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18 December, 2009

What Robert Anton Wilson didn't know


by Thomas Jackson Rice

The “Heliotropical Noughttime” passage of Finnegans Wake occurs about half-way through Book II, Chapter 3 of James Joyce’s work, in the so-called pub chapter. It is the third of five passages that Joyce sets off from the rest of text by brackets and italic script, punctuating the Butt and Taff dialogue concerning the story of how Buckley shot the Russian General. These passages apparently describe television broadcasts on the pub’s TV receiver: The other four feature a horse race, world news, a thermonuclear explosion, and finally the customers of the pub themselves. Consistent with the logic of his language patterning throughout the Wake, because the subject is television, Joyce interlaces numerous allusions to the technology of mechanical and electronic television into his word-play in these passages. This is especially true of the “Heliotropical Noughttime” interlude that opens with a cluster of such references in the first 12 lines (see the underlined terms here). The paragraph opens by picturing Butt and Taff fading from the television screen and being replaced by an HCE figure, “Popey O’Donoshough,” in its fourteenth line (FW 349.20). Incidentally, it’s an open question throughout the eighteen pages of the Butt and Taff section (FW 337.32-355.09) whether these two characters are patrons regaling the other customers in the pub with their version of the Russian General story, or are slapstick comedians on the pub’s television telling the tale. Joyce appears to want to have it both ways, and the latter seems to be the case in “Heliotropical Noughttime.

When Butt and Taff fade from view, the authoritarian figure of “Popey” emerges to take command of the television screen. He is “Pop,” of course, but also the Pope, Popeye, the General of the Jesuit order, the Russian General and Tsar, and by the end of the paragraph, Pompey. And “Popey” does some peculiar things. Ever the exhibitionist, HCE shows his medals and decorations and begins to lead some sort of religious service, but then—after a slight adjustment of the tuning (FW 349.27-28)—we see him blink his eyes, blow his nose and raise his fingers, or put his fingers in his nose, wipe his mouth, apparently bundle his hands and feet together, and then expose his male member while confessing his transgressions.

HCE’s antic behaviors initially struck me as just another one of those madly comic moments in Joyce, rather like when Leopold Bloom muses about putting a recording of “poor old greatgrandfather” on the gramophone “After dinner on a Sunday” as he walks in the graveyard toward the conclusion of the Hades episode of Ulysses (U 6.964). It turns out, however, that just as Bloom’s fancy reflects turn-of-the century ideas about the possible applications of sound-recording technology (Rice 119), HCE’s odd exhibitionism is directly related to contemporary television technology. Among other things, HCE is giving a sample demonstration of the new medium of television to an audience.

The television demonstration was a minor art form that flourished from the mid-1920s through the mid-1930s, the years of intense development of this new technology in Europe, the United States, and the Far East, as various inventors and entrepreneurs competed to demonstrate the quality of the images they could televise via their increasingly sophisticated equipment and formats (Abramson passim). We know from several references in the Wake, including “the bairdboard bombardment screen” in the third line of the “Heliotropical Noughttime” passage (FW349.09), that Joyce followed with interest the career of John Logie Baird who regularly presented public demonstrations of his mechanical television technology in England through these years, earning considerable press coverage as he courted both publicity and investors (see Fisher and Fisher 23-36, 228-30, 246-50 and passim). René Barthlemey was similarly demonstrating television in Joyce’s Paris, as were several others throughout Europe and the world (Abramson 146, 218-19 and passim). Because television was not a storage technology, until the development of the kinescope film at mid-century and videotape even later, these demonstrations were necessarily ephemeral events. While working on Joyce’s use of television in Finnegans Wake, however, for my latest book Cannibal Joyce, I serendipitously discovered that at least one, and perhaps the only such television demonstration has been preserved on film in the Fox Movietone Newsreel collection that happens to be housed in the library of my home university, the University of South Carolina. The Newsfilm Library at South Carolina has kindly allowed me to attach a video file of this film to this essay, for your viewing pleasure. The filmed demonstration turns out to be as comically odd as HCE’s performance in the “Heliotropical Noughttime” paragraph, and it reminds us that Joyce always maintained that his art is grounded in reality, that when confronted with a need in his writing he invariably found that life itself would give him just what he wanted. As he remarks to Jacques Mercanton: “Why should I regret my talent? I haven’t any. I write with such difficulty, so slowly. Chance furnishes me what I need. I am like a man who stumbles along; my foot strikes something, I bend over, and it is exactly what I want” (Mercanton 213). I suggest that for the occasion of picturing HCE taking command of the TV screen, Joyce’s foot stumbled on the standard format of the television demonstration as a model for Popey’s antic behaviors.

Before you view the Movietone footage, however, let me comment briefly on what (little) has been said about television in the Wake generally and also give you some background for what you will be seeing.

There are three persistent myths in Wake scholarship about James Joyce’s use of television in his book: (1) that he anticipates a future medium that did not exist at the time of his writing; (2) that he responded positively to the possibilities of television, as he had responded to radio, as a form of technology that bore a resemblance to his own art; and (3), notwithstanding his embrace of television, that he himself never saw TV.

We owe the general assumption that Joyce was imagining television as a future information and entertainment medium, I believe, to William York Tindall who, in his Reader’s Guide to “Finnegans Wake,” essentially credits him for inventing TV: “there was no TV at the time of Earwicker’s dream or Joyce’s writing” (197). This is simply incorrect. Although broadcast television went on the air in Tindall’s USA about three months after the publication of Finnegans Wake, regular broadcast services were already in operation in Europe as Joyce completed his composition of the Wake: in Germany, from March 1935, in England from November 1936, and irregularly in France in 1935-36. In other words, broadcast television was an increasingly daily reality in Joyce’s world as he wrote the Butt and Taff sequence between 1935 and 1938 (Rice 141-43; Hayman xiii).

I, among many other Joyceans, have written extensively about Joyce’s embrace of, and appropriations from, contemporary popular culture, and in an extended study of the use of television in Finnegans Wake in Cannibal Joyce I account for his atypically negative response to this visual medium that, unlike literature, would reduce its audience to a mindlessly passive form of consumption (Rice 127-64). This is why he juxtaposes the television sequences in theWake to a tale of resistance to totalitarianism and suffuses both the Butt and Taff dialogue and the televised passages with references to violence and war. The full argument, which I will not reproduce here, disputes the second myth about the role of television in Finnegans Wake: the contention that, in the words of Clive Hart, Joyce enthusiastically responded to “electric techniques of television” as a close parallel to “his own creative process” (159).

We also owe the third myth, that Joyce himself “never saw any television at all,” to Clive Hart, although to be fair, Hart does consider this an “amazing fact in view of the extraordinarily realistic evocation of the medium that he achieves inFinnegans Wake” (158). To be more than fair, we should acknowledge that Joyce saw very little of anything, given the deterioration of his eyesight during his composition of the Wake. Yet we shouldn’t let the fact that Joyce probably never saw television blind us to what appears to have been his keen interest in, and understanding of, the development of this medium through the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, given the extensive coverage of the latest advances in television technology in the news and the frequent public demonstrations of the most recent equipment through these same years, it would be hard for a man, even a man much less interested in contemporary media than Joyce, not to be aware of what was going on, what problems were being solved, and how near the advent of broadcast television was.(1) As Lowell Hartley says in the newsfilm demonstration that accompanies this essay, by the early 1930s “most people have heard so much about television.” It would be surprising if Joyce, who was fascinated by current technology, didn’t have a good understanding of the medium. In other words, Joyce well understood and, in this sense, “saw” television, even if he didn’t see television.

The accompanying Fox Movietone Newsreel footage documents early developments in television technology. According to the records of the University of South Carolina Newsfilm Library, this footage was shot for one of Fox’s bi-weekly newsreels in March 1931 at the General Electric Company’s research laboratories in Schenectady, New York, which GE dubbed the “House of Magic.” The film was intended, and could have been used, for a newsreel screened sometime in the spring of 1931, but we do not have any surviving documentation concerning its use, and the finished newsreels themselves for this period, as often the case in the 1920s and early 1930s, were not preserved. So what you will see is a composite of slightly more than ten minutes of film that would have been edited down in some manner and combined with other stories, to circulate nationally for movie-house screenings.

The footage in its present state consists of five sequences. It opens with Dr. Ernst Alexanderson, chief of the American General Electric Company’s television project since 1924, presenting a brief introduction (time mark 0.00-1.00) (Abramson 80 and passim). In the second sequence, Alexanderson’s assistant Lowell Hartley explains the basics of the mechanical capture of a television picture by means of the “flying spot” of light generated by a device called a Nipkow scanning disk, which Joyce calls a “scanning firespot” in the ninth line of the “Heliotropical Noughttime” passage (FW349.15) (time mark 1.00-2.46). Incidentally, a few years later an electronic scanner called the iconoscope—what Joyce refers to as “the inconoscope” in the thirteenth line (FW 349.19), was invented for the RCA Company by Vladimir Zworykin. Zworykin’s device rendered this mechanical Nipkow process obsolete and led directly to the advent of broadcast television (Abramson 193-225). The third sequence is, as Hartley announces, “the first motion picture of a television image that has ever been produced” (time mark 2.47-5.31). This is the demonstration proper, and Hartley performs a number of increasingly grotesque actions before the television camera: initially rubbing his face and hair, then showing his teeth and sticking out his tongue, and then rolling his eyes and blowing cigarette smoke in various directions. The fact that sound synchronization for this demonstration raises the pitch of Hartley’s voice to that of a prepubescent boy only adds to the oddness. The fourth sequence contains some outtakes and Hartley’s description of the mechanical process for reprojecting a televised image (time mark 5.31-7.27). The final sequence is a second version of the demonstration, on film rather than via the televised image, that restores Hartley’s voice to normal but, ironically, shows that television has a long way to go before it can rival the clarity and definition of a motion picture image (time mark 7.27-10.18).(2)

All I will say in conclusion is the self-evident: no professional actors were involved in the production of this newsreel.

Works Cited
Abramson, Albert. The History of Television, 1880 to 1941. London: McFarland, 1987.
Fisher, David E., and Marshall Jon Fisher. Tube: The Invention of Television. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1996.
Hart, Clive. Structure and Motif in Finnegans Wake. London: Faber, 1962.
Hayman, David. “Preface.” Finnegans Wake, Book II, Chapter 3: A Facsimile of Drafts, Typescripts, and Proofs. Ed. Hayman. 2 vols. The James Joyce Archive. Gen. ed. Michael Groden. New York: Garland, 1978, I, vii-xiv.
Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. [1939.] New York: Viking, 1959.
------. Ulysses. Ed. Hans Walter Gabler. New York: Random House, 1984, 1986.
Mercanton, Jacques. “The Hours of James Joyce.” Trans. Lloyd C. Parks. Portraits of the Artist in Exile: Recollections of James Joyce by Europeans. Ed. Willard Potts. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979, 206-52.
Rice, Thomas Jackson. Cannibal Joyce. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008.
Tindall, WilliamYork. A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.

1 As early as the summer of 1927, for example, as he was writing the latter portion of the “Questions” chapter of the Wake (I, 6), Joyce inserts a reference to the “faroscope of television” (FW 150.32-33), within weeks of the announcement of a device for recording a television signal called the “phonoscope,” by the inventor and entrepreneur John Logie Baird (Abramson 104).

2 The Fox cameraman filmed this second version of the demonstration, showing Hartley from the side and facing the television camera while performing, separately from the “historic” first filming of the live television picture earlier in the footage. Viewers will notice slight variations in Hartley’s script and actions in the two demonstrations. Very likely the Fox crew had only one film camera for this shoot, thus requiring Hartley to give his demonstration a second time.]

Bob Dobbs

1 comment:

  1. This is fascinating! I've never read Finnegan's Wake but I certainly intend to, and this article is quite inspiring.
    Lisa, ANZ LitLovers