By Parker Barry
Last Tuesday from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. a small group read and analyzed James Joyce’s most challenging text: Finnegans Wake. These readings, lead by professor Bill Kupinse, take place every Tuesday in Wyatt 206 — although last week a small group moved into professor Kupinse’s office. The readings are open to all students, faculty, and locals looking for an interesting discussion about literature. Last week, the group consisted of two professors, two students, my father, and me. Though the group may have been small, we tackled an extremely difficult piece of literature.
Each one of us sat mesmerized in professor Kupinse’s office, staring at a little chunk of James Joyce’s work — page 75 of Finnegans Wake. Surrounded with shelves of books and a worn antique rug spread on the floor, the office gave our reading a scholarly and much-needed tone of intellectual maturity. Needed, especially, because the chosen passage depicted everything from Humpty Dumpty to public urination.
In the Finnegans Wake reading group there is every chance that a seemingly ‘wrong’ idea of what the text means may in some sense be ‘right.’ Finnegans Wake is such a complex text that whatever one sees as a deeper meaning may, in fact, be true. Joyce plays with words in over 30 different languages. There are puns, riddles and metaphors stacked ten feet deep. The whole novel goes in a circle; the last sentence of the novel flows into the first.
“It’s a high speed bullet train and you’re barely holding on,” said Professor Priti Joshi, from University of Puget Sound’s English department. “You’re late to the station, the train is leaving, and you leap on. That train is going so dang fast — it’s going like 180 miles per hour. But it’s quite a ride, it’s the ride of your life because you’re seeing things you’ve never seen before.”
Here is an example of the small piece of text we analyzed last Tuesday:
“As the lion in our teargarten remembers the nenuphars of his Nile (shall Ariuz forget Arioun or Boghas the baregams of the Marmarazalles from Marmeniere?) it may be, tots wearsense full a naggin in twentyg have sigilposted what in our brievingbust…”
“We live in a culture where there aren’t enough texts to re-read over the course of several years. It’s nice to have a text that I can return to throughout my life,” a junior at University of Puget Sound, Benjamin Fallis said. “I’ve never seen an author so willing to give everything he wrote to the reader and let them do with it what they will.”
Finnegans Wake covers a wide variety of topics: the dynamic family life in Ireland, the general human experience, eco-criticism and even civilization as a whole. The reading group is very supportive of any idea that is thrown at the text, because the text itself is so convoluted and obscure. Participants in this reading group are looking for any hidden idea behind the seemingly nonsensical words on the page.
“Because Finnegans Wake is such a complicated text, it helps to have people from different backgrounds to add to the discussion, coming together to puzzle through and analyze it,” Professor Kupinse said. “Maybe someone has had a few years of Latin, maybe there’s a group member with a strong background in history — all of those different kinds of expertise come together and really help to illuminate the text.”
The style of writing that Joyce employed was the beginning of the novel as stream of consciousness. The amount of interiority that Joyce, and many other writers of his time, utilizes represented a change in how authors and readers saw the novel. Finnegan’s Wake is the most direct line into the mind and genius of James Joyce that a reader can get.
You don’t have to be an English major to enjoy Finnegans Wake, you just have to have a curious mind. “[The discussion] sharpens your skills in detective work, and you don’t have to be a scholar to find meaning behind his writing,” Professor Joshi said.
These Tuesday evening readings offer students, faculty, and even locals a chance at confronting one of the most respected and difficult texts of the 20th century. The readings offer a comfortable and supportive environment — all you need is a willing and open mind.