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Attempting to Teach Finnegans Wake: Reading Strategies and Interpretive Arguments for Newcomers
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Attempting to Teach Finnegans Wake:
Reading Strategies and Interpretive Arguments for Newcomers

Finnegans Wake is a difficult text to teach for many reasons, one of which involves intellectual candor. On the first day of a graduate seminar I teach that focuses on Joyce's final work, I have to concede that even though I have been reading the Wake and secondary sources on it for many years, there are many parts of the text that I do not understand—and probably will never understand. Then why keep reading such an elusive fiction, and even devote an entire graduate seminar to further study of it? These are two questions that I have to try to answer over the next ten weeks, as we gradually move through the text, from the mid-sentence and beginning "riverrun" (3.1) to its paradoxically open and yet circularly enclosing "the" (628.16). My initial and simplest responses to these implicit questions are, first of all, that the parts of Finnegans Wake I do "under-stand"—or can at least venture an interpretation of—are engaging, fascinating, funny, and/or (even) moving; and, second, that every time I read a portion of the text—be it a paragraph, a few pages, or an entire chapter—I usually learn, see, or hear something new. But these answers do not always suffice to convince even the most ardent and adventurous graduate students to commit an entire quarter's worth of intellectual energy to Joyce's most challenging work. In this essay, I will discuss some of the basic reading strategies and interpretive arguments I share with my students in my attempt to make Finnegans Wake a positive reading experience.1

I. The Titles of the Mamafesta as Pedagogical Portal

I usually open with a brief introductory lecture in which I present a few of my critical assumptions about the work as a whole: I discuss its probable [End Page 159] status as a literary nighttext or what Joyce himself called "my imitation of the dream-state"2; its recurrent representations of a dreaming or sleeping body, mapped onto the landscape of Dublin and environs, using John Bishop's helpful illustration3; its extensive of use of Viconian lore, which most students are unfamiliar with; its obsession with an elusive letter or documents of some sort; the song alluded to in the title (after having played a vocal rendition of it); and a few basic technical terms (klang association, portmanteau words, and larger patterns of condensation). I also briefly introduce various helpful secondary sources, while emphasizing they should not and indeed cannot replace Joyce's text in itself.4 Although the reading schedule on my syllabus follows the text chapter-by-chapter (in clusterings mainly determined by page length), I do not in my subsequent first day presentation start from the beginning, in part because some of the secondary sources I recommend offer fairly detailed exegeses of the opening paragraphs. In the past, I've started with a relatively accessible passage from I.8, but I think this entrance point may be slightly misleading, as it does not convey the differing levels of interpretive difficulty in the work as a whole. The next time I teach this seminar, I am going to ask the students to turn to the various titles of ALP's mamafesta as a portal to the Wake: as a way to discuss a few themes, to show resistant readers that the linguistic play of the work can be interpreted, albeit not in any stable or definitive way, and to examine stylistic and conceptual issues. Curiously, all three of the recommended guide books have very little to say about the specifics of the catalogue, so preliminary discussion of it will not eventually be redundant. I think the titles of the mamafesta are challenging but not impossible to read as a group: I plan to ask each student to read two or three titles slowly and out loud, moving around the room, until the list is finished. I will advise them to simply do their best in pronouncing difficult words, and suggest they mark or underline phrases and allusions that they may understand...