By Anthony Burgess
DRIVE westwards out or Dublin, keeping south or Phoenix Park, and you will come to Chapelizod. The name means “Chapel or Iseult”, whom the Irish know as Isoilde and the Germans as Isolde-tragic heroine or Wagner’s opera. There is little that is romantic about Chapelizod nowadays; if you want a minimal excitement you will have to go to the pubs, of which the most interesting is purely fictional-the Bristol. Some will identify this for you with the Dead Man, so called because customers would roll out of it drunk to be run over by trams. It is important to us because its landlord is the hero of Finnegans Wake. He is middle-aged, of Scandinavian stock and Protestant upbringing, and he has a wife who seems to have some Russian blood in her. His name is, as far as we can tell, Mr. Porter, appropriate for a man who carries up crates of Guinness from the cellar, and he is the father of three children -young twin boys called Kevin and Jerry, and a pretty little daughter named Isobel.
Mr. Porter and his family are asleep for the greater part of the book. It has been a hard Saturday evening in the public bar, and sleep prolongs itself some way into the peace of Sunday morning. Mr. Porter dreams hard, and we are permitted to share his dream. In it various preoccupations of his are fantasticated, and the chief of these is a complex obsession to be expected in a man aware of ageing: his day is passing and the new age belongs to his sons, particularly his favourite son Kevin; his wife no longer attracts him, and he looks for a last sexual fling, or even a renewal of the sexual impulse, in a
younger woman. All this is innocent enough and should give him no bad dreams, but it happens that his desires are fixed on his own daughter. “Incest” is a terrible word, even though it means nothing more than a loyal desire to keep sex in the family, and Mr. Porter’s dream will only admit the word in disguise-as “insect”. Sleeping, he becomes a remarkable mixture of guilty man, beast, and crawling thing, and he even takes on a new and dreamily appropriate name-Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. There we have the hump of sexual guilt he carries on his back (he is a different porter now), a hint of the ape, and more than a hint of the insect. “Earwicker” is dose to “earwig”, and this, through the French perce-oreille, can be Hibernicised into “Persse O’Reilly”. Another preoccupation is a desire to be accepted by the Irish people, as a leader or political representative, but he remains aware of a foreignness that his dream-name too well indicates, and “Persse O’Reilly” is there only for mockery or execration.
In his dream HCE, as we shall now call him, tries to make the whole of history swallow up his guilt for him. His initials are made to stand for the generality of sinful man, and they are expanded into slogans like “Here Comes Everybody” and “Haveth Childers Everywhere”. After all, sexual guilt presupposes a certain creative, or procreative, vitality, and a fall only comes to those who are capable of an erection. The unquenchable vitality appears in “our Human Conger Eel” (despite the “down, wantons, down” of the eel-pie-maker in King Lear); the erector of great structures is seen in “Howth Castle and Environs”. From the point of view of the ultimate dreamer of the dream, though (the author himself), “HCE” has a structural task to perform. As a chemical formula (H2CE3) or as a genuine vocable (“hec” or “ech” or even “Hecech”) it holds the dream down to its hero, is sewn to it like a monogram-HCE: his dream. But HCE has, so deep is his sleep, sunk to a level of dreaming in which he has become a collective being rehearsing the collective guilt of man. Man falls, man rises so that he can fall again; the sequence of falling and rising goes on till doomsday. The record of this, expressed in the lives of great men, in the systems they make and unmake and remake, is what we call history.
What Joyce is doing, then, is to make his hero re-live the whole of history in a night’s sleep. This history is not what we learned at school – a chronological treadmill of kings and ministers and wars and revolutions. It is rather a special way of looking al history- less a parade of historical facts than a pattern which seeks to explain those facts. The pattern is loosely derived from the Italian philosopher Giovanni Battista Vico (1668-1744) who wrote an important book called La Scienza Nuova, in which he presented history not as a straight line but as a circular process of recurrences. If we say that Finnegans Wake is based on this book we shall be right, but only in the sense that we are right when we say that the same author’s Ulysses is based on Homer’s Odyssey. Both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are primarily works of fiction, and Vico and Homer are enlisted only to help with the telling of a story. Finnegans Wake is not an interpretation of Vico, and Vico is not much of a key to the difficulties of Finnegans Wake. What Joyce found in Vico was what every novelist needs when planning a long hook-a scaffolding, a backbone.
The backbone of Finnegans Wake is easily filleted out. History is a cycle divided into four arcs, and these four arcs will provide the book with its lour sections. Each are, or phase of history, is characterised by a particular form of government. In his earliest stage of development, man is much concerned with the worship of gods. In fabulous pre-history the gods speak in thunder or through oracles; the seed of the gods descends to earth to produce giants and heroes. In true, though primitive, history, the divine word is transmitted through patriarchs and prophets. This is the theocratic stage of human history. The aristocratic stage follows, in which great men, fathers of their communities, rule on their own initiative, not necessarily seeking divine sanction for their laws. The third phase is democratic, and in it we observe a certain debasement: our demagogues are feeble parodies of aristocracy and certainly less than gods. At this point, in Yeats’s words, “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”: we suffer from anarchy and flounder in chaos. The time has come for what Vico calls the ricorso or return. The divine speaks in a clap of thunder, we come to our senses and resume worship of the gods. We are back to the theocratic phase, and the cycle starts all over again.
