Monday, April 16, 2007

The Decentered Universe of Finnegans Wake: A Structuralist Analysis (by Margot Norris)

I know, I know. This is just ridiculous. Feel free to scroll down and read the other three entries I just posted and skip the rest of this. It's not going to make much sense anyway; it's all so complicated and there's no way could possibly synthezise it in a blog entry.

I bought this in a little used bookshop in St. Francisville. Then I read it on the plane, even though I was exhausted, it is really so fascinating, it was a breeze to read! And I have a lot to say about it! (I am about 200 pages into "the Wake" as Norris calls it. I loved the chapter about the washerwomen at the Ford. I felt like I was turning a corner. Reading this book was definitely a real corner-turning moment, though. I will tell you why.)

So first of all, Norris looks at the book from a structuralist standpoint, which basically boils down to a Freudian analysis. And since Finnegans Wake is supposed to be a dream, it makes sense to approach it that way. One thing she said that I found fascinating is that Portrait of the Artist correspondes to the Icarus myth, Ulysses to the Odyssey, and Finnegans Wake to the Oedipus myth. Which seems perfectly logical, and she makes a great case for her reading of the book. It's all symbolic, all about repression, and all about transgression across boundaries (such as the sexual family boundaries, in the Oedipal reading, which is persuasive in a lot of other ways too). But that's one reason why the book doesn't "make sense" and why it's so frustratingly encoded: because it's in the form of a dream. And the characters are ciphers, all standing in for each other and for historical figures, the way that everyone you encounter in a dream stands for someone else--and ultimately comes from your own unconscious. So they're all you.

Basically (and forgive me if I'm all over the place) Norris criticizes Campbell and Robinson (who wrote the Skeleton Key) for attempting to "decode" the book as if it were a novel. She asserts that it's impossible to do so fully, and that Joyce is trying to intentionally subvert the tradition of the novel, which relies on an individual viewpoint, in favor of the universal. Of course, Campbell and Robinson do definitely talk in terms of archetypes and such--the universality of it is completely undeniable. (And Joseph Campbell is Joseph Campbell.) But when reading the Skeleton Key I would find myself wondering why Joyce didn't just say what he wanted to say--now I'm understanding that there's so much repetition of themes because it's so obtuse--everything recurs and returns because he does actually want you to get it. And it's not straightforward because that would be defeating his entire purpose.

This was published in 1974, I think, so I'm really interested in finding out what's been done since then, now that I am starting to get a handle on the text.

The second part of Norris's book--the part I'm even more excited about--discusses what Joyce is doing with language, which allows (and I have definitely noticed this) words to mean several things at once, and sentences to mean one thing and then their opposite, simultaneously. She talks about portmanteau words and also the reader's instinct for creating meaning out of the sentence structure that Joyce provides. She claims that the book ends with an article ("the") in part because the articles hold the rest of Joyce's invented and conflated language together. And she gives all these examples of sentences that mean eight different things simultaneously and you can't help but respect Joyce's genius. He is so far from arbitrary. It's so purposeful and masterful and amazing. And I APPRECIATE IT for the first time, really. And now I am dying to teach a poetry workshop where the stuff Joyce does in the Wake is the jumping-off point. Because it's amazing.

I have all these quotes marked and I was going to type them up but it would take all day, probably. I loved all of her comparisons between this and Ulysses--they are both difficult, but you can follow Leopold Bloom around Dublin on his one specific day. You know Molly Bloom is not the same person as Josie Breen. Finnegans Wake is the opposite of that. HCE is himself, and Finnegan, and his sons, and Finn McCool. ALP is herself, and the hen, and the river Liffey, all equally. It's not that I wasn't paying close enough attention or not understanding enough... it's that there is no objective truth that is eluding me, because the elusiveness is the entire point.

Wow. Did I just start loving Finnegans Wake or what? Holy shit.



Blogger jen fu said...

You turned a corner! That is awesome. Can I borrow the book?

4:00 PM  
Blogger mo pie said...

Which book? You can borrow all three books anytime after 2008. I am really referring to them all a lot as I read my 50 pages a month, however. :)

4:22 PM  
Blogger jen fu said...

the deconstructed structural analysis of finnegan's mom doing it in the butt. whatever that one was. i would like to re-read finnegan's wake someday when i am not drunk, you see. and maybe, in that way, become smart.

whenever you're done with it, of course. in 2008.

12:39 PM  
Blogger John Ottinger said...

I thought you might be interested in the New Notions 5 reading challenge

10:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Was this book purchased at Thomas Savage, Bookseller the wonderful used bookstore in St Francisville? Is that not the best hidden bookstore in Louisiana? The selection of books is better than most "big city" bookstores? I found a very unusual title there about my favorite author that I had never seen before.

9:43 PM  

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