Remembering UC Berkeley professor John Bishop — a life spent attending to the ‘Wake’

James Joyce scholar John Bishop, author of ‘Joyce’s Book of the Dark: Finnegans Wake,’ was also a longtime member of the Berkeley Tuesday Night ‘Finnegans Wake’ Reading Group.

John Bishop in his office at Wheeler Hall, UC Berkeley, Sept. 1987. Photo: Courtesy Jane Scherr

John M. Bishop, Sept. 5, 1948 – May 15, 2020

A “Happy Bloomsday” to each and every one of you out there in the world. Today sees worldwide celebrations of the 116th anniversary of June 16, 1904, a day commemorated in the pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and its wandering ad canvasser/modern-day Odysseus, Mr. Leopold Bloom. And, while I will talk more about these happy festivities in a little bit, first there is the sad news of the sudden death of a much beloved UC Berkeley English Department Professor Emeritus, John Michael Bishop.

The late John Bishop. The very late John Bishop. The perpetually late John Bishop. If you ever knew John Bishop socially, you knew, and waited around for, the “late” John Bishop.

But a month ago today the “late” John Bishop became the dead John Bishop. Death, for all its finality, did not stop John Bishop from being late: his virtual memorial mass did not start on time, and this obituary, the first to appear on the West Coast, and the second to appear in a major publication, is a full month late. And as someone who wrote the thing (channeling John Bishop’s energy by creating the lion’s share on the day of the deadline), I felt that a timely obituary for John Bishop seemed, frankly, disrespectful to the essence of the man.

But a month has passed, and that seems respectfully late interval of time. And so, I’ll tell you tales of Jack and John.

I have a confession to make: after a negative first experience, I never liked doing writing assignments for John Bishop when I was his student at Cal. I liked him, I thought he was brilliant, but to put down my thoughts in black and white for such a colorful personality, to watch a word wizard take my weak little single beam of thought and instantly generate seven different marginalia comments from it? It just made me feel like I was a colossal waste of time in this UC Berkeley professor’s life. I mean, take a look at the first page of my paper on William Blake’s poem, “Nurse’s Song”. John had written two words (in impossibly tiny, mostly illegible .003mm technical pencil) for every one word I had typed out on my Olivia electric typewriter.

The first page of my paper on “The Nurse’s Song” by William Blake, produced for John Bishop’s overview class on Modern English Literature, Fall, 1980. Typewritten commentary by myself, handwritten commentary by John Bishop. Image: Courtesy Dan Schiff

Cutting myself a bit of a break, maybe John put extra effort into his comments because really did appreciate my efforts in this paper, which came with a full-color calligraphic illustration. I no longer have a copy of it (as I believe I gave it to John as a gift, and it subsequently vanished), but, in addition to this paper, I also produced a full-color 9 by 12-inch original illustration on Bristol board, incorporating the 16-line poem into the layout just as Blake (a trained printer and etcher) had done. I considered Blake an Ur-cartoonist, incorporating text within the image, so I was comfortable using my own cartoon style in the depiction.

John Bishop took a sabbatical my senior year, so I was unable to take his senior workshop on Ulysses. I was disappointed, but decided to stay on and live in Berkeley a while (that “while” continues to that this day) and audit his Ulysses senior class in the fall of 1982. His senior class was everything that the rumors said it was: funny, erudite, full of wit and deep observation and, most of all, we all discovered that dropping a pencil meant missing an entire paragraph of notes. John lectured at a mile-a-minute, barely pausing to let the laughter die down after making a quip.

As the class came near its conclusion, I was faced with a dilemma. Again, I didn’t want to provide anything written to John, as I was auditing his class and didn’t want to give him more work grading/evaluating a paper. At the same time, I did want to show my appreciation for letting me audit and all he had taught me. So, I came up with the idea of producing a Ulysses illustration for him.

