Month: December 2010

Michael Wood on Finnegan’s Wake

In the London Review of Books, here. He offers, along with some other good insights, a general taxonomy of different readers of Finnegan’s Wake (those who don’t try, those who try and fail, those who don’t try and fail and say that’s the reason they gave up, etc..):

But reading Finnegans Wake is more than a matter of collecting one’s favourite quotations – even if there is a huge pleasure in that, especially if you admire truly terrible jokes. You have to like the sheer strain that goes into a phrase like ‘a pentschanjeuchy chap’, which comes in the middle of a paragraph mentioning all the early books of the Old Testament (including ‘guenneses’), especially if you don’t really know how to connect Punch and Judy to the Pentateuch. I think of the worst (best) joke in Walter Redfern’s fine book on puns. A person who has been given bits of greenery for her birthday instead of the colourful flowers she was hoping for decides to make the best of things. She says: ‘With fronds like these, who needs anemones?’

Writers on or introducers of Finnegans Wake regularly imagine three sorts of reader or non-reader of the book. Philip Kitcher, in Joyce’s Kaleidoscope, lists ‘those too intimidated to try to read it, those who have tried and failed, and … those who write about it’. Roger Marsh, the producer of Jim Norton’s and Marcella Riordan’s haunting audio version, names ‘new readers’, ‘readers who have never been able to make much headway’ and ‘those who already have some familiarity with the book’. For good measure, there is also Seamus Deane’s group of untimid abstainers for whom the book’s taken-for-granted unreadability becomes ‘the pseudo-suave explanation for never having read it’. Of course these three (or four) groups may represent quite different people, but it is possible (I speak for myself) for one person to belong to all of the first three: to have tried without regarding what one has been doing as a real try; to have failed by dint of not trying hard enough; and to have written about the book anyway, because ‘some familiarity’ is not entirely nothing. I take comfort from the fact that Jacques Derrida manifestly (in ‘Deux mots pour Joyce’) put himself in this category, and for such a reader the scepticism about grand schemes or total understanding that we find in the best recent criticism is very attractive. John Bishop, for example, says ‘the only way not to enjoy Finnegans Wakeis to expect that one has to plod through it word by word making sense of everything in linear order.’ This is a brave claim, but it is true that the book is hard not to enjoy – it’s just even harder to cope with one’s bewilderment.

Any Story that Begins this Way should be Saved for Late Nights around the Campfire…

Truly a scary opening (worse than “it was a dark and stormy night…”):

Business leaders in Louisiana are working with Gov. Bobby Jindal on a plan to grant considerable autonomy to Louisiana State University’s flagship campus at Baton Rouge, with the goal of helping the campus improve academically at a time of limited state support, The Times-Picayune reported. The plan would grant LSU exemptions from many state requirements and give it increased freedom on setting tuition rates.

Louisiana: clearly accepting UK imports….

The Strangest Reason Yet I’ve Gotten for Missing Classes

It’s that time of year in the academy: grandmothers and other dear relatives are dropping like flies, at least according to our emails, as final paper due dates draw near. It is a dangerous time for the elderly.

But a couple of weeks ago, one of my better undergraduates comes to my office to tell me he’ll be missing a few classes to fly to Germany to join his uncle chasing down a 97-year-old Nazi his uncle had befriended in hopes of serving him with some sort of civil law suit for his activities during the Holocaust. (I’ll leave that a run-on to give a sense of how quickly this info was coming at me, after discussing Aristotle’s theory of substance with the previous student.) He returned yesterday to class a little tired from his journey, and it’s depicted in the New York Times today (thankfully, I can link to it since it doesn’t have his name: he’s the nephew mentioned in the story).

The article gives a good feel for the (seeming?) strangeness of the whole enterprise, not least the uncle who has somehow funded buying up Nazi materials for years and has book and film plans for this, while taking his non-German-speaking nephew to Germany for … well, I did ask a lot of questions…

It’s just not often that your student’s reasons for missing class are covered in the New York Times. Of course, he better get that make-up work in…


Devin Shaw on Elden’s Terror and Territory

Here. He writes:

In general, much of this discussion of sovereignty, as it’s been framed after Agamben has been, at least for me, has been conceptually suffocating. Too much sovereignty and theology, as if there weren’t other important problems lurking behind the sovereign. Elden, to his credit, avoids this kind of talk.

The last line here is hilarious, though it’s a bit of a in joke for those who were at the RPA:

I would suggest, for a reader with a background in philosophy, that you start with the fifth chapter, “Territorial Integrity and Contingent Sovereignty,” to get the historical background on the problems raised by Elden’s analysis, and then return to the start. You might also find the first chapter, analyzing the rhetoric of the Bush adminstration and other neo-cons a bit too historically close to home, for we are familiar with much of the details (though it’s there to contrast with the territorial strategies of Islamism). However, historians and geographers will one day need to see what progressive thinkers thought about such rhetoric–and for those of you familiar with one of the talks at the RPA–it’s better Elden than Bob Woodward.

Grown Up Politics

Suzanne Moore’s piece in the Guardian hits the right notes in a number of places concerning the student protests in the UK, not least that these so-called anarchists wants access to government institutions.

It is providing a brilliant political education. It is a great thing to work with others for the public good, to feel your own power and know its limitations. Collective action is shot through with adrenalin. It is the province of the young. For what pray, is the province of the old? Limp lobbying and the absolute resignation that nothing can be done? That the public can go hang because privately we can all scrape through?


A line is being drawn. Romantically, it may be a coalition of resistance. Even if it’s not, I do not understand why we don’t support young people. Have we all been psychically kettled? Something has gone very wrong when pragmatic realism produces the Cable compromise: not voting for a policy you are in charge of. If this is grown-up politics, then we all need to get down with the youth.