Dr. Strangewords: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wake
(with apologies to Monsieurs Terry Southern and Stanley Kubrick)
“The mome rath hasn’t been born that can outgrabe me.”
-James Thurber, The Thurber Carnival”
As with any student seated in a halfway decent high school English Lit class, anywhere in the English Speaking world, I’d been taught from the outset that Mr. James Joyce was a formidable talent to be reckoned with. I’d already heard in fact, while knowing not from direct experience, that his tome Ulysseswas considered by many, probably most literary scholars, according to a great number of lists, to be the slickest (read ‘finest’) work in the English language of the 20th century, if not since the Immortal Bard his own bad self put quill to vellum. So it was armed with this informational preface that I, an even younger man, began to read Joyce’s first published novel, (though not his first published work) A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. One cannot easily make up one’s own mind about the strength of talent of a writer’s output given such a heady setup (Artist being number 3, on the Modern Library List of best 100 novels in the 1900’s, just south of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby). Many youngsters who first attempt to read Shakespeare and other literary masters are bound by the same dilemma. So I scanned the slim work, which I decided was approachable, but deemed it unremarkable. Given the chance to take a sidelong glance back through the rear view mirror of time, I’m quite aware that it was I, not Joyce who at the time severely lacked ‘remark’. But for a time, it was my sole brush with the Jocyean canon.
Then one day…
…when, as a snotnosed, ‘sure he knows-it-all’ freshman at Berkeley I was introduced to the writings of another writer, a self proclaimed Joycean scholar, by a hipster-ish high school mate of mine. My pal suggested a work that would almost immediately come to have a powerful impact on my young mind, written by, as far as I could tell, one of the Secret Chiefs, Robert Anton Wilson, or RAW. The book I was handed, both fascinating and funny, Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati, a supposed non-fiction follow up to Wilson’s supposed fictive trilogy co-authored with Bob Shea entitled Illuminatus! The reading of the former blew my still forming fucking mind. In a good way. I poured through it, becoming deeply invested in many of the suggested phenomenological subjects, not the least of which was one that set me out on a daily search through all things for the magical numerals, ’23’. At first as illusive is the fabled, snark, ultimately I would view them very nearly everywhere. Forty Years hence, I still do.
Much later, in fact a couple of years after the passing of RAW’s dear friend and mine, Timothy Leary, I ran into Bob again. It was at one of Rosemary Leary’s and Denis Berry’s annual “Timothy Leary Memorial Potlucks” (shortened by the brilliant comedy writer, performer and standup, the late great Tom Davis as The Leary Mem-Pot,) They all took place and I believe there were seven in all, all of which I attended, in a redwood treed cottage on the curiously named Trout Gulch Road in Aptos California. So lovely was the spot that Rosemary chose to stay there even though the dark and somewhat moldy space often wrecked havoc on her emphysema-d lungs. A condition that would ultimately take her life. She, never having moved from that magical spot.
In fact the final gathering on Trout Gulch would be for the memorial for the remarkably brilliant, beautiful, completely wonderful Rosemary, Tim’s third wife. The one who arranged Tim’s escape from prison with the Weather Underground, wrote with him, dressed him in the clothes that would be adopted by tens of thousands as de rigueur for the 1960’s counter culture; the ones who came by it honestly as well as other I sup-poseurs. In any case Ro, like so many of the women of the time, was never given anything close to her due. And if I have anything to say about it… But back to the Mem-Pot.
While escorting, assisting really, Robert Wilson to a car being driven by a young friend of his at the tail end of the gathering (you see Bob had had polio as a child and was in his latter years suffering from post polio syndrome) I mentioned to him how much the 23 phenomenon meant to me in my younger days and that I still kept an eye out for them probably too often. He smiled that sparkly, goateed smile of his and said, “You know who told me about the magic of the number 23?” He had to stop speaking as I carefully helped him into the back seat of the car, a somewhat painful undertaking for him. I shut the door behind him. But before he could answer his own query, the designated driving friend turned on the car and spun off, crunching the gravel drive as he sped away, leaving me slack jawed and bereft of an answer.
That is until exactly one year later at the very next Mem/Pot at Rosemary’s and Denis’s shared home (Denis replaced Ro as the co-Trustee of Timothy’s Futique Trust along with wonderful Donna Scott, the wife of the late, hugely talented and truly warm Tony Scott.) I happened to be walking out of the house onto the gravel drive just as a Santa Cruzian, bumper-sticker festooned car pulled up. I could see Bob in the backseat again. It stopped right in front of me and grinning, I reversed the procedure from the previous year, this time helping him out of the car into a wheelchair, his post polio syndrome having progressed. It must be said that as far as I could tell, it never seemed to too negatively impact his irascible and magical life view. I mentioned the previous dangling conversation and he answered simply, “William Burroughs.” It was a seamless conversation separated in the middle by a year of days. Seems Bob had proclaimed upon reading the as yet unpublished Naked Lunch in 1956, that Burroughs was, “the greatest prose stylist since James Joyce.” Though it took another 10 years for the two men to meet. Bill told Bob the following story, excerpted from Cosmic Trigger. “In the early ’60’s in Tangier, Burroughs know a certain Captain Clark who ran a ferry from Tangier to Spain… that he’d been running… (for) 23 years without an accident. That very day the ferry sank killing Clark and everybody aboard.
In the evening, Burroughs was thinking about this when he turned on the radio. The first newscast told about the crash of an Eastern Airlines plane on the New York-Miami route. The pilot was another Captain Clark and the flight was listed as Flight 23.”
“Burroughs began keeping records of odd coincidences. To his astonishment, 23’s appeared in a lot of them.” Bob then began keeping his own records with the same result.
Bob then lists a number of impactful instances when 23 would pop up in his life along with various theories as to why this might be happening, running from pure coincidence augmented by focus of attention to the “non-local trans-time theory of causality. Or Jung’s theory of synchronicity. He had a million of ‘em… And suggested that you allow each one their space.
In another similar experiment he asks you to visualize a quarter. to focus on it very clearly in your mind’s eye. In the next couple of days, he asks that you keep an eye peeled for a quarter on the ground as you move through life. After finding one, he suggests that you decide that it was just a coincidence and that your fixed attention had noticed what you had decided to look for. Then you are to try it again, but on finding the next quarter, decide that the mind controls everything and actually manifested the quarter! I think the idea, in part anyway, is to try your damnedest never to be certain that you know everything about anything. That there is only one explanation and you possess it. That instead you remain open to a wide variety of explanations. And that the opposite of that is called ‘Fundamentalism’ the mind being so fixed, it isn’t allowed to change even when presented with new information. That all evidence becomes shoved into the very same tiny box, no matter what your senses might be telling you from one moment to the other. Another term for this might be “Trumpism” as practiced by his legions of followers. The infamous roughly low ended 32 percent of the populous which is of course 23 backwards.
My buddy Gerry Fialka, founder of the Venice Marshall McLuhan / Finnegans Wake Group of which I am a proud member, recently pointed out to me what must have been the first but certainly not the last posthumous RAW / 23 phenomenon. The day that the Jim Carry movie 23 first came out in theaters, was the very day dear Robert Anton Wilson passed.
To me, the monthly gathering to indulge in Mr. McLuhan’s tetrad and the glorious Finnegans Wake serves the very same purpose, of shaking off the cobwebs that seem to build up too easily in my thought processes. It’s kind of a monthly mind cleaning. And one that makes me and my compatriots, belly laugh out loud with absolute and predictable regularity.
About Ulysses, Bob notes that the entire book takes place on one day in the year 1904, now referred to as Bloomsday. 1904. Nineteen plus four equaling, well, you get the idea.
There were as I recall a handful of references to Joyce in Cosmic Trigger, since Bob, as I would later get to call him was a scholar unparalleled of many forms, in many arenas, which he had the uncanny ability to link up in some sort of literate unified field theory of the universe. He was able to conjoin everything from Alchemy, Madam Blavatsky, Gurdjieff and Crowlian Magick, as written in the guides to Ordo Templi Orientis, inscribed and practiced in The Book of Lies by the despised and / or devoted-to Great Beast Aleister Crowley (pronounced according to Bob like ‘slowly’), to Orson Wells’s F for Fake, the works of doctors Timothy Leary and John C. Lilly, the latest (at the time) cutting edge theories of Quantum Physics and yes, of the giant, James Augustine Aloysius Joyce (1882 - 1941). By pulling examples from these and dozens of other models of the Universe, from the common place to highly esoteric, he would exemplify the same point in a number of different ways, giving one the feeling that there just might be actually some rhyme or reason to the oft seeming overwhelming chaos of life. Ditto the Wake.
But Wilson was not only considered a scholar of Ulysses, a foreboding novel that has set by my bedside barely cracked until recently for over a decade, but of another book who’s name I had only heard whispered, Joyce’s final novel, 17 years in the writing and by all accounts, including my own, the completely unreadable Finnegan's Wake; cue lightening strike. A book that has terrified students of literature since first published in 1939, only two years before Joyce succumbed to the post surgical effects of a perforated ulcer. In fact, Joyce’s own flesh and blood, his brother Stanislaus told many that he considered it the greatest literary prank ever played on the gullibility of the reading public. Joyce himself told friends that he hoped to keep collage professors busy for the next 200 years.
It should be noted that in addition to Bob Wilson, it was my godfather, one of my closest lifelong friends, the beyond extraordinary, genius Timothy Leary who first served to introduce me to the thinkings of Mr. McLuhan, he and Tim being great ol’ buddies. In fact it was McLuhan who told Tim, following Tim’s testimony in front of Teddy Kennedy and a U.S. Senate subcommittee (which by the way should go down in history as arguably the greatest testimony ever given in front of that august body. Look it up), that Tim was wasting his time with those people. That he was involved in an ad campaign to capture the imaginations of the youth of America. That he needed an ad campaign, a slogan, a pitch. I offer you “Turn on, Tune in and Drop Out” your honor.
Timothy, a philosopher, free thinker, futurist, psychologist, cybernaut and so much more, who almost single handedly changed the course of the 20th Century, was also a great lover and scholar of Joyce and the Wake. Though my own true interest in the Wake didn’t begin in earnest until after he passed. As with so many things, wish we had him around still to explore his big brain on the topic. It’s also my humble opinion that in his heart of hearts, he just might rather have been Joyce, considered mostly for his writings, than anything else. And I cannot recommend his books, every single one, any more highly, if one is truly interested in delving into various methods of ‘Brain Change’. Just reading any one of ‘em will alone take you a goodly distance in that direction.
Bob Wilson writes that when he first met Timothy he mentioned that there were several references to “Leary” and to “LSD” in the Wake. Tim told him that of course there were, that Leary was a common Irish name and that LSD stood for English currency. Tim always had a logical explanation for everything. Still…
So I never considered picking up the damn book, that Finnegans Wake until around 1983 or thereabouts when I very fortunately and much to my enthrallment, was invited by Timothy, to not only meet Mr. Wilson, but to attend, along with Tim’s wife Barbara, my then girlfriend, the lovely and unusual Martha Clark, and my parents Gil and Joanne Segel to hear Bob expound on the Wake for three uninterrupted hours, with green board and chalk in hand, at a Santa Monica based Masonic Temple. The absolutely perfect venue to catch Bob’s ‘act’. He largely spent the time dissecting one single paragraph from the great book. And while I found his picking apart of each word and sentence at times somewhat confusing, oft times thoroughly perplexing, I became hooked by the lines, but far from sinking, I levitated, in a manner of sinking, uh, speaking. And we then all went out to a wonderful meal at a small bistro in Santa Monica, with bon mots flying by as fast as one could grok ‘em!
But what to do with this new found inspiration? I wouldn’t know until another dozen years had passed. My father was inspired to buy two copies of the book the day following Bob’s talk, one for me, and one for himself. And while I tried on occasion to leap in, I was always left with an expression that I’ve seen often since then on the faces of friends when I suggest that they accompany me to the Venice Marshall McLuhan / Finnegans Wake Group; one of fear, trepidation and emblematic of the conviction that they are in no way clever enough nor do they possess the necessary skills to penetrate this seeming impenetrable novel, no matter how many times I assure them that everything they need to know, to take on the two pages a month that we attack, they already possess within the confines of their own brimming cranium. I firmly believe that to absolutely be the case.
So it was my grand good fortune to meet Gerry Fialka at a performance at the defunct funky Temple Bar, of the Mothers and Grandmothers of Invention (former Zappa musicians all) and be invited to attend my very first once a month meeting of the Venice McLuhan / Wake group in February of the year 2000. Give or take. Thus began in earnest, my immersion into the Wake.
By the way, while an appreciator of the talent of, though not a huge Zappa-tista myself, it was nonetheless a grand night. For not only did I meet Gerry and his brilliant chanteuse of a wife Suzy Williams and hear some good music, but I was able also to meet and thank Matt Groening a huge Zappa fan himself, for his series of cartoons, Life in Hell, The Simpsons, and for building one of the only authentic feeling new homes in the Venice Canals where I was living at the time.
