A taste of Finnegans Wake: In the beginning?
A personal interpretation of the first two paragraphs of James Joyce’s masterpiece.
A note for the reader: If this is all a bit too much, read the first section followed by the conclusion only. Scroll down when instructed, to skip all the in-depth parts. Links are included throughout for further information, however they can be ignored.
The first two paragraphs in James Joyce’s last novel, Finnegans Wake, bring to mind the moment before the Big Bang. No background is required, elementary comprehension of this initial segment provides a brief introduction to the work, in itself. In this handful of headache-inducing sentences, all matter and spacetime are compressed, in suspension, without a point of reference. They are so dense, that if these lines were formed into objects the size of small pebbles, the strength of one’s hand would be unable to grasp them. As such, the power of the mind is barely able to expand to accommodate their depth and breadth, without effort and practice. I have come to think of this book as a cognitive workout. Finnegans Wake is the reading equivalent of taking up yoga — as for the yogic body, the literary mind is stretched, strengthened, meditated on and at the advanced levels, contorted. Not all readers are cut out for this book. Like yoga, it will impart its benefits only if the reader is committed to receiving them. However, the first go is always difficult, and the muscles will be sore afterwards, so I invite the potential literary yogi to make an attempt, and ‘come to the mat’ for practice, just this once — if only to see.
The text concerned reads thusly:
riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Amorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream of Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe. Rot a peck of pa’s malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.
While the reader recovers from that shock, it is useful to consider the title on its own. During the 17 years over which it was written and before publication, parts of Finnegans Wake were published in serial and referred to as Work In Progress. The title of the book was kept a secret until it was finally published in 1939, which demonstrates its significance. Finnegans Wake is an Irish folk song, which tells the story of Finnegan the bricklayer. He falls off his ladder while working and hits his head and dies. His friends and family then celebrate his life at his wake, and during the party, whisky (uisce beatha or ‘water of life’ in Irish) is spilt on him, and he comes back to life to join the celebration, so he is Finn-again!
Now the wordplay really starts. Note that the book is circular, the first sentence is actually the middle of the last sentence of the book, which reads;
A way a lone a last a loved a long the
The next word being ‘riverrun’ hence the lowercase ‘r’ and then the first signal that Joyce gives us, ‘recirculation.’ The title reflects this, it is the beginning and end, life and death, rebirth and death all at once. We have the aforementioned ‘Finn-again’ (Finnegan again), then fin-again (French fin for finish), and of course literally ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ the celebration of Finnegan’s life. There is also the allusion to Finn MacCool, whose sentinels kept watch over Dublin Bay where Howth Castle now stands. As is Ulysses, Finnegans Wake is an overwhelmingly optimistic and playful book. Despite its density, Joyce is urging us to enjoy ourselves (‘lots of fun at Finnegan’s Wake!’) and to play with words with him while dreaming about eternity and what it is to be human. One must keep in mind Joyce’s nature, he was an oenophile (my kin!) and a family man that talked to people in slang and made dirty jokes that were simultaneously high brow. He loved long walks in the city and singing and playing music after meals, which he included in Finnegans Wake. To hear the music of his writing, listen to Joyce reading it aloud here and follow a way a lone a last a loved a long with the text here.
Readers may now skip to the conclusion if necessary.
riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
In these first sentences, Joyce gives us the keys to Finnegans Wake. If the reader pays attention, he explains how the novel works and what needs to be done to understand. The first word gives us the location of the action, a river (also note the three syllables, a possible reference to the Trinity). It also tells us that this is a twisting and flowing journey, which is confirmed by the winding and running nature of the subsequent sentences and the feel of ‘riverrun.’ ‘Past Eve and Adam’s’ brings to mind the beginning of time, both before and after. This is the first indication of the timelessness of the book, in particular, this first section. ‘Eve and Adam’s’ also refers to a church in Dublin, which is on the river Liffey, and is the second clue to the location of the narrative. ‘From swerve of shore to bend of bay’ is an image of the story of man. ‘Swerve of shore’ is the perspective of the traveller or the invader, ‘bend of bay’ is the opposite, being the view from home or of the defender. It also reminds one of the lines in the taichi symbol.
‘Commodius vicus of recirculation’ is dripping with meaning, so we will start with Rome. Commodus was a Roman Emperor and the son of Marcus Aurelius, who was the last good emperor. Rome declined under Commodus’ rule, which brings to mind in a single word the rise and fall of Rome. ‘Vicus’ in this context is the smallest administrative subset of Roman local government, which is contrasted with the position of emperor. This is another signal, along with Adam and Eve, that Joyce is representing the depth and breadth of history, compressed in an instant. Commodius also plays on the Latin word for ‘convenience,’ and Vicus is Latin for a small group of dwellings or a village. So we now know that the story is set in a small, comfortable group of houses near Dublin (or a nice little town/suburb). Vicus is also the Latin form of the Italian name Vico, which refers to Giambattista Vico’s book Scienza Nuova (New Science), which Finnegans Wake is based on, Joyce is telling us to read it!
‘Howth Castle and Environs’ is the final clue to the location of the narrative. Howth Castle guards Dublin Bay, which the River Liffey flows into. The Hill it stands on is also said to be the head of the sleeping giant of Irish Folklore (Dublin being the stomach and two small hills to the West are the upturned toes, which is relevant later, but not for the purpose of this essay). The words also make the acronym HCE, which is Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, the male protagonist of the novel (note the allusion to Humpty Dumpty who also falls down and breaks his crown).
Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Amorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war:
Now things start to loosen up a bit, as they do, by degrees in this first part (I imagine this as space expanding after the Big Bang in slow motion). Sir Tristram is the lover of Iseult, and also a lover of music. I think this is a clue from Joyce to the method one must employ in reading Finnegans Wake. The book demands to be read out loud and with musical expression, to grasp the multiple entendre at work, as demonstrated in the first instance by the title. ‘Short sea’ is literally the short passage between Ireland and Britain, and Ireland and Europe. ‘Short’ also refers to rough sea, I have been told that the crossing to Ireland from Britain is quite choppy. ‘Passencore’ is interesting because of its translation. In one of his letters, Joyce explains that this refers to ‘pas encore and ricorsi storici of Vico.’ I have roughly interpreted this as suggesting a broad understanding of Vico (mentioned above). ‘Rearrived’ is further evidence of the circular nature of the work, and goes well with the Viconian system of four stages of history that repeat, hence the circular nature of Finnegans Wake.
‘North Amorica’ is both Brittany (where Iseult comes from) and North America, the destination of significant Irish migration. ‘The scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor’ is Ireland itself, and insinuates (or jokes sarcastically) that Ireland is the cultural centre of the West, being the bridge (isthmus) between Europe and North America (Europe minor?). The next phrase is another layer of history and plays on the wielding of Ireland’s power through war (Finn Macfool), it also refers to the Peninsular War in which an Irishman Arthur Wellesley fought in.
nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream of Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time:
The first and most visible allusion here is to Tom Sawyer, who is a recurring theme in the book (a signal from Joyce similar to that of Vico). The ‘top sawer’ is also the top man during pit sawing and a slang term for a man of distinction. I think this is Joyce joking about the noble Irish worker, while also making a serious comment on the value of the everyman (which makes sense, considering his previous book Ulysses). ‘Rocks’ is slang for testicles, which Joyce no doubt employs. The ‘stream of Oconee’ is the Oconee river in North America, on which the town of Dublin was foundered in Laurens County, Georgia (named by a citizen, Jonathan Sawyer). ‘Gorgios’ is the Gypsy word for non-gipsies, which clearly suggests Irish migrants breeding with the locals, therefore ‘doubling (Dublin) their number (mumper like Humpty) all the time.’
nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick:
Here there is further play with spacetime, as the sentence starts with ‘nor’ again and plays with past and present tense. Read out loud, one can hear multiple things happening. A voice from a fire is the burning bush, (we know to look for biblical references because of Eve and Adam earlier) and also from the underworld or Hell. So this is a reference to both God and the devil (duality is indicated by the doubling of everything and signalled in the previous sentence), but it also sounds like ‘a voice from afar’ which I think is the first echo of Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP), the female protagonist (represented by rivers throughout the book). This voice ‘bellowsed’ which is a compound of bellow and blows (more play with tense). As in episode seven of Ulysses, the wind guides the reader. Aeolus is the keeper of the winds in Greek mythology, but he also has three iterations (the Trinity again), the treatment of both of the A’s in this sentence might be a signal of emphasis from Joyce. ‘Mishe Mishe’ is complicated as there are multiple meanings. Mishe is Gaelic for ‘I am’, and Hebrew for Moses (the voice from a fire was the hint), so there is the voice of Ireland saying ‘I am I am’ (I am a believer, referring to the Catholic Church?) and also God calling ‘Moses Moses’ and the wind directing the reader to both. ‘taufttauft’ is the German word for baptise, it is interesting that Joyce uses it twice, considering that so far we have two Dublins and also the duality of the sexes (set up for the introduction of ALP). ‘Thuartpeatrick’ is St Patrick (tauf — the baptism of St Patrick) and a reference to St Patrick’s prayer which is full of ‘thou arts.’ It’s also ‘thou art Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church.’ Peter was the first Pope.
not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac:
Joyce has given us a hand through his earlier signalling, as this next sentence is significantly biblical. This refers to the story of Jacob and Isaac in Genesis. ‘Not yet’ is a variation on the spacetime play from earlier. ‘Venissoon after’ is both very soon after (more spacetime play) and literally venison after, which is what Isaac requests to eat in the story. Then the references continue, ‘kidscad’ being the kidskin that Jacob wears (also ‘scad’ is a slang name for a variety of edible fish). ‘Buttended’ adds a new dimension to this part, in that Isaac Butt, a politician, was forcefully pushed out of Parliament by the Nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell which is related to the Irish war of independence — though very soon after had a kid but (Butt) ended a bland old Issac. This is also a reference to ‘blind old Isaac’ in the bible.
not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe.
