Hello and welcome to my first Illuminating The Wake post for 2014.
The second ‘chapter’ of the first ‘book’ of Finnegans Wake has been variously known as ‘The Ballad’, ‘HCE – His Agnomen and Reputation’, ‘The Cad’ and ‘The Humphriad’. It appears to be an academic but not entirely reliable account of how Earwicker acquired his surname and a reputation spread by popular rumour, or ‘…the humphriad of that fall and rise…’(FW 53.9). In this post I’ll be addressing pages 30 – 33. These relate a version of the events through which HCE may have received his moniker, some initial good fortune and social position from the King, only to being nicknamed and eventually ridiculed by the populous.
As with many other parts of Wake the text its river-like attributes move unpredictably between limpidity and the muddily opaque. There are passages that present a clearly discernable scene and others where layers of reference and language-play thicken like dense sediment. One can tarry and pan for gleaming particles of insight using handy tools of exegesis, or choose to enjoy the sounds and scenery amidst the suggestive flow of surface text, building up an impression of events as they are elaborated.
The dominant, uppermost layer of the narrative impression formed by my reading is that of Humphrey (or is it Harold) as a stock comic character, a bumpkin, wily in the ways of his own small rural corner but naïve and unsophisticated against wider worldly contexts. By chance encounter Humphrey is deracinated into a prominent position in the civic milieu, from which he is exposed to the fickle judgements of society. This movement of a comedic stereotype, from bucolic backwater to metropolitan stage, is refracted through the many theatrical references in the text. The course of a few pages seems to take us from a kind of timeless golden indolence in a prelapsarian garden ‘ …one sultry Sabbath afternoon…in prefill paradise peace’,via scenes verging on the grotesque from the ‘pantalime’ of court life and civic visibility in the ‘king’s treat house’, to the jaded melancholy of a ‘retired cecelticocommediant’. This enacts a transition from natural sunlight to glaring footlight to the exhausted, resentful gloom that inevitably dogs success, (FW 3014-15, 32.11 & 26, 33.3).
While reading and drawing my way through Finnegans Wake I have experimented with different media and techniques in an attempt to visualise different properties of the text. I’ve made explorations in paint, ink and collage, printing and digital media, but pencil and charcoal have yet to be surpassed for their immediacy in registering fleeting visual impressions at the point of reading. Pencil for direct pictorial notation at the speed of thought, charcoal for its directness, sensitivity and responsiveness to the mutability of the text as it emerges through the reading process. I found charcoal a particularly apt and enjoyable material for drawing pages 30 and 31. There is something about the figurative tonal shorthand that charcoal facilitates which evokes memories of black and white illustrations used to accompany the historical tales in the Arthur Mee Children’s Encyclopaedia. I see Humphrey’s encounter with the king very much in that ‘innocent’ classically illustrative style.
As always I welcome responses to my project and please look out for my post in February, when I will be visualising the next key incident of the Wake, HCE’s encounter with ‘the Cad’.