James Joyce: “Work in Progress” / Finnegans Wake

The most conspicuous innovation of Finnegans Wake is its use of ‘dream-language’, in fact a constant layering of multi-lingual puns in successive drafts which produces a fabric rich in semantic possibilities but generally impenetrable to the ordinary reader. After Ulysses, Joyce believed that he had ‘come to the end of English’, and there is some room for the idea that he intended to challenge or dismantle the psychic authority of the language in whose ‘shadow’ Stephen Dedalus’s soul ‘frets’ in A Portrait of the Artist (‘English punned to petery pence’, in Wake-parlance). Yet this intention could not have sustained him over the seventeen years of “Work in Progress” without a corresponding belief in the revelatory power of the syncretic methods that he applied to all languages and cultures in all their phenomenal variety. Joyce’s methods are demonstrably modern having more to do with philology and psychoanalysis than with symbolism and magic but they are none the less informed by a sacral relation to language as a kind of ‘broken heaventalk’ in which truth subsists in a dismembered way. He was unorthodox in his beliefs but he used the terms ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ in passionate and meaningful ways and he did not accept the premises of a vacuous form of relativism. Finnegans Wake is patently the most relativistic of all literary texts, yet it is also the most absolute in the sense that it genuinely engages in an attempt to reconstruct ‘the reality of experience’ from its disparate elements by means of a vast system of correspondences which, if developed to the uttermost, might produce the result that ‘the owl globe wheels in view’ - a representation of humanity whose first claim to truth is its completeness considered as a ‘selfbounded and selfcontained’ entity whose ‘soul’ or whatness ‘leaps from the vestment of its being’ (to echo Joyce’s youthful aesthetic terminology). In order to effect this - or something intellectually and emotionally continuous with it - Joyce adopted in his last work the framing conception of a dreaming subject, one H. C. Earwicker, a publican in his inn at Chapelizod, Co. Dublin, who happens to be a reincarnation of Finn MacCool, or any other patriarchal figure with a no less archetypical wife/lover, sons, daughters and even customers, each of whom contain within themselves reincarnations of the same myriad kinds. Like Joyce and his own family, they would be multi-lingual and dream in all the languages of Europe and beyond. No one language would be privileged - unless it be Hiberno-English by reason of its comic vibrancy and its possession of a lyric strain not found in standard English. Just as his characters would simultaneously employ different languages, they would occupy different times and places in the same (or opposite) person. The text itself would be the dream of Earwicker or Finn MacCool asleep in the landscape, as Joyce variously represented it. As a naturalistic idea this has limited plausibility; as a hermeneutic principle, it falls far short of explaining the textual and meta-textual structure of the novel at all important points. Who is dreaming Finnegans Wake ? is not ultimately a rewarding question; yet it does point to the fundamental innovation, which is to let language itself constitutes the reality of experience and to invest the utmost effort in the exploration of that thesis.

Having accumulating unused material from Ulysses in a large notebook (VI.A), Joyce began writing on 23 March 1923 with the earliest version of an episode called ‘King Roderick O’Conor’ - ultimately pp.380-82 of Finnegans Wake - and this was rapidly followed by ‘Tristan and Isolde’ (pp.384-86), ‘St. Kevin’ (pp.604-06), and ‘The Colloquy of St. Patrick and the Druid’ (pp.611-12). He then produced ‘Mamalujo’ (2.iv) as a framing chapter for the revised version of ‘Tristan and Isolde’ All the eight sections of Book I were written consecutively during 1923 excepting 1.i and 1.vi, which were added in 1926-27. In the interim, he worked on the ‘Four Watches of Shaun’ (3.i-iv), comprising the third of four book of the completed work. The writing of Book II and emendations to other sections occupied him throughout 1926-38. This accounts for the bulk of the time he spent on “Work in Progress”, though much of it was taken up with difficulties of health, failing eyesight, family problems including, signally, the mental illness of his daughter Lucia and the growing alienation of former supporters. As with Ulysses, a great deal of labour was expended preparing sections for publication, though with Finnegans Wake the relationship between the various textual stages is even more anomalous than in the former case. For one thing, there was no fair copy with the result that various levels of accretion in notebooks, drafts, typescripts and corrected proofs now held at the British Library or the New York State University [SUNY] at Buffalo look less like successive revisions than phases in a definite method that treats the printed galley more as the beginning than the end of the process of composition. Many of the resultant episodes were published in avant garde magazines including transatlantic review (April 1924), Criterion (July 1925), Navire d’argent (October 1925), and transition (April 1927-April/May 1938). Others appeared as premium pamphlets: thus Anna Livia Plurabelle (New York 1928; London 1930); Tales Told by Shem and Shaun (Paris 1929), Two Tales of Shem and Shaun (London 1932), and Haveth Childers Everywhere (Paris and New York 1930; London 1931) - nor were these the final state of the texts in question. Given such a history of textual development, the Wake begins to seem less like a ‘book about something than that thing itself’, as Samuel Beckett wrote of it in 1929. In one respect the final text of Finnegans Wake is, however, staple. Both the Viking Press and the Faber editions share the same text and the same pagination and the only difference in the transmission history is the inclusion of Joyce’s handlist of errors, included as pp.629-43 at the back of early printings, at different dates (1950 in London and a decade later in New York).

