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The Linear and the Circular in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake

James Joyce made the superimposition of conflicting patterns one of the central principles of both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. (You can see it in Portrait as well, but nowhere near to the extent.) While he drew on Dante’s schematic cosmology as a model for organizing huge and diverse amounts of material, he drew from Shakespeare the notion that uncertainty, indeterminacy, and outright contradiction could give immense strength and depth to the effect of a work on readers.

Unlike Shakespeare, Joyce could not hide his life from his readers. People were now far more interested in the life of the artist, and documentation was too easily had. But rather than trying to mask his intentions, he could overload a work with as many conflicting and indeterminate moments, motifs, and significations as possible. Schemata that came to mind after the basic construction of a work, like the infamous Ulysses schema that Joyce gave to Stuart Gilbert that has held too much sway ever since, were just additional bricks to add to the consternating edifice. (Note the somewhat variable Linati schema.)

This gave rise to the peculiar modern criticism that Joyce does not say anything. Harry Levin was both perceptive and naive in 1939 when he reviewed Finnegans Wake and said:

Among the acknowledged masters of English—and there can be no further delay in acknowledging that Joyce is among the greatest—there is no one with so much to express and so little to say. Whatever is capable of being sounded or enunciated will find its echo in Joyce’s writing; he alludes glibly and impartially to such concerns as left-wing literature (116), Whitman and democracy (263), the ‘braintrust’ (529), ‘Nazi’ (375), ‘Gestapo’ (332), ‘Soviet’ (414), and the sickle and the hammer (341). The sounds are heard, the names are called, the phrases are invoked; but the rest is silence. The detachment which can look upon the conflicts of civilization as so many competing vocables is wonderful and terrifying. Sooner or later, however, it gives a prejudiced reader the uncanny sensation of trying to carry on a conversation with an omniscient parrot.

Harry Levin, “On First Looking into Finnegans Wake” (1939)

The rest is anything but silence. Joyce was aware of the implications of all of these terms (and was hardly impartial about them). He created breathing space not by failing to elaborate on these terms, but by invoking as many associations with them as possible, fully aware of their contradictions.

This sort of technique agglomerates into daunting complexity, but I don’t think the method is meant to complex, nor did Joyce intend it to be. It doesn’t need to be complex for striking effect. One very central opposition/superimposition is the idea of linear and circular motion. Joyce conflates the two very frequently in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. The very basis of Ulysses, a single day, is a canonical example: at the end of the day, one cyclically returns to where one started, while having progressed linearly to a new day. Likewise, Odysseus returned home on a circular journey while experiencing the linear movement of plot. Very simple.

But Joyce also applies the device repeatedly at a lower level. (I hesitate to use the dread word fractal, but it’s appropriate in this case.) The novel is constructed in a symmetrical form: 3 chapters, then 12 chapters, then 3 chapters. Yet the mapping of the styles individual chapters in the first and final sections is not done in reflection:

  • Chapters 1 and 16 (Telemachus and Eumaeus): third-person narration.
  • Chapters 2 and 17 (Nestor and Ithaca): interrogative dialogue.
  • Chapters 3 and 18 (Proteus and Penelope): first-person interior monologue.

And yet chapter 1 was given the sobriquet “Telemachus” rather than chapter 3, which would make more sense given this parallel, as Stephen is Telemachus and Molly is Penelope. But it would wreck the larger symmetry of having a book called Ulysses that begins with Telemachus and ends with Penelope. Joyce had no problem with breaking patterns for the sake of establishing other patterns.

Likewise, the middle 12 chapters divide into sets of 3, with every third chapter (6, 9, 12, 15–Hades, Scylla and Charybdis, Cyclops, Circe) having a Big Plot Event, conflict, or climax relative to the remaining, somewhat more subdued chapters, even as the style and material of the chapters is continually progressing into new and generally more abstruse territory. The “squaring of the circle” theme that preoccupies Bloom is also a reflection of how the linear is coextant with the cyclical, but not identical. There are many, many other instances.

And I think that this fundamental overlay of linear and cyclical remains, more or less unaltered, in Finnegans Wake. I believe it to have been a fundamental component of Joyce’s metaphysics and cosmology, and I believe that Vico was primarily a way for Joyce to obtain a central cyclical structure for history. Richard Ellmann quotes Joyce as saying, when asked if he believed in Vico’s New Science, “I don’t believe in any science, but my imagination grows when I read Vico as it doesn’t when I read Freud or Jung.” The content of Vico’s cycle, while useful, was less crucial than its form.

