Finnegans Wake
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Finnegans Wake

 Theodore Sabo
 Theodore Sabo
Finnegans Wake
by Theodore Sabo  FollowFollow
Theodore Sabo is a resident of Washington State and an extraordinary lecturer at North-West University of South Africa. He has published in more Classica and the Journal for Late Antique Religion and Culture.
Finnegans Wake
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The reader of Ulysses, if he were to be shown its Homeric parallels, might conclude that James Joyce was the Homer of the twentieth century, but he would never read Finnegans Wake which is a book to symbolize endless adventure and the restless thrill of the unknown. Much of it is still unintelligible, and many scholars would be in the dark as to its meaning were it not for the hints Joyce provided to his coterie of friends. Reading its language, that of Anna Livia Plurabelle, one is reminded that the art he responded to most strongly was music, even the music of cabaret singers, and that he wrote his poetry to be sung rather than spoken; but it is natural to think of his books as novels because the novel was a genre he redefined, preferring rather than to tell us the kinds of books he read, to give us an exact catalog of every book in Leopold Bloom’s library together with their missing covers.

Joyce’s books are unconcerned with offering solutions to life’s mysteries, but everything important about life is in them. One notes especially the father-son relationship of which he identified himself with both aspects. Stephen Dedalus, similar to him in some ways, was in other ways more aloof and arrogant, and although the death of his mother caused him painful feelings of guilt it did little to change his mind about religion which he felt enslaved people’s minds and caused them to live unhappy lives. Few others experienced his intense personal rebellion and his courage to live without religion. If Shelley created the age of faith within himself, he destroyed the age of faith within himself, and it was a violent destruction which needed always to be reaffirmed. Throughout his career Stephen played Icarus to Joyce’s Daedalus, the Greek artisan who made the fantastic pairs of wings which were to free him and his son and provided him with the means of his own undoing perhaps because he remembered that death is better than prison.            

Stephen’s real father is not Simon Dedalus but the Jewish advertising-space salesman whom he meets in a brothel which is a twentieth-century Circe’s isle. Bloom and Stephen, though having much in common, are very different, one of them representing the city and the other Art, those two polarities which Joyce used to distinguish his books: while Dubliners and Ulysses are built around the man of the street, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Finnegans Wake are the private recollections of the artist. Joyce, who we are told had been exhausted his entire life, from his first year in Paris to after he completed the Wake, found in the city only sleepless wandering and in art only weariness.            

Weariness, while being a natural disposition, can be augmented by the unwillingness to confront reality which is a necessary component of the artist’s soul if she is to create great and lasting works of art. In A Portrait Stephen finds himself driving from his heart the commonplace sounds of his father’s whistle, his mother’s mutterings, and the screeching of a mad nun, such sounds being not only a blow to his ego but interfering with the creative process itself. Waking is torturous for the artist because it signifies the end of dreams and the beginning of harsh reality, and he often needs a companion to shield him from the surrounding rotten culture. An early poem of Joyce’s begins:

          The dawn awakes with tremulous alarms,

                      How grey, how cold, how bare!

          O, hold me still white arms, encircling arms!

                      And hide me, heavy hair!

In Chamber Music the poet longs to sleep even though the winter is forever crying, “Sleep no more,” and even the rhapsodic account of Stephen’s acceptance of the priesthood of Art ends with him seeking rest by the seashore.            

A Portrait of the Artist is one of the supreme texts on weariness. This is the more remarkable since it is a text of youth. “All seemed weary of life even before entering upon it,” Stephen thinks of his young siblings. As a schoolboy he looked wearily at the maroon clouds and the green earth on the flyleaf of his textbook, and riding to Cork in the night train with his father he was haunted by the terror of sleep. Later he speaks with weary humor and repeats to himself Ben Jonson’s song “I was not wearier where I lay.” He leans wearily on his ashplant as he watches the sparrows flying overhead after his quarrel with his mother. Everyone he knows suffers from weariness: Mr. Casey smiles wearily at him; his friend Cranly is listless; his girlfriend Emma is languorous; she and he are weary of ardent ways. Dublin itself is a sleepy city, summoned from its rest only to hear its doom. In the final diary entries it is compared to a weary lover who has turned from dreams to dreamless sleep, and Stephen himself dreams of ancient monarchs, their hands folded on their laps in token of weariness.           

In Ulysses, where Leopold Bloom’s morning walk ends with him languid and floating and where staying up late results in hallucination, sleepless wandering fuels weariness. Joyce could have written Finnegans Wake only if he knew the omnipotence of sleep. His work ends with the sleep-inducing whisper of twilight, implicit as when Gabriel Conroy’s soul swoons as he sleepily watches the snow fall or explicit as it is in his last two novels. “Where?” is the last question whispered before Leopold Bloom falls asleep. “Yes,” whispers Molly, surrendering herself to her husband and also falling asleep. “The” is the final indistinct breath of an all-night vigil.

Every artist unavoidably has a philosophical worldview. Joyce, although he thought of Aristotle as the greatest philosopher in Western history and although Stephen Dedalus builds his aesthetic theory on Aristotle and Aquinas, was a Platonist, and as he moved from Aristotle to Plato, from the particular to the universal, from naturalism to symbolism, he became more radically experimental and creative. His early story “The Dead” indicates this shift in microcosm, beginning with a particular man and his wife and ending with the mingling of all men and all nature. Related to his monistic philosophy was his acceptance of Flaubert’s doctrine of the artist’s impersonality. Like the ballad “Turpin Hero” the Joyce oeuvre moves from the first to the third person. The stories in Dubliners change style according to their central characters, while A Portrait is written in a style reflective of the protagonist’s aesthetic interests. In Ulysses each chapter is written by a different narrator, and in Finnegans Wake, which has no narrator, the artist has tried to completely refine himself out of existence.            

Joyce, who cultivated an image of himself as a courageous secularist, was in reality an almost Jungian mystic who had left the church but had retained its terminology and ritual to make a religion out of art. He was moved less by Plato than by Bruno of Nola who viewed particular things as manifestations of the infinite principle. The Stephen of Ulysses, along with Bloom and Molly, is more of an archetype than an individual, and his resentment is the stylized resentment of all artists. Like many pantheists Joyce was obsessed with how apparently minor things could take on eternal visages and constantly saw the universal in the particular. He owed much to Hinduism where everything is a manifestation of deity and to the philosophy of Giambattista Vico where the thunder is God, and he claimed to hear the voice of God in a shout in the street.            

Joyce once said there was no difference between Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, but the latter book goes much further than its predecessor in its attempt to encapsulate eternity within the scope of the finite. In it Dublin, which was always Joyce’s universal polis, becomes the world, and an Irish family becomes the human race. By cramming his book with particulars and by referring to all languages and echoing past literatures he hoped to create a universal in words, the greatest poem mankind has ever written. He tried to incorporate all of man’s learning, all the arts and all the sciences, in a single volume and tried to say everything that has ever been said about everything from all points of view, equating everything and its negation with a reverberating pun. Finnegans Wake is to an adult what a college textbook is to a child learning to read. Like the labor of Isidore of Seville it is an exhaustive compilation, a modern-day summa whose unintelligibility gives it the illusion of omniscience, and to own a copy of it is to be in possession of all the classics of English literature from Beowulf to the present.

Joyce’s favorite philosopher after Bruno was Vico who had a cyclical view of history that was based on a theory of Machiavelli’s. For Vico history repeats itself in endless cycles of birth, death, and rebirth, and time ensures that Plato’s archetypes will be continually reembodied. Yesterday the eternal female was Molly Bloom; today it is Anna Livia Plurabelle; tomorrow it may be her daughter Isabel. It is because history is cyclical that Joyce begins his first sentence on the last page of his book, and its four parts are based on Vico’s four ages of the divine, the heroic, the human, and an age of confusion which leads us back to the divine.            

Like The Divine Comedy the Wake is patterned on many levels, some of which contradict each other. Joyce, who used changes in style to help him design his books, can shift, sometimes in the same chapter, from the scholarly lecture to the children’s story or from the advice column of a lady’s magazine to the classified section of the newspaper. He also used coincidences which take the form of puns and numbers. When he wrote Ulysses three had been the most important number; now, with the help of Vico and a young man named Samuel Beckett, he had concluded that four and twelve were the most important numbers, and he used them as mortar in the construction of the Wake: the four evangelists, the four points of the compass, the twelve apostles, the twelve hours of the day.            

Its protagonists, the family of a Dublin innkeeper, are clearly set forth. The initials of the innkeeper, who has the unlikely name of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, are made to stand for Howth Castle and Environs, Here Comes Everybody, and dozens of other things; he is equated with such disparate persons as Adam, Finn MacCool, Tristan, Swift, Napoleon, and Humpty Dumpty. His wife Anna Livia Plurabelle typifies the womanly qualities of beauty and transience. So mythicized is she that she seems older than Eve and Joyce makes us wonder who came first. Unlike Leopold and Molly, Humphrey and Anna have so lost their individuality that they become interchangeable with natural phenomena, with the Hill of Howth outside Dublin and the River Liffey which flows through Dublin. Humphrey may be the chief dreamer and thus dreams—like Vishnu, Albion, and Carroll’s red king—the entire world.            

His sons, the twins Shem and Shaun who have their prototypes in the fratricidal brothers of the Genesis narrative, represent the detached artist and the extroverted politician, and around them Joyce retells two of Aesop’s fables. Shem is the artist, a self-absorbed and hostile creature whose lust for solitary greatness brings us to mind of Stephen Dedalus. “He even ran away with hunself and became a farsoonerite, saying he would far sooner muddle through the hash of lentils in Europe than meddle with Irrland’s split little pea.” Like Richard Rowan in Exiles he thinks of himself more highly than he ought and leaves a plethora of enigmatic artistic haloes in his wake, making things difficult for his biographer. ”Every honest to goodness man in the land of the space of today knows that his back life will not stand being written about in black and white.

Putting truth and untruth together a shot may be made at what this hybrid actually was like to look at.” Much of the action centers around his brother Shaun who passes an abstruse test with flying colors, sails in a barrel, and, “with a voice pure as a churchmode,” delivers a libidinous Lenten sermon to twenty-nine young ladies, “goodwill girls on their best beehiviour,” one of whom is his sister. While Shem gets a chapter in Vico’s divine book, Shaun is allotted two chapters in the human book. Even though Shem is jealous of Shaun’s relative lack of psychological complexes and Shaun is jealous of the obvious literary superiority of his “cerebrated brother,” they are merely one duality in a book which is full of dualities because the Jew-Greek dualism of Ulysses is continued ad nauseum with the Wake’s eternal opposites.

The most important is the yang and yin of Humphrey and Anna, and there is a sense in which they are the only real characters, since their daughter is what Anna was and Shem and Shaun represent the two contrasting natures of their father and act out his latent schizophrenia. Shem is the unconscious mind and represents the feminine aspects of space, art, and night, while Shaun is the conscious mind and represents the masculine aspects of time, politics, and day.            

It seems as though Humphrey could do without his sons, but after the prankquean kidnaps them he is roused into “Boanerges himself, the old terror of the dames.” The story, which is told in at least two versions, has the look of being more ancient and legendary than the rest of the book, one to be sung at night by a wandering minstrel or aoidos accompanying himself on his harp. In the second version of the story, in the sixth chapter of Book One, we note the presence of an elm tree and a stone at the riverbank which are the metamorphosed washerwomen of two chapters later and conclude that the contemporary story of the washerwomen took place before the ancient-sounding tale of the prankquean. Not only does this illustrate Vico, but it reflects Joyce’s view that the great events of history take place not just in the past but every day; just as the washerwomen’s tale took place before the prankquean’s, so the small talk Joyce heard in Dublin pubs preceded the writing of his books. “It was not only in Skeat that he found words for his treasure-house,” he writes of Stephen Dedalus, “he found them also at haphazard in the shops, on advertisements, in the mouths of the plodding public.” That washerwomen’s conversation he does not deem unimportant any more than he does that of the drunks Jute and Mutt who make allusions to Pushkin, Tacitus, and Wagner and portray the divine age.

Isabel Earwicker is a thing of beauty in a world almost as drab and uneventful as our own, and although there is a Jean de Meungian irreverence in Joyce’s treatment of her and a smile comes to his lips whenever he thinks of the colleen bawn the book could not succeed without her. Isabel is the “Girl Cloud Pensive,” “a lovelooking leapgirl,” “a whisk brisk sly spry spink spank sprint of a thing,” “a bewitching blonde who dimples delightfully and is approached in loveliness only by her grateful sister reflection in a mirror.”  Isabel fancies herself “the daughter of the queen of the Emperour of Irelande” and tosses “her sfumastelliacinous hair like la princesse de la Petite Bretagne.” She is the object of the male protagonists’ subliminal desires, and in an aside to Shaun’s test, where she is ignored for a moment by her quarreling brothers who are acting out one of Aesop’s fables, she drowns herself in the Missisliffi which is either her mother or all womankind.            

Anna Livia Plurabelle, “with her auburnt streams, and her coy cajoleries, and her dabblin drolleries,” emerges from the last chapter of Book One almost as whorish as Molly Bloom, but this episode more than any other needs to be taken with a grain of salt since it is the uninterrupted gossip of two old washerwomen on the banks of the Liffey. The first woman’s appetite for gossip is insatiable: “Onon!  Onon! tell me more. Tell me every tiny teign. I want to know every single ingul.” The second woman tells her tale because of the first woman’s eagerness and because they are old and have nothing to do but wash clothes. They are rooted as a tree and a stone to the riverbank which is how they appear to Isabel before she drowns, but they are also in another sense Shem and Shaun in a rare display of fraternity. Shaun is the inquisitive first woman who becomes a stone, the conscious mind listening transfixed to the outbursts of the unconscious mind which is represented by the second woman’s gossip.            

We do not learn until the book’s concluding monologue that Anna is more motherly, more dependent on her husband, and more womanly than Molly Bloom. “Our turfbrown mummy is acoming,” says Shem, “alpilla, beltilla, ciltilla, deltilla, running with her tidings.”  She seems old when put next to her daughter, but to the washerwomen she is still young, and one of them regrets that she missed seeing her in public. “Her hair’s as brown as ever it was. And wivvy and wavy,” the funeral-goers tell Humphrey, and it is her hair that makes Joyce think of her as a river and impels him to his most poetic passages: “First she let her hair fal and down it flussed to her feet its teviots winding coils. . . . And after that she wove a garland for her hair. She pleated it. She plaited it. Of meadowgrass and riverflags, the bulrush and waterweed, and of fallen griefs of weeping willow.”

Throughout the book whenever Humphrey or his wife is a child the other plays the role of mother or father, and they become for a time their own children. I think of that situation as the result of a confused monism, but it is given ideal setting in the dream world where everything tends toward the one and where the dreamer encounters the universal in the particular and all humanity in one human being. Stephen meant the same thing in Ulysses when he quoted Maeterlinck to the effect that when we go forth into the world we encounter ourselves in all the people we meet.

Like Dante’s, Joyce’s summa was immanentistic. For Dante the universe was a chain of being whose unity needed to be realized, and the opposites Francis and Dominic, Aquinas and Siger, Bonaventure and Joachim find themselves together on the same planet. Joyce makes opposites become indistinguishable. He is like the master in the Puranas who asks his disciple, “Which of us is you and which is I?” meaning that these terms are a myth because individuality is an illusion. When Bloom enters the brothel in Ulysses, Stephen recognizes him as himself, and throughout the chapter their consciousnesses converge. In Finnegans Wake, St. Patrick and the druid, the conqueror and the conquered, Shaun and Shem, and Humphrey and Anna are one. It has been theorized that its sequel would have completely left the realm of matter for that of spirit and would have stated even more clearly that everything is one, that this Dublin family, those two washerwomen, those four old men whom we whimsically liken to the four evangelists are really manifestations of that unity which for the sake of convenience we will call God. So consistent was Joyce with his monism that he becomes androgynous. If Shem and Shaun are the two natures of Humphrey, then Humphrey is also the two washerwomen who represent them and comprises in himself both tree and stone, both night and day, both female and male and, as Darkinbad the Brightdayler, epitomizes even more so than Stephen’s Hamlet the absurdity of man as self-sufficient androgyne.

There are many parallels between Finnegans Wake and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, not only that their authors were the same age and that these were their last books but that both deal with sexual rivalry and parricide and the idea of death and resurrection. Joyce got the title Finnegans Wake from an Irish-American ballad about a hod carrier who revives after being given whiskey at his own wake, but since there is no escaping the cyclical nightmare of history Finnegan’s anastasis is more resuscitation than resurrection. There is no personal resurrection in Joyce but rather an ambiguous collective immortality in which someone like Anna Livia is replaced by her daughter. Pantheism sees death and resurrection as illusions. One can think of the statement in the Katha Upanishad: “If the slayer thinks he slays, if the slain thinks he is slain, both these do not understand.” The slayer has merely broken a glass bottle of seawater in the sea, allowing the water to rejoin the ocean.

Resurrection is less important to the Wake than the fact that it is a Scholastic exercise in which all reality is thought of as existing in concentric circles like tree rings. The medieval artist, when he drew twenty or thirty circles with Christ, Augustine, and Aquinas around them, thought he had encapsulated the world, but in real life there are an infinite number of circles, and when man tries to understand all of them he becomes unintelligible and irrational as Joyce is in his last novel which is a heroic and astonishingly lyrical example of this futility, an example which, while it does not show us the translucent beauty of the world at dawn as Dante would have, gives us the night after a thunderstorm when the lights begin turning off in the houses and the rain still drips from the roofs.



  27 months ago
Excellent and I learned some things. Thank you.

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