The following remarks are those of an onlooker who has watched genetic scholars from the safe sidelines and with distant admiration. Yet I had made tentative forays myself. My own first glimpse into Joyce's workshop was when I was able to inspect some Finnegans Wake material in the British Museum, back in 1958. I was browsing one volume with awed reverence, sitting in front of pages that Joyce had actually written on. The tome I was looking at enabled me to identify a scholar who had already made a name for himself, David Hayman, who was poring over a similar one. He however was engaged in serious research. As I learned later the whole British Museum Wake documentation became available on microfiche, a luxury I treated myself to. I soon spent much time going through the various stages, drafts, fair copies, proofs in the vain hope of finding the meanings that the Wake itself preferred to occlude. The emotional effect of seeing the first emergence of a phrase has always been stimulating.
Several scholars had used drafts and proof sheets in their research. William York Tindall in New York had set students to work on individual chapters of Ulysses and their textual gestation. Valuable corrections resulted from their findings, corrections that we transferred to our inadequate older editions. Once the Garland James Joyce Archive was at our convenient disposal (though financially out of reach; I was given the Ulysses set to review) it was exciting to follow the genesis of specific passages.
A Paris group that emerged from the annual Colloque Joyce meetings initiated by Claude Jacquet was probably the first to make systematic efforts to study the Wake notebooks in the Garland Archive. I was an occasional witness when those pioneers assembled in Claude's apartment and puzzled over the scribbles, often barely recognizable under the crossing out. These were taken and examined one by one, and we ventured guesses at their meaning and possible implications. In its infancy the procedure was still naive and opportunistic, but the group learned quickly and became more methodical, the techniques were gradually refined, The crew, later under the aegis of Daniel Ferrer at ITEM, now contains some of the foremost experts. Some gleanings found their way into scholarly articles.
As far as I was aware, there were two other main strongholds in Dublin and in Antwerp. In Dublin Vincent Deane had taken an early interest in the notebooks and transcribed several pages in his Finnegans Wake Circular. Two recluses in Chapelizod, Danis Rose and John O'Hanlon, according to rumour, were deeply involved in similar studies and occasionally shared their findings. In Antwerp Geert Lernout, always active and the initiator of several focused conferences, began to enlist students in factual genetic research, deciphering phrases and tracing them to recondite sources. Outside of the Dublin and Antwerp Schools, there was always David Hayman, author of A First Draft Version of Finnegans Wake, who kept returning to the fountainheads and regularly participated in the meetings in Paris, Antwerp or Leeds. Josef Schork, a classicist, excelled at showing how notebooks were actually used in the Wake. In recent years Sam Slote and Lucca Crispi have contributed their acute perception and practical competence; they are devoting themselves to the rich holdings of the University of New York at Buffalo.
The Symposiums now routinely carry sessions on genetic research. On many of these meetings I was present as a benign spectator and well-wisher who occasionally threw in impracticable suggestion, such as to give those notebooks names that are easy to remember, rather than referring to them by such lumbering, featureless designations as "VI.B.16" which outsiders can hardly ever keep in mind.
I would distinguish two related approaches. One focuses on the genetic development of paragraphs, chapters, whole works from the earliest drafts all the way to the page proofs and the actual editions. After some pioneering studies in the field, mainly by A. Walton Litz, it was Michael Groden who traced the growth of Ulysses , and, of course, Hans Walter Gabler's Critical & Synoptic Edition of Ulysses of 1984 had followed the actual process of composition. Nowadays, electronic devices present textual evolutions much more graphically than laborious encoding. Within a few years we may have annotated editions of the various works, which will no doubt include their geological stratification in various stages.
Fortunately, with the help of the Archive, dilettantes can also play the game. Many of us dabble at it. I remember how thrilled I was to note how Joyce added Buck Mulligan's advice to Stephen on reading Homer and the Greeks: "You must read them in the original" (U1.77) and similarly added Stephen Dedalus's remark about Saint Thomas Aquinas (in the presence of Mulligan): "... whose works I enjoy reading in the original" (U9.778). The two insertions occurred not too far apart in the revisions of 1921 (JJA22:7, 18:196). They seem to be related, Mulligan and Stephen flaunt Greek and Latin respectively – a trivial insight, but one that was triggered off by exploring marginal accretions.
I also did my own bit of amateur genetics when I stumbled on a change Joyce made in a passage in Nestor. Bloom notices how the priest at mass is drinking the wine, yet does not share it with the congregation, but as usual he finds a good reason: "Quite right: otherwise they'd have one old booser worse than another coming along, cadging for a drink. Spoil the whole atmosphere of the. Quite right." (Rosenbach, "Nestor" 11). In an undocumented step Joyce replaced "Spoil" by "Queer" (as it now is at U4.392; since 1984 such changes are easy to make out in Gabler's Critical and Synoptic Edition). What I gleaned from the replacement is that Joyce seems to have taken "Queer" as a synonym verb (those drunks would queer the atmosphere), but for all practical purposes "Queer" is now taken to be an adjective (the atmosphere is queer: most translators follow this track). The point is debatable, in a fruitful way: Maybe the author did want an adjective and a change of meaning, or else he may not have imagined how his readers would understand the sentence – perhaps a rare oversight and a queer practice, and thereby all the more noteworthy. Naturally, genetic studies have gone far beyond such naive, ad hoc guesswork.
