February 19, 2012

The Dream Awakes

Finnegans Wake is the last novel written by James Joyce. After Ulysses was published in 1922, installments of Work In Progress soon began to appear, the final title being a secret between the writer and his partner, Nora Barnacle. The finished book was published in 1939, and Joyce died less than two years later, leaving a work the reading of which is still very much “in progress.”

The language of Finnegans Wake is confounding; consider, for example, “O here here how hoth sprowled met the duskt the father of fornciationists but, (O my shining stars and body!) how hath fanespanned most high heaven the skysign of soft advertisement!” The language is like that of a dream, not quite conscious or formed, shimmering with layers of possible meaning. Yet this is a return to possibility, shaped by the experiences of the world we have fallen (into sleep) from. One of the many sources Joyce drew from is the Ancient Egyptian story of Osiris, torn apart by his brother or son, Set, the pieces gathered and reassembled by his sister or wife, Isis, and their other brother or son, Horus, slaying Set, allowing Horus to rise as the new day’s sun. So in Finnegans Wake, we have fragments and allusions and confusing messages that the reader must, like Isis, put together into a recognizable form.

The book begins with the fall of Finnegan, a hod carrier, from a scaffold. At his wake, in keeping with the American vaudeville song, “Finnegan’s Wake,” a fight breaks out, whiskey splashes on Finnegan’s corpse, and he rises up again alive. But Joyce has him put back down again (“Now be aisy, good Mr Finnimore, sir. And take your laysure like a god on pension and don’t be walking abroad”). Someone else is sailing in to take over the story: Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, whose initials HCE (“Here Comes Everybody”) lend themselves to phrase after phrase throughout the book.

HCE is a foreigner and takes a native Irish wife, Anna Livia Plurabelle (whose initials ALP as well are found in phrase after phrase), and they settle down to run a public house in Chapelizod, a suburb of Dublin. HCE personifies the city of Dublin (which was founded by Vikings), and ALP personifies the Liffey river, on whose banks the city was built. Joyce universalizes his tale by making them stand as well for every city-river pair in the world. And they are, like Eve and Adam, the primeval parents of all the Irish and all humanity.

ALP and HCE have a daughter, Issy, whose person is often split, and two sons, Shem and Shaun, eternal rivals for replacing their father and for Issy’s affection (among other things). Shem and Shaun often are seen with a third fellow in which their two halves may join against HCE or in winning Issy.

A scandal in the park threatens HCE’s reputation, perhaps his life. In a midden heap, a hen named Biddy finds the letter that ALP has dictated a letter to Shem which Shaun is charged with carrying to the ruling power of the time, which may be HCE himself. It is a letter that is hoped will redeem his past, just as Finnegans Wake is a vast “comedy” that seeks to redeem human history.

The progress of the book, however, is far from simple as it draws in mythologies, theologies, mysteries, philosophies, histories, sociologies, astrologies, other fictions, alchemy, music, color, nature, sexuality, human development, and dozens of languages to create the world drama in whose cycles we live.

Wikipedia, Sept 2–13, 2002