Work in Progress

Probably the most famous literary use of the phrase "work in progress" belongs to James Joyce, who made it the working title--or anti-title--of the book he began writing shortly after Ulysses was published in 1922. During the 20's and 30's, as Joyce began publishing snippets of his new project, he developed the habit of calling them fragments not of a work in progress, but of Work in Progress. "Tales Told of Shem and Shaun: Three fragments from work in progress," "Anna Livia Plurabelle: Fragment of Work in Progress," "Haveth Childers Everywhere: Fragment of Work in Progress," and so on. Joyce got the idea of calling his work Work in Progress from Ford Madox Ford, who in 1924 published the first bit of the new work in a special "Work in Progress" supplement to the transatlantic review. The phrase stuck, and remained the working title until the book was published in 1939--not because Joyce had not thought up a title, but because he did not want to reveal the title before he unveiled the book. His idea was that the title of the work should not precede the work itself, and that, moreover, his readers ought to be able to guess the title of his new book from the bits he had published during the seventeen years of its creation. (Joyce aided this experiment by dropping broad hints to his friends, who consistently disappointed him in their inability to surmise that the real title of Work in Progress was Finnegans Wake.)

Joyce envisioned his new work as a definitive statement: he said at different points that it would be a history of the world, that he was inventing an entirely new method of writing, and that it was to be the last word on language. The seemingly workaday phrase Work in Progress fitted perfectly with this project. In leaving out that all-important little article, "a," Joyce turned a process into a title, a work in progress into the Work in Progress. And in so doing, he demanded that his readers understand Work in Progress as an ongoing process of entitling: as the fragments added gradually up to a published whole, so the work would secure Joyce's status as the greatest of writers. All egomania aside, Joyce's refusal to supply a title up front makes perfect aesthetic sense if you've ever taken a look at the Wake. Nothing in Finnegans Wake is a given; nothing makes immediate or transparent sense. Such a work could not have a title that was simply given; such a work had to have a title that was, like the writing of it, and the reading of it, years in the making. As Joyce put it himself late in the Wake, "Work your progress!"

Joyce was playing with the phrase work in progress during the same years that it was working its way into the English language. The OED gives the phrase a birthday in 1930, from which we can surmise not that this information is right (the examples above show that it is wrong), but that the information is about right. And the OED cites Joyce's Work in Progress as an early instance of the phrase, which it defines as "work undertaken but not completed, especially (a) in commerce and (b) in the arts." The dictionary gives us to understand that the phrase has a double life, a flashy, visible career in the arts, where it stands for that most romantic phenomenon, the unfinished (and presumably authentic) work; and a more staid, solid, unassuming appointment in the business world, where it enjoys the decidedly unromantic status of billing criteria. As one accounting textbook has it, "Work-in-progress is the value of incomplete work in the factory and is usually computed on the following basis: the cost of materials and production labour plus the proportion of indirect expenses chargeable to the work up to its present stage of manufacture."

The coincidence of Joyce's work in progress and the coining of the doubly meaningful phrase "work in progress" raises certain questions: what, for example, is the relationship between Joyce's playful use of the phrase "work in progress" and accounting's dead serious valuation of the same three little words? And what is the relationship of that relationship to this moment, here, now, when we are gathered to present and discuss two works in progress, one by Matt and one by me?

I want to suggest some approaches to these questions by way of a quick detour through two additional moments in the brief history of work in progress. The first moment was in 1879, when the novelist George Meredith became the first author to use the phrase "work in progress" in a literary text. The second moment was in 1998, when Michael Eisner, CEO of the Walt Disney Company, published a memoir entitled Work in Progress. One hundred and twenty years separate these moments, and Finnegans Wake, the completed Work in Progress, was published exactly half way between them.