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's Diagram of Finnegans Wake (1946)

But even though Joyce gave Finnegans Wake a clear cyclical structure by having its first sentence complete its final sentence, the linearity is there everywhere as well, from Jaun’s evolution, journey, and quest narrative in the third part to the very process of children growing up and defeating/killing/usurping their father. The one-way journey from birth to death, from child to adult, is neither trumped nor negated by a cyclical view of history. (Perhaps it’s only in infinity that endless similar recurrences of a process can result in occasional identical instantiations of that cycle; again, think of the squaring of the circle, which would only be possible in infinity.) If the cyclical aspect seems overly pronounced at times, it’s only because the linear aspect is so often the default.

The timescale of the book works similarly. Two of the timescales in the Wake is from 6pm to 6am and sunset to sunrise. Sunset and sunrise are mirror reflections in time and in space, but the sun’s one-way motion across the sky accounts for it rising in the east and setting in the west, it having made a reverse journey to return to its place of origin while maintaining forward motion, by virtue of the extra dimension. The half-revolution of the Earth covered by this time period covers exactly half the journey, 180 degrees, from one linear extreme to the opposite, before reversal toward the point of origin begins.

Joyce also used the Egyptian Book of the Dead as a foundational text for Finnegans Wake, and Egyptian mythology has a near-perfect analogy for this process. In Egyptian mythology, Ra the sun god dies at the end of each day in the west and makes a journey through the underworld each night to return to the east, where he is reborn. (He makes the journeys on boats, no less, allowing for Joyce to fit in the female aspect as the water.) This fits uncannily with Joyce’s ever-reborn masculine, eternal feminine, and the identification of the day-night cycle with that of life and death, rise and fall, civilization and breakdown.

The motion motifs pile up to immense complication, since Joyce works this superimposition in at many levels. One combination of circular and linear motion then becomes part of a larger series of circular and linear motions which can reflect, mirror, or reiterate the original combination; and so on and so forth. Joyce makes much hay of reflection, mirrors, symmetry and asymmetry, twins and opposites, and so on.

Appreciating this complexity does not require seeing all these superimpositions or even most of them. Joyce knew this would be impossible for a reader or even a group of readers, so he chose an approach that would demonstrate this near-infinity of superimpositions through a fundamentally simple method that could organically grow into immense complexity. This creates the secular sense of awe that Joyce inspires in me. I see it as Joyce’s ultimate expression of the attempt to comprehend the metaphysical infinite with the finite resources of the mind and portray it in art.

Richard Ellmann, in his biography of Joyce, quotes a passage of Benedetto Croce, which Joyce had certainly read, that is quite apt:

Croce’s restatement of Vico, ‘Man creates the human world, creates it by transforming himself into the facts of society: by thinking it he re-creates his own creations traverses over again the paths he has already traversed, reconstructs the whole ideally, and thus knows it with full and true knowledge,’ is echoed in Stephen’s remark in Ulysses, ‘What went forth to the ends of the world to traverse not itself. God, the sun, Shakespeare, a commercial traveller, having itself traversed in reality itself, becomes that self…. Self which it itself was ineluctably preconditioned to become. Ecco!

Michael Rosen on Derrida

From Leiter’s blog, Michael Rosen (who wrote the excellent On Voluntary Servitude, a book I would write about if it weren’t so dense that it’d require a huge amount of time to treat it) talks about academic strategies:

Ephraim Kishon has a story called “Jewish Poker”. Jewish poker is played without cards so all you can do is bluff – and you have to bluff high. I think that this is the secret of Derridean post-modernism as currently practised in U.S. humanities departments: in the end, it’s all competitive hyperbole – who can be more radical?

Someone starts off with a huge unsupported generalization. For example, they write a book saying that the whole of Western thought is under the hegemony (good word) of (say) “logocentrism”, that its genealogy has to be exposed and deconstructed to reveal the Other that it “covers over and disavows”.

That’s a high bid, but you can top that. Why not write a review saying that this is to give “the Other” a “hegemonic status”, that this too needs to be deconstructed and given a genealogy? Say that the re-valuation of values hasn’t been radical enough, that “the Nietzschean trans-valuation is far from being complete: in its second stage, at the threshold of which we find ourselves today, it will necessitate a de-hierarchization of the already inverted values, so that alterity, too, would lose its newly acquired transcendental status, just as sameness and identity did in twentieth-century thought.”

Of course, tone and style matter. Although you’ve left banalities like “sameness and identity” (and hence, presumably, essence, cause and logical inference) far behind, don’t hesitate to use terms like “necessitate” for the ideas you are advocating, or (although you don’t believe in such fetishes as truth in interpretation) to describe others’ interpretations as “deeply flawed”. To think that once you’ve toppled the idols of objectivity you can’t write as if they were still standing is a sign of hopeless logocentrism.

It’s good too to write as if your native language isn’t English, or that, at least, your English has been saturated by what you’ve absorbed in your many years on the *rive gauche*. A nice Derridean-Althusserian touch here (see Judith Butler, *passim*) is the spurious use of the term “precisely” when you make an especially vague assertion (“The promise of deconstruction lies, precisely, in its ability to inspire this post-metaphysical thrust ‘beyond the same and the other.’”) Introducing your sentences with pompous phrases like “Let us note that …” may not add anything of substance to them but it does convey the impression that you are addressing your audience from a position of authority (a podium at the École Normale?). Above all, the secret is to convince people that you are further up the mountain than everyone else and looking down on them. Writing in this condescending way won’t make you popular, no doubt, but what the hell – oderint dum metuant!

Where will it all end? Presumably, this too can be out-bid – perhaps someone else will come along and offer a genealogy of deconstruction or a deconstruction of genealogy. There doesn’t seem to be any limit to how many iterations the transvaluation of valuations can go through. Yet there must – surely – come a point where the whole thing vanishes up its own …

But what to do until that happy day? Certainly, it is heart-breaking for those of us who would like Continental philosophy to be taken more seriously, but how do you argue with people for whom “reason” and “argument” (like “sameness” and “identity”) are simply terms in a “hegemonic discourse” they have left behind? And, if they can shrug off the Sokal hoax and take Alain Badiou seriously, they are obviously past being laughed back into sanity by a sense of the absurd. So I think that all the rest of us can do is to keep out of their way and leave them to patronize one another to their hearts’ content.

Michael Rosen

Rosen and Leiter edited the Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy, and seem to be part of a vague movement afoot among Anglo philosophers to write about Continental theorists in comparatively clear and methodical ways. I have a fair bit of sympathy with this movement. One of the ongoing debates, though, is which of the theorists are irredeemable. Here’s how the categories seem to be shaking out, from my perspective. (I could be wrong about any of these; this is just a general impression and not reflective of the views of any single person.)

Solid: Herder, Hegel, Marx, Peirce, Dilthey, Nietzsche, Husserl, Adorno, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Habermas

Sketchy: Heidegger, Gadamer, Foucault, Kuhn, Deleuze

Fraudulent: Derrida, Levinas, Althusser, Badiou, Zizek

Given this arrangement, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more attention paid to Vico, Cassirer, Ricoeur, and Apel, but perhaps in time, just as Herder seems just now to be having a renaissance.

I’ll have my own say on Derrida and phenomenology shortly….

Blumenberg’s Metaphorology

Two new Hans Blumenberg books are out in English translation, both short: Paradigms for a Metaphorology (and Care Crosses the River (1987). The second one is more aphoristic than anything else I’ve read by him and seems very mysterious at first glance (Stanford’s back-cover comment about how this book “eschews academic ponderousness” is probably not going to help capture the audience they desire). Metaphorolgy is dauntingly abstract but less abstruse, though I’m surprised exactly how much Blumenberg had worked out aspects of his “system” at this early point. This paragraph in particular, from the introduction, seems to be as concise a statement of his concerns as any:

These historical remarks on the ‘concealment’ of metaphor lead us to the fundamental question of the conditions under which metaphors can claim legitimacy in philosophical language. Metaphors can first of all be leftover elements, rudiments on the path from mythos to logos; as such, they indicate the Cartesian provisionality of the historical situation in which philosophy finds itself at any given time, measured against the regulative ideality of the pure logos. Metaphorology would here be a critical reflection charged with unmasking and counteracting the inauthenticity of figurative speech. But metaphors can also–hypothetically, for the time being–be foundational elements of philosophical language, ‘translations’ that resist being converted back into authenticity and logicality. If it could be shown that such translations, which would have to be called ‘absolute metaphors’, exist, then one of the essential tasks of conceptual history (in the thus expanded sense) would be to ascertain and analyze their conceptually irredeemable expressive function. Furthermore, the evidence of absolute metaphors would make the rudimentary metaphors mentioned above appear in a different light, since the Cartesian teleology of logicization in the context of which they were identified as ‘leftover elements’ in the first place would already have foundered on the existence of absolute translations. Here the presumed equivalence of figurative and ‘inauthentic’ speech proves questionable; Vico had already declared metaphorical language to be no less ‘proper’ than the language commonly held to be such, only lapsing into the Cartesian schema in reserving the language of fantasy for an earlier historical epoch. Evidence of absolute metaphors would force us to reconsider the relationship between logos and the imagination. The realm of the imagination could no longer be regarded solely as the substrate for transformations into conceptuality–on the assumption that each element could be processed and converted in turn, so to speak, until the supply of images was used up–but as a catalytic sphere from which the universe of concepts continually renews itself, without thereby converting and exhausting this founding reserve.

Remember, Blumenberg thinks of Descartes (at least in Legitimacy of the Modern Age) as a somewhat reactionary thinker who ignores the experimental and proto-scientific mindset of Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno in order to think of the world as a rarefied, perfect realm of method. He’s not the caricature that so many contemporary theorists use to trash the entirety of modernity, but a philosopher who seeks refuge in a form of theological thought that had already broken down, Scholasticism. So here, I think, Blumenberg projects mythology and irreducible metaphors as ‘leftover’ aspects of the world that prevent Descartes’ absolutist thought from fully encompassing it. And the more fundamental the metaphors are, the more important the historicism becomes.

Anyway, I find it rough-going.

Care Crosses the River does have a nice little write-up of the infamous meeting between Joyce and Proust, which Tim Kreider dramatized in The Comics Journal [click to enlarge]:

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.

More Books on the (Finnegans) Wake

Finishing up a few more sources from last time. Personally speaking, I enjoy reading books on Joyce more than on most authors, because of the sense of the shared quest to unearth sedimentary layer after layer and the willingness of scholars to lean on one another in doing so.

Joyce-again’s Wake, Bernard Benstock. Invaluable for the outline Benstock gives, which is useful in carving up the monolithic chapters of the Wake into more manageable chunks. It also contains a fantastic analysis of the Prankquean fable located on pages 21-23. The rest of the book both summarizes previous scholarship and elaborates on it in a rather freewheeling fashion. There’s plenty of good stuff, but Benstock sometimes is too exclusive about his readings, and I read them with more salt than I did Hart or Atherton. On Issy, the topic I researched, I disagree with him.

A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake, William York Tindall. I confess I did not find this book all that useful. Like Blamires’ Bloomsday Book, it explicates the Wake page by page. Unfortunately, what’s left out is far greater than what remains, and Tindall often makes controversial interpretations without appearing to do so. It’s less of a problem in Blamires because the narrative of Ulysses is reasonably uncontroversial, but since narrative in Finnegans Wake emerges from linguistic confusion and contradiction, Tindall’s approach makes the Wake appear smaller than it is.

Third Census of Finnegans Wake, Adaline Glasheen. The exact opposite of Tindall’s book, this is nothing more and nothing less than a catalogue of all the proper names in the Wake that Glasheen could identify. (It also includes another summary with, as is to be expected, some contentious interpretations.) Glasheen’s list of references is exhausting, if not exhaustive, and while I wouldn’t recommend the book to neophytes (such as myself), I’m sure it’s incessantly useful in generating ideas when analyzing passages. It poses thousands of questions along the lines of, “Why did Joyce connect person X with person Y?”

Joyce’s Book of the Dark, John Bishop. This book probably deserves its own entry. While schooled in the above traditions of Wake scholarship, Bishop goes in another direction entirely, focusing on Joyce’s linguistic methods as theme, particularly as they relate to sleep, the body, and the five senses. Bishop is fond of making extremely short citations and combining them from all over the Wake in close succession, which emphasizes Joyce’s sea of language while downplaying any potential linear continuity. Bishop also analyzes two key mythologies that influenced the Wake, the Egyptian Book of the Dead and Vico’s New Science, but his interpretations are highly heterodox and not especially structural. Consequently, Bishop has the effect of making Finnegans Wake seem even weirder than the other books make it out to be. I recommend the book, with the proviso that it may leave you, as it implies, in the dark.

Finding a Replacement for the Soul, Brett Bourbon. I wrote on this book last year, and while it is not exclusively concerned with the Wake, it invokes Finnegans Wake as a central example for Bourbon’s non-propositional view of fiction. Bourbon, I believe, was a student of Bishop and locates Bishop’s nighttime uncertainty in the processes of language itself, taking Bishop’s argument even farther. Not an exegesis of Finnegans Wake, but a reflection on what the Wake says (or shows) about readers and reading.

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