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Joyce’s Wake Revisited

ISSUE:  Spring 1979
The Sigla of Finnegans Wake. By Roland McHugh. Texas. $14.95.
The Decentered Universe of Finnegans Wake. By Margot Norris. Johns Hopkins. $10.00.

No Joyce enthusiast can afford to ignore either The Decentered Universe of “Finnegans Wake” by Margot Norris or The Sigla of “Finnegans Wake” by Roland McHugh. Both authors try to get beyond the limitations of traditional criticism by emphasizing the experimental dimensions of Joyce’s vast historical myth. Roland McHugh insists that personages in the Wake must not be confused with the well-defined, three-dimensional characters in ordinary fiction. Returning to the Buffalo notebooks, he argues that the sigla Joyce used to designate character divisions refer to conceptual patterns rather than single individuals. The sigla or signs represent “fluid composites, involving an unconfined blur of historical, mythical, and fictitious characters, as well as human elements. Joyce’s technique of personality condensation is ultimately inseparable from his linguistic condensation.”

If Finnegans Wake has become the bible of 20th-century literature, then HCE, like Yahweh, resembles the unnamable goal of modern life. He is not a definite person, but a “thing sought, a retort to the enigma of creation.” Like the medieval Church fathers, McHugh commits himself passionately to the task of exegesis. He proselytizes for the adoption of 14 sigla “constituting a conceptual alphabet for future studies.” But he finally preaches a fundamentalist return to the printed text rather than a catechetical adherence to the notebooks.

McHugh himself acknowledges possible charges of heresy: “It is likely to be objected that my technique substitutes ciphers for established terminology without really telling us anything new.” Why not adopt the nominal approach, as Joyce did when he originally defined his abbreviations? To answer this question, one must read The Sigla of “Finnegans Wake.” The book offers a structural pathway into the Wake that will assist the neophyte and enthrall the most jaded devotee.

In The Decentered Universe of “Finnegans Wake,” Margot Norris sets out to study aspects of the novel that defy textual explication. She interprets Joyce’s work as a vast panorama of the Freudian unconscious—a fictional rendition of the effects of psychic and emotional pressures on language, family relationships, and social interaction. Norris offers convincing evidence that Joyce read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and used the book as a major thematic source for Finnegans Wake.The techniques of dream-work create a dislocated, decentered “chaosmos,” a fictional world that deconstructs language and defies traditional epistemology.

Using the theories of Freud and Lacan, Norris presents a lucid discussion of psychoanalytic elements in the Wake.She postulates that the book resembles a dream insofar as it is a “rebus—a puzzle with an important linguistic component.” The unconscious tries to communicate with the dreamer’s conscious self through processes of distortion, displacement, and condensation.”Dreams are poems written in sleep by an unknown other self.” The mechanics of dream-formation resemble, on a linguistic level, the verbal forms of poetic language: both facilitate plurisignification, the simultaneity of multiple meanings. The contrapuntal linguistic resonances of the Wake extend and reinforce the embedded messages of Freudian dream-work. Norris concludes that “Joyce must have decided to make the dream transparent, as it were, by giving the reader access to repressed material. . . . In Finnegans Wake we see the repression and revelation occur simultaneously in the same line of discourse.”

Using Lévi-Strauss’s concept of the homology of myth and dream, Norris examines mythic structures in Finnegans Wake as the “collective equivalent of individual neurosis.” She rejects the popular Viconian model because of its temporal and historical limitations. Joyce apparently used an amalgam of political, religious, and sexual myths—Oedipal, biblical, classical, Christian, and Irish—as synchronic variations on the universal theme of guilt elicited by an omnipotent father-god. At the heart of the Wake lies a primordial violation or trespass, an original sin that makes all the characters guilty of the fundamental crime of existence.

Finnegans Wake celebrates anarchy, the breakdown of linguistic and social structures. In dream, the psyche is momentarily triumphant in a universe whose teleology is freedom. According to Norris, Joyce’s purpose in writing the Wake was revolutionary. He consciously tried to undermine the historical power relations that give rise to the repressive sexual dynamic of the Freudian family and the Hegelian dialectic of master and slave. Only through the release of dream can the mind enjoy liberation from patriarchal law.

In order to explore the philosophical implications of Joyce’s decentered universe, Norris has recourse to the ontological theories of Martin Heidegger and the critical premises of Jacques Derrida. Her chapters on “The Ontological Condition” of the dreamer and the relationship between “Dream and Poetry” are superb. Adopting a metaphysical perspective, she shows how “events in the Wake elucidate the human condition . . .in an abstract and timeless way.” HCE is both ritual scapegoat and a figure of existential alienation. All the characters are both innocent victims and brutal aggressors, the authentic self is guilty of mortality, and death is the inevitable punishment for allegiance to physical process. Idle talk in the Wake serves to obfuscate fear and guilt; gossip and public display force characters to adopt inauthentic personae sanctioned by the crowd. Norris claims that all the characters in the Wake are “fallen,” not only in the biblical sense, but in the Heideggerian sense as well. Joyce’s decentered universe confirms a post-Cartesian “ex-centricity” of the ego.

The Decentered Universe of “Finnegans Wake” heralds a new wave in Joyce studies, Norris constructs an extensive theoretical framework in order to deconstruct constituent elements in the Wake.Dispelling the “novelistic fallacy,” she examines the text as a radical linguistic experiment. Using theories culled from structural anthropology, psychoanalysis, and Heideggerian metaphysics, she brings Joyce’s work into the mainstream of current critical discourse. Her argument is so convincing that it may persuade the most traditional critic to reconsider the avant-garde elements in Joyce’s post-modern masterpiece.


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