That illustration depicted the last moment of the “Circe” chapter: as Bloom stands above a passed-out Stephen Daedalus, holding his hat and ashplant, he looks up and sees a vision of his dead infant son Rudy as an 11-year old fairy boy with an Eton suit, glass shoes and a little bronze helmet. Details like Rudy’s mauve face and slim ivory cane, I also depicted. The final line of the chapter I also illustrated: “A white lambkin peeps out of his waistcoat pocket.” The whole chapter, (according to the Linati schema that Joyce helped create) is done in a hallucinatory style, and my artwork, particularly the use of fluorescent color and the inclusion of a hologram skull, add to this trippy sensation.

This is the Ulysses illustration I created for John Bishop as a “thank you” for letting me audit his Senior Seminar on Ulysses. It is the final moment of the “Circe” chapter, with Rudy Bloom (left) Leopold Bloom (center) and Stephen Daedalus (bottom). Mixed media. Artwork by D. J. Schiff, copyright 1982. Image: Courtesy Dan Schiff

I discovered in doing this illustration, I really enjoyed the process, and over the next few years, I produced five more Ulysses illustrations in the same format, two of them in an addition of 100 prints each. I would not have done that had I not wanted to write anything for John Bishop.

I know that it’s very near Bloomsday, the Ulysses holiday, but it’s time now to talk about Finnegans Wake, the follow-up to Ulysses that took James Joyce 17 years to write — thought by many of his contemporaries to be nowhere in the same “masterpiece” category as Ulysses. Wyndham Lewis complained early on in an article: “… there is not much reflection going on inside the head of Mr. James Joyce.” Joyce reacted to the criticism by adding obtuse, pompous, professorial platitudes to the voice of the Shaun the Post character (brother/enemy of Shem the Penmen, a satirical version of himself) which clearly echoed the voice, and name-checked the writings of Wyndham Lewis; in this post-modern era, Lewis is about as famous for being satirized in Finnegans Wake as he is for any of his voluminous catalog of writings. It was never a good idea to piss off James Joyce, for he had a way of skewering his enemies, real and imagined, in the pages of his books that immortalized his enemies in humiliating ways, much to their chagrin.

Even critics who were squarely in James Joyce’s corner found themselves at a loss when trying to clearly explain what was going on within the dense multi-lingual portmanteau-filled language of the Wake to the general public. Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson had some success with their book A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, but beyond basic plot summary, their analysis was mainly linking the Wake’s characters to universal mythology and Jungian archetypes. In the years that followed, they were many excellent short articles that provided insight into certain passages of the Wake, and a particularly good reference book, Books at the Wake by James S. Atherton, enumerated the copious literary sources mentioned or alluded to within the pages of Joyce’s last work. And Roland McHugh’s Annotations to Finnegans Wake which provided line-by-line language translations, song titles, Dublin locations, thematic leitmotifs and a host of other details, helped give a deeper appreciation of the plethora of detail lurking in every sentence in Finnegans Wake.

The one thing that all these worthy Wake guides were missing was what Zurich Joycean Fritz Senn calls “a unified field theory for Finnegans Wake”— an explanation of what is going on in the text that provides a single core concept, which can reveal to a lay audience why the pages of Finnegans Wake look the way they do.

John Bishop’s book, Joyce’s Book of the Dark Finnegans Wake provided that explanation: James Joyce was trying within the pages of the Wake to show the experience the entire body (not just the brain) goes through in the process of disconnecting from the outside world to slip into the land of the unconsciousness, and the even darker, murkier reality of what the body and mind do when dreaming is not happening — as Billie Eilish puts it in her Grammy-winning album, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?”

Not only did John Bishop’s Joyce’s Book of the Dark have a new unexplored central concept, he deliberately avoided using many of the themes previous Wake critics had employed to provide explanations: Bishop avoided any sort of detailed character analysis, was aggressively uninterested in fitting the Wake into the psychological and autobiographical frameworks that proved so useful in understanding Joyce’s previous three novels, and even didn’t overly concern himself with linking the themes of the Wake to parallel moments in Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man and Ulysses.

Instead, Bishop approached the body of the Wake using modern medical examination techniques. He traced Joyce’s complex pan-cultural neologisms back to their linguistic Ur-roots. Using geological and geographical methodology, John unearthed HCE, the Mountain Man, hiding under the surface of Dublin and environs, by showing detailed topological maps of the city side-by-side with the same geographical features described in the polyglot language of the Wake.

