Fritz Senn and Finnegans Wake
Professor Tatsuo Hamada interviewed Fritz Senn by e-mail for the Abiko Quarterly, a Japanese journal initiated by Laurel Sicks. It always carries a generous Joyce section, mainly on Finnegans Wake. Questions labelled "About Q" were supplementary ones for the sake of clarification. Some slight emendations have been made. The questionnaire will be filled in by other Wake readers in a subsequent issue of the Abiko Quarterly. A later issue of what is now called The Abiko Annual has more interviews with about twenty Wake scholars and readers
Q1: Can you read FW from the beginning to the end? Are there many parts which cannot be understood?
Yes, many parts cannot be "understood", whatever we mean by understanding.
The high proportion of such occurrences has troubled me. I naturally am not arguing for such a chimera as complete understanding, all of Joyce's works undermine such a notion. But a minimal understanding would sometimes be a help. (See Q 16).
Q2: Can you understand the plot while you are reading?
No. We have some traditional summaries, also some put in circulation by Joyce himself. I find them most unsatisfactory and unhelpful, they usually leave out the hard parts and recirculate what we already think we know. I simply cannot believe that FW would be as blandly uninteresting as those summaries suggest.
There is also a Plot Summary by John Gordon, an excellent, provocative scholar. His outline adds gratuitous complications to me and does not tell me what I need to know.
About Q-2: Do you advise that for general readers this Plot Summary is worthwhile reading?
Readers may try it, if they find it rewarding they will use it. If not, not. There is another book, Understanding FW by Danis Rose and John O'Hanlon, two Dublin experts who are among the most knowledgeable readers of the Wake. It is a sort of update on the Skeleton Key. My problem with it is that it does not live up to its title, it more or less summarizes/ explains what I think I find out for myself and blithely skips over the parts in dire need of clarification.
Q3: Then what did Joyce want to say in the book?
I never make statements about what "Joyce wants", this is out of my ken.
Q4: How do you evaluate the book?
Great challenge, with unique reading experiences and correspondingly great frustrations. Certainly very funny and often touches chords deep down that we cannot explain.
Q5: Is reading FW worthwhile or not?
Certainly. It is done all over the world by readers who do not have to do it but often invest a great deal of time, energy, etc. FW (and that goes for Ulysses too) may even spoil us and make us feel that "ordinary" books are flat and insipid by comparison.
Q6: Do you think FW concerns sexual matter too much?
Hard to say, "too much" is a value judgment. There is a lot of sexual content, for some readers there seems to be nothing else. One unfortunate result of finding something sexual in every passage is that thereby SEX is removed from the book. What I do miss, however, is anything erotic.
About Q-6: Please explain further. Is the sex in FW not erotic? Then what is it?
Totally subjective. In my response none of the abundant parts with sexual content, or overtones (or vibrations, etc.), are erotic as something pleasant or stimulating, or cheerful. Other readers I am sure feel different.
However, I believe that some of us engage in Joyce's text (the language, the interaction with the text, not any erotic content, I mean) as kind of substitute for what cannot be had in real life. Many of us are amateurs in this sense as well.
Reading is a kind of intercourse, almost in the original sense of a merging of the courses of the text and our own mind. A sort of sublimation: the next best thing, perhaps. (Maybe not well expressed).
Q7: Was reading FW interesting or not?
No doubt it is—whether we understand or not.
Q8: Will FW become the book of the 21st century?
I would think so. A growing interest is apparent. It shows in the number to papers ("papers" unfortunately) at Joyce conferences, growing in proportion. Also the many amateur reading groups. One reason may be that FW goes so much against the grain of the binary, digital predominance all around us. It shows that the world is never to be resolved into either/or, cannot be reduced to 1's and 0's. There is no doubt a need for ambiguity and indeterminacy. FW cannot be dominated, controlled, domesticated, in spite of our efforts.
Q9: Can we learn something by reading it?
I suppose it reinforces a sort of skepticism. Its basis seems (to me) instant contradiction, or a choice of alternatives. Antidote to dogmatism. It may also teach that all is vanity, the same anew, but somehow must go on.
Q1O: Do you think that Lucia's madness affected Joyce's writing?
It most likely did.
About Q-10: Do you think Joyce had writer's block before, during or at all writing FW? If Joyce had writer's block, was it caused by Lucia's sickness?
I can't tell. Obviously there were long periods when he did not work on the Wake, because of problems, eyes, Lucia, lack of inspiration, maybe writer's block. (This is not my area).
About Q 10: Do you suppose Lucia could read FW? If so, do you think she could understand it better than others?
No idea. If she had read it, or ever could, she might well have picked out meanings that are hidden from us.
Q11: Which pages are the most interesting?
Too many to specify.
Q12: Can we find literary techniques to use from reading FW?
