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Manuscript Genetics, Joyce's Know-How, Beckett's Nohow$

Dirk Van Hulle

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780813032009

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813032009.001.0001

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Genetics and Poetics

Genetics and Poetics

(p.9) 1 Genetics and Poetics
Manuscript Genetics, Joyce's Know-How, Beckett's Nohow

Dirk Van Hulle

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses and charts the ways in which authors have looked at their own writing throughout previous centuries. Genetic criticism is a confusing term, and it is often associated with biogenetics instead of literary studies. It is a relatively young discipline that was developed in France by scholars such as Jean-Louis Lebrave and Daniel Ferrer, but it still shares some form of metaphorical connection with biogenetics. The metaphor may be a useful instrument to the study of the way people conceive of their own activities, and the discussion in this chapter examines some of the metaphors that are used by authors such as Mary Shelley.

Keywords:   writing, genetic criticism, literary studies, metaphor, biogenetics, authors, Mary Shelly

Genetic criticism (critique génétique) is a confusing term, often associated with biogenetics instead of literary studies. The relationship between both disciplines may be a vaguely similar fascination with creation or procreation, but the thoroughly different nature of their respective research objects suggests a merely metaphorical connection. Nevertheless, metaphors may be a useful instrument to study the way in which we conceive of our own activities. They reflect the ways in which we look at things, and as such they can also have a profound impact on the way we understand those things. As a consequence, new fields of research in the early stages of their conceptualization are typically marked by a frequent change in the use of metaphors. This also applies to genetic criticism, a relatively young discipline that was developed in France by scholars such as Louis Hay, Almuth Grésillon, Daniel Ferrer, Pierre-Marc de Biasi, and Jean-Louis Lebrave, working together as a team in the Institut des Textes et Manuscrits Modernes (ITEM) in Paris. As Almuth Grésillon points out, the metaphors that were employed to give shape to this new discipline can be divided into two categories: an organic and a constructivist type (1992: 11). But these two types have a much longer history that marks the development of poetics in general.

The history of representations of the creative process shows a constant tension between imitation and originality. The Greeks and Romans “out-sourced” the notions of inspiration and creative impulse to what they called “the Muses.” This view was dominant from Homer's “Tell me, Muse” until the first half of the eighteenth century. In Swift's Battle of the Books, the bee gets the full support of the Ancients, against the Modern spider who pretends to be able to create ex nihilo. In his Imitations of Horace (1733–38), Alexander Pope suggested studying Homer to find the Muses among the Ancients: “Be Homer's Works your Study, and Delight, / Read them by Day, and meditate by Night, / Thence form your Judgment, thence your Maxims bring, / And trace the Muses upward to their Spring.”

(p.10) Around the middle of the eighteenth century, the scales were drastically tipped and the stress on imitation was replaced by a radical emphasis on originality, as in Edward Young's Conjectures on Original Composition (1759). The metaphors he uses are almost exclusively organic. According to Young, “the mind of a man of Genius is a fertile and pleasant field (…); it enjoys a perpetual Spring” (§34). Moreover, “an Original may be said to be of a vegetable nature; it rises spontaneously from the vital root of Genius; it grows, it is not made” (§43). This development is contrasted with what Young calls “Imitations,” which are “a sort of Manufacture, wrought up by those Mechanics, Art, and Labour, out of pre-existent materials not their own” (§43).

A century after Young's Conjectures, his suggestion that an original “is not made” but “grows” was exemplified in the works of Walt Whitman. The organic metaphors employed by Whitman also apply to the “growth” of the successive editions of Leaves of Grass, and even to Whitman studies, which are marked by a long tradition of organic metaphors. This tradition is examined in The Growth of “Leaves of Grass” by M. Jimmie Killingsworth, who points out that Whitman critics have often unquestioningly absorbed the author's organic metaphors.

In Killingsworth's typology, three variations on the theme of growth are clearly discernible: the genetic, the progressive, and the cyclic. The genetic type “implies that the work of the poet grows from an essential center of being” (1993: 1). According to this view, each poem, each stanza, each line by the same poet is imbued with an identity that links it to “an informing center.” The entire oeuvre radiates from this center, which is compared to a gene. Because of this analogy, Killingsworth calls this conception of poetry “genetic”—which further confuses the term “genetic criticism.” The second category in his typology stresses the sequential aspect of growth, as in concepts such as progress and evolution, which contrast sharply with the image of radial growth. This second concept of growth implies amelioration and a form of teleology. According to this view, the steady progress culminates in completion. The third category in its turn dismisses this “ascending narrative” and prefers a cyclic view on organic growth. This “modern” approach includes both maturation and decline, “admitting loss as well as gain as a consequence of organic growth” (1).

