Monday, January 08, 2007

Finnegan wakes, has a cup of coffee, blogs about implicit music

As Isaac noted, the problem with blogging books is that it is difficult to keep pace with your reading. I thought this wouldn’t be the case with the Wake since it goes so slow but I was wrong. My lack of posting has not been due to any cowardly retreat from the Wake but due to gobbling it up at the expense of writing about it. But I would like to keep writing, so here we are again.

Joyce has said that the musical sense of the Wake is more important than deciphering its multilingual puns and puzzles. By the musical sense, he means the rhythm of the words, their sounds, etc. The above qualities are musical in a literal sense, yet Joyce is also playing with nonliteral implicit music.

The element which struck me most while reading large sections of the text was the way in which Joyce manipulates the ease with which we understand the text. There are parts which are nearly impenetrable, other parts where he is astonishingly clear and even whole passages with barely any puns to decipher. In controlling the degree of transparency on the text, Joyce is controlling his texture like a composer. Sections dense with puns and allusions are much like music with a dense texture with many contrasting melodies and rhythms swirling around each other. One still gets at least a vague sense of what’s happening in either case and certain fragments may leap out, but you would be hard pressed to say “this is the tune.”

In the same way, when the polyphony of the Wake becomes simpler, it becomes more akin to something like Mozart, namely that amidst the interesting different parts there is still a clear melody to hold on to and tell you where we’re going. Those alarming moments when Joyce writes plainly are almost like a chant in its relative simplicity and directness.

When writing about implicit music it’s tempting to stretch it far, and no doubt I will give in to that temptation at some point, because I can't help but see Joyce’s contrast between circles and squares in musical terms. But the analogy in this post is actually pretty tight. A composer’s control of the texture is mostly a matter of how much information the composer is going to throw at the audience and to what extent the composer will emphasize some information more than others. Joyce is controlling his texture in precisely the same way. His technique of writing can graft three our four meanings not just onto a single sentence but on a single word. The extent to which he layers meanings is analogous to musical counterpoint and his control of it is one of the pleasures of reading the damn thing.


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