- Steve Addazio's inaugural press conference as Boston College head football coach (pg. 9)
- Wake Forest University president Nathan Hatch's keynote address at the Sesquicentennial symposium "Religion and the Liberal Aims of Higher Education" (pg. 34)
- David B. Couturier, OFM Cap., on "New Evangelization for Today's Parish" (pg. 42)
- Guerilla Orchestra: the Callithumpian Consort and student musicians rehearse John Zorn's Cobra (pg. 10)
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Raidin the Wake
The joys of “driveling rigmarole”
Every Thursday evening during the academic year, 20 to 40 literature-loving undergraduates, graduate students, professors, and friends pack themselves into a small, stuffy room on the second floor of Murray House to discuss a book that few of them have read. Their book club is devoted to one work: James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), the famously impenetrable, 700-plus-page Irish welter of puns and allusions culminating in a final sentence that is the beginning of the first. The group—called “Raidin the Wake”—both raids (tears apart) and raids (“reads,” as the Irish would pronounce it) the text at the speed of about 40 pages a year. In their first meeting of the fall, on September 21, they tore through a sentence and a half in 45 minutes.
The club’s founder is Joe Nugent, an Irish-born assistant professor of English who arrived at BC last year from the University of California, Berkeley. Nugent had run a Finnegans Wake reading group at Berkeley while earning his Ph.D., studying under John Bishop, one of the world’s premier Wake scholars. After meeting Joyce enthusiasts such as BC’s Pat Moran, a fifth-year English doctoral student who is writing a chapter of his dissertation on Finnegans Wake, Nugent decided to give the project a go on the East Coast. Moran has helped publicize, organize, and run the meetings; his own fascination with Joyce began six years ago, he says, when he spent the summer between his junior and senior year at Cornell holed up in a library determined to finish the book (to date, he and Nugent are the only two in the group who’ve completed it). Encouragement and a tiny budget have come from the Irish studies department, the English department, and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
“We knew we weren’t exactly inventing the wheel,” says Moran; indeed, Joycean discussion groups can be found from Dublin, Ireland (at the James Joyce Centre), to Dubuque, Iowa (at Molly Malone’s Pub). In addition to live discussion groups, 100-plus Joycean communities reside on the Web, 50 or so durable Joyce societies have taken root around the world, and dozens of international conferences draw from all of these.
In Murray House on September 21, Moran and 17 other Raidin the Wake veterans (including BC English professors Paul Doherty and Robert Stanton) were joined by a few dozen new faces, including faculty from several area colleges. Nugent stood before a lectern in the corner of the room and offered a list of reasons not to read Finnegans Wake. “H.G. Wells famously denounced the book,” he began in his heavy brogue. “Ezra Pound disdained it,” he continued, “George Bernard Shaw, if I recall, couldn’t—more likely wouldn’t—finish it; and Stanislaus Joyce deemed the section his own brother asked him to read ‘a driveling rigmarole . . . unspeakably wearisome’.”
The mix of philologists, philosophers, poets, literary minds, linguists, historians, and Irish enthusiasts (professional and lay) laughed and listened as Nugent went on to explain why, in the face of the book’s challenges, they should meet: “The magic is to be conjured up not in silent reading, but in vocalizing,” he said as he handed out photocopies of pages 30 and 31 of the Wake. He began to read aloud the chosen passage:
Now (to forebare for ever solittle of Iris Trees and Lili O’Rangans), concerning the genesis of Harold or Humphrey Chimpden’s occupational agnomen (we are back in the presurnames prodromarith period, of course just when enos chalked halltraps) . . . .
When he finished, he opened up the floor for discussion, asking the group what they’d heard in the first sentence. “‘Forebare’ makes it sound as if Joyce is talking about ancestry here,” said one young man holding a paperback etymological dictionary.
“There’s a lot of garden imagery,” a female student sitting near him chimed in. “Maybe he’s talking about the Garden of Eden.”
“Yes! The inconvenient nudity of original sin!” shouted a man across the room.
“Am I the only one seeing monkeys in here?” asked a young woman, pointing out the words O’Rangans and Chimpden. “Maybe Joyce is referencing Darwin.”
For the next 45 minutes, the group continued to bat around ideas. Nugent passed out photocopies of a page from the Joyce scholar Roland McHugh’s The Annotations to Finnegans Wake, but it was never the focus. By 9 p.m., with the general enthusiasm beginning to flag, Nugent drew the discussion to a close with words of encouragement. “If you’ve got an idea, go with it,” he said as people stood up to stretch and pack their bags. “You know Joyce did.”
“There is, as you can see, a danger here,” Nugent said later: With Joyce, it’s difficult to know where to draw the interpretive line. “The Wake makes use of every piece of knowledge you’ve ever collected,” he said, and the pleasure of puzzling out the words and discovering the text’s hidden meanings comes not from knowledge of the text, but from knowledge of the world at large. “The book is filled with allusions to everything from ancient history to nursery rhymes,” said Nugent. “What you bring to the Wake determines how you read it.” This, he said, is one of the reasons he wanted to create a means for people of diverse academic backgrounds to share interpretations.
“Honestly, part of the attraction of this group is reading a book most people flee from,” said Jonathan Cabrera, a first-year master’s student in Irish studies who learned about the club after taking an Irish language course from Nugent. “I’d thought of it as a book you needed a lot of other books to read,” he said, “Here, we just listen to the music and texture of the words and go where the discussion takes us.”
Read more by Cara Feinberg