- Joyce’s Kaleidoscope: An Invitation to “Finnegans Wake,”
Books about Finnegans Wake announce their forms with unusual regularity: skeleton keys, plot summaries, reader’s guides, first-draft versions, lexicons, gazetteers, censuses, genetic guides, annotations, and more. Every form offers a particular route through the Wake, and we hope our collective efforts add up to a cartography of possibilities. But until now we have never been issued an “invitation” to the Wake. Many readers of this journal will realize that they must have invited themselves uncouthly to the Wake long ago, and some will imagine that it is too late for invitations when one has already been at the party for so long. Indeed, Philip Kitcher’s Joyce’s Kaleidoscope seems addressed to daunted would-be readers (and to be priced for readers rather than only libraries) or to passionate enthusiasts like Kitcher himself, rather than to Joyce scholars. Because Kitcher addresses a general audience and shrinks from engaging current discussions of Finnegans Wake, Joyce scholars may find his book of limited relevance to their own critical concerns. It is, however, a work of creativity and intelligence, and rookies and veterans alike might profitably respond to its implicit imperative: répondez s’il vous plait.
Kitcher, the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, writes about his long attraction to and relationship with Finnegans Wake, which stretches back to his school days. But Joyce’s [End Page 600] Kaleidoscope issues more directly from Kitcher’s Finnegans Wake “support group,” formed in 2000 with colleagues finally to “read the huge novel together” (xvi). It was through this experience that Kitcher’s two main theses about the Wake emerged: that Finnegans Wake is a musical text whose mood and “emotional tone” invite readers to begin the long process “out of which more precise understanding can grow” and that it is a book about “evaluating a life, from the perspective of age. It is no longer a matter of deciding what to do, for the doing is done, but of coming to terms with what has been, of hoping to vindicate the long years that are now running out” (xxi, xx).
The reading-group origins of Joyce’s Kaleidoscope seem evident in the form and ideas of the book. A Wake reading group is often a satisfying way of reading the text, for there is strength and safety in numbers. One of the most interesting effects of such a group, however, seems to be the curious and peculiar culture that each different group forms. I am struck most by the truly bizarre and wonderful modes of interaction and friendship that the book encourages through its free play and bawdiness. But each culture will also begin to take on idiosyncratic and even symptomatic relationships to the Wake itself, often hardening into the form of habit: some themes reemerge, and others recede; some references are worth tracking, and others are not; and some approaches come to be preferred and are seldom challenged. This is why, while many Joyceans enjoy the benefits of Wake groups, a critic’s own work is best when informed by the larger and more challenging sphere of criticism. Group habits do not exclude insights, but they may become limitations.
Joyce’s Kaleidoscope seems limited and insightful in these terms. Joyce scholars may be disappointed by the almost total lack of engagement with their own long and productive efforts. Kitcher wants to start “from a gestalt on the work” and “to identify large structures and themes, moods and tones,” and he can be rather dismissive of the Wake’s “very unusual secondary literature,” characterized as “reader’s guides and plot summaries, censuses of Joyce’s sources and annotations to every page” (45, 44). But there are books in the Wake’s critical canon that do read from the general to the particular, not to mention many articles in the wholly bracketed world of the scholarly journal. Kitcher simply does not read these: “With the exception of [John] Bishop’s imaginative study, most of...