) to remove all the extraneous material and arrive at a linguistic approximation of the truth, without offering your reader the helping hand of explanation or the familiar scaffolding of a neat three-act structure. Hollywood in general is a land of lazy readers, of fifteen-second plot synopses and elevator pitches. The image is king, language its court jester.

I’ve always thought the only way to really film FW would be in that kind of quasi-animated Waking Life/A Scanner Darkly style. Have you ever contemplated that kind of endeavor?

I don’t think Finnegans Wake needs to be a film (I think the Wake has probably achieved its ideal form as a book), but that won’t stop people from trying to turn it into one, including yours truly who has for years nursed the dream of animating to Joyce’s reading of ALP. Animation (though not necessarily the rotoscoping of Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly) seems the correct medium for the continual watery transformations a Wakean film demands, and I think some animated efforts have gotten close (Adam Harvey’s version of Chapter 7,, strikes me as one of the best to date), but most (like Mary Ellen Bute’s Passages) are still too solid and well-defined to render the slippery and playful quality of the fluid dream. Joyce solved the problem by inventing a new language that only just barely resembles the old one, but translating it into some visual counterpart tends to nail down the meanings to a limiting singular point of view. Taking a cue from the Waywords project, it might work best as an anthology, soliciting a variety of stylistic takes from individual directors. Amazon? Netflix? Are you listening?

Lastly, what other authors and books do you love besides Joyce and Finnegans Wake?

When I was a kid growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, my imagination was nurtured by comic books, movies, cartoons, science fiction, TV shows – the entire junk floodtide of popular media that saturated the consumer landscape pre-Internet. Hence: my career. So my tastes are all over the place, but there are other authors who from time to time have managed to seize my attention: William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Hart Crane come to mind, as well as Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, H.G Wells, William Faulkner, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon – and one minor little shout-out here to the once-famous, now forgotten fantasy writer James Branch Cabell, whose elegant mock-romantic prose in Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice, was the subject of an obscenity trial in this country several years in advance of the battle over Joyce’s Ulysses.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Guest Post: Scott Rhodes on the Making of "Vicocyclometer" (for Waywords & Meansigns, 3rd Edition)

Art by Heather Ryan Kelley.
[The newest edition of Waywords & Meansigns was made available today, featuring over 100 new recordings from artists hailing from 15 different countries. Here in Austin, a small team of Wake-heads from the Finnegans Wake Reading Group of Austin assembled to make weird music out of a three-page section in Book IV, page 613-615. You can hear our recording here, just scroll to the bottom of the page. We dubbed our project "Vicocyclometer." Scott Rhodes, who produced our unique mix, provided some very thoughtful background on the essence of our recording. So, for the first ever guest post at this blog, here is Scott on the making of "Vicocyclometer."--PQ]

Obviously our "Vicocyclometer" is not a scholar’s work, such as proceeding merely by taking cues from a conservative reading of the text and setting them to sound. We were more artistically playful, call it the way of the amateur: made with love. The process was actually quite similar to any given session of our local reading group. Our method of tackling Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has been to pay close attention to annotations and commentaries on each passage, sentence and word—and even syllable —but in the end we return to our imagination, a mode of reading we feel Joyce himself would approve. The text should be intimately meaningful to the reader, demanding a personal investment for its completion. Of course that's a dangerous tightrope to walk, as Nietzsche said "who has not been sick to death of everything subjective and its accursed ipsissimosity" (self-referencing). Taking a hint from the old adage: an artist’s goal is to make you an artist… there is an art to it.

Joycean themes are immediately recognizable in the piece: thunder, sounds of water, multiplicity of languages as well as the great leaps in geography and epochs. Other Joycean inspired ideas are not so apparent. A good example is a personal choice I made involving a rather tenuous bit of ethnomusicological speculation of mine about traditional Pontic music. When Peter proposed building the piece around Middle Eastern music I knew right away I wanted to use this particular folk music of northern Turkey— for a couple of reasons.

