WRITING AFTER: JOYCE, CAGE ...
Writing after Joyce, in Joyce's wake: is this also to mean writing in some sense, temporally or otherwise, authorised by a certain Joyce, given permission by the work or merely fact of Joyce? a writing officiated over by the figure of Joyce? Or is it rather to mean writing in the historical coincidence of being "after Joyce"? Or of the condition of being both in receipt of "Joyce" and of arriving on the scene post-factum, a scene that in fact designates itself as a form of remainder, of what remains "after Joyce"? And what possible relation can writing have to such a condition: as one says "writing after"?
In such formulae there is always the sense of a suspension: of a post-event which nevertheless orientates itself towards its antecedence, whose fact overbears as much as it appears to instigate--for in truth, neither writing nor its antecedents possess agency and they instigate nothing. To write "after Joyce" requires, then, that this lack be supplied in the form of a mimicry, both in the assumption of a reflexive condition of writing itself, and a reflexivity conditioning the relation of "writing" to itself, each in any case assumed under the tenor of an historical subject. "Writing after Joyce" thus being "to write to, or for 'Joyce'"--as though "writing" were to somehow account for itself, as writing, in the manner of an "anxiety of influence." For such "anxieties" are always pre-possessive: to write "after Joyce" is also, even or precisely in its most negative formulations, to write (as though) "in Joyce's name."
It would be difficult here to avoid the question of institutionality, of the "author" or of "writing"--and the exemplary status of these terms. It is a question addressed at length by Joyce himself in Ulysses and needs not be recounted here. It should be enough for the time being to note that the name of Joyce is inflected not only by the literary capital that has accrued to it by way of its institutionalisation, but also by its metonymic substitution for what remains a powerful critique of all such corporate enterprises, previously undertaken in the name of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and company. That such a critique ought to be considered inherent to "Joyce" is not without its difficulties for any discussion of the problematic of "writing after Joyce." And it is for this reason that we may view the Joycean project as, in effect, the project of "writing" per se, whose continuity "after Joyce" is due to the inherence of a condition of writing and neither to a manifest literary intention nor its institutionalisation under one name or another.
In certain very important respects, this is at least one of the underlying contentions articulated in the work of composer/writer John Cage--arguably one of the major proponents of "writing after Joyce" from the 1940s until his death in 1992.
Foremost among Cage's encounters with the writing of James Joyce is a work entitled Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake. Cage's Roaratorio, originally conceived as a radio drama, and was first produced by Klaus Schöning for IRCAM in Paris in 1979, and later performed at the Frankfurt Opera House during the 1984 Joyce Symposium. The title itself derives from a passage in Finnegans Wake: "this longawaited Messiagh of roaratorios,"1 as does the content and most of the composition's formal logic.2 The idea for the Roaratorio began when Cage was invited to provide musical accompaniment to another project based upon Joyce's text, one which he had begun in 1976 as a contribution to an issue of TriQuarterly entitled In the Wake of the Wake, and which evolved into the book Writing for the Second Time through Finnegans Wake.
Cage himself already had a long history of involvement with Joyce's text, beginning with the adaptation of part of Finnegans Wake (556.1-22) in 1942 for the song lyric "The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs," originally composed "for voice and closed piano." For the later project, however, Cage turned to a combination of mechanical means to select and combine elements of Joyce's text, initially subjecting the Wake to a series of chance operations determined (autonomously of any "literary" criteria) by a computer programme called Mesolist (based on the I-Ching), which ultimately produced "a 41-page mesostic text, using the string JAMES JOYCE."3 In Cage's lexicon, a mesostic is a type of hermetic, "found" acrostic poem, which emerges in the form of textual fragments agglutinating around the capitalised proper name of the author (or any other arbitrarily determined string or set of terms):
A mesostic is like an acrostic; I used the name of JAMES JOYCE. And had I written acrostics the name would have gone down the margin, the left-hand-side. But a mesostic is a road down the middle. So I would look for a word with a J in it that didn't have an A because the A belongs on the second line for JAMES. And then a word with A that didn't have an M, and an M that didn't have an E, and an E that didn't have an S and in this way I made a path through the entire book [...]. I made the rule of not repeating a syllable that had already been used to express the J of James. So I kept an index, a card index [...] of 41 pages.
Working through Finnegans Wake, Cage uncovered 862 instances in which Joyce had "signed" his text in this way, collecting them in a single volume under the title Writing through Finnegans Wake. But after pressure from his editor at Wesleyan University Press, who claimed that the text was too long and boring, Cage produced another reading, this time entitled Writing for the Second Time through Finnegans Wake, the outcome of which offers particular insights to the transversality of "writing" as such.
