By Eric Wagner
Special guest blogger
Exercise 5: “James Joyce said he never met a boring human being. Try to explain this. Try to get into the Joycean head space where everybody is a separate reality-island full of mystery and surprise. In other words, learn to observe.”
I have spent a lot of time trying to get into the Joycean head space. I wrote my master’s thesis on the influence of Finnegans Wake on Masks of the Illuminati. When I interned with him, the poet B. H. Fairchild recommended the audiobook of Dubliners where a different Irish actor or writer read each story. I got that audiobook and listened to it over and over again in the car as I finished my master’s degree and at the same time finished writing An Insider’s Guide to Robert Anton Wilson. I also listened to a cassette of Joyce reading from Ulysses and Finnegans Wake which also included other voices reading Joyce’s two books of poetry, and a cassette of Irish songs that included a short version of “Finnegan’s Wake”. I continued listening to this set of Joycean metaprogramming tapes after I got my master’s degree as I continued working on my still unfinished book on Joyce and Wilson. (I plan to finish a rough draft in 2022.) I would mix in some Wilson tapes as well.
During my periods of Joyce obsession I have read Joyce’s books over and over again along with many books about Joyce. I had Finnegans Wake study groups from 1985 to 2021, and I watched a bunch of films about Joyce. I used to have a party on January 6 each year where we would watch the 1987 film The Dead. Joyce’s story “The Dead” takes place at a party for the Feast of the Epiphany around January 6, 1904. I took Bob Wilson to see that film in 1988. My last real period of Joyce obsession came in 2011 as I prepared to give a talk at the 22nd North American James Joyce Conference in 2011 on the question of whether Joyce included references to the Oz books in Finnegans Wake. I finished reading the Wake four times and Ulysses once that year. Of course, I think of Joyce a lot and read a bit of Joyce even when not in one of these obsessive Joyce periods. I did finish rereading Dubliners and two books on Joyce as I did this exercise over Christmas break 2021-2022. I also read a bit in Brenda Maddox’s Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce. I have tried to read that biography since it came out in the 80's. I still have about 230 pages to go. At one point she refers to some of Joyce's letters to Nora as "even worse than Ulysses". Now, she meant their sexual explicitness, but I kept hearing the voices of many of my professors calling Ulysses the greatest novel ever written, so "even worse than Ulysses" could refer to every novel every written. Perhaps I should have "even worse than Ulysses" printed on the back of all of my books. On page 296 Maddox writes of Harriet Weaver’s generosity towards Joyce, “Miss Weaver’s largesse, some have argued, also impoverished world literature by allowing James Joyce to waste his lyrical gift on the bad joke of Finnegans Wake.” She does not provide any citation with the identity of these “some”. I know that Finnegans Wake frustrates many readers, including many of Joyce’s admirers such as Vladimir Nabokov.
I guess this Joyce obsession has helped me to observe. It seems like looking for quarters [meaning] everywhere, in every person and every situation. Bob Wilson told me he loved Edna O’Brien’s description of Ulysses as a day where nothing, and everything, happens. Certainly, everybody seems “a separate reality-island full of mystery and surprise”. February 2, 2022, marks the centennial of the first publication of Ulysses as well as Joyce’s 120th birthday. Small pockets of our culture will “Try to get into the Joycean head space” this year. Hopefully this will bear some positive fruit for our troubled world.