July 15, 2010

Bruno Vico and Finnegans Wake

From A Word in Your Ear: How & Why to Read James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, by Eric Rosenbloom, pages 29–39:

Saints Giordano and Giambattista

Besides characters, there are a few informing spirits behind the work, most notably Giordano Bruno (of Nola) and Giambattista Vico. Giordano was a determinedly independent philosopher burned in Rome by the Inquisition in 1600 after 8 years of imprisonment. He spent his youth — 13 years — in the refuge of a Dominican monastery. The 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia characterized his thought as “incoherent materialistic pantheism.” From the Copernican solar system he went on to suggest that the sun is not the center of the universe, that creation is infinite, and further that every living thing contains an infinite universe. He said the earth, too, is a living being. Developing the work of Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464), who said that in God contraries unite, Giordano stated that everything knows itself best in the struggle with its opposite, even creating its opposite for that purpose, or by finding it across time as well as space — or in a mirror — and that no living thing exists except that its opposite exists as well. He envisioned entities in constant flux, exchanging identities, moving farther from and closer to the unity of God. He also worked on a system of memory training, dabbled in alchemy, and believed that Jesus was a magician. He first fled Rome and then many other cities ahead of various church and university authorities, and spent a few very productive years in London as toast of the town. Back in Venice, he was betrayed by his host to the Holy Office. The Nolan’s wide-ranging intellect and varied life (much of it in exile) yet singleness of vision represented for Joyce the spiritual unity of character. As such, he is found in Dublin as the stationers Browne and Nolan (who published the edition of Chapman’s Homer that Joyce probably read as a child).

Giambattista Vico (1688–1744) was a linguist and legal historian who published his New Science, which he described as “a rational civil theology of divine providence,” in 1725 and went mad while perfecting it for further editions. Developing many of Giordano’s ideas, he too rejected the idea of “golden” ages; the New Science examines the course of nations out of Cyclopean family clearings, divine kings, and the offer of asylum for vassals, through alliance of the “noble” fathers in eternal reaction against the growing demands of the vassals, to a certain equity for all, descent into civil wars and anarchy, and salvation under a civil monarchy. The monarchy (i.e., empire) collapses, and, as divine kings rise again in its wake, barbarism returns and the nations are reborn. The cycle began after the universal flood with a flash of lightning and clap of thunder that drove brutish giants to recall their humanity and hide in shame in caves, there beginning the institutions of religion, marriage, and burial that are at the origin of every civilization. A recourse of the cycle began in Europe after the collapse of Rome.

By examining Greek and Roman history, language, mythology, and law, Vico described the course of nations in terms of the Egyptian ages of gods, of heros, and of people. Each age has a characteristic nature (poetic, heroic, human), reflected in its social organization (family, city, nation), natural law (divine, force, reason), government (theocratic, aristocratic, democratic), customs (religion, social ceremony, civic duty), reason (revelatory, political, personal), language and letters (mute gesture and heiroglyphics, heraldry and symbolism, popular speech and characters), and so on. The heroic age is transitional, transferring the rights and property of Adam to more of the people. It is marked by verbal scrupulousness, punctilious manners, violent struggles, suspicion and civil turbulence, and pura et pia bella (pure and pious war, such as the Crusades that ended the “dark” age of Europe’s ricorso).

Each age itself goes through a cycle of rising and falling, recovery and demise, ending with a poet — theological, heroic, vulgar — who culminates the age and ushers in the next by creating a new Jove.

Vico does not limit himself, however, to this 3-stage scheme, describing 5 and 6 stages as well for the unfolding of humanity through necessity, utility, comfort, pleasure, luxury, madness, and “waste of his substance.” His scheme can be described as a flux between divine kings defending the special status of the “heros” and a civil emperor protecting human equity. And just as Vico analogizes individual development to speculate about early humanity, Joyce sees a cycle of history in every person’s childhood, maturity, and decline.

The major part of the New Science establishes the thought of the divine and early heroic ages, their “poetic wisdom.” For example, as a nation’s world expanded, local names were re-used for farther places in the same direction. This (along with Dante’s finding that he and Florence were a central concern of the divine order in his Comedy) provides a model for Joyces’ Dublin-based universe (“they went doublin their mumper all the time” (p. 3)). Vico also discovers the true Homer as the collective voice of the Greek peoples, those of the northeast in the Iliad and centuries later those of the southwest in the Odyssey; this is akin to Joyce’s mystery of Finnegan and his incarnation in HCE, Here Comes Everybody.

Viconian Cycle

It is usually said that the four parts of Finnegans Wake follow a Viconian cycle of gods–heros–people–recourse. Indeed, “vicus of recirculation” is mentioned in the first sentence, there is a flood followed by thunder later on the first page, and thunder words continue to be heard (pp. 3, 23, 44, 90, 113, 257, 314, 332, 414, and 424 — nine of 100 letters each and one of 101 to total 1001 letters). The thunder, however, is like the audible babblings of a fitful sleeper threatening to rise, given form by responses from the players of the book that ensure he will stay down until they are ready, i.e., the book seems to be stuck in the pre-human state of atheist giants, in the Norse Ginnungagap, before (and after) time.

The four parts of Finnegans Wake do not follow the Egypto-Viconian ages. If anything, they go backwards, from the rollicking expansiveness of the first book (of the people), through the set-pieces of the second (the heroic family), to the self-worshipping Shaun of the third (the god-like son). Most problematic with the identification of Joyce’s parts with Vico’s ages is that the recourse (ricorso in Italian) is not a 4th age, but the return of the 1st. Instead of following Vico’s cycle, the four parts of Finnegans Wake may — as Samuel Becket claimed — represent the three institutions (religion, marriage, burial) that move humanity into the light of civilization and, finally, step into history. Kabbalistically, they may represent the archetypal, creative, formative, and material worlds in the process of getting from idea to the manifestation of dawn. They may be simply four different dreams through the deepening night. They may originate from the four parts of the Tristan & Isolde stories.

Joyce, as he does with all his sources, re-interprets Vico to fit his own scheme. He certainly uses Vico, but the heroic age is always in the present, the divine age always in the past, and the popular age in the future; and they are all present simultaneously. Finn Mac Cool with the goddess Brighid is of the divine age, HCE and ALP are of the heroic, and Shem, Shaun, and Issy the popular. Avatars of each of them appear in every age. Cycles spin off from multitudes of events and in myriad lives, overlapping and intertwining and confusing each other. The flood represents the cataclysmic end as well as the pause before going round again.

Nonetheless, Finnegans Wake is full of 3- and 4-term sequences; usually they represent the religion, marriage, and burial at the beginning of history, e.g., “Harry me, marry me, bury me, bind me” (p. 408; all 3 institutions are binding: by piety, shame, sense of immortality). Their regularity emphasizes the universality and circularity of human time that Vico stands for in the book. On page 590, the cycle appears very simply as “Tiers, tiers and tiers. Rounds.” And on page 452: “The Vico road goes round and round to meet where terms begin.” This describes simultaneous opposite movement from a point of unity, joining briefly on the other side and continuing back to the origin. It describes a flux as much as a cycle, a “systomy dystomy” (p. 597) like the beating of the heart or the fall and rise of all human endeavors.

Joyce, although often referring people to Vico, also asserted he did not “believe” Vico’s science, “but my imagination grows when I read Vico as it doesn’t when I read Freud or Jung.” He was perhaps using Vico to think about the subconscious mind in history more than about history itself. Vico provided the idea that mind and history are identical, and that language betrays their secrets. Thus all history could be revealed in a book of a sleeping soul, its crude projections redeemed in the unconscious mind that created them. (As Stephen Dedalus might have said in his dotage, “History is a nightmare I’m dreaming to wake.”)

Hugh Kenner has suggested that the dreamer does not want to wake up, that ALP is a widow resisting the conscious awareness that her husband — executed after the 1916 Easter uprising, he says — is no longer beside her. The hanging scaffold is suppressed by becoming Tim Finnegan’s building scaffold. Her tears become the river in which her dreams flow. The book of history assures us that life always rises from the ashes, but we also know that individual loss is unrecoverable. The incomplete sentence at the end of Finnegans Wake gives the reader a choice: Leave the book and return to life, or return to the book’s first words.

Joyce once likened Finnegans Wake to the Dark Night of the Soul, a treatise by shoeless and imprisoned Saint John of the Cross on the perfection of love and his poem Dark Night. That work is the fourth part of his Ascent of Mount Carmel, and similarly Finnegans Wake as a whole is a separate elaboration of Vico’s cycle through the nightly unrest of dream. As history courses like the rise, glory, and descent of the sun each day, an individual recourse occurs at night. The language of the book reflects this period of transition from — the flux between — decadence and a new beginning. There is a Vico road in Dalkey, a southern coastal suburb of Dublin.

Death and Rebirth

Joyce once imagined his book as the dead giant Finn Mac Cool lying by the Liffey (where swam the salmon, his totem animal) watching history — his and the world’s, the past and the future — flowing through him. This life-in-death dream becomes a sacramental process of rebirth. At Finnegan’s wake, Finnegans wake.

One should also remember that Joyce nearly joined the Jesuits, and that the Christian ceremonial cycle continued to shape his imagination. The mystery of the trinity, for example, three persons (multiplicity) representing unity, is very much in the spirit of Finnegans Wake. At its best, Christianity has been a great syncretizer and humanizer of older myths. For example, the stations of the cross represent a sacrifice ritual in terms of a human procession, the paschal drama of the rise and fall and rise again of human history. At its worst, it is a great beast devouring, Shaun-like, everything before it in the name of salvation after death.

The Christian sacramental meal, the eucharist, the host, is often present. Hoc est corpus (“This is the body”) is another manifestation of HCE (“Here Comes Everybody”; but also High Church of England). As host (“victim” in Latin) at his pub, HCE serves and is mocked by his 12 customers. In Vico, the earlier meaning of host is alien, thief, violator of the clearing — an enemy of the people who is sacrificed in their name. The first cities were identified with the altars that were in the fields, where, for example, Cain slew the more primitive Abel and Romulus slew Remus who jumped over the just-plowed boundaries. It is alienated Hosty who writes “The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly” (pp. 44–47) against the outsider HCE.

Vico called the course of nations a history of piety, and in their recourse they were guided by Christianity, a more human religion. For Joyce, Christianity is more prominent than other religious and mythological systems because it is the one he knew intimately. But the eucharistic meal — the renewing sacrifice — fits the pattern described in James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough of killing and eating a divine king. And it is connected with the Jewish feast of tabernacles, or Succoth, as a turning of the year. Although it is now only theater, the original barbaric act (“He’ll want all his fury gutmurdherers to redress him.” (p. 617)) still erupts into history and continues to reverberate in the human unconscious.


My use of the term is not philosophically rigorous, but Vico and Giordano are important also as humanists. Giordano’s love of God was such that he loved nature as it is. He showed that the infinitude of the divine is within every element and creature of nature and every human being. Vico showed that history was not a matter of destiny or fate, but the operation of divine providence in the human mind; he insisted that “the world of civil society has certainly been made by men, and that its principles are therefore to be found within the modifications of our own human mind.”