Saturday, February 2, 2013

Glossing The Wake Through Two Pictures

"wipe your glosses with what you know" - FW p. 304

During some pretty idle and aimless book perusing and internet browsing I came across two images which I decided are good illustrations of important elements in Finnegans Wake. A saying goes that if a picture is worth a thousand words then a symbol is worth a thousand pictures. Let's take a brief look at how these two symbolic pictures sum up massive pieces of the Wake.

This is a woodcut by Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige from 1853. In imagining the recurring "characters" of Finnegans Wake, a family of five (sort of), I've found that it helps to maintain the idea of these figures as morphogenetic organic elements, not as individual people. A seemingly simple nature scene such as this one then manages to serve as a family portrait when you consider each character's earthly element:

HCE as Mountain
ALP as River
Shem as Tree
Shaun as Stone
Isabelle as Cloud

That's entirely what's represented in that picture. "Because it's run on the mountain and river system" (FW 288.F3). If you want to count the image in the Wake of the Chapelizod pub in which this "family" sleeps you can even find some little buildings in there.

This next one is both simpler in its representation and more difficult in concluding what exactly it means in the Wake.

Pretty familiar scene there. What's it got to do with the Wake?

From first page to last, Finnegans Wake is positively loaded with rainbows. The entirety of the 1st chapter in Book II, the stage play of "The Mime of Mick, Nick, and the Maggies" (the enactment of "a rainborne pamtomomiom" as p. 285 describes it) frequently features the seven colors with a dance of the seven rainbow girls who are described in endlessly varying names which always refer to the seven colors, as in "Rose, Sevilla ... Cintronelle ... Esmeralde, Pervinca ... Indra ...Viola" (p. 223) or, spelling out the acronym RAYNBOW on pg. 226:
"R is Rubretta and A is Arancia, Y is for Yilla and N for greeneriN. B is Boyblue with odalisque O while W waters the fleurettes of novembrance."
Page 247 has the line "Split the hvide and aye seize heaven!" which indicates splitting the white (Danish "hvide") so the eye sees seven colors.

In the final chapter of the book, there's a debate between Bishop Berkeley and St. Patrick revolving around light and the visible universe in which the druid Berkeley refers to "the his heptachromatic sevenhued septicoloured roranyellgreenlindigan" (p. 611). There are many interpretations as to the importance and meaning of the recurring rainbows and Joyce himself indicated in his letters that the book features an elaborately developed theory of colors. John Bishop in his outstanding study Joyce's Book of the Dark devotes a lengthy chapter (entitled "Meoptics") to exploring the idea that the Wake's play of colors represents visions streaming across the inside surface of the eyelids of the sleeping person within whose body (Bishop argues convincingly) the whole book takes place. In the midst of his exegesis, we're led to some very intriguing considerations of the human eye, a fleshy filmscreen and projector. (I'll have lots more to say about Bishop's great book and his unique ideas very soon.)

Coming back to the organic scene from the first picture, I'm led to think about the bright white light of the sun interacting with the waters of the river mother evaporating into mist and daughter clouds whose raindrops bend light into rainbows, the rain eventually falling down the slopes of a mountain and turning back into a river ("Because it's run on the mountain and river system" FW288.F3). I could also start talking about the Wake's recurring use of the word "heliotrope" and moving towards the sun but I'll stop here...


  1. The thought of the spectrum of light makes me think again of Joyce's struggles with vision. I suuppose he probably appreciated light more than the average person.

    Ed reminded us this morning that it was Joyce's birthday today. Was, and is, according to the kind of calendar you use. The "will be" I leave to better minds than mine...

  2. I've been trudging through FW for a few years now & have not made it to the end yet! I'm so glad there are blogs like yours around to help make some sense of this stuff. Reading FW is definitely a group effort!

  3. @seana: Surely, Joyce's horrific eye problems (he underwent ten eye operations during the writing of the Wake) gave him a unique inSIGHT as to the nature of the eye, vision, color. I've been thoroughly wrapped up in John Bishop's book for a while now trying to complete a review of it and he's got a detailed discussion of Joyce's eye problems in the footnotes. I'm tempted to quote him at length right now but the details are gruesome and I'd rather save it all for a full post to come later.

    @Steve: Very glad you're enjoying the blog, lots more material on its way! As for reading the Wake, keep on trudging. The reading process never really ends.

  4. I need to read the Bishop book, now that I'm a ways into the text.

    As to the first image, I didn't think until later to be reminded of your essay on Dali and Portrait. Your submersion in that Dali painting proved very fruitful, so I hope you will continue contemplating this one and see what it brings you.

  5. Funny you should bring up that essay because last night, right before looking at these pictures, I was studying Dali books, looking at his paintings and taking copious notes in preparation for revising that Dali-Joyce project into a longer e-book format.

  6. A strange but beautiful book that John Bishop recommends is Let Me Be Los by Frances Phipps. Phipps is also fascinated by the rainbow in the Wake. She helpfully provides a 5 page section on its rainbow references.

    Excellent new blog. You have forever changed the way I look at Japanese landscape art!

  7. A strange book indeed, I'd never heard of that one before. Of course, had to buy it immediately, thanks for pointing it out.

    I've been laboring on a review of Bishop for almost 2 weeks now. Such a dense and provocative book, want to make sure I give it its due.

    Many thanks for the kind words!