FRIDAY, DECEMBER 9, 2022
Our own blue tribe's own goals: We vaguely remember the very first time we heard about "thunder words."
We were a senior at Aragon High. For reasons we can't recall, we were taught about the existence of those words in our AP World Literature class.
Luckily, no one asked us to read Finnegans Wake, the novel win which such words appear.
Finnegans Wake was Joyce's final novel. The first of the novel's ten thunder words appear in this unforgettable passage, right there on the novel's first page:
JOYCE (1939): The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy. The great fall of the offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan, erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes: and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since dev-linsfirst loved livvy.
Sic! And that was just the novel's third paragraph. As Joyce proceeds to paragraph 4, things don't get much simpler:
JOYCE (continuing directly): What clashes here of wills gen wonts, oystrygods gaggin fishy-gods! Brékkek Kékkek Kékkek Kékkek! Kóax Kóax Kóax! Ualu Ualu Ualu! Quaouauh! Where the Baddelaries partisans are still out to mathmaster Malachus Micgranes and the Verdons cata-pelting the camibalistics out of the Whoyteboyce of Hoodie Head. Assiegates and boomeringstroms. Sod's brood, be me fear! Sanglorians, save! Arms apeal with larms, appalling. Killykill-killy: a toll, a toll. What chance cuddleys, what cashels aired and ventilated! What bidimetoloves sinduced by what tegotetab-solvers! What true feeling for their's hayair with what strawng voice of false jiccup!...
We're only halfway through that paragraph. But you may get the general idea.
In the passages we've posted, we've highlighted the first of the novel's so-called thunder words. As we learned way back in high school, ten such words appear in Finnegans Wake. For those who might wonder why that is, the leading authority on Joyce's work offers this capsule explainer:
These ten words have come to be known as thunders, thunderclaps, or thunderwords, based upon interpretation of the first word as being a portmanteau of several word-forms for thunder, in several languages. The Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan (with Quentin Fiore and Jerome Agel) made this connection explicit in his War and Peace in the Global Village, where he identified the ten words as "thunders," reproducing them in his own text...Marshall's son Eric McLuhan carried on his father's interpretation of the thunders, publishing The Role of Thunder in Finnegans Wake, a book expressly devoted to the meaning of the ten words. For [Eric] McLuhan, the total letter count of the above ten words (1001) intentionally corresponds to the One Thousand and One Nights of Middle Eastern folklore, which buttresses the critical interpretation of the Wake as being a book of the night.
Inevitably, that first thunder word was interpreted as being a portmanteau of several word-forms for thunder, in several languages. It was all about the Thousand and One Nights of Middle Eastern folklore—or at least, so the McLuhans have said.
There's much more to be said about those ten words, but we're trying to keep it simple. Engaging in thunder word-level overstatement, the leading authority offers this overview concerning Finnegans Wake:
Finnegans Wake is a novel by Irish writer James Joyce. It is well known for its experimental style and reputation as one of the most difficult works of fiction in the Western canon...Written in Paris over a period of seventeen years and published in 1939, Finnegans Wake was Joyce's final work. The entire book is written in a largely idiosyncratic language, which blends standard English words with neologistic portmanteau words, Irish mannerisms and puns in multiple languages to unique effect. Many critics believe the technique was Joyce's attempt to recreate the experience of sleep and dreams, reproducing the way concepts, people and places become amalgamated in dreaming. It is an attempt by Joyce to combine many of his aesthetic ideas, with references to other works and outside ideas woven into the text; Joyce declared that "Every syllable can be justified."
Due to its linguistic experiments, stream of consciousness writing style, literary allusions, free dream associations, and abandonment of narrative conventions, Finnegans Wake remains largely unread by the general public.
Finnegans Wake remains largely unread by the general public? Among the general public (and almost everyone else), the book isn't read at all!
How "difficult" is this work of fiction? Among critics, one fan of the book was so thrown by Joyce's obvious brilliance that he ended up saying this:
The text's influence on other writers has grown since its initial shunning, and contemporary American author Tom Robbins is among the writers working today to have expressed his admiration for Joyce's complex last work:
"The language in it is incredible. There's so many layers of puns and references to mythology and history. But it's the most realistic novel ever written. Which is exactly why it's so unreadable. He wrote that book the way that the human mind works. An intelligent, inquiring mind. And that's just the way consciousness is. It's not linear. It's just one thing piled on another. And all kinds of cross references. And he just takes that to an extreme. There's never been a book like it and I don't think there ever will be another book like it. And it's absolutely a monumental human achievement. But it's very hard to read."
The book is "unreadable," this admiring critic said. That brings us back to the greatest film of all time, whose fans have occasionally seemed to suggest or say that this newly-anointed greatest film is basically unwatchable.
So it largely went last week, as over a thousand of the usual suspects enshrined their avant garde views in the latest Sight & Sound survey of academics and critics.
Concerning Joyce, we'll offer this. It's often said that before he went completely avant garde, he had shown himself to be a master of traditional fiction. Admirers point to the stories in his first major volume, Dubliners, and especially to that volume's novella-length final story, The Dead.
To contemporary readers, it isn't obvious where where Joyce was coming from in The Dead, which is sometimes praised as one of the greatest short stories ever written. The reader may have to read around to understand the young artist's views concerning the general cultural backdrop in his native Ireland.
That said, it is completely possible to understand what is happening in The Dead's closing scene, where a weeping Gretta Conroy tells her husband of many years about an incident from her youth, recounting a memory which has been triggered by the singing of a popular Irish ballad:
“I suppose you were in love with this Michael Furey, Gretta,” he said.
“I was great with him at that time,” she said.
Her voice was veiled and sad. Gabriel, feeling now how vain it would be to try to lead her whither he had purposed, caressed one of her hands and said, also sadly:
“And what did he die of so young, Gretta? Consumption, was it?”
“I think he died for me,” she answered.
We'll recommend that you watch Angelica Huston perform this dialogue at the start of the final scene of her father, John Huston's, last film (The Dead, 1991).
(“Poor fellow,” she said. “He was very fond of me and he was such a gentle boy.")
We'll suggest that you may want to stop watching as Gretta finally cries herself to sleep. We're not sure that Huston's film captures the tone of the way the Joyce story ends.
At any rate, there you see it—a bit of Joyce's more traditional early work. Twenty-five years later, it was largely Brékkek Kékkek Kékkek Kékkek—but Joyce is still widely regarded as the greatest writer of the long-gone 20th century.
Why is Joyce so highly regarded, while it may be somewhat easy to mock last week's selection of Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles as the world's greatest film? We'll answer that one for ourselves:
Fans of the newly-crowned greatest film describe is as an essential offering in the realm of feminist film. They also admit that the film is borderline unwatchable—that the regular people of the world can't really be expected to sit through its incredibly long, incredibly boring patches.
In this way, the usual suspects of our tribe may have performed one of their usual dances. We're amused by the work of this high elite, not by the contents of a film which we, like everyone else, have never actually seen.
Nothing will turn on the critical judgment those academics and critics executed last week—and we aren't even saying they're "wrong." Elsewhere, though, we gain our basic frameworks of understanding from similarly cosseted collections of high elites.
That includes our basic ideas concerning how to react to such disordered public figures as Kanye West, whose horrible conduct we've long tolerated, and even Donald J. Trump.
One such elite spills out of its clown car on "cable news" each night. They recite one set of scripts on Fox. On our blue tribe's "cable news" channels, these usual suspects perform their standardized dances for Us.