… It is not a skeleton key we need, so much as eyes to see in spiritual (was it?) darkness; and ears with which to separate cunning (are they?) confusions.
… The most frightening thing about the book is the feeling, which steadily grows in the reader, that Joyce himself does not know what he is doing; and how, in spite of all his efforts, he is giving himself away. Full control is being exercised over the minor details and the main structure, but the compulsion toward a private universe is very strong. … Joyce’s delight in reducing man’s learning, passion, and religion to a hash is also disturbing. …
[line break added] After the first week what one longs for is the sound of speech, or the sight of a sentence in its natural human context. … The book cannot rise into the region of true evocation — the region where Molly Bloom’s soliloquy exists immortally — because it has no human base. Emotion is deleted, or burlesqued, throughout. The vicious atmosphere of a closed world, whose creator can manage and distort all that is humanly valuable and profound (cunningly, with Godlike slyness), becomes stifling. …
[line break added] Ulysses was based on a verifiable theme: the search for the father. The theme, or themes, of Finnegans Wake are retrogressive, as the language is retrogressive. The style retrogresses back to the conundrum. To read the book over a long period of time gives one the impression of watching intemperance become addiction, become debauch. [ellipses within that paragraph are in the original]
The book’s great beauties, its wonderful passages of wit, its variety, its marks of genius and immense learning, are undeniable. It has another virtue: in the future “writers will not need to search for a compromise.” But whatever it says of man’s past, it has nothing to do with man’s future, which, we can only hope, will lie in the direction of more humanity rather than less. And there are better gods than Proteus.
… Time must pass, and thorough research be made, before certain fundamental questions concerning Finnegans Wake can be answered. One question that comes to mind is: are we dealing with a work (always granting that it is a work of incontestable genius) essentially small in inner meaning and even in essential design, a work that has nevertheless exfoliated into a semblance of growth and complexity? Are we dealing, that is, with a work, the product of a man and artist who has never come into maturity?
[line break added] Or are we dealing with an essentially great work, the product of a man and artist who has suffered life and transcended his suffering; who is no longer the victim of his talent, his circumstances, or the tensions within his own character, but has become master of them all? Are we getting from this fantastically distorted and interwoven speech, these amazingly contrapuntalized themes, illumination and truth; or are we being led into the mystery of a childish individual’s dreaming game, with the rigmaroles and jokes and tricks of the child (or immature man) presented to us neat?
Joyce’s lyric gifts, his full equipment as a trained realist, his ingenuity as a fabulist, his skill as a parodist, his sharp wit and Jesuit-trained learning, his innate musician’s ear — these attributes are as clearly evident in Finnegans Wake as they are in any piece of writing he ever produced. What difference does it make if we are listening to the operations of sleep; we have heard such operations in great pieces of literature before this. Even if Joyce was a sick man, we are listening to a writer who was in many ways a martyr to his genius and to his age.
[line break added] But we want to penetrate the disguises he has had to throw about himself; or the symptoms he has been forced to assume. We have this desire not out of niggling curiosity, but out of real interest: that we may receive the help and refreshment that any true artist’s struggle with his material gives us, particularly when we are caught with him into the same deforming time.
The poet and the “comic fabulist” are equipped with uncommon gifts by which they are able to get around interior “censorship.” They have tricks, as it were, to get the information through. They transpose the dangerous and (actually) untellable truths of the Subconscious into imaginative terms, not easy to bring, otherwise, into the light of day. What strikes the more detached observer when faced with the extreme opacities of certain portions of Finnegans Wake is the certainty that concealed beneath his very eyes is a submerged fable having to do directly with Joyce, with Joyce’s relations to the world, with Joyce’s attitude to his time.
… Joyce is doing more than returning compulsively to the Dublin from which he is an exile. He is razing more than Dublin structures with the fires of his love and hatred.
What exterior situation, then, brought Joyce to the pass where, to get his secret across, he had to resort to a kind of desperate cunning? To resort, as well, to the often monotonous, often trivial, often brutal, ruses of the accomplished farceur? Or to the insistent sobbing minor lyric passage? (It seems at times that these two “tones” are the only ones in the book.) Does this work stand like a terrible half-buried monument, both to the recent past and the near future: outlining a deforming epoch when a work of art must become oblique expression — a joking show, a wry song, a cockeyed cinema-mythology — in order to exist at all?
“The price of virtuosity is abject slavery to a complaisant tool; that of creative artistry is willful dominance over a recalcitrant tool.” What do we finally see in Joyce: a virtuoso or artist; compulsive neurotic or writer with himself entirely in hand? This question requires a deeper analysis than has yet been dared by Joyce students and disciples. It is not a skeleton key we need, so much as eyes to see in spiritual (was it?) darkness; and ears with which to separate cunning (are they?) confusions.