David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: finnegans wake (page 2 of 5)

Blumenberg on Significance and Fiction

Significance [Bedeutsamkeit] can exceed what is aesthetically permissiblre. The Dane Oehlenschlaeger was a nonparticipant observer at the battle of Jena. He tends toward ironical distance and he knows that he can also presuppose this as Goethe’s private attitude. He writes to Goethe on September 4, 1808, from Tuebingen, about the plan of a novel and his fear that the result would unintentionally be a description of his own life; and one would not be permitted to make that even as good as it was in reality. There is no feeling, he says, more peculiar than the feeling that one must place what occurs in real life above poetry, even though the role of poetry is to represent “the ideal concentrated beauty and meaningful content of life.” This particular feeling has never been stronger for him “than when I read Smollett’s Peregrine Pickle in Weimar while the French were winning the battle at Jena and capturing the town.” It is the problem of aesthetic probability: Fiction cannot allow itself the significance that reality portrays without losing credibility.

Work on Myth, Ch. 3

“Significance” here is used in the sense coined by Dilthey: a human- and/or historically-given importance over and above anything that can be gleaned from the baseline reality of the natural world. I get more from this passage than from all the heat currently being spilled over Reality Hunger (really now, did it need such marquee reviews?). For someone like me who’s always bothered by the problem of what’s effective and what’s not in creative writing, this passage doesn’t quite give a heuristic, but it does concisely point out one crucial problem: the artist’s struggle to break free of the mundane details of the world in order to isolate what is important, while not going too far and making the work contrived and overblown. In other words, too much meaningfulness, too much significance, breeds artificiality, further from an ideal of beauty than the raw material composing it. But in times of (mutually agreed-upon) massive human change, significance smacks us in the face and the intensity of it is beyond what a writer can conjure up except by indirection (the Romantic’s technique, evoking abstract greatness out of sensory particulars). We may not know the immediate significance of a war or a crisis, but we know that it is significant and must be addressed and understood post-haste. Creativity suddenly seems secondary, while people are absorbed in the seemingly prima facie meaning of the present. (It’s not actually prima facie, but the collective delusion is very strong.) Historical fiction is one compromise used to get around this problem; another is to create really large works of art, in order to smooth over the seams of contrivance with added lesser detail. Or you can go the route of Borges and admit to the contrivance and claim to dwell in the realm of imagination rather than reality. All of these are mitigating techniques, however, not solutions.

There is something to the reality-focus idea, however. With the advent of the internet, the strangest and rarest circumstances can float to notice far more easily than in the past, when newspapers had to resort to making up stories to keep people’s interest. (What’s FML other than a vehicle for condensing and aggregating significance?) It doesn’t make imagination redundant (quite the opposite), but it does seem to be challenging a lot of fiction writers to come up with increasingly grandiose or grotesque scenarios in order to keep pace with the constant stream of significant moments now being shoved in our faces. Significance and meaning randomize rather than orient, and they do so with ultimately trivial mechanisms: crazy stories and inspiring tales, rather than wars and crises. The balance of significance in art and the world has been thrown off. Imagination gives way to mere imitation.

Blumenberg spends a lot of time in this chapter on Joyce, and though I think he’s off-base on his interpretation of Ulysses (more on this later), he does correctly point it out as a case where significance and mundanity are made to collide in constant and violent ways. I think Joyce’s ability to occupy these tensions and contradictions and produce something worth out of them is unmatched. Finnegans Wake achieves the same thing at the historical level rather than the personal, and Blumenberg is dead on there. Again, this will be dealt with in the next post.

Joyce and the Past

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.

Ulysses I.2

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.
— Zinzin.
— 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 !
— Zinzin.
— 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!
— Zinzin.

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.

Atherton on Finnegans Wake and Giordano Bruno

One of the best books on Finnegans Wake, William Atherton’s The Books at the Wake, has just been republished, and I’d recommend it to anyone trying to get a basic grip on the text. But I quote him here for the Brunian synopsis he gives early on, which follows nicely from Blumenberg:

There was a medieval theory that God composed two scriptures: the first was the universe which he created after having conceived the idea of it complete and flawless in his mind; the second was the Holy Bible. What Joyce is attempting in Finnegans Wake is nothing less than to create a third scripture, the sacred book of the night, revealing the microcosm which he had already conceived in his mind. And as the phenomenal universe is build upon certain fundamental laws which it is the task of science and philosophy to discover, so the microcosm of Finnegans Wake is constructed according to certain fundamental axioms for which Joyce is careful to provide clues, but which it is the task of his readers to discover for themselves.

And one of the sources of these axioms is Bruno:

Probably Joyce was first attracted to him as a self-confessed ‘Restless spirit that overturns the structure of sound discipline’ and as a heretic who was burned to death. But he is not likely to have read his work very thoroughly for Bruno is one of the most verbose of all writers and on one occasion takes a page to say that he himself, Il Nolano, calls things by their right names: Chiama il pane pane, il vino vino, il capo capo, il piede piede… and so on to say that ‘He calls bread bread, wine wine, a head a head, a foot a foot’ until he has given nearly a hundred examples of his own virtue in calling things by their right names…[Joyce] seems to have found his style irritating on a second reading, and appears to be parodying the passage I have just quoted in ‘did not say to the old old, did not say to the scorbutic, scorbutic’ (136.10).

I like Bruno’s proof of proper use of language. Talk about self-assertion! But isn’t this part of the problem with setting up the duality of law and reality?

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.

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.

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