Welcome to ‘Illuminating the Wake’ the (usually monthly) guest blog through which I get to share my reading-through-drawing approach to the appreciation of James Joyce’s endlessly fascinating and entertaining ‘Finnegans Wake’. Working through the book in page order, I add annotations to the text as I go, emphasizing my own immediate response to what I find there. By synthesising these in sketchbooks, making rapid pictorial notations of what is suggested to my imagination at the point of reading, I hope to capture something of a reader’s direct experience of the ‘Wake’, particularly with regard to its tremendous visuality.
Post No. 27
My last post ended with Earwicker/Finn interred, apparently underwater and feeding off his own fat. We caught sight of the widow Kate Strong in old Dublin and touched on the notion of a child as the hopeful symbol of reconciliation. Exploration of these images and ideas continues here with a look at pages 79 – 85: The eternal gender agenda, ‘attacker’ and ‘adversary’, Kate Strong and the midden life of old Dublin.
In early times ladies did not disdain to carry their own (night) soil to the midden, a place where things are left to rot, a place into which eventually we all decline without knowing for sure what will come after us; the earth itself might be considered a ball of waste material. Joyce’s conflation of rubbish tip and grave reminds us that much the same processes pertain to both. The dung beetle (more connotations of Egypt) is evoked and this insect connection reinforced in the notion of the carrying of the dead earwig (Earwicker) – funerary ritual on a tiny scale (p.79.14 – 17).
In his grave, HCE/Porters unconsciousness reflects on a time in which there was perhaps a simpler gender equation; Females tempted males who were laughably easy to rouse either to anger or desire. As the central male entity, HCE’s symbolic association with volcanoes is reinforced. This still being the Viconian ‘Age of Gods’, it’s a Venus who gigglingly tempts her ‘guffawably erruptious’ Vulcan. Gods behave like petulant, albeit libidinous children whose promiscuousness includes relationships with humans. The world was fickle then, who knew who would end up with who? Or where? Doing what? There seems to be a sort of underlying spectral mobility operating whereby things are apt to appear unpredictably at any point between opposing poles (p.79.18 – 24).
The recurrence of ‘Tip!’ reminds us of our guided tour of the ‘museyroom’ and foretells our re-acquaintance with the widow Kate Strong along with her associated scavenging hen, pecking and scratching at the rubbish heap, who were previously introduced on p.10. From seductive arbour to stinking muckpile and back again, the unsavoury terms of the dung heap are incongruously adjacent to a little of the ‘little language’, the sickly sweet petting talk associated with Jonathan Swift (p.79.23) and dramatic shifts and juxtapositions of scale from the insect to god view here are reminiscent of those experienced by Gulliver.
Kate Strong, ‘Tip!’ widow and hence a different sort of remainder, brings with her the miasmic ‘dreariodream’ – dreary old dream, diorama of old ‘dumplan’, the dumb plan of the dump (tip), Dublin. Is this also perhaps an exhibit in the ‘museyroom’ itself?
Direct coincidence of opposites is common throughout the ‘Wake’, and these pages are no exception. Here, for example, the dreaminess of an ‘elvenstone’ cottage is opposed with droppings and festering rubbish, pull with push, cats with dogs, and golden days with scavenging. The image of the high-born (a great dane) is countered with that of the beggar. The notion of a golden day dispelled with ‘nekropolitan night’. The air is full of foul odours, rot and scavenging. Rather than the fresh air associated with open windows, here they are full of stink and germs. Such stench is but one ingredient in an atmosphere of threat threaded with the vocabulary of violence – ‘batter’, ‘beaten’, ‘struck’.
The location of the ‘filthdump’ is revealed to be somewhere near Phoenix Park, at a place once called ‘Finewell’s Keepsacre’ later re-baptised as ‘Pat’s Purge’. Again we have contrasting notions – treasured possession and emetic, retention and expulsion. This is a circle of dangerous ground, a concentrated loci of many events upon which historians might read layered traces of human life. What better place to lose or conceal an incendiary document or a letter lost in lust? (p.80.6 – 15)
Again we come across the idea of the anticipated child as a representation potential reconciliation in the recurrent gender war. Is this notion under-shadowed by a hint that such a child should, of necessity, be dead? Beckettian intimations of the proximity of cradle and grave are brusquely and pragmatically shrugged off with a ‘give over it! And no more of it!’ It ends where it begins p.80.16 – 19).
It seems, to Earwicker’s mind at least, that propagation of mainstream beliefs has created and maintained a situation of inevitable antagonism between the sexes, a situation to which we all succumb, a trap we all fall in to, particularly through the institution of marriage. Moreover, this is a situation to which the gods themselves (of whatever origin) are also prone, immortal temptations for which they also must fall (p.80.20 – 33).
References to sex and religion appear, berating the habitual misbehaviour of deities. In fact all around are admonished, but this ends strangely and hypocritically once Eatrwicker’s daughter, Issy, and her group of pretty girls are noticed. The memory of or potential for naughtiness, voyeurism and scandal is suggested, along perhaps with darker, even less approachable thoughts (p. 80.33 – 36).
Distracted again our view shifts to notice different surroundings, still in the vicinity of Phoenix Park. It seems to be a view of space and time taking in the layering of history and the contemporary scene with its tramlines and omnibuses. Referencing past and current features, a particular point is identified as the spot at (or beneath) which a significant encounter between the ‘attacker’ and the ‘adversary’ took place. The incident appears to involve something along the lines of a mugging, with political undertones, and a sense of possible mistaken identity. As in many confrontations, rapid escalation leads to disproportion and soon we have a brief sense of the incident attached global and historical perspectives. The aggressive confrontation is suddenly defused – perhaps at the appearance of ‘the imnage of Girl Cloud Pensive…in ribbons and pigtail?’ and becomes a negotiation. Whether this ‘imnage’ is this a physical sign of some kind or a mysterious vision on the part of the assailant remains ambiguous, but the tenor of the encounter changes, even though the air of uneasiness remains (pp.81.1 – 82.21). There is a weirdness to the agreement and reconciliation that is eventually reached, some payment has been made, disguised as a loan, and injuries seem to have been sustained, but to an uncertain extent. It is unclear whether the protagonists really know or recognise each other but the encounter appears to take on the characteristics of pretence, a means by which both participants can extricate themselves from the situation. Upon departure from the scene, on their separate trajectories, both proceed to exaggerate their roles retelling of the incident.
Did the starving gunman actually have a gun or just the bar he used to break the furniture, with the less serious connotations of bar room brawling this might imply? Typically, it’s hard to gauge. We are told, presumably about the victim, that ‘some of his hitters hairs had been pulled off his knout’s head by colt…’ (p.84.23 – 24) which to me suggests a possible pistol whipping, and ‘Peter the Painter wanted to hole him’ (p.85.5-6) but we are left with a spectrum of possibilities. However, under all this male aggression lies the fundamental conflict of HCE’s twin boys, ‘Peter the Painter’ here clearly being Shem, the artist.
Physical aspect of the conflict aside, a rich layering of alcoholic, digestive, maritime and imperial images leads to a positive appraisal of victim Delaney’s upstanding character and the dutiful exercise of his right to walk the public thoroughfare unmolested. This simple activity is presented as a declaration of liberty, both benign and typically British, and one ultimately secured through a payment of ‘danegeld’. Upstanding citizenship contaminated with the whiff of confliction and shame (p.84.28 – 85.19). Of course, the more I dwell on this section, or any part of the book for that matter, the more alternative possibilities become apparent. Such is the fun of ‘Finnegans Wake’.