This installment of our “Clever, Very” series is an interview with Mark David Kaufman, an assistant professor of English at the United States Air Force Academy. Kaufman’s research interests include legal, aesthetic, and medical discourses as well as espionage and the recruitment of authors by MI6. Dr. Kaufman has published numerous articles on Joyce as well as other authors, both in the JJQ and elsewhere. Currently, Dr. Kaufman is completing his first monograph entitled Spyography: Modernism, Espionage, and the Militant Aesthetic State. His essay, “An Incident in Hyde Park: Basil Thomson, Roger Casement, and Wakean Coincidence” which appears in JJQ 57.3-4.
James Joyce Quarterly: So many people still consider Finnegans Wake inaccessible. What was your entry point into the world of Wake?
Kaufman: I first became interested in Joyce while an English major at Colorado State University. I didn’t delve into the Wake, however, until the gap year between my undergraduate and graduate studies. During that time, I worked in the members’ lounge at a fancy golf club in Colorado Springs, and I spent the quiet winter months slowly making my way through the text (while I should have been working, no doubt) with the help of William York Tindall’s Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake, a book that I still frequently consult. I think that initially it’s important to have a good guide, a kind of Virgil to take you by the hand and point out the path. There are a number of good books on the Wake for beginners, but a reading group, if you can find one, is a wonderful resource. Later in my studies, I enjoyed—and greatly benefited from—taking part in the Boston College “Raidin the Wake” group run by Professor Joe Nugent.
JJQ: One of the primary themes of your research is the relationship between modernism and espionage. Could you give our audience a brief overview of that issue, and explain how you think Joyce’s work, specifically Wake, relates to espionage?
Kaufman: My current book project, Spyography, traces the interwar emergence of the intelligence memoir, a mode of life-writing that shares much in common with literary modernism, including a fraught legal history. Essentially, I argue that spyographies are modernist texts in their own right, contested narratives that trade on the pleasures of secrecy and revelation, blur the line between fact and fiction, and redefine the relationship between literature and national security.
Joyce isn’t really a part of this project (alas), but there are a number of ways in which his life and work intersect with the world of espionage. Certainly, Ulysses has its spies, informers, and voyeurs. But I’m more interested in the way Joyce’s work—and modernism in general—generates suspicion. In a 1920 letter to his brother, Stanislaus, he reveals that the serialization of Ulysses in The Little Review had spawned a number of outlandish conspiracy theories. Along with rumors that the writer had, throughout the First World War, been secretly serving the Austrian Foreign Office, spying for the British government, and working undercover for Sinn Fein, Joyce records that at least one “British war censor” suspected that “Ulysses was a prearranged pro-German code” (Letters III 22). The image of Ulysses as a book that seems to be hiding something, a book that may or may not be treacherous, has had a bizarre afterlife in popular culture. In The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Frank Sinatra’s brainwashed character owns a copy of Ulysses. Similarly, in Robert De Niro’s CIA film, The Good Shepherd, a KGB double agent hides his real identity papers in the binding of Joyce’s novel.
Like Ulysses, the Wake generates an aura of clandestinity. Anthony Burgess recalls that during the Second World War the Wake had the reputation of being a code book. In my research, I’ve come across at least one former CIA agent who admitted to using it as a source for cryptonyms. But the book also incorporates historical spies—or suspected spies—in its tapestry of intrigues. For example, HCE comes to be associated with Alfred Dreyfus, the French officer wrongfully accused of spying for Germany. In I.5, the analysis of ALP’s mysterious letter establishes a parallel to the scandal: “Closer inspection of the bordereau would reveal a multiplicity of personalities inflicted on the documents or document and some prevision of virtual crime or crimes might be made” (107.23-26). In the Dreyfus Affair, the bordereau was the incriminating note brought forward as evidence to convict the officer of espionage. Since the letter also represents the Wake itself, a text endlessly scrutinized, this passage frames (so to speak) Joyce’s book as a compromising document.
