To some readers, fun may seem an unlikely prospect for a weekend — or wake-end, rather — spent discussing and celebrating Joyce’s puzzle-filled, riddle-ridden, polyglot, and dizzying final work, Finnegans Wake. But I think all the University of Illinois graduate students knew we were in for an exceptional Wakean adventure after bumping into Sarah McLachlan in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (on her way to perform in Abu Dhabi, as I later found out). A few of us even followed her around the airport, Wake in hand. We weren’t quite stalkers, more curious investigators. Where is she going? Is that her? As if the posse of people around her didn’t say enough. I wasn’t brave enough to ask for her autograph, but I was rewarded with her smile. A smile that led me smiling through our continued investigations and fun on a cloudy but dry Saturday in Belfield last year. Indeed, a rigorous fun was had by all committed to playing with Finnegans Wake, including such experts as Vicki Mahaffey, Derek Attridge, Roland McHugh, Anne Fogarty, Luca Crispi, Sam Slote, Terence Killeen, and Vincent Deane, among others. Readers and fans of the Wake from Ireland and abroad also made the pilgrimage to Dublin for another edition of the event.
After a night of literary activities, including a Dubliners walking tour for travelling graduate students provided by the James Joyce Centre, a dinner at Botticelli’s in Temple Bar, and a performance of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days at the Project Arts Center, the Wake-end commenced. Focusing on only a small section of III.1, the tale of the ‘Ondt and the Gracehoper’ (FW 414.14–419.10), all attendees were first given copies of two versions of ‘The Ant and the Grasshopper’, one from Aesop’s fables to read alongside a more poetic version composed by Jean de La Fontaine in the seventeenth century, and Fogarty also discussed Chekhov’s alternative rendering. [End Page 125]
Following a lively and animated reading of these sections of the Wake by Paul O’Hanrahan of the Balloonatics Theatre Company, Vicki Mahaffey (one of this year’s guest moderators along with Derek Attridge) opened the conversation with a challenge. How might we discuss the possibility of connecting Joyce’s microstructure with its macrostructure? Mahaffey suggested that one mode of synthesis is to see how Joyce’s text comprises both aspects of the fairytale, which usually has a happy ending, and the tropes of the fable, which typically ends less well. Mahaffey provided additional context about these traditions when she pointed out that fables originally functioned as slave narratives.
Even Aesop himself, according to legend, served as an unattractive, hunchbacked, slave impaired by a speech impediment. Offered freedom after demonstrating his wit in settling his master’s disputes, he supposedly encountered more trouble with the Oracle at Delphi, was condemned for sacrilege, and thrown off a cliff. Muslims, on the other hand, attribute the fable to an Ethiopian named Luqman, registered in Finnegans Wake, when the narrator calls out ‘an esiop’s foible’ (FW 422.22). In this way, according to the tradition of the fable, slavery comprises part of the condition of being beast or insect; or, as Mahaffey put it, ‘fables emphasize the darker side of a dog-eat-dog world’.
This provocative suggestion jump-started a conversation filled with fascinating insights and inquiries. What links does Joyce make through the exploits of the Ondt and Gracehoper between hunger and philosophy and hunger versus spite or anger, as the Norwegian for ‘ondt’ suggests? What connections exist between notions of grace and debt, debit versus habit, snow and sun, wine versus bread, between ‘making the greatest spass’ (FW 417.25), or jokes in German, and ‘making spaces’ (FW 416.5–6)? How might readers reconcile fairy tale and fable without a conclusive ending or, as Slote pointed out, a prescriptive and clear moral to the tale? Sifting through the ‘fogbow’ (FW 403.06) of questions in such vibrant company produced more fog and many rainbows.
As the conversation shifted, McHugh solicited...