Literature and Pictures in Finnegans Wake


Date:  Sat, 8 Nov 1997 21:57:29 -0800
From:  Riverend Sterling <thouart@IX.NETCOM.COM>
Discussion List" <FWAKE-L@LISTSERV.HEA.IE>


Today at the University of California at Santa Barbara, as part of a three day annual conference called VISUALIZING CULTURE, a 2+ hr. presentation was given in the afternoon under the title LITERATURE IN PICTURES/FINNEGANS WAKE: A CASE STUDY.  I shall take it upon myself to review it for the list, while fresh in mind, as I don't know how it is in YOUR town, but when anything at all Wakean is presented to the public around here, its newsworthy . and as far as that goes, this was a worldworthy presentation.  And namebadges indicating origins were quite global, Denmark, Australia, Canada, to name some.

Let me get one thing out of the way.  The formatting was very amateurish to the point of flawing what could have been even better than it was.  Held in a stark ballet studio by what seemed inexperienced, rude, and unprepared student aides, the MC'ing was very unmasterful and totally unceremonial.  Shame on UCSB for that, because the panelists, performers, and audience deserved much better.

This is only mentioned because it so noticeably impacted the quality of the experience. The lack of panache by whoever these officious inepts were was the exact equivalent of the teenage helpers at fastfood restaurants who find it acceptable to slosh moploads of dirty water and toxic solvents around your feet during a meal, with no sense of any social grace and no priority beyond their own meager tasks.  They visibly rushed panelists, cut the keynote speaker off, discouraged any audience participation against the panelists' wishes, blabbed crass notices out of nowhere, and thereby created a needless unplanned 45 minute deficit by the end with no apology or sense of irony.

The Riverend realizes that in other areas of their lives they no doubt emit an admirable light, but MC'ing is a specific skill and should be assigned to those with a suitable mix of flair and restraint and especially warmth.

OK, enough.  This was a great event otherwise, and just because it seemed to be considered a throway in the threeday extravaganza by some middlefolk who couldn't even provide a microphone for the panel, many people left sincerely and deeply moved to see the words of Joyce given a fine dose of life by scholars and artists of the highest order.

The first speaker was Margot Norris of  UC Irvine Eng/Lit, the author of JOYCE'S WEB & THE DECENTERED UNIVERSE . . ., two books well known to readers of this list.  She chose as her topic THE MIME OF MICK, NICK, AND THE MAGGIES. Speaking with the gentle but rapid clarity we wish for in every teacher, she tied this episode in Book II, Ch. I in terms of Joyce's iritis and Freudian sexuality theory.

Early on she mentioned that Joyce had told Harry Levin that he (Joyce) expected permanent blindness to result from an eye operation planned for sometime in 1932, and I thought of that possible reinforcing his interest in the year 1132, but the point Norris was leading to was that Joyce had explained in a letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver that the Mime was based on a childhood game called both "Devil's and Angels" and "Colours," in either case a child's guessing game involving visuality and its absence.

In the Mime, the object is to guess the colours of the rainbow girls underpants.  From this she extrapolated the larger view that to children, the entire adult world is opaque.  Just as naughty boys try to catch a sight of girls' panties, children in general try to see through the veil by which adults seek to protect their sexual privacy.  Then she really blew the audience's mind by citing a theory of Freud's that  adults who are research-oriented (that's right -- US!) develop from children who took longer than average to figure out adult sexuality, thereby developing their first research project. The "Birds and Bees" approach thus breeds both senses of metaphor and skepticism in the formative minds of future scholars.  Man, she hit home.  Then she mentioned something about starting from scratch, and sat down.  Wow.

Next came Harry Reese of the UCSB Art Studio, the man whom we had to thank for seeing to it that FW was snuck into the conference, and my previous remarks not with- standing (what does that mean?), I express those thanks quite sincerely.  Reese began by giving his own thanks to both Eric and Marshall McLuhan for their two generation contribution to Wake scholarship, crediting them for the perception that new technologies turn old technologies into new art forms.

This elicited a pleasant aahhhh from the audience. Reese then showed slides on two of his works.  The first involved a landscape architecture done outside the recently rebuilt City Library of Los Angeles, a series of stairgroups along a broad paved walkway featuring a flowing pool.  He'd arranged with a cohort to depict a booklike visuality where each of the four stairgroups represented a phase of reading evolution, being

1)       the pictographic;

2)       writing;

3)       printing; &

4)      the modern return to the pictograph, including graphic user interface ikons. 

The appealing symbols were etched and enameled on various metallic media, with the very first and last steps blank for the unknown reaches of past and future.  Personally, I found this very Wakean, as I support the McLuhanesque premise that abecedeism is very germane to Joycean criticism. Reese ended with slides showing several pages of his limited edition (300, I believe) of  his book FUNAGAINSTAWAKE, each leaf uniting an original print of an abstract symbol negatively etched against a watercoloury flat background above one of the thunderwords of the Wake. The leaves are bound with wire-edging, making this the ultimate coffeetable prize for any Joycean . . . but you wouldn't dare put any coffee near it!  Reese finished by saying that he did media ecology, defining that as "trying to wake up in the process."

Eric McLuhan of the University of Toronto, author of THE ROLE OF THE THUNDER, then closed the panel section of the program.  With the warm charm of an academic John Carridine, whom he somewhat resembles in a goateed version, he immediately challenged the somewhat stiff-seeming audience to come to terms with the fact that reading the Wake is meant to be fun!  That we try ignoring the scholarly industry, and emphasize rather the refrain "Lots of fun at Finnegans Wake!"  He was, in effect, asking us to deflate himself, a classic yet daring oratorical maneuver worthy of  one of those mythic Southern country attorneys secretly steeped in Cicero.

This is where a properly respectful ambiance created by the event producers would have enhanced the experience, for such techniques appear broad, but are dependent on considerable subtlety.  Unfortunately, the poor lighting and acoustics detracted from the natural drama Mr. McLuhan was suddenly injecting into the conference, and the audience had to strain to make up for it.  But we did so, and were well rewarded, for Mr. McLuhan's improvisatory delivery quickly revealed a profound substratum.

After recommending that we read passages of the Wake aloud, he explained that the practice of silent read is quite new in history, citing a view that Mark Twain was one of the first to read for readers who did not as a matter of course read aloud.  (I personally find this the single most useful key to tying the Wake together -- I suggest recording yourself reading a page, then listen to it over and over against a soft musical background until you can hear its motifs echoed in any other page).

McLuhan mentioned largely forgotten works in Latin similar to the Wake from the 4th and 12th centuries!  (And will he please gives us the titles and authors here on the list?)  He further explained that the overemphasis is our times on visuality is a product of the alphabet, with its intense involvement if linear interpretation separating the knower from the known, and distorting our natural sense of sound with the illusion that consonants and vowels are separate entities.

Acoustic space, in contrast, he described as relatively spherical and unraveled, and having a mobile diffuse effect.  It is, of course, a space Joyce knew well, tragically as one with severely impaired vision, magnificently as one of Ireland's finest tenors.  And having taken the rapt audience into this beautiful simple sphere, he was about to open the entire affair up for participation when summarily terminated with a lassol-ike gesture by some self-important stagehand.

It was a magnificent and stirring illustration of exactly what he was addressing, the modern undeclared war between the linear rush from some poorly defined point A to some no better B versus the embrace of the present of the present . . . but it should not have been allowed.  Where were these bossy children's supervisors?

So I was in no mood for a bunch of interpretive dancers, mind you, hogging the dusty stage.  And by God, by the end of their piece, I was letting the big tear fall in appreciation, and that is what true art can do.  Conceived and choreographed by Jerry Pearson, Director of the Santa Barbara Dance Theatre, Finnegans Wake was danced by four couples and amazingly, it worked.

Joyce translated Nicholas of Cusa's coincidentia oppisitorum as the "coincidence of contrarieties," if I recall right, and now that coincidence has come to life.  The bar I'm typing this in has just told me they've decided abruptly to close an hour early for their own convenience, so I'm getting smashed by these linear types for the second time!  Sorry.

Wrap-up: Dance theme: "We feel.  We fall."  Big audience laugh when Pearson, being HCE, superimposed his shadow across a slide projection of a map of Dublin from Howth Head to Phoenix Park.  Big cheers for Faline England's many tiered portrayal of Anna Livia.  We let her, and she done her best.  Magnificent work.

Eric McLuhan emphasised that the Wake refreshes the sense and the senses, how after a reading the conversations overheard in street gain meaning.  I'm there, dude.

Yours, the Roving and Riverend Sterling.

Next: McLuhan Centre in Culture & Technology