The main instrument in Pontic Music is the Kemençe, which is a kind of dulcimer that is bowed. Typically the melody is quite intricate and repetitious, similar to the stylings of the Irish fiddle. When I first heard Pontic music I immediately heard a similarity to Irish music, though I doubt there is any comparative legitimacy. Still, I knew that Northern Turkey had in fact been colonized by Gaelic people in the Hellenistic period (hence Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians) but over a period of centuries they slowly had been subject to various wars and defeats (hence the famous ancient sculpture "Dying Gaul") but eventually the Gaelic people and language assimilated into the people and languages of the region.

So the idea was not absurd but more importantly Pontic Greek folk music conveyed precisely what this given passage of Finnegans Wake is about— cultural displacement and assimilation. In this given passage we are reading of Roman Christians supplanting Irish Druidism, but in antiquity we have Romans supplanting the Gauls of Asia Minor. The sounds and voices of old Pontic recordings in my collection were suitably Joycean with those nostalgic, mournful moods, the Kemençe and tearful stories all telling of yet another culture's violation: the early Twentieth century displacement of Pontic Greeks and Armenians.

Of course this very kind of violence is another constant in Finnegans Wake. Wars and battles from across the globe and throughout time are constantly visited upon the reader, sometimes as a glimpse, sometimes a whispering hint, other times in pages of immersion. In fact the book would be a grim experience were it not for Joyce’s overriding principle epitomized by his employment of the literary pun. Like a pun, meaning itself cycles through time, and the pun succinctly instantiates that we hold two opposing thoughts at once—something Aristotle thought impossible, though Blake might differ: “Excessive sorrow laughs. Excessive joy weeps.” As does Joyce who is committed that not just linguistic or personal meaning exceeds in irony, but ontology itself is superabundant, history too, excessive. If oppositions are subject to time (perhaps even essential), even the most grievous occasions of genocide and, if you will, epistemicide, will all eventually surrender to their temporality and, in Joyce’s Viconian, Nietzschean and Möbius mind, find their way to their beginning season. It’s Joyce’s eternal return.

So a lot of thought went into our little "Vicocyclometer" and lots more could be said but I leave with this quote as an elucidation on the final quiet moment of our little musical mashup.

Since these choruses come so late in the season, it seems almost as though song might stay the passage of time. At this point, one succumbs to the illusion that this shrilling chorus has been heard before, in another time and another place, a time of commencement and a place of chilling water. And then the sound and the picture fall into place. The shrilling of the tree crickets is a sonic déjà vu, a déjà entendu, of the chorusing spring peepers in the swamps and bogs. The two choruses are remarkably similar, not only in fancy but in sound and pitch and rhythm. The resemblance brings the listener to a rude realization of the passage of time. Only yesterday it was spring. Today it is fall. The year is ending on the same note on which it began. 
(Vincent G. Dethier; Crickets and Katydids, Concerts and Solos.)

Monday, April 24, 2017

Waywords & Meansigns Returns with a Third Volume, Featuring Contributions from FinWakeATX

(Art by Jacob Drachler from his glorious book Id-Grids and Ego-Graphs: A Confabulation With Finnegans Wake, reviewed at

The Waywords & Meansigns collective effort of setting Finnegans Wake to music via contributions from artists all over the world is set to release another new edition, its third rendering of the Wake, this one featuring over a hundred contributors from around the world each recording short selections from the text. I took part in this latest endeavor, creating a 17-minute recording of pages 613-615, produced and mixed by my friends Scott Rhodes and Luke Sanders-Self from the Finnegans Wake Reading Group of Austin (we dubbed our selection "Vicocyclometer"). The latest edition will be released on May 4th.

To celebrate the newest release, Waywords & Meansigns mastermind Derek Pyle has been spreading the good word in various Joycean outlets. Recently he wrote a few guest blog posts at the official James Joyce Centre blog featuring quotes from returning contributors to the Waywords project discussing their experience with the latest edition. I was among those quoted there and the other folks had some very interesting stuff to say about the Finnegans Wake immersion experience, so be sure to check that post out.

Here's a snippet from what I had to say about it:
Letting those kind of lines seep into your mind, you start to feel the incantatory magic of the Wake’s language. It affects the way you see the world, the way you hear language, it proliferates the Joycean perspective of epiphany. It’s extraordinary, to say the least.
(Derek also just appeared on the Resonance FM show "Sonic Imperfections" where he played a selection from our new piece and talked a bit about its background. This blog got a great shout out! I'm quite proud and honored for that. Check out that show HERE, skip to 14:22 mark for Derek's appearance.
---Edit: added, 4/26/17.)

