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That Time They Tried to Film Finnegans Wake

Friday A/V Club: If you're looking for a highbrow way to celebrate St. Patrick's Day...

Happy St. Patrick's Day. Did you know someone once decided to make a movie of Finnegans Wake? Or parts of it, anyway: The film's full title is Passages from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, presumably because no one is so insane as to try to fit all 628 densely packed Irish pages into an hour and a half. If you're curious to see the results—and if you've ever so much as attempted to read Finnegans Wake, you must be at least a little curious—then pour yourself a green beer, or maybe take something a little more psychedelic, and behold:

This was made in the mid-'60s by Mary Ellen Bute, who is better known for her animations. Not long afterward, someone tried to turn Ulysses into a movie too. I don't know when the word "unfilmable" was coined but I'll bet it wasn't the 1960s.

Bonus political content: James Joyce, writing in the third person, describes his ideological influences:

Among the many whose works he had read may be mentioned Most, Malatesta, Stirner, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Elisée Reclus, Spencer, and Benjamin Tucker, whose Instead of a Book proclaimed the liberty of the non-invasive individual. He never read anything by Karl Marx except the first sentence of Das Kapital and he found it so absurd that he immediately returned the book to the lender.

For those of you who don't know your old-time anarchists and/or libertarians by surname, he means Johann Most, Errico Malatesta, Max Stirner, Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, and Herbert Spencer. Here's another Joyce quote:

As an artist I am against every state. Of course I must recognize it, since indeed in all my dealings I come into contact with its institutions. The state is concentric, man eccentric. Thence arises an eternal struggle. The monk, the bachelor, and the anarchist are in the same category. Naturally I can't approve of the act of the revolutionary who tosses a bomb in a theatre to destroy the King and his children. On the other hand, have these states behaved any better which have drowned the world in a bloodbath?

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

Photo Credit: Expanding Cinema

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  • Citizen X - #6||

    Whither thou, good old-fashioned individualist anarchism?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    What's Emma Goldman's anarchism, chopped liver?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Edgy enough to rate a shout out on Bojack Horseman, but awfully naive about communism in hindsight.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    A friend once stopped by Joyce's house and found him in a terrible state. "What's wrong, James?" he asked.

    "I've only managed to write seven words all day!" Joyce said.

    "For you, though, that's good," said the friend.

    Joyce wailed, "But i don't know what order they go in!"

  • Ken Shultz||

    People who claim to have read Finnegan's Wake are like people who claim to have read the Quran in English. The few of them who aren't lying have something else wrong with them. (I can say that. I read through the latter myself).

    You know what I think is the anti-Finnegan's Wake (like the anti-Christ is the opposite of . . .)? The Red Badge of Courage. It's so easy to read--and so hard to slog through because of that. It's practically impossible to get through because it's so bland.

    I made it through Atlas Shrugged as a teenager. I made it through War and Peace as a teenager, too. The Red Badge of Courage is too big of a bland hill for me to roll that rock to the top--and it's a short book!

  • Citizen X - #6||

    I'm pretty sure i read The Red Badge of Courage at some point, but i have no memory of it whatsoever.

  • Rhywun||

    I think I faked my way through it in 5th grade English. I sure as hell didn't read it.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Yeah, I read it in Jr. High or High School, not sure which, and have only a very vague memory of it. Which is unusual for me, I almost always remember a lot about books I've read, even ones I didn't like. I don't remember liking or disliking it, it's just a big nothing.

  • Jesse Walker||

    When my first daughter, as a baby, would wake up crying in the middle of the night, I found that I could calm her by reading Finnegans Wake to her. God knows what first put this idea in my head—I must have just seen the book sitting around and decided what the hell—but it worked. Maybe Joyce was speaking her language.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Baby-induced sleep deprivation is the mother of any number of inventions.

    Desperate, desperate inventions.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Yep. With my oldest, after trying a dozen solutions with little or no success, I found that just going outside would immediately calm him down. It was like a miracle.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    A little whiskey on the gums for teething works well, too.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Why just limit it to teething? #DrunkBaby

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Like there's any to spare with a crying baby in the house.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    He didn't say you put the whiskey on the BABY'S gums.

