Skip to main content

The Interpretation of Joyce

ISSUE:  Winter 1945

A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake. By Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson. Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.50.

Those who have felt the urge to read “Finnegans Wake,” but have run away from the first encounter like boys after wild honey, may now take courage. Messrs. Campbell and Robinson have worked out a method for dissecting the hive with a minimum of risk down to the very cell, so that anyone may try the sweet for what it is worth. The authors of “A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake” are modest about their accomplishment. As their title suggests, they have given in their three hundred and fifty pages only the skeleton of the structure of the book. But the lay reader who uses it is bound to have a reaction of bravado. In some respects “Finnegans Wake” turns out to be easier to read than “Ulysses.” With the exception of a handful of Russian, Sanskrit, and Gaelic terms, the foreign phrases used are within the comprehension of any reader with a moderate command of foreign languages. For the style of the novel, whatever the basic language, is grounded in popular speech, whether from the apothegms of folk tradition or from contemporary slang, and generally employs the full grammatical sentence. What, then, are the difficulties? Only the immense patience needed to keep the attention relentlessly fixed upon Joyce’s unique word formation, which is a new language in itself. But so fanatic a patience is hard to maintain as the suspicion grows that the book will not reveal meanings commensurate with the effort to translate them into comprehensible English.

The authors of the “Key” seem to a certain extent in agreement with this attitude since they have afforded virtually no translations of Joyce’s language; and those who expected from it a glossary will at first be disappointed. They do not explain, for instance, in any systematic way, that “ex-sogerraider” means both “exaggerator” and “ex-soldier-raider” or that “chalk full of master-plasters” means “chuck full of masterpieces of chalk or plaster, i.e., merely casts or fakes.” Their plan is more practical. By reproducing in the running summary of a passage the easiest of these expressions, they introduce the reader to Joyce’s way of thinking, and thus facilitate his reading for himself, if he has the time, the energy, and the growing inclination. They have realized that, once one is not reading in the dark from phrase to phrase, but has the aid of knowing the general structure of the book, the translation is bound to come easier.

“Finnegans Wake,” they tell us, illustrates in fiction the philosophy of Giambattista Vico. This Neapolitan of the early eighteenth century was the first to give a systematic exposition of the cyclic view of history. But his interpretation of it was more like the later one of Spengler than that of Marx or Hegel. His four cycles (theocratic, aristocratic, democratic, and chaotic) merely repeat themselves in new material. Human history, when viewed as a whole, shows no progress. It reveals no accumulation of truth, only the repetition of conflicts between opposites which may terminate temporarily, but are never resolved. The four cycles may represent the limited development of a certain style of personality, of thinking and acting, but one style is not better or more advanced than another, and each disappears in its turn in the endless circle of being. Thus there may be different styles of conflict between man and woman, age and youth, death and waking, love and hate; but the conflicts themselves are essentially permanent.

The authors of the “Key,” however, do not emphasize the fact that the novel elaborates the endless repetition of conflicts rather than their grouping into four cycles. It is to be inferred, nevertheless, from their division of the book not into Vico’s cycles, but into family relationships: the parents, the sons, the people, and the return to the parents. The cycles of Vico appear in what seems to me a loose parallel to these divisions. The first of them, Which presumably concerns the Finnegan material, covers ordy chapter one of the first book. But since Finnegan is a hod carrier of contemporary “democratic” Dublin, what predominates in his portrait is a class representation as though Joyce felt that the “theocratic” age survived principally among the illiterate lower classes. The greater part of book one brings forward one H. C. Earwicker, a tavern keeper of Dublin, whose spirit permeates the entire novel; and it is through this lower middle class person that the aristocratic cycle seems to get a burlesque perpetuation. Now the tavern keeper has two sons, Shem and Shaun, and the bulk of the narrative is perhaps devoted to Shaun. But the two sons do not so much represent themselves as they become involved in their father’s affairs, both as his enemies and as the repetition in a new generation of his qualities. Shem repeats his introvert and creative side and Shaun, his practical man pf the world characteristics. The book of the people also is really given over principally to three appearances of Shaun (as Shaun, Jaun, and Yawn) no longer in relation to the family, but rather to the outside world. Though the democratic period seems disintegrating into the chaotic in book three, the latter period reaches its culmination only in the short final book in which Earwicker’s wife becomes indistinguishable from the river Liffey. The novel, therefore, does not in any systematic historical way represent Vico’s four periods, but is rather limited to the democratic giving place to the chaotic. Finally, the different types of personality associated with Vico’s periods appear throughout the work. H. C. Earwicker, for instance, reappears (with (different names but the same initials) dozens of times. Though, doubtless, these reappearances can be grouped into the four types, they stress the infinite individual variations within the types, and so still further weaken any taking of the book as principally an exposition of Vico.

