The Unfunny, Influential Comedy of Andy Kaufman


On the timeline of comedy, the subversive nature of it became so comprehensive that it became uniform, conventional, and in need of total destruction. Although the late, great Andy Kaufman may never have intended to undermine and, thus, destroy the top talent of his generation, his act revealed his contemporaries for what they were: conventional comedians operating under a like-minded banner. In doing so, Andy Kaufman created a new art form.

Those of us with a seemingly unnatural attraction to Kaufman’s game-changing brand of unfunny comedy now know the man was oblivious to greater concerns, but we used whatever it was he created to subvert conventional subversions, until they lost their subversive quality for us.

Those “in the know” drew up a very distinct, sociopolitical definition of subversion long before Andy Kaufman’s variety. They may consider Kaufman comedic genius now, but they had no idea what he was doing while he was doing it. I can only guess that most of those that saw Kaufman’s act in its gestational period cautioned him against going through with it. 

I see what you’re trying to do. I do,” I imagine them saying, “but I don’t think it will play well in Omaha. They’ll just think you’re weird, and weird doesn’t play well on the national stage, unless you’re funny-weird.”

Many of them regarded being weird, in the manner embodied by his definition of that beautiful adjective as just plain weird, even idiotic. They didn’t understand what he was doing.

Before Andy Kaufman became Andy Kaufman, and his definition of weird defined it as a transcendent art form, being weird meant going so far over-the-top that the audience felt comfortable with the notion of a comedian being weird. It required the comedic player to find a way to communicate a simple message to the audience: “I’m just acting weird and that’s all.” Before Kaufman and those influenced by his brilliance broke the mold on the word, comedians relied on visual cues, in the form of weird facial expressions, vocal inflections and tones so that the so-called less sophisticated audiences in Omaha could understand the notion of a comedic actor just being weird. Before Kaufman, comedic actors had no interest in unnerving audiences. They just wanted the laugh. 

One can be sure that before Andy Kaufman took to the national stage on Saturday Night Live, he heard those warnings, but for whatever reason he didn’t heed them. It’s possible that Kaufman was just that weird, and that he thought his only path to success was to let his freak flag fly. It’s also possible that he had enough confidence in his act that he was able to ignore the advice offered by those in the know. We admirers must also consider the idea that Kaufman might not have been talented enough to be funny in a more conventional sense. Whatever the case, Kaufman maintained his unconventional, unfunny, idiotic characters and bits until those “in the know” declared him one of the funniest men who ever lived.

The cutting-edge, comedic intelligentsia now discuss the deceased Kaufman, in a frame that suggests they were onto his act the whole time. They weren’t. They didn’t get it. I didn’t get it, but I was young, and I needed the assistance of repetition to lead me to the genius of being an authentic idiot, until I busied myself trying to carve out my own path to true idiocy, in my own little world.

Andy Kaufman may not have been the first true idiot in the pantheon of comedy, but for those of us who witnessed his hilariously unfunny, idiotic behavior, it opened to us a completely new world. We knew how to be idiots, but we didn’t understand the finer points of the elusive art of persuading another of our inferiority until Kaufman came along, broke that door down, and showed us all his furniture.

For those who’ve never watched Andy Kaufman at work, his claim to fame did not involve jokes. His modus operandi involved situational humor. The situations he created weren’t funny either, not in the conventional sense. Some were so unfunny and so unnerving, in fact, that viewers deemed them idiotic. Kaufman was so idiotic that many believed his shows were nothing more than a series of improvised situations in which he reacted on the fly to a bunch of idiotic stuff, but what most of those in the know could not comprehend at the time was that everything he did was methodical, meticulous, and choreographed.

 

Being Unfunny in Situations

 

Like the knuckleball, the manner in which situational humor evolves can grow better or worse as the game goes on, but eventual success requires unshakeable devotion to the pitch. Some will hit home runs off your knuckleball, and you will knock out an occasional mascot with a wild one, but for situational jokes to be effective, they can’t just be another pitch in your arsenal. This pitch requires a commitment that will become a concentration, until it eventuates into a lifestyle that even those closest to you will have a difficult time understanding.

“Why would you try to confuse people?” they will ask. “Why do you continue to say jokes that aren’t funny?” 

