Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Michael Wood on Finnegans Wake--or, a lot of initials

The ever adventurous PQ sent me a link to this excellent Michael Wood's essay on FinnegansWake, celebrating a new edition in the LRB.

Thanks, PQ.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Shem and Shaun

Sorry to report that I missed writing up a few pages here. I could get back to them, as I did take notes, but tonight I thought I'd mention a kind of understanding that swept through our little group as we read some of the words of Joseph Campbell on the meaning of Shem and Shaun, the twin sons of HCE and ALP. We have all along had to try to think of tricks to tell the two apart, but suddenly it seems easier.

It came out of our reading of Riddle Number 11 on page148, which begins: "If you met on the binge a poor acheseyeld from Ailing..." After realizing that acheseyeld is a pun on exiled, and then seeing reference later in the question to the blind blighter, we began to understand that the reference is in some ways to Joyce himself. And Jimmy Joyce is also always in some aspect Shem the Penman.

Somehow this led to my finding Campbell's words on the differences between Shem the Penman and Shaun the Postman, which we may even have read before,but seemed more illuminating at this point in the journey. Shem is the introvert, the wounded writer who digs deep into the pysche of mankind and Shaun is the extravert, who delivers that message to the world. It was interesting to us that Campbell portrays Shaun as a writer also, but as a writer of bestsellers. As C. said at our meeting, Shem is the one who reports things as he sees them, and Shaun is the politician who puts the spin on that.

In a more charitable light, Shaun is the one who, not having done the delving himself, is doomed to misunderstand the message. I find myself wondering if even within Joyce himself there isn't an element of both, because I would think that the deepest discoveries are essentially inarticulable--that everything in effect is a kind of translation that is sure to be partly wrong.

We also got another (surely temporary) grasp on  the mythic structure of the book, where HCE is the unity, Shem and Shaun the splitting of that unity into two, and ALP the timeless river that simply flows on and on. It can't hurt to remind ourselves yet again that the story is about an endless cycle and any moment is simply a snapshot of something that ultimately can't be stopped or fixed in space or time.      

( The photo, by the way, is of a bronze sculpture by John Coll, from an exhibit once at the Kenny Gallery called The Light Behind the Written Word which is worth taking a look at.)