Donald Philip Verene: Knowledge of Things Actual And Divine

I would feel a lot better about this book if it lost its subtitle. The full title is Knowledge of Things Actual And Divine: Vico’s New Science and Finnegans Wake, but this book is an exegesis on Vico with some Joycean flavoring. To the best of my knowledge, an extensive investigation into Vico’s presence in Finnegans Wake and its parallels with Vico’s philosophy has yet to be written. (Atherton’s book is the best treatment I know of. Campbell and Robinson give it a go but their analysis is tenuous.) Indeed, Verene complains that Joyce scholars know little of Vico. Since I know little of Vico, I thought I would apply what I learned from the book to the Wake. As for Vico himself, Verene only strengthens my conviction that Vico was an esoteric genius far ahead of his time, and had he been German, he would have stolen a good deal of thunder from Hegel. And I have great respect for the historicist thinkers that followed and paid tribute to him last century: Croce, Cassirer, Collingwood, and so on.

Verene does make some observations on the Wake, but these fall prey to the problems of making any decisive interpretation of Finnegans Wake. Early on he says, “Vico is the protagonist of Finnegans Wake. He is Earwicker.” The problem is not so much that this statement is wrong is that it is incomplete. Verene marshals many textual references conflating Vico with male archetype HCE, but Vico is no more the protagonist than Adam, Humpty Dumpty, Dublin, Finn MacCool, or some Irish pub owner. Verene analyzes Vico’s life in terms of a series of “falls,” and here he is on solid ground in equating Vico’s clap of thunder with the thunderwords of the fall that occur periodically in the Wake, but the problem is that the Wake always outsizes any interpretation because there is always such a huge remainder, and so declaring Vico the protagonist is ultimately, I think, wrongheaded. And I take issue with Verene’s claim that “Shem, like a forger, moves around a lot, but Shaun, like a post, occupies set positions and talks of past and future.” While Shem is a more slippery character than Shaun, it is Shaun who sets out on the quest in the third book of the Wake, and it is he who is the deliverer of ALP’s letter which Shem has transcribed. Again, it is not so much that such claims are wrong as much as that they need far more elaboration. So it’s best to see the book as using Joyce as a tool to conceptualize Vico’s life and work.

And on Vico, there is much of interest to Wake scholars. I’ll enumerate a few points that gave me insight into the structure of Joyce’s nightmare book. Two cycles are commonly cited as the basis for the Wake’s structure: Vico and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. But the three large books of the Wake do not clearly map onto the three ages of Vico’s New Science (divine, heroic, and human), though the final, short section does read as a recorso, restarting the book. Without elaborating on these matters, Verene still gives much evidence to contribute to the parallel. In particular, I was fascinated by the elaboration on Vico’s three languages, from the mute language of the divine to the verbal language of humanity:

The verb introduces time, and things can no longer be what they
are; their meanings can no longer just be mute. What is mute has being. It is
not transposed in time. The mute meaning is the denial of time. Like the ritual,
it takes us to the origin and stops time. The mute gesture is a ritual in brief. We
are back where the gods were.

Mapping the ages onto the Wake, this strongly parallels the curiously static character of the first book, which spends more time making lists and describing history than it does having anything actually happen. If the divine is a state of pure mute ritual language, then the non-narrative descriptions of the first book of the Wake fit well with Vico’s divine age.

Likewise, there is much to connect the second book with Vico’s seventh oration, which discusses education its goal of producing “the heroic mind:”

The ideal of ‘‘heroic mind’’ for Vico involves three things: all branches of
knowledge must be studied and put together; the human mind is divine and in
its activity of learning reaches God the creator in an attempt to make itself
whole; and the acquisition of knowledge, when rightly practiced, leads the
individual toward virtue and the good.

One crux of the second book of the Wake is the children learning about adult sexuality via the fall of man and forbidden knowledge. Joyce perverts the idea of education significantly, but it is still this education, and this very fall, that enables the maturation of the children and the eventual overthrow of the parents (who could be likened to gods themselves). That, in turn, leads to this passage of Vico’s:

Knowledge of the corrupt nature of man invites the
study of the entire universe of liberal arts and sciences, and sets forth the
correct method by which to learn them (125).

Which is to say, the fall is that which engenders knowledge and progress, and following on from that, the flowing of time itself. Joyce is perhaps more fatalistic than Vico in that he sees nothing but the endless battle of son against father and brother against brother, and little to be learned from it, but more significantly, Joyce renders this knowledge wholly physical and bodily, downplaying if not eliminating theology, philosophy, and eschatology. See also the mysterious fight between Berkeley and Patrick in Book IV, which may suggest that Joyce is neither a materialist nor an idealist, but merely a monist (or a this-ist, focused wholly on the world at hand). The exact relation of Joyce’s stance to Vico’s emphasis on the irreducibility of the real/mythic to abstraction is something I’m still puzzling over.

This is only the barest start. I haven’t even touched on how Vico’s conceptualization of language might relate to the linguistic apparatus of the Wake, as it’s simply too huge a topic to chance saying anything about. Verene’s book reminds me that I really do need to read The New Science from cover to cover, so that I can come back and say more insightful things about Verene’s book and Vico. And it reminds me how fantastic Finnegans Wake is underneath all the verbal impenetrability, as one of the greatest portrayals of human history in literature.

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