In Whitman studies, the transition from the progressive to the cyclic view is marked by a gradual rejection of the so-called “death-bed edition” (1891–92) of Leaves of Grass as the culmination of the work's growth. The alternative conception of this work's development starts with its first (p.11) appearance in 1855, reaching maturity in the third (1860) or the fourth (1867) edition, which was followed by a long period of decline: “The poems added in the 1870s and 1880s added weight without muscle. The revisions obscured rather than enhanced the accomplishment and radical energy of the earlier poems” (6).

Jerome McGann has pointed out that the phenomenon of critics absorbing the metaphors of the authors they study is particularly striking in the study of English Romantic poetry. In The Romantic Ideology, he argues that the second category (the progressive view) has been predominant in criticism of Romanticism, which tends to “show (say) Keats's or Byron's progress from certain interesting but undeveloped ideas, through various intermediate stages, to conclude in some final wisdom or ‘achievement’” (1983: 135).

The progressive view, however, is not necessarily linked to organic metaphors. If Romantic poets' self-representations have had an influence on critics, the constructivist metaphors cannot be neglected either. Other nineteenth-century views on writing emphasize architectonic design and mathematical calculation, and in spite of Young's Conjectures, imitation was certainly not generally regarded as an inferior practice. Authors such as Mary Shelley did acknowledge that “everything must have a beginning,” and “Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.” In the “Author's Introduction”1 to her most famous book, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley refers to the nature of the so-called “principle of life” and explicitly employs the term “manufacture” that Edward Young so fiercely rejected: “perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth” (8).

Mary Shelley compared her own book to her protagonist's monster by calling it her “hideous progeny.” This is quite an important aesthetic statement, for it expresses a changing view in modern poetics, referring to organic material, but applying constructive metaphors to it. Frankenstein's monster is not bred; it is composed by means of limbs of inanimate material, of different dead human beings. This also applies to Mary Shelley's book. For instance, a description of Lake Geneva toward the end of the book is taken almost literally from Percy Shelley's notebook. On 23 June 1816, he writes about his boat trip with Lord Byron around Lake Geneva:

I/We could observe its [the river Drance] path thro the chasm of the mountains & the glens of the lower hills, until The mountains here came closer to the lake, & we could see the eastern boundary enclose (p.12) its waters so that & we approached the amphitheatre which of mountains which forms its eastern boundary. The spire of Evian shone in/under the woods that surrounded & the range of mountain above mountain which overhung it. (Percy Shelley in M. Shelley 1996]: lxxix; transcription by C. E. Robinson)

In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein this became:

we passed the river Drance, and observed its path through the chasms of the higher, and the glens of the lower hills. The Alps here come closer to the lake, and we approached the amphitheatre of mountains which forms its eastern boundary. The spire of Evian shone under the woods that surrounded it, and the range of mountain above mountain by which it was overhung. (1992: 187)

Evidently the most difficult part to write was the textual creation of the creature or monster.

A new creation would bless me as its maker ^creator^ and source; many happy and excellent creatures would owe their existence in to me (M. Shelley 1996: 85)

During a first stage of revision, Mary Shelley replaced the word “maker” with “creator” in the left margin, thus emphasizing the desire to be a god of one's own creation. But because of this change, the succession of “creation,” “creator” and “creatures” was a bit repetitious. Mary's partner, Percy, then made several changes to this draft, replacing “creation” and “creatures” with synonyms, so that the word “creator” stands out more clearly: “creation” is replaced by “existence”; the “creatures” are outlived by “beings.” Because of the first replacement, “existence” also had to be changed, so it was replaced by “being.” But since the previous line already had “beings,” these had to be changed into “natures.”

A new creation ^existence^ would bless me as its maker ^creator^2 and source; many happy and excellent creatures ^beings^ ^natures^ would owe their existence ^being^ in to me … (M. Shelley 1996: 85; emphasis added).

Eventually yet another change was made so that in the first edition of 1818, “existence” is replaced by “species”: “A new species would bless me as its creator.” The method to create and animate that species was inspired by contemporary scientific discoveries with regard to electricity and galvanism. In (p.13) the era of modernity, the metaphors that are used to describe artistic creation are increasingly modeled after contemporary evolutions in science. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Edgar Allan Poe presented the composition of his poem “The Raven” as a scientific endeavor. In “The Philosophy of Composition,” he insists on mathematical precision from the outset: “It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referrible either to accident or intuition—that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem” (1986: 482). One of the very first considerations before the actual writing, according to Poe's own account, was “the proper length for my intended poem—a length of about one hundred lines” (483). Poe presents his writing process as pure teleology, a straight progress toward accomplishment: “Here then the poem may be said to have its beginning—at the end, where all works of art should begin” (487).

But the eagerness with which he undertakes this enterprise makes his argument suspicious. The only deviation from the straight course toward accomplishment he admits, is the momentary consideration of using a parrot instead of a raven to repeat the refrain “Nevermore.” Considering the smoothness of the writing process as presented in “The Philosophy of Composition,” this small spot in the otherwise unruffled surface cannot avoid the impression that it hides an iceberg of other hesitations and deviations in the “Composition” that did not fit in with Poe's “Philosophy.” Nonetheless, Poe's emphasis on craftsmanship is an important statement in that it represents a break with the early-nineteenth-century tendency to consider the creation of poetry as the result of “an ecstatic intuition” (481).

Because Poe's “Philosophy” draws attention to his composition's underlying chalk marks, it can be seen as a precursor of a particular aspect of modernism, which Rosalind Krauss refers to as “the grid.” According to Krauss, the structure of the grid is “emblematic of the modernist ambition” (1985: 9). The grid used to serve as a tool to create a successful reality effect by means of perspective. Once the work of art was finished, the grid was erased. As opposed to this mimetic practice, modern artists tend to focus on the discontinuity between reality and its representation. According to Krauss, modernist art is not just antimimetic but also “antinarrative” and “antidevelopmental” (22).3 Because the grid states the autonomy of the realm of art, Krauss argues that it is even “antinatural”: “It is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature” (9).

In the visual arts, the grid may have been the most prominent structure, with Piet Mondrian's work being the most obvious example. Many (p.14) poets, however, seem to have taken recourse to music. Louis Zukofsky's “A”—especially “A”-12—is a good example of both a pronounced interest in mathematical precision4 and an unhidden grid. In the middle of his poem, Zukofsky makes the metapoetical statement that he has a plan (to write twenty-four books, twelve of which he has now finished), implying that he clearly intends to complete his project. But this statement is immediately followed by the undermining comment, suggesting that this division into twenty-four books is just “a kind of childlike play,” an arbitrary structure imposed on the “gathering of 12 summers.” It is interesting that Zukofsky's self-deconstruction of his own constructivist, mathematical division of “A” is analyzed by Burton Hatlen in organic terms: “a ‘gathering,’ a gestation, of twelve years has at last brought forth this new birth” (1997: 217).

The comparison of literary creation with the birth of a child is probably the most frequently employed organicist metaphor throughout literary history. In one of his notebooks, Marcel Proust remarks: “Le travail nous rend un peu mères” (The work more or less turns us into mothers). And the Belgian modernist author Willem Elsschot noted: “In the arts, one doesn't try. (…) One can try and bake a bread, but one doesn't try a creation. Nor does one try and give birth. If there is pregnancy, childbirth follows automatically, in due time” (2003: 7). This may be the way a particular author sees his particular creation, but from an editor's perspective it is certainly not the average scenario. The metaphor of childbirth applies only to short texts, and even then the extant material gives a distorted image of the “labor” that preceded the work's birth, for Elsschot often destroyed his earliest drafts—just like, for instance, Thomas Mann. The work is not always a steadily growing entity. Each new version contains new elements or variants vis-à-vis the previous version, but it also copies the elements that remain unchanged.

Around the beginning of the twentieth century, other scientific developments suggested new metaphors—the discovery of X-rays, for instance. When Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain sees the X-ray of his cousin Joachim, he feels “stirrings of uneasy doubt, as to whether it was really permissible and innocent to stand here in the quaking, crackling darkness and gaze like this” into the inside of a human being (Mann 1960: 218). Dr Behrens, who takes the X-rays, appears to be an amateur painter; he has the scientific knowledge of what is hidden underneath the skin, and he manages to apply this knowledge to his art. As a result, his portraits seem to show a shimmer of all the underlying arteries and veins, a suggestion of all that is lurking behind or underneath the surface. The scientific discovery of the X-ray turned out to be an adequate metaphor for Mann's own writing method, (p.15) notably his so-called technique of layers (Schichtentechnik) to create the illusion of temporal depth.

A similar layering technique characterizes the writing process of Finnegans Wake. Joyce saw himself as an engineer, and “one of the greatestengineers, if not the greatest, in the world” (16 April 1927; L I 251). He also called himself a “scissors-and-paste man.” But, at the same time, he also emphasized the self-generative power of his work. About his first sketches for Finnegans Wake, he famously wrote: “I work as much as I can because these are not fragments but active elements and when they are more and a little older they will begin to fuse of themselves” (to Harriet Shaw Weaver, 9 October 1923; L I 204).

This somewhat organic notion of “fusion” that is such a crucial part of Joyce's writing strategy corresponds to what is sometimes called “osmosis” with reference to the writing method of Marcel Proust. In Proust dans le texte et ľavant-texte, Jean Milly emphasizes the “tendency toward osmosis”(1985: 17) in Proust's writing and its effect on punctuation (184). Proust uses the verbs mêler (to mix) and fondre (to melt; to merge) to denote the blending or fusion of textual units.5 But Proust regards this fusion as an active intervention by the author. To what extent Joyce counted on the self-generative power of his “active elements” to “fuse of themselves” will be one of the focal points of the genetic examination in part 2.

Joyce's explicit poetical statements are rather rare. As a young man, the artist referred to Aristotle's famous dictum “e tekne mimeitai ten fusin,” which he said is usually wrongly translated as “art is an imitation of nature”; instead, he suggested a more dynamic translation: “Aristotle does not here define art: he says only ‘Art imitates Nature’ and means that the artistic process is like the natural process” (NLI MS 36,639).6 If the “antinatural” grid is emblematic of the modernist ambition, as Krauss argues, and if some aspects of Joyce's early aesthetic statement can still be said to resonate in his later modernist poetics, the question is how both statements can be reconciled. In terms of poetics, the question is also why one would need art at all, if it just imitates what can be found anywhere? Another modernist had a clear answer to this question. According to Marcel Proust, we need art because it shows us how this process works. The problem is that our perception, our senses standardize the world around us; Proust uses the verb uniformiser. If we encounter something new, we try to recognize it by making ituniform with a class of things we already know. Proust strongly believed in the power of art to defamiliarize this habitual perception. So in art he tries to find what he had vainly sought in life: diversity and variety: “La variété (p.16) que j'avais en vain cherchée dans la vie” (Proust, First Pléiade edition 3: 159). As indicated in Textual Awareness, the manuscripts of the preceding draft stages show that this piece of art indeed imitates nature in the sense that it evolves through variation. In one of his notebooks, he jotted down: “La variété, la différence, que nous cherchons en vain dans ľamour, dans le voyage, la musique nous ľoffre” (Carnet 4, f. 4r; Proust 2002: 344). In his drafts, Proust first wrote “Diversité,” crossed it out, added “différentiation,” crossed it out as well, replaced it by “Cette variété,” crossed it out again, and replaced the specific variety by the more universal “La variété.”7“Variété” is the version that was eventually published. But when Gilles Deleuze quoted this line in his book Proust et les signes in order to illustrate the importance of this crucial notion in Proust's aesthetics, he misquoted it, replacing “variété” by the word “diversité” (1973: 41; 1976: 54). And in the transcriptions of the relevant manuscript in the Pléiade edition, the “variété” is transcribed as “vérité.”8 If there is any “truth” in this “vérité,” it is its textual memory of the “variété,” “différence,” “différentiation,” and “diversité,” as well as the copying mistakes that preceded it.

In both literary criticism and editorial theory, this textual evolution is simply to be avoided, but from a point of view of aesthetics it is quite interesting. If—as Joyce and Aristotle suggest—the artistic process is like the natural process, then this erroneous textual evolution indeed shows the “truth”—if truth is understood in Karl Popper's sense as correspondence to the facts. In this case, the fact is that while DNA molecules are awfully good at copying, even they sometimes make a mistake, and these mistakes make evolution possible.