This is the technique for viewing history which Joyce imposes on the dreaming mind of his Chapelizod innkeeper, and at once the reader wants to protest at the implausibility. HCE’s dreaming mind may touch archetypal levels, but it is not likely to embrace Vico or the fabulous and historical data which must be used to exemplify the doctrine of the cycle. HCE is, in fact, a very ordinary innkeeper. But Joyce knows what he is doing. He obligingly falls into a trance himself and dreams a cunning dream which encloses that of his hero, a dream which confers the author’s own special knowledge on the unlearned snorer, granting him the gift of tongues (this is universal history, and hence polyglot) as well as such trifles as the ability to expound the Cabala and the Tunc page of the Book of Kells. He goes further. When HCE and his wife are awakened by the crying of one of the twins and when, after quietening the child, they attempt intercourse, Joyce does all the dreaming himself: the sleeping quality of the book must not be lost, the dream must remain unbroken. The introduction of waking attitudes and waking language would be an intolerable shock to the system and it would be an artistic sin to mix two orders of reality.
EVEN if we abandon the straight-line view of history, starting at Julius Caesar, say, and ending with the late President Kennedy, we cannot have a history-book, even a dream one, without a large cast of characters. With the author’s help HCE must people his sleeping world with a vast number of personages, all of whom must exemplify the fall-rise-fall (or rise-fall-rise) principle which is made to animate Vico’s cycle. At the same time, since this a work of art, certain rules of economy must be observed-rules which true history, which is over-fecund of characters, chooses to ignore. What HCE does in his sleep is to turn his family into a kind of amateur dramatic society which, with help from customers, the cleaning-.woman, the pub handyman and a few others, is prepared to impersonate, however unhandily, a whole corpus of beings from myth and literature (including popular magazines, brainstorming melodramas and doubtful street-ballads) as well as from history books. In a dream it is proper for fictional characters and historical personages to occupy the one zone of reality, as well as to mix their times and subsist happily together on a kind of supra-temporal level: it is the most natural thing in the dreamer’s world to see Dr. Johnson and Falstaff, as well as the woman next door, waiting on Charing Cross railway station. The only significant date in HCE’s version of history is 1132 A.D., and the significance is entirely symbolic: 11 stands for return or reinstatement or recovery or resumption (having counted up to ten on our fingers we have to start all over again for 11); 32 feet per second is the rate of acceleration of all falling bodies, and the number itself will remind us of the fall of Adam, Humpty Dumpty, Napoleon, Parnell, as also of HCE himself, who is all their reincarnations.
A knowledge of this easy symbolism is essential for an understanding of Finnegans Wake, as is also the realisation of the importance of number in general. You can build up the supporting dream-cast of the play by abstracting numbers from the calendar that hangs on some wall or other in the Bristol tavern. There are four weeks in a lunar month, and these will give you the four old men who have so much to say, though what they have to say is rarely of much value – Matthew Gregory, Mark Lyons, Luke Tarpey, and Johnny MacDougal. They are the four gospellers, as well as the four provinces of Ireland, and they take off to impersonal regions where they represent the four points of the compass, the four elements, the four classical ages, and so on. They are always together, followed by their donkey, and it is in order to think of them as a single unit, their names truncated to Ma, Ma, Lu, and Jo and crushed together to make Mamalujo. They end up, in the fading of the dream, as four bedposts. There are twelve months in the year, and these will give us the twelve Sullivans or Doyles, customers in HCE’s bar but also twelve apostles and twelve jurymen, always ready to give ponderous judgment in polysyllables ending in “-ation”. Their number, as with a jury, is more important than their names, which are always changing: when we meet a catalogue of apparently new characters, it is enough for us to take breath and count: we shall usually find the same old twelve. The month of February (in which the author was born) has sometimes twenty-eight days, sometimes twenty-nine. This provides Joyce with a bevy of girls from the academy of St. Bride’s (St. Bridget’s, or Ireland herself) with a separable special girl who usually turns out to be Isobel, HCE’s own daughter. Divide 28 by 4, and you are left with 7. The month maidens sometimes form themselves into the seven colours of the rainbow-an important emblem in Finnegans Wake, since it signifies God’s covenant after the Flood-hope of reinstatement after sin, 11 after 32.
One of the interesting things about Finnegans Wake is the way in which number refuses to melt and become fantasticated. This dream differs, then, from our own dreams, in which we take two slices of cake from a plate holding twelve and find only seven left. When HCE’s dream-wife gives gifts to each of her one hundred and eleven children, there are (I have counted) exactly one hundred and eleven, no more, no less. When the thunder of man’s fall sounds, or the thunder of God’s wrath, we find this represented by a word of exactly one hundred letters, no more, no less. 1 sometimes becomes 2, but that is a natural process of cellular fission: the father has begotten two sons, and the two sons together make up the parent body. This encourages Joyce to present the one daughter Isobel as two girls-a split personality, a temptress in love only with her mirror-image. But there is never any wanton deformation of a significant number: simple arithmetic is the very breath of this dream.
The four, the twelve, and the twenty-eight or twenty-nine tend to stand outside history and comment on it. The hard work of participation in the recurrent story of man’s fall and resurrection rests on the shoulders of HCE, his wife and family, and the old cleaning-woman Kate. The mythical, literary, and historical characters who best exemplify the story are chosen out of a fairly narrow field-mainly from Irish history, and mainly from those Irish personages whose sin or fall best bodies forth HCE’s own guilt. In other words, we must expect to meet men who indulged in, or perhaps merely contemplated, acts of illicit love-often with girls far younger than themselves. There must be a tang of incestuous sin. After the general fall motif incarnated in the figures of Adam and Humpty Dumpty, we come to particular identifications. HCE plays the part of Charles Stewart Parnell, the Irish leader whose love for Kitty O’Shea led to his downfall. A symbol of guilt is taken from the letters which the Irish journalist Piggot forged as part of the general campaign to destroy Parnell. Piggot misspelled “hesitancy” as “hesitency” and committed the same solecism when giving evidence before the Parnell Commission. This led to his near-collapse in the witness-box and, just after, the private confession of his crime. Changes are rung on the misspelling throughout Finnegans Wake, and the word itself is especially appropriate to HCE, since his guilt expresses itself in a speech -hesitation or stutter. But there is an implication of betrayal and victimisation: a hearsay sin (in the dream HCE’s crime is no more than that) is swollen into an omnibus accusation which leads to HCE’s trial, incarceration, and burial. Parnell, who only committed adultery, was turned by his enemies into the father of all sin.
Jonathan Swift had an obscure relationship with two girls Esther Johnson and Esther Vanhomrigh, better known as Stella and Vanessa. A father in God (Swift was, of course, the Dean of St. Patrick’s in Dublin) evinced a somewhat unfatherly interest in two of his spiritual daughters, and these two young women are conjoined in Finnegans Wake in the personality of HCE’s daughter Isobel. Two girls with one Christian name, two girls representing one temptation-it is no wonder that the dream-Isobel so easily splits herself into two. Here, anyway, is another guilt-pattern from history, and, like that “hesitency-hesitancy”, it can be alluded to in a single word: Isobel’s endearment “ppt”, and all its allomorphs, comes straight from the “little language” or Swift’s Journal to Stella.
Another legend with strong Irish associations is teased, in this dream, out of Isobel’s own name. Isobel is Iseult-la-Belle, and Chapelizod is her secular shrine. Tristram of Lyonesse came to Ireland to convey Iseult, chosen bride, to his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall. But Tristram and Iseult fell in love, and a train of subterfuge, guilt, and disloyalty was started. Both HCE’s preoccupations find potent expression here-aged Mark, too old for love, superseded by a younger man; the agonising sweetness of a forbidden relationship. But we can go further. Sir Armory Tristram (Tristram of Armorica, or Brittany) founded the St. Lawrence family of Howth in Dublin and built Howth Castle: a dream-identification of the two Tristrams is inevitable. For that matter, we have two Iseults who, like the two Esthers, belong to the one legend-King Mark’s bride and the Iseult of the White Hands whom Tristram and Lyonesse eventually married. These are, naturally, both contained in Isobel, and a further justification for the splitting of her identity is provided. We have a verbal leitmotif for Parnell and for Swift; we have one for Tristram too, and Joyce 1.lkcs it from Wagner’s version of the legend-his music-drama Tristan und Isolde. The opening line of Isolde’s aria over the body of slain Tristan is “Mild und leise” (“soft and gentle”): this becomes distorted in Finnegans Wake to the grotesque nickname “Mildew Lisa”.
We can find other identifications with Irish legend and history, some of which creep away from the fall-theme and elevate HCE to the role of proud and guiltless leader-Brian Boru, Finn MacCool, King Laoghair (or Leary). But, though the foreground of the dream is Dublin, HCE is a universal father-figure, and we must not be surprised if he plays the parts of Noah, Julius Caesar, a Russian general, Harold the Saxon, a Norwegian captain, and so on. Scandinavian roles, though, are particularly appropriate, since HCE is of Nordic stock, and the most appropriate identification of all is literary, not historical. Joyce’s youthful literary god was Ibsen, and his play The Masterbuilder provides perhaps the most potent guilty father-figure of them all-Halvard Solness, who climbs a tower he has built at the request of a young woman he loves and, struck by the God he defies and figuratively rivals, falls from it to his death. An essential lesson of Finnegans Wake, if we can talk about “lessons” in connection with so undidactic a work, is that sin and creation go together, and that 11, which complements 32, stands not only for rising but for raising. HCE has sinned, as have all men, but the sin has driven him out of the Garden of Eden only to plant in him the urge to create Eden- substitutes-cities and civilisations. The fall is, paradoxically, a happy one: “O felix culpa“, said St. Augustine. Joyce, planting HCE’s sin in Phoenix Park, puns on this with his “O Phoenix culprit.”
Broadly speaking, then, HCE plays man the father and creator, Bygmester or Masterbuilder. Ultimately he is identified with what he creates-the city itself. But the creator needs nature as his inspiration and consort, and cities are built on rivers. This brings us to the dream-function of HCE’s wife, Ann, whose dream-name is Anna Livia Plurabelle-the Anna Liffey (only feminine river in Europe) on which Dublin stands. The “Plurabelle” indicates her beauty and plurality (she contains all women). ALP conveys her natural majesty (she is bigger than any tower the Bygmester can raise), and the roughly triangular configuration of a mountain turns her into a piece of eternal geometry-she is our “geomater”, or earth mother. A triangle ALP suggests her triune form. She is wife, she is widow, but she is also daughter. Isobel is contained in her, as is Kate the cleaning woman, praiser of days gone by, , but HCE’s dream assigns to her chiefly the part of living mother and wife, protectress of her children and of the reputation of her reviled and traduced husband. Though she flows, she is a symbol of the unchanging, while her lord, like all men, is capable of assuming many forms. Her mystery is the mystery of all rivers-the spring is different from the mouth that opens to the ocean, but both are the same water, and it is from the river’s death in the sea that the reality of new birth in the hills (the renewing rain-clouds blown inland from the coast) is derived for ever and ever.
As for the twin sons, they illustrate a sort of tragi-comic dialectic which owes a good deal to the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), the heretic from Nola who (in the words of Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) was “terribly burned”. Bruno the Nolan taught that opposite principles are eventually reconciled, in heaven if not on earth, and much of Finnegans Wake deals with the clash of two brothers unconsciously endeavouring to be made one, to flow back into the unifying father who begot their opposed natures. Joyce Hibernicises Bruno the Nolan into “Browne and Nolan”, the names of the Dublin printers who published his first piece of juvenilia, and he contrives other punning tropes to allude to the Brunonian theory-“Father San Browne . . . Padre Don Bruno”; “Bruno Nowlan”; “B. Rohan . . . N. Ohlan”; “brownesberrow in nolandsland”; “Bruin and Noselong”. The tragedy of HCE’s two sons lies in the fact that each on his own is only half the man his father was: neither is fit to supersede the father in the task of ruling the community. They appear usually as Shem the Penman and Shaun the Post: the first writes the Word, the second delivers it-generally in a distorted and debased form. Shem is the artist, and his most typical manifestation is as James Joyce himself (“Shem” is the Irish form of “James”)-the man who can make the dead speak but is totally incapable of coming to terms with the living, the exile who is cut off from action. Shaun (who owes a little to James Joyce’s brother Stanislaus) is a born demagogue and missionary, a kind of sham Christ, at home in the world of action but aware that he lacks the creative spark that is needed to fire the engine of rule. They hate each other, but their fights are really a vain attempt to become synthetised into a whole capable of bearing the burden of government. Anything either does tends to be cancelled out by the action of the other: when Shaun is accused of his father’s crime, Shem bears false witness against him, and the four Judges, remembering the Brunonian thesis, return a verdict of ‘Nolans Brumans” – the accused goes scot-free. The struggles of Shem and Shaun find an eternal archetype in the war between Lucifer and Michael the Archangel (“Mick versus Nick”), but we are not inclined, despite the pressure of orthodoxy, to take sides. Neither is lovable, both are pitiable. Their dissonance sounds only that our ears may long for the unison of the father. On the plane of symbolic botany, Shem may have a little life in him, since he is sometimes presented as a “stem”, but this cannot compare with the huge world-tree that grows out of HCE and ALP. As for Shaun, he is not even alive- a mere stone on the river-bank. In Shaun, the father’s authority is debased to a set of fossilised maxims, whereas Shem, drawn to the mother, drinks in a little of her flowing life. If we are going to prefer one to the other, we had better opt for Shem. After all, Shem wrote the book.
These, then, are the main characters of Finnegans Wake. HCE names the play, and the casting is automatic. If he, the heavy lead, is Adam, Shaun must be Abel and Shem Cain, and ALP must be Mother Eve. If HCE is King Leary, Shaun must be the missionary St. Patrick, Shem his archdruid opponent, and Isobel St. Bridget. Not all the characters need be employed at the same time: HCE is out of the troupe for a great part of the book, and then his guilt, as well as his authority, can be transferred wholly to the sons. Shaun can be Parnell, Shem Piggot, and Isobel Kitty O’Shea. On the whole, ALP has little time for acting: being a river is very nearly a full-time job. But now, having presented the actors, we must see how they fit into the vast single drama which encloses so many lesser ones: we must enter the Viconian amphitheatre.
WE HAVE mentioned everyone except Finnegan, and yet it is his wake that gives a title to the book. Now we must speak not of Finnegans Wake, however, but of “Finnegan’s Wake”, a different title altogether, though the difference cannot be made apparent to the ear. “Finnegan’s Wake” is a New York Irish ballad which tells of the death of Tim Finnegan, a builder’s labourer who, fond of the bottle, falls drunk from his ladder at too great a height. His wife and family and friends sit mourning and drinking round his laid-out corpse, but soon a fight breaks out:
Micky Maloney raised his head,
When a gallon of whiskey flew at him;
It missed, and falling on the bed
The liquor scattered over Tim.
“Och, he revives! See how he raises!”
And Timothy, jumping up from bed,
Sez, “Whirl your liquor around like blazes
Souls to the devil! D’ye think I’m dead?”
This ballad may be taken as demotic resurrection myth and one can see why, with its core of profundity wrapped round with the language of ordinary people, it appealed so much to Joyce. His book begins with this story, but Tim Finnegan is elevated to the rank of divine masterbuilder, a fabulous prehistoric hero hardly separable from Finn MacCool, giant leader of the Fenians under King Cormac, mighty subject of Ossianic epic poetry. Fallen, his head is the Head of Howth, his body lies under the city of Dublin, and his feet may be located near Chapelizod. In the dream-drama there is only one man to play him, and that of course is HCE, but we must not, at this stage, confuse a performance with an identification. Finnegan dies, his wake is held, and during the wake we are given a survey of his mythical world, but also of the new world of true history which is to come after him. In other words, Finnegans stands for the first phase of the Viconian cycle, the rule of gods-and-heroes, but with his thunderous fall and death, we must look forward to the coming of an age of purely human rule-we expect the arrival of an unheroic family man, somebody like Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. When Finnegan, that the legend may be fulfilled, wakes up to the spilling of the whiskey, he is told to lie down again: arrangements have been made for the second phase of the Viconian cycle, and Finnegan would only disrupt that pattern. Let him sleep then until the wheel comes full circle and the thunder kettledrums in a return of theocratic rule.
So now HCE, playing himself, arrives from overseas, and the vague mixed tale of his fall is told. It seems that three soldiers saw him in Phoenix Park, apparently exhibiting himself to two innocent Irish girls (Isobel in her dual form, mixed up with the two colleens on the arms of the city of Dublin). A caddish pipe-smoking man named, apparently, Magrath passes on, greatly garbled and expanded, the story of HCE’s misdemeanour to his wife; she tells it, further expanded, to a priest; soon it is all over Dublin, and a bard called Hosty makes a scurrilous ballad about poor HCE, now christened Persse O’Reilly. He is accused of every sin in the calendar and is eventually brought to trial. Locked up in prison, reviled by a visiting American (so that he shall appear a disgrace to the New World as well as the Old), he is at length shoved into a coffin and buried deep under Lough Neagh.
All this is told in hints and rumours: HCE’s fall is as ancient as Adam’s, Among the rumours is one about a letter written by HCE’s wife ALP (she signed the letter “A Laughable Party”), in which his defence is set out at length: he had enemies, his crime was greatly exaggerated, he was a good husband and father. Meanwhile, as with Parnell, King Arthur, and Finn MacCool himself, it is whispered abroad that HCE is not really dead, that his indomitable spirit is uncontainable by any grave, however deep and watery. He thrusts up shoots of energy: there are quarrels; wars break out. The theme of the opposed brothers now makes its first full-length appearance. HCE’s guilt has become a matter of living moment once more, and it seems to attach to Shaun (called now, for some obscure reason, Festy King). But the trial is a far less massive affair than HCE’s, and the appearance of Shem as a witness discreditable and discredited-makes the whole issue fizzle out. We are asked to forget about the brothers for a brief space and to concentrate on ALP’s letter-in other words, to continue to concern ourselves with the big HCE legend.
The letter, scratched up from a midden-heap by a hen called Belinda, becomes the object of mock-scholarship. Certain people and places are mentioned in it, and a chapter is devoted to a quiz of twelve questions on these. Shaun now reveals himself as a clever quiz-kid quick to turn himself into a voluble schoolmaster. He gives a lengthy lecture on the theme of fraternal opposition, illustrating this with certain parables. Shaun himself appears in the first of them disguised as Pope Adrian IV -the only English pope, who gave his blessing to Henry II’s annexation of Ireland, since this would bring the old Irish Church under the wing of Rome. Shem stands for the old faith, embodied in St. Lawrence O’Toole, bishop of Dublin at the time of the English conquest. We have, in fact, two forms of the Christian faith which the domineering spirit of Shaun will not suffer to live peaceably side by side: one has to overcome the other. A more homely parable concerns Burrus and Caseous (butter and cheese), both products of the same substance, the paternal milk, who are rivals for the love of Margareen. The conclusion is that reconciliation between the brothers is not possible, that, to Shaun, Shem must stand accursed, unloved, unprotected.
We are then presented with a full-length portrait of Shem and at the same time introduced to the big food-theme which plays so important a part in the story. At that wake of Finnegan, the flesh to be devoured was that of the dead hero; with the coming of the brothers, it is the substance of the father HCE which must nourish the new rulers. Shem eats all the wrong food: he will not take the Irish salmon of Finn MacCool, for instance, but prefers some foreign muck out of a tin. Shem is low, un-Irish, writer of nasty books, but he flourishes the lifewand, makes the dead speak. He stands for living mercy, while Shaun is all dead justice. It is through Shem that we are able to approach ALP, the living mother: she composed the letter, but Shem penned it. And so we move to the final chapter of the first section, in which Anna Livia Plurabelle’s love-story is told, and in which she distributes the spoils of the battle which destroyed her lord’s reputation in the form of gifts to her III children, thus sweetening memory and allaying the residue of his guilt.
The second section of the book is concerned mainly with the children of HCE and ALP, who prepare for the great work ahead in games and study. Shaun is now called Chuff and Shem is called Glugg. Chuff is an angel and Glugg is a devil, and they fight bitterly, while the twenty-nine girls (who all love Chuff and hate Glugg) look on, dancing, singing, teasing Glugg with unanswerable riddles. After play comes lesson-time, and a whole chapter is arranged to accommodate the text of the boys’ lessons, with footnotes and marginal comments. The substance of the lessons is comprehensive, covering the secret doctrines of the Cabala, as well as the subjects of the mediaeval trivium and quadrivium. At the end of it all, the children fly off to the New World, whence they send a letter of greetings to the old decaying world which they have superseded.
But now, surprisingly, and in a chapter of great length, we come face to face with HCE again, this time in his capacity as innkeeper. His customers-the twelve and the four very prominent-represent the entire human community, whose purpose it is to discredit HCE in all sorts of oblique ways through tales in which he obscurely figures, through a television programme, through accounts of imperialistic wars. Even his alleged sin in Phoenix Park is sniggeringly hinted at, and HCE is forced to defend himself, pointing out that all men are sinners. But he is reviled and rent, and the sound of a mob coming to lynch him, led by Hosty singing a threatening rann, makes him clear the bar and lock the doors. But it is all revealed as depressed hallucination-a dream within a dream-and HCE, alone in his bar save for the four old men, who lurk in the shadows, drinks up the dregs from the abandoned pots and glasses and collapses, in a stupor, on the floor. He dreams of himself as King Mark, whose destined bride Tristram has taken, an old spent man who must hand over the future to his son.
The next section is all about Shaun. In the first chapter he presents himself to the people-sly, demagogic, totally untrustworthy, obsessed with hatred for his brother and ready with another parable to figure forth the enmity-a charming tale called “The Ondt and the Gracehoper”, in which he himself is the industrious insect, while Shem, the irresponsible artist, fritters the hours away in the sunshine. But Shaun is more ready to admit to himself now that his own extrovert philosophy is insufficient, that the life of the “gracehoper” has its points. Shaun can rule over space, but he cannot, like the artist, “beat time”. Sooner or later, when Shaun’s rule collapses, we shall be forced to move back to the father, in whom both dimensions meet and make a rounded world. Shaun rolls off in the form of a barrel: he has filled himself with the food that is his father, but it has not nourished him; he is becoming a big bloated emptiness.
But, his name changed to Jaun, he is ready to appear as a kind of seedy Christ to the twenty-nine girls of St. Bride’s, reeling off questionable homilies to them, eventually-sensing that the time for his departure is not far off-summoning the Holy Ghost (Shem) to act as proxy bridegroom to his consort the Church, who is, course, Isobel. The daughters of Erin weep over him as over the dead god Osiris. His third chapter shows him as a pathetic wreck, vast, inflated, lying supine on a hill rightly re-christened Yawn. The four old men question him, but they are not interested in his own essence, only in that great primal essence from which he derives: they ask about HCE and his ancient sin, the work he did, the world he built. But Yawn is evasive, and the task of inquisition is handed over to four bright young transatlantic brains-trusters. Eventually, through a spiritualistic medium and crackling with static, the authentic voice of HCE comes through. He confesses his sin, but affirms his deathless love for his consort ALP, whom he has adorned with a city. And so the dream seems to come to an end, or rather the dream in the bedroom over the public bar dissolves and, through the dreaming eyes of the author, we see the decadent times which Shaun’s rule has brought about figured in the sterile rituals of marital sex. Mr. and Mrs. Porter copulate, their shadows on the blind flash the act to the world, but it brings no message of renewed fertility. These are the bad times: we, the readers, are living in them. It is time for the ricorso, the crack of divine thunder which will bring us to our knees to contemplate the return of a theocracy.
In the final section, a single chapter, Sunday morning comes and we turn our eyes to the East, looking for hope in an alien order of wisdom. The innkeeper goes to sleep again, and he dreams of his son Shaun as he may be, an agent of theocracy, a bringer of the word of God. The boy Kevin appears as St Kevin, and we are led back to the one genuine historical year in the whole chronicle-432 A.D., the year of the coming of St Patrick. He refutes the messed-up idealism of the Archdruid (who is also Bishop Berkeley) and speaks out the Christian message in a main voice. But the last word is neither God’s nor man’s: it is woman’s. We are given at last the full text of ALP’s letter, and she herself, all river now, dreams herself on to her death and consummation in her father the sea. Her day is done. She was once the young bride from the hills, a role passed on to her daughter; now, with the filth of man’s city on her back, she must seek renewal through annihilation; she will return at length to her source in rain-clouds blown in from the sea. The hope of re-birth, for the world as well as the river, is at once fulfilled. The last sentence of the book is incomplete: to finish it we must turn back to the beginning again. And then we are led on to pursue the great cycle once more, the neverending history of man, sinner and creator.
SO MUCH for the story of Finnegans Wake, but the story is inseparable from the language in which Joyce tells it. It is the language, not the theme, which makes for difficulty, and the difficulty is intentional. The purpose of a dream is to obscure truth, not reveal it: reality comes in flashes of lightning out of dark clouds of fantasy, but it is the fantasy which it is the author’s duty to record. Joyce is presenting us with a dream, not with a piece of Freudian or Jungian dream-exegesis. Interpretation is up to us: he makes up the riddles, not the answers. But, as with so much of Joyce, a key to the language awaits us in popular literature: the verbal technique comes straight out of Lewis Carroll. HCE is identified with that great faller Humpty Dumpty, and it is Humpty Dumpty who explains the dream-language of “Jabberwocky”. What Humpty Dumpty calls “portmanteau-words” -like “slithy”, which means “sly” and “lithe” and “slimy” and “slippery” all at the same time are a very legitimate device for rendering the quality of dreams. In dreams, identities shift and combine, and words ought to mirror this. Waking life tells us that out of a buried body new life will spring, but it is our custom to work out the life-death cycle in terms of a logical proposition. The language of Finnegans Wake takes a short cut in the rendering of such notions, and the word “cropse” sums up in one syllable a whole resurrection-sermon. Waking language is made out of time and space, the gaps between the substances that occupy the one and the events that occupy the other; in dreams there are no gaps.
The technique of Finnegans Wake represents a sort of glorification of the pun, the ambiguity which makes us see a fundamental, but normally disregarded, identification in a burst of laughter or a nod of awe. The very title is a complex pun, one missed by printers and editors who restore the apostrophe which Joyce deliberately left out. The primary meaning is one with an apostrophe-“the wake of Finnegan”-but, as we read the book, we find a secondary meaning assuming a greater and greater part in the semantic complex: “The Finnegans wake up, the cycle is renewed”. The very name contains the opposed notions of completion and renewal: ”fin” or ”fine” (French, Italian) and “again”. Once we understand the title, we are already beginning to understand the book.
Joyce’s puns are more complicated than those of Lewis Carroll, and they tend to a sort of progressive transformation which, though baffling, is shown to be quite logical in a dreaming way. On the first page of the book we meet the expression “tauftauf”. The German word for “baptise” is “taufen” ; the tutor of St. Patrick was St. Germanicus, and it is dreamily appropriate that the patron saint of Ireland should use the German to point to the continuity, as well as the supra-national essence, of Christian evangelism. But later on “tauftauf” becomes a name-“Toffy Tough”- and finally (appropriate for baptism) it turns to “douche douche”; very little of the original is left, and only the surface-meaning and the reduplication show us that this is meant to be a pun at all. The use of a German word is bound, by the way, to disturb those readers who can accept puns but only know them in English. Joyce was a great linguist, at home in most of the tongues of Europe, and his word-play is multilingual, ranging from Erse to Sanskrit, though rarely further East. The language of Finnegans Wake has been aptly called “Eurish”-a basis of Irish-English with a superstructure of Aryan loan-words. This is not sheer wantonness: the dream is, so to speak, a Caucasian one, and the hero HCE is a type of all westward-migrating conquerors. As all rivers flow into Anna Livia Plurabelle, so all Aryans-peaking races enrich the blood of her husband. The language of his dream has to show this.
Joyce parodies where he does not pun (“Where the bus stops there shop I”), and where he does neither he still contrives to lend his language an extra dimension of meaning. Most of the devices he uses are demonstrated in the opening of the book, a sort of overture crammed with themes destined for strenuous development once the story starts. Thus, the “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s” is a bit of pure topography on one level (the river is the Liffey, Adam and Eve’s is the church on its bank), but on another level it is the beginning of human history, the first hint of the fall of man and the polarity of the sexes. “Sir Tristram, violer d’amores” is both the Tristram of Arthurian legend and the Sir Almeric Tristram who founded the St Lawrence family and built Howth Castle; he plays love-songs on the viola d’amore, he violates both Iseult and his honour. “Wielderfight” means “fight again” (German “wieder” means “again”) and also “wield weapons in wild fight”. The “penisolate war” is the war of the pen in isolation (Shem, artist in exile), the sexual war, with its thrust of the penis, and the Peninsular War which (Wellington and Napoleon) is a type of the struggle of brothers locked in mutual hate. The reference to the “doublin” on the river Oconee in Laurens County, Georgia, is an accurate piece of geographical information: there is a town called Dublin on that stream and in that county, and Joyce is concerned with hinting that the events of history repeat themselves, not only in time but in space as well: what happens in the Old World happens also in the New; (The gypsy word “gorgio” means “youngster”, implying that the American Dublin is a child of the Irish one, as Shaun, founder of new worlds, is a child of HCE), “Mishe mishe” is the Erse for “I am, Iam” -St. Bridget, as mother of Ireland, affirming her immortality. “Thuartpeatrick” is “Thou art Patrick”, echoing “Thou art Peter”, and also an identification of Ireland’s father-saint with the “peat rick” of the land itself. “Not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac” is crammed with layers of meaning. Isaac Butt was ousted from the leadership of the Irish National Party by Parnell (the wheel turns; one leader supersedes another). The cadet, or younger son, Jacob, disguised in kidskin as hairier Esau, dupes his blind father Isaac, makes him the butt of his deceit. “Venissoon” is “very soon” but also “venison” (appropriate in the Biblical context of goats and burnt offerings), and it modulates the harmony to Swift and Stella and Vanessa. “Not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe.” The last word is an anagram of Swift’s Christian name, Jonathan, presenting him as Nathan (wise) and Joseph (untemptable)-two in one (“twone”). Susannah, Esther and Ruth are the “sosie sesthers wroth” all in the Bible, all young girls champed at by old men’s passion, but also (“in vanessy” is “Inverness”) three sisters who tempt and enchant, as the three weird sisters tempted and enchanted Macbeth. As two girls can be three as well as one (all are summed up in HCE’s daughter), so Ham, Shem, and Japhet can be Jhem and Shen, Noah’s sons brewing by “arclight” (rainbow light, arc de ciel or Regenbogen) the liquor which will make Noah drunk and naked (protectionless) before them.
Need one go so far in digging out strata of meaning? Only if one wishes to; Finnegans Wake is a puzzle, just as a dream is a puzzle, but the puzzle element is less important than the thrust of the narrative and the shadowy majesty of the characters. We can get along very well with ‘a few key;-words and the general drift, and when our eyes grow bewildered with strange roots and incredible compunds, why, then we can switch on our ears. It is astonishing how much of the meaning is conveyed through music: the art of dim-sighted Joyce is, like that of Milton, mainly auditory. But if we are still disposed to curse the book as breaking those laws of intelligibility subscribed to by Nevil Shute and Ian Fleming, we ought to remind ourselves that a book about a dream would be false to itself if it made everything as clear as daylight. If it woke up and became rational it would no longer be Finnegans Wake. To complain that it is mixed-up, over-fluid, maddeningly complex, bursting at the seams with symbols, is to say that it resembles a dream-not a derogation but a compliment. Whether we want dreams or not is another matter, but we seem to, since we willingly spend a third of our lives in sleep.
We have been serious about Finnegans Wake, and we must remain serious about any work that took seventeen years to write, but let us guard against being like Hemingway’s bloody owl, solemn. This is, like Ulysses, a great comic vision, one of the few books of the world that can make us laugh aloud on nearly every page. Its humour is of that traditional kind, alive in Rabelais, still kicking in Sterne, which modulates easily from the farcical to the sublime and from the witty to the pathetic-a humour not much found in our brutal, sentimental and facetious age, hence a humour much needed. It seduces us into the acceptance of a view of humanity as realistic as that of Dante, and quite as optimistic. Finnegans Wake appeared on the eve of Armageddon, when things looked their blackest for the entire human race. The 32 seemed embossed on every bullet, the 11 two sticks burnt in the ultimate fire. But man rose again. In Joyce annihilation becomes “abnihilisation”-the creation of new life ab nihilo, from the egg of nothing. As long as the race exists, Finnegans Wake will remain one of its big pertinent codices. The corpse is “cropse”. Or, to borrow Eliot’s borrowing, “Sin is behovely, but all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”. This is not the philosophy of Shaun, the vapid liberal demagogue, but the faith of HCE, who- “Here Comes Everybody”- is suffering man himself.