A Conversation for English 17th Century Nonsense Poetry

Whoops circularity - stuff

Post 1


Interesting definition of nonsense, although it is danger of circularity; define ridiculous.

There are all those interesting 1920s Russian formalists that I should be able to remember more about but don't. So how about this for a more wide defintion of nonsense? To some degree or other, obscuring literal 'sense'. Therefore, you can view metaphor as a low-level instance of nonsense. But from here, you are only 1 step away from Lewis Carroll's Portmanteau words in Jabberwocky (Portmanteau does the same thing in English as Metaphor does in Greek), or 2 steps away from Anglo-Saxon riddle compilations like The Exeter Book (step 1: Icelandic Kennings, which are like metaphors with bits taken out, to step 2, riddles, where the remaining sense obscures or misleads the reader). And once you get to riddles, you can move quite swiftly onto the undefeated world champion of nonsense (although this should not be attempted by the sane), Finnegans Wake.

Good God what is going on? Where did I start?

a grand funferall...

Post 2

Lear (the Unready)

Nonsense does not necessarily obscure 'sense'. It would be more accurate to say that it involves foregrounding the 'unmeaning' that is always inherent in 'meaning' - in other words, a practitioner of nonsense is merely bringing out something that is already there.

Good point though. The definition is a little circular as it reads at the moment. Bit late to change it now, unfortunately...

Finnegan's Wake, far from being nonsensical, is the most extraordinary work of 'litterature' (Joyce's word) ever conceived, let alone executed. It comprises an unimaginably complex web of interconnected meditations on (un)meaning and (un)consciousness, punning - purposefully - in a variety of languages and shifting registers, all of which may (in principle) be untangled by a reader with enough time and patience on their hands.

You may be interested to know there is an annotated guide to the Wake, compiled by someone called Roland McHugh - although it might be a little difficult to get hold of - which serves reasonably well as a starting point into the book. Which is about as far as I've ever managed to get with it, I have to admit...

a grand funferall...

Post 3


ooh yes...

I think you can get the McHugh work on Amazon. The other work by him that is worth a look is 'The Sigla of FW', which is damn hard to get hold of. The first sentence of this is 'FW is a book which it is impossible to read unaided'. So don't feel too bad about not being able to get into it.

I was going to write a guide article about what you need to do to read FW (apart from drink a lot), but time has been a bit short.

For what it's worth, to my mind, this is the absolute minimum -

The Ellmann Joyce Bio
Joyce's letters (not the selected ones, the mad 3 volume set)
All of Joyce's other works, including a pretty good appreciation of Ulysses
Giambattista Vico's The New Science, and some critical works (there are quite a few) on this, because it is not easy.
And the McHugh books. University libraries (or ILL) should have The Sigla of FW.

Also useful is a guide to the development of FW over time. You get this in the letters, but access to the 'First Draft of FW' is helpful.

It took me about 2 years to be able to get to grips with it, and I still have little idea what the nightletter section is about. On the other hand, it is definitely worth it when you get the idea to count up the number of letters in the 10th thunderword.

Good luck in your reading!


a grand funferall...

Post 4

Lear (the Unready)

Back in my days as a undergraduate I took a course on James Joyce, and I had the impression that the tutor didn't get very far with Finnegan's Wake either... He kept returning to the same (rather familiar) passages over and again, with interpretations which - strangely enough - I later found lurking in the more obscure corners of a nice little book called 'Post-Structuralist Joyce - essays from the French'... smiley - winkeye

It seems to me that with a grasp of some theory or other a person can make FW 'mean' more or less anything. And, actually, that's probably the beauty of the book - it's a democratic shout. Lacking any intrinsic 'meaning' to be found within the text, the reader has the task of fashioning for themselves some meaning from its chaos - in other words, to make whatever meaning we can out of it, bearing in mind that there is none in particualr to be found within the text itself. And any reader's view of the book is not necessarily any worse than anyone else's - with the Wake, everything is always going to be up for grabs...

Help. I'm starting to sound like a post-structuralist primer myself...

Yours, thoroughly undone, Lear

a grand funferall...

Post 5


Hello again -

Interesting question, is FW democratic? It's certainly vernacular, but I would argue against its democracy due to the sheer hard work involved in reading it. It's not entirely undifferentiated either; it is certainly not like some kind of literate alphabetti-spaghetti. Yes, it is possible to hallucinate meaning, and it is possible to give very perverse readings based on being overwhelmed by the text, but there is meaning to be found in there. Maybe meaning is the wrong word, but when it is found it is likely to be along the same lines as a linguistics experiment. Joyce in the late 30s (prepublication) that 'Time and the River and the Mountain are the heroes of my book'. It would be unusual if you could get GuideML to make sigla the same way as smillies.

Aside from all of this, there is the issue of interpretative veracity anyway. Post-structuralists begin to look a bit shifty when they are pressed on the interpretation of Ulysses before 1932, when Joyce permitted Stuart Gilbert to publish his schemata for U.

I think that people will continue to read Ulysses, but not FW. As remarked above, as it is so local, its local meanings will diminish wrt time; how much of its significance is already beyond decoding? I hope it doesn't, but I can see FW becoming some kind of exhibit in the complexity museum. Which is a bit sad, as Joyce spent 17 years over it, when he could have given the world: ULYSSES II - THIS TIME ITS PERSONAL!



a grand funferall...

Post 6

Researcher 170889

I revere Joyce for one reason only (to revere is NOT necessarily to read) - and that is he enabled me to shut up a very arrogant co-worker. Said fellow had gotten all enthused about JJ and in his usual way, had begun (i.e. decided) to collect first editions thereof. Daily he went on at me to try him, but I who had jumped ship at "Portrait of an Artist..." was having none of it. One Monday morning he said, in his usual patronizing tone, "You really should try Joyce. You could start with "Ulysses". You probably wouldn't have to look up more than one word per page..." Impetuously I replied, that I knew every word in the English language. (Talk about asking for it!) "Oh yeah," he responded, "What's a hogo?" Well it so happened by the mercy of the gods in response, no doubt, to a well-spent life, that I had the VERY DAY BEFORE found that word in a wordgame that some friends and I used to play. So, I said, with an air - as best I could muster - of boredom and disinterest, although within me leapt a spark of joy so great as to almost bring me to tears, "It's a strong smell, why?" Abashed, he NEVER questioned my intelligence again! So as far as I am concerned Joyce did not write in vain. I course I wouldn't READ him...

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