John Bishop’s book was published in late 1986. In 1988, he was invited to the 11th International James Joyce Symposium in Venice, Italy, to speak about Joyce’s Book of the Dark. I was not there to verify this story with my own eyes and ears, but after John’s death, I heard this account of what happened: when John Bishop walked into the room to deliver his talk, (a few minutes late because, he was, after all, John Bishop), before he could make it to the lectern on the stage to begin his talk, the entire crowd of assembled Joyceans rose to their feet and gave John a lengthy, enthusiastic standing ovation. Before he uttered a single word. Such was the high regard the Joyce community held John Bishop’s insights into Finnegans Wake.

But where did all this deep and unique insight come from? As William Wordsworth famously noted, “The child is the father to the man.” If you go back to his childhood days on 116 Washington Auburn, New York, when John was called “Jackie” and “Jack” by his loving and amazingly intelligent family, I believe you will find the nurturing intellectual environment (and a genetic irregularity) affecting all three Bishop siblings (Jackie/John, who was two years older than the middle child, his sister Jeanne, and four years older than the baby of the family, Anne, affectionately called “Nooshie”).

To hear middle sibling Jeanne tell it, one of her earliest memories was their mother Anne trying to calm Jackie down from his profoundly disturbing bouts of night terrors. Jackie Bishop would wake up screaming, and Anne would calm him with tales of Superman, who would wrap Jackie and his sisters up in his big red cape and fly them around the world. This story not only calmed Jackie, but intrigued him as well. Within a week, after repeated requests which morphed into desperate demands, Mama Anne created a red cape for Jackie to wear, and wear it he did, everywhere he went.

A few years later, Jackie made requests for a new cape; he had grown enamored of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and wanted a cape like the Count’s. This new cape was considerably longer than the Superman cape, and much more dramatic. In high school, Jackie Bishop wrote, directed, produced and starred in a one-act play about Dracula. In the final scene, Jackie/Dracula stood at the very back of the stage on top of multiple stage platforms, spread his caped arms wide, then took a running leap off the platforms, landing in a caped-wrapped crouch at center stage. This final gesture of the play was a literal show-stopper, bringing the audience to its feet with rousing cheers for “Drackie”.

It is an old saw in the Joyce biz, based on a paraphrase of a line found on page 120 of Finnegans Wake, that James Joyce was looking for an “ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia” to unlock all the mysteries of the Wake. With his childhood night terrors and his teenage obsession with a Transylvanian count who stays up all night and sleeps all day, Jackie Bishop’s beginning to look like that ideal insomniac Joyce desired. And in his teen years, not even the combination of the aroma of hot breakfast and mamma Anne’s loud pounding with a broom on the ceiling could wake up Jackie from his deep sleep. Perhaps indeed Jackie was Joyce’s insomniac-in-training.

Under the nurturing of Mamma Anne, all three Bishop children did quite well in school. All three attended Auburn’s East End High School. When Jackie was a senior, he made Phi Beta Kappa, and was valedictorian of his class. Two years later, when Jeanne became a senior, she made Phi Beta Kappa, and was valedictorian of her class. And four years after that, what about little Nooshie? That’s right— Phi Beta Kappa, and valedictorian of her class as well. I am hard pressed to think of any other family I know to achieve this level of scholastic success.

The Bishop family’s academic success even more amazing was the fact that all three Bishop kids had some serious problems with their hearing. In their 20s, Jackie, Jeanne and Anne all had to have surgery on both ears to fix their hearing; they had a condition called Otosclerosis, where the Stapes bone in the ear cannot move. Only surgery can fix the problem and can improve the hearing only so much; the hearing loss caused by Otosclerosis cannot be helped by hearing aids.