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins paraphrases the notion of “the survival of the fittest” as a special case of the more general law of “the survival of the stable.” Every new version can be considered as a modified copy of the previous one. Just how unstable or “unfit” a version can still be at the very last stages of the composition process is analyzed with microscopic precision in The Dublin Helix. Focusing on the textual inflation of the “Aeolus” episode in Ulysses, Sebastian Knowles draws attention to what in meteorological terms would probably be called a stiff breeze. Between the second and third versions of the placards “HARP EOLIAN” (JJA 18: 20) became “O, HARPEO LIAN A!” (JJA 18: 32). The intended modification was “O, HARP EOLIAN!” The extra A in “LIAN A!” is the printer's misinterpretation of what Knowles compares to messenger RNA: “the messenger RNA, in this case the letter A, has been read as actual text rather than as a carrier of information; its function as transmitter has been confused with the mark which (p.17) it transmits. The result is a defective gene and a defective line of genetic text” (2001: 35).

In Finnegans Wake, Joyce thematized this textual type of messenger RNA. Apart from the letter A, he frequently used the letter F as an insertion mark. In chapter I.5 it is referred to as “that fretful fidget eff, the hornful digamma,” followed by the parenthesis “(used always […] throughout the papyrus as the revise mark)” (FW 120.33–121.02). As Sam Slote notes, it is “a mark that sacrifices itself for the sake of further text” (1997: 299). Part of this messenger RNA's message is that it needs to be “exscribed” as soon as the information it carries has been inserted and its (trans)mission is accomplished. Transmissional variants show resemblances with biological evolution, which is the result of a sort of copying mistake. Many popularizing books on genetics compare genetic evolution to printing processes and their inevitable mistakes or transmissional variants. But a clear distinction should be made between transmissional variants on the one hand, and genetic or compositional variants on the other. In the majority of cases, printing mistakes and other transmissional variants, not unlike variation or mutations in biology, simply “happen.” As Richard Dawkins points out, there is nothing that “wants” to evolve; evolution is something that takes place in spite of all the efforts of the genes to prevent it.

In this respect, genetic variants (that is, variants in the manuscripts) are quite different. Here, in the majority of cases, a modification is intentional. Many authors claim that their writing is self-generative and that the fragments “fuse of themselves.” To a certain extent, this may be true, but that is evidently not enough to write a complete work. Rather than the development of an embryo, a complex literary genesis is like the development of a new species in fast-forward mode, that is, there is intentional modification. That is why I think the metaphor of genetic manipulation, with trial and error, is applicable to writing processes of modern texts.

Germline gene therapy—“changing genes in places where they would be passed on to future generations” (Ridley 2000: 250)—in the form of genetically modified soybeans or mice, is sometimes called “Frankenstein technology” by its detractors (251). This is again just a metaphor that serves as an ethical warning. It is based on the popular image of the overconfident scientist who thought he could be a god of his own creation. But it is not informed by manuscript research, which shows Mary and Percy Shelley's pretty refined writing technology. The metaphor works better in the other direction. The comparison of literary genesis with genetic engineering may be just a metaphor, but as such it may also provide a more nuanced view of (p.18) the act of literary creation. In the history of representations of the creative process, the metaphor of the writer as a genetic engineer is quite unique in that it combines both organicist and constructivist elements. It acknowledges the fact that to a certain extent the writing generates itself, but it also draws attention to the artificial nature of the intentional modifications that speed up the textual evolution.

From an editorial perspective, the development of a work has traditionally been visualized as a family tree or a stemma. This idea runs parallel with the presentations of species evolution in the nineteenth century, such as the phylogenetic tree created by Ernst Haeckel in 1866, shortly after the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Philology has traditionally been interested in the stem of the tree, which corresponds in biology with the most recent common ancestor of the descendants, often depicted as a so-called “rooted” phylogenetic tree. Since this common ancestor is usually postulated, the stem, or “root,” is sometimes omitted, resulting in an “uprooted” phylogenetic tree. Since in classical and medieval philology the common ancestor often has to be postulated as well because the original manuscript is lost, Peter Robinson applied the “uprooted” method to the stemma of the surviving manuscripts of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

T ehimage of the family tree would imply that the writing process, with its more private and “underground” nature than the “public” aspect of the published version, should be compared to the roots of that tree. Thomas Mann indeed compared his composition process to the double movement of downward drilling and upward absorbing.9 The root, or “radix,” metaphor is implied in the term “radical philology,” which Geert Lernout suggested to designate the contextualization of Joyce criticism: “A radical philology limits the inquiry to the original desire-to-say of any form of writing and to its participation in a saturable and constraining context. If it did not, it would forfeit all relevance” (1994: 25). Three decades earlier, David Hayman employed the root metaphor in the opening paragraphs of his article “Tristan and Isolde in Finnegans Wake”:

It is hard to separate the roots of literary experience from the soil which surrounds them. It is harder to establish the virtues of those elements in the soil which helped to nourish the plant while it was growing. Doubtless this is more true than usual of Joyce's last book, and any attempt to sort out and evaluate all the sources and influences manifested by the records available to the student of Finnegans Wake would be unthinkable. But, if we limit our inquiry to a single theme (p.19) (…) we achieve a new understanding of the mechanics of influence and the integration of sources as well as of Joyce's book and of his mind. (1964a: 93).

Apart from Hayman's faith in the possibility of understanding an author's mind by making use of manuscript material, the interesting botanical metaphor10 has some theoretical implications, to which A. Walton Litz drew attention in his article “Uses of the Finnegans Wake Manuscripts”:

All our metaphors of growth—“root” ideas, “skeleton” structure—imply that the meaning of the Wake can be discovered if, somehow, we can successfully trace the stream of composition to its source. In other words, the Finnegans Wake manuscripts pander to our love of paraphrase, and offer the tempting security of “intentions”: yet no work ever lost more through paraphrase than Finnegans Wake. Just as many of the leading ideas of the book seem flat and commonplace when stated, so do the early drafts seem flat in comparison with the texture of the finished work. How exciting to learn that a “plain” version of Anna Livia's letter resides in the early manuscripts, and how dull to read it. Although many of us may insist that Joyce carried his methods of verbal elaboration beyond effective limits, there can be no doubt that the life of the Wake lies in this elaboration. (1966: 103)

Litz's emphasis on the textual elaboration rightly suggests that the traditional metaphors are too reductive. The “root” metaphor may be applicable to the search for sources of information exterior to the writing. But it is perhaps not quite adequate to visualize the processing of pretextual material in the drafts. Once the author has decided that he may use a specific source text, the subsequent process is the most complex aspect: the incorporation of this foreign material in the drafts. This process should be visualized from the other direction—not top down, but bottom up—to show how a foreign element is integrated and where it ended up in the published text; or how it eventually did not make it into the final version after all by ending up in a textual cul-de-sac or an aborted section that fell out of the direct line of textual descent.

In the case of James Joyce, a good example is the line “Rolando's deepen darblun Ossian roll” (FW 385.36). By retracing the composition history of this sentence counterclockwise (or “top down”), one eventually arrives at the line: “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean ‒ roll!” which is a quote from Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (Canto 4, stanza 179, line 1603):

(p.20) Counterclockwise reconstruction (top down)

Rolando's deepen darblun Ossian roll (FW 385.36)

Rollon thoudeep anddark blueo ceanroll! (first typescript)

Rollon thoudeep anddark blueo ceanroll! (third fair copy)

Roll on thou deep and darkblue ocean, roll! (second fair copy)

Roll on thou deep and darkblue ocean, roll (Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage)

But genetic criticism is not so much (certainly not exclusively) interested in literary detective work and source hunting; the object of research is the writing process. At a certain moment, Joyce either reread or remembered Byron's line and started distorting it. This is only one among hundreds of source texts Joyce used (that is, one of the hundreds of extremities of the roots, if one sticks to the image of the family tree). In this case, Byron's line ended up completely distorted in Finnegans Wake: Apart from the final “roll,” not a single word corresponds to the original line. As it happened, one stage in this line of textual descent became a genetic dead end: in a typescript, Joyce added the word “andamp,” thus changing the pentameter into a hexameter: “Rollon thoudeep ^andamp^ anddark blueo ceanroll.” But this typescript went missing.11

Chronological reconstruction (bottom up)

Rolando's deepen darblun Ossian roll (FW 385.36)

→ Rollon thoudeep andamp anddark blueo ceanroll (missing Ts)

Rollon thoudeep anddark blueo ceanroll! (first typescript)

Rollon thoudeep anddark blueo ceanroll! (third fair copy)

Roll on thou deep and darkblue ocean, roll! (second fair copy)

Roll on thou deep and darkblue ocean, roll (Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage)

Perhaps Joyce simply forgot he ever made this change or he eventually decided that the hexameter was not a viable option and the variant “andamp” (p.21) was neglected, creating a kind of dead end in the writing process. It is important for genetic research to draw attention to this variant and indicate that Joyce disrupted the pentameter at some point in the composition history, but it is equally important to indicate that Joyce eventually kept the original pent metric form. In fact, every single cancellation in a writing process is a kind of dead end. For every road not taken, it is necessary to observe both that the author did take it at a certain moment, and that he eventually decided to retrace his steps and continue in another, hopefully more viable direction.

This applies not only to words or sentences but also to the level of whole sections. During the writing process of Samuel Beckett's penultimate text Stirrings Still, another hexameter was the subject of a complete section thatwas elaborated in three successive versions but eventually aborted. The section is about an old man lying in a bed, apparently aware that there are two people who once in a while come and read to him. Fragments of what he hears he seems to have heard before. For instance, the hexameter “Mr Hackett turned the corner and saw his seat” (RUL MS 2935/2/3). Whereas the protagonist only seems to have heard it before, the author has definitely written it before, since this is part of the first sentence of Beckett's novel Watt: “Mr. Hackett turned the corner and saw, in the failing light, at somelittle distance, his seat.” In the Stirrings Still manuscripts, the specifications “in the failing light, at some little distance” are omitted, and the resulting ellipsis is then shifted around with the following results:

Mr Hackett12 turned the corner … and saw his seat,


Mr [Hackett] turned the corner and … saw his seat.


Mr [Hackett] turned the corner and saw … his seat.

(RUL MS 2935/2/3)

On a separate notesheet, the different examples of how the position of the ellipsis changes the “lame hexameter” are followed by the exclamation: “How elusive ^various^ thus this simple set of words!” (RUL MS 2935/1/1).13 The word “elusive” is replaced by the adjective “various.” Both adjectives may be an indication that this hexameter, and by extension the whole section in which this hexameter is being discussed, would eventually turn out to be too unstable to survive. But that makes them all the more interesting. If there is any link between the two disciplines of biogenetics and manuscript genetics—or even more generally, if it is at all possible to find a link between life and art—the notion of variety or variation seems crucial.

(p.22) The difference between medieval and modern manuscripts, based on their respective public and private functions, suggests a simple reversal of the traditional tree metaphor. But writing processes cannot be reduced to “underground” activities, as the French poet Francis Ponge has demonstrated, for instance, notably by publishing his drafts as an integral part of his published work. From a genetic perspective, the so-called bon à tirer moment (the moment the author decides his work is ready to be printed and to be confronted with the public) is perhaps less important than the moment an author finds a way to incorporate external material into his own composition. The most interesting moment in a botanical growth process is the point where the roots grow down and the rest of the plant grows up. Literary composition involves not just the downward movement, but the upward movement as well. The downward drilling, as Thomas Mann called it, includes looking for information, reading books, taking notes and excerpts. The absorption of this extratextual material is still part of the “underground” aspect of the genesis, but the selective incorporation, processing, and further elaboration in ever new versions is a matter of inflorescence. When an author makes a second draft or a fair copy, part of it will vary from the previous version, but part of it will simply be copied and remains the same.

One of the implications of this view is that the publication is not regarded as a once-only event—the eventual, long-awaited flowering of the work—but as just one in a series of versions. Instead of selling cut flowers, Francis Ponge changed his view on his own writing method by patterning it on botany (in Ľopinion changée quant aux fleurs). Not unlike the growth of flowers, the urge to write is characterized by what he calls a “thirst for absolute perfection” (1992: 131). At the same time, Ponge realizes that the continued attempt of any flower to reach this absolute state can only lead to some kind of “relative perfection” (130). According to Ponge, the logical conclusion is reproduction. The urge to reach perfection culminates in the flower, but since the flower thrusts its reproductive organs into the air, it simultaneously gives evidence of the awareness that its perfection is only relative, and that it is condemned to die. To acknowledge death is to renounce absolute perfection, and what remains is repetition. This perspective on writing corresponds with what Killingsworth called the cyclic view, which does not deny decline but sees it as an integral part of the writing process.

In this sense, both Joycean composition and Beckettian decomposition can be said to belong to the cyclic type of growth in Killingsworth's typology. This does not mean they do not show any progressive characteristics (p.23) (Killingsworth's second type). As the preliminary title “Work in Progress” indicates, a literary work inevitably implies some kind of project, however vague. As a consequence it constantly “oscillates between an anticipatory perspective (…) and a retrospective vision” (Ferrer 1996: 225). Joyce and Beckett did not always have the final “telos” in mind from the start, but once the goal began to take shape, they tried to finish their project as well as possible by means of numerous revisions. Although this process can be said to entail the suggestion of “amelioration,” neither Joyce nor Beckett ignored the relativity of perfection. The type of growth characterizing their writings can only be described as “genetic” (Killingsworth's first type) if this adjective includes the notion of textual descent with—both intentional and unintentional—modification.