I'll talk about the first moment first. The phrase "work in progress" first occurs in Meredith's breakout novel, The Egoist, when an eccentric gentleman scholar tells his soon-to-be-married daughter that she will "learn by having work in progress how important ... is a quiet commencement of the day's task. There is not a scholar who will not tell you so!" It's a passing reference, not a big deal by any stretch of the imagination, though it is interesting to note how Meredith associates the phrase "work in progress" with scholarly work, and to note too how the passage envisions that scholarship as a means to a much more worldly and simple end: the purpose of having work in progress, according to Meredith, is not to complete it, but to learn from it how important it is to be quiet in the morning. Scholarship is, in this sense, most valuable insofar as it helps one acquire basic life skills. Laughable as this is, it's not what's interesting about this quote. In fact, the quote is not really very interesting at all. What is interesting is how the quote figures into Joyce's relationship to Meredith, which vibrated between admiration and contempt, and which freely mixed mockery with imitation, annoyance with indifference.

In the very early phases of Joyce's career, Meredith was one of the authors Joyce felt he had to get out from under. Joyce was indebted to Meredith: both Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses build on Meredith's earlier attempts to fuse epic and narrative fiction, to foreground myth over plot, to create visionary heroes who are moved more by epiphany than by events, and to realize a particular vision of what comedy should be. But Joyce was skeptical of Meredith, too, and even dismissive: "Mr Meredith has not the instinct of the epical artist," he wrote at the very moment that he was building his own notions of epical prose out of Meredith's. Joyce hated it when people compared his work to Meredith's; when an editor remarked that an early draft of Portrait reminded him of Meredith's fiction, Joyce's eyes were said to have opened wide in "indignant wonder" (Ellmann 162). And yet this comparison got to him, crystallizing a latent fear that he was not really original, that he was being written through not only by Meredith, but by all the books he had ever read. How ironic, then, that both Portrait and Ulysses should have been serialized in a journal called The Egoist. And how fitting that Ezra Pound's reviews in that same journal should be among the first and most powerful articulations of Joyce's absolute originality. "I doubt if a comparison of Mr. Joyce to other English writers or Irish writers would help much to define him," Pound wrote.

The anti-title Work in Progress--chosen ostensibly because it was wholly non-referential, chosen to keep the secret of Joyce's real working title, as a placeholder signifying nothing--thus has a dense and complex literary history of its own. "Work in progress" enters literature in The Egoist; forty years later, it becomes Joyce's watchword for an entirely new literary form--"the word in pregross," as he puts it in the Wake. And as such, Joyce's decision to call his new work "work in progress" has a certain fatal irony to it. The quality of this irony is perhaps best captured by an anecdote. When Joyce was in the early stages of Work in Progress, John Quinn, the lawyer who had successfully defended Ulysses against obscenity charges, sold the manuscript of Ulysses to A.S.W. Rosenbach for $1975. Joyce was appalled by the absence of sentiment--he had given Quinn a good price on the manuscript to compensate him for his work at the trial. He was also appalled by the low price his manuscript fetched. But what capped the whole thing off was that Quinn used the proceeds to buy two manuscript poems by George Meredith. Joyce had by that point long since left Meredith behind, but Meredith, even from his grave, seemed determined never to leave Joyce.

Now for the second moment, Michael Eisner's 1998 memoir, Work in Progress. Far from being the dedicated thought experiment of a much-maligned and misunderstood avant-garde writer, this Work in Progress was written with the help of a ghostwriter (what Joyce would call a "rewriteman" or a "stardaft journalwriter" or possibly a "phantomweight"), and it tells the story of how Eisner increased Disney's profits from $100 million to $2 billion a year in little more than a decade. Neither the memoir nor the corporate life it chronicles was undertaken with Joyce in mind. But it is worth noting all the same some correspondences between Joyce's Work in Progress and Eisner's. Walt Disney established his empire during the exact years that Joyce was crafting the Wake, moving his penniless ambitious self to Hollywood to become an animator in 1923, the year Joyce began Work in Progress. Disney introduced Mickey Mouse in his first animated cartoon in 1928, the year Joyce published "Anna Livia Plurabelle" in book form. Disney won the first Academy Award for Animation in 1932, the year Joyce published "Two Tales of Shem and Shaun" in book form; Disney's winning cartoon showed flowers and trees swaying to music--a subject very like that of the Wake, whose principal natural symbols were a river, a mountain, a tree, and a stone, and whose aim was to set those symbols in motion with musical prose. Throughout the 30's Disney continued to develop his animated empire: Mickey Mouse went Technicolor, Snow White became the first feature length animated film, and Donald Duck was born. All the while Joyce wrote and revised and published and wrote and revised some more. Each man achieved immortality at the same moment: Finnegans Wake appeared in 1939 and in 1940, Disney Studios was established in Burbank, CA. Less than a year later, Pinocchio and Fantasia played to packed theaters while Joyce breathed his last in Zurich.

