Sunday, June 6, 2021

The Portal

Illustration from William Blake's Jerusalem

Some observations on the Gate or Portal in Finnegans Wake I.3

Towards the end chapter 3 (book one) of Finnegans Wake, a drunken German angrily bangs at the locked gate of an Irish pub shouting threats and insults at the pub owner for locking him out after closing time. The gate Joyce places at the entrance of his main character HCE's pub is a megalithic stone structure, described as a "stonehinged gate" (FW 069.15). 

I've been dwelling on the meaning of this gate in chapter 3. The door or portal is a recurrent image in the Wake. One of the many names used for the main character is Mr. Porter. The belligerent at the gate unfurls a litany of insults and nicknames at him including "Sublime Porter" (FW 072.02-3). That word porter has similar etymological roots to the word metaphor meaning "to carry across" like to carry across a threshold. I think that's relevant here because so much of the Wake and especially the part of the book I'm focusing on right now seems to speak in alternating metaphors. 

The banging at the gate calls back to an earlier clash at a doorway in chapter 1 when the Prankquean rains hell on Jarl van Hoother (Earl of Howth) for locking the door of Howth Castle. The "stonehinged gate" on page 69 is "triplepatlockt" and on the adjacent page appears the Prankquean, "a shebeen quean, a queen of pranks." (FW 068.22)

George Cinclair Gibson's insightful study Wake Rites: The Ancient Irish Rituals of Finnegans Wake (University Press of Florida, 2005) discusses the "Banging at the Gate" scene as a parallel enactment of one of the ancient Irish rituals practiced at Tara. The actions of the verbal assailant at the gate, Gibson explains, "are the precise components of the Druidic curse known as the glam dichenn. The most compelling of all ritual curses, the glam dichenn would have been directed at a disgraced leader or failed king and delivered only by a powerful Druid." (p. 123)

As for the location of this scene, Gibson notes: 
...the glam dichenn directed against the fated king of Tara is purposely delivered on a threshold. In Druidic tradition, threshold and liminal locations are the optimal loci for harnessing and generating magical power. Liminal locations---for example, 'the threshold separating the inside of the room or house from the outside world'---can be utilized by a Druid as 'the source of extraordinary powers because the liminal transcends normal distinctions between separate categories" (Nagy, "Liminality," 135-36).  A Druid would use these liminal places (for example, near a door, on the boundary between civilization and wilderness) to create a magically charged "atmosphere" in order to "help generate the power necessary for ritual" (Nagy, "Liminality," 138). 
(Gibson, Wake Rites, p. 124)
The "threshold and liminal locations" which Gibson says "are the optimal loci for harnessing and generating magical power" represent a junction point where worlds intersect. The door in Finnegans Wake is a threshold wedged between the world of wakefulness and deep sleep. The book itself is also represented like a door or gate, the sigla Joyce uses for the book is a square ▢ a type of portal. I think the gate also represents a portal to the afterlife or the underworld, chapters 3 & 4 feature numerous references to the underworld journey of the dead in the Egyptian Book of the Dead

The description of the gate on page 69 includes an odd textual quirk where a capital letter appears unexpectedly with "There" in the middle of a sentence: "Where Gyant Blyant fronts Peannlueamoore There was once upon a wall and a hooghoog wall a was and such a wallhole did exist." The gate, or hole in the wall, is fronted by two giant pencils---"Gyant Blyant" includes the Danish word blyant for "pencil" and "Peannluemoore" is phonetically Irish for "big pencil"---even within the sentence itself, before we get to the gate we first encounter two giants fronting or guarding it. These "faithful poorters" (FW 069.26) are akin to the doorkeepers at Tara, named Camellus and Gemellus, who are directly named later on in the next chapter when the gate incident is re-litigated (see p. 90). Since they are described here as two giant pencils, it would appear these twin guardians of the gate are like two big obelisks. The obelisk is another recurrent image in Finnegans Wake usually representative of the obelisk at Wellington Monument in Phoenix Park, but here since there are two pencils or obelisks it could be invoking the original Egyptian style of placing a pair of obelisks at an entrance way.

