by Derek Pyle
Finnegans Wake is concerned with the primordial. James Joyce’s book is an expository dramatization of the cosmic elements, as if depicting the sands that give rise to Ozymandias, only to collapse again later. As I suggested in the first section of the current essay, Finnegans Wake is about how ocean turns to desert, desert turns to Las Vegas, and Las Vegas eventually runs out of water and collapses back into desert–a land which in turn births the great T. S. Eliot epic, “The Wasteland.”
The title of Joyce’s book comes from an old Irish song about a man, Finnegan, who falls off a ladder and dies. The town gathers to have a traditional wake for him, staying up all night to watch over the casket and drink whiskey. Not one to miss out on a good wake, Finnegan comes back to life to join in the party. As Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson write in the introduction of A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake:
Finnegan’s fall from the ladder is hugely symbolic; it is Lucifer’s fall, Adam’s fall, the setting sun that will rise again…It is Humpty Dumpty’s fall, and the fall of Newton’s apple…it is every man’s daily recurring fall from grace. These various fallings (implying, as they do, corresponding resurrections) cause a liberation of energy that keeps the universe turning like a water wheel, and provide the dynamic which sets in motion the four-part cycle of universal history. P. 5
To suggest that there is any meaningful similarity between Lucifer’s parabolic fall, Humpty Dympty’s folkish fall, and the scientific discovery of gravity–such universalizing reeks of sloppy, albeit popular, monistic thinking. Painting in such broad brush strokes, the intricacies of each individual happening are glossed over; the threat is a great loss of meaning (inasmuch as the experience of meaning is predicated on uniquely nuanced particularizations and the corresponding realizations of said experiences). In order words, perhaps things are becoming too concrete, or maybe too abstract, as big words start to look a lot like gibberish. While paradoxically being the great arbitrator of intellect-taken-too-far, perhaps this issue of how meaning gets lost is actually the perfect problem Finnegans Wake is primed to discuss. To continue with the above quote from Campbell and Robinson:
But why a “four-part” cycle? This reference is to a conception of the eighteenth-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, whose La Sciencza Nuova provides the philosophic loom on which Joyce weaves his historical allegory. Essentially, Vico’s notion is that history passes through four phases: theocratic, aristocratic, democratic, and chaotic. The last phase is characterized (like our own) by individualism and sterility, and represents the nadir of man’s fall. It is terminated by a thunderclap, which terrifies and reawakens mankind to the claims of the supernatural, and thus starts the cycle rolling again with a return to primeval theocracy. P. 5
When proposed as an actual framework for understanding history (or for understanding the entirety of Joyce’s book), Vico’s four-part cycle is clearly too reductionistic to be of much value. Nonetheless, Vico’s insight that an increasing reliance on multiple perspectives (the pluralism of democracy) can veer into chaos, may provide insight into the structure of, and some of the central issues in, Finnegans Wake. [And for the record, in addition to working on a new theatrical and musical recording of the complete Finnegans Wake–contact me if you are interested in participating, which can be done long distance–the wonderful composers Kelley Kipperman and I, bolstered by the creative assistance of Gabby Fluke-Mogul, are currently working on a comprovisational score based on Vico’s great structure, to be played by stringed instruments and the shirt.]
Throughout Joyce, there are allusions to the big and small stories of humanity–from Biblical invocations, to the specific reference of particular alley way within Dublin. Situated within these macro- and micro- visions is a battle between individuality and unified theocracy; where the former gives way to chaos, the latter may protect us from chaos but at an oppressive cost. To put it another way, in a (theocratic) world where there is but one and only one God (the great King), people are not granted permission to think for themselves (i.e. about cosmology/spirituality). The benefit of this, however, is that the believers are spared the throes of existential crises, because my beliefs are not challenged by your competing, incompatible beliefs. I do not have to experience the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. I do not wonder, “What should I believe?” There is no “What does it all mean?” (Perhaps the New Age attempt to see all religions as ultimately referring to the same essence, despite what thereby gets deemed as superficial differences, is an attempt to maintain covert monism amidst the pretense of pluralism–but that is another issue.)
This struggle between the popular objectivity and a disruptive subjective is found in the rivalry between popular Shaun and radical Shem, the children of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (inasmuch as Finnegans Wake can be said to have characters at all, the Earwicker family comprise the main ones). In a word, Shem is a visionary: “the uncoverer of secret springs, and as such, the possessor of terrific lightning powers. The books he writes are so mortifying that they are spontaneously rejected by the decent” (Campbell & Robinson, p. 11). That visionary tension is at least what appears to be going on in the following passage (but if Finnegans Wake means anything, take nothing too definitively):
His [Shem’s] costive Satan’s antimonian manganese limolitmious nature never needed such an alcove so, when Robber and Mum-sell, the pulpic dictators, on the nudgment of their legal advisers, Messrs Codex and Podex, and under his own benefiction of their pastor Father Flammeus Falconer, boycotted him of all mutton-suet candles and romeruled stationery for any purpose, he winged away on a wildgoup’s chase across the kathartic ocean and made synthetic ink and sensitive paper for his own end out of his wit’s waste. You ask, in Sam Hill, how? Let manner and matter of this for these our sporting times be cloaked up in the language of blushfed porporates that an Anglican ordinal, not reading his own rude dunsky tunga, may ever behold the brand of scarlet on the brow of her of Babylon and feel not the pink one in his own damned cheek. P. 184-185
Shem is being boycotted by the pastor and his followers. They do not want him writing, so they refuse to sell him stationary. Those in power, standing up for unified theocratic order, attempt to stamp out (Shem’s iconoclastic) individuality. In this case, the (Irish) theocracy in question is Roman Catholic, and its images abound: pulpic, benefiction, pastor, Father, romeruled, Anglican ordinal. Shem is working for the opposing team, Satan, and Joyce’s punning neologism “antimonian” is quite interesting here. Through this word we are reminded of “antinomian,” a concept that emerged from the Protestant Reformation. Antimonianism is predicated on the notion that a believer in Christ need not follow moral law, because faith will spontaneously guide one amidst any moral predicament. A theological opposite of this is orthodox adherence to religious (rather than moral) law, called legalism, also seemingly referenced in the above passage, as “the nudgment of their legal advisers.” By comparing legalism to antinomianism, Joyce–or Shem–may be suggesting that both stances are flawed on account of their reliance on religious monism (a dictionary definition: “the doctrine that only one supreme being exists”–and here I refer also the related idea that there is only one supreme Truth or Law). Hence Shem is not merely an opposed to antinomianism, which would suggest favoring the theological opposite, legalism. Rather, Shem throws out the whole debate as a sham, taking a categorical stance against the underlying notion that there even is Divinity in the first place! Thus he is Satan’s antimonist.
With the powers that be working to suppress Shem’s expression (and more broadly, his own individual person), Shem is faced with choices. He could abandon his writing, and through conformity attempt to be re-accepted back into the human fold. On the other hand, he could attempt to change his objectors, working to communicate the merits of his perspective/work, or otherwise revising his text to be more accessible, or less frightening, to the masses. Shem does neither of this things. Rather he retreats into his own world, where he is communicating no longer within the social link but in isolation: “he winged away on a wildgoup’s chase across the kathartic ocean and made synthetic ink and sensitive paper for his own end out of his wit’s waste.” The notion of a wild goose chase, and “wit’s waste” imply a dismissive view of Shem’s endeavor, like the navel-gazing scholar who pontificates on the holy facts of that which don’t mean shit. He is arguing with his own shadow. Alternatively, Joyce’s line could be satire, a jab at those uneducated worldlings who merely think Shem is navel-gazing, when in reality he is a prophet. (Either way, the notion of a misunderstood and scapegoated writer feels reminiscent Ulysses being confiscated and burned by the U.S. Post Office, with Joyce’s publisher being formally charged with obscenity for attempting to import copies of the book.)
In essence, Shem says, “If you don’t want to listen to me, fine. I will just keep talking to myself.” Perhaps this is what Joyce did as well. Talking to himself, his conversation becomes so nuanced to the point that if a new listener were to show up, she would be unable to catch up. She would feel like someone sitting in on a fourth-year foreign language class, without having attended any of the other years. Having created his own language, in isolation and with no guidebooks, for Joyce the result of this personal, idiosyncratic conversation is a (mostly) impenetrable work, Finnegans Wake.
At times, the chaotic, alienated individuality characteristic of Finnegans Wake (remember, this is a book full of made up words, about which no one can even agree what the plot is, or if there even is a plot) also seems to typify Vico’s conception that excessive individuality produces sterility. In the absence of absolute Truth, we are left with the post-modernistic notion that meaning, and value, are relativistically and relationally bound. In other words, that which matters must be shared amongst people in order to retain value. But when everyone’s meaning is so unique as to be incommunicable, that co-created meaning is lost. (The modern solution to this postmodern problem, however, is found in the blogosphere; here I can write and publish my posts under the pretext of participating in a social discourse, while selective ignoring the reality of my own isolation, namely the fact that no one gives a shit what I write on my lonely blog.) In Finnegans Wake, the result of too much relativity is sterility:
Roderick, Roderick, Roderick, O, you’ve gone the way of the Danes; variously catalogued, regularly regrouped; a bushboys holoday, a quacker’s mating, a wenches’ sandbath…sevencotes cooclaim to have been pigeonheim to this homer, Smerrnion, Rhoebok, Kolonsreagh, Seapoint, Quayhowth, Ashtown, Ratheny… P. 129
Now this passage is full of specific references, which could aid the reader in understanding and communicating with the text (“Oh, you’re looking for Homer? He is on the road these days, somewhere between Smerrnion and Ratheny”). But this passage relies too heavily on localization (the nuanced depiction of individual people and places), and therefore the proliferation of details actually work to obscure the meaning of the text. The result is most definitely sterile, as an any reasonable reader would approach this passage with two remarks: What the fuck does that mean?, quickly followed by a triumphant Who gives a shit! Only the most obsessive of pseudo-scholar-nuts would actually think such babble worthy of deciphering. “See here now, if you pay close attention to the interlocking imagery of birds, Joyce is clearly discussing the blah blah blah.” It is a paradox: too much concreteness leads to so much abstraction as to lose contact with any concrete meaning. (It should said, however, that the oppressive narrative of monism–i.e. theocracy of the ideology–is also sterile, because it says nothing new; houses of the cliché, Sunday morning service and Hallmark cards, are boring precisely because there are no juices juicing there!)
This kind of idiosyncrasy, alienated from socially meaningful communication is a form of madness (or perhaps more accurately, certain idiosyncrasies are emblematic of particular mental functions that play roles in some of that which gets termed madness, or psychosis, and this is also related to the destruction of socially conceived reason). As Kant wrote in his Anthropology:
The only universal characteristic of madness is the loss of common sense (sensus communis) and its replacement with logical private sense (sensusprivatus)… For it is a subjectively necessary touchstone of the correctness of our judgments generally, and consequently also of the soundness of our understanding, that we also restrain our understanding by the understanding of others, instead of isolating ourselves with our own understanding and judging publicly with our private representations, so to speak… For we are thereby robbed, not of the only, but still the greatest and most useful means of correcting our own thoughts, which happens on account of the fact that we advance them in public in order to see whether they also agree with the understanding of others; for otherwise something merely subjective (for instance habit or inclination) would easily be taken for something objective… – He who pays no attention at all to this touchstone, but gets it into his head to recognize private sense as already valid apart from or even in opposition to common sense, is abandoned to a play of thoughts in which he sees, acts, and judges, not in a common world, but rather in his own world (as in dreaming). P. 219-220
The alienating aspects of this mad form become especially pronounced when a person fancies their lonely dreams are actually of cosmic importance, knowing that the uneducated worldlings are unable to appreciate this fact on account of their worthless worldliness. (This, like the psychotic who keeps their sacredness a secret.) Of course, we are all ultimately alone, and our inner worlds are always fated to be more or less incommunicable to others. But when our aloneness is supplemented by intense feelings of hatred, shame and destructive envy, this can stoke the flames of our already profound alienation and turn the fire into full blown madness. (I am not endorsing any stereotypical, reductionistic or otherwise dehumanizing narratives about madness here, but rather I am referencing particular mental functions that are sometimes at work within those minds deemed mad–more on the kind of madness I mean in the third part of this essay.)
I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, the first popular autobiographical account of schizophrenia, published pseudonymously in 1964 by Joanne Greenberg, exemplifies one particular woman’s descent into and out of idiosyncratic madness, highlighting how her own shame and mental self-destructiveness worked to create and sustain this world. In the passage that follows, the speaker (referred to here as Deborah) is recounting a session from her psychoanalysis with Dr. Fried, correlating to Greenberg’s own schizophrenia and psychoanalytic treatment with Frieda Fromm-Reichmann (while hospitalized at the now defunct Chestnut Lodge in southern Maryland). Through her psychoanalytic treatment, Deborah is set to work on understanding how her schizophrenia came to be, developmentally and psychically. (Perhaps her personal and intense affective experiences–of hatred and shame–were constitutionally influenced, and derived from a complex combination of factors, likely including her familial and societal relationships, early childhood experiences, as well as her own unique temperament and biologic foundation.)
The following exchange (below) occurred amidst Deborah’s gradual realization that her descent into idiosyncratic madness was a result of extreme feelings of alienation and her seemingly necessary separation from the human race. Burdened by extreme shame about her own destructiveness, Deborah felt herself to be an inhumane monster. But Dr. Fried suggests that as a child Deborah fundamentally lacked a human container capable of holding her unique emotional experience, and this contributed–perhaps more than anything else–to her sense of frustrated alienation, to profound and detrimental effect. From this viewpoint, it is not simply that one’s painful feelings lead directly to madness (i.e. by way of a psychotic retreat from an overwhelmingly painful reality), but it is the absence of human relationality–suffering that cannot be contained within a human context–that is so detrimental. Whereas a person held within the attentive care–passive caring is not enough–of others can make meaning out of their own struggle, pain suffered within the vacuum of loneliness is unbearable. Thus perhaps it could be said that to keep herself company, Deborah split her own mind apart into many pieces, hallucinating these pieces as characters and companions. This engulfing retreat into her own personal reality is what Deborah calls the world of Yr, a psychic place complete with structured logic, laws, and complex cosmology. It is a place that only Deborah can experience, and has hitherto refrained even from talking to anyone else about. Because believing that she has been cast out of the human race on account of her sinful badness, Deborah is ambivalent about whether she should talk this openly, even with the seemingly trustworthy and interested Dr. Fried:
The tumor woke, angered that there were other powers contending for her allegiance, and it sent a sharp bolt through its kingdoms to remind them that it was still supreme. Deborah doubled up, grasped with pain, and began to tremble. I warned you, the Censor said. The heavy smell of ether and chloroform came to her and she heard her heart pounding. “I tried to kill my sister when she was born, she said…”I tried to to throw her out the window. I was almost ready to throw her when mother came in and stopped me”…She was near tears for a moment, until the sickness remembered that tears were human. You are not of them, Yr said, and the tears drew away as suddenly as if they had never approached…
“And your never parents never spoke of it [again] or asked you about it?”
“No.” Deborah knew that they must have taken the naked fact and buried it hurriedly somewhere, like carrion. But she knew well how the stench of a buried lie pursues the guilty, hanging in the air they breathe until everything smells of it, rancid and corrupting. Yr had a region called the Fear-bog. Lactamaeon had taken her there once to see the monsters and corposes of her nightmares accumulating there from year after year of terrifying dreams. They had swum through the almost solid ground. P. 84
As Deborah then asks of the Fear-bog, “What is that awful stench?” Lactamaeon, her guide, responds, “Shame and secrecy…shame and secrecy.” Thus it appears this bog of idiosyncratic alienation is held together by shame and secrecy. To return to Shem, retreating from the world that rejects him (“for his own end out of his wit’s waste”), is Shem developing his own private logic as a way of escaping the shame he feels on account of being rejected by the powers that be? As Joyce’s passage continues:
Let manner and matter of this for these our sportingtimes be cloaked up in the language of blushfed porporates that an Anglican ordinal, not reading his own rude dunsky tunga, may ever behold the brand of scarlet on the brow of her of Babylon and feel not the pink one in his own damned cheek.
On the surface, it is the Catholic rulers who are here avoiding the shameful feelings (“the brand of scarlet”) evoked by Shem’s blasphemous writing. But “feel not the pink one in his own damned cheek”–perhaps it is Satan’s own antimonian who, whilst condemning the supposedly pious, is unable to see his own sins. He feels the religious theocracy to be oppressive, but fails to recognize the sterility of his own idiosyncrasy (sterility that is, after all, a form of oppression: by way of boredom!).
Cracking up and getting lost within one’s self, “for his own end out of his wit’s waste,” this is the creative force applied to the work of mental destruction. Humpty Dumpty is referenced repeatedly throughout Finnegans Wake (“And not all the king’s men nor his horses/ Will resurrect his corpus,” p. 47), like the person (i.e. Deborah) who has torn one’s own mind to pieces, looking for companions, only to become even more isolated from humanity as a result (“not in a common world, but rather in his own world,” Kant). Like in Genesis 11, by declaring that there is no ultimate God one should worship, Shem is destroying the Tower of Babel–by pointing out the Tower goes to no Heaven, but rather ascends fruitlessly into the sky alone–but he is again condemning the worldlings to land of a million tongues, where each speaks an idiosyncratic language incapable of communication with one another.
But if babble is so boring and sterile, why read Finnegans Wake? The book is full of allusions; etymological puns that span across multiple languages, both dead and contemporary; references to popular as well as obscure places, people, and ideas. Some of these references can be flushed out (other allusions are likely lost forever, witnessed only by Joyce himself and his absent God), but again, this labor is only for those stubborn and dedicated nerds who get off on simply finding things hidden within the text, like archeologists hellbent on excavating Joyce’s excrement. Finnegans Wake is fascinating, however, because it is self-aware of this descent into its own idiosyncratic and obsessive madness. The book is the gatekeeper of its own madness. As readers, we are given a glass wall to watch the idiosyncratic ant farm through, meanwhile we actually become the ants, embroiled in the research project of encoding and decoding meaning. Paradoxically, by making you work for it, Finnegans Wake works to explicate, in a socially meaningful way, the realities of intellectual and societal isolation.
An essay to be continued in Part 3…