SECRET ALLUSION AND HIDDEN MEANING
The question always remains how much of the inner reference material which Joyce consistently worked with, has to be understood by the reader. On several levels, we have Joyce the Word-twister and pun-man; Joyce the Allusionist to everything in several key languages; and Joyce the Intellectual Historian who regrinds everything into a new format. But how much of this can be unraveled? And how much depth of detail is required for intelligent reading?
If you have a broad base of reading in several languages and a good dose of imagination, there are things you might guess for yourself. "Auger" is a drill, but German "Auge" is eye, and both are pivoting in "keep your other auger on her pay pay pay...". Or who but a native French speaker would guess that "carrot cans" is a phone number "40-15"?
William Y. Tindall's book "A Reader's Guide to Finnegans Wake" (l969) has some three hundred pages of unraveling of the Wake. There is no question but that he has done a remarkable job of detective work, most of it quite factual and reliable, but for many of us the Guide might be even more daunting that the Wake itself. Again the question arises: Do you have to know all this? More to the point: Is all this checking and documenting really enlightening to the literary reader? I see three answers:
First, some passages contain clearly intentional literary allusions. They point you back to something ancient or distant or seemingly unrelated, which are in fact somehow related after all. The Wake is constantly sending you back to rivers in Ireland and to geologic time, and a world of other connections, as part of the basic framework.
Second, there are constant minute references to things in Joyce's mind, which he manipulates and plasticizes not as things which are being referred to, but things which are simply there in his mental history. Joyce takes bits and pieces of personal observations and uses them the way a sculptor uses thumbfuls of wax to build up a figure. Whether you have to isolate the original components is something I would leave as a question, unless...........
Third, then there are Joyce "professionals" who are so absorbed by the obvious genius of his writing, that they can and will devote decades of attention to every aspect of the Joycean corpus, including biography, letters, and Joyce's place in the early 20th c. world. For those who fall into this class, no detail is too minute, no investigation however problematic, really unnecessary. But there is the danger that these Joyce "scholars" may become more interested in the scholarship than in the writing on which the scholarship is based. This has been a constant danger with literature in our Western tradition, nowhere more overbalanced than in the Greek and Roman classics.
To return to our passage (556): Tindall deals with it summarily on page 287 of the Guide, and we should take a look at his comments. He notes that Isabel elsewhere is now changed to Isobel, and suspects "a female o perhaps", a sexual "O" like Molly Bloom's Yes?; or could it be a ladylike "Oh!"? He takes Saintette as "sans tete", that is dumb or unresponsive, and cites Joyce's uneasy relationship with his daughter "of whom Isabel, in part at least is a projection". The wild guess about Saintette is not in the same class of information as the factual biographical information about Joyce's daughter, so the two "facts" stand in questionable relationship, as I see it.
I have always been attracted to this paragraph by its musicality, which is pellucid to me as a person who has worked a great deal with music. Now Tindall observes that Joyce himself said in a letter (III, 138) that the rhythm of this "song" passage is based on a song by the Elizabethan composer William Byrd "Woods so Wild". So our thought might be that commentary of such detailed sort does have its virtue if it can pick out for us significant detail of this value.
I should mention Joyce's famous recording of another highly poetic section at p. 213.11, which many feel to be the key to sound-interpretation of the Wake. It is the Master's voice, but I believe Sioban McKenna's recording of various sections of the Wake is far more interesting, perrceptive and lively.
Let me pause at this juncture to adjust the scales which weigh Perception and Scholarship. For many years before reading Tindall's note, I had understood the musicality of Isobel on my own terms, and I always considered this my discovery, as a perception of something which had been artistically integrated into the verbal text. I think this is a good example of a proper literary-artistic approach to a piece of writing: Read it constantly until the shades of meaning evolve. Then there is a clear relationship between you as reader and Joyce as writer, with the printed words serving as a connection, an interface.
The other way to go, is to read the note in the Guide, go to the library and get the Letters of James Joyce, check the reference to Byrd, and see if there is anything more of interest for this passage. Then get the score of Byrd's secular songs, copy out the text to see how it was reworked by Joyce. Above all read the score if you are scoreworthy, or see if you can find a recording of the song "Woods so Wild". While at it you might as well study Byrd in detail as someone Joyce knew well, and perhaps expand your vision to early English composers in general. This is the path of competent scholarly endeavor, but it has one major defect: It has taken our focus completely away from the text, and presented us with an artistic tableau ranging over four centuries.
There is a place for this, but also the danger of drawing us away from the work at hand and converting the Isobel page into an illustration for a minor web of Joyce scholarship.
POST-POSTSCRIPTUM:........ forever Finnagainandagain.
There are so many lyric passages in the Wake that one might almost believe that the whole book is one lyrical epic of some new and startling kind. But parts stand out, and beyond Isobel, another I especially want to note is from the top of p. 215 to the end of 216:
"Is that the Poolbeg flasher beyant..............hitherandthithering water of. Night!"
It was thirty years ago that the great Irish actress Sioban McKenna did a recording of this passage, which you may find in the vinyl collections of a music library. Quite different from Joyce's own somber and restrained readings from the Wake, McKenna bursts with life and excitement, with as wide a range of tone, timbre and dynamics as any music instrument could imagine. If this is not a passage you know well, I suggest reading it a great deal before hearing this recording, so you can get the full blast of her magnificent interpretative voice with a jolt.
But there is another consideration which surfaces, as always happens when dealing with Joyce. I have put the Wake on the shelf for some years now, keeping the tone and import in my mind to go with me daily. But these last weeks I have been reading the Wake and some commentaries again with a new enthusiasm, noting favorite passages as old friends to be greeted with a warm feeling
Now as a mental exercise, I have turned to some pages which I do not know well, and try as I may I cannot get the right depth of richness and complexity out of these new parts. This brings me back to something I have written about elsewhere, the reader actually constructing over a period of time a "Classic" out of a text which has been worked on and worked over continually. I had been thinking of the Latin poems of Horace in that essay, but now I find exactly the same situation in dealing with old and new passages of Joyce.
This confirms my view that slow, iterative and persistent reading of small parts of a text is the only road to deep understanding. This may largely be a lost procedure in a day of skim-reading, blocked paragraph perception, and the college rule of "50 pp./hour". But it is not just the act of attentive re-reading which confers this special sense of involvement and pleasure, it is the working of the words into your memory bank so they are no longer black characters on a white page, but permanent records encoded into the electro-chemical wiring of the mind.
Joyce's writings support this kind of attention, and can (with some difficulty) confer the dreamy endorphin-laden pleasure which comes about by knowing well a great piece of word-complexed literature.