Cage's mesostics dispute any straightforward notion of "writing after Joyce" in a number of ways, not least in their mimicry of the structural schema of Joyce's own text, as well as offering an implicit critique of the mystical idea of revelation through divine logos or authorial signature effect. The same procedure is at work in Roaratorio:
wroth with twoone nathandJoe
that the humptYhillhead of humself
is at the knoCk out
in thE park 4
Cage's use of the mesostic form is also revealing of the way in which schematic--or otherwise "mechanistic"--readings of texts ultimately display a certain arbitrariness in regards to apparent first principles, and how such "readings" are not only linked to but constituted in a certain process or procedure of "writing." Moreover, this "writing through" or "writing after Joyce" demonstrates an absence of justification for the text of Joyce--that "reading" (as a "writing after") never justifies its object, just as it can never assume a proprietary relation to it, no matter what claims it may make to the contrary. Consequently, while this "writing after" may seek to "answer to" its object (JOYCE), it cannot presume to "answer for" it. (Just as one cannot speak in the name of Joyce, however often it has been assumed otherwise by the claimants of copyright, and by certain members of academia or other institutions.)
If Cage's mesostics affect a retrospective illusion of affinity (to or with "JOYCE," as it were), this is merely by way of an act of assumption of a commonality, of a "discourse" whose lineaments assume an inherence in the object to which it seemingly refers. In this sense "JOYCE" becomes nothing more than a schematic figure, just as HCE and ALP can be seen to operate as schematic figures in the Wake, buoyed up by the illusion that each affects within itself a semantic inherence which is in fact the outcome of an increasingly fortuitous encounter between otherwise disparate (material) elements.
Indeed, Cage's Writing for the Second Time through Finnegans Wake emphasises the otherwise gratuitous relationship between the coincidence of material elements and the idea of semantic contiguity. And insofar as Cage and Joyce both suggest that all writing is schematic, this is in the sense that while coincidence may provide a semantic framework it at the same time remains "indifferent" to any a priori claim to semantic organisation. In Cage's mesostic texts, this is most clearly affected in the figure of the mock "skeleton key," JAMES JOYCE, which is reduced to a "primary non-reflectional" object the moment it ceases to designate anything beyond a "mere" structural conceit. The significance of this should not be overlooked, and its implications bear not only upon Cage's "writing after Joyce," but upon the entire infrastructure of "readability" in Joyce's text also.
It is one of John Dewey's basic contentions that "every empirical situation has its own organisation of a direct, non-logical character."5 Consequently writing, too, is a constant movement of redistribution--between the direct, non-logical apprehension of textual elements and their so-called symbolic function; or--with regards to the present discussion--between JAMES JOYCE as mesostic string and "Joyce" as the metonymic compartmentalisation of Finnegans Wake, Ulysses, high modernism, etc. In this movement, each co-ordinate term is momentarily focal--an effect of complementarity in which one reads between signifying effects, just as one reads such Wakean portmanteaux as, for example, HEARASAY IN / PARADOX LUST (FW 272). Whether one interprets these marks to "signify" hearsay or heresy, neither inheres in the simultaneous vision of the page (its "direct, non-logical character"). Instead we are confronted with a particularly schematic quality of this "organisation" of sublexical marks--one which is temporalised, differentiated, an "after effect" of writing or "writing after." Both and yet neither.
In 1979 the 41-page text of Writing for the Second Time through Finnegans Wake became the foundation for Roaratorio, which was composed as a sixty minute soundscape. While completing Roaratorio Cage became involved in another radio project. In 1982 Cologne's West German radio commissioned a work entitled An Alphabet, comprised of a textual collage of three central "characters"--James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp and Erik Satie--along with dialogue fragments from 14 others (including Buckminster Fuller, Robert Rauschenberg, Thorstein Weblen, Henry David Thoreau, and the Vocoder--an electronic voice synthesiser). Explaining his compositional techniques and the overall rationale of An Alphabet, Cage wrote: "It is possible to imagine that the artists whose work we live with constitute an alphabet by means of which we spell our lives."
However we choose to understand the word "spell" in this context, it is clear that for Cage the very idea of alphabeticisation--of a matrix of literacy operating in a mesostic arrangement between coincidence and coherence--characterises the life-world in which one "lives with" and "writes after," as much as one is "spelled." On the one hand, we seek the immanence of the whole in the part, on the other the recognition that "events do not cohere; at most certain sets of them happen more or less frequently than other sets; the only intelligible difference is one of frequency of coincidence."6 For Cage, as for Joyce, writing is, as Merleau-Ponty says: "pregnant with a meaning which can be read in the very texture of the linguistic gesture."7 The gesture itself may remain unread or unreadable, the merest outline or schematic of a temporalisation: an after effect, an "action at a distance of language, which brings significations together without touching them ..."8
© Louis Armand, 2004
|volume 5, issue 1, 2004|