My exploration of Finnegans Wake, a personal process of ‘reading-through-drawing’ continues with the fifth ‘chapter’ of ‘book’ I. The process always begins with the book itself and my immediate responses to what I find in the text. I make pencil annotations of my impressions each time I revisit a passage, trying not to be too concerned with what I’m supposed to find there. Contextual reading is useful, but the Wake is after all a book, capable of being picked up and read for the pleasure it has to offer. If you have read my previous posts you will know that I synthesise my annotations into sketchbook notes and make rapid sketches of my imaginative experience of the text at the point of reading. I then take some passages and make larger, more focused drawings, again during the process of reading.
‘Book’ I ‘Chapter’ V. begins with a kind of short invocation to Anna Livia Plurabelle echoing the Lord’s Prayer, in which we see familiar references to Eve, water and also to the ‘unhemmed’ and ‘uneven’ (p.104.1 – 3). This is followed an absurdly long list, in no particular order, of the alternative names for ALP’s ‘mamafesta’ (her letter) as it has been called at different times (p. 104.5 – 107.7). These titles allude to and reinforce in small, brilliantly condensed snippets, many of the preoccupations the Wake itself. Time and patience taken to read through these is rewarded with an accumulative poetic effect. A connective rhythm builds in the procession of suggestive titles. A strange and carefully modulated sense of humour unfolds as more of them accumulate. I found it similar to walking the stacks of an old style library, taking in the spines and titles of storybooks and letting my imagination suggest the genre and contents rather than opening the volumes. I made a separate set of loose small, square ‘scamps’ illustrating some of these impressions as if they were potential cover designs or storybook images.
Having tantalisingly invoked the possible content of the letter through this absurdly extended play of genre and title we are given an equally absurd descriptive analysis of it using language evocative of the densest technical, academic and scientific writing (p.107.8 – 35). The forensic examination of the contents and graphic residue of the letter attempts to reconstruct the character and personality of its author or authors. The opaque density of this report is immediately contested and contrasted in the following paragraph with the prosaic question ‘…who…wrote the durn thing anyhow?’ (p.107.36 – 108.1). The question launches a colourful passage that projects an almost painterly or cinematic image of the mysterious writer and the dramatic conditions under which the letter was composed.
After the excitement of feverish speculation, patience is called for; a cooler approach guided by the the practice of patience. The advocator of this patient approach suggests a longer-term investigation, remembering ‘HCE’ as either a radio broadcast or broadcaster, seeming to want to return attention to Earwicker as the centre of things (p.108.8 – 28). Doubts about the authenticity of the letter are raised, insinuations that it is a forgery, one detectable by omissions in its subject matter and through its grammar (p.108. 29 -36). A further change in tone occurs when attention is paid to the letter’s envelope rather than its contents. The importance of the idea of the envelope is stressed through analogy to women’s clothing. The proponent here goes on to discuss their notion of the intimate, feminine relationship between outer layers and inner content (p.109.1 – 36). Yet another shift occurs with a proposed analysis of the letter through the lens of mythological narrative, of man and woman personified in river and land, suggesting that the a mythical approach as good as any in establishing the truth of the letter ‘…for utterly impossible as all these events they are probably as like those which may have taken place as any others which never took person at all are ever likely to be. Ahahn!’ (p.110.19 – 21).
In next paragraph begins with a wintery view of the scratching up of the letter from the midden heap by the hen, Belinda ‘Biddy’ Doran, the presence of whom is reinforced by repeated occurrence of ‘tip’ reminiscent of the tour of the Wellingdone Museum (p.8.9 – 10.23). It appears that the retrieval of the scrap of paper may have been observed and exploited by HCE/Porter’s son Kevin. The scrap of paper scratch up by the hen is an old Letter from Boston, evocatively dated ‘…the last of the first’ (p.111.10). Its contents, briefly outlined, seem to innocently echo major aspects of the Wake itself.
In response to the blunt double question ‘Why then how? (p.111.25) a weird explanation is given of the appearance of the letter as some kind of photographic trace or negative. The word ‘Tip’, previously denoting a rubbish heap, the action of a hen pecking and tour guide’s expectation of payment, is now also linked to horse racing and the frozen evidence of the photo finish. The paragraph p.111.26 – 112.2 suggests a hen’s eye view of confusing spatial and temporal perspectives involved in attempting the retrieval a moment from history. Our disorientation is acknowledged by yet another voice suggesting in its Mark Twain enquiry that we are indeed ‘lost in the bush’. The bird, with her sack of scraps, is once again to be our guide. There follows a description of Biddy’s nature, which has brought us to this moment and her sudden, accidental encounter with literature.
Through her slow and careful reading Biddy Doran relates an emotional defence of ALPs letter. She seems to consider it as Anna Livia’s necessary expression of how things were with HCE, and how they always are, part of a universal story or set of interrelated stories. In the now established pattern of this chapter, Biddy’s involved reading is subsequently contrasted by a polite plea for a calm, objective look at the remaining evidence, which will be the subject of the next ‘Illuminating The Wake’.