Rather than forge ahead linearly through the text, Finnegans Wake reading groups often either select a “filter” through which to view Joyce’s multinarrative work or focus in on a few lines or a single passage and move their hermeneutical gaze outward from it. Richard Beckman’s [End Page 455] engaging book embraces both of these approaches, in the process demonstrating how conscientiously pursuing either inevitably leads to adopting or necessitates relying on the other. (The Wake, he reminds us, often resembles “a Mandlebrot fractal.”) In the five chapters that constitute the first part of the volume, “Views from Afar,” Beckman employs as filters familiar Wakean themes viewed from “behindscenes” (358.04). In the five that make up the second part, “Views from Anear,” his initial strategy is to engage in “close reading of several enigmatic and haunting passages.” As a whole, the book consists of a half score “variations on the theme of the rear” taken in several ways, including observing the “familiar antithetically,” becoming aware of that which is temporally behind one, and “contemplating” HCE’s “patriarchal rear itself” and that which it represents.
Several major interpretive strands are woven throughout Beckman’s text, among them a strong tendency to read the Wake as exhibiting a profound and playful skepticism, along with a proclivity for tracing the ways in which Joyce’s all-encompassing exercise in Menippean satire anatomizes the structural and historical interrelationship of class, colonialism, ethnicity, and gender. By focusing on “quarrels” Finnegans Wake “picks … with ideas current in Joyce’s time” and demonstrates how, having been viewed “backwards” with “attention” to “backwords” (73.19), “honor” becomes “a deadly virtue” and “marriage seems doomed to failure.” Beckman, for instance, argues that in the Wake wedlock is associated with imperialism. The idea of a “good marriage” has become just that, something “philosophic and abstract,” while the mechanism of courtship involves a “Pygmalion-like self” creating “an ideal opposite,” which it then pursues. By repeatedly referring to the “tyranny of husband over wife,” Joyce frequently “associates marriage and empire.” Unable to become a gentleman because he lacks “the right roots,” HCE, the Wake’s archetypal paterfamilias (Porterfamilias?), is often seen not only dominating his mate but “colonizing the world,” depicted as bearing something that resembles “a weapon and sounds like a swastika” in one of the several references to Nazism to which Beckman draws our attention and that reinforce the notion that in Joyce’s text “history” is rendered “nightmarish.”
In the final chapter of the first section of Joyce’s Rare View, Beckman endeavors to disclose how Finnegans Wake may be read “as a parody version of” Kant’s notion that everything is “but a kind of seeming.” Looking back at the Critique of Pure Reason, Beckman argues that while Kant found it necessary “to pass between the Scylla of dogmatism [End Page 456] and the Charybdis of skepticism” guided by “a priori categories,” Joyce was not threatened by skepticism, which in the Wake is “the fresh breeze that wakens us from a nightmare of dogmatism.” Whereas Kant’s work distinguishes between a “knowable” phenomenal realm and an “unknowable” noumenal one, in Joyce’s work the two realms cannot be clearly distinguished and “the knowable and unknowable are alike uncertain.” Staging “epistemological comedy,” Finnegans Wake “is a burlesque” that calls into question “all totalizing systems and all insistence on invisible realities.” Both “Kantian and anti-Kantian,” it draws on “two irreconcilable epistemologies,” frequently suggesting that nothing lies “behind” the visible we see while just as often implying that something does.
Beckman continues to offer examples of Joyce’s skepticism in the second part of his study, as he “Views from Anear” several of the richest and perhaps thorniest passages in the Wake, including the Butt and Taff episode and the confrontation between Saint Patrick and the arch-druid. For instance, in the chapter on the latter, “What’s Wrong at ‘Park Mooting,’” he points out that the two...