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A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake: Unlocking James Joyce's Masterwork (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell) Paperback – March 5, 2013
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Edmund Wilson, The New Yorker
Joyce has found in Mr. Campbell and Mr. Robinson the ideal readers who approach his book with piety, passion, and intelligence, and who have devoted several years to fashioning the key that will open its treasures.”
Max Lerner, The New York Times
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I know that.
But, there's little point in my writing this if I'm not going to be truthful. I've read this book and the book upon which this is written, and this is what I've found:
Joseph Campbell's Skeleton Key purports to explain the incomprehensible "masterwork" Finnegans Wake. It does offer up an explanation of sorts but this explanation, itself, makes little sense. Further, apart from a small "demonstration passage" early in the work, Campbell offers next-to-no evidence that what he divines is in the Wake itself.
Campbell believes that Finnegans Wake is the story of the cyclical nature of man as expressed in the writings of some obscure philosopher named Vico who, for all I can tell, found his greatest glory in the critical commentary on Finnegans Wake. That's well and good, but the Wake is a mass of 600+ pages of senseless rambling. Why does it take Joyce 600+ pages to communicate a story that Campbell can neatly summarize in the first fifteen pages of his work? Because, according to Campbell, Joyce tells this story over and over again in a "dream language."
According to Campbell, the Wake is one tiny story repeated a thousand times, enshrouded in a rebus-like pseudo-language of puns and portmanteaus. The only thing worse than the suspicion that Campbell is just as fradulent as Joyce is the suspicion that, maybe, he's right. If Campbell is right, then the Wake is transformed from a fairly decent practical joke played on the academic community into a nightmare of pointless, wasted effort. His, Joyce's, yours, and mine.
I cannot bring myself to conclude that Campbell was fraudelent; he seems sincere. So, I simply hold out the hope that he was honestly mistaken in his assessment of the work. Of course, it would be impossible to say whether he was right or wrong--the Wake, like the inkblot in a Rorshach test, will accomodate the human need for pattern recognition by supplying almost any concievable image. There's no way to "prove" any interpretation of the Wake right, or any other interpretation wrong. I could just as easily say that it's a tale about the colonization of Mars. I bet you I could find good textual evidence for it, and then defy you to prove it wasn't so.
Campbell, bound and determined to come up with a coherent tale that fits Joyce's almost-words, indeed produces *something*, though it, itself, is only on the borderlands of the rational. But is that something what Joyce had in mind when he sat down? How would we ever know? Those who need to believe that "Joyce was a genius" because that's how they'll build up their own cultural cachet, will continue to believe it no matter what I say. But those who approach the Wake, or this purported exegisis of it, with an open mind will realize that, for thousands of years men claimed to find meaning in tea-leaves and sheep's entrails, and pictures in the stars, but those images and tales lie more in our own minds than in the entities themselves.
Let's get this straight out in the air: Finnegans Wake is not overly concerned with "the hero's journey" or the "myth with a thousand masks." It is, at its heart, the love story of a mountain and a river. Beyond that, it's about family dynamics, human history, entertainment history, and the joys and traumas of individual life, in a broad sense and in very specific ways.
A Skeleton Key chooses, via its authors, to see Finnegans Wake pared down to the elements that have something to do with monomyth, with a universal humanity or culture, and even there, only with its most serious components. Finnegans Wake is a serious work, this is true, but it is often most serious about being really completely hilarious or rushing along into pure romanticism. For whatever reasons, the authors of this text, have chosen to completely downplay or outright ignore the more ribald aspects of the novel, either the humorous or the simply enthusiastic. They choose to see the puns and parodies that are quilted together to comprise much of the novel, as a scholarly effort, and nothing more. The rendering of Ireland as excited genitalia is not allowed entertainment value, nor are lines such as "[A] hot fellow in his night, may the mouther of guard have mastic on him!"
Don't get me wrong, this is an entirely thorough work when covering the aspects of the novel that appeal to the authors' sensibilities and training, but it is not a skeleton key to Finnegans Wake, so much as a very not-dirty peeping-machine. You put in your money, lean to the eyepiece, and get shown exactly what part of the picture is in front of those lenses, nothing around them, no chance of moving the lenses to see more, and just as often frustrated by that myopia, as titillated by what is made visible to you.
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