James Atherton, on Joyce and Bruno, in The Books at the Wake (1959; 1974)

[Source: James Atherton, The Books at the Wake: A Study of Literary Allusion in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (Illinois UP 1959; Arcturus 1974), pp.36-37.]

On Giordano Bruno
Bruno and Nicholas of Casa alike believed in the coincidence of contraries. Joyce uses this theory to strange effect in Finnegans Wake where, for example, an arguing pair like Butt and Taff can suddenly become ‘one and the same person’ (354.8) because they are ‘equals of opposites ... and polarised for reunion by the symphysis of their antipathies’ (92.8). Bruno also stated in his Of the Infinite Universe and Innumerable Worlds that ‘The actual and the possible are not different in eternity.’ [Cites John Toland, A Collection of Several Pieces with an Account of Jordano Bruno’s Of the Infinite Universe and Innumerable Worlds (London 1726), p.322.] It is from this that Joyce derives his assumption that the events and characters described in history, literature and myth have equal validity. Maria Martin, Hamlet and the Duke of Wellington are characters of the same kind. Bruno also maintained that each thing contained the whole. By this he seems to have meant that the universe is made up of separate entities each constituting a simulacrum, of the universe. This was a fairly common medieval theory and provides another source for the axiom already suggested that in Finnegan Wake each individual word reflects the structure of the entire book. Bruno’s theories went much further and suggest several other possible axioms governing the construction of the Wake. He claimed that there was an infinite number of entities ranging in value from the minimum to the maximum - which was God; and that each entity except the last was continually changing and not merely by becoming greater or less but by exchanging identities with other entities. This suggests the behaviour of characters and words in the Wake where every part tends to change its identity all the time.

Bruno’s name is mentioned over a hundred times in the Wake, much more often than any other philosopher’s. As has been frequently pointed out he is usually personified as the firm of Dublin booksellers, Browne and Nolan. This is probably because of his habit of referring to himself in his writings as ‘il Nolane’. Professor Tindall has pointed out that ‘Tristopher and Hilary, the twins of the Prankquean legend, {36} get their names of sadness and joy from Bruno’s motto: In tristitio hilaris hilaritate tristis’ [Cites W. Y. Tindal[l], James Joyce, p.86]. It appears on the title page of Bruno’s play, Il Candelajo. The title of one of Bruno’s books is quoted in the “Night Lesson” Chapter, ‘Trionfante di bestia!’ (305.15). This is Il Spaccio di Bestia Trionfante, “The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast”, but none of the axioms that I have quoted is taken from this book.

Many commentators on Finnegan Wake have discussed the influence of Bruno on Joyce. Probably Joyce was first attracted to him as a self-confessed ‘Restless spirit that overturns the structure of sound discipline’ (Spirito inquieti, che subverte gli edifice di buone discipline [Opere di Giordano Bruno, Lipzeig 1830, Vol.2, p.3]), and as a heretic who was burned to death. But he is not likely to have read his work very thoroughly for Bruno is one of the most verbose of all writers and on one occasion takes a page to say that he himself, Il Nolano, calls things by their right names: Chiamo il pane pane, il vino vino, il capo capo, il piede piede ... [Ibid., p.108], and so on to say that ‘He calls bread bread, wine wine, a head a head, a foot a foot’ until he has given nearly a hundred examples of his own virtue in calling things by their right names. Joyce seems to have read this passage, and probably many more, for practice in Italian when he was an undergraduate, doubtless fortified against the boredom by the thrill of meeting so notorious a heretic in the original text, and by his confidence that Bruno was an author too obscure to be read by anyone else in Dublin. Years afterwards, when planning Finnegan Wake, he remembered the theories of Bruno. Probably he then looked up Bruno again and found him just what he was needing, although he also seems to have found his style irritating on a second reading, and appears to be parodying the passage I have just quoted in ‘did not say to the old old, did not say to the scorbutic, scorbutic’ (136.10). It also seems probable, from various hints in the Wake, that Joyce also consulted Coleridge’s translations of parts of Bruno’s works in The Friend (1809-10, No. VI, pp.81-82).

(Atherton, pp.37-37.)

Note: Atherton’s citation of The Friend is erroneous in any edition. Coleridge’s ‘translations’ from Bruno fall in Essay XIII of The Friend, while his untranslated and commented copies of longer passages appear in Omniana under “Magnanimity” (Literary Remains, 1836). See Coleridge, The Friend (1893 Edn.) - online.

[ close ]

[ top ]