Hearing Jeanne tell stories of young Jackie, it quickly became apparent to me that John Bishop’s deafness was of a much more serious nature than his sisters. The evidence, in part, showed up in his choice of music and musical instruments. Jeanne remembers John playing Grieg’s piano concerto (a pretty loud piece of music already) as loud as he could, a sign to me that the loudness cut through John’s deafness. Another sign to me that John had serious hearing difficulties was that he switched from playing trumpet to playing bugle. A bugle can play only a few notes, because it does not have the valves that a trumpet has. It is a less complex musical instrument then a trumpet, and the only way in which it is superior to a trumpet is that it is louder; this is why the bugle, and not the trumpet, is used is in the military as a signaling device. Young Jackie Bishop enjoyed playing “Taps” on Memorial Day at the Ukrainian church a half block away from his house. Not only did he like the attention I believe, I also think he liked hearing the clearness of how the bugle sounded in his ears.

There were many reasons that medical terminology and concerns show up in Joyce’s Book of the Dark. One reason, I believe, is that John was as interested as his sisters were in how the body functioned. John’s sisters took up the interest professionally, earning their medical degrees in the field of internal medicine and having successful private practices in upstate New York.

John Bishop decided to abandon a career in the sciences after his first year at Cornell, changing his major from Nuclear Physics to English Literature. His family was puzzled by his choice, and perhaps John was teased a little bit about how English literature wasn’t quite as serious a profession as one in the medical sciences.

I think John Bishop was showing his sisters and mother that, at least with Finnegans Wake, complex medical analysis could be brought to bear on literary text; this illustration of the workings of the ear using quotes from the Wake shows how these two disciplines overlapped in John Bishop’s mind.

This is one of John Bishop’s illustrated drawings he produced for his book, Joyce’s Book of the Dark: Finnegans Wake (The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison Wisconsin, 1986, page 278). Image taken from a handout accompanying John Bishop’s talk, “Workslop I: Finnegans Wake” given at the seminar “James Joyce and the Arts” Cowell College, Provost House, Saturday, April 30, 1988. Image: Courtesy Dan Schiff

In addition, the anatomical workings of the ear that he learned about while researching his own hearing difficulties, led John Bishop to an interesting revelation about the Wake that blew contemporary Joyce critics away. It often has been noted that the Anna Livia Plurabelle chapter of Finnegans Wake contains hundreds and hundreds of puns and variations of river names, but no Joyce critic ever came up with a compelling reason why these hundreds of river names appear in the chapter, or what relation they might have to the central, unnamed unconscious dreamer of this particular dream narrative.

John Bishop’s investigations into the mechanics of his own ears worked (or didn’t) led him to a revelation about how the ear works in a sleeping body. While all the other senses shut down in a sleeping body (closed eyes let in no light, closed mouth admits no new tastes, arms and legs usually are immobilized, limiting the sensation of touch —  but the ears remain open all night, hearing every noise from the outside world.

But what does the ear hear when the external world falls quiet? John Bishop’s brilliant answer to this question is that the ears hear the internal rivers of the body: the veins and arteries that allow our life-giving blood the opportunity to travel around inside the body, making tiny sloshing sounds that the ear ever so faintly when the outside world goes still. Anna Livia, and all her tributaries, is the river of life within, the rushing bloodstream within the immobilized sleeping body. That connection, from the innumerable rivers running through the landscapes of our planet to the miles and miles of capillaries flowing to every inch of our body, was one of the reasons John Bishop got that standing ovation in Venice in 1988.

One reason I know the ins and outs of John Bishop’s Wake theories so well is an event that Berkeley Finnegans Wake readers celebrate every Bloomsday. On Tuesday, June 16, 1986, students of John Bishop began a weekly reading group to cover the Finnegans Wake material they missed out on because, somehow, his class ran behind schedule (Go figure! I am shocked!). Soon after, I joined the group (as did John Bishop — Bloomsday — related travels kept him away the first few weeks). The group met in the cafe section of The Musical Offering, just on the other side of the town/gown border of Bancroft Way. It read and glossed the Wake with the aid of McHugh’s Annotations to Finnegans Wake at the blistering rate of about a page a week.