I quite often declare that Gerry is a someone whom I believe to be the most important person in Venice, culturally speaking, since the old man Abbot Kinney himself booked the town's entertainments and Chautauquas at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, more than a century before the most unpleasant recent changes had taken place. And yes, I’m talking to you effete Snapchatters! Had I not met Gerry that night, our paths would still most certainly have crossed, since he and I are as tie-dyed in the wool Venetians as there are. And we were bound to argue, late into the night, as we later did, on the then still artistic streets of Venice, about whether his friend, McLuhan archivist and spiritual guide of the Venice McFinn Group, Bob Dobbs, had gotten the better of Timothy during some historic recorded conversation. Tim won by the way Gerry. But I digress.
I say involved with the Wake because it is not simply to be read, but instead to be dived into, or as Gerry tells us, to be “performed”, and its meaning is in large part, whatever it inspires within the mind of each individual performer. Bob Wilson concluded after more than fifty years reading the Wake(‘emerge or cause to emerge from a state of sleep’ sez the Oxford Dictionary) three distinct points. One, that it should be read with a group of like minded souls. Two, that it must be read aloud, and finally that a six pack of Guiness can really help one to decipher the damn thing. Though in meeting in a public library each month, only his first two suggestions usually came into play.
This is what I’ve taken away after 17 years of attending the Venice Marshall McLuhan / Finnegans Wake group. That by the way makes me a newbie, since the group itself has met for 22. To date we are only about three quarters of the way through the book. No matter, its end loops back to the very beginning, so should we ever finish we will be forced to begin anew. For as Ulysses takes place in it’s entirety, in that one singular day, June 16th, 1904, commemorating by the way, the day Joyce first dated his beloved Nora and received from her what must certainly be the most literarily inspiring hand job in human history, the Wake alternately takes place, seemingly anyway, in one singular night, as a dream. Thus, as with all dreams let alone all great works of fiction, it is fully open to interpretation by the dreamer, who, in a sense, by engaging in the book, we all become. (Here’s an excerpt of what I was asked to write by Gerry Fialka for him to take to this year’s 18th Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association.)
I look at reading / performing Finnegans Wake in very much the same way I see running McLuhan’s Tetrad. In fact, a so-called psychedelic journey whether achieved through the practice of Stan Grof’s Holotropic (pranayamicly styled) Breathing or via the ingestion of an ancient or more newly fangled psychotropic substance, can be quite similarly helpful as the aforementioned two disciplines in achieving that which I constantly crave; BRIAN CHANGE, a shift out of our rutted neural pathways onto fresh soil, blazing, if not always a sparklingly new trail for ourselves, certainly a move onto a metaphoric road much less well traveled.
Specifically, when I wade through my first pass of a page or two of the Wake as I do most months at Gerry Fialka’s monthly McLuhan / Finnegans Wake (hereto for referred to as “McFinn”) Gathering, so very many words and phrases seem nearly imperceptible to my poor, seemingly insufficient cerebrum. However by squinting my mind’s eye a bit and altering it’s angle of sight to one more novel, entire overlays begin to lift off of the page like some multidimensional children's popup book or perhaps more precisely a multileveled hologram (In fact I’d be much obliged to anyone who would kindly design me some specs, similar to those worn in 3D cinema theaters, that might assist in my Wakian pursuits…)
Similarly when Gerry encourages us to take a fresh look at some human-made technology, we normally initially view it through the framework of our engrained belief systems as in “oh, what a wonderful aid this very thing is to mankind, to civilization itself!” or more likely “My god that's the most terrible, horrible thing that has yet been devised in the enormity of our history and it most certainly must lead to the end of society as we know it!” How trite. How simplistic. How reductionist.
Instead if we chance to avail ourselves of the potentialities that can be released via the Tetrad, we can step out of our well-worn didactic impressions and can skew into, at the very least, somewhat fresher viewpoints. In this way, I believe we are less likely to remain somnambulating through our hackneyed sets of beliefs and might even be lead closer towards a considerably more creative, authentic life experience. And whom, I ask you, is not desirous of that!
It is only left to us to pick our poisons [sic].
Michael David Segel
© Michael David Segel 2017 (not to be reprinted without the express written permission of the author who can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org