This insight about the Egyptians using obelisks in pairs to create a portal between them came from a FW reading group discussion over this chapter last year. Architecture professor and Joyce scholar Marcin Kedzior shared this information with me:
Obelisks were always raised in pairs in keeping with the Egyptian value of balance and harmony; it was believed that the two on earth were reflected by two in the heavens. Egyptologist Richard H. Wilkinson writes:
"The phenomenon of duality pervades Egyptian culture and is at the heart of the Egyptian concept of the universe itself. But rather than focusing on the essential differences between the two parts of a given pair, Egyptian thought may stress their complementary nature as a way of expressing the essential unity of existence through the alignment and harmonization of opposites - just as we today might use "men and women", "old and young", or "great and small" to mean "all" or "everyone" (129)."
(from here:

That point about duality pervading Egyptian culture links back to the Wake because duality and the unity of opposites are also central to Finnegans Wake. And I think the dualities and their powerful conflicts tend to cluster around gates, doors, thresholds in the book. The angry drunk guy berating HCE at the door is an opposing force, a polar opposite of HCE the sleeper himself. The violent confrontations depicted around this section, where the belligerent at the door goes on for pages describing how he wants to break HCE's skull and pummel him, I see these as being clashes within the sleeper HCE himself. The brutality of these clashes I think are similar to the destructive confrontations a soul goes through in its journey through the underworld or the Bardo---the type of thing that goes on in the Egyptian Book of the Dead or the Tibetan Book of the Dead where there are monsters and demons who will tear your flesh to pieces, putting your soul through the trial of your attachments and preparedness for nirvana or for reincarnation. 

I'm getting far afield here, so let me briefly summarize how I see all of this. The gate or portal, the megalithic "stonehinged gate" (FW 069.15) and everything that goes on around this part of the text are suggestive of a number of things: 
  • the sleeper HCE is crossing over a threshold and entering into the void of deep sleep, his persona obliterated. In John Bishop's introduction to the Penguin edition of FW, he notes "Chapters 3 and 4 of Book I are both murkier and harder to read than the first two chapters of FW---in part because HCE recedes even more deeply out of conscious life, now becoming literally absent... and therefore only indirectly represented, in rumor, gossip, and report." (p. xx)
  • Traveling across the threshold of the portal into deep sleep, within HCE are enacted ancient rituals of the divestiture of the High King of Ireland at Tara by the Druids at megalithic sites (see Wake Rites).
  • Descending into the underworld of sleep, HCE experiences the death and resurrection myths of Osiris in the Egyptian Book of the Dead
  • The megalithic portal or doorway which is the entryway to HCE's pub is also the gateway to deep sleep, to death, to rebirth, and an inviting open door for the reader to dive into all of the above, "Opendoor Ospices" (FW 071.13).
  • The megalithic gate becomes representative of HCE himself, or rather HCE transforms into a megalith or monolith or "monomyth" (FW 581.24).
I'll try to expand on all of these points here. While a reader can try to identify a "narrative" or "plot" in chapters 3-4 of the Wake, what I'm usually more interested to follow are the consistent patterns noticeable in the subtext. So much of chapter 3 seems to involve HCE's personal identity fading away as he falls into deeper sleep. The sleeper's sense of individual identity becomes obliterated, as described on page 51, "(since in this scherzarade of one's thousand one nightinesses this sword of certainty that would identifide the body never falls) to idendifine the individuone." Mythological and historical personages abound in this chapter. Siddartha, Buddha, Osiris, Blakean gods, the Prophet Muhammad, ancient Vikings and Celtic Kings and Druid Poets all appear and proliferate in these pages as it seems like the dead from across history and the entire globe gather to arrange for the passage of HCE into the afterlife, he is being "timesported acorss the yawning (abyss)" (FW 056.03). 

The sleeper HCE in ever deeper slumber loses his entire persona, buried in a coffin of sleep paralysis, his consciousness dead to the world, he's "nearvanashed himself" (FW 061.18), his ego extinguished in nirvana and near-vanished in sleep. H.C. Earwicker, or Mr. Porter the pubkeeper, disappears and is replaced by any number of mythological heroes and gods and kings undergoing trials against entities trying to devour him. All these entities seem to be parts of his own being. 

There's an interesting and sort of subtle indication of the interlink between entities when the angry drunk at the gate is berating HCE. Notice the dualities in this description of the language used: "swishing beesnest with blessure, and swobbing broguen eeriesh myth brockendootcsh" (FW 070.03-4). Mixing business with pleasure, or a bee's nest with blessings, and swapping broken Irish with broken Deutsch. I think the presence of the words "eerie" "myth" and "brocken" also indicate a reference here to the Brocken spectre, a phenomenon where an enormous shadow of an observer appears on a cloud, made legendary by the propensity for this spectre to occur when an observer stands atop the Brocken peak in Germany. This phenomenon has been referenced frequently in literature, most memorably for me in Thomas Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow. I think the presence of the Brocken spectre in this passage of Finnegans Wake is confirmed a few lines later with "roebucks raugh at pinnacle's peak" (FW 070.13) plus other references to hikers on a mountain top. 