And lo, 34 years later, people are still meeting up somewhere in Berkeley every Tuesday evening at 6 p.m., (currently in a Zoom room hosted by me from my rent-controlled Benvenue Avenue apartment), reading, glossing, laughing and having lots of fun with Finnegans Wake. Over the years over a hundred people have shared time together reading and glossing Finnegans Wake together, and becoming friends in the process. I am luckier than most, in that I have been part of this group for a majority of those 34 years (although concerned friends and family, who still occasionally ask “Aren’t you done reading that damn book yet?” might feel differently about how lucky I really am).

The Berkeley Tuesday Night Finnegans Wake Group lost John Bishop twice in the new millennium. In January 2010, John had a stroke that completely paralyzed the left side of his body. Unable to care for himself without outside help, his sisters Jeanne and Anne airlifted him back to the James Square Health and Rehabilitation Center of Syracuse, New York, where Jeanne worked her medical practice, providing internal and geriatric care. John Bishop’s sisters put him up in the best room the facility had to offer, set up an office area where he could work, a piano/synthesizer that he could practice playing music with his right hand, and therapy sessions to maintain and improve the mobile side of his body.

Although his body was obviously seriously impacted by the stroke, his mind, his memory and sense of humor remained intact. He continued to work on his book of notes for Ulysses, as well as reading new (non-Joyce-related) books to keep the flow of new ideas circulating in his brain. Many of his Joycean friends, from Berkeley and other places around the world, would call him up, and sometimes even come to visit in person.

When the lockdown due to coronavirus happened in late March 2020, the Berkeley Tuesday Night Finnegans Wake Group switched from their Ashby and College café to Zoom sessions without missing a Tuesday. Within about a month, after the group got comfortable with the Zoom format, I called John Bishop up to ask if he would like to rejoin the Berkeley Wake Group via his email and iPad, via clicking on a Zoom link.

He was very excited at the prospect of “being back in Berkeley” and we worked together troubleshooting various problems he had. The first week, John admitted he had forgotten his email password and could not access his email. We made plans for him to set up a new email account, and I then spent an hour updating John on the comings and goings of the many friends, families and others in the James Joyce community. The next week, I checked in and progress had been made: John had a new email account and a working password. However, his iPad was nearly out of power, so we agreed to meet up next week, and spent another pleasurable hour gossiping and reminiscing about great times we had had in Berkeley, Dublin, Toronto, Zurich and Yosemite.

When I called the next week, the power situation with John’s iPad had gotten worse, but I carefully explained that he needed to plug the iPad in with a different charger, to determine if it was the charger or the iPad that needed replacing. We then spent another hour or so, joking about and recalling some of the awkward and epic moments James Joyce has provided us over the past 40 years of friendship together. We agreed that John knew what he needed to do to get the iPad functional, and planned that John would call me the following week, once everything was squared away, so we could do a test run of the Zoom link. We said our goodbyes, hung up, and I waited for his follow-up call.

It never came.

It was only a few days between when John started having complications breathing, to his transfer to the COVID unit of the University hospital, to his death from complications with COVID-19. John’s sister Anne had passed away a few years before, but his sister Jeanne was there with him when he died. Having done all they could do to save him, the medical team put John “under” so that there would be less difficulty with the intubation. So there, in a chemically induced slumber, John Bishop, as we knew him, like Elvis before him, left the building.

One of the many questions John asked his students over the years about the central unnamed character of Finnegans Wake, who might be blacked out drunk, could just simply be asleep, or might, in reality, be dead was, “If you are asleep and you die, how would you know?” I never came up with a good answer for that question. Perhaps now, John knows the answer. It’s a little too late for him to tell me the answer, but it’s cool; I grew quite used to him being late over our many years of friendship.

Today, when the world celebrates Bloomsday 116 and the Berkeley Tuesday Night Finnegans Wake Group moves into its 34th year of existence, we will raise a virtual glass of Guinness, or Jameson’s or Absinthe to the late, great UC Berkeley English Professor John Michael Bishop. You are more than welcome to do the same.

Dan Schiff has lived in Berkeley since 1980 when he came to get his BA in English Literature at UC Berkeley, and studied under Professor John Bishop. In 1993 he was a resident scholar at the Zurich James Joyce Foundation, and has been a member of the Berkeley Tuesday Night ‘Finnegans Wake’ Group since July, 1986.