My title of my blogpost relates to a conversation I just had with my friend Jon Smith. No, that is not a pseudonym for a friend I made up. Swear to God, it’s his real name. I’ve known him for at least sixteen years now and just tonight I learned that he and I read books completely different. More different than I could possibly imagine. For example, he thinks ‘Finnegans Wake’ is complete gibberish and is a waste of time.
We went on to talk of other things as we often have to do – we don’t have as many hours or opportunities to talk like we used to – but I’ve been preparing this blog post in my head while we talked and along the way home. I won’t go on at length about ‘Finnegans Wake’ for fear of boring you, but I will talk of a few things.
First of all, the title of the work. It’s often misspelled. People spell it as ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ with a possessive s, presuming that it is a typo, and ignoring the fact that Joyce intentionally left it plural. Finnegan is to represent everyman, and the wake has double meaning. In one sense, yes, much of the activity takes place at the wake after Finnegan’s funeral, before he is woken by whisky (or the mention of it) then put back to sleep by all those assembled. The idea being that Finnegan is to wake when the world needs his help again, much like the legend of the man under the mountain that is in most cultures (think of the story of King Arthur or King Wenceslas). But it also refers to the story that everyman must wake up and see the world around him for what it is. So it almost a call to arms, telling all the Finnegans to wake up.
The second, I would only make reference sentence of the work.
riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
Impenetrable? I really don’t think so. I mean, it is written in plain English and seems easy enough. But with a little bit of Googling, you can decipher the work. Joyce chose his words carefully, as you will see, because while ‘Ulysses’ was his Dublin work (he claimed that the entire city could be rebuilt brick by brick by using his work) this was his world book. He wanted for us to see the whole world. In doing so, he tried to create a universal language that would speak to people on many levels. An Adamic language, one that existed before the fall of Babel.
So, here we go.
Left uncapitalized because it is starting the book in the middle of the sentence, one that starts as being the last sentence of the work, which is meant to show the reader that the world is cyclical and works in patterns and that this is merely one of those patterns. Literally, it represents the lifeblood of Dublin, the river Liffey, which in turn runs past the a church called “Adam and Eve’s”. And, as Adam and Eve stand at the beginning of human history (let’s accept the bible as being literal for a moment, but even as an allegorical construct it also works for us) they also stand at the beginning of this book. They also in turn will serve to represent the husband and wife pair of Humphrey Chipden Earwicker and Anna Livia Plurabell. They also represent paradise, sexual polarity, the fall of man, and the possibility of redemption.
Additionally, he also put it as being Eve and and Adam instead of Adam and Eve because ‘past Eve and’ contains the letters ‘stevean’ which in turn is a nod of the head to his character Stephen Deadulus from ‘A Portrait Of the Artist As A Young Man’ and ‘Ulysses’, plus the name of his grandson.
from swerve of shore to bend of bay…
This suggests a sexual theme of the work, how the water caresses the shore, and additionally, how the waters of Dublin Bay continually pound the Head of Howth. I’ve also read how the pounding the Head of Howth represent how it is the invaders of Ireland were continuously pummeling her.
brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation…
Here is where he starts to tell us where he is going with it. ‘Finnegans Wake’ invents words that forces us to think about them and this is no exception. ‘Vicus’ means street or highway, but it is also the Latin form of Vico. Leaving alone for now how it is he studied Vico’s “The First New Science” and how it permeates ‘Finnegans Wake’, let’s just bear in mind the name Vico who inspired him. It’s an Easter Egg for us to find and do with it what we will.
Commodious takes us back to the Roman Emperor at a time when the empire was in decay. It also suggests a broad and easy path that will lead to destruction, but at the same time rebirth, as the mention of Adam and Eve represents along with the circle of life and the water of life inferred by ‘riverrun’.
back to Howth Castle and Environs.
Howth Castle is a Dublin landmark. A castle on a hill that stands over Dublin Bay, looking for all the world like the head of a sleeping giant, who’s belly is the city of Dublin and who’s feet are the hills of Phoenix Park. This leads us back to the legend of the hero who lies in wait, asleep, waiting to come to our rescue in our time of need. And, also take note, of how Phoenix Park, by its very name, enforces the theme of rebirth in the work.
Now the work goes on and on like that, on so many more levels that you can pick apart at your leisure. I do it at my pleasure, opening the work to any page and reading it from there, because that was how he wrote it.
(You could, in a way, also look at Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” the same way. It’s written in an almost psalmic manner, where you can pick it up at whatever point you want because the story doesn’t have an ‘arrow of time’ in it, the character is forced in and out of time from World War 2 back to his life in America back to when he was a child. But that’s a book for another story for another day.)
Joyce wrote ‘Finnegans Wake’ for a particular type of reader, one who had a case of perfect insomnia, where they could sit down and read it uninterrupted and unfettered by the need to eat or sleep, and take it all in, using their knowledge of the world to add their meaning to it. And then, when you were done, you would look at the world differently for a while, then go back and read it again, and get a whole new set of meanings from it. He wants a reader who is going to surrender themselves to his disbelief, if only for a little while, so that they can see what there is to see.
And that, my friend Jon, is but one of many ways to read a book.