David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Finnegans Wake: The Book of Lists

Since I was just talking about ecumenicality, I thought it would be good to return to the king of consubstantiality himself, James Joyce. Consubstantiality is an archetypal example of Joyce secularizing his Catholic influences. The Trinity are one substance in three persons, as much as instantiations of interpretation are present in a single substance of the underlying text. Hence, we read out of a text as much as we read into it, and I gather that Joyce so liked this idea that he sought to reject the finality of any single interpretation.

For all of Joyce’s constructivist instincts, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake both take pains not to display their architecture in miniature. The famous Ulysses schema Joyce gave to Stuart Gilbert has served as a misleading guidepost ever since it was published, since Joyce made alterations in versions he gave to others, and there is a ex post facto feeling to the whole affair that suggests it only tells a part of the story, or perhaps too much of it.

What Joyce does give, in copious quantity, is lists. Finnegans Wake can be irritating in that Joyce uses lists in two overlapping manners, neither of which serve to advance the overall architecture of the book:

  1. Lists are given to restate with variation a central element or elements.
  2. Lists are given to multiply possible interpretations and actions, both in number and in contradiction.

Joyce does not particularly differentiate between these two tactics, and wading through sometimes exhausting lists of river names (for example) that seem to be adding nothing can feel like trudging through molasses. Alas, there’s no getting around it; the technique is so ubiquitous that you have to approach it as with most things in the Wake, at the figurative limit.

Joyce gives a significant clue early on with the placement and content of the three largest lists. All three are miniatures are the content of their chapters, and all three concern themselves with a single central element. (Quick key: HCE is the father and husband, ALP the mother and wife, Shem and Shaun their twin boys.)

  1. Abusive Names Directed Towards HCE (pages 71-72, I.3)
  2. Colloquial Names Given To ALP’s “Untitled Mamafesta” (pages 104-107, I.5)
  3. Descriptions of HCE (pages 126-139, I.6)

The last one in particular is a real monster, thirteen pages of descriptive clause after clause with no apparent organization or continuity. It’s also the odd one out because while I.3 discusses the gossip around HCE’s purported (but highly doubtful) crimes and I.5 concerns itself explicitly with the physical aspects of ALP’s letter, I.6 is a Q&A between Shem and Shaun about all of the main character sigla of the Wake, from the family members to the old men to the citizens to the book itself. So I’ll leave the monster for last.

The abusive names are comparatively straightforward, a series of accusations in keeping with the general thrust of the chapter. The names, though, slip away from concerning HCE the publican and towards the realm of the wholly universal and arbitrary (“Lycanthrope”? “Sower Rapes”?), and ending with these three: “In Custody of the Polis,” suggesting HCE as both custodian of the city (he is the builder of Dublin and all cities) and being “in custody” of the city (under accusation and buried under the landscape where he sleeps); “Boawwll’s Alocutionist” sounds like “false accusationist” to me, HCE both as the victim and (self-)accuser of neurotic, imagined crimes; and “Deposed,” his ultimate fate of being conquered by his children. But the rest are so reference-laden as to defy easy assimilation, seemingly the residue of past actions and stories only hinted at by these names.

ALP’s letter (which is, at the least consubstantial with the Wake itself) carries colloquial names that are often these stories themselves. Rather than describing a single person’s characteristic or action, these titles often provide backstory, explanations, or motives, in keeping with ALP’s motive to defend her husband from the accusations leveled at him. So we get things like “Look to the Lady” (from MacBeth), “For [Noah’s] Ark see Zoo” (the saved animals now imprisoned), “Lumptytumtumpty had a Big Fall” (that would be HCE as Humpty Dumpty, as he is frequently), “How to Pull a Good Horuscoup even when Oldsire is Dead to the World” (fathers and sons in Egyptian mythology), etc. Only at the end does she explicitly address his purported crimes in a burst of defensive rhetoric about false accusations.

The third list, Shem’s enormous question, becomes partly a statement of filial piety. Not merely providing explanations as the names of ALP’s letter did, here HCE grows in his descriptions to full stature: he is the builder of cities, Adam Cadmon who was first and equal to God, Odysseus, St. Paul, every historical father figure of old. There is no defense in here, nor are there many crimes (there are probably a few in there somewhere…); it is a list of salutation and accomplishment. The speaker and respondent will be the ultimate destroyers of HCE later on, but here in nascent form prior to the proper start of the story (or after the end), they are sons under the sign of their father.

More than concerning their chapter’s contents, all the lists are about HCE in one form or another. They all serve to remove the traditional narrative and present many narratives quickly in no clear order. These progress from the vague accusations of I.3 to the defenses of I.5 and finally to the myths of I.6. Where it all is meaning to go, I can’t really say, but here is one interpretation.

HCE, as the builder and burgher of the city/polis, is strongly identified with the city, which contains all good and all bad in the modern world (“Dear Dirty Dublin” is the common refrain). As HCE and
ALP encompass myriad men and women respectively, so too does the city,
with its accomplishments and filth. The lists are a portrait, appearing as they do in the most spatial, non-temporal section of the novel. (Books II and III are far more narrative than Book I.) Moreover, they are a panorama and mosaic, an array of single shots from different points of view arranged cubist-style (hermetic cubism, I’d say). It extends the consubstantiality analogy into the realm of the visual, and then back into thematic elements, as the city is life itself. The lists are there because on this level, Finnegans Wake is meant as an encyclopedia as much as a narrative. To read it as a narrative and not be constantly reminded of its endlessly multiplicative nature would be to miss the point.

1 Comment

  1. I think you need to address the source of J’s lists, which, despite everything he says, is of course Rabelais–whose use of lists Michael Heath calls a “rhetorical figure so static as to threaten the death of narration”. There is also, perhaps, the cabbalistic-permutative aspect, also seen in another of your favourites, “Watt”.

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