A few weeks ago, former Arts editor Troy Sherman ‘18 and I decided to ruin our February break. Instead of going on a trip with friends, catching up on sleep and work or just spending time thinking and relaxing, we chose to spend a good portion of the break in close quarters, reading pages and pages of near-nonsense. When others asked us what we planned to do over break, we’d respond, with a mix of self-conscious amusement and embarrassment, “We’re going to read Finnegans Wake aloud.”
Why? I’m not entirely sure, looking back, how the seed of this idea was first planted. I’m an avid fan of the Irish writer James Joyce, and I think at some point last semester I realized that if I didn’t read Finnegans Wake — his final and by far most difficult work — now, while I’m in college and have friends like Troy that will do ridiculous, simultaneously self-flagellating and self-indulgent things like this with me, then I might never read it.
It is a notoriously difficult work to make sense of. Many of the words in it were created by Joyce himself, who used something like sixty languages as resources to form bizarre, sometimes hilarious and more often incomprehensible puns and double (perhaps triple, quadruple, who knows!) entendres. There is a barely comprehensible narrative about a family, all of whom are referred to by a number of different names: a man, HCE (Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, Here Comes Everybody); his wife, ALP (Anna Livia Plurabelle); their sons, Shem and Shaun, and their daughter Issy. What little there is of a discernible plot revolves around the rumor of a sexual indiscretion involving HCE in a park, which seems to ultimately lead to his wife’s departure at the book’s end. But Joyce refuses to offer even this much certainty: the book ends with a half-sentence that is completed by the half-sentence that begins the first chapter, implying that the work is a never ending cycle with no beginning and no end, which somewhat undercuts the significance of ALP’s departure. In addition, there is the possibility that the entire book is simply the dream of a sleeping man, possibly HCE. Or perhaps all of these things are somehow true at once. The characters blend and overlap so fully that, in the end, it hardly seems to matter who does what to whom, since everybody seems to contain one another and be contained by one another: hence, Here Comes Everybody.
Here’s how it went down.
Friday, Feb. 16: We started reading aloud at Troy’s room at 3 p.m., alternating every five pages. We finished Book I (213 pages) at 1 a.m. in my room, ending by listening to the recording of Joyce reading the final few pages in the baubling, delirious language of some washerwomen by a river. This first book was probably the most enjoyable. Troy’s girlfriend’s dog, Moxie, heard every word, and seemed, along with us, to be generally following the “narrative” direction.
Saturday, Feb. 17: We started reading at 11 a.m., and finished 257 pages later at 12 a.m., mid-way through Book III. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken so many words in a day. Moxie grew increasingly anxious throughout the day as cabin fever took hold of all three participants. By the end, my voice was rusty and my mouth was dry, I had a very tenuous grasp on where the story was and where it was going, and Troy’s eyes were bloodshot and watery. We were over the hill, past the midway point and securely in the final third of the book, but there was little sense of triumph, only of exhaustion and temporary relief.
Tuesday, Feb. 20: Troy left on Sunday, so we didn’t pick back up until Tuesday. Reading at this point was like pulling teeth. Everybody was back from break and we wanted to be saying real words with meanings that we understood to people whom we hadn’t spent almost 48 hours straight with just before, not reading nonsense words alone to one another. We gave up early, far short of our set goal.
Wednesday, Feb. 21 to Saturday, Feb. 24: Over these four days, we read short sections, inching closer and closer to Book IV, the final chapter that I had promised Troy was far more fun and comprehensible than the rest. This turned out to really only be true for the part I’d already read, the final few pages of ALP’s monologue as she decides to leave her home. This speech is so heartachingly poignant and direct that, for me, it nearly overwrites the hundreds of pages of sketches and jokes before.
What I found most surprising, I think, was how unsurprising I found the majority of Finnegans Wake. It was, in fact, almost exactly what I thought it would be, and had been led to believe: a maddening, boring, profoundly self-indulgent and fascinating work by a genius who decided he no longer needed to communicate with anyone or anything other than his own intellect and knowledge. Instead, he left a work that one could make equally compelling arguments is about “everything” and “nothing”: a work made up of glimpses, mirrors, hidden treasures, murmurs, galloping rhythms and swirling chaos and thousands of puns, and he dared the world to try to make sense of it. Troy and I hardly tried, instead resigning ourselves to a degree of incomprehension and finding solace and entertainment in the more coherent sections.
And this sense of recurring bewilderment offset by momentary recognition was, I think, the most valuable part of the experience. We were lost in the foaming, spewing maw of a great storm, gasping for air; and now and again we would find something, sometimes just a little piece of driftwood and other times an entire log, to hold to for a moment before the waves pulled us back into this storm with no discernible center, beginning or end. Those moments of respite were brief, but they were powerful; and more than anything they confirmed that we were moving, touching new things, not simply at the mercy of random, overpowering waves. And so, in this way, I suppose I did go on a trip over February break.
Jack Jones is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Despite all the Amputations appears alternate Tuesdays this semester. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.