Treating the story of his life and the story of the Walt Disney Company as one and the same, Eisner's book asks us to see his chief executive years as simply the most recent events in the long history of Disney's ongoing work, work that originated during the very years that Joyce was busily making a very different kind of history. Seventy years after "work in progress" became synonymous with Joyce's unique stylistic experimentation, then, the title is resurrected in a work utterly and uncritically devoted to its antithesis, to a corporatized creativity exemplified by the cartoons that make up so much of Disney's image. Where Joyce speaks contemptuously of "bitterstiff work," "exprogressive process," "the massproducts of teamwork" and--most suggestively--"mousework," Eisner has declared that Disney has "no obligation to make history. . . . no obligation to make art. . . . no obligation to make a statement. To make money is [the] only objective."

Now, one could argue that Meredith's reincarnation in Joyce's Work in Progress is a telling moment in the history of literary influence, an example of how, in the moment of attempting to distinguish himself absolutely and completely from all other authors, living or dead, Joyce gave himself away by giving his work a title that told of nothing so much as his debt to previous writers. Likewise, one could argue that Eisner's blithe appropriation of Joyce's title marks the most recent episode in the long history of Joyce's aesthetic displacement by an entertainment industry whose shallowness is exemplified by the figure whose career formed an almost perfect negative of Joyce's own, Walt Disney. I've set the arguments up right here: now all we have to do is turn on the methodology and watch them go. But I'd rather not. I'd rather talk about what's wonderful to me about Meredith and Eisner's works in progress, and what's wonderful to me about them is their utter disconnection from Joyce. Joyce is completely unconscious that Work in Progress--his titular declaration of utter originality--has its literary origins in a work that was in some ways originary for him, Meredith's Egoist. And Eisner is also blissfully unaware that his title not only replicates the title of one of the most formidable literary works ever written, but that the work his book describes differs dramatically from the aesthetic, and the ethos, of Joyce's own. The moments I am discussing have nothing whatever to do with Joyce. They are coincidences. That's why I like them, and coincidentally that's why Joyce would have liked them, too. Joyce loved a good coincidence, especially one involving himself.

Coincidence Number One: Joyce's manner of discussing Work in Progress mirrors the Meredith-centric tension in the working title itself. Of Ulysses, Joyce said, "I made it out of next to nothing. Work in Progress I am making out of nothing. But there are thunderbolts in it" (Ellmann, 543). But those thunderbolts point back to Meredith even more decisively than the title does. Compare Joyce's statement about Work in Progress to Oscar Wilde's statement about Meredith in "The Critic as Artist": "Meredith! Who can define him? His style is chaos illumined by flashes of lightning. As a writer he has mastered everything except language: as a novelist he can do everything, except tell a story: as an artist he is everything, except articulate" (298). Joyce doesn't quite make his thunderbolts out of nothing; he makes them out of Wilde's notion that Meredith makes thunderbolts out of everything (everything, that is, except good writing). (Joyce also makes thunder out of Vico's New Science and his own personal terror of storms, but that's another paper.)