Well, the polysemantic procedure is what writers could learn from. Even advertisers have taken up some similar techniques.
About Q-12: Can you define "the polysemantic procedure"?
Very simple: making use of several meanings, ambiguities, what is commonly labeled (with utter lack of discrimination) "pun".
Q13: Do you recommend for other people to read FW? If so, how do you recommend?
Vaguely, yes. Not in the sense that we should force people into it. But give everyone a trial run. As in our Zurich reading groups; there is no missionary effort. Some people are drawn to it .
Leave the door open.
Q14: Why are a growing number of scholars and students interested in FW?
A lot remains to be explained, related, perhaps even clarified. It offers multiple openings for research, a rich field for academic and amateur research, reinvigorated by novel theories and trends. Also it is often hard to falsify claims made about it.
One strange characteristic about the book: without real familiarity, intimate knowledge, one can say valid, brilliant, perceptive things about FW—and also very vapid ones. FW has become part of literary and verbal culture, by a process of osmosis.
Q15: If you think the reading difficult, what are the major causes?
If we knew the causes, some of the difficulties might go away. Main cause is my obtundity, what I cannot figure out. Some such obtundity is likely to be shared, though not felt, by many others, to judge by their publications.
It is just conceivable that the able work done by genetic scholars (studying notes and drafts and galleys) may throw light on some obscurities. But if that is the only (almost) way towards such clarity, this would be an esthetic argument against the Wake.
About Q-15: Explain the word "obtundity".
Being obtuse, dumb, insensitive, lack of perception, insight. As when one simply cannot "hear" a meaning that may be in a phrase. Not being smart enough.
Q16: How would you describe your experience of reading FW?
I started out full of enthusiasm at the age of about 25 and invested a great deal of time, at one time really trying to resolve its minute obscurities into tentative meaning, and often this brought good returns, and experiences. But more often not.
After many years I simply gave up FW as a "scholar", in semantic despair; my, and perhaps our, ignorance is so overwhelming that I cannot, in all honesty, pose as an expert (and the experts don't help). This does not exclude occasional probes and references in what I have written.
All Joycean ways lead to FW. But I cannot imagine writing a book about something that I so fundamentally and in many details fail to grasp. So often in our weekly reading, I find that after 40 years or so of endeavour, I have no clue what a passage or a sentence does. Disheartening. .
Fortunately most others do not have such qualms. (I articulated my defeat in "Linguistic Dissatisfaction at the Wake"— which I vaguely remember the Abiko Quarterly may have reprinted long ago). .
One actual, "real life" effect of FW is to bring people together and closer, literally so. Reading groups take on social functions, and I believe beneficial ones. Some do become therapy groups (not as much irony involved as it may seem).
About Q-16: Would you explain more about your reading of FW at the age of about 25? And why you chose Joyce study as your lifelong object. I suppose you read Ulysses first and then went to FW.
I got into Ulysses first and very soon escalated to FW. In the early years not understanding was no problem, just a beginner's handicap. I simply thought it would take time to get a basic grasp .
Well, a certain grasp has of course evolved, but nowhere near what it should be for comfort. It also has to be said that hardly anyone nowadays is interested in producing useful glosses. What goes on in the Wake chat groups, as far as I can tell resembles my own incompetent glossing of past decades.
I never "chose Joyce study as your lifelong object" It just happened that I found something to distract myself, to cope somehow with everyday frustration, to keep me going. (As indicated, then the frustrations re/emerge in the failure to come to terms with most of the Wake text).
About Q16: Why did Joyce write FW which took you (such a reputable scholar) to such a state of semantic despair? Did Joyce do it intentionally? If so, why did Joyce choose such a way? Was it a necessity for Joyce? Or mere fun on his part?
Joyce did not have me in mind, whatever he had, when he wrote the book. I suppose Joyce came to write the way he did in a process of rapid escalation, catching up linguistically with the obscurities of life, which I called "provection" (and I am NOT going to explain this here).
I do not think he made anything obscure for the sake of obscurity. He probably overestimated our, certainly my, perspicuity.
About Q16: Would you explain more about "Some do become therapy groups"?
From my experience, the reading groups serve to help various members to focus on something intriguing, thereby to go on in their normal dull activities; maybe it is the exercise of grappling with a text, maybe to engage in a common pursuit, a kind of community feeling arises (also animosities, naturally), maybe the sort of processes for which in real therapy sessions one would have to spend a lot of money.
Not to forget, no one sees the reading groups as therapy, they may just keep some people out of even more harm. What I can tell is that many friendships do arise, locally and beyond.
Additional Q: Which part or chapter of FW is the most interesting or favourable for you?
Roughly: chapters 1, 5, 6, parts of II,1 and II,2,
book IV, certainly the fables.