‘As the lion in our teargarten remembers the nenuphars of his Nile…’
This chapter of Finnegans Wake begins with the besieged Earwicker still dwelling on what he regards as his unfortunate beguilement by ‘those liliths’, those ‘charmermisses’ (chamber maids – Edenic snake charmers?) the two young girls on whom he seems to have been spying (or worse) in Phoenix Park, a misdemeanour which led to his downfall and current predicament. He is like the old lion in Dublin Zoo, incidentally once famous for its lions, remembering the wilder ranges of his youth, an image that fades quickly from the exotic to the melancholy. The first part of this chapter, a section from page 75 to page 76.9, concerns this reflection. For me the predominant mood and movement here is appropriately inward, backward and down. The assault of the previous chapter has provoked ‘eugenic thoughts’ about the origins and perpetuation of qualities in people. There seems also to be something here to do with inevitable returns to abject states, of being laid low and of this condition being inescapably as part of Earwicker’s essential make up. Intuition of this on Earwickers part makes some sense if it is accepted that, within the broader cycle of the book he is seen as his own progenitor and the diverse parade of male personages across the Wake’s time and space represents aspects of himself.
In a sudden return to the ‘present’ conditions, as if shaking off reverie, pages 76.10 – 78.14 include descriptions of Earwicker’s shelter/coffin/tomb. This polymorphous vessel shifts between being a glass-panelled coffin interred in boggy ground then apparently under water, whilst being simultaneously the Porter’s marital bed; a boat of the kind used to transport privileged souls in the mythology of Ancient Egypt; a submarine, some kind of underground/underwater structure – an inverted lighthouse perhaps, pointing downwards into the waters of LochNeagh. Words such as ‘Tower’, ‘wardrobe’ and ‘sheet’, in their capacity to work in more than one of these contexts are effective in facilitating the (con)fusion of these objects.
A significant implication of these differing ‘containers’ of HCE’s body is that he can be both static, trapped, inert and waiting whilst also being an actively global traveller. He is, by a kind of natural paradox, as a corpse also able to be the site of much generative propagation and proliferation. Any contradiction in these states is annulled by the indeterminacy of Earwickers essential condition and through Joyce’s inventive language, which so wonderfully accommodates such ambiguity and contingency whilst still retaining the sensual impact of meaning. At page 78.7 – 14 offers kind of resurrection through the fertility of the dead that hints at, in a possibly mocking way, eventual resurrection proper.
In the passage 79.1 – 13 we have a vision of Earwicker interred. Made corpulent by his excessive appetites, he now feeds on his own fat. His gastronomic and carnal impulses, satiated in and by the city of which he was patriarch, come forth in what starts as a frothy anecdote but which descends steeply from indulgence to scavenging, from fancy coach to dungcart, from giggling temptresses to Widow Kate Strong and the middenheap. She brings associations of old Dublin and echoes of our tour of the ‘Museyroom’, of Biddy the Hen scratching up ALPs love letter from the dirt. No matter our manners, our status or our refuge, we are never very far from the dung heap, for we take it with us.
By page 80 the assault at the end of the previous chapter has become entangled with notions of violent conception, the generative principle and the site of both love’s inscription and of its loss. The notion of a child becoming symbol and source of potential reconciliation in recurrent conflicts of gender, the idea of innocence regained is doggedly shadowed by the aforementioned Lilith – in Jewish folklore a female demon who tries to kill the newborn. The Talmudic Lilith, the first wife of Adam, was dispossessed by Eve.