Check out the first edition of Waywords & Meansigns released in 2015, featuring the full text of Finnegans Wake set to music HERE where friends and I created a three-hour rendition of the "Yawn Under Inquest" chapter (Track 15 at that link). You can read more about my experience creating a chapter for the first edition in this blog post and this interview.

Overall, I'm thrilled with the whole Waywords & Meansigns endeavor and grateful to Derek for his work in managing it all. It gives me great satisfaction and hope for humanity to know that so many people all around the world (contributors come from 15 different countries) have been immersing themselves in Joyce's great cosmic love letter, puzzling through the psychedelic dream opera and working to capture its inspired essence through music. The more people spending time reading and enjoying Finnegans Wake on this planet, the better. Its power of upliftment and enlightening humor is nuclear.

Check this space again soon, as I will have a guest blog from my pal Scott Rhodes who produced our "Vicocyclometer" passage and wrote an exceedingly insightful essay on his experience.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Great Letter and the Infinite Process of Self-Embedding

"When a part so ptee does duty for the holos 
we soon grow to use of an allforabit." 
- FW p. 18-19

"Will you walk into my wavetrap? 
said the spiter to the shy." 
- FW p. 287

"Joyce wants his text to contain the whole universe with all its recursive times (recorso) and histories. He also wants the whole of the Wake to be contained in each of its self-similar parts. His ideal reader is supposed to grasp the text both in recursive loops of readings and in a holistic perception of the whole text in each part. If one wants to imagine a fractal text that entails the 'infinite self-embedding of complexity,' Finnegans Wake comes as close to it as possible. The Wake enfolds words into words that enfold other words, and all these imaginary word-worlds enfold narratives within narratives of other narratives, or characters that are the effects of other characters, and so on ad infinitum. Joyce even seems to tease us about this infinite process of self-embedding when he deposits the Great Letter in the muddy surface of his text. The Great Letter is figured as a miniature Finnegans Wake which in turn, contains the Great Letter which contains Finnegans Wake which contains the Great Letter which contains Finnegans Wake... Chaos theory has termed this well-known mise-en-abîme 'self-similarity.' Defined as symmetry across scale, self-similarity 'implies recursion, pattern inside of pattern' (Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science, 103). 'Fractal meant self-similar,' writes Gleick (...). The Wake drives this dream of infinite self-similarity to its extreme: as an enfolded replica of Finnegans Wake which, in turn, is figured as a text able to store all texts, sounds, and signs of all times, past and future, the Great Letter also embodies, somewhat self-ironically, the Wake's dream of being a written hologram of a self-similar universe."
- Gabriele Schwab, The Mirror and the Killer-Queen: Otherness in Literary Language, p. 76
(Encountered on p. 145 of Joyce & Liberature by Katarzyna Bazarnik, which I discussed further here.)

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Happy Birthday to James Joyce! (& The Feast of St. Brigit)

Happy Birthday to James Joyce! Born on 2/2/1882. And Happy Birthday to Ulysses! Published on 2/2/1922.

February 2nd is a very special day in Joyceana.

For James Joyce, February 2 was, in Richard Ellmann's words, a 'talismanic' day: a point on the great wheel of time where an event of the present could resonate in 'sacred coincidence' with correlative events of an earlier cycle, thus imbuing the present with a potency that is at once symbolic, mythic, or even numinous. On February 2, 1939, Joyce, with his family and friends, celebrated his own birth fifty-seven years earlier as well as the 'birth' of his magnum opus---the arrival of the first printed copy of Finnegans Wake.

This 'talismanic' day, February 2, also coincides with the ancient Irish feast of Imbolc, one of the four great holy days in the Celtic wheel of the year. (Imbolc's bowdlerized vestiges can still be found in both Candelmas and Groundhog Day.) Imbolc is sacred to the goddess Brigit, the one-eyed patroness of Ireland's visionary poets (the Filidh), her mythologists, and her storytellers. In pagan Ireland, Imbolc, birthday of the ancient goddess, observed the arrival of light after long darkness; Imbolc celebrated the birth of a new cycle of life and also honored the goddess whose gifts---poetic insight, mnemonic ability, linguistic skill, knowledge of the ancient lore, and 'fire in the head'---allowed her votaries to preserve and continue the ancient Irish tradition. Thus, the feast day of this archaic Irish goddess of poets is also the birthday of the modern Irishman who, perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, embodies the very gifts she was understood to bestow. 