“I would like someone, somewhere to consider me an idiot,” the devoted will respond. “Any idiot can fall down a flight of stairs, trip over a heat register, and engage in slapstick comedy, but I want to achieve a form of idiocy that leads others to believe I am a total idiot who doesn’t know any better.”

For those less confident in their modus operandi, high-minded responses might answer the question in such a way that the recipient considers us more intelligent, but they obfuscate the truth as to why we enjoy doing it. The truth may be that we know the path to achieving laughter through the various pitches and rhythms made available to us in movies and primetime sitcoms, but some of us reach a point when that master template bores us. Others may recognize, at some point in their lives, that they don’t have the wherewithal to match the delivery that friends employ, particularly those friends with gameshow host personalities. For these people, the raison d’être of Kaufman’s idiot may offer an end run around traditional modes of comedy. Some employ these tactics as a means of standing out and above the fray, while others enjoy the superiority-through-inferiority psychological base this mindset procures. The one certain truth is that most find themselves unable to identify the exact reason why they do what they do. They just know they enjoy it, and they will continue to pursue it no matter how many poison-tipped arrows come their way.

An acquaintance of mine learned of my devotion to this method when she overheard me contrast it in a conversation with a third party. What she heard was a brief display of intellectual prowess that crushed her previous characterization of me. When I turned back to her to continue the discussion she and I were having prior to the interruption, her mouth was hanging open, and her eyes were wide. The remark she made in that moment was one she repeated throughout our friendship.

“I am onto you now. You are not as dumb as you pretend to be.”

The delicious moment occurred seconds later, when it dawned on her that what she thought she figured out made no sense in conventional constructs. Most people pretend to be smart, not the other way around. No one pretends that they are dumb or inferior. As she looked at me, her expression changed when it dawned on her that her revelation was not as comprehensive as she first believed.

The pause before her second sentence gave birth to an expression every idiot strives to achieve, as the pride of figuring me out faded, and she realized that everything she thought she figured out only brought more questions to the fore. I imagined that something of a flowchart developed in her mind to explain everything I did and said to that point, and that each flowchart ended in a rabbit hole that once entered into would place her in a variety of vulnerable positions, including the beginning. She pursued me after that, just to inform me that she was onto what I was doing, until it became obvious that she was the primary audience of her pleas.

I’ve never thrown an actual knuckleball with any success, but watching her flail at the gradual progression of my situational joke, trying to convince me that she was now above the fray, cemented my lifelong theory: Jokes can be funny, but reactions are hilarious.

The point is that if you devote yourself to this mindset, and you try your hardest not to let your opponents see the stitches, you can convince some of the people, some of the times, that you are an idiot.

The Idiostory

Some of us idiots purchased every VHS tape and book we could find, and we read every internet article that carried Andy Kaufman’s name to try to unlock the mystery of his effect on us. We wanted those who knew him best to tell us why he chose to go against the advice of those in the know and if it was possible for us to follow his indefinable passion to the end. We followed his examples and teachings in the manner of disciples, until it became a lifestyle. Andy Kaufman led us to believe that if we could confuse the sensibilities of serious world just enough, it could lead to some seminal moments in our pursuit of the idiotic life.

If our goals were to be funny, we would’ve attempted to follow the trail laid by Jerry Seinfeld. If our aim was only to be weird-funny, we would’ve adopted weird-funny voice Steve Martin used in The Jerk. If we wanted to be sardonic or satirical, we would have looked to George Carlin for guidance. We knew we weren’t as funny as they were, but we reached a point when that didn’t matter to us. When we discovered the unfunny, subversive idiocy of Andy Kaufman, however, it filled us like water rushing down the gullet of a dehydrated man.

Most of our friends considered it being weird for the sake of being weird, but they didn’t recognize the depth charges until they detonated. Some didn’t see any humor inherent in our bits even then. Some of them didn’t want to have anything to do with us after repeated displays, and others were so confused and irritated that they found themselves confronted, once again, by the question of why we do it. It’s possible that the majority of us will never be able to answer that question to anyone’s satisfaction, least of all our own, but we know we like it, and we know we will continue to do it.

