Colin MacCabe, “An Introduction to Finnegans Wake”, in James Joyce: New Perspectives, ed. MacCabe (Brighton: Harvester Wheatsheaf 1982), pp.29-40.

Page references are to Ulysses (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1971 Edn.) [U]; Finnegans Wake (London: Faber & Faber 1964 Edn.) [FW].


The importance of the opposition between the invisible language of the story and the material language of desire is evident throughout Finnegans Wake but it is towards the end as Anna Livia, both mother and river, flows to her death that it is stated in one of its simplest forms. As Anna thinks back over her past life, she remembers how much her husband (the ubiquitous figure who is indicated by the [31] letters HCE) wanted a daughter, hoping for a female in the family who would believe his stories, who would give to him the respect that he feels is his due. But the father is inevitably disappointed for the mother teaches her daughter that beneath the stories and the identities lies the world of letters and desire. While the father tells the son stories, the mother teaches the daughter the alphabet: “If you spun your yarns to him on the swishbarque waves I was spelling my yearns to her over cottage cake” (FW, 620). The father’s yarns (stories) are displaced by the mother’s yearns (desires); telling gives way to spelling. It is this struggle between meaning and sound, between story and language, between male and female that Finnegans Wake enacts, introducing the reader to a world in which his or her own language can suddenly reveal new desires beneath old meanings as the material of language forms and reforms.

If the language attempts to investigate the processes by which we are constructed in the world of sense and syntax, the stories that we piece together from the mosaic of the Wake constantly return us to the place of that construction: the family. As the text throws out references to the world’s religions and philosophies, to geography and astronomy, we come back again and again to the most banal and local of all problems. What is the nature of the obscure sexual offence that the father, HCE, is charged with? And is he guilty? Only the mother Anna Livia Plurabelle, ALP, seems to know the definifive answers to these questions. The mother has written or will write (tenses become interchangeable in the timeless world of the Wake) a letter which will explain all but the letter is difficult to identify and decipher. It was dictated to one of her sons, Shem, a writer of ill repute, who is likely to have altered the contents, and may have been delivered by her other son, Shaun, a nauseating worldly success. The two brothers are engaged in a constant conflict, often occasioned by sexual rivalry. In some obscure way their sister, Issy, might hold the solution to the problems of her father and brothers but she refuses to say anything at all serious as she is quite content to gaze endlessly at herself in the mirror.

If language, the family and sexuality provide three of the emphases of Joyce’s last work, there is a fourth which is as important: death. Indeed the title of the book, Finnegans Wake, makes clear this concern. The immediate reference is to a song of almost identical title (only an apostrophe differentiates them): Finnegan’s Wake. This tells the story of an Irish bricklayer who went to work one morning [32] with a terrible hangover and, as a result, fell off his ladder. His friends presume that he is dead and take him home to “wake” him, that is to spend the night before the funeral drinking beside the dead body. During the wake a fight breaks out and a bottle of whiskey breaks by Tim’s head. No sooner has some whiskey trickled into his mouth than he revives and joins in the fun of his own funeral (which thus becomes a “funferal” (FW, 120)). The ambiguity of the “wake” of Joyce’s title, which refers both to part of the funeral process (Finnegan’s wake) and to the general awakening of all the Finnegans (Finnegans wake without an apostrophe), indicates the inseparability of life and death in the world of language. To come to life, to recognise one’s separate existence, is also to allow the possibility of its termination, its end. Finnegans Wake not only puns on two meanings of “wake” but the first word contains both an end (fin is French for end) and a new beginning (“egan” tells us that everything will start “again”). And this process will be the negation (negans) of the ordinary processes of language, an attention to the trace (”wake” in its third sense) left by the passage of language. The clarity of communication will be disturbed by the material trace of the letter that any communication leaves in its wake.

Death and sexuality, the construction of language within the family drama, Joyce’s text is no self-indulgent whim but an engagement with the very matter of our being. In his attempt to break away from the “evidences” of conventional narrative with its fixed causality and temporality, two Italian thinkers, Glordano Bruno and Giambattista Vico, were of profound importance in the writing of Finnegans Wake . In understanding the importance of these figures it is not enough to sketch the positive features of their thought, one must also understand what Joyce is avoiding by his use of these theorists, what presuppositions he is denying.

Giordano Bruno was a philosopher of the Italian Renaissance. After becoming a Dominican friar he flirted with the varieties of Protestant reformism as well as interesting himself in hermetic philosophy. His unorthodox beliefs and his final death at the stake as a heretic in 1600 had interested Joyce from an early age. Bruno’s principle of the “coincidence of contraries” denied the existence of absolute identities in the universe. Bruno argued that oppositions collapsed into unities at their extremes, thus extreme heat and extreme cold were held to be indistinguishable, and all identities were, therefore, provisional. Bruno joined this belief to a belief in an [33] infinite universe composed of an infinity of worlds. There is an obvious level at which such theories offer some explanations of both the constant transformation of characters into their opposites in Finnegans Wake and the infinite worlds opened up by the “dream within a dream” structure of the text. But to understand Joyce as simply providing an artistic gloss to the theories of an obscure philosopher is to minimise crucially the importance of the Wake. Bruno is important insofar as he provides a philosophical trellis on which the philosophical and linguistic presuppositions of identity can be unpicked. At one level of consciousness we claim an identity and stability both for ourselves and our objects of perception. But such identities can only be produced by a process of differentiation in which other identities are rejected. This rejection, however, presupposes that other identities are possible. The paradoxical feature of identity is that its conditions of existence allow the possibility of its very contradiction. It is this play of identity that Joyce investigates in the Wake where language no longer has to presuppose noncontradiction and everybody becomes everybody else in an infinite series of substitutions and juxtapositions which never attain some imaginary finality but constantly break, reform and start again.

Glambattista Vico is, arguably, even more important to the structure and content of Finnegans Wake. His name occurs (in suitably distorted form) in the opening sentence of the book as does a refererice to his cyclical theory of history. A Neapolitan philosopher of the eighteenth century, Vico was one of the first to propose a general theory of historical change. He held that history was a cyclical process in which civilisation proceeded from a theocratic to an aristocratic to a democratic age and that, at the end of the democratic age, civilisation passed through a short period of destruction, the ricorso, which recommenced the cycle.

The very plan of Finnegans Wake, with its three long books and a short concluding one, bears witness to Vico’s importance. It is not only Vico’s historical theories which figure in the Wake, there is also much play with his account of the birth of language and civilisation. According to Vico, primitive man, surprised in the sexual act by a clap of thunder, is stricken with fear and guilt at what he imagines is the angered voice of God. He retires into a cave to conceal his activities and it is this act which inaugurates civilisation. Language arises when man attempts to reproduce the sound of thunder with his own vocal organs. Once again, however, it would be wrong to understand Joyce’s use of Vico as the artistic illustration of philosophical theses. What Vico’s theory offers is both an initial articulation of language, sexuality and society and, more importantly, a theory to oppose to dominant historicist accounts of history. Historicism understands the historical process to be subordinate to a dominant principle, which can only be understood in terms of the “end” to which it is progressing. When Stephen Dedalus and Mr Deasy discuss history in the second chapter of Ulysses, Mr Deasy claims that “All history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God” (U, 40). This historicism imposes on the individual a a meaning in which he is already defined. Stephen refuses such a meaning and identity when he claims that God is simply a noise in the street, the undifferentiated sound from which we fabricate meaning. It is by plunging into this sound that we can unmake the meanings imposied on us and awake from the nightmare of history into the dream of language. By insisting on the infinite repeatability of any moment, by refusing a progression to history, one can refuse the ready-made identities offered to us in order to investigate the reality of the processes that construct us. By denying an end to history, we can 311 participate in the infinite varieties of the present. Bruno and Vico are used in Finnegans Wake to aid the deconstruction of identity into difference and to replace progress with repetition. But if Joyce used these thinkers it was largely to displace the dominant conceptions of the everyday novel of identity and temporality and not because they hold some intrinsic truth. (pp.31-35.)


[ The remainder of the essay offers a reading of the portrait of Shem the Penman in Finnegans Wake (FW185-86: ‘Then, pious Eneas, conformant to the fulminant fireman ... doriangrayer in its dudhead’, drawing on the First Draft, ed. David Hayman 1963, for evidence of the way in which Joyce built up the passage - resulting in a complicated network of signification which is never complete, but containing the interpretative lead that MacCabe discovers in the passage. ]

If we now turn to the end of the sentence and look at the transformation from the first draft to the final version then we find once again that the simple meaning has been multiplied through a series of lexical coinages and literary references. The original version claims that there is a correspondence between the degeneration of the artist’s self and the production of the book from the material of his body. The final version states that the words that he is producing will not disappear and that the self which he had tried to hide behind the skirts of women and squirts of ink (“squirtscreened”) is becoming sadder and older as it is affected by the book. In the coinage “doriangrayer”, there is a reference to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, a story of a beautiful young man whose picture ages although he, himself, remains young. In its confusion of art and life, of body and representation, Wilde’s story is also Joyce’s. What Finnegans Wake suggests is that it is the story of us all and that if we wish to read this story of ourselves then we must enter into an experience of language more radical than any offered by the literary tradition.

This reading of a sentence from Finnegans Wake is not in any way exhaustive. All I have indicated is some of the processes by which Finnegans Wake involves the reader in a complicated network of signification which is never completed. Finnegans Wake does not ask [40] for an interpretation that will identify it but for another set of elements to continue its work. (pp.40-41.)


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