Coincidence Number Two: Joyce signaled this un-pattern of nonreference before the fact, in the shape of the telegram Stephen Dedalus sends in Ulysses. The telegram reads, "The sentimentalist is he who would enjoy without incurring the immense debtorship for a thing done." The text is a quote from George Meredith's first novel, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel. It is also a quote from Oscar Wilde's De Profundis, which appropriated the passage from Meredith's novel twenty years before Joyce did: "A sentimentalist," Wilde informs Lord Alfred Douglas, "is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it." Neither author attributes the quote. But while Wilde simply absorbs it into his own prose, Joyce makes it into a meditation on the transmission of meaning. He types it onto a telegram, where it is at once doubly unattributed and doubly appropriated--once by "Stephen Dedalus," who sends the message under his name and only later admits he cribbed it from Meredith, and again by Joyce himself, who invents the whole thing in the first place. The beauty of the episode is that it is impossible to tell whether, in taking Meredith's words without paying for them, Joyce is criticizing sentimentalism or raising it to the level of epic, or both. More beautiful still is how the telegram neatly captures both the general problem of reference Meredith posed for Joyce, and the specific pattern of Wildean refraction that crops up years later in the thunderbolt example. As Bloom puts it, "Coming events cast their shadows before."

Coincidence Number Three: The Walt Disney Company operates according to the definition of sentimentalism that Meredith, and then Wilde, and then Joyce give us. The pragmatic Eisner has openly said that the corporation's only objective is to make money. But the sentimental Disney continually exhorted his employees never to forget that "it all began with a mouse," one whose purpose, as he saw it, was essentially to manufacture sentiment: "All we ever intended for [Mickey Mouse], or expected of him, was that he should . . . make people everywhere chuckle with him and at him. We didn't burden him with any social symbolism, we made him no mouthpiece for frustrations or harsh satire. Mickey was simply a little personality assigned to the purposes of laughter." What Disney succeeded in doing was what Meredith, and later Wilde, and then Joyce believed to be impossible: he produced the luxury of an emotion without paying for it. He produced it so well in fact that others willingly paid him for it. In this way the public has for the better part of a century tirelessly defrayed the emotional debt Disney himself might be said to have incurred. This is an example of what Joyce calls in the Wake a cocoincidence: a company that commercializes Meredith's co-co-opted message.

I call these convergences coincidences because I want the observations I have made here to remain observations. I am not arguing that the patterns I have drawn here mean anything in particular; in fact, I am trying to argue that they don't really mean anything at all. My reasons for this revert to two things. The first is that to seek a history of literary influence or a critique of capitalism here--to seek to explain Meredith's constant recurrence in Joyce as the sign of Joyce's anxiety of authorship, or to see Disney's saccharine animation as what won out over Joyce's less digestible play--would be in itself a form of sentimentalism, a specifically scholarly form that desires to posit relations, explain causes, identify origins and specify effects without paying for it, that is without recognizing the force that is necessarily involved in such analytical maneuvers, or calculating the damages--to our sense of history, our sense of literature, our sense of language, our sense of meaning and purpose, our delight in reading and study. The second reason I am resisting argument derives from the first. Though this talk did not begin as a talk about sentiment, or about work in progress, or about Joyce, it did begin as a profound desire not to force an argument into being for the sake of a talk, a desire that Meredith might describe as a symptom of academic egoism, and that Joyce, with his love for "collideorscapes" might answer with a shrug, but which nonetheless feels particularly pressing at a moment when the work in progress of much scholarly methodology is the work of progressive connection, the work of making knowledge out of the premise that everything--if we only look at it the right way--is connected to everything else.

I'd like to conclude by mentioning the people whose words and ideas and energy have transmitted themselves to me in the course of working on this bit of work in progress: A.S. Byatt, Richard Ellmann, Vicki Mahaffey and the regulars at the Finnegans Wake reading group, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and Maurice Black, who gave me my copy of Finnegans Wake, and who has spent so much time talking with me about Joyce and everything else (because you can't talk about Joyce without talking about everything else) that I don't always know where my ideas begin and his end. I have Joyce's--and Wilde's and Meredith's--assurance that this moment of acknowledgement is not only not sentimental, but is by definition the very thing that sentimentalism is not.