restricted access An Invitation to the Wake
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An Invitation to the Wake
Philip Kitcher. Joyce's Kaleidoscope: An Invitation to Finnegans Wake. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. xxiii + 304 pp. $29.95

The subtitle has it just right: Joyce's Kaleidoscope is an invitation to get involved in Finnegans Wake, much in the spirit of an offer to join a bridge club or debating society. Philip Kitcher has enjoyed the experience himself and thinks you might too. To help you make up your mind, he offers a survey of the premises and a sampling of the treats in store.

What he does not do—keeping the analogy going just a bit longer, please—is get into the club's rules and regulations, or introduce you to the membership. For better and worse (mainly, I think, the former, but by no means always), there is very little about earlier interpretations or the people who made them. Roland McHugh's Annotations to Finnegans Wake is consulted and acknowledged, but that's about it. Remarks on other criticism and scholarship are generally sweeping and dismissive.

Perhaps I am a bit sensitive on this point because I am after all the author of Finnegans Wake: A Plot Summary, and Kitcher never uses the word "plot" without disdain, often registered in scare quotes. I might start feeling like a straw man if I thought he'd read my book; thinking otherwise, I feel sort of like a straw zero. Still, I liked Joyce's Kaleidoscope and am happy to say so. This is big of me.

I like the book because it is the work of an amateur, in a way that reminds one that etymologically an amateur is a lover. Even thus glossed, however, the word requires qualification. The author is a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, and he obviously knows his way around texts. That's good, because Finnegans Wake is a book for people who like to read books. It's not as if Kitcher were trying to get you to watch Dancing with the Stars. For one thing, he describes himself early on as a devotee of the London Times crossword puzzle, which for me is much like saying that he does differential equations in his head while jogging.

Still, word-wizard or not, being a professor of philosophy in this particular context means that you're not a Joycean, let alone Wakean, that you're free of the accretions of exegesis piled up before you arrived on the scene. The immediate objection here, at least according to many recent critics, is that the Wake repeatedly seems to be telling us that anyone who approaches any document in that spirit is deluded. Any [End Page 115] record of the past, goes the familiar late-twentieth-century interpretive line, is a midden, a palimpsest, an always-already dump of precedents and preceding precedents. Finnegans Wake's distinction is to take the fundamental indecipherability of documents, itself above all, as its principal subject. The obscurity is the point.

Kitcher, on the contrary, considers the book a novel, that is to say a narrative in which things happen and then other things happen in a way that makes sequential sense. I think he's basically right about that. For instance, I would say that, starting about the middle of Finnegans Wake, there's a radio station's weather forecast of heavy rains to come, then the rains themselves, then, following them, a "fogbow" of mistrefracted street-lights, hanging over the river, then mushrooms springing up from the rain-drenched earth, then, when the sun comes up, a pedestrian who notices them.

That, however, is my example, not Kitcher's. With some exceptions, it is not the sort of developmental continuity which concerns him. Rather he is concerned with what the book's components have to say to one another on the subject of an overriding theme. An argument, not a plot. The novel he envisages is autobiographical, reflective, and above all—no surprise, surely—philosophical. The major question addressed is not whether a text can be read accurately but whether a life can be lived well, and the main life of which this question is asked...