Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Secret Life of Mushrooms in Finnegans Wake

Amanita muscaria aka Fly agaric.

Fellow Austin Wake group member Gus Strozier sent me an extremely fascinating article that sparked many ideas for me so I must share the article and some thoughts on it here. David Rose, in his essay "Cryptogrammic Cryptogams: Fungi in Finnegans Wake" explores some of the fungal references in the Wake "to ask if Joyce was really up to something, mycologically speaking" and uncovers some startling insights and tantalizing speculations.

You can read the full essay here.

Rose explicitly channels the amusing NY Times article "You Spigotty Anglease?" where Robert H. Boyle insists that the Wake is in fact all about fly fishing, providing evidence of references to fish and fly fishing on nearly every other page. It's one of the most fascinating characteristics of Finnegans Wake that you can view it through a certain biased lens and find confirmations of your theory all throughout. (I'm still assembling a pile of references to the book as a simulacrum of the globe.)

The evidence for a mycological network underlying the text is evident from its first page: Rose cites the lines "rot a peck of pa's malt" and "oranges laid to rust upon the green" (FW pg. 3) as referring to rotting, fermentation, and parasitic fungi. Those lines are familiar to Wake heads, but who among us has contemplated the mycological aspect lying therein? Or the word "holocryptogam" from page 546----I had always thought it was suggestive of the Wake as a hologram and a cryptogram or encoded text, completely overlooking the word "cryptogam" which literally means "hidden reproduction" and denotes plants that reproduce through spores, like fungi.

And now the text of Joyce's nightbook seems to respond to our inquiry and begins to bloom with fermenting flora. Rose describes this revelation through the eyes of a mycologist:
From the umwelt of the Wake’s quashed quotatoes (183.22) the ricorso of pan-etymological meanderings through the preconscious formation of meaning is oceanic and fluid, recycling through mind and history, recycling through the words themselves. Finnegans Wake is not a disquisition on mycology, but a mycelial mat in which fruiting bodies are knotted deep in the sclerotia of words. 

For the latest edition of the "Waywords & Meansigns" project, my friends and I recorded a selection from pages 613-615 (listen to "Vicocyclometer" at the bottom of this page) which included an extraordinary passage that took residence inside my brain. The passage continues to live in my head and I even recited it from memory at an event during the last Joyce conference in Toronto (it also featured prominently in my essay on war in the Wake). Rose highlights this glorious passage in his essay:
A spathe of calyptrous glume involucrumines the perinanthean Amenta: fungoalgaceous muscafilicial graminopalmular planteon; of increasing, livivorous, feelful thinkamalinks; luxuriotiating everywhencewhithersoever among skullhullows and charnelcysts of a weedwastewoldwevild…  (FW p. 613)
Rose cites John Bishop who describes this passage as a "compressed history of the evolution of botanical life." The passage indeed encapsulates the entire plant world, the planteon, with special focus on fungi and the growth of life feeding on decay and death. A constantly reiterated message in the Wake is that life springs forth even out of the deadest heaps of hollow-skull charnel piles.

The most astounding revelation in the essay comes from Rose's interpretation of this passage from pg. 51 of the Wake invoking the guilt-ridden Earwicker in Phoenix Park or "fungopark":
Those many warts, those slummy patches, halfsinster wrinkles, (what has come over the face on the wholebroader E?), and (shrine of Mount Mu save us!) the large fungopark he has grown! Drink!
Rose sees this as Joyce referring to the hallucinogenic toadstool Amanita muscaria---warts, slummy (slimy), patches, and wrinkles being some of the notable characteristics of the iconic mushroom. And there is also an element of ritual present, as Rose explains:
supplication at the shrine of Mount Mu[shroom] and the imperative Drink!, adumbrating the shamanic use of Amanita muscaria in Siberian cultures where the urine of a person under mushroom intoxication is recycled by the acolyte to perpetuate its intoxicating effects. This is later recapitulated in Mount of Mish (131.01) and sacred sponge (516.25).
Rose speculates on whether Joyce knew about the Amanita muscaria, arguing that he must have because in the "Museyroom" passage (note the hint of mushroom in "Museyroom") he brings in a Tom, Dick, and Harry trio where one of them is called "Touchole Fitz Tuomush" (p. 8) which contains the French word for fly agaric, Tue-mouche (pronounced "too moosh"). I can add further that Joyce seems to reference this again on p. 485 in "Tootoo moohootch!" In his 1968 book Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality, R. Gordon Wasson theorized that the Amanita muscaria was in fact the Soma drink of the Rigveda. Rose also informs us that Peter Lamborn Wilson followed that up in 2001 with a study comparing Vedic and Irish literature, suggesting "that an Amanita muscaria cult may have existed in prehistoric Ireland." As is often the case, Joyce in Finnegans Wake seems to have discovered this before anyone even began to search for it. Further fueling this hypothesis, Rose cites the phrase on pg. 229, "megafundum of his tomashunders" which combines important aspects of Wasson's theory, mushrooms and thunder. The word "tomashunders" is an anagram for "soma thunders" and of course thunder plays a powerful role in the Wake. Rose's suggestion of Joyce's foreknowledge of prehistoric Irish cults using a Soma drink made from mushrooms also gives a whole new meaning to the line at the bottom of page 265 about someone testing out a bowl of soup "to find out if there is enough mushroom catsup in the mutton broth." Marinate on that.

Another creative reading by Rose feeds into this mushroom fascination. In the closing pages of the text, as ALP and HCE walk in the woods they spot mushrooms. "Mch? Why them's the muchrooms, come up during the night." (FW p. 625) Proving a very astute Wakean, Rose suggests rotating the "M" in "Mch" 90 degrees counterclockwise (the rotating E appears throughout the Wake representing the main character in different states of being) which would give us ECH, the familiar initials of HCE, whose "Mch" is then reiterated in "muchrooms." I noticed a few pages earlier HCE is described as being "gentle as a mushroom" (p. 618).

Since HCE the mushroom man and monomythic hero also embodies the sacrificial symbol of Christ, whose body is turned into food and ritually eaten multiple times in the Wake (see p. 7, for example), it seems Joyce was tuned into another anthropological mystery that wasn't revealed until after the Wake's publication. It was not until 1970 that the Dead Sea Scrolls scholar John M. Allegro published his notorious book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross where he argues that Christianity originated with European cults devoted to the celebration and ritual consumption of the hallucinogenic Amanita muscaria mushroom.

Giving some further intrigue to all of this is Terence McKenna's preoccupation with Finnegans Wake and mushrooms. The Irish bard and ethnobotanist McKenna frequently lectured on the history and pharmacology of mushrooms. He also considered Finnegans Wake an essential guidebook. As described in his book True Hallucinations, when Terence and his brother Dennis ventured deep into the Amazon Basin to indulge in shamanic rituals and ingest ungodly amounts of hallucinogenic plants, they brought only two books---the I Ching and Finnegans Wake. The McKenna brothers felt "that Finnegans Wake represented the most complete understanding yet achieved of the relation of the human mind to time and space." (True Hallucinations, p. 147) If only they'd known about the book's revelations about secret mushroom cults.


  1. Nor sure about Amanita muscaria in Ireland, but you can certainly get magic mushrooms in autumn. It is said that those from County Wicklow are particularly good, and Wicklow is just a bit south of Joyces Tower in Sandycove.Not at all implausible that Joyce knew about or even sampled these goodies.

  2. Peter Lambon Wilson's book "Ploughing the Clouds" where he postulates the Irish mushroom connection is probably worth a read:

  3. Your blog prompted a search, which turned up this ...

    which reminded me what triggered the prompt -- the memory I have of flunking only one weekly test in my advanced Botany class 40+ years ago (I was an English major): the one on pollination (some flowering plants [worts, etc.] mimic the dispersion tactics of fungi).