The title of the book - which was kept secret - was taken from an Irish-American ballad about Tim Finnegan, a drunken bricklayer who falls to his death from a ladder but returns to life when accidentally splashed with whiskey at his wake, exclaiming, ‘Soul to the devil, do ye think I’m dead?’ The song had been a party piece of the author’s in childhood. Around this slight armature, with its evocative suggestion of reincarnation and eternal return, Joyce constructed a vast edifice of corresponding myths and narratives culled from the length and breadth of literature and tradition. Some of the material is hallmark Irish (‘Macool, Macool, orra whyi deed ye diie?’), and some of it Judaeo-Christian (‘Mister Funn, you’re going to be fined again!’), but other sources as various as The Egyptian Book of the Dead, examined in E. A. Wallis Budge’s edition of 1895, and the comic-strip banter of Mutt and Jeff, provide an astonishing symphony of human voices from all times and places with the general object of constructing a universal history. In that relation Joyce draws his chief inspiration from the Renaissance thought of Giambattista Vico, the late sixteenth-century Neapolitan philosopher who divided human history into divine, heroic and human ages followed by a ricorso (or return), setting the whole cycle in motion once again. (The fact that the cycles were started by a thunderclap suited his own superstitious mind.) In Finnegans Wake these ages correspond to the four books which comprise the whole work as well as internal cycles within them. At the same time, the Wake is structured by the idea of interdependent and mutually-generating opposites which he derived from Giordano Bruno (the subject of a book-review he wrote in 1903) and from Samuel Coleridge, who wrote (as he knew): ‘Every power in nature or in spirit must evolve an opposite as the sole condition and means of its manifestation; and every opposition is, therefore, a tendency to reunion.’ How much credence Joyce attached to these theories can be judged from his remark on one occasion that he employed them as trellises only (in remarks to Padraig Colum), while on another he asked Frank Budgen to take care not to cast him in a ‘true believer’ mode in an article about him. It is nevertheless clear that Joyce kept in mind the possibility of ‘totalisating’ human history through literary art in such a way as to capture the ‘whatness’ of humanity in a multi-lingual, trans-temporal, cross-cultural, polysemous text constructed by means that fly in the face of ‘cutanddry grammar and go-ahead plot’, as Joyce himself averred.

Such a conception implies that the central ‘characters’ of the work will be representative of human life in a more comprehensive way than the usual particularity of literary realism - and naturalism in particular - admits. Joyce achieves this by making his characters archetypal while locating them in a dense matrix of disparate and even contradictory literary and historical allusions. At the centre of the Wake stands Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (HCE) with his consort Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP), respectively embodied by the Hill of Howth and the River Liffey in a mythopoeic Irish landscape that equally serves to symbolise the generative principles of male and female in a world of flux as promontory and sea, stone and water, phallus and vagina. At the centre of the book, in the “Night Lessons” chapter, Joyce presents a chart of ‘the whome of your eternal geomater’ which doubles as a map of Ireland and a diagram of the dynamic and often hostile relations between genders, siblings and (more problematically) between fathers and their daughters. While testifying to the fascination of graffiti and offering a parody on W. B. Yeats’s gyres in A Vision (1925), this diagram is also the final term in Joyce’s engagement with the philosophy of Aristotle whom he saw as rather more a ‘metaphysician’ than a ‘biologist’, claiming that it was ‘in the higher applications of his severe method that he achieves himself.’ What he achieves, in this view, is adequately represented by a sentence that Joyce copied from De Anima into his “Paris Notebook” of 1903: ‘The most natural act for living beings [...] is to produce others like themselves and thereby participate as far as they may in the eternal and divine’. With this premise in mind, Joyce was able to regard human sexuality as the real grounds of eternal (or at least a recurrent) life and hence the metaphysical formula of existence.

