- Finnegans Wake: 17 Chapters, 17 Contributors
FINNEGANS WAKE has seventeen chapters. Joyce’s Allmaziful Plurabilities constitutes one essay on each of them by seventeen different contributors, one per chapter. Since that is too many to review with any fair degree of thoroughness, I will make selections. Disclosure: I am personally familiar with, and on good terms with, most of the people here. Some feelings may be hurt.
First, a note about the editors’ foreword. On the whole it is perfectly fine, but there is one sentence that, in the event, forecasts trouble ahead:
The contributors to this volume provide readers with both familiar and novel frameworks for engaging the Wake, including myth, feminism, psychoanalysis, philosophy, game theory, homophones, ecocriticism, historicism, atmosphere, and/or contextual criticism.
The eternal English professor in me wants to mark this sentence “pl” for parallelism (“feminism … homophones?”) and put a blue-penciled question mark next to “and/or,” but really the main issue is that word “frameworks.” (By the way, whatever became of “lens”es, or perhaps “the lens?” Seems like just yesterday …)
“Frameworks” here means that you start with an agenda and try to make everything that follows adhere to it. In this volume, there are two difficulties. First, almost everyone begins—evidently feels obligated to begin—with a stated agenda. Second, almost no one follows through. For example, Vicki Mahaffey, writing on chapter seventeen (in the Wake’s counting, this also makes it Book IV) begins by addressing the book’s pervasive Egyptology, offering the interesting observation that Egyptian dead were buried with “magical ‘spells’” written on cloth, papyrus, on the coffin lid. Then this: “I propose a reading of Finnegans Wake as a book of enchanting (literally ‘musical’) spells for the sleeping body and the wandering spirit.” That elision from written spells to “musical” spells could do with some explaining, but overall I would call this a fascinating beginning. Full speed ahead.
The problem is that almost nothing will be heard about it hereafter. And really, how could it be? Mahaffey has been assigned one chapter, not the whole book. Was her proposal meant to be taken as a preview of coming attractions—her next full-length production, say? If so, it will be worth reading. She has done some serious research and always writes well, and much of the rest of the essay is at least randomly engaging; anyone interested in the Egyptian element of Finnegans Wake would do well to read it. But having let go of its stated reason for being, it never seems to know where to go next. [End Page 555]
That is symptomatic of the volume: from first essay to last, “focus?” and “trans,” the latter signifying weak or faulty or nonexistent transitions, are the old professorial admonitions I am most often inclined to scrawl in the margin. Not to single out Mahaffey here, whose work I admire. On the contrary: the condition is general over all of Allmaziful Plurabilities. I do not know whether or not it constitutes cruelty to animals, but when I was a child I heard somewhere that an ant keeps track of its position by leaving a scent trail, and that if you scrape away some of that trail it will become disoriented and start scrambling aimlessly around. Maybe it was mean of the young me to test the hypothesis, but in any case I can state that the hypothesis is correct, and the image kept coming back to the older me, entry after entry, as I read along.
At other times, the thesis may put up more of a fight, and then you get something like a tug of war. Sheldon Brivic, for instance, brings an exceptionally strong thesis to an exceptionally daunting assignment. For his sins, Brivic was assigned III.3, the longest and, I think, most difficult of the seventeen. Introduced as a “drama parapolylogic,” III.3 presents the underwater Shaun (bourgeois twin to the bohemian Shem, he was submerged at the end of...