The Disclaimer

If the goal of the reader is to have others consider them funny, following this advice will only lead to heartache and headaches. Instead, they should put acute focus on the beats and rhythm of their delivery and learn how to incorporate them into their responses. Quality humor, like quality music, must offer pleasing beats and rhythms that find a familiar home in the audience’s mind. To achieve this level of familiarity, there are few resources as great as the sitcoms and standup comedians everyone knows and loves. If the joke teller leads into the punchline with a familiar rhythm and lands on the line in a familiar beat, the audience’s reward for figuring out that beat will be a shot of dopamine, and the joke teller’s reward is the resulting laughter. 

If, however, the goal is to be an unfunny idiot that receives no immediate laughter, the joke teller still needs to follow the rules of comedy regarding the beats and rhythm of humor, and they may need to know them even better than truly funny people do. As any gifted practitioner of the art of idiocy will tell those willing to listen, it is far more difficult to find a way to distort and destroy the perception of conventional humor than it is to abide by it. This takes practice and practice in the art of practice, as Andy Kaufman displayed.

The rewards for being a total idiot are far and few between. If we achieve total destruction or distortion of what others know to be the beats and rhythm of humor, a sympathetic soul might consider us such an idiot that they might take some time out of their day to advise us about our beats and the rhythm of our delivery. For the most part, however, the rewards idiots receive are damage to their reputations as potentially funny people. Most will dismiss us as weird, and others might even categorically dismiss us as strange. Still others will dismiss us as idiots who know nothing about making people laugh. “We don’t,” we will confess. “That’s why we’re here.” Most will want to have little to nothing to do with us. Women, in particular, might claim they don’t want to date us, declaring, “I prefer nice, funny guys. You? I’m sorry to say this, but you’ve said so many weird things that … I kind of consider you an idiot.”

Andy Kaufman lives! Long live Andy Kaufman!


Andy Kaufman is alive!  “Who?”  Andy Kaufman.  His daughter just said it, and his brother was by her side when she said it.  Andy Kaufman is alive.  I just knew it.  I knew it all along.  “Who’s Andy Kaufman?”  Andy Kaufman? Everyone knows Andy Kaufman.  The guy that sang the Mighty Mouse theme on SNL… The guy that used to purposely anger audiences with his da da antics… Tony Clifton (allegedly)… The guy that wrestled women?  The guy that wrestled Jerry Lawler?  The guy that played that foreign guy in the show Taxi?  “Oh!  Latka Gravas!  The guy that Jim Carrey played in Man in the Moon!  He died?”

AndyThose of us that have, at one point in our lives, entered the inner sanctum of Kaufman fanatics find it hard to believe that most people have either forgotten who Andy Kaufman was (other than the guy that played Latka, the guy that R.E.M. sang about, or the guy that Jim Carrey played), or have never heard of him.

This may be due to the fact that Andy Kaufman died (allegedly) in 1984, nearly thirty years ago, and that an entire generation has been born in a Kaufman-less world.  This may also have something to do with the fact that he was more of an irritant than a comedian, or entertainer, and irritants usually don’t achieve the kind of popularity, or longevity that comedians and entertainers have.  But, you argue, Kaufman may have been the most popular, most successful irritant of all time.  True, I would say, but even the most successful irritant’s act is going to get old soon after everyone gets on board.

A career comedian, like a Steve Martin, or a Richard Pryor, learn to adapt and evolve throughout their careers.  Even an entertaining funnyman, like a Tom Hanks, learns that one-act careers in Hollywood do not last long.  The cynical can say that these three, and others like them, adapted their act for financial reasons, but Steve Martin would tell you that the whole white-suit, arrow-through-the-head thing simply got old on him after a while, and he wanted to branch out artistically.  Kaufman, it should be said, by any die-hard fanatic that watched In God We Tru$t, or Heartbeeps, simply didn’t have the chops to make such a transition.  It’s a tough admission for any Kaufman fanatic to make, but repeated viewings of these movies, and some of the other less-than-successful things Kaufman did, will cause even the most die-hard fan to admit that even if he had lives, his career was not long for this world.

The current, most popular irritant, Sasha Baron Cohen, made one successful movie, but that appears to have only let the world onto his act, and he has yet to make the impact he made in that first movie.  Kaufman enjoyed his time in the spotlight, and he made the most of it.  He did things, bizarre things, famously irritating things, throughout the course of his career, that are transcendental.  Some could say that the makers of Jackass, the aforementioned Cohen, Pee Wee Herman and Chris Elliott have Kaufman to thank for their careers.  Some have said that Kaufman opened the doors to the bizarre, in an individualistic fashion, that can never occur in the same way again.