‘All’s fair in vanessy’ is a play on ‘all’s fair in love and war.’ ‘Vanessy’ is an allusion to Johnathan Swift and his lover, to whom he gave the nickname Vanessa. Interestingly, Gulliver’s Travels, Swift’s major work, has four parts which contain distinct themes and is also a work of literary satire, Joyce is telling us to read that too! This is also a hint at Issy, the daughter of HCE and ALP, which is confirmed by ‘Sosie sesthers’ which are twin sisters (Issy has two personae), ‘wroth’ being anger. ‘Twone’ is of course, if read out loud ‘to one’ but also a reference to 1921 which was the year Ireland was granted partial independence through the Anglo-Irish treaty. ‘Nathandjoe’ is an extra hint at Jonathan Swift, and also a compound of ‘Nat’ (slang for nationalist at the time), ‘hand’ (being work or doings or craft) and ‘joe’ (being the everyman). Which refers to the result of the Irish war of independence, victory through the work of the average-joe nationalist.
Rot a peck of pa’s malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to been ringsome on the aquaface.
‘Rot a peck of pas’s malt’ is quite direct. ‘Rot a’ can also be put together as ‘rota,’ to say all around and to continue the recirculation theme. A ‘peck of malt’ is one-quarter of a bushel of malted grain. Jhem and Shen are compound words of the three sons of Noah (Shem, Ham and Japheth) which here are blended with HCE and ALP’s two sons, Shem and Shaun. ‘Arclight’ is both a hint at Noah’s arc and that they make their booze at night (rotting the malt being fermentation), perhaps also drinking at night (is this an allusion to American prohibition?) I like to imagine that this is Joyce inviting us to pour a drink and continue reading. ‘Rory’ is a word for Irish, and ‘regginbrow’ is a play on the German word regenbogen (rainbow), of which there are seven colours (note that there are seven sentences in this first section being discussed). The use of German for ‘rainbow’ is a signal for the meaning of the next word in question, ‘ringsome’ which is derived from the German ‘ringsum’ for ‘all around.’ Campbell and Robinson, in their excellent book A Skeleton Key To Finnegans Wake, suggest that this is the spirit of God floating above the water in Genesis.
This is the time for the reader to re-read the whole passage, then contemplate the enormity of the mind that has so skilfully constructed what I think of as abstract prose-poetry. The meaning of a word seems to float off the page, standing still in ever-changing places and colliding with other words, making flashes of light that form webs over vast landscapes in the mind. Then one realises that one has witnessed four-dimensional writing, and can now comprehend, at the most elementary level, four-dimensional thinking. Joyce demonstrated that order can be found in our disordered perception of the world if the human will is employed to discover it.
Finnegans Wake is the well-guarded gate to the life of the mind as Joyce saw it, playful, meaningful, musical and fun. Through this mind-altering and psychedelic work, Joyce offers us an education. While the book is dense with sophisticated ideas, history and intellectually severe topics, there is also music, humour, beautiful imagery, legends and Joycean humanism. Joyce has given us a gift and constructed it in a way that teaches us not only to look again but to look deeper. Finnegans Wake is successful in its cathedral-like architecture and execution. However, it is also a failure because no one is bothered to read it. Joyce ironically jokes on page 179;
… den making believe to read his usylessly unreadable Blue Book of Eccles, édition de ténèbres…
Ulysses (Joyce’s ‘day book,’ the first edition of which was bound with a blue cover) is regarded as unreadable by many who attempt it, but the difficulties of Ulysses seem quaint when compared to the riddles of Finnegans Wake (the ‘night book’). However, the same problem is encountered in visual art. If Ulysses is the literary equivalent of impressionism, then Finnegans Wake is the zenith of abstraction. While the brush strokes beautifully blur the subject in the former, the latter is an extreme deconstruction and reformation, which unsurprisingly makes it prohibitive to most readers, as abstract art often is to the layman. This is a shame, but possibly not permanent. In our time, university education is becoming more prohibitive than ever (although it might not seem so), and in the view of some scholars, counterproductive in particular areas. Joyce has provided an alternative, one which might be more enjoyable and (some might say) well-rounded. The process of reading and understanding Finnegans Wake is rewarding, but only in proportion to the effort that the student puts in — I think that through this book, it is possible to change one’s perception of the world for the better, and time given to decoding its secrets is time well spent, even if its just a sentence or two.
NB: If you would like to read Finnegans Wake, make sure you get the corrected text, which is still in print in paperback from Faber and Faber. The Penguin edition and most others are not suitable as they contain the many errors of the first edition (of which it is a reprint). Make sure you check when buying second hand, or new copies from other publishers! Decent old hardbacks of the Faber and Viking Press editions are available second hand if you are willing to spend the money.
It is worth noting that Finnegans Wake has had a surprising influence on physics. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word quark was originally quork until the physicist Murray Gell-Mann adopted the replacement term from ‘Three quarks for Muster Mark.’