(1.) Published in 1831. The preface (of 1818, most probably written by Percy Shelley) states that it originated in “a playful desire of imitation.” Mary and Percy Shelley, together with Byron and Polidori, had been reading ghost stories, and the underlying aesthetics of the novel was modeled after great examples with the intention to “innovate upon their combinations” (M. Shelley 1992: 11).

(2.) The first change (maker 〉 creator) was made by Mary Shelley (MWS); the later revisions were suggested by Percy Shelley (PBS).

(3.) “Unlike perspective, the grid does not map the space of a room or a landscape or group of figures onto the surface of a painting. Indeed, if it maps anything, it maps the surface of the painting itself. (…) Considered in this way, the bottom line of the grid is naked and determined materialism” (Krauss 1985: 10).

(4.) This mathematical interest is reflected in his statement “about my poetics” in “A”-12, which he presents in mathematical terms: “An integral / Lower limit speech / Upper limit music” (Zukofsky 1993: 138). Regarding this upper limit, Bach's Kunst der Fuge served as a sort of poetical guideline: “From the spring of Art of Fugue: / The parts of a fugue should behave like reasonable men / in an orderly discussion” (Zukofsky 1993: 127). For more detailed discussion, see Van Hulle 2006b.

(5.) For instance, in cahier 71, page 95v–96r: “Je crois que pour fondre avec plus ďunité, il faudrait mettre cela quand elle joue du pianola, ne faire en somme quưune seule scène.” See also page 93v.

(6.) 27 March 1903. Second document preserved under MS number 36,639 at the National Library of Ireland (page 24).

(7.) See Van Hulle 2004a: 38–39. The variations between the different versions of this quotation “perform” what the text is about and nicely illustrate the link between biogenetics and textual genetics: “Diversité ^différentiation^Cette Cette variété^ La variété^que je ne trouvais pas da dans la vie, dans ^que j'avais^ cherchée en vain dans la vie dans l'amour ^dans la vie^, que je n'av que dans le voyage … ” (cahier 73:16r)

(8.) “Au contraire la musique, elle, m'aidait à m'oublier et par là à descendre en moimême, à y découvrir de nouveau la vérité que j'avais cherché en vain dans la vie, dans le voyage, (…)” (Proust 1987–89: 3: 1168, esquisse XVII).

(9.) “Das Anschwellen der Komposition beruht auf einem doppelten Vorgang, einem Bohrungsprozess und einem Ankristallisieren und Einbezogenwerden von aussen” (Mann 1994: 488–89).

(10.) The root/soil metaphor shows some resemblances to the metaphors Friedrich Schleiermacher employed to explain his view on hermeneutics: “Hence a work of art, (p.196) too, is really rooted in its own soil. It loses its meaning when it is wrenched from this environment” (Schleiermacher, quoted in Gadamer 1975: 148). Hans Georg Gadamer quotes this passage in Wahrheit und Methode (Truth and Method) to renounce traditional, Schleiermacherian hermeneutics: “The reconstruction of the conditions in which a work that has come down to us from the past fulfilled its original purpose is undoubtedly an important aid to its understanding. But it may be asked whether what is then obtained is really what we look for as the meaning of the work of art, and whether it is correct to see understanding as a second creation, the reproduction of the original production. Ultimately, this view of hermeneutics is as foolish as all restitution and restoration of past life. The reconstruction of the original circumstances, like all restoration, is a pointless undertaking in view of the historicity of our being” (1975: 148–49).

(11.) Richard Brown described a set of “Missing Typescripts,” which were discovered in 1988 among the papers of Joyce's Maecenas Harriet Shaw Weaver. One of these documents is a typescript of the section with the “Roll on” quotation. This typescript contains revisions that never made it into Finnegans Wake. They were made in an early stage of the composition process. More than fifteen years later (in August 1938), when Joyce gave the section its final destination, he most probably forgot he ever made these early revisions in the “missing typescript.”

(12.) Beckett first wrote “Mr Knott” and only subsequently replaced “Knott” by “Hackett”; he did not replace it in the next lines; this transcription does replace respectively “Mr K” and “Mr Knott” by “Mr [Hackett]” in these lines too, on the assumption that this was implied by the substitution in the first line.

(13.) The rest of the exclamation reads: “How variously ^With what choice of emotions sensations^ the corner turned! The seat seen! The suspense charged between the 2 operations!” (RUL MS 2935/1/1).