That's from the wonderful first page of Wake Rites: The Ancient Irish Rituals of Finnegans Wake by George Cinclair Gibson, perhaps the most important and illuminating book that has been written about Joyce's opus so far. Ever since we came upon page 611 in our Austin Finnegans Wake Reading Group, beginning the climactic St. Patrick vs the Archdruid Berkeley debate, I've been absorbed in and astounded by the insights presented in Wake Rites.

In it, Gibson describes seventeen as "the sacred number of regeneration for the pagan Irish." Tonight, on Joyce's birthday and St. Brigit's Feast Day in the 17th year of the 21st century, on the 17th floor at the graciously accommodating Irish Consulate, reading from the 17th chapter of the book Joyce wrote over a 17-year period, we dug into what is generally considered the book's climactic scene. Page 612, depicting the legendary confrontation between the invading Catholic Patrick with his mumbling groaning missionaries ("mister guest Patholic with alb belongahim the whose throat hum with of sametime...cassock groaner fellas of greysfriarfamily" 611.7-8) crashing the ultimate pagan Irish ritual ceremony at the Hill of Tara and defeating the Archdruid in a debate in front of the High King of Tara, usurping the archaic order of the poets, knocking the sage on his ass, and banning the ancient Irish seer-poet's mysterious and magical Dark Tongue language forever.

It is in the final chapter of Wake Rites, in discussing the extra bizarre language of the Patrick/Druid debate, where Mr. Gibson gives the most convincing and comprehensive argument I've yet seen for the reason behind the absurdly obscure language throughout Joyce's most treasured work. Gibson posits that it is Joyce's revival of the ancient Irish Dark Tongue:

In Old Irish, this artificially constructed tongue was known as bélra na filed, 'language of the filidh,' and was striking in its outrageous presentation, colorful characteristics, and nearly impenetrable obscurity. Bélra na filed (also called the 'Dark Tongue') is a language nearly incomprehensible in its polyglot logorrhea; language sometimes blathering, at other times ranting, ribald, profound, or scatological, and everywhere laden with absurd catalogues of everything; language rife with riddles, and riddled with puns, neologisms, and a plethora of polysemes and portmanteaus..."

This is the language spoken by the Archdruid Berkeley or "Balkelly" on pgs 611-612 in his extremely dense, silly and scientific debate with Patrick on the nature of the visible world and the light spectrum. Joyce describes it wonderfully through a language that actually is the thing itself ("the Ding hvad in idself id est" (p. 611)): "in other words verbigratiagrading from murmurulentous till stridulocelerious in a hunghoranghoangoly tsinglontseng." (p. 611) A verbal rambling flowing like the Huang He river in a sing-a-along sing-song style. The Druid's language is representative of the riverine "riverrun" language of Finnegans Wake itself. The flamboyant, rainbow-flavored "heptachromatic sevenhued septicoloured" style of the Druid battles against the invading black-and-white perspective grey-frocked Catholic Patrick "shiroskuro blackinwhitepaddynger" (p. 612) in a confrontation carrying out a core argument for the style and essential purpose of the book itself. As Joyce wrote to his patron, "Much more is intended in the colloquy between Berkeley the archdruid and his pidgin speech and Patrick the [saint] and his Nippon English. It is also the defense and indictment of the book itself."

How unbelievably special it was for us to experience the exegetical exploration of this page, the recovery of the ancient past, the Druidic Irish language of the seer-sage-poet "Bilkilly-Belkelly-Balkally" whose patroness is St. Brigit, on February 2nd at the Irish Consulate. I'm thankful to Adrian Farrell at the Consulate for so kindly hosting us and sharing in the fascination of Joyce's revival of the ancient Irish poetic wisdom.


Read more about this important passage over at Peter Chrisp's essential blog where he outlines the evolution of what was one of the earliest sketches Joyce composed for Finnegans Wake.