Welcome back to my visual reading of Finnegans Wake.
Having come through what Finn Fordham summarises as a ‘post-lapsarian struggle for existence’
and the ‘promise of peace’, there is still a fair amount of falling left to do as we get to know more
about builder Finnegan and his ‘demise’ (2007). According to Joseph Campbell we are in the midst
of a depiction of the hod carrier’s life, his fall and his wake. We are in a narrative movement into
the city of Dublin (perhaps any modern city) and its environs, which are to become ‘suffused’ with
Finnegan’s presence (1944). Bernard Benstock (1965) simply entitles this small section ‘The City’
followed by ‘The Wake’.
Like many others in the Wake page 5 teems with interwoven motifs and binary oppositions held
in a marvellously dynamic simultaneity: Future/past, West/East, up/down, erection/collapse.
Here we also have the visual and the auditory, male/female, black/white, oppositional contrasts
of the generalised and the particular; taking up the toothmick (toothpick – precise, vertical) and
lumping down upown our leatherbed (generalised, horizontal) – upown – a drawled collision of ‘up’
and ‘down’ (FW p. 5.19)
That universe of the Wake has ‘erigenated’ from next to nothing and has been escalated to vast
proportions is self-referentially intimated here and reiterated throughout the text. This notion
of expansion is present in the outrageous inflation of the simple Irish American street ballad
about hod carrier Tim Finnegan into the tortuous and layered complexity of Joyce’s novel. As
dream work the book has as its starting point and content the ‘nothing’ of unconsciousness and
the immateriality of all that fabulously unfolds and foliates ‘unseen’ in the head of the sleeper.
Frequent self-referential cueing associates the Wake with the generative persistence of the Tales
of the Thousand and One Nights – also a tale concerned with the conjuring of an ‘endless’ narrative
out of nothing, as a matter of continued existence, of life and death. It is present in James Joyce’s
staggering investment of time and energy in the work, expanding from its minimal ‘origin’ as a few
marks scribbled on notepaper; and it’s there in the material condition of the work as text, ink on
paper or pixels on screen and how this subjectively extends into a hugely immersive temporal and
spatial experience once activated by the reader. There is an aspect of sexual conception too that
may apply here, in the male /female conjunction we can pick up towards he end of p.4 with ‘…to
rise in undress maisonry upstanded (joygrantit!)’ continuing on to p.5 ‘…with a burning bush abob
off its baubletop…clittering up and tombles a’buckets clottering down’. This is also a generative
strand can be followed throughout the text.
Motifs introduced in this early section of the Wake continue to variegate and add their
layers. We have heraldic signs of hierarchical civic prestige and lineage, anthropomorphic
symbols of persecution and defence, saints and sinners, and the ever-present paired
motif of tree and stone in a variety of manifestations. Towers emerge aplenty, the Eifel, the
Woolworth Building, Howth Castle and the tower of Babel, as do other attributes of builder
and buildings – architect, fire escapes, escalators, tools, buckets, a ‘cubehouse’. Things
rise to an awful height amidst the visual and auditory accoutrements of modern city: traffic –
‘rollsrights’, ‘carhacks’, ‘stonengens’, ‘autokinetons’, ‘streetfleets’ trams, taxis; noise, fog, people
– tourists, policemen, crowds; its media and its ‘municiple sin business’. ‘Aeropagods’ are on high
– I see these simultaneously as aerial pagodas – modernist fusions of architecture and aircraft as
possibly dreamed by the likes of Sonia Delauney or Fritz Lang, and Old European Gods inhabiting
a violently urban Valhalla (‘wallhall’ FW 5.30).
And things fall….asleep, with connectable inferences of night, bed, nod, wink, dreamydeary
(dromedary – this camel crops up quite lot in the Wake) and the the One Thousand and One Nights.
Within a ‘rising’ word we even have a reference to an heroic fall, Reisengeborg (FW5.6) There
are the now familiar cosmic Miltonian casting down hurtleturtled out of heaven, and the fall from
grace experiences by Adam and Eve ‘abe ite ivvy’s holired abbles’ (FW p.5.29 – 30) accompanying
material/bodily/moral collapse evoked my the wonderful ‘it mought have been due to a collupsus
of his back promises…’(FW 5.26).
I really enjoy the visual richness of this early section. Unsurprisingly, each reading and each
notational drawing brings fresh observations and mental impressions, but there is something
about the clutter and three dimensionality of images generated by the text that evokes the
temporal and spatial complexities and uncertainties of the metropolis; how we move amidst layers
of stuff from different ages, all simultaneously visible, available and potentially meaningful; the
often dreamlike (or movie-like) condition of waking metropolitan existence.
Your feedback about the blog is welcome, as always.
Until next time…
Benstock, Bernard, Joyce-Again’s Wake: An Analysis of Finnegans Wake (1965) Seattle and London, University
of Washington Press
Cambell, Joseph and Robinson, Henry (1944) A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake: Unlocking James Joyce’s
Masterwork, New York, Harcourt, Brace and World.
Fordham, Finn (2007) Lots of Fun at Finnegans Wake, Oxford, Oxford University Press, p. xxxv.