Remembering Berni Benstock

Derek Attridge, Rutgers University

My memories of Berni Benstock begin in Champaign, Illinois, in 1979. I was a young visiting professor at the University of Illinois, suffering from one of the Midwest's (and my) worst winters and from the inevitable isolation of my situation, when another visitor to the English Department, Patrick Parrinder, mentioned that two English professors, Berni and Shari Benstock, held a regular Finnegans Wake reading group at their house, and suggested that I might like to participate. My experience of the Wake up to then had consisted of reading it in private as a graduate student (whose research field was Renaissance poetry), assiduously proceeding from front to back cover with the aid of a small library of reference books, an exercise that produced pleasure and bafflement in equal degrees. As much, perhaps, for the company as for the promised intellectual activity, I went along to the next meeting of the group. We discussed the opening pages of Book III, chapter 4, and as a consequence those pages will always have a special resonance for me. At the time, however, it seemed to me that we made little progress; the bafflement that I thought would be dispelled in the presence of an "expert" remained intense (perhaps even increased), though as a group we cleared up many obscurities and made many connections that I hadn't previously seen. Only later did I realize that the value of readings groups are that they make the text of Finnegans Wake richer and funnier, not necessarily clearer, and certainly not simpler. But more important was the enjoyment of that evening: the rare experience of a genuinely communal reading, the sheer funniness of Joyce's writing, and Berni's warmth and wit enhancing both.

I went back to England, and was soon teaching a seminar on Finnegans Wake. We moved the seminar from the English Department to my house to reduce its formality, and worked slowly through a difficult chapter of the Wake for a term. It was one of the most rewarding teaching experiences of my career. I can now see how closely I modeled it on my own experience in Berni Benstock's lounge. Although I find I want to resist the term when it's used of me, the fact remains: to the extent that I am a "Joycean," Berni -- by his example -- made me one. I take the word to indicate not an academic interest in the writing and life of James Joyce, but a certain attitude to literature and to experience, a certain capacity to relish, without feeling threatened or becoming defensive, the fallen world in all its multiplicity and messiness. I met Berni many times after that memorable evening, and met, too, some of the hundreds of other people who, in diverse ways and disparate places, he joked and provoked into becoming Joyceans. I'm sure that for those others as much as for me it is hard to imagine what our lives would have been without the difference that he made.