Scrabbling in the ‘Wake’

Shakespeare and Joyce: A Study of Finnegans Wake

by Vincent John Cheng
Pennsylvania State University Press, 271 pp., $18.75

The corridors of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake are not much thronged with visitors or investigators these days. When the book was new, and a fresh challenge to the intrepidity of mental travelers, it seemed to offer endless perspectives, an infinitely unfolding panorama of verbal delights. To some extent it still does. But exegesis, with its deadly habit of grinding up and flattening out the text on which it is deployed, has done its work on the Wake. For those who follow the literature, even from a distance, it has preempted much of the excitement of discovery; and by pushing the frontiers ever farther back, it has rendered the book more forbidding than ever to the common reader. Writing about the Wake—a multifarious, polyglot, impenetrable book—was never easy in the first place; with the years it has got harder, and the club of persistent exegetes has diminished both in numbers and, if I hear the overtones aright, in expectations.

Vincent Cheng’s book Shakespeare and Joyce, which concentrates on Finnegans Wake, complements and builds upon William Schutte’s 1957 volume, Joyce and Shakespeare, which concentrated on Ulysses. Mr. Cheng writes frankly for Wake devotees (people “somewhat familiar with the Wake,” as he says); and he is explicit that for them his researches lead to no overwhelming revelation, no skeleton key:

While Joyce’s methods may be labyrinthine, his model is Daedalus, not Schopenhauer or Spinoza: the allusions, symbols, and puns may be difficult, but the thought expressed is usually simple…. Joyce’s simplicity derives partly from the fact that, even when he alludes to other writers, he is always speaking of himself and the thoughts that obsess him.

Thus when Joyce, in a single phrase of the Wake, mimics idioms from Macbeth and Hamlet, “we need not worry about all the meanings and implications of the Shakespearean lines themselves, nor about how Joyce might be reflecting on or commenting on them—for he is not.” He is merely picking up verbal echoes to fashion a pun that suits his own context.

Though it’s largely right, this preliminary passage perhaps states the case a little strongly. In fact Mr. Cheng recognizes and tries to demonstrate structural patterns in the Wake where Joyce’s psychological and spiritual—not just verbal—relations with Shakespeare enter into the shaping of his book. But to the extent that the Wake is a Joycean echobox of verbal tags devoid of significance, or pointing only to a few simple, obsessive ideas, that perception could well account for some of the discouragement currently enveloping Joycean studies. The problem is that by accumulating analogues and parallels, as one can do indefinitely, one merely arrives, by more and more elaborate byways, at the same familiar formulas. But it is time to give a close account of Mr. Cheng’s volume.

The book consists of several disparate parts. The first, divided into five chapters, analyzes basic Joycean attitudes and themes that he expressed by making particular use of …

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