No-one here to hear. Tonight deftly amid wild drink and talk, to pierce the polished mail of his mind. What then? A jester at the court of his master, indulged and disesteemed, winning a clement master’s praise. Why had they chosen all that part? Not wholly for the smooth caress. For them too history was a tale like any other too often heard, their land a pawnshop.
Had Pyrrhus not fallen by a beldam’s hand in Argos or Julius Caesar not been knifed to death? They are not to be thought away. Time has branded them and fettered they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted. But can those have been possible seeing that they never were? Or was that only possible which came to pass? Weave, weaver of the wind.
This passage (ominously quoted by the Times sportswriter before he said “It is clear that the International Cricket Council (ICC) has been pondering long and fruitfully on this text from the great book”) is thought by Stephen early on in Ulysses, and I read it as one of the most evident unifying points between Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Stephen and Bloom both blatantly invoke the difficulty of accepting the past, Stephen with his “History is a nightmare…” attitude and Bloom with his entire family life and family history. (And really Stephen with his family as well, for family and death are two of the great Catholic/Platonic pillars around which Joyce’s work revolves.)
Specifically, the issue is one of accepting the erasure of possibilities and the cementing of tragedy by the passage of time. The obsession with alternate possibilities and counterfactuals embodies the otherworldly gnosticism that Joyce frequently rejects and ridicules. This passage in the second chapter is mirrored quite precisely by one from the penultimate chapter, when Bloom sadly contemplates “the irreparability of the past [and] the imprevidibility of the future” in abandoning the idea of Stephen as a surrogate son. Bloom comes to some acceptance of time’s branding. With Stephen it is less clear.
But I do think Joyce not only endorsed this acceptance but urged that the tragedy be memorialized and (secularly) sanctified. In the climatic passage of III.3 in Finnegans Wake, when the Four Old Men or whatever you want to call them excavate the mound of sleeping, dead HCE and the screams of history come pouring out, a torrent of war calls, mournings, and death:
— Crum abu! Cromwell to victory!
– We’ll gore them and gash them and gun them and gloat on them.
– O, widows and orphans, it’s the yeomen! Redshanks for ever! Up Lancs!
– The cry of the roedeer it is! The white hind. Their slots, linklink, the hound hunthorning ! Send us and peace ! Title ! Title !
– Christ in our irish times! Christ on the airs independence! Christ hold the freedman’s chareman! Christ light the dully expressed!
– Slog slagt and sluaghter! Rape the daughter! Choke the pope!
– Aure ! Cloudy father ! Unsure ! Nongood !
– Sold! I am sold! Brinabride! My ersther! My sidster! Brinabride, goodbye! Brinabride! I sold!
– Pipette dear! Us! Us! Me! Me!
– Fort! Fort! Bayroyt! March!
– Me! I’m true. True! Isolde. Pipette. My precious!
The men are senile and HCE/Shaun is sleepy or dead, so there is an elegaic quality to the chapter, but here there is no hiding the raw horror, the actual and endlessly repeated fall of man. (It’s some of the least confused verbiage in the whole book; the mysterious “Zinzin” is theorized to be the ringing of the phone that the old men are listening in on.) I read it as a codification of that which must be spoken not to be forgotten, repressed, and/or ignored, in order to speak honestly and fully of the “irreparability of the past” and not think it away.