Saturday, December 2, 2017

Some Fun with "riverrun"

Norse Vegvisir rune.

Our local Wake reading group recently cycled from the somber lines of Anna Livia Plurabelle's bittersweet closing monologue back over to the first page of Finnegans Wake: "A way a lone a last a loved a long the [...] 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." (FW 628-3)

The experience of deciphering the opening paragraphs of the Wake has been a slow, steady and joyful slog through a swamp thick with references, meanings, and suggestions. The information we've been pulling out from the words in these pages has been seemingly endless. It's gotten me thinking deeply about the text's very first word, the axis on which the Wake rotates---"riverrun." For a fun experiment in excavating meaning out of Wake words and appreciating Joyce's intricate chemistry of word construction, let's closely examine "riverrun."

First thing you'll notice is that this opening word of the book begins with a lowercase letter, indicating we are entering in media res (Latin "in the middle of events"). There's an immediate sense of befuddlement---one is struck with the feeling that they've been dropped into something that's been going on for a while, stepped into a stream whose source is unknown, one which is flowing toward an unknown destination. It's all a vast mystery. Much like our entry into the river of life upon birth---the world has its own history, it has been going on for a while, it has its own trajectory and momentum, and we're compelled to try to figure out what is going on, what is all this?

In my review of John Bishop's landmark study Joyce's Book of the Dark I discussed Bishop's theory that the river of Anna Livia Plurabelle refers to the flowing river of blood inside our bodies. This constantly pulsing river within us, which confronts us every night when we fall asleep with the sound of a heartbeat in our ears, contains the whole meandering, migrating history of our ancestors. Thus when we descend into sleep, into the hereditary millennia of our bodies, we encounter a running river whose origin far precedes us, highlighting how our experience of living in the flesh is also in media res, or as the Wake describes it, we are "all repeating ourselves, in medios loquos." (FW 398)

William York Tindall, in his Reader's Guide to Finnegans Wake, suggests that the chain of "the   riverrun" not only binds the end of the text with the beginning, it also "includes all betwixt and between." (Tindall 328) Much like the form of the circle which seems to be ubiquitous in all levels of existence from spiral galaxies to solar systems and spinning atoms, "the riverrun" is a universal structure. The last time I wrote extensively about one single Wake word, I focused on "anastomosis"---a term used in a wide range of sciences and disciplines (medicine, biology, mycology, geology, geography, architecture, etc) to describe an interconnection of streams or veins or branches.

FWEET gives us more to think about with the resonances of "riverrun" in different languages:

riverranno (Italian) - (they) will come again
rêverons (French) - (we) will dream
reverrons (French) - (we) will see again, (we) will meet again

"We will dream" is certainly a fitting way to open Finnegans Wake. The presence of "again" in the other words is also appropriate.

Reading the closing monologue of ALP evokes a somber feeling. She's dying, descending toward oblivion, hoping for just a few more moments of life. In our group, we couldn't help noting that the final lines in the Wake were essentially the last lines Joyce wrote before his own death in 1941 followed by the mass destruction of WW II. To continue that final sad sentence with, in the above sense, "they will come again" or "we will meet again" at the start of the book strikes a note of hope for renewal (a vital sentiment in our current dark times).

John Gordon's own Wake annotations add the following:

“rive” - English for “to split.”
“river” - French for “to join.”
FW is a book of “Doublends Jined” (20.16)
[double-ends joined]

The splitting apart and re-joining certainly fits with the "anastomosis" aspect I mentioned. It also recalls the lines from the end of the ALP chapter: "We'll meet again, we'll part once more." (FW p. 215) Gordon also mentions the German erinnerung for "memory" echoing "mememormee" from the closing lines of the text.

Bill Cole Cliett's excellent book Riverrun to Livvy adds some further threads of meaning. He describes ALP as "the river of life, the universal solvent in which all dissolves to mix and mingle and recombine, ever changing, ever the same." (Cliett p. 110) He mentions that Joyce likely got his "riverrun" from Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan":

"Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
  Down to a sunless sea."

"Alph" certainly suggests ALP. Cliett notes that Alph is supposedly "based on Alpheus from Greek mythology, a river that was believed to run under the sea. In a similar sense, ALP may run under a literary sea from page 628 to page 3." (Cliett p. 111)

Cliett also cites Petr Skrabanek who suggests "riverrun" is evocative of the Italian rivivranno for "they will revive" or "they will live again" and also reads it as the French rêvê-rond meaning "dream-round."

To break the word "riverrun" into its constituent elements also yields a range of interesting resonances:

Like "re-" it suggests a return or recurrence ("Finn, again!" FW p. 628). We find "re-" throughout the first page with "recirculation" and "rearrived" and "retaled."

"Ver" from Latin refers to spring time (vernal or primavera), the coming forth of life (French vivre which is also hinted at in "riverrun") out of the dead of winter. "Ver" is an active verb (even the word "verb" itself probably comes from the root "ver")---in Spanish it could mean to see, to watch, to hear, to try. It also hints at verity or truth. The etymological dictionary also notes that ver- as a Germanic prefix denotes "destruction, reversal, or completion."

Movement, flow, speed. The word run as noun (as in, a spell of running) derives from Old English ryne meaning "a flow, a course, a watercourse." The noun run also means a continuing series or continuous stretch of something. Fittingly for our purposes, the term run is also important in baseball, used when a runner has completed a full cycle around the bases.

Run carries a myriad of other meanings, but I want to specifically mention the suggestion of Old Norse rún or rune which refers to magic, mystery, or secrets contained within letters. Rune: a verse or song, especially one with mystical or mysterious overtones; an incantation, or a spell. This is a perfect description of Finnegans Wake.

Lastly, let's examine the numerology underlying "riverrun." I've discussed once before how the number 8 in Joyce's numerology is associated with the female, the feminine life-renewing energy, probably because the number 8 is a rotated infinity symbol (among the many numbers associated with ALP is 1001, where the 1's are seen as the banks of the river and the 00 is the infinity symbol representing the river). Molly Bloom's birthday is September the 8th and her famous Penelope episode is the 18th chapter of Ulysses. In Finnegans Wake, the chapter devoted to the mother goddess is the 8th chapter.

Now with this in mind, consider "riverrun." It contains 8 letters. It begins with "r" which is the 18th letter of the alphabet.

Furthermore, if we calculate a numerological value from the word "riverrun" it would look like this:

R = 18
I = 9
V = 22
E = 5
R = 18
R = 18
U = 21
N = 14

Total =  125

1 + 2 + 5 = 8

I'm sure there's lots more to be found here. Feel free to add on in the comments.


  1. Since reading tends to proceed linearly, the text of the book could be thought of as not just a sea, but itself a river - one long line, folded to fit in pages, and ultimately reconnecting like a 200,000 word Mobius Strip.

  2. Bravo ! An excellent summary of the range of a single term in this unique book. Let me add a brief anecdote. I have just jumped into Joyce, some thirty or forty years back. I am putting on a one-man rendering of the ALP chapter and find a tiny New York theatre to do it in. I learn it all, I learned it well. The result: I discovered that I had almost forgotten what anybody found so frightfully difficult about it. It seemed quite straightforward. It was a shock to realize this.

  3. Add: riverrun = overrun by river ;)