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Monday, November 30, 2009

Lewis Carroll and James Joyce

While talking about my favorite books with my wife, she pointed out the the conjunction of James Joyce and Lewis Carroll was not nearly so unlikely as it might seem with only a moment's consideration.  In fact, it makes a great deal of sense.  The playfulness that I love in Ulysses (and even more in Finnegans Wake) is already present in Carroll as a kind of verbal surrealism.  "It's a poor sort of memory that works only backwards."  But most particularly in the dialogue of Humpty Dumpty and Alice, in which Humpty explains:

from Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There

Lewis Carroll

`Certainly,' said Alice.


`And only ONE for birthday presents, you know. There's glory for you!'

`I don't know what you mean by "glory,"' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

`But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument,"' Alice objected.

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.'

`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master - - that's all.'

And that IS the question, isn't it.  And in the case of Lewis Carroll and Jame Joyce, the answer is obvious.  And it is this similarity that places them very, very high indeed in my esteem.  The control, sensitivity, and sheer flexibility and vibrancy of use that marks the works of these two gentlemen is seldom matched.  Not never, there are a handful more, scattered here and there. But these two, of recent date, stand out from all the rest.

Later:

I did forget to note here that there is an important moment in Finnegans Wake that chronicles Humpty-Dumpty's fall from the wall with one of Joyce's 100 letter words--similar to the crack of thunder earlier on.  I'll have to seek out the passage and see if it obeys the rule of three--but perhaps the connection is acknowledged by the master.

And Later Still:

Unable to leave well enough alone, I found this introduction to the Wake, in which we find the following note:

4) More than Viconian patterns or dream logic, a reader is immediately confronted with the Wake's language. Joyce essentially created his own language here, one based on English (and, despite some very long sentences, based on English grammar) but in no way limited to English. Just as a dream's details are overdetermined, almost every word in Finnegans Wake is more than one word packed into a single lexical unit. The words are often considered puns—that is, a play on words in which the sounds turn one set of letters into two different words or in which two different meanings of one word can both operate at one time.
 
    But a better description of the Wake's words is the one that Humpty Dumpty tells to Alice as he interprets "Jabberwocky" in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, Chapter 6. Humpty Dumpty is explaining "Jabberwocky"'s first line, "'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves," and he says: "Well, slithy means 'lithe' and 'slimy.' 'Lithe' is the same as 'active.' You see, it's like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed into one word."
 
    Almost every word in the Wake is a portmanteau word, whether visually or aurally, or both. Sometimes the double (or triple or quadruple or more) meanings are profound, sometimes trivial, often both at the same time. For example, at one point the text says "Wipe your glosses with what you know." Every reader has to do this: you respond to each word and interpret it ("gloss" it) based on what you recognize in it. But you also wipe your glasses, and you wipe your asses, not only with what you know but with you know what.
 
    Famously, the title of the book is a portmanteau word. At one level, it refers to an Irish pub song called "Finnegan's Wake," about the funeral of a man named Finnegan who fell off a ladder. It can also mean "in the wake of Finnegan," that is, everything post-Finnegan. It can also be "Finnegan is awake" or "Finn again is awake." Because it doesn't have an apostrophe, it can be "Finnegans, Wake!"—wake up, all you Finnegans. "Finn" is Finn MacCool, a hero in Irish legend (who lies sleeping under all of Dublin and who will once again wake up). "Fin" is French for ending. And this is just a start.
 
    The title is very often printed incorrectly with an apostrophe. Now you know better and can feel superior to those who make the mistake.

Which, had I been thinking, should have been seen as an obvious rejoinder to Carroll, and so, by a commodius vicus of recirculation we are returned to the initial thesis, now borne away on the bosom of Anna Livia herself.

And in the Wake, we witness the triumph of Humpty-Dumpty even as he falls because Joyce indeed makes words to mean precisely what he wishes them to mean, whatever that may be to whomever may be in the process of decrypting them. As much as I love Ulysses in the light, I love the Wake in the dark--I say less about it because I know it less well, but then anyone who claims to know it well must not really know it at all.  It is Joyce's koan for us all and to encompass it entirely, we need to follow the sage advice of St. John of the Cross--"To seek to know all, one must desire to know nothing."

Don't you just love James Joyce?  If not, why not?  A five hundred work theme set for Thursday Next.  Oops, she's already busy isn't she?

7 comments:

  1. I love this post and authors who are playful with language. I think Nabokov also fits into that tradition. I have "Dubliners" on my TBR and have been putting off "Ulysses" for awhile. Time to remedy both of those omissions in preparation for "Finnegans Wake", that's what I need.

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  2. Dear M. HtL Woolf,

    Thank you. And thank you for taking the time and trouble to comment. I cannot yet agree with you on Nabokov, but I've found over time that authors who were previously inaccessible are opened up to me. So I remain hopeful that I'll someday find the magic combination and grow to appreciate M. Nabokov as so many others do. Until then, I keep trying.

    shalom,

    Steven

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  3. Nabokov actually translated Alice into Russian, published 1923. So that's a connection.

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  4. Thank you to Kerry (Hungry like the Wolf) for linking to your blog because I really enjoyed this post and am now looking forward to Finnegans Wake instead of feeling a bit ambivalent about it. I'm currently reading Ulysses for the third time with DoveGreyreader, and loving it - see my blog at http://anzlitlovers.wordpress.com and choose Ulysses from the drop-down category box - I think you'll find 500 words there LOL!
    Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers, Melbourne, Australia

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  5. Dear Ms. Hill,

    Thank you for stopping by. I constantly encourage EVERYONE to read Ulysses but I am more hesitant about recommending Finnegans Wake, not because it isn't a great book, but because the book invites certain kinds of readers and disorients and even disgusts and alienates others. If you like Lewis Carroll (at least in terms of language) The Wake will come naturally.

    shalom,

    Steven

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  6. If you're a fan of Lewis Caroll, may I point you in the direction of a new website publishing short story audiobooks? They have made a brilliant recording of Caroll's 'Bruno's Revenge'. I just discovered it and can't stop listening.
    http://www.spokenink.co.uk/catalog?author=51

    Enjoy!

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  7. Dear Amanda,

    Thank you kindly for stopping by and leaving the link. I truly appreciate it!

    shalom,

    Steven

    ReplyDelete