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Finnegans Wake: A Book For The Early Digital Era By Joyce And Eisenstein


James Joyce’s unclassifiable book has been reincarnated for the web, leveraging technology to tell the story to every reader.

James Joyce is to literature what Karl Marx is to political philosophy, and what Sigmund Freud is to the mysteries of the human psyche. Or he could be thought of as a natural disaster within the English language. If in Ulysses, Joyce laid down the future terms of narrative and at last reassigned an entire way of conceiving the novel, in Finnegans Wake his language goes well beyond the book. It goes beyond listening to a speaker and refers to an earlier form of reading, much older than the book itself, as perhaps could only be seen in prehistoric caves.

Artist Jakub Wróblewski and academic Katarzyna Bazarnik are the latest in a line of more or less secret – and more or less exposed – Joycean researchers, whose satellite readings often orbit like derivative works in their own right, as a continuous commentary and a rewriting of the raw material of the literary field. The psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, wrote a wonderful critical remark addressed directly to Joyce – a study comparable only with that other work of deep psychology, of the biblical Job – and this, years before treating Joyce’s daughter, Lucia.

More recently a constellation of artists has explored the Joycean universe on their own terms. Novelist Enrique Vila-Matas recalls Joyce’s time in his Dublinesca, and this could be set to music, albeit a punk version, with Joey Ramone’s rendition of Finnegans Wake, in a tribute to the composer, John Cage. Artist, Joseph Kosuth, used texts from Joyce like fleeting pieces of architecture that celebrate the autonomy of the story, while the Irish filmmaker, Eoghan Kidney, prepared a video game for the Oculus Rift viewer, to name but a few of such works. Wróblewski and Bazarnik join a similar record with their seminal web interpretation of Finnegans Wake, christened First We Feel Then We Fall.

The mythical trajectory can be traced to late 1929 when Joyce met with the revolutionary Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein in Paris. This, one of the great conversations of the time, was perhaps only comparable to the meeting between Vladimir Lenin and Tristan Tzara held in Vienna a few decades before. The conversation between Joyce and Eisenstein suggested two projects never to have been completely finished: a film version of Marx’s Das Kapital, brought to the screen as News from Ideological Antiquity by German filmmaker, Alexander Kluge – and another of the possibility for Finnegans Wake to transcend the linear narrative of cinema.

The emphasis on the interaction we currently experience through entertainment media such as video games or smartphone apps via the Internet seems much more conducive to a book that was intended to have neither beginning nor end. As a dialogic continuity, in fact, the reader participates in the re-arming of a narrative progression happening on several simultaneous channels and reading at differing levels of reality and speed. For Bazarnik and Wróblewski, “based on an interdisciplinary analysis, the work translates the text into the cinematic form.”

Black and white photo of a man holding a skull.
Image by Chip Zdarsky.

This allows the reader to experience reading while simultaneously listening to a fractious text, detached from the book-form. The reader can pay attention to the strange melodies through several voices, and choose from one or another passages of sequenced video. These are similar to devices such as interactive fiction, where the player-reader constructs a unique narrative with the raw material provided by the programmer-writer. In that sense, Joyce appears not as a novelist but as the programmer of a “Meandertale” and a “Meanderhalltale” web, a term that artists use to refer to but “two of the countless jokes of the textual labyrinth of Finnegans Wake.”

For the creators, this was essential. “Based on a cyclical vision of history[, the book] begins mid-sentence and ends with another one broken in the middle, which finds its continuation on the first page: the same anew.”

Experience First We Feel Then We Fall for yourself and then draw your own conclusions.

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