The only reason a one-time Kaufman fanatic is detailing the man’s limits, and relative anonymity, is the line that his daughter (allegedly) delivered, at the annual Andy Kaufman Awards, that Kaufman faked his own death to “enjoy a life outside the limelight.” 

My reply to this line, if I were there, would be that he seemed to be doing fine, in that regard, that as it was.  Other than some Letterman, and Dangerfield, appearances, it doesn’t appear that Hollywood was knocking down Kaufman’s door.  He act appeared to be waning soon after he accomplished his personal dream of headlining Carnegie Hall, after he appeared in some B movies, and after he jumped into the ring with Jerry Lawler, and after achieving the goal of accomplishing an inter-gender belt in wrestling.

Was he a genius?  I think so, but I also know that his “irritant” act was limited.  Could he have adapted, and progressed, and evolved his act?  Possibly, but the groundwork he laid didn’t appear to be adaptable to evolution.  The point is that Kaufman appeared to be sliding towards total anonymity as it was, and if that’s what he actually wanted, he would not have had to step too far to the left to achieve it. 

If this alleged daughter had stepped to the stage of the annual Andy Kaufman Awards show and said, “Andy faked his own death in a desperate attempt to forestall the demise of his career, and when that didn’t work, he decided to call it a day and move on in life” I might have believed the charade.  No one would say such a thing at an Andy Kaufman Awards show, however, for that would’ve cast Kaufman’s entire career in a poor light, and it would’ve made the act of faking his own death appear desperate and sad.  The whole Kaufman schtick, that he didn’t care about his career, would’ve been dispelled, and his fans would’ve walked away disillusioned. 

If his alleged daughter had been instructed, regardless of the light it cast on his celebrity status—something Andy was known to ridicule and personally damage for fun—to say something along the lines of: “Funerals have such a bizarre, romantic attachment to them that we all dream of dying for one day just to see how much people care about us.  When Andy successfully faked his own death—through losing a massive amount of weight to appear cancer-ridden, and eventually achieving a depth of meditation only he could achieve where he slowed his breathing to a point that even fooled medical examiners—he realized the depths of cruelty that such a joke could have on his family and friends. After doing it, he saw the depths of sorrow he caused, and he knew he couldn’t reverse the joke for fear of spurning those loved ones that were in such despair over his death.  The only reason he decided to come forth now, is that his father died this Summer.  Ladies and gentleman, I give you Andy Kaufman…”  He then walks across the stage. 

If this alleged daughter had said such things that cast “his joke” in a desperate light, and then a remorseful light, and if Andy had actually walked across the stage, I might’ve believed it.          

As Bob Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University, is quoted as saying in a CNN piece:

Andy Kaufman was often about doing an awful lot of stuff and enduring an awful lot of hatred and scorn before the punch line ever arrived, if it ever did.”

“Think about it: The setup comes in 1984 and the punch line gets delivered nearly 30 years later.

“You so want it to be true because it would be one of the greatest things to ever happen in the history of comedy,” he says. “It would be the longest joke ever told.”{1}

It would be longest joke ever told, but would it achieve the longest laugh?  Kaufman would surely land a spot of Piers Morgan for his accomplishment, but how many people would watch?  Not even a Kaufman interview could get too many people to watch that show.  He would surely write a book.  He could call it the longest (or greatest) joke ever told, but how many people would buy it?  The audience of the longest joke ever told would probably be limited to forty-somethings and fifty-somethings that grew up in an era where the name Kaufman got headlines, but even their participation in the story would probably be limited to clicking on the story.  Most of them probably wouldn’t even finish that internet article.  They might lift an eyebrow, some of them might smile when remembering his antics, and some of them might even guffaw for as long as it took them to finish the article, but their reaction would be limited to that which occurs with any passing fancy.  It would probably be limited to a single exchange in the office: “Did you see that Kaufman faked his death?”  “Yeah, I read that article.”  How many people are just dying to find out that Andy Kaufman is still alive?  It’s probably a lot fewer than one would think.      

{1} http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/16/showbiz/andy-kaufman-five-reasons-fascinates/

James Joyce: Incomparable or Incomprehensible?