So the confrontations with hostile entities can be seen as conflicts within HCE himself or with his shadow. One of these encounters takes place at a megalithic stone structure, first introduced as "one of the granite cromlech setts" (FW 061.14). The chapter seems to alternate between describing HCE inside an elaborate coffin and describing HCE being harassed at a doorway, with lots of Egyptian references embedded in these passages. The impression I get when reading this part of the book is that HCE is being prepared for reincarnation, "striving todie, hopening tomellow" (FW 060.29), he's placed inside a pyramid like a dead pharaoh, "reberthing in remarriment out of dead seekness to devine previdence... first pharoah, Humpheres Cheops Exarchas." (FW 62.07-21) Since we're jumping from Druids to Egyptian pharaohs here, it's worth mentioning that Joyce, from his early writings, made connections between the ancient Irish Druids and the Egyptian priests, memorably declaring in "Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages" that, "Ancient Ireland is dead just as ancient Egypt is dead."

Example of a granite cromlech.

HCE in this section seems to be traveling like the sun on a journey under the earth at night and through the stars, this is the mythical image of Osiris in his night-boat. Whether it's Stonehenge or Egyptian pyramids, these ancient temples were usually designed as star-gates and at this point of the book, cosmic elements abound as HCE seems to be floating among the stars in a boat:

"combing the comet's tail up right and shooting popguns at the stars" (FW 065.11)
"gazing and crazing and blazing at the stars" (FW 065.13)
"they all were afloat in a dreamlifeboat" (FW 065.29-30)

We get another reminder that we are actually talking about a coffin but the way it is described, "The coffin, a triumph of the illusionist's art" (FW 066.28), suggests death is an illusion and that our main character will eventually re-appear just "round the coroner." (FW 067.13) I should also point out this section contains a paragraph all about sex for procreation followed by a paragraph about the delivery of a letter through the post. John Bishop in Joyce's Book of the Dark wrote about the letter passage on p. 66 as having to do with a dream experienced by the sleeper and his attempt to transfer this dream information across the threshold of sleep into consciousness in the morning: "Will it ever be next morning the postal unionist's ... strange fate ... to hand in a huge chain envelope... ?" (FW 066.10-14) The passage about posting a letter is bracketed by paragraphs about procreative sex and a special coffin used in a magician's act. In discussing the recurring images of ancient portals throughout FW, George C. Gibson in Wake Rites confirms that "HCE's passage through these perilous thresholds is an act associated with themes of rebirth, Easter, initiation, and the transition from the old world to the new." (Wake Rites, p. 197)

As we get to the passage with the "stonehinged gate" on page 69, we encounter more dualities. The long paragraph preceding the gate scene starts with "Oh! Oh!" (FW 067.32) and ends with "(ah! ah!)" (FW069.02), Joyce's way of summoning alpha and omega. In the "stonehinged gate" paragraph are more celestial references, with the dual "Isther Estarr" and "Yesther Asterr" suggestive of the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar with the word star evident in both names. The text places us "In the drema of Sorestost Areas, Diseased." There are a number of meanings here (including, phonetically, the Irish for "Irish Free State"), but one of the ways I read it is "Solstice Areas, Deceased" in reference to Stonehenge or some other ancient abandoned solstice temple site. Stonehenge was important for Joyce. There are at least half a dozen direct references to Stonehenge in Finnegans Wake, and as Peter Chrisp mentioned in his blog post about Joyce's development of the HCE character, when James Joyce visited the site of Stonehenge in 1931 he remarked, "I have been fourteen years trying to get here." The quote comes from David Hayman's book A First Draft Version of Finnegans Wake (p. 3), where Hayman says Joyce was referring to the work he was engaged in with Finnegans Wake

The "stonehinged gate" paragraph on page 69 further amplifies the significance of the gate metaphor with several references to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, "to garble a garthen of Odin and the lost paladays when all the eddams ended with aves." (FW 69.09-11) The gate becomes "an applegate" (FW 69.21) suggesting an apple tree in this garden, also inside the gate are sheep and goat and other livestock harvested by the primordial farmers. The etymology of the word paradise literally means "to build an enclosure around." So like we've said, this gate is a portal, an intersection of worlds. It could be a gate to the dreamworld, to the afterlife, to the cosmos, or to the lost paradise. Or all of the above, that's how the Wake works.

