What gets lost in definition?

Defining a culture or a language, particularly as a badge of identity, serves the purposes of domination and emancipation equally well. The question is: what gets lost or excluded in the process?

1. Joyce worked on Finnegans Wake from 1922 to 1939, publishing parts of it as he went along. From the start, he acknowledged that its seemingly nonsensical language needed a lot of explaining. The endless word play was necessary, he often said, because he was attempting to represent the surreal logic of dreams. In a letter dated 24 November 1926 he tried to reassure his long-suffering patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver, reminding her that ‘one great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.’ He took a similar line five years later, this time in an interview with Harper’s Magazine. ‘In writing of the night’, he said, ‘I really could not, I felt I could not, use words in their ordinary connections. Used that way they do not express how things are in the night, in the different stages—conscious, then semi-conscious, then unconscious.’

2. These comments had a significant impact on the Wake’s early and ongoing reception – as I showed in the book, they also influenced the way Salman Rushdie conceived of The Satanic Verses (1988). Yet, in so far as they turned it into a recognizable kind of writing—a surrealistic psychological novel, say—they said more about Joyce’s desire to keep his already exasperated readers with him than anything else. It was left to Samuel Beckett, his most astute (and well-briefed) early spokesperson, to prepare the ground more carefully. In an essay of 1929, Beckett insisted that the Wake is neither novelistic nor representational: it ‘is not about something’, he commented, ‘it is that something itself.’ Addressing many of its contemporary and future readers, he added: ‘You complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read—or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to.’ Part interlingual cryptogram, part prose calligram, part musical phonogram, it was, Beckett suggested, an exercise in extreme writing that interfered with its readers’ deepest convictions about the English language and its writing system (see Fourth Proposition). As I argued in the book, it was, as such, also a radical means of confronting some of the most powerful, sometimes monstrous, ideas of community in Joyce’s time, some of which live on in our own. As Joyce recognized, these ideas were, in part, bred of the urge to reify through definition.


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