"For too long were the stars studied and man's insides neglected. An eclipse of the sun could be predicted many centuries before anyone knew which way the blood circulated in our own bodies."
- James Joyce
The eighth chapter of Finnegans Wake is perhaps its most famous section. Known for containing the names of over a thousand of the world’s rivers embedded in its prose, the chapter is devoted to the mother goddess archetype in Joyce’s mythology, the river-woman Anna Livia Plurabelle, “angin mother of injons… the dearest little moma ever you saw” (FW p. 207). In Joyce’s numerology the number 8 is associated with the female, the feminine life-renewing energy, perhaps because 8 is the symbol of infinity ∞ upright. In Ulysses, the 18th chapter is dedicated to Molly Bloom's final soliloquy consisting of 8 long sentences, and her birthday is on September 8th (also the birthday of the Virgin Mary). The centrality of the female in his final work is hinted at right from the opening word of Finnegans Wake, “riverrun” which contains 8 letters.
James Joyce considered the Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP) chapter to be the showpiece for his entire book. It was his pride and joy, the chapter upon which he was “prepared to stake everything." While the public and his own supporters were questioning the merit (and sanity) of the early published fragments from his Work in Progress, Joyce declared in a letter to his patron “either [ALP] is something, or I am an imbecile in my judgment of language.” Fellow Irishman James Stephens agreed, declaring it to be “the greatest prose ever written by a man.”
Joyce went through seventeen different revisions of the chapter during the Wake’s creation, constantly weaving new river names and foreign words into its pun-laden network, while exhausting himself into a “nervous collapse,” as he told Ezra Pound, from the thousands of hours he worked on it.
The chapter opens with the text forming a triangular shape, the delta symbol ∆ of ALP:
tell me all about
Anna Livia! I want to hear all
about Anna Livia. Well, you know Anna Livia? Yes, of course,
we all know Anna Livia. Tell me all. Tell me now. (FW p. 196)
The ALP chapter consists entirely of a dialogue between two washerwomen scrubbing clothes on opposites sides of a river while chattering and gossiping to each other about ALP and her husband. All throughout the chapter, the inquisitive washerwoman (later referred to as “Queer Mrs Quickenough” FW p. 620) excitedly begs her opposite (“odd Miss Doddpebble” FW p. 620) to divulge more about Anna Livia: “Onon! Onon! tell me more. Tell me every tiny teign. I want to know every single ingul” (FW p. 201). As the chapter comes to a close, night begins to fall, the river widens and rushes more loudly, and the two women can no longer hear each other over the “hitherandthithering waters of. Night!” (FW p. 216).
A beautiful audio recording from 1929 captures Joyce reciting the closing pages of ALP with a playful and theatrical brogue, giving us our one single glimpse at how he intended his enigmatic work to sound. It’s noticeably mellifluous and musical, with Joyce rolling his r's and lilting the vernacular between the two chattering washerwomen.
John Bishop acknowledges that this flowing sonority is the most frequently praised feature of the chapter, but as with the rest of the Wake though, there is so much more to this poetic prose than its "sounddance" (FW p. 378). Initiating the need to explore deeper into the sediments of ALP, Bishop admits: “Not many readers, however, are likely to struggle through very many pages of prose so torturous as the Wake’s simply because, though they may not mean anything, they sound nice.” It is this often overlooked meaning that Bishop endeavors to elucidate.
For the ultimate crescendo of his unique and fascinating analysis of the Wake, Bishop devotes the final chapter of his Book of the Dark study to an investigative plunge into the “riverpool” (FW p. 17) of Anna Livia. With Joyce putting so much emphasis and hard work into his showpiece chapter, Bishop surmises, “we might make the chapter something of a test case of the book as a whole.” Similarly, while there are so many great insights throughout Bishop's Book of the Dark, its final chapter is so rich, enlightening, original and compelling that it could in fact stand as a “test case” for Bishop’s book as a whole. So, to conclude this lengthy summary of Bishop’s delightful and dense book, we shall take a close look into this last chapter, which he entitled "A Riverbabble Primer."
Emphatically putting the final flourishing touches on his fascinating and well-argued thesis that Finnegans Wake represents a rendering of the sleeping state of one man, Bishop takes a microscope to the vivacious streams of the ALP chapter to confirm his theory. He finds ALP’s massive network of rivers is undulating with the sound and pace of a pulse. In short, Bishop argues that the riverwoman Anna Livia Plurabelle represents the watery bloodflow heard pumping inside the sleeper’s body throughout the night.
This accounts for the overall back-and-forth dialogue structure as well as the recurrent rhythm of twos found “ufer and ufer” (FW p.214) again, echoing the binary sounds heard in “the pulse of our slumber” (FW p. 428). The sleeping mind absorbs and amplifies these sounds, unconsciously creating the dream association of flowing rivers until the sleeper becomes immersed in a “watery world” (FW p. 452).
Bishop extends this thread of logic further until we envision the sleeper lying in "foetal sleep" (FW p. 563) with the sounds of pulsing bloodflow triggering reminiscence of and regression to the prenatal bliss of "whome sweetwhome" (FW p. 138) when he was united with the body of his mother or “himother” (FW p. 187). Two hearts beating as one, “uniter of U.M.I. hearts…in that united I.R.U. stade” (FW p. 446).
Of course this is a very radical and unique idea, unlike any interpretation of ALP any Wake scholar has put forth before. It's also fun to ponder and Bishop, a scholar with about as much knowledge about Finnegans Wake as anyone else in the world (he’s been reading it for over 40 years and wrote the introduction to the Penguin edition), presents a most compelling case with his often spellbinding wizardry of exegesis.