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A Philologist Looks At “Finnegans Wake”

ISSUE:  Autumn 1939

Finnegans Wake. By James Joyce. New York: The Viking Press. $5.00.

Lo! What befalleth a prophet when he acquireth honor in a far country! James Joyce, in “Ulysses,” wrote one of the great hooks of the present century; more than a little bewildering, it is true; but by and large uproariously funny and shockingly honest. No sooner had he done so than he became the leader of a cult, complete with disciples, philosophy, and shrines. The disciples announced that “Ulysses” had a profound message, and that it would revolutionize art and language. It became the fashion to read “Ulysses” with the utmost gravity: to laugh at it would have been sacrilege. Joyce, like many another prophet before him, seems to have believed his disciples. His later work, dribbled out in bits in the little periodicals published and read by the faithful, and now given to the public as “Finnegans Wake,” is the result. This is what it is like— one sentence will do as well as another:

The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronn-tonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoorden-enthurnukl) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelcy.

The reader is expected to read six hundred and twenty-eight pages of this, and the disciples tell us that if he will do so with proper humility, sufficient use of dictionaries of Pigeon English, Esperanto, Greek, and Irish, a variorum Mother Goose, and a map of Dublin, he will be well repaid. Others have suggested that the book is the product of mental disease, or even that it is a huge Irish practical joke. It seems to me that none of the three explanations is adequate, attractive as one of them is.

Joyce began to play tricks with language in his earliest work. In the first story in “Dubliners” occurs a pun that would be regarded as an unwarrantable liberty in a writer of conventional and disciplined English: “There he lay, solemn and copious, vested as for the altar.” Even more interesting is a passage from “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”:

His own consciousness of language was ebbing from his brain and trickling into the very words themselves which set to band and disband themselves in wayward rhythms:

The ivy whines upon the wall, And whines and twines upon the wall, The yellow ivy upon the wall, Ivy, ivy up the wall.

Did any one ever hear such drivel? Lord Almighty ! Who ever heard of ivy whining on a wall? Yellow ivy; that was all right. Yellow ivory also. And what about ivory ivy?

The word now shone in his brain, clearer and brighter than any ivory sawn from the mottled tusks of elephants. Ivory, ivoire, avorio, ebur.

Most of the characteristics of the style of “Finnegans Wake,” all but the deliberately echoic word formations, are in these two passages. But no one had yet told him that “whining ivy” was the germ of a great artistic discovery. One feels a little sorry for Stephen Dedalus. He ought to have been able to guess that he was a genius.

These early passages reveal a preoccupation with the form of language, divorced from its meaning, which differs from “Finnegans Wake” only in degree, not kind. The monstrosity of “Finnegans Wake” makes it seem impossible that a sane man could have written it, yet the early passages seem normal enough. The difference is that what appears in the early work as a preoccupation only, is in the later carried out with the relentlessness of a man demonstrating a theory. The theory is about language, and it is mistaken. But it is by no means abnormal or even very recondite, since it is shared by most naive people. Joyce believes that there is, or should be, a real connection between the sound and the thing.

His theory rests in part on an exaggerated notion of the possibilities of onomatopoeia. Imitation by means of sound occurs to some extent in language, but is thoroughly successful only when the thing imitated is another sound. The purr of a cat can be imitated by a trilled r, and an eminent phonetician has stated that a uvular trill properly executed could frighten off a burglar as well as a growling watchdog. “Dingdong” is in a sense an imitation of the sound of a bell, but even here the imitation is not exactly direct, since it depends more on the symbolic difference in vowel pitches than on the likeness of either syllable to the note of a bell. But Joyce, with many others, believes that words can imitate not only sounds which are essentially unlike human speech, but further, even things which appeal to other senses than hearing. What confuses such people is that words which seem particularly expressive rest on a concealed association. “Bash” seems to be an onomatopoeic formation expressive of the sound of something collapsing under a blow, but what really gives it its expressive quality is its likeness to words like “bang” and “smash.” It is no more possible to represent the feel of velvet in speech sounds than it is to represent the smell of cabbage in music, or the sound of a whistle in the dance. As for Joyce’s opinion on the subject, there is a revealing passage in Budgen’s respectful book, “James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses”:

The word “Leib” (body) moved him [Joyce] to enthusiasm. It was a sound that created the image of a body in one unbroken mass. From liquid beginning it passes over the rich shining double vowel till the lips close on the final consonant with nothing to break its blond unity.

How can a sound be blond? I venture to guess that Joyce was moved by the word because it reminded him of the English word “life,” and that all the rest is rationalization dressed in phonetic terms. As well say that “body” is an admirable word, because the round o represents the trunk, and the y the legs.

The natural conclusion of such a belief is the denial of the arbitrary and social nature of language, and an affirmation instead that sounds and words are naturally and universally connected with things. Joyce has apparently set out in “Finnegans Wake” to create a language which attempts to be really instead of nominally expressive. For instance, the disciples tell us that he writes “kates” instead of “steak” because he wishes to show by the confusion of sounds that the steak is half eaten. The long string of letters in the sentence I have quoted is a similar attempt at a universally expressive sound symbol for a falling wall. The reader can judge for himself how successful it is.

