Waywords and Meansigns: new ways into ‘Finnegans Wake’

A Feature by Sara Jewell

'Finnegans Wake' set to music by teams of scholar musicians

‘Finnegans Wake’ set to music by teams of scholar musicians

James Joyce is distinguished as being one of Ireland’s most famous authors as well as one of her most famous expatriates. Although Joyce actually died a British citizen – and famously wrote in his semi-autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ‘Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow’ – all of Joyce’s major works take place in and around Dublin. Ulysses, for example, a book first serialised in the U.S. and published in Paris, is in part a walking map of early 20th century Dublin. Often considered the most important work in modern literature, Ulysses immortalised Ireland’s capital city for the whole world to read.

Despite Joyce’s importance in the world of literature and Irish culture, his final work Finnegans Wake remains shrouded in obscurity. Perhaps this is for good, or at least understandable, reasons; the book is written in a frenzy of highly sophisticated idioglossia, made up of compromised multilingual puns and portmanteaus. It remains an intimidating undertaking for the layman, often superseded by the relatively more accessible Ulysses. Nonetheless, the book has attracted considerable attention from various cultural icons, including author Anthony Burgess, composer John Cage, and mythologist Joseph Campbell.

The challenges of the Wake, however, are worth rising to meet. In the words of Joyce’s wife Nora Barnacle, reportedly remarking on the obituaries and memorandums following her husband’s death in 1941, ‘What’s all this talk about Ulysses?…Finnegans Wake is the important book.’ In recent years, a plethora of Joyce enthusiasts have begun elevating the Wake back to its rightful place on the global stage. Olwen Fouéré’s critically acclaimed Riverrun – a play based on theme of rivers throughout Finnegans Wake – has toured the world, including a month-long residency with the Sydney Theatre Company. In 2005, the Medicine Show Theatre Ensemble presented a musical adaptation of the Wake in New York City.  In 2014, actor and Joyce enthusiast Adam Harvey successfully kickstarted a ‘one-man theatrical adaptation’ of the Wake to be performed in Manhattan and beyond.

Gabrielle Carey, a senior lecturer at University of Technology, Sydney, wrote about much of the critical as well as creative work of interpreting the Wake has been done by ‘amateurs’ – not the Academy, and in many ways this interpretation has been made possible by the communal and global power of the internet. The book is itself a morphing, tangled web of interrelated meanings and references, and the kind of reading it sometimes requires would seem to have predicted the digital age. Billy Mills recently questioned how the internet is changing the ways we think about Finnegans Wake musing:

The book was, we can now see, crying out for the invention of the web, which would enable the holding of multiple domains of knowledge in the mind at one time … is the web changing our perception of Joyce’s late masterpiece? …perhaps Finnegans Wake needed the web to become easily readable. Maybe Joyce’s multiple concurrent layers of meaning and rejection of linearity need hypertext and online reading habits to open them up to a wider audience…maybe future generations will look back on early discussions of Finnegans Wake’s unreadability and wonder what the hell was the matter with us.

Websites like  (Finnegans Wake Extensible Elucidation Treasury) aggregate tens of thousands of notes from myriad sources to assist in appreciating the richness and multiplicity of the text, and the site’s description acknowledges the way that the internet has democratised the study of difficult literature, “It [fweet[ is also aimed at scholars, amateurs and professionals alike, studying Finnegans Wake and looking for a powerful research tool. There are no general-purpose introductions, no lengthy articles, no scholarly essays; just elucidations.” Seattle-based illustrator, Stephen Crowe, chronicles his mammoth serialized project illustrating Finnegans Wake on his website Wake in Progress, offering a visual entrance into the book. The internet, with its dizzying cerebral lattice of multivalent voices and perspectives, seems an apt place for a reawakening interest in Finnegans Wake, as well as a fresh exploration of both its aural possibility and its potential for engagements beyond the sometimes narrow scope of academia.

Beyond its vast potential for literary study and conversation, the internet also offers the dimensionality of multimedia, which is especially important for a book like the Wake. Finnegans Wake, with its homophonic puns, mellifluous flow, phonetic play and multilingual bent benefits greatly from being read aloud or sounded out. Waywords and Meansigns is an example of the way that internet offers new possibilities for communal appreciation of Joyce’s opus from either a purely or partly auditory perspective. Referred to as “31 hours, 8 minutes, 11 seconds worth of delightful strangeness” by the James Joyce Centre in Dublin, Waywords and Meansigns set James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to music, unabridged, under creative commons and distributed it freely. Dividing the book into 17 different sections and assigning musicians and performance artists their own respective portions to set to sound, this audio version of the book presents an unprecedented new entry point into the material. As described by Mark Traynor, Managing Director of James Joyce Centre:

the aural textures and rhythms of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake are intrinsic to its structure, so much so that early supporters of the work like Eugéne Jolas stressed the vitality of its ‘musical flow’. Waywords and Meansigns have embraced that principle and will no doubt help to spread the weird wordy world of the Wake to new audiences.”

As noted Joyce enthusiast Peter Chrisp wrote,

Finnegans Wake is the perfect book for this project, because Joyce, a gifted musician, wrote it as if it was music.

‘Our hope,’ says project producer Derek Pyle, ‘was to create a version of Joyce’s book that would be accessible to newcomers, but still feel fresh and exciting for devoted students and scholars.’ By giving each artist or group free rein as to how they work with their assigned chapter, the project preserves a multivalent and diverse set of euphonic doorways through which to access the book. And, because of the Wake’s cyclical and nonlinear structure, a reader or listener can delve into it at any point they choose, making Waywords and Meansigns an even more valuable resource for newcomers, who are free to start listening to whatever initially sounds most intriguing. From Alan Ó Raghallaigh of the Irish Composer’s Collective to the fuzzy improvisation of Un monton, torero, Waywords and Meansigns runs the gamut of possible styles and genres, and a nascent upcoming second edition promises an even greater diversity of sound and interpretation in the project’s future.

Sara Jewell

Sara is an interns on the Waywords and Meansigns Project, and  a graphic narrative student at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts with an abiding interest in literature. An inveterate reader and writer, Sara is currently working on an upcoming graphic memoir. You can follow her progress on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/saraluna?ty=h


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