Those of us who are always on the lookout for edgy, racy content have heard the term “Joycean” thrown about with little discretion over the years. Critics appear to be enjoy using the term than they are in properly applying it to the product they are reviewing. 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 a great practical joke played on the literature community to expose these reference makers and your elitist, scholars for who they are?

James Joyce
James Joyce

Readers who seek to up their erudite status by reading difficult books, have all heard of Joyce’s final two works: Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Some literary scholars list the books as some of the most difficult, most complicated works 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 of all of the references made, and languages used, in these books necessary for total comprehension. Those readers either deserve a hearty salute, or the scorn and laughter that Joyce provided, as a gift to the havenots, who 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 to 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 readers 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 who has followed Miller’s career knows that he enjoys the motif he gains by using complicated and obscure references to make himself sound erudite. There are, today, very few references more obscure than those who recall the work of James Joyce, a man who described his last book, Finnegans Wake, as “A book obscure enough to keep professors busy for 300 years.”

Andy Kaufman referenced James Joyce when trying to describe his method of operation. The import of the reference was that 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” was what invigorated him. He wanted that insider status that an artist uses to gain entrée to the “in the know” groups. 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. By doing the latter, we can guess that there was something genuine about Kaufman’s path in that he was only trying to entertain himself, and his friends, and if anyone else wanted on board that was up to them. Perhaps, Joyce and Kaufman shared this same impulse.

Anytime an artist creates a difficult piece of work, there is going to be a divide between the haves (those who 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 who do are usually seeking something more, something more engaging, and something more provocative that can only be defined by the 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.

Yet, 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 who are different for the sole sake of being different. This is often less than organic, and it often 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 did. 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’ 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 who say that he already did, would have to admit that his final two works were not overly concerned with story, or plot. Those who 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 to the idea 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 so. Those who 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 who 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 the reader doesn’t have a well-versed knowledge of that which occurred nearly one-hundred years prior to today, they 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 the Norwegian linguistic and cultural elements. The reader will also need to be well-versed in Egypt’s Book of the Dead, Shakespeare, The Bible, and The Qur’an. They also need 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 unique words throughout the work. 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. Those obsessed with James Joyce could interpret the quote, and the subsequent methodology used in Finnegans Wake, to mean that Joyce had such a profound understanding of linguistics that normal modes of communicating an idea, 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 cannot be communicated to those who 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 economic distinctions, as it has for time immemorial, but in the Joycean world, the gap involves those who “get” his works, and those who do not. Those who 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 more interesting 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

Those of us who have had a deep discussion, on a deep, multifaceted topic, with a deep thinker know that sooner or later a declarative distinction will be made if we stubbornly insist that we are not wrong. “You don’t get it, and you probably never will,” is something they will say in a variety of ways. We all know what it feels like to be summarily dismissed as an anti-intellectual by a deep thinker? Those who aren’t snobbish in an anti-social manner, often avoid openly dismissing us, but even the polite snobs give us a vibe, a look, or a chuff that is intended to let us know our 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 us stubborn types in our place, but it’s a self-serving non-answer. Those of us who are more accustomed to interaction with deep thinkers, will then ask them to expound upon their complicated, deep thinking? Pushing deep thinkers deeper will often reveal a lack of substance beneath their piles of style, and the careful observer will find that the results of their deep thinking is no deeper than the deep thinker cap they wear to the pub.

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. If that’s true, he was definitely artistically accomplished in saying it.

Who can forget the many sayings that Finnegans Wake 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:

“bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur-nuk!”

What about the mirthsome giggles we have had in social gatherings with the catchphrase:

“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 exhaustive assistance provided at the site Finwake.com for readers who have no idea what this writer is going on about. 

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 who are tired of reading words that have exact meanings, and it was intended to be playful and mind-altering, and rule breaking. James Joyce made references intended to be obscure even to the reader of his day who 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 who 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 who 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 setting, 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 submitted for publications 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 regard to 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 narcissistic. “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 simple 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, unless it’s structured in a manner that leads us to your statement. 

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 through obscurity. The advantage of creating such an alleged 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 an important 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 James Joyce played on the elitist literary community to expose them as the in-crowd, elitist snobs that they are when they “get it” just to get it. Do they really “get it”, or are they falling prey to Joyce’s clever ruse to expose them as people that “get” something that was never intended to be “got”?