  • BakedPenguin||

    That's funny - every time I ever tried to read Joyce, he put me to sleep, too.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Wait a minute. You're Jesse's daughter? I have so many questions now.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Oops. Next time I'll read all of the previous posts so as not to step on the joke.

  • Brandybuck||

    People who claim to have read Finnegan's Wake are like people who claim to have read the Quran in English. The few of them who aren't lying have something else wrong with them.


    I have read both. And yes there is something else wrong with me...

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Besides those facial tics that freak everybody out?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    As an artist I am against every state. Of course I must recognize it, since indeed in all my dealings I come into contact with its institutions. The state is concentric, man eccentric. Thence arises an eternal struggle. The monk, the bachelor, and the anarchist are in the same category. Naturally I can't approve of the act of the revolutionary who tosses a bomb in a theatre to destroy the King and his children. On the other hand, have these states behaved any better which have drowned the world in a bloodbath?

    This is a beautiful quote, Jesse. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Not a True MJG||

    Cosign.

  • Ken Shultz||

    Also, Martin Amis' Yellow Dog is unreadable.

    I defy anyone to get all the way through that book.

  • Rhywun||

    *googles*

    "Amis's work centres on the excesses of late-capitalist Western society..."

    Pass.

  • GILMORE™||

    Amis later wrote "Koba the Dread" where he basically renounced his past socialism. Sort of. It was more a wake-up where he realized that socialism had murdered mazillions of people and maybe it wasn't so hot after all.

  • GILMORE™||

    or not. "Koba" came before yellow dog.

  • GILMORE™||

    Its possible that reviewer is simply projecting the whole "capitalist critique" onto that book. Other references to it don't seem to emphasise its politics as an issue, so much as its prose and narrative mess.

  • Ken Shultz||

    Eh, get over it.

    Hitchens was a Trotskyist.

    "The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians"

    ----Orwell

    Meanwhile, Orwell was a socialist.

    Great books and good ideas come from wherever you find them.

    "creative destruction" came from Marxism.

    https://ic.ucsc.edu/~rlipsch/Pol177/Marx & Schumpeter.pdf

    Besides, London Fields has parts that are laugh out loud funny.

  • Ken Shultz||

    Celine was a vile antisemite and collaborated with the Nazis during the occupation of France.

    Death on the Installment Plan doesn't have anything to do with that.

    Gunter Grass was in the Waffen SS.

    The Tin Drum is what it is anyway.

    Oh, I should add that Death on the Installment Plan is stream of consciousness like Joyce, but unlike Joyce, the text is thoroughly readable (and laugh out loud funny).

    Even with all the ellipses . . . the text is thoroughly readable.

  • Libertarian||

    My goal is to read Ulysses before its centennial (2/22/22). Anyone here who has read it and wants to give me advice?

  • Tony||

    Try not to care too much about the plot.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    I'm afraid that's impossible. Nobody has ever read Ulysses. Just skim it and pretend you did, like everybody else who claims to have read it.

  • Tony||

    I read it through twice (for school) but Finnegan's Wake not so much.

  • John||

    I am the same. I read it when I was in Dublin. But, Finnegan's Wake is impenetrable. I can honestly say I have read Being and Time and The Sickness Unto Death. So, it is not that I can't read difficult things. But, I don't see how anyone could read Finnegan's Wake cover to cover. Certain parts and excerpts or skimming it, sure. But word for word from to back? Maybe someone has but no one I have ever met.

  • Tony||

    It doesn't even have a beginning or end!

    A prof of mine was a Joyce expert and some of his grad students did work on Finnegan. It was the road I was going to go down if I hadn't decided to make money instead.

  • John||

    I was on a similar road in philosophy and decided the same thing. It's fun stuff and if I had been born 20 years before I was back when getting a PHD and teaching at a college really was a pretty sure bet for at least a middle class lifestyle, I might have done it. But by the time I and no doubt you came along, a PHD was a ticket to being poor roaming around the country doing Post Docs and being an adjunct. No thanks.

  • GILMORE™||

    I took a seminar on Ulysses w/ a visiting prof from Trinity College, Dublin.

    Its not a hard book, and its not overly complex; but you need to understand "what" it is before you start, and realize that it was written like a series of small word/literary games within a larger literary-game-structure.

    e.g. "Layer 1" - the book covers 1 day. Each chapter is (more or less) 1-2 hours of that 1 day

    "Layer 2" - each chapter also references corresponding sections to Homer's Odyssey

    " Layer 3" - Each chapter ALSO references different stages of evolution of the human body / human history / language

    and so on.

    Basically, every chapter is an overlapping mesh of competing architectures. So the method of the 'story' (which follows 2 characters through 1 day) is basically being re-invented with every chapter. The mere details of 'who does what' in any chapter is being almost completely drowned out by all these overlapping literary games.

    The "Guide" for reading Ulysses is actually longer than the novel itself.

    Usually explaining this is enough to put people off reading it in the first place. Honestly, i thought it was interesting as a scholastic exercise, but as 'something to read'? I am not much of a fan.

    I'd read Dubliners instead.

  • ||

    It ain't over till the fat lady starts reading Finnegan's Wake.

  • Tony||

    "I said that I had lost the faith . . . but not that I had lost self-respect. What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?"

  • John||

    I have always felt that James Joyce is to novel writing what Bob Dylan is to lyric writing. Dylan is to this day capable of amazing turns of phrases. Dylan is also lazy. Even his best work has a few amazing turns of phrases or clever couplets and the rest is just words he threw together. A song like Visions of Johana is about three minutes of the amazing description of what it is like to be in love with one woman whom you can't have and with another, you are only with because you can't have the first as has ever been written. The last three minutes of the song is Dylan throwing words up against the wall seeing what would stick because he ran out of things to say and is too lazy to think of more.

    Joyce is the same way. There are parts of Ulysses and Finnegans' Wake that are mesmerizing. Parts where Joyce does things with the sound and meter of words that no one I have ever read has even come close to duplicating. These parts are about 10% of each books. And the rest is all crap and Joyce just filling space.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    A song like Visions of Johana is about three minutes of the amazing description of what it is like to be in love with one woman whom you can't have and with another, you are only with because you can't have the first as has ever been written. The last three minutes of the song is Dylan throwing words up against the wall seeing what would stick because he ran out of things to say and is too lazy to think of more.

    IOW, the song's about twice as long as it needed to be. Like a lot of Dylan's songs.

  • John||

    Yes. But even some of the ones that are not too long still often only have a single really good verse. The first verse of Highway 61 is brilliant and funny as hell. The rest of the verses decline in quality pretty quick until by the last one you have no idea what the hell he is talking about. And that is a good song that really swings and isn't too long.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    He never read anything by Karl Marx except the first sentence of Das Kapital and he found it so absurd that he immediately returned the book to the lender.

    Nice.

  • John||

    The thing about Marx is that even his followers know that he was wrong. No one followed Marx as it was written because it was so stupid and absurd. It had to be constantly reinterpreted first by Lenin and later by Mao and the Frankfurt School and others to such a great degree that it became completely unrecognizable.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    I was just a kid when I read the Communist Manifesto, and even to my young self it struck me as a terrible misunderstanding of human nature, except in one thing: The potential destructive power of jealousy and envy. That they understood all too well.

  • John||

    There are parts of the Manifesto that are pretty spot on about what happens to a society that loses all of its morals and turns everything into money. The problem is what Marx took as being inevitable is really just a warning about what happens if you have a society that is full of shit bags with no moral compass or standards. And if you have such a society, putting special shitbags in charge of everything isn't going to fix it, despite Marx's belief to the contrary.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    putting special shitbags in charge of everything isn't going to fix it

    Exhibit A: the last ~6000 years of political history.

  • Trigger Warning||

    If you're looking for a highbrow way to celebrate St. Patrick's Day...

    Getting shitfaced and beating/impregnating your wife isn't highbrow?

  • John||

    Brendan Behn is pretty highbrow. He spent his life drinking, whoring and doing a little IRA bombing on the side. Then of course there is Dylan Thomas, a guy who drank himself to death and once left an entire notebook full of years of work in a New York cab because he was too drunk to remember it.

    So yeah, I think for the Irish, getting shitfaced and knocking up your wife or girlfriend is pretty high brow.

  • Trigger Warning||

    That's pretty fucking metal. I will proud to be Irish until the day I die of DTs.

  • Brandybuck||

    Love how they have to subtitle the movie...

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