Susan Shaw Sailer’s On the Void of to Be: Incoherence and Trope in Finnegans Wake draws attention to a significant shift in the approaches commonly adopted in readings of Joyce’s final work. The interpretive canon that surrounds the Wake has always been characterized by a steady process of transformation. Cohesive, and often quite hostile, criticism began to take shape in the late 1920s well before the book itself was completed. Joyce attempted to answer the initial confusion that marked the responses of many readers to the appearance of pre-publication fragments by organizing the thoughts of friends and acquaintances in an assortment of essays entitled Our Exagmination Round His Factifications for Incamination of Work in Progress. The articles in that volume formed an idiosyncratic collection of disparate views, yet as a whole they offered an early intellectual validation of Joyce’s efforts by showing that his writing could sustain close critical scrutiny. A few years after the actual publication of the Wake in 1939, Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson brought out a more unified and conventional approach to its reading with their Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake. This book presented a line by line plot summary of the work, and it was welcomed by those who had been totally confused by the sinuous divagations of the narrative. Until well into the 1950s work on Finnegans Wake remained near moribund, and then, beginning with Adeline Glasheen’s Census of Finnegans Wake, a great deal of scholarship [End Page 366] began to appear. For two decades a steady stream of gazetteers, guidebooks, lexicons, and word counts, most fully represented by Roland McHugh’s Annotations for Finnegans Wake, anatomized the constituent elements of the work for readers intent upon exploring the various topical features recurring throughout the text. During this same period, parallel critical projects—catalyzed by the work of Bernard Benstock, Clive Hart, and Fritz Senn—moved forward offering interpretations founded on historical, new critical, psychoanalytic, Marxist/materialist, structuralist, poststructuralist, and other assumptions. 1 While none of these works attempted a definitive interpretation of Finnegans Wake, they served collectively to underscore the potential for interpretation that the 1929 Exagmination had first suggested.
On the Void of To Be draws upon a range of views articulated by those early critics to explore how readers can exploit the pluralistic tendencies of the Wake. 2 Sailer’s writing presents a welcome change from prescriptive views in its advocacy of the need for amalgamative readings. She recognizes that Joyce’s work itself rests upon a pluralistic impressionism that blends levels of discourse, characterization, and iconography, and further she sees that any rigorous reading of the Wake must reflect an equal attentiveness to hermeneutic strategies:
This text examines the process by which reading Finnegans Wake begins as incoherence that moves towards coherence. The movement results from the reader’s (and writer’s) activity in fusing—by applying the tropic process of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony—the fragments constituting the Wake, which Joyce termed “active elements.”
This willing engagement with incoherence serves as the central feature of Sailer’s own critical approach. It enables one to discern fundamental linguistic structures within Finnegans Wake and serves as a means of assessing the way that this structure enables complex troping systems—centered on metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony—to function. Through this process Sailer does not simply offer yet another alternative for reading Finnegans Wake, one that stands in direct competition with all others. Rather, she presents us with a sense of the parameters within which the imaginative dynamics of the work operate, and she gives readers a clearer conception of the alternative ways of generating meaning inherent in Joyce’s discourse. [End Page 367]
In the first portion of the study, which examines how linguistic theories can illuminate the structure of language in Finnegans Wake, Sailer plays Julia Kristeva’s views—especially of the chora’s impulse and the thetic’s concern—against Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction- particularly his concept of diff...