Illuminating the WAKE with Clinton Cahill: Part 4

“We had no idea that it couldn’t be done”
Couldn’t Be Done, Tim Finn, 2006, Rebel larynx Music
 Fall charcoal study

Share Your Thunder! 
Having entered (or re-entered) the circle of Finnegans Wake we should tarry for a short while and acclimatize ourselves to its peculiar spaces.  We are already acquainted some of the features that will unfold across the Wake and with the dubious, unstable and highly mutable conditions that seem to obtain hereabouts.  The ever-presence of a body in the landscape, body and terrain inextricably inter-involved; and those emergent figurative presences conjured with mythical, historical and literary references.  I think of these as ‘pentimenti’  – like shadowy traces of previous images coming through from beneath layers of paint.  This might be more than just visually apt given the Italian origin of the word in ‘repentance’ and the pervasive guilt that seems to underlie so much of the text.  Many ‘figures’ in the Wake are apparitions, which though fleeting, create cumulative effects through their emergence as variations of themselves in the shifting scenes we glimpse at different levels in the textual flow.

The who, where, when of it is not clear or fixed, though aside from the various figures briefly flitting into view, there are some things of which we are already aware:  a sense of beginnings, of genesis; someone coming from the West, conflict, doublings and repetitions, circles, arcs and a rainbow, reflected in water – plenty of water.

Fall of Tim Finnegan charcoal study

A Scribbled Egg sketchbook drawing

charcoal study

HCE as Humpty Dumpty monoprint

HCE as Humpty Dumpty ink & bleach drawing (detail)

Finnegan Prone sketchbook page
We’re not long on ‘this side the scraggy isthmus’ before we witness the calamitous fall indicated by the sounding of one of the Wakes ten notorious ‘thunderwords’.


Other thunderwords can be found on pages 3, 23, 44, 90, 113, 257, 314, 332, 414 and 424.

Though known as hundredletter thunderwords nine of them contain a hundred letters and the last has one hundred and one – a total of 1,001 letters connoting one thousand and one nights. References to the Arabian tales abound throughout the ‘book of the night’. In the context of the Wake I always associate this number 1001 visually with Joyce’s spectacles, a motif which crops up frequently in my drawn readings of the Wake.

The thunderwords mark the turning of the Wake through a ‘viconian’ cycle and apparently align the structure of the book to notions of civilization derived from the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico’s Scienza Nuova (1725).

In his The Role of Thunder in Finnegans Wake (1997) Eric McLuhan considers the thunderwords as a form of encoded explanation of the reverberating consequences of historical technological change.  Others have described them as ‘cosmic farts’.

In any case something shifts, something gives, things change…loudly and profoundly.

This noise is a kind of soundtrack (or voiceover – overvoice?) to every great fall. The end of an epoch, the fall of builder Tim Finnegan from his ladder in the well-known street ballad, the terrible voice of God after the fruit has been tasted, the fall from grace, the satanic fall into banishment; perhaps a collapse of enlightened, civilized language back into something darker, deeper and profoundly disturbed – world and word-shattering.

Why not have a go at pronouncing the thunderwords yourself out loud to release different aspects of their potential ‘meaning’.  Share your thunder!

Post a comment here and/or email a file of your own recording.

You might also want to check out these audio-visual adaptations

Finnegans Wake – Thunderwords

 Ten Thunders

If this is the first time you have accessed my monthly guest blog ‘Illuminating the Wake’ you can find out more about my drawing-based approach to reading Joyce in my previous posts.