Sunday, March 24, 2013

essayer: to try

     For some reason I cannot explain, I am about to read Finnegans Wake, published in 1939. Several people have tried to dissuade me from doing so. The book is apparently impossible to read. The only James Joyce (1882-1941) I have read is a short story entitled "Araby" from his collection, The Dubliners. I enjoyed it several years ago, and after having seen a movie about Joyce recently, I am curious about Finnegans Wake, a piece of fiction over which he labored for seventeen years.

     Another prompt for me was a notation I read when exploring some web pages devoted to The Book of Kells. A piece describing the illuminations on the 1,200-year-old book's pages asserted that James Joyce had been inspired to write Finnegans Wake by the dream-like artistic renderings of St. Columba and the monks of the Monastery at Kells. The Penguin edition of Finnegans Wake  is adorned with artwork from the Kells version of the Bible.

     John Bishop introduces this edition of the Wake as "perhaps the single most intentionally crafted literary artifact that our culture has produced." It evolved under the title Work in Progress and apparently began with Joyce "jotting down and compiling discrete phrases and sketches without fully knowing where they would lead him." Indeed, this attempt to find a way lead Joyce to coalesce his writing into a masterpiece.
     It may be a stretch to say that James Joyce engaged in a superhuman exercise in what educators call writing to learn, but I will make that stretch.  Writing begets learning. This process begins with what the Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) described as an attempt to put thoughts into writing. De Montaigne coined the term "essay" from the French word "essayer" to describe these trials to find meaning in the commonplace. Writing promotes critical thinking, as the author purposefully addresses an audience with the appropriate tone and point of view. The author attempts to convey a topic and engage the reader.
     Creativity is essential if not unavoidable  in this effort. Consider the monks at the Kells Monastery, perhaps as Joyce did. The physical act of writing, even if it meant simply copying text from a Viking-ravaged Bible to a new page, must have triggered the same desire to try to create and explain as is enjoined when freely writing one's ideas. Overwhelming creativity produced illustrations so enriching and fascinating that they are called "illuminations." How writing stirs cognition is not known. Perhaps the same divine influence enabling the monks is at work in the commonplace writing our students endeavor. If not, the learning derived from writing to learn is no less marvelous and worth a try.

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