These compromises of Vico are the consequence of a second (and, it seems to me, a more important) level of interpretation of the book, as an illustration of the psychology of Jung. The authors of the “Key,” in their introduction, limit their, interpretation to the Viconian level, following the tendency of Joycean criticism to overstress his interest in systems of thought. Actually, he was too good and too modern a novelist to be content with writing mere allegory. He sought to humanize Vico’s abstractions, and found in Jung a method which seemed to him to avoid the necessity of sacrificing our ordinary demand for characterization. Since Jung believed that the history of the race remains as a deposit in the unconscious of each individual, to expose the unconscious of a single contemporary tavern keeper would present in acceptable fictive form the history of the race as Vico saw it, This emphasis upon the Jungian level of meaning in the novel is, in fact, the accepted one, which would make “Finnegans Wake” the complement to “Ulysses.” The structure of the two books lends plausibility to this point of view. Just as “Ulysses” gives twenty-four hours of the stream of consciousness of Simon Bloom, “Fin-negan” covers a similar interval in the life of H. C. Ear-wicker. Just as in the Nighttown climax to “Ulysses,” Bloom passes into a state of fantasy which is the equivalent of a dream state, so in “Finnegan” Earwicker almost wakes up in the least climactic passage of a book that has no climax but only innumerable moments of tension and release. Certain parallels, it is true, are unescapable. Both heroes are of the lower middle class, as though Joyce believed the transition from democracy to chaos brought the limitations of this group into the center of attention. And both works end with the dream state of a wife. But here the parallel is deceptive. The norm in “Ulysses” being the world of consciousness, Molly Bloom’s affirmation of life, her emotional tone of active hope, is only the falsehood of her dream fantasy. But the sad slow final dreaming of Anna Livia Plurabelle seems to carry the wisdom of passive acceptance of vicissitude and disappointment as the law of life, superior to both the human conscious and unconscious because it is also the wisdom of the river, the law of nature.

This beautiful final passage, then, is the consummation of the book’s meanings, and the bridge therefore to all the variety of symbolic interpretations by the way. Fortunately, it is written in a simplification of Joyce’s special diction, and may consequently perhaps receive the approval it is due. “A way a lone a last a loved a long a the” the book ends in what is also a beginning. This final sentence summarizes human existence as a series of contradictions, alone yet loved, along a way that, though long, has an end to it. But the final “the” carries like a coda back to the opening page of the novel, to symbolize the rising of life out of death like the Phoenix, the renewal of conflict after the tranquillity of chaos; just as the river Liffey, after it has reached the loss of identity in the chaos of the ocean will resume her individuality (different yet the same) as evaporation and rainfall recreate her at the source. For the individuality of the Liffey is measured by the opposition of her banks in the same way as Anna Livia is defined by her relationship to husband and children, and vice versa.

These conclusions, so emphatically championed by the tone of this last chapter, are confirmed by “Ulysses.” And, if there is any validity in invoking the psychology of Jung, a correct deduction can only be reached by taking both works as a single unit. Since Jung believed that the psyche is a composite of both conscious and unconscious, it is necessary to inquire whether the two novels representing these two aspects of the personality contradict or supplement each other. As far as philosophical meanings go, they seem supplementary. The conflicts in “Finnegan” are similar to the rivalry and indifference in personal relationships (what I have called the failure of friendship) in “Ulysses.” The father-son relationship fails for Earwicker as well as Bloom. And the apparent contradiction between Anna’s renunciation and Molly’s ecstatic “Yes” to life disappears when we see that the preceding action of “Ulysses” has already accumulated a denial of Molly’s affirmation,

