A review of Finnegans Wake
reviewrun, past “Reprieve!” and “At it!”, from swerve of sure to bend of nay, brings us by a commodius vicus of revaluation back to Joyce’s Novel and Opinions.
The first sentence of Finnegans Wake provides a crucial clue about how to approach the book as a whole. In its most opaque phrase, “commodius vicus of recirculation”, it lays out the fundamental nature of the book. ‘Commodius’ is both ‘commedia’ and ‘commode’—Joyce’s most danteing work is a scatological comedy, the bestial complement to Dante. This is a lewd book—in a central episode, HCE, wearing nothing but a shirt and socks, accidentally exposes himself to his daughter, gets turned on, and then “makes laugh” to ALP—and a tremendously funny one. And ‘vicus’ recalls Vico, whose philosophy of history resounds thunderously throughout the book. As commentators will note, it is easy to read too much into the Vico parallels (just as it is easy to read too much into Odyssey parallels in Ulysses), but the flip side is this: it is easy to use that as an excuse to ignore their great significance. Vico’s theory of a cyclical history helps give the book its cyclical shape, and Vico’s emphasis on the importance of thunder peals keenly at the Wake. And so we have Finnegans Wake, an ever-repeating bestial comedy.
And it is certainly a comedy, in every sense. Joyce once famously claimed he could do anything he wanted with language. He wasn’t wrong. Puns may be the lowest form of humor, but Joyce’s task throughout his works was to show the majesty of the low. So Finnegans Wake may be seen in terms of yet another sort of resurrection, the resurrection of the pun. Certainly it is a book for pun-lovers. Joyce’s wordplay ranges from clever layering to related puns (“nobirdy aviar soar anywing to eagle it”) to representing a fall with the line, “It’s something fails us. First we feel. Then we fall.” Pay attention to the location of your tongue as you pronounce, respectively, “fails”, “feel”, and “fall.” The tongue itself “falls” from the top of the mouth (“fails”) to the bottom (“fall”). Joyce was clever and he knew it—if that’s a turn-off, then stay far away. But for those who delight in the possibilities of language, and who love exploring hidden, arbitrary connections and making meaning from them, such explorations are the heart of the language of Finnegans Wake.
Joyce’s ability to do anything he wants with languages also appears on a more global level, not just the local level of individual puns. In one section of the book, Joyce engages in a bit of poking fun at critics, imagining one critic getting so frustrated with the book that he stuck a fork through it. The holes the prongs of the fork made appear throughout the book, first as “(Stoop) […] (please stoop) […] (please to stoop) […] (O stoop to please!)”, and then later in other guises. (Incidentally, this is one piece of evidence that the whole book is ALP’s letter in defense of HCE, but that’s the sort of interpretive question I’m not really competent to engage with yet.) Likewise, you see certain phrases constantly recurring in different guises, the same words in normal English taking on different layers of meaning in Wakean English.
After this talk of the first impression the language of Finnegans Wake makes, though, a caveat is required. Whereas Ulysses is rather obviously written in different styles for each episode, the chapters of Finnegans Wake may all seem to be written in the same pun-based style. But this is a mistake. Just as Ulysses explores different styles despite (or mostly) being written in English, Finnegans Wake too canvasses an array of styles despite all being written in Wakean English. It takes time to really get comfortable with the language of the Wake, but once you do there lies revealed great depth of further experimentation. This is most obvious in episodes like II.2, where Joyce represents the children’s voices with marginal notes (Shem and Shaun) and footnotes (Issy). But it’s also apparent elsewhere. Compare, for instance, the long description of HCE drinking the leftover liquor in the glasses as he closes up his bar—the long sentence is an obvious precursor of David Foster Wallace’s labyrinthine sentences—to the short, breathless (literally) sentences at the end of the book, in which ALP delivers her final closing monologue. Compare this further to the Penelope chapter of Ulysses. In the latter, Joyce represents the feminine voice with long, unpunctuated sentences. At the end of the Wake, the feminine voice speaks in just the opposite.
Up to this point I’ve been speaking about the characters in the book without giving much footing for readers of this review who have not read the Wake. Briefly, then, here are five major characters: Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (HCE), his wife Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP), their sons Shem and Shaun, and their daughter Issy. Because of the dream-nature of the book, however, these identities are fluid. For instance, Shaun appears sometimes as Shaun, but he also appears variously as Chuff (opposed to the Shem-counterpart Glugg), Jaun (recalling Don Juan), and Yawn (who also seems to contain HCE). Additionally, he has counterpart characters in various fables that occur throughout the Wake (he is Berkley, who shoots the Russian General, the Mookse from the fable of the Mookse and the Gripes, and the Ondt in the fable of the Ondt and the Gracehoper). Finally, he appears also as Tristan (or TreeStone), the consummate lover, when he is united with his brother Shem (Issy, of course, filling the Isolde role).
Why the fluidity of the characters? The easy answer is to point out that it’s a feature of Joyce’s dream logic: once you penetrate through the difficult Wakean English and the stylistic experimentation, you’ll find that everything is fluid. This leads some to criticize the book as plotless, aimless, even characterless, a meandering stroll through Joyce’s wordplay with no overarching structure. I think this is a serious mistake. As I’ve been reading the Wake, I’ve been keeping a journal where I write down my dreams, looking for patterns, meaning, and “techniques” within them. I obviously cannot speak for anyone else, but the fluidity of Finnegans Wake is mirrored in various respects in my dreams. Characters that appear with one identity toward the start of a dream may appear with different identities later in the dream, despite being identifiable as the same person—they are both the same and different in a way that, by normal rules, would be contradictory, but which dreams have no trouble incorporating. Similarly for plot: my dreams sometimes return to one scene again and again in subtly different ways.
What, then, should we say about the “plot” of Finnegans Wake? I think the first thing to do is to recognize that on one level, the sole plot of the book is that a man (possibly HCE, possibly Leopold Bloom, possibly neither) dreams. Even compared to the minimal plot of Ulysses, Finnegans Wake is sparse. But, as displayed prominently in Ulysses, perhaps Joyce’s greatest talent was his ability to wring out lush meaning from the most meager actions. With that in mind, we can consider the content of the dream. There are numerous strands of plot running through the dream—I will discuss only two of the more major ones. First, there is some alleged incident in Phoenix Park, in which three soldiers observe HCE spying voyeuristically on two girls urinating in the bushes. Rumors spread rapidly about the incident, and HCE becomes a laughingstock. ALP writes a letter (which may be the entirety of Finnegans Wake) defending his actions. On numerous occasions, HCE too defends himself, usually blusteringly and ineptly. Second, HCE’s and ALP’s children reach sexual maturity and plot to overthrow the father. This occurs in children’s games outside (Shem has to guess the color of Issy’s panties), in studies inside (Shem and Shaun learn to draw a geometrical figure representative of their mother’s vagina), and of course in the incident in which HCE reveals himself to Issy. Throughout, intellectual Shaun tries to quell the urgings of bestial Shem. But, as noted, both of these plots are fluid, and often intertwined. They are rarely presented directly, but through fables (e.g. about the Ondt and the Gracehoper), through a film of two washerwomen on either side of the Liffey (the famous Anna Livia Plurabelle chapter, I.8), and so on.
So far, then, I have addressed two charges: characterlessness and plotlessness. But the most biting is the third: aimlessness. In one sense I am hardly prepared to answer the charge—I have read through Finnegans Wake once and hardly understand substantial sections of it. At the same time, I am familiar enough with Joyce’s other prose fiction works (having read each at least twice) that I feel confident in saying that Finnegans Wake is a continuation of the same project as Joyce’s other three major works. Dubliners presents Dublin, the setting of all of Joyce’s work, in all of its paralytic gloom. From there, Joyce examines the possibility of human greatness arising in such a setting. We follow the young Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, who seeks redemption in artistic creation. But, as is intimated in Portrait and confirmed in Ulysses, Stephen will fail. Ulysses follows the middle-aged Bloom through a single day full of failures and humiliations, but out of which Bloom emerges as a truly great man with a deeply poetic mind, even if the book ends ambiguously. Finnegans Wake is the culmination of this development, the worrying dreams of an older man reflecting back on his life. Whether or not Finnegans Wake succeeds at this exploration is not something I can yet answer even for myself, let alone for anyone else.
I cannot, then, give a complete assessment of the book. I estimate that I spent 111 hours on my first reading of the Wake (I must say I’m pleased that it was a number of such conceptual significance in the Wake itself), and I imagine it will take 1021 more hours before I have anything like a definite assessment. I can only now say this much: where I could understand the book, it was both tremendously funny and deeply moving. And, where I could not understand the book, I hold out hope that more effort will reveal passages every bit as rewarding as those I did (to some extent) understand. But above all else, I can say this: never have I had anywhere near as much fun reading a book as I had attending Finnegans Wake.
Fin, again. Break. Brushoffthesweat, remembering. Till howthheadsleeps. Lapse. I put the. Book! Away, all done at last,—I loved—along the