Outside the gate, the belligerent drunk German continues to badger HCE with 111 different names mocking him. HCE refuses to "respond a solitary wedgeword" (FW 072.18) and attempts to not acknowledge "his langwedge" (FW 073.01). Those words "wedgeword" and "langwedge" are important and revealing here. We're talking about a "stonehinged gate" which serves as a portal between worlds. The gate would be wedged in between two separate dimensions. HCE doesn't respond and doesn't want to further drive a wedge between he and his assailant. Joyce placing the word "wedge" in association with language here could be alluding to ancient cuneiform writing which was wedge-shaped. But also, as we discussed in our FW reading group when we covered this passage, there's more to it because in architecture a wedge serves as the keystone holding together a doorway. 

Keystone wedge in architecture.

The wedge actually holds dualities together, strengthening the gate structure. This is the "langwedge" of the Wake, uniting opposites, often in this book you'll find polarities merged inside one word or phrase. With the appearances of that word "wedge" at the end of chapter 3, the stone architecture of HCE's gate builds into something more elaborate. No longer just a gate, now it has become a megalithic tomb. A nebulous somebody or nobody is seen to "build rocks over him" (FW 073.09) and he is safely ensconced in an "archcitadel" (FW 073.24) with "chambered cairns" (FW 073.29). Chambered cairns are neolithic burial monuments for the dead:

By Islandhopper, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Even though the text says of HCE within his intricate stone tomb that "he med leave to many a door beside" (FW 073.28), the persona of the man asleep is hard to find. He seemed to say goodbye to his angry assailant right before traversing the portal, crossing over into time-bending dimensions on the other side lightyears away, he "proceeded with a Hubbleforth slouch in his slap backwords... in the directions of the duff and demb institutions about ten or eleven hundred years lurch away in the moonshiny gorge of Patself on the Bach. Adyoe!" (FW 073.18-22) All that's left for us to examine is the increasingly ornate megalithic structure, "skatterlings of a stone" (FW 073.34) forming an "eolithostroton" (FW 073.30). Now separated from HCE by time spans in the thousands of years we become archeologists trying to develop "a theory none too rectiline of the evoluation of human society and a testament of the rocks from all the dead unto some the living." (FW 073.31-33) And then Joyce ends the chapter on the following page with pretty clear indications that the main character has now fallen into deepest sleep. 

In describing the sequence of events from this part of the Wake, John Bishop emphasizes that this all "seems to have to do not only with HCE's disappearance from consciousness, but also with his physical 'arrest,' his immobilization in the world of night; while in chapter 4, a significant turning point in the book, a process of 'disselving' and dispersion begins, as HCE fades from central focus into a remote background." (p. xx, Penguin edition of FW) In chapter 4, we once again encounter some references to Egyptian pharaohs buried deep inside pyramids, HCE's coffin becomes like a torpedo or submarine transporting through an "underground heaven, or mole's paradise" (FW 076.33). Further within chapter 4, HCE officially becomes no longer a somebody but an everybody, on page 88 he is named "Here Comes Everybody" with each letter representing the name of some historical or mythical figure.

By the end of chapter 4, where there was once a person now there is only an increasingly ornate stone structure, envisioned with "beaconsfarafield innerhalf the zuggurat" (FW 100.19). Maybe HCE is now the illuminated inner half of a ziggurat. He's no longer an entity but a geometrical structure, confirmed by "the canonicity of his existence as a tesseract." (FW 100.34-35) By the following chapter he has truly become a megalith, where the "trilithon sign M" (FW 119.17) is a fallen letter E meant to look like a trilithon

FW 119.17

This evolution of HCE into a gateway portal built of stone that is also an elaborate "eolithostroton" (FW 073.30) or ziggurat or tesseract entombing him reminds me of a Gopuram, the monumental and ornate entrance tower to a Hindu temple.

Gopuram, gateway entrance to Hindu temple

This transformation of a seemingly human character into a ziggurat or tesseract stone tumulus is weird and confusingly abstract, but bear in mind that structure is also a gate or door and Joyce repeatedly hints at having dropped keys for the reader. One of these keys might be the aforementioned trilithon sign formