David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

What’s Missing from Finnegans Wake

Finnegans Wake has so many languages, so many people, so many sheer things that, although they don’t defy enumeration, they defy easy categorization. I spoke before of Joyce’s obsession with overlaying contradictory, consubstantial layers of signification and structure. But the one spot where Joyce can’t pull this trick is in omission and elision. I.e., there are certain areas which are conspicuous by their absence, or at least their relative scarcity. Here are several that were always present in my mind by dint of their absence in the text.

Homosexuality. Given Joyce’s obsessive depiction of the body and its functions, explicit homosexuality is downright marginalized in the Wake. It takes such a secondary role next to heterosexuality that one always wonders where it fits in the cosmology of the book. It is less present in the Wake than it is in both Ulysses and Portrait, where homoerotic male friendships and gender confusion both play a significant part. Shem and Shaun are brothers-in-arms in both opposition and camaraderie, but there appears to be no element of a sexual relationship between them. HCE masturbates and has his obsession with anal and urinary functions, but appears wholly heterosexual. Hints of gender confusion are present for Issy and the Tristan-Isolde pairing, but this is relegated to a pre-adult portrait of sexuality, not one of homosexuality per se. What of this marginalization? Homosexuality does not move history along by generating descendents, but as an expression of the body, I find its rarity puzzling. If I had to hazard a guess, it would be that Joyce simply did not consider homosexuality to be primary, and thought of it as merely a misdirected heterosexual urge. But surely there is more….

Eschatology. I mean this in two senses, both in the sense of general finality and of religious teleology. The absence of finality from the book is core to its structure; nothing ever ends, and nothing ever develops. History and individual human lives reiterate the same patterns and archetypes. This much is evident, but by avoiding any greater eschatology, Joyce goes after any notion of “higher purpose” that is not contained in the physical world itself. We sin and do good, we reproduce and die, but the ideas that these things have a greater meaning and we are just shadows on the wall are anathema to Joyce. The chief religious myth he uses is that of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and even there he takes from it the cycle of sun rising and setting, Osiris’s journey through the underworld to be reconstructed and resurrected, and the inexorable battle between enemies. The idea of any paradise or finality, or even the idea of eternity itself, is as nonsense in the Wake. It is a temporal sequence that can be viewed forwards and backwards, but it is always moving and always changing. One can counter that Joyce views the archetypes and repeating events as eternal, but even in their repetition, they are always changing even as they are always the same. It is Heraclitus without the logos. Needless to say, this also extends to interpretations of the Wake itself: not postponed or unstable, but merely evanescent.

Metaphysics. As with eschatology, Joyce rejects any notion that the phenomenal world may only be a representation of something greater or hidden (in the gnostic sense, for example). His epistemology is simple and uncomplicated: what you see is what you get. Nowhere does he seem to imply that what he is representing is in any way unreal or questionable. Rather, the facts of human life, suffering, and pleasure are nearly sacred to him, and I feel as though he would be offended by any attempt to dismiss them. Samsara is it.

Politics. There is a caveat here, since the details of several political struggles, especially English-Irish relations, are quite frequent in the book. But Joyce always refers to them in a near-fatalistic manner, and even when he appears to take sides, it is on the more general grounds of anti-oppression rather than nationalistic partisanship; even then, he quickly points out the massacres and crimes of both sides. Intrigues and strategy are not particularly present; violence and death are.

Introspection. Yes, the author famed for stream of consciousness has comparatively little of it here. Physical description, third-person histories, and interrogation (lots and lots of it) are the order of the day here. ALP and Issy are the only two figures given extended spots of first-person monologue, and even ALP’s monologues are often given in the form of letters containing words shaped by Shem. Her verbiage in II.2 and IV, constantly analogized as a river, is less a “stream” of consciousness than it is the stream of existence, as both are interrupted by passages that could in no way be termed stream of consciousness.

There are unities amongst these omissions, especially in the hardcore physicalism that more and more pervades my view of Joyce. It becomes easier to understand his dislike of psychology and Freud specifically. Psychology, with its normative states of neurosis, repression, and mental health, would not hold an appeal to someone who had a tendency to see everything (or nothing) as normal. Perhaps homosexuality was not so notable, nor perverse, to obtain an primary position in the schema of the Wake. But I still don’t know.

Postscript: Fritz Senn adds one very significant omission that I can’t believe I forgot: eros. As he says:

There is a lot of sexual content, for some readers there seems to be nothing else. One unfortunate result of finding something sexual in every passage is that thereby SEX is removed from the book. What I do miss, however, is anything erotic.

In my response none of the abundant parts with sexual content, or overtones (or vibrations, etc.), are erotic as something pleasant or stimulating, or cheerful.

And I would agree with him. The joyous personal sexual reveries of Stephen, Bloom, and Molly are not apparent in the Wake. My own explanation for this absence is that Joyce’s exhaustive study of sexual behavior was, by this point, at the level of anthropoligical and biological activity: primarly procreative. At the level of archetypes and history, this may have been all sex seemed to be to Joyce. Eros was too particular and personal to fit into the figures of HCE and ALP.

1 Comment

  1. Interesting, and one could suggest Finnegans Wake and all Joyce’s linguistic experiments as a flight from political turmoil into a ‘celebration’ of physicality. We’ve just had a film festival here in Melbourne with Ken Loach’s film of the Irish Civil War, – missed it so can’t comment, but I don’t think the Irish who lived through that period ever really came to terms with it. It has taken Neil Jordan, Tim Pat Coogan and others to make them face up to all that. And in a certain sense, perhaps one of the most sensitive minds ran right away.
    Won’t be reading Finnegans in a hurry all the same – Beckett’s novels are the priority at this end, so thanks for the courageous insights.

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