Belief in expressiveness of sound will explain a large part of Joycean distortion of language, but it will not explain the continual and extremely complicated punning. Thus “straight as a wall” is punned with “Wall Street” and with “strait,” in a fairly simple example. The ultimate reason for the puns is that Joyce is fond of them; his mind turned naturally toward play with words in his earliest work. But to use them as he does in “Finnegans Wake” is possible only if they are a part of his conscious theory of language. The attempts at onomatopoeia rest on a denial of the first fundamental characteristic of language, its arbitrariness; the puns rest on a similar denial of the second, its social basis. Joyce writes “lucalizod” for “localized” because his personal experience includes the names of two Irish villages of which the word “localized” reminds him. It makes no difference to him that the majority of his readers have never heard of the two villages. Since to him language is not social, any personal association between words is valid. It is a paradox that a man who thinks that he is creating a language of universal symbols should make constant use of associations of the most narrowly personal kind.

Such is the method which Joyce has followed to create his strange and baffling language. The passages from his early work suggest that he created the language before he hit upon a use for it, or had thought out a theory to explain it. What can such a language be used for? One possible use is for humorous effect, on about the level of a child’s amusement with Pig Latin. There are plenty of examples of just such childish amusement with distortion in “Finnegans Wake”: “were they as alike as duel lentils? Peacisely.” Another and more serious use is the representation of the “stream of consciousness.” The puns here become important. It is a fundamental fact that when we speak, the words we use bring along with them all sorts of associated words, some of which reach consciousness, more of which do not. Our slips of the tongue, spoonerisms, unconscious word blendings, prove this well enough. These associated words are of several kinds: words phonetically similar, such as Stephen’s remembrance of “ivory” when he uses “ivy”; words associated by meaning, as when one uses “house” and thinks also of “building”; and association from the speaker’s personal experience, as when he uses “house” and thinks of the name of the street on which he lives. Finally, also, it is probable that the whole class of words belonging to the same grammatical category is weakly present in the subconscious mind. There seems no other way of explaining such an analogical mistake as “mans” for “men,” than to suppose that it is due to the influence of the form class to which “man” belongs. Joyce’s method is fairly successful in representing some of this fringe of consciousness, though not all of it. He can of course represent the words which are phonetically similar by punning, as he does with “wall-straight” and “Wall Street.” He can further give some of the words which are associated by meaning, by selecting his puns carefully. He can give only a few of these words, however, since a phonetically unsimilar word cannot be represented. Suppose, for instance, “Wall Street” had reminded him of “Battery Park.” There is no way he could crowd it into the shape of his original word. The same of course is true for merely personal associations. This weakness of the method he meets by stringing words after the word punned upon, as in such a sentence as “have cutely foretold, a jophet in your own absence, by blind poring upon your many scalds and burns and blisters.” Here “scald” is used first as poet, but punned as a burn, and then brings with it “burn” and “blister,” which cannot be punned with it because of the lack of phonetic similarity. The final type of association, that of the form class, cannot be represented at all, except by the device of enumerating all the nouns the speaker knows whenever a noun is used. Joyce has not yet dared to do this. Further, in consciousness there is always a main word more strongly present than the others. Joyce’s puns often make it impossible to tell what this main word is. A more faithful picture of the consciousness of a speaking or thinking man would be to write the main word with the suggested words above and below it, in the order of their nearness to the conscious level; though to do so would destroy the puns and most of the style with them.

We are told, however, that in “Finnegans Wake” the style represents not the interior monologue in general, but rather the interior monologue of a person between sleeping and waking. Yet there are characteristics which seem quite unsuitable to this special state of consciousness. For one thing the puns are habitually as polyglot as possible. This is conscious selection and smells of the dictionary rather than of Freud. There are other devices, such as a parody of Rabelais, or of a learned paper, complete with glosses, diagrams, and footnotes. These devices also are the result of deliberate and highly conscious manipulation and not the product of a mind drugged by sleep. We are told also that one of the devices by which the sleeping mind is represented is the attempt to distort words in accord with the sound of sleepy speech. But this device, even if successful, would be irrelevant to the main purpose, since the maimed and vestigial character of sleepy speech apparently belongs only to the way it sounds, not to the images of words which pass through the sleeper’s brain.

It is difficult to judge the artistic effectiveness of the style in “Finnegans Wake,” apart from the faithfulness with which it represents the subconscious. To me, however, it is a complete failure, since the humor and the poetic beauty of much of “Ulysses” are here absent or rudimentary. Apparently, in representing the hypnoid mind, Joyce felt that it would be a mistake to tell a connected story, or to make his jokes too good. Consequently most of the humor is on the level of “peacisely.” Or if there is a good bit, it is lost in such a mass of turgid and opaque viscosity that it is impossible to laugh at it. There is nowhere the satisfying humor of Bloom’s monologue in the brothel, where there was still a good deal of sense, even if drunken sense. Nor do I believe that hearing Joyce read the work aloud would clear up the language to the point where it could be enjoyed as art, since much of the style is addressed to the eye, like the pun on “dual” and “duel,” and would be necessarily lost in oral presentation. Further, the book does not impress me as profoundly learned, in spite of the opinions of many critics. I grant that I cannot unravel a great deal of it—I avoid saying understand, since it is not meant to be understood—but after all, no one can see through a brick wall. No amount of learning in languages, theology, or Celtic legend, will help the reader much. The only man who can really follow the puns is Joyce himself, because only he has formed the associations which made the puns possible.


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