Every year on St Patrick’s Day, I think of James Joyce and his fantastical Dublin.
His most fantastical book, Finnegans Wake, has obsessed me since a friend and I tried to read it one thunderstorming night in high school, the sky as noisy as the outrageous onomatopoeia of the
on Finnegans Wake’s first page.
The book is a challenge; some dismiss it as a joke.
It is a joke.
And understanding that it’s a joke is the key to appreciating it.
But jokes ought not to be dismissed, especially not a joke as sophisticated as Finnegans Wake.
One might nevertheless lament that Joyce has twisted his sentences into Celtic knots so convoluted that they lose their meanings. His gibberish is interrupted by yahoo exclamations that are often the only comprehensible items on a page: “Truly deplurabel!” He mashes words together to create new words such as “florileague,” “Cinderynelly,” and “limbopool,” words that seem like a new form of English, which is exactly what this is. His book has had a massive (if unconscious) influence on advertisers. “Nitelite,” “nu-wave” and other such combinations are now everywhere on billboards.
Only a very few writers have changed the English language. Chaucer did it; Shakespeare did it; and Joyce has done it, too. After his example, it’s difficult to object to writers fearlessly using the inherent flexibilities of English, even in their text messages: “luv u!”
It’s a trend that might be unhealthy.
After all, Joyce aims to destroy and to create only after the destruction. Finnegans Wake is the bewildering nonsense that results from an explosion.
But many will drink to him this St. Patrick’s Day, whether his influence will prove for the good or not.
As Joyce drunkenly says:
“And thus within the tavern’s secret booth The wisehight ones who sip the tested sooth Bestir them as the Just has bid to jab The punch of quaram on the mug of truth.”
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
* Orlando Bartro is the author of Toward Two Words, a comical novel about a man who finds yet another woman he never knew, available at Amazon. He is currently writing two new novels and a play.