Sunday, January 12, 2014
Finnegans Wiki by Mark Pesce
WORDS: MARK PESCE
LINKS: STEVE FLY
So what of Aristotle? What does this mean for the narrative? It is easy to conceive of a world where non-fiction texts simply dissolve into the universal sea of texts. But what about stories? From time out of mind we have listened to stories told by the campfire. The Iliad, The Mahabharata, andBeowolf held listeners spellbound as the storyteller wove the tale. For hours at a time we maintained our attention and focus as the stories that told us who we are and our place in the world traveled down the generations.
Will we lose all of this? Can narratives stand up against the centrifugal forces of hypertext? Authors and publishers both seem assured that whatever happens to non-fiction texts, the literary text will remain pure and untouched, even as it becomes a wholly electronic form. The lure of the literary text is that it takes you on a singular journey, from beginning to end, within the universe of the author’s mind. There are no distractions, no interruptions, unless the author has expressly put them there in order to add tension to the plot. A well-written literary text – and even a poorly-written but well-plotted ‘page-turner’ – has the capacity to hold the reader tight within the momentum of linearity. Something is a ‘page-turner’ precisely because its forward momentum effectively blocks the centrifugal force. We occasionally stay up all night reading a book that we ‘couldn’t put down’, precisely because of this momentum. It is easy to imagine that every literary text which doesn’t meet this higher standard of seduction will simply fail as an electronic book, unable to counter the overwhelming lure of the medium.
This is something we never encountered with printed books: until the mid-20th century, the only competition for printed books was other printed books. Now the entire Web – already quite alluring and only growing more so – offers itself up in competition for attention, along with television and films and podcasts and Facebook and Twitter and everything else that has so suddenly become a regular feature of our media diet. How can any text hope to stand against that?
And yet, some do. Children unplugged to read each of the increasingly-lengthy Harry Potter novels, as teenagers did for the Twilight series. Adults regularly buy the latest novel by Dan Brown in numbers that boggle the imagination. None of this is high literature, but it is literature capable of resisting all our alluring distractions. This is one path that the book will follow, one way it will stay true to Aristotle and the requirements of the narrative arc. We will not lose our stories, but it may be that, like blockbuster films, they will become more self-consciously hollow, manipulative, and broad. That is one direction, a direction literary publishers will pursue, because that’s where the money lies.
There are two other paths open for literature, nearly diametrically opposed. The first was taken byJRR Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings. Although hugely popular, the three-book series has never been described as a ‘page-turner’, being too digressive and leisurely, yet, for all that, entirely captivating. Tolkien imagined a new universe – or rather, retrieved one from the fragments of Northern European mythology – and placed his readers squarely within it. And although readers do finish the book, in a very real sense they do not leave that universe. The fantasy genre, which Tolkien single-handedly invented with The Lord of the Rings, sells tens of millions of books every year, and the universe of Middle-earth, the archetypal fantasy world, has become the playground for millions who want to explore their own imaginations. Tolkien’s magnum opus lends itself to hypertext; it is one of the few literary works to come complete with a set of appendices to deepen the experience of the universe of the books. Online, the fans of Middle-earth have created seemingly endless resources to explore, explain, and maintain the fantasy. Middle-earth launches off the page, driven by its own centrifugal force, its own drive to unpack itself into a much broader space, both within the reader’s mind and online, in the collective space of all of the work’s readers. This is another direction for the book. While every author will not be a Tolkien, a few authors will work hard to create a universe so potent and broad that readers will be tempted to inhabit it. (Some argue that this is the secret of JK Rowling’s success.)
Finally, there is another path open for the literary text, one which refuses to ignore the medium that constitutes it, which embraces all of the ambiguity and multiplicity and liminality of hypertext. There have been numerous attempts at ‘hypertext fiction’; nearly all of them have been unreadable failures. But there is one text which stands apart, both because it anticipated our current predicament, and because it chose to embrace its contradictions and dilemmas. The book was written and published before the digital computer had been invented, yet even features an innovation which is reminiscent of hypertext. That work is James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and it was Joyce’s deliberate effort to make each word choice a layered exploration of meaning that gives the text such power. It should be gibberish, but anyone who has read Finnegans Wake knows it is precisely the opposite. The text is overloaded with meaning, so much so that the mind can’t take it all in. Hypertext has been a help; there are a few wikis which attempt to make linkages between the text and its various derived meanings (the maunderings of four generations of graduate students and Joycephiles), and it may even be that – in another twenty years or so – the wikis will begin to encompass much of what Joyce meant. But there is another possibility. In so fundamentally overloading the text, implicitly creating a link from every single word to something else, Joyce wanted to point to where we were headed. In this, Finnegans Wake could be seen as a type of science fiction, not a dystopian critique like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, nor the transhumanist apotheosis of Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (both near-contemporary works) but rather a text that pointed the way to what all texts would become, performance by example. As texts become electronic, as they melt and dissolve and link together densely, meaning multiplies exponentially. Every sentence, and every word in every sentence, can send you flying in almost any direction. The tension within this text (there will be only one text) will make reading an exciting, exhilarating, dizzying experience – as it is for those who dedicate themselves to Finnegans Wake.
It has been said that all of human culture could be reconstituted from Finnegans Wake. As our texts become one, as they become one hyperconnected mass of human expression, that new thing will become synonymous with culture. Everything will be there, all strung together. And that’s what happened to the book.
FATTENING BLOGS FOR SNAKES 2014