Friday, December 28, 2007

A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson)

My hat is absolutely off to these two, the first to really extract a throughline from a book that is, at first glance*, utterly incomprehensible. I still have no idea how they did it. When I was reading their framework and then turning to the applicable passage in the book, I could sometimes barely extract a word or a phrase that enabled me to say, "Oh yes, that's where they got that."

(*I typed "at first glass" which is so totally Joycean; I will have to save that for a poem.)

I think Joyce himself did a lot of explaining, when the Wake was published, about the characters (which is how you know HCE and ALP's real names, which aren't even in the book anywhere with 100 percent accuracy as far as I remember) and about his sigla (the symbols that signify the characters in their various forms, which, again, are not in the book for the most part). That's the most frustrating thing about Joyce; would it have killed him to include some of this incredibly vital information IN THE TEXT ITSELF? Like the chapter titles in Ulysses. Sometimes it's like he wants to remove any possibility of comprehension, and that seems like needless ego.

Anyway, I read a critic somewhere or other who said that the Skeleton Key is reductive in the worst way, that it's the lowest common denominator version of Finnegans Wake that does a disservice to people who read it. That's ridiculous, really. First of all, anyone intelligent enough to read the Skeleton Key (which is in itself not easy) and make it through the Wake will obviously see that there's far more in the text than the Key can possibly cover. But it's absolutely essential (at least it was for me) to know which characters turn into which other characters, the basics of what's happening, who's talking, and what it all means.

However, it certainly doesn't negate any of the other interpretations of the book. This critic seems to think readers will swallow the Key whole and cease to think for themselves, but that's ludicrous. I have a great example from today, where the Key translates "...little eggons, youlk and meelk, in a farbiger pancosmos. With a hottyhammyum all round." into "ham and eggs for all." Of course that's reductive, and it has to be, or else the Key would be twelve times as long as the Wake. But I enjoyed extracting my own meaning from the text; for instance, I took "little eggons, youlk and meelk" to mean that our lives ("you" and "me") are "little eons." And I'm sure you can read a hundred other things into those two short sentences.

So, my point is, thank god for the Skeleton Key, because without it, I wouldn't have been able to read Finnegans Wake at all. Obviously it was a starting point in Joyce scholarship, and I take it in that light. I look forward to reading more recent scholarship, but I tip my hat once again to the men who gave critics everywhere a place to start.



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