James Joyce: Incomparable or Incomprehensible?

Those of us on the lookout for edgy, racy content have heard the term “Joycean” thrown about with little discretion over the years.  Critics appear to be more interested in using the term than they are in properly using it to describe a product.  The question that those of us driven to the source, would have for Joyce, if he were still alive, is: Were your final two works the most erudite, most complicated pieces of fiction ever written, or were they one of the greatest practical jokes ever played on the literature community to expose its elitist, scholars for what they are?

James Joyce

James Joyce

Most readers that have attempted to up their erudite status by reading difficult books, have heard of Joyce’s final two works: Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.  We have heard that these are two of the most difficult, most complicated pieces of fiction ever created.  Some of us have attempted to tackle them as the challenge that they are, others have attempted to read them for entrance into their subjective definition of elite status.  Most are confused and disoriented by the books, but some have the patience, the wherewithal, and the understanding all of the references made, and languages used, in these books to comprehend them.  Those people either deserve a hearty salute, or the scorn and laughter that Joyce provided, as a gift, to the havenots, that openly admit that they don’t understand these books.

I don’t understand either of these books, and I have gone back numerous times to try and further my understanding.  Some have said that Ulysses is the more palatable of the two, but I have found it to be too elliptical, too erratic, and too detail-oriented to maintain focus, and I have purchased three different aides to guide me through it.  Some of those same people readily admit that Finnegans Wake is ridiculously incomprehensible.

Most people enjoyed Dennis Miller’s tenure as an announcer on Monday Night Football, but most of those same people complained that they didn’t understand two-thirds of the man’s references.  I didn’t keep a journal on his references, but I’m willing to bet that at least a third of them were Joycean in nature.  Miller stated that his goal, in using such obscure references, was to make fellow announcer Al Michaels laugh, but any fan that has followed Miller’s career knows that he enjoys the motif gained by using complicated and obscure references to make himself sound erudite.  There are, today, very few references more obscure than those that recall the work of James Joyce, a man that described his last book, Finnegans Wake, as “A book obscure enough to keep professors busy for 300 years.”

Andy Kaufman often referenced James Joyce when trying to describe his method of operation.  Kaufman wanted to be a comedian’s comedian, in the manner that Joyce was a writer’s writer.  He wanted to perform difficult and complicated acts that the average consumer did not understand, and the very fact that they didn’t “get it” is what invigorated him.  He wanted that “insider” status that an artist gains entrée into when only those “in the know” get it.  After achieving some fame, audiences began laughing with Kaufman in a manner that appears to have only bored him, and he spent the rest of his career trying to up that ante.

Anytime an artist creates a difficult piece of work, there is going to be a divide between the haves (those that get it) and the havenots.  When Mike Patton formed the band Fantomas, he never did so with the illusion that he was going to unseat the Eagles Greatest Hits, or Michael Jackson’s Thriller, atop the list of greatest selling albums of all time.  He knew, or should’ve known, that he was playing to a very select audience.

What is the audience for such difficult subject matter?  Most people seek music, as either background noise, something to dance to, or something to tap their finger to.  Most people read a book to gain a little more characterization and complication than a movie can provide, but they don’t want too much characterization, or too much complication.  Most people only buy art to feng shui their homes.  Most people don’t seek excessively difficult art, and those that do are usually seeking something more, something more engaging, and something more provocative that can only be defined by that individual.  The audience for the difficult generally have such a strong foundation in the arts that they reach a point where their artistic desires can only satiated by something different.

Different can mean different things at different times to different people.  Different can be complicated, and discordant, but it can also be limited to style.  At this point in history, it’s difficult to be different, in a manner that cannot be called derivative of someone or something, so most people seek whatever separations they can find.  When the latest starlet of the moment twerks in a provocative manner, has a construction worker find her pornographic video, or accidentally has her reproductive organ photographed, we know that these are incidents created by the starlet, and her people to get noticed after they have exhausted all other attempts to be perceived as artistically brilliant and different.

There are also some other artists that are different for the sole sake of being different.  This is usually less than organic, and it usually disinterests those of us seeking a true separation from the norm, because we feel that this has been thoroughly explored to the point of exhaustion.  Andy Kaufman created something organically different that can never be completely replicated, in much the same manner Chuck Palahniuk, Mike Patton, David Bowie, Quentin Tarantino, and Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.  Can it be said that James Joyce’s final two books were different in an artistically brilliant, and cutting edge manner that all of these artists were creations were, or were James Joyce’s writings more symbolism over substance?  Put another way, was Joyce a substantive artist who’s true messages need to be unearthed through careful examination, or was he simply twerking in a provocative manner with the hope of getting noticed by the elite scholars of his generation after exhausting the limits of his talent in other works?

Judging by his short stories, James Joyce could’ve written some of the best novels in history.  Those that say that he already did, would have to admit that his final two works were not overly concerned with story, or plot.  Those that defend his final two works would probably say that I am judging Joyce’s final two works by traditional standards, and that they were anything but traditional.  They would probably also argue that the final two works sought to shake up the traditional world of literature, and anyone that dared to take up the challenge of reading these works.  They would probably say Joyce sought to confound people, more than interest them, and if they did concede the fact that the final two works were different for the sole sake of being different, they would add that he was one of the first to do this.  Those that defend his final two works say that they are not as difficult to read, or as complex, as some would lead you to believe.  These people suggest that reading these two works only requires more patience, and examination, than the average works.  Anyone that states such a thing is attempting to sound either hyper intelligent, or hyper erudite, for it was Joyce’s expressed purpose to be difficult, complicated, and hyper-erudite.

To understand Ulysses, one needs an annotated guide of 1920-era Dublin, a guide that describes the Irish songs of the day, some limericks, mythology, and a fluent understanding of Homer’s The Odyssey.  If you don’t have a well-versed knowledge of that which occurred nearly one-hundred years prior to today, you may not understand the parodies, or jokes Joyce employs in Ulysses.  Yet, it was considered, by the Modern Library, in 1998, to be the greatest work of fiction ever produced.

“Everyone I know owns Ulysses, but no one I know has finished it.”  —Larry King.

To fully understand, and presumably enjoy, Finnegans Wake, the reader needs to have a decent understanding of Latin, German, French, and Hebrew, and a basic understanding of Norwegian linguistic and cultural elements.  You will also need to be well-versed in Egypt’s Book of the Dead, Shakespeare, The Bible, and The Qur’an.  The reader also needs to understand the English language on an etymological level, for one of Joyce’s goals with Finnegans Wake, was to mess with the conventions of the English language.

Some have opined that one of Joyce’s goals, in Ulysses, was to use every word in the English language, and others have stated that this is a possibility since he used approximately 40,000 of them.  If this is true, say others, his goal for Finnegans Wake, was to extend the confusion by incorporating German, French, Latin, Hebrew, and other languages into his text.  When he did use English, in Finnegans Wake, Joyce sought to use it in unconventional and etymological ways to describe what he believed to be the language of the night.  He stated that Finnegans Wake was “A book of the night” and Ulysses was “A book of the day”.

“In writing of the night, I really could not, I felt, use words in their ordinary connections . . . that way they do not express how things are in the night, in the different stages – conscious, then semi-conscious, then unconscious.  I found that it could not be done with words in their ordinary relations and connections. When morning comes of course everything will be clear again . . . . I’ll give them back their English language.  I’m not destroying it for good.” —James Joyce on his novel Finnegans Wake.

This use of the “language of the night” could lead one to say that Joyce was one of the first deconstructionists, and thus ahead of his time by destroying the meaning of meaning in the immediate sense.  It could be said that Joyce had such a profound understanding of linguistics that normal modes of meaning, bored him.  He wanted something different.  He wanted to explore language, and meaning, in a manner that made his readers question their fundamentals.  Readability was not his goal, nor was storytelling, or achieving a best-seller list.  He sought to destroy conventions, and common sense, and achieve a higher realm of perfect, in which timeless abstractions that cannot be communicated to those that adhere to common sense.  This makes for an interesting conversation on high art, and philosophy, but does it lend itself to quality reading?

“What is clear and concise can’t deal with reality,” Joyce is reported to have told friend Arthur Power,  “For to be real is to be surrounded by mystery.”

In the modern age, there is much discussion of the widening gap between the haves and the have nots.  That particular discussion revolves around money, as it has for time immemorial, but in the Joycean world, the gap involves those that “get” his works, and those that do not.  Those that get it usually prefer to have deeper meanings shrouded in clever wordplay.  They usually prefer symbolism over substance; writing over storytelling; and interpretation over consistent and concretized thoughts.

The two schools of thought between the haves and the havenots can probably best be explained by breaking them down to the Hemingway manner of writing and that of Joyce.  Hemingway wrote clear and concise sentences.  Hemingway stated that his methodology was to write something that was true:

“The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometimes truer than true.”—Ernest Hemingway.

Putting Joyce’s final two works through the Hemingway school of thought, one could say that Joyce’s methodology was: “Some of the times, it’s easier to make it false and let others define it as true.”

“Though people may read more into Ulysses than I ever intended, who is to say that they are wrong: do any of us know what we are creating? … Which of us can control our scribblings? They are the script of one’s personality like your voice or your walk.” —James Joyce

Have you ever had a deep discussion, on a deep, multifaceted topic, with a deep thinker.  Have they ever told you, after you have stubbornly refused to agree with them, that: “You don’t get it, and you probably never will?”  If this has happened to you, then you know what it feels like to be summarily dismissed as an anti-intellectual by a deep thinker? Those that aren’t snobbish in an anti-social manner, often avoid openly dismissing you, but even the polite snobs give you a vibe, a look, or that chuff that is intended to let you know your place.

“Well, what do you think of it then?” is the response some of us have given, after being backed into an anti-intellectual corner by deep thinkers.

If they are an anti-social, elite intellectual snob, they will say something along the lines of: “I simply choose to think deeper!”  It’s a great line, and it purportedly puts stubborn types in our place, but it’s a non-answer.  Those of us that are more accustomed to interaction with deep thinkers, will then ask them to expound upon their complicated, deep thinking?  More often than not, if you push them, you’ll realize the answers were not nearly as important to them as the deep thinker cap that they place on themselves, and you usually find that there isn’t much substance beneath their piles of style.

A number of attempts at reading Joyce have led me to believe that he probably didn’t have much substance beneath his piles of style, so he muddied the waters of his message with puns, songs, gibberish, abstractions, foreign languages, and overly complicated complications.  He did this, in my opinion, to conceal the fact that when compared to his colleagues, he didn’t have all that much to say, but that he was artistically accomplished in saying it.

Who can forget the many sayings that Finnegans Wake has dropped on our culture, such as the transcendental sound of the thunderclap that announced the fall of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden:


Or, how about the catch phrase:

“A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” 

Or the ever present: 

“(Stoop) if you are abcedminded, to this claybook, what curios of sings (please stoop), in this allaphbed!  Can you rede (since We and Thou had it out already) its world?” 

If you just read those sentences three or four times, and you still have no idea what it says, and you just went back to read them again, because you want to be a have that “gets it”, you’re not alone.  If these passages were merely anecdotal evidence of the difficulty involved in reading Finnegans Wake, that would be one thing, but these difficulties litter just about every sentence of every paragraph of the book, as evidenced by the assistance the site Finwake.com has provided readers to guide them through the book.

Finnegans Wake is reported to be in English, but it’s not the standard version of English where words have specific meaning.  The “language of the night” was intended for linguists that are tired of reading words that have exact meanings, and it was intended to be playful and mind-altering, and rule breaking.  He made references that were intended to be obscure even to the reader of his day that may not have Joyce’s wealth of knowledge of history, or the manner in which the meaning of the words in the English language have changed throughout history.

“What is really imaginative is the contrary to what is concise and clear.” —James Joyce

James Joyce was a stream of consciousness writer that believed that all “mistakes” were intended on some level that superseded awareness.  In the 500+ page book, Finnegans Wake, Joyce found 600 errors after publication.  He was informed of some, if not all of these errors, and he was reported to have fought his publishers to keep them in.  Later editions were written to correct many of these errors, and provide readers “the book in the manner Joyce had intended.”  If Joyce didn’t believe in errors, however, how can those that corrected them state that the corrected edition is the definitive edition that “Joyce intended”?

“The man of genius makes no mistakes, his errors are volitional and portals of discovery.” –James Joyce

Throughout the seventeen years Joyce spent writing Finnegans Wake, he began to go blind, so he had a friend named Samuel Beckett take dictation over the phone to complete the novel.  At one point in this dictation, someone knocked on Joyce’s door.  Joyce said, “Come in!” to the knocker, and Beckett wrote the words “Come in!” into the narrative of Finnegans Wake.  When this error was spotted by Joyce, and the confusion was sorted out, Joyce insisted that Beckett, “Leave it in!”  On another occasion, when a printer’s error was pointed out he said, “Leave it.  It sounds better that way than the way I wrote it.”

There are three different versions of the text: The first and second are the editions that Joyce had published with all of the errors intact.  The third edition has the errors that the editors located, and the 600 corrections that Joyce spent two years locating, corrected.  Some would have you believe that first two editions are the definitive editions, but you have to be a Joyce purist to appreciate them.

Can it be called anything short of egotistical for an author to believe that his subconscious choices and decisions, are somehow divine?  If, as Joyce said, and Picasso later repeated in his paintings, mistakes are portals of discovery, then we can say that’s great, and incredibly artistic in the process of creation.  To leave it in the finished product, however, and subject your readers to the confusion, just seems egotistical.  “Here’s what I was thinking at the time,” Joyce is basically telling his readers.  “I don’t know what it means, but this is a higher plane of thinking than just conscious thought.  Isn’t it magical?  Maybe you can make some sense of it.  Maybe you can attribute it to your life in some manner.”  This method of operation may say something profound about the random nature of the universe, but when we’re reading a novel we don’t necessarily want to know about the randomness of the universe, we want order.

Not everyone can write a classic, and some realize this after a number of failed attempts.  Once they arrive at this fork in the road, they can either write simple books that provide them and theirs an honest living, or they can grow so frustrated by their inability to write classics that they separate themselves from the pack with obscurity.  The advantage of creating such a contrivance is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder can assign their own relative beauty to it.  Some would say this is the very definition of art, but others would say even that definition has limits.  Some would say that the most obscure painting is art, because they “see it”, where others see only schlock for elitists to crib note to death, until meaning is derived.

James Joyce is considered the exception to this rule, fellow writers have told me, and if you are going to attempt to write a novel in the 21st Century, you had better be familiar with him.  I’ve tried, and I now believe that I’m destined to be a havenot in the Joycean world … Even with Ulysses.  The question that arises out of these ashes is, am I going a long way to becoming more intelligent by recognizing my limits, or should it be every aspiring intellect’s responsibility to continue to push themselves beyond any self-imposed limits to a point where they can finally achieve a scholarly understanding of difficult material?  If this is a conundrum that every person encounters when facing challenges to their intelligence, is Ulysses, or more pointedly Finnegans Wake, the ultimate barometer of intelligence, or is it such an exaggerated extension that it had to have been a practical joke Joyce played on the elitist literary community to expose them as the in-crowd, elitist snobs that so loudly proclaim that they “get it” that they are, in fact, falling prey to Joyce’s clever ruse to expose them as people that “get” something that was never meant to be “got”?


2 thoughts on “James Joyce: Incomparable or Incomprehensible?

    • I have gone back and deleted the two occasions where the apostrophe was left in. In my defense, the only times I missed those were in the hyperlinks. I realize that Joyce wanted no apostrophe, but it was hard to get used to while writing this. Thank you for the corrections though.


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