In Memoriam: Apprehending History as Self-Reflection

Tackling the final essay of your Master’s degree is more than just a random research project. Now, of course, when considering the importance of what is at stake, the task appears beset with hardships and expectations. But its interest may lie in an unexpected — if not overlooked — dimension. Whatever the subject may be — whether in literature, history or linguistics — the student should not limit his investigations to the world of his chosen academic topic, but extend it to himself. Regarding the essay’s general direction, personal interests are evidently important. No one wants to struggle with the burden of an undesired subject. If the choice of the supervisor is important, the student is the main individual concerned. It is his private background that will shape the original route of his research course. If this essay can be considered as the first distinctive achievement of a future career, it will always be the mirror of a given identity, and the reflection of an intellectual evolution.
Considering historical research, historians are acutely aware of the influence of their own cultural background. Whether expressed at an individual level or at a more collective one, the concepts of memory and identity appear to be fused1. But the following question often remains: why and what do we choose to remember?

When the city of Québec celebrated the 250th anniversary of the Battle of the Plaines of Abraham in 2009, what exactly did it chose to commemorate? The French defeat entailed the destruction of New France and the end of its imperial ambitions in North America. Moreover, it meant the permanent submission of a wide Catholic and French-speaking population to a reviled foreign power. Yet presently, the event is regarded as one of Canada’s founding moments, with the bonding of divided populations by law and pain to share a common future. New monuments now celebrate this cultural marriage2.
While growing up in Michigan, I rarely missed an opportunity to assert my distinct nationality. In spite of the elaborate rituals around the American flag, anthem and Pledge of Allegiance — dutifully repeated in class every other morning — I willingly remained conscious of my linguistic and cultural uniqueness. Perhaps I was being snobbish and unnecessarily chauvinistic, but I was certain that unlike the many European families who had preceded us in ages past, we had not crossed the Atlantic for good. Visiting the landscapes of America and nearby Canada, I remember being struck by the legacy of my past countrymen. Forts, churches, cities… countless areas linked to the history of my country remained in this foreign land. It was a story few of my fellow classmates were aware of, as we were so young. Yet I remained determined to explore it.

Je me souviens

is the city of Québec’s motto. I have simply chosen to do the same.


1 Philippe Joutard : Histoire et mémoires, conflits et alliances ; Paris, La Découverte, collection « Ecritures de l’Histoire », 2013, 275 pages.

2 Mémorial de la Guerre de Sept Ans and Monument François-Gaston-de-Lévis :

Waking up Finnegan to music

Mind-blowing, wild, nuts, impenetrable, odd, striking, cryptic, dense, obscure and baffling is only a short, inexhaustive list of adjectives commonly used to describe James Joyce’s literary anomaly, Finnegans Wake. The Irish author took seventeen years to write the book, and rumour has it he expected the reader to spend seventeen years reading it. Imitating a dream-like state, words are put together in a challenging way and are borrowed from dozens of languages, when not simply invented by Joyce:

« What clashes here of wills gen wonts, oystrygods gaggin fishygods! Brékkek Kékkek Kékkek Kékkek! Kóax Kóax Kóax! Ualu Ualu Ualu! Quáouauh! Where the Baddelaries partisans are still out to mathmaster Malachus Micgranes and the Verdons catapelting the camibalistics out of the Whoyteboyce of Hoodie Head. Assiegates and boomeringstroms. Sod’s brood, be me fear! Sanglorians, save! Arms apeal with larms, appalling. »1

Reluctant to conform to a conventional approach, the text raises issues of connection to Joyce’s language: how is one to read Finnegans Wake? The 1939 novel, precisely, invites the reader to set out on an adventure with words, paving the way for many creative approaches. Whether through music, live shows or digital technologies, Joyce’s works have often been adapted to reach wider audiences. In May 2015 a new musical and collaborative project was launched, entitled “Waywords and Meansigns: Recreating Finnegans Wake [in its whole wholume]”.

In February 2016, a second edition of the project was released, bringing together both amateurs and professional musicians from all over the world. Each participant was assigned one of the seventeen chapters. Free to use whatever kind of music or sound effects they wished, the only requirement was that each artist should render all of the chapter’s words in an audible way, more or less in their original order. The outcome of this independent, non-commercial project is now freely available online. Over thirty-hour long, it offers an unabridged audio version of the Wake mixed with varied musical performances ranging from jam bands to rock and jazz.

“Waywords and Meansigns” thus challenges the view that Finnegans Wake is to be read by privileged academics only, using mass communication and web interconnectedness to renew one’s access to literary texts. After all, Joyce did not use words with their commonplace connections, but treated them as living things. Their charm was to be revealed notably by liberating sounds from their servile role, thus promoting the benefits of reading the book aloud.

Instead of simply scanning the page without actively engaging with the literary fabric, attempt to pronounce the Wake’s onomatopoeias or phonetic distortions. It offers a challenge to the tongue: stimulating one’s relation to the text, these strange sounds and rhythms actualize the music of the book. “Waywords and Meansigns” also offers an opportunity to take part in future multimedia projects, allowing one to actively interact with works like Finnegans Wake and as Joyce would put it, to let oneself be affected by the linguistic phenomenon.

1   Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. England: Wordsworth Classics, 2012, p. 4.

Picture By : c. Khemiri & M C Morgan

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