The events that befall the Earwicker family in the Wake primarily concern a sexual misdemeanour committed by HCE in the Furry Glen of Dublin’s Phoenix Park. This involves two girls and three soldiers, who are geometric counterparts of Issy, on the one hand,and Shem and Shaun on the other. Just as Issy becomes her mother, so the boys will become their father, though only by the expedient of overthrowing him by catching him with his pants down - as they do in Joyce’s fable ‘How Buckley Shot the Russian General’ (a favourite of his father). At the heel of HCE’s disgrace, ALP defends him in a letter written by Shem the Penman and carried by Shaun the Post, and this disinterred by a hen scratching in the midden in the orthodox archaeological fashion - an event that synonymous with the discovery of the ‘litterage’ of the Wake itself. In this general scheme of things, it is clear that HCE is a male principle that readily bifurcates into the internecine order of his warring sons while Issy serves as the sexually attractive principal through whom the sons are reattached to the generative source of life (variously a ‘deltic biangle’ or ‘modder ilond’). It is of course through loss of innocent that these necessary processes in the chain of reproduction are effected - a felix culpa, in theological terms. The Wake follows St. Augustine in treating the Fall as a ‘happy fault’, but differs from him in identifying immortality with sexual reproduction: ‘Phall if you will but rise you must in a secular setdown phoenish’. Vico’s conception of ricorso finds its formal expression in the unfinished phrase on the last page (‘.. along the’) which flows ‘by a commodius vicus of recirculation’ into the opening phrases on the first (‘riverrun by swerve of shore. ..’), thus forming an ‘Endless Sentence’ which itself embodies both salvation and damnation for humankind. Within this envelope, Joyce constructed the 8-4-4-1 pattern of sections (or chapters) which makes up the four-part architecture of the book. It is, finally, a somewhat arbitrary structure and there is no good reason why the first Book should be twice as long as the two that follow other than that the scope of material in hand permitted it to be so.

From a relatively early date in the process of composition Joyce was able to say, ‘I have the book fairly well planned out in my head’ (21 May 1926), and he frequently insisted that the labour of composition was like tunnelling through a mountain from two sides, implying a general symmetry between the four latter sections of Book I and those of Book III, with corresponding episodes in each. Hence, for instance, ALP’s soliloquy at the end of Book I (“Anna Livia Plurabelle”) is balanced by HCE’s soliloquy at the end of Book III (“Haveth Childers Everywhere”) while “The Mookse and the Gripes” in 1.vi (Q11) is a companion piece to “The Ondt and the Gracehoper” in 3.i. In view of such correspondences, one critic has been able to urge that the chief structural feature of the text is a ‘simple equilibrium of two symmetrical half-arches supporting a keystone of greater complexity’ - the keystone being the barely penetrable chapters of Book II. The first four chapters of Book I are devoted to the demise of HCE. Firstly, his fall is narrated under the form of numerous cognate episodes - Eden, Babel, Wall Street, Tim Finnegan, and so forth (1.i). The ensuing three deal with his crime, his betrayal and his burial in ‘the best Lough Neagh pattern’ (1.ii, iii & iv). The fifth section (1.v) offers a palaeographers account of ALP’s letter or ‘mamafesta’ and contains a pastiche of the Sir Sullivan’s preface to The Book of Kells serving equally as a caricature of Finnegans Wake itself. The sixth (1.vi) poses twelve conundrums of great ingenuity and varying length, including the Joycean fable of “The Mookse and the Gripes”, in part a riposte to Wyndam Lewis’s ‘Analysis of the Mind of James Joyce’ (Blast, 1924). In the next section (1.vii), Shaun - more in the character of Stanislaus than Lewis - offers a portrait ot the artist in which the character of Stephen Dedalus is aspersed as a ‘supreme prig’ while the Wake itself is disparaged as an ‘epical forged cheque’ comprised of ‘once current puns, quashed quotatoes, messes of mottage’. Shem has the final word, however, when he lifts his ‘lifewand’ and makes ‘the dumb speak’. In the last section of Book I (1.viii), Joyce achieved a widely-acknowledged tour de force with a ‘chattering dialogue’ between two washerwoman across the Liffey, as he explained to Miss Weaver in a letter of 1924. The scandalous failings of HCE is the main topic of their conversation and, by the time the episode was revised, it would include the names of more than five hundred rivers.

The first half of Book II concerns the children, initially engaged in a charade-cum- matinée performance (2.i) and afterwards at their obstetrically-minded homework (2.ii). The third section, set in the public house (2.iii), features two more Joycean fables - ‘The Norwegian Captain’ and ‘How Buckley Shot the Russian General’. It also frames Joyce’s response to the invention of television and the splitting of the atom (respectively ‘the bairdboard bombardment screen’ and ‘the abnihilisation of the etym’ by ‘the first lord of Hurtreford’ - viz., Ernest Rutherford). In the last section of Book II (2.iv), the story of Tristan and Isolde is retold by the four evangelists (‘Mamlujo’), who hover above the lovers’ boat in the form of seagulls, each connected with one a different province, as their accents begin to reveal. These voyeurs also represent the Four Masters (compilers of the seventeenth-century Irish Annals) and, as such, all important redactors of hot-blood conquests. The section ends with the tragical history of ‘King Roderick O’Conor’, last high-king of Ireland, whose fertile lands were confiscated by mail-clad knights. More significantly, perhaps, his ‘babel tower and beamer’ is reduced to ‘diversed tonguesed’, signifying the cultural disorder of a colonised realm. This was the first episode to be written and, as such, reveals how fundamental is the condition of cultural hybridity as this has been experienced in Ireland to the ground-plan, and indeed the inspiration, of Finnegans Wake.

Book III traces the passage of Shaun the Post ‘backwards through the events already narrated’ while ‘rolling up the Liffey in a barrel’, as Joyce told Miss Weaver (24 may 1924). The first section (3.i) contains ‘The Ondt and the Gracehoper’ (pp.414-19), a revisitation of the quarrel with Wyndam Lewis following the publication of his hostile portrait in Time and Western Man (1927). In the next (3.ii), ‘Jaun’ preaches moral hypocrisy to Issy and falls ignominously to earth from his ‘soapbox’ while Issy turns to the more romantically-interesting Shem (‘Coach me how to tumble, Jaime’). As ‘Yawn’ in the third section (3.iii), the eponymous postman is stretched out at the Hill of Uisneach, a druidic centre of ancient Ireland: hence he comes to act as conduit for contesting Irish voices from St. Patrick to Parnell until, at last, revealed as HCE. (The final passage was published as Haveth Childers Everywhere in 1930). In the fourth watch (3.iv), the children of HCE witness a ‘culious epiphany’ as their father, wakened in the night, attempts sexual intercourse with his wife and fails (‘You never wet the tea!’). After this, the lowest ebb, Joyce takes his universal history back to dawn with the Ricorso (Book IV). The chapter is conceived as a stained-glass window through which the sun rises at the pagan equinox. St. Patrick, in legend associated with that juncture in the calendar, contends with the Archdruid Balkelly, in whom Bishop Berkeley and Johannes Eriugena are equally mixed. Pantheism gives way to monotheism when the missionary ignites the Pascal fire, bringing in a new cycle, just as life begins again when ‘dawnfire’ touches the ‘tablestoane ath the centre of the great circle of the macroliths’ at Tara (or, more exactly, Newgrange). In spite of these masculine enactments of the idea of rebirth, it requires ALP’s soliloquy at the end to usher in the new cycle of birth, marriage and death, as she does with her imperative call: ‘Finn, again!’

[ close ]
[ top ]
[ next ]