This beautiful fabric of interpretation is weakened, however, by certain other factors. Molly’s “Yes,” however unrealistic, testifies to her “unconscious” belief that conflict ought not to be the law of life; and a similar belief that comradeship is a valid end men must continue to crave not only motivates Bloom’s pathetic activities, but stimulates the reader’s compassion for him. Since this novel is confined to the contemporary world, it sets up the presumption that in some other society these genuine demands of ours may be fulfilled. The minor figure of Dedalus introduces the only qualification, and affords the transition to “Finnegan.” For in Dedalus the urge is weakening before a growing acceptance of the isolation of the individual. Finnegan pushes to a culmination this disillusionment of Joyce and Dedalus. Since our own period is now recognized to be essentially similar to every other, Joyce is no longer willing to support a hope he has come to regard as wholly fantastic. A devastating cynicism of style would have followed if he had pictured other men as still seeking this unattainable end. He now disassociates both himself and his characters from such a goal. But his Irish sense of humor led him into a rejection of any overt cynicism, and provided that the book, save where Anna Livia is concerned, be read with two simultaneous levels of emotional reaction: the tone of the action of his characters which is one of cool objective description, and the tone of Joyce’s reaction to these activities, which is one of wit and humor, ranging from a delicate banter to burlesque, from the crudest nonsense to the most precise anatomy of inconsistency.

The first level he achieved by his use of the theory of the unconscious. Thus he could eliminate from his character the craving for ends and attachments which Bloom so keenly felt, the sense of free will and coherent activity which seems the very definition of the individual ego; and he could instead make our activity appear as incoherent, as automatic and impersonal, as it usually seems in dreams. Thus, perhaps, he violated his allegiance to Vico, who believed that men make their own destiny (under the illusion that they are getting somewhere). Holding no such illusion, Joyce could now depict men as acting bereft of both foresight and hindsight. Only in the Anna Livia chapter is there an exception. The river, old and near the sea, can dare to look back in a generalized way upon the uselessness of past conflict untroubled, aware of both past and present as a single whole, now that neither has any meaning in the face of death.

This change of approach to his theme is abrupt enough to disturb the symmetry of my interpretation. But there is evidence for going still further, and concluding that one part of Joyce was suspicious of all logical patterns, whether Vico’s or Jung’s. The authors of the “Key” seem to me to admit as much when they call these sentences “Joyce’s world affirmation”: “As Anna was at the beginning, lives yet, and will return, so we dream our dreams till Pappy returns; existence renewing itself. We will not say it shall not be.” I put aside the mystic naturalism which can so easily confuse the particular with the general, the eternal with the ephemeral, and Pappy with the Messiah. For the last sentence shows that we cannot take this belief any more seriously than its opposite. When Joyce dares not deny the possible validity of a belief, he is admitting that he has no criterion of evaluation, and that the dream may as plausibly be the truth as the truth a dream. But if this assertion of complete scepticism actually states Joyce’s “belief” (and I am ready to believe that it does), then the whole fairly elaborate logical structure of interpretation I have been making does not represent any ideological belief of Joyce. “Finnegan,” then, becomes only a single example of esthetic form to give pleasure, one out of countless forms that are possible and possibly true. Its contradiction would be equally possible; and the only argument against it is the psychological one, that Joyce did not choose to write it. And so, if it is permissible to make any philosophical interpretation of the book, I should prefer to regard it as only in certain of the bare bones of its structure either Viconian or Jungian, but essentially a reflection of that Hindu attitude which views life as aimless activity. Closest to the spirit of “Finnegan” are those Javanese temples (described by Keyserling) every inch of whose outer walls are sculptured until the building is a single mass of intertwined vines and living figures. But at an important point the parallel breaks. The oriental confusion is erotic, somehow comradely, where Joyce’s figures are in constant disagreement and rejection, as befits a western version.

But since the conflicts in “Finnegan” are unconscious, they are as empty of hate as of love. Once one is into the hook (and no longer looking at its structure as a whole), it sets up an uncanny remembrance of Kafka, both on the emotive and the intellectual levels. In both writers, characters seem fragmentary. They make contacts, but do not really meet. Their lives are a succession of states of immediate sensation, into which the past breaks like a startling (but in Joyce a constant) interruption. When one turns to analysis of structure, it is curious to find a letter playing the same role in both “The Castle” and “Finnegan.” It is important in the lives of the characters, yet impossible to validate or interpret. But the difference between the two books is as striking as the resemblance. Kafka and his characters, as though there were a still deeper level of the unconscious, are troubled by the elusiveness of truth, which they believe

