“A Proudseye View of Dublin”
– a talk on FINNEGANS WAKE, Thursday 22 MAY 2014 1 PM
On Wednesday the 22nd of May 2014 at 1pm, downstairs in the beautiful magical enthralling ghostly history ridden Crypt of Christ Church Cathedral, founded in CE 1030, I will deliver a lecture on Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. The talk is part of a festival of events celebrating 75 since the publication of Finnegans Wake in May 1939. It is always enormously intimidating to speak on a work like The Wake. I Have lectured on Finnegans Wake before , and I have found it a pleasure and a huge challenge. I am actually getting jittery writing about it now.
Finnegans Wake is a funny book, written at a very difficult time in Joyce’s life. His sight was gone, by and large, his daughter Lucia Joyce was becoming floridly schizophrenic and was eventually institutionalised,to Joyce’s great distress. Joyce’s own health was failing, and he was drinking heavily during the 17 years the book was under construction. Oh and JJ was writing it under a cloud of disapproval from those who hitherto were his great advocates. I remember the first time I picked up Finnegans Wake. It was about thirty years ago. I was just finished school, a very confused silly shy young man. When I started reading this book, I was instantly perplexed, confused, and hooked by the complex use of puns, jokes, and allusions to tell a story which I spent the next decades in my spare time unravelling – well trying to unravel it.
I remember taking it with me with other books I was reading (as you can imagine from this I didn’t get out much back then), trying to tease out what it meant. Progress was slow and I didn’t have many guides. More than anything, I was suffering from a kind of culture shock, a shock of the utterly new. Reading this brilliantly funny, beautiful masterpiece (if READING is the right word- try getting past a few lines of the text without stopping and going back and asking yourself – ‘what does that mean?’) is rather like trying a new type of food or drink. Or it’s like trying out a new art form – its treasures tend to open up once you get past the shock of the new, that is, once you get past the initial strangeness of it.
It is an archetypically Irish book, (if you hear Joyce read from it you hear the wonderfully idiosyncratic Irishness of the book: – the accents, inflections and musicality of it) and yet Finnegans Wake is a book built from at least 60 languages and a dozen cultures, a book about history and philosophy, mythology and love, and yet a book about a family, a book that incorporates the world. The notion of the world as book, or a world dreamed up as a book, a piece of language mirroring the world and the interconnectedness of the person in the world. If one would like to employ a metaphor for Joyce’s intentionality around FW it would be like an internet-like structure, a network of interconnecting images and metaphors and myths from the story of Isis, the circularity of being and nonbeing as Finnegan, otherwise Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, rises up only to fall down, the cycles of light and dark, the psychological queries about the meaning of life and death, birth and demise, the seemingly endless queries about the deeper cycles that occur within the body, the cycling of blood through the veins and through the heart, mirrored by the tides, the moon, the sky, the night.
One can employ conventional language to describe these things, but Joyce’s words, portmanteau words, conflate meanings from several sources and several different languages, allusions to mythology and scientific and technological terminologies, with an incredible energy, wit and efficiency. The difficulty is to see that each, some, or many of these words do so much more than point to a singular meaning. The words point multi-directionally outwards to other words in the context of the sentences or lines they are placed in, and they point to themselves too, as they request from the reader and the thinker some work to mine their sense, sound and meaning and to see their context within the wider world of Finnegans Wake as a book about the world.
Finnegans Wake is a book about the world, all of it, the world as dream. The world as metaphor. This is a dream book. In other words this is a book viewed through the prism, the metaphor and mythological structure of dreams, which means we can take in all the contradictory facets of the world in one once we move from the logical to the analogical.
In correspondence, Joyce offered some clues to the Wake: “It is night. It is dark. You can hardly see. You sense rather” and “One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot”. These observations may be his closest approaches to explaining what he was about.
In dreams we have no borders to the imagination. In dreams we think the unthinkable; we have access to the source of the conscious imaginings, the unconscious. So what is happening while we are asleep? FW is all about the sleeping mind. The dark universe that opens up when our conscious minds shut down . Joyce was not entirely unique. The cut-up method as pioneered by William Burroughs in such books as the Soft Machine and Naked Lunch sought through the uses of unconventional language to expand our minds beyond conventional thought through new word forms and the unconventional uses of language We switch off conscious thought and we dream. Tim Finnegan, bigmester Finnegan as he is called in the book, takes a tumble, is humptydumptillioed, his eyes close, he drifts into the netherworld, and the borders of his body and his mind meld with the city of Dublin, and by implication with all that has happed in the city. His consciousness expands to encompass all of history.
The key to Finnegans Wake is the story of the life of the family who live in Chapelizod in Dublin, a story that expands through the world of the Champs Elysées, Elysian Fields, the underworld, to being the history of the world. This becomes possible because of two things. Firstly because it is not a chronological, but an allegorical history the allegorical mechanism works most effectively through the use of the metaphor of the dream. Thus Finnegan falls and dies and he rises and through his death and resurrection the cycle of history is enacted and re-enacted from one historical and mythological personage to another.
Similarly his twin sons, wife and daughter transubstantiate from one epic historical and mythological character to another and the connection between these characters, their historical and mythological context is shown in the pyrotechnics of the language that Joyce uses – the allusory words, words built and twisted out of their old shape and into new forms – words whose meaning and context and association are only seen as having any kind of real meaning when they are seen in terms of the truly astonishingly vast multilingual, multicultural erudition that has gone into their forging. I In looking at these strange words, these bizarre fiery ciphers reveal that they have within them a multiplicity of meanings. They are grenades of words, words that could explode into a thousand fragments of knowledge.
No, I have not really given much away about the talk itself. I am grateful to Des Gunning of ‘FW75’ for asking me to do it. I am also grateful to him for the original research he contributed to the talk. It’s a rare privilege to deliver the talk. I think it’s pretty inexpensive to get in (I am not sure as to the price) and it will last 50 minutes. Oh and there is tea and coffee and biscuits afterwards – in the oldest built space in Dublin!
For the full programme of events that makes up FW75 –