Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

VERENE, Donald Phillip. James Joyce and the Philosophers at Finnegans Wake

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

VERENE, Donald Phillip. James Joyce and the Philosophers at Finnegans Wake

Article excerpt

VERENE, Donald Phillip. James Joyce and the Philosophers at Finnegans Wake. Evanston, 111.: Northwestern University Press, 2016. ix + 124 pp. Cloth, $99.50; paper, $34.95--In the preface to his James Joyce and the Philosophers at Finnegans Wake, Donald Phillip Verene broaches the question that has confronted generations of Joyce's readers: "how are we to read Finnegans Wake, a book that, once opened, forces us immediately to reconsider all we have ever leaned about the art of reading?" Joyce's final work is, of course, infamous for its difficulty, its singular use of language, its iconoclastic structure, and its densely allusive text. How, then, can Joyce's reader prepare for the "ideal insomnia" necessary to engage with so complex a work? In answer, Verene offers Joyce's own advice, noting that the author repeatedly urged his friends to read the Wake in concert with Giambattista Vico's Scienza nuova. While Verene is hardly the first scholar to note Vico's importance, discussions of Vico and Joyce have often focused on basic formal matters--Vico's appearance in allusive puns, corso e ricorso as a principle of structure--without sufficiently addressing Vico's thought. This general content is essential to understanding the Wake, but Verene argues that it cannot alone "approach the depth of its meaning."

For Verene, the Wake demands that we "penetrate the intellectual structure out of which it is formed." As such, his central theses are that Joyce's critics have inadequately accounted for the philosophical content of the Wake and that Joyce's understanding of, and interest in, philosophy and philosophers is more nuanced and sophisticated than most Joyce scholars allow. To properly understand the role of, say, Vico's philosophy of history or Giordano Bruno's coincidence of contraries in Joyce's work, the critic's engagement with philosophy must match Joyce's own. Toward this end, Verene begins in familiar territory, with Plato's quarrel with the poets in book 10 of the Republic, a subject Joyce, through Stephen Dedalus, also addresses in the "Scylla and Charybdis" episode of Ulysses. Perhaps Stephen remained an Aristotelian and a Thomist thinker after Bloomsday, but Joyce, Verene argues, found his solution to Plato's quarrel in Vico's notion of sapienza poetica, the poetic wisdom of fables that precedes philosophy. From there, Verene identifies "Joyce's poetic problem" as finding "a way to move words against themselves so that they will actually reveal what Vico calls the common mental dictionary (idizionario mentale commune), that is, the very sense-making power of the imagination that lies behind every language and which every language is trying to express in its own grammar and vocabulary. …

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