f exists somewhere (in this respect there is u parallel with Joyce’s uneasiness at the failure of friendship in “Ulysses”), but Joyce in “Finnegan” not only takes for granted that truth is a delusion; he pokes fun at every method which seeks to validate it. If the method is philosophical, you have the burlesque of the quarrels of Catholic and Protestant theologians. If the method is factual, you have the matter of the letter and that of Earwicker’s trial, which form the backbone of whatever plot the book may be said to have. The attempts to authenticate the letter not only satirize the lack of common sense in pedantic scholarship; they attack our entire assumption that documents can be validated. The uncertainty as to what happened in the park is equally complete. Did Earwicker commit an act of exhibitionism before some girls as the three soldiers report (or were they soldiers) or did he make perverse advances to them or was it all a frame-up? The reader feels as hopeless of reaching a decision as he does in “The Castle.”

But Joyce doesn’t care. Kafka was infinitely saddened by this insoluble situation, and his attempt to get out by following the stages of Kierkegaard’s mysticism only made worse his despair since the literary expression which he followed was of the lowest stage. But the fact that Joyce utilized a combination of Vico and Jung not only enabled him (the one philosopher here compromising the other) to admit that the truth might be an illusion, but thus to discard the seriousness of the quest. The prime contradiction in the book is that between the author and his subject. Most of the work is a welter of laughs, ringing out like the discordant chimes of some strange musical scale. They are the belly laughs Joyce litters ^s he frees himself from the burden of the general plan of the book tq plunge into the dialectic absurdities of the particular, into the infinite variety of human folly and inconsistency, now and ever before. Since the chief pleasure of reading a novel lies in the immediacy of the flowing impressions, the appeal of “Finnegan” is the laughter set up by recognizing the sound and meaning of a contradiction. Thus it is very difficult for any key or synopsis to give the flavor of the original. For the purpose of simplification, only one of two or more possible interpretations of a passage is likely to be given. The choice the authors of the “Key” tend to make represents the intellectual rather than the emotive content, though what strikes any naive reader at once is the burlesque element. But Messrs. Campbell and Robinson seem bent upon discovering a religious mysticism in Joyce, when he comes as near to a complete scepticism as any author of our sceptical period. The authors of the “Key” (on page 148) paraphrase a short poem as follows: “Then he traced a little poem about God who is our Home, the consolation and protection of our youth.” But the original (on page 331 of Joyce) reads:

My God, alas, that dear olt tumtum home Whereof in youthfood port I preyed Amook the verdigrassy convict vallsall dazes, And cloistered for amourmeant in thy boosome shede.

Here the meaning is certainly not religious nor mystical, but profane and scurrilous. “My God” is less a reference to deity than a profane expletive, the exasperated tone of which turns to boredom in the “tumtum” (which also means “sometime”). Similarly, the bosom shade protecting the boy in the last line is also the shed in which he became acquainted with the bosom of girls. In fact, the essence of Joyce’s style is to be found in this particular type of dialectic paradox, where a religious or respectable or serious meaning is buried beneath the cynicism and scepticism of its opposites. For where, one asks, was God when this boy was in the shed?

Difficult as it is, the style of the book, therefore, is an appropriate vehicle for its philosophy of life. When one value is as good as another, when doubt has become so complete that even doubt cannot be taken seriously, living has become a hoax and the pun the appropriate verbal reaction to it. Mr.

Earwicker, when all is said and done, is Humpty Dumpty, and “Finnegans Wake” is Joyce’s laughter as he sees the king’s horses trying to put him together again, as he solaces himself with depicting the kaleidoscope of their shifting incongruities. This theme of the novel is symbolized in the microcosm of each word construction as it comes along. For Joyce’s linguistic method is to bring together into an apparent relationship things which turn out to have only the relation of contradiction, that is to say, no relationship at all. With time and effort, any reader could master these difficult coinages, and spend endless hours reading and rereading the text, feeding his vanity and his superciliousness by his mastery of this very superior kind of double-talk. It is not the nature of the language that causes the intelligent reader to turn away. Rather it is the habits of thinking and feeling the language sets up. A little of it is exhilarating. But after a time our normal expectancy that we live in a world, characterized by its reasonableness and coherence, and essentially capable of order and harmony must disgust us with Joyce’s continual denial of everything that makes life possible and dear to us. The laughter cannot erase the bitter cynicism from which it is distilled. The elegiac beauty of Anna Livia’s dying cannot atone for the useless anarchy of living that has gone before.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading