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  • Drawing on Finnegans Wake"the one the pictor of the other"
  • Peter O'brien (bio)

I have been reading Finnegans Wake off and on for forty years, since I took a class on James Joyce with Roland McHugh at the School of Irish Studies in Dublin.1 Not an "ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia," I still have a long way to go (FW 120:13–14).

Sometimes, I must admit, I don't read the text. I just watch the words, picture the pages. I spelunk among the speleological openings: the caverns and linguistic apertures that the letters and punctuation marks present. I investigate the lush and overgrown gardens of "buaboababbaun," the tumble and roll of the first "lapapple," and the soft, gentle, rippling waters of the "liffeyette" (FW 126:12, 17, 13). I trace the meandering pathways articulated by the linear and curlicue markings: the cactus-barbed spires of t and k; the folds of linen cloth draped over an m; the bulbous, jaunty personality of g. (These are my sigla.)

The conversations that I overhear between initials and images, among visuals and verbals, amid swirling stories and sketches, have always fascinated me. In my published materials and in my intuitive interests, I move back and forth between these twinning attractions.

In early 2016, as a way to explore these doublings, these omnilings, and as a way to continue familiarizing myself with a text that many consider fundamentally unreadable—McHugh, Seamus Dean, and John Bishop among them2—I started on a six-year project to annotate/illustrate/ disrupt the 628 pages of Finnegans Wake.

On the title page of my project, LOTS OF FUN WITH FINNEGANS WAKE, I refer to what I'm doing (scribed in archival, nontoxic, red felt pen on 80-pound, 100 brightness, acid-free cover stock) as a form of "intellectual folk art." On other pages, in other random colors, I reference [End Page 237] my yoking together of the illustrative and the intelligible, the optical and the oral.

"Words. Was it their colours?" asks Stephen Dedalus.

He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the greyfringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. . . . was it that . . . he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language manycoloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose.

(P 166)

Despite Stephen's negative and equivocating answer, it is their colors that attract him. And their physicality. Their reflection. Their prismatic, manycolored richness. That's what Joyce's lucid supple periodic phrases use as grist. That's the stuff from which the poise and balance is built.


We dream and conjure in images. The whole spread: splintering, perverting, recurring, exaggerating, animating, distorting. Melodramatic. Foggy, fractured. Why shouldn't a book attempt such a self-referential and expanding gathering of gestures? Some have said that we can't visualize the text of Finnegans Wake, that we can't picture for ourselves what a Mookse or a Gripes or the leapgirls or Anna Livia might look like. I disagree. Just don't look for documentary verisimilitude. Don't allow logic, the familiar, to get in the way. It's preferable to see it new, or Make It New, as Ezra Pound, Joyce's intellectual ally, said in his 1935 collection of essays. After all, "understanding is a very dull occupation," Joyce's intellectual adversary, Gertrude Stein, said in her 1937 book, Everybody's Autobiography.

In the Joyce-escorted essay "The Revolution of Language and James Joyce" from Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, Eugene Jolas writes:

The real metaphysical problem today is the word. The epoch when the writer photographed the life about him with the mechanics of words redolent of the daguerreotype, is happily drawing to its close. The new artist of the word has recognized the autonomy of language [End Page 238]

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pp. 237-242
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