JJQ: Your essay suggests that journalism tends to define and uphold imperial authority. How do you see Wake challenging that authority?
Kaufman: To be sure, journalism can reinforce authority, but I think in the case of Basil Thomson it’s really the opposite. The media took great delight in seeing a public figure disgraced. The old journalistic adage—“If it bleeds, it leads”—also applies to sexual scandals, especially when a prominent, former law enforcement official is caught quite literally with his pants down. The Wake similarly reduces journalism to rumor and gossip, transforming the denizens of HCE’s pub into an “old sniggering publicking press” (229.8).
At the same time, Joyce was definitely aware of the collaboration between the press and imperialism. He explores that relationship in the “Aeolus” episode of Ulysses, where empire emerges as an assemblage of rhetorical gestures. In a general sense, the Wake challenges authority by unhinging the English language itself, the vehicle of both news and imperial ideology.
JJQ: As Joyce’s work gets older, one of the aspects of Joyce’s writing that continues to alienate people is the way in which he catalogues real human lives that are just outside our contemporary frame of reference. Your essay is probably the first time a lot of readers have heard of Basil Thomson. Where did you first encounter Thomson’s story?
Kaufman: When you research the early British secret service, Thomson is a figure who crops up with some frequency. He wore many hats, and his career intersected with a number of high-profile cases. I believe I first came across him while researching Mata Hari. As head of the Criminal Investigation Department for Scotland Yard, he interrogated her during her brief arrest in Britain in 1916. In his memoir, he gave a somewhat sympathetic portrait of her, which I found surprising. This was also when I became aware of Thomson as a writer. His book, Queer People (1922), is an example of a spyography, my term for the nascent intelligence memoirs emerging as a literary form during the interwar period. It’s a revealing window on the times, especially the war years, when Thomson was responsible for catching German spies, which became a kind of obsession.
JJQ: Thomson’s odious relationship with the truth struck me as particularly prescient. As a culture, we still tend to fixate on and idolize certain men who we perceive to have access to some secret life-saving information. How do you see Wake challenging traditional dynamics of power?
Kaufman: In some ways, Shaun is that figure in the Wake. He’s a pseudo-authority, a disgruntled postman who longs to be a priest. He cultivates his followers and delivers diatribes. He would be very much at home in our media environment. But Shaun is also Yawn, and I think this is Joyce’s way of poking fun at such figures while also acknowledging the danger they represent.
JJQ: There are many different kinds of forgery in Wake: the veracity of Anna Livia Plurabelle’s letter is constantly called into question, and each character seems to always be on the verge of being discovered to be a phony. How do you think Wake intersects with our contemporary idea of “Fake News?”
Kaufman: There are essentially two types of “fake news,” as I understand this overdetermined term. First, someone could denounce legitimate news as “fake news” in order discredit it or undermine its authority. Second, there is what I think of as (paradoxically) real fake news, meaning misinformation or news intended to deceive. Amidst competing claims of falsity, it can become difficult to distinguish between these two categories. Joyce positions the Wake at a similar crossroads of uncertainty. In a dreamworld, nothing can be objectively verified. The problem is that we do not live in a dreamworld, and we do not vote in one, but our experience as citizens—especially online—is increasingly Wakean.
There’s a pertinent line in I.3, during the (mis)trial of HCE for his “virtual crime”: “Thus the unfacts, did we possess them, are too imprecisely few to warrant our certitude, the evidencegivers by legpoll too untrustworthily irreperible where his adjugers are semmingly freak threes but his judicandees plainly minus twos” (57.16-19). This could serve as a description of the difficulty of making informed decisions in what Joyce elsewhere refers to as a “Demoncracy” (167.25), an environment in which facts and “unfacts” vie for supremacy, leaving us at the mercy those who pull our legs, dismiss our polls, and bank on our “notional gullery” (57.21).