The Finnegans Wake Notebooks are a different matter. There seem to be individual entries, often next to illegible; at times they are exorbitantly unexciting ("in good time", "did himself well"). But genetic scholars have risen to the challenge and have been able to not only spell out most jottings, but even to determine their origin. More and more we will come to know what Joyce occupied himself with at certain very specific times, what newspapers or books he scanned.
At one end of the spectrum an extreme claim has sometimes been voiced – that only readings that occur in those notes are admissible in deciphering Finnegans Wake and that those notes contain all there is to know. Which in practice would mean that we should not use our own wits interacting with the Wake but would just have to wait patiently for genetic illumination provided by notebook experts.
Insights, no doubt, will be forthcoming, on top of all the results we have already. some is extremely constructive. When Joyce collected words in various languages, Albanian, Rhaeto-Romanic or Kissuaheli, there is good reason to assume that these words may be significantly present – and, by exclusion, not all the other potential ones in out-of-the-way languages. No such fixed line can be drawn when it comes to French, Italian, German or Norwegian, all familiar to Joyce. (Which, however, will hardly stop those who detect Malayan or Creole terms in every paragraph.)
A rich field opens for the amateur. In my ecstatic phase of Wake studies while I was hunting sup Swiss references, I once thought that a sentence based on King Pepi in the Book of the Dead, "As broad as Beppi's realm shall flourish my reign shall flourish" (FW415.36), might entail the city of Basel, whose inhabitants are called "Basler Beppi" (those of the rival city of Zürich are referred to as "Züri-Hegel" – see "hegelstomes" in the same fable of the Ondt and the Gracehoper; 416.33). In this context "reign" might translate into the river Rhein. This seemed rather farfetched even at the time, as I suspected, part of those private associations that the Wake tends to incite in beginners, an instance of juvenile enthusiasm which, wisely, I never made public.
Much later when granted the loan of a few Notebooks in the Buffalo Library, I came across an entry that seemed to connect: "Basel v. Grasshoppers" (VI.B.39, JJA 36:333). My guess is that Joyce either saw an advertisement in a paper or else a poster in the streets which announced a soccer game between the Zürich Grasshoppers Club and the Basel Football Club. The Gracehoper in the fable might have been incarnated by a local football team, against its rival Basel, which name derives from basileus, Greek for king. (There is a jocular rivalry between Basel and Zürich, as between similarly paired cities.) In this view, the rebellious Gracehoper would be pitted against an authority, which in the fable is impersonated by the Ondt. This conjecture about what may have gone on in the author's mind does not – emphatically not – corroborate my earlier tacit guesses about Swiss meaning of a passage in Finnegans Wake (Beppy has nothing to do with Basel). All we know is that Joyce jotted something down that in the end was not used (the entry is also not crossed out). The example merely illustrates the stimulation provoked by an entry which may afford a vague glimpse into the mind that generated Finnegans Wake. The effect, at any rate, is invigorating. The genetic researchers must on occasion experience similar exaltation.
Granting insights into meaning is not the sole, or even a main, purpose of notebook studies. They seem to take us into the author's workshop, it may be the closest we ever come to his creative process.
In my own experience, not all that many insightful results have been forthcoming so far. We can expect a lot more, especially when more of the magnificent facsimiles, transcriptions and annotations of The Finnegans Wake Notebooks at Buffalo series are made available. Still I cannot imagine that, if all the notes finally were to be traced and glossed, the Wake would lose an essential part of its inherent obscurity. Or suppose if it did, if the investigation of notes were to transform some of the (by my account) eighty percent of incomprehension into synthetic lucidity, if, in other words, Finnegans Wake were only understood, whatever that means, by recourse to thousands of extant notes, this would be an aesthetic argument against the book. If it could not stand on its own it would depend on external support and lose its vital autonomy.
It is almost axiomatic that a work of literature must be accessible, not necessarily understood, but at least enjoyed, on its own terms, not be dependent on too much external evidence (or "intention"). Against this one might maintain that, in a wider perspective, the work of art consists of the whole genetic process of which the actual resulting text would just be an accidental portion.
We are unlikely to get all the annotations we so badly need from the dedicated archaeologists who spend so much of their energies uncovering what went into a cryptic book. So we others can comfortably lean back, awaiting the results of devoted, scrupulous labour, and meanwhile wish those scholars perspicuity, vigour, stamina, funds and serendipity.