Published more recently as James Joyce/Finnegans Wake—A Symposium, the 1929 collection of essays known originally as Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress is nothing less than a sort of group hug and affectionate slap on the bottom of Irish author James Joyce from his friends and acquaintances.

But what a set of friends! Contributors included Samuel Beckett, Marcel Brion, Frank Budgen, Stuart Gilbert, Eugene Jolas, Victor Llona, Robert McAlmon, Thomas McGreevy, Elliot Paul, John Rodker, Robert Sage, and William Carlos Williams.

First-rate minds all, they absolutely do not let Joyce easily off the hook of serious literary criticism. Indeed, this is a most valuable volume in the Finnegans Wake library (the book demands its own reference shelf), because each man was present during the Wake’s creation. The reader thus benefits from a first person view of Joyce’s process; is virtually present during the intimate conversations that took place in the back of Shakespeare and Company, Joyce’s bookshop hang-out in Paris. He is the happy recipient of James Joyce’s world-famous conviviality, an insider to the puns, jokes, asides and perambulations that eventually found their way into Finnegans Wake.

Sylvia Beach, the owner of Shakespeare and Company, was also the indefatigable publisher of Ulysses. She rounded up this fascinating look at the extant fragments of Finnegans Wake in May of 1929—a full ten years before the book itself was finally finished. Some of the essays were taken from the literary magazine transition, where over the years Joyce’s mighty Work in Progress also appeared in great rough hunks of fresh prose.

There is not much question that Joyce’s friends were concerned about public reaction to his eminently unmanageable book. And more than one man, as any reader might, scratches his head with profound perplexity.

The symposium’s curious title is itself taken from Book III, chapter 3 of Finnegans Wake, wherein Anna Livia Plurabelle, the novel’s mature feminine archetype, is speaking—through a character amusingly known as Yawn—about her husband, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, and his innumerable failures as a man, a public figure, a father, a husband. Thus, Our Exag, as the book was known around the shop, strikes a happy, all-in-fun tone, and at the same time reveals some of Joyce’s clockwork genius at work.

Since every little bit of information on Finnegans Wake is like money in the bank, here is an excerpt from each writer’s contribution:

  • Samuel Beckett, Dante... Bruno. Vico.. Joyce--"The danger is in the neatness of identifications... Here is direct expression—pages and pages of it. And if you don’t understand it, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is because you are too decadent to receive it... Here form is content, content is form."

  • Marcel Brion, The Idea of Time in the Work of James Joyce--"Time is not an abstract concept. On the contrary, it is perhaps the only reality in the world, the thing which is the most concrete. All the rest could only intervene in the form of its emanations...chaos is the condition necessary to all creation...I imagine that Joyce could compose a book of pure time...And if the books of Joyce are as difficult for many to read as those of Einstein it is perhaps because both of these men have discovered a new aspect of the world and one which cannot be comprehended without a veritable initiation."

  • Frank Budgen, James Joyce’s "Work in Progress" and Old Norse Poetry--"Joyce is not to be described by an etiquette or located within the four walls of any aesthetic creed...His logic is that of life and his inventions are organic necessities....One letter may stand pregnant with meaning as a rune. Through this singular compactness a page of Joyce’s composition acquires some of the potency of a picture. The words seem to glitter with significance as they lie on the printed page. We speak them and they flow like a river over our consciousness evoking images vivid and unexpected as those of a dream."

  • Stuart Gilbert, Prolegomena to Work in Progress--"One of the fascinations of reading Work in Progress is that as a mine of suggestion and allusion it is practically inexhaustible."

  • Eugene Jolas, The Revolution of Language and James Joyce--"The real metaphysical problem today is the word...Here for the first time in any literature, the attempt is successfully made to describe that huge world of dreams, that a-logical sequence of events remembered or inhibited, that universe of demonical humor and magic which has seemed impenetrable so far."

  • Victor Llona, I Don’t Know What to Call It But Its Mighty Unlike Prose--"To me, one of the most striking and illuminating things in connection with Work in Progress is that it has managed to reverse the consecrated order of things. We commentators simply could not be kept in leash—we had to have our say in a volume which will grace the stalls in advance of the text under consideration."

    "I should like to be told of another example of this out of the history of literature."

  • Robert McAlmon, Mr. Joyce Directs an Irish Word Ballet--"It is possibly necessary to ‘trance’ oneself into a state of word intoxication, flitting -concept inebriation, to enjoy this work to the fullest...there is the attempt to suggest through the ebb and flow of the prose the possibilities and relativities inherent in existence."

  • Thomas McGreevy, The Catholic Element in "Work in Progress"--"Much, perhaps all, art consists in seeing the funeral of one’s past from the emotionally static point of artistic creation—emotion recollected in tranquility—time recollected in space."

  • Elliot Paul, Mr. Joyce’s Treatment of Plot--"Strangely enough, Mr. Joyce has almost universally been denied the right to do on a larger scale what any Yankee foreman employing foreign laborers does habitually on a smaller scale, namely, to work out a more elastic and a richer vocabulary which will serve purposes unserved by schoolroom English...Those who cannot transcend Aristotle need make no attempt to read this fascinating epic. The ideas do not march single file, nor at a uniform speed."

  • John Rodker, Joyce & His Dynamic--"Common speech holds within it relics of tongues spoken it may be millions of years before symbols were invented. It is impossible therefore for us not to respond to words, all words and all forms of words, but writing and speech are so denatured that it is important, if we are not forever to be deprived of part of our emotional inheritance, that these primitive forms be returned to us. Joyce is doing this for us; the result is an intense and basic revitalizing of words and our attitude to them. Posterity is immensely indebted to him."

  • Robert Sage, Before "Ulysses"—and After--"One of the beauties of Work in Progress is its mystery and its inexhaustible promise of new revelations. Like the great books of all times, it will always have different meanings for different readers. To some its grandeur will be in its mixture of legend, fact and myth, for others its chief interest will be a technical one, others will find delight in its verbal and rhythmic qualities, others will be moved by its cosmic comedy and tragedy, and for still others its attraction will lie in its boundless humor.

    "But to everyone it should represent a cyclopean picture of humanity and the gods as viewed across the aeons that the world has whirled its people through space and the gods have given evidence of their indulgence and wrath."

  • William Carlos Williams, A Point for American Criticism--"Reading Joyce last night when my mind was fluid from fatigue, my eyes bulging and painful but my spirit jubilant following a successful termination of a fight between my two boys I had brought to an intelligent end—-subverted and used to teach them tolerance—-I saw!

    "Joyce has not changed his words beyond recognition. They remain to a quick eye the same. But many of the stultifying associations of the brutalized mind (brutalized by modern futility) have been lost in his process.

    "The words are freed to be understood again in an original, a fresh, delightful sense.

    "Lucid they do become. Plain, as they have not been for a lifetime, we see them."

Now I ask you, looking at those words brought down to us from over seventy years ago, from before the Great Depression and the New Deal and World War II, before television and way before the Internet, do they not remind you of the...beginnings...of a series of writeups in a node that knows no end?

Finnegans Wake is pre-computer hypertext. It magically takes the reader through time and space and eventually brings him back to where he started, happier, inspired, somehow more human for having taken the trip.

James Joyce/Finnegans Wake--A Symposium, New Directions Books, New York, 1972
Originally published as Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company, Paris, 1929

Shades of Joyce:

a nice cool glass of Joyce
Anna Livia Plurabelle
Cashel Boyle O'Connor Fitzmaurice Tisdall Farrell
Finnegans Wake
Finn MacCool
Garry Owen
Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker
Issy the Teenage Rainbow
June 16, 2001
Lucia Joyce
Mina Purefoy
Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress
Shem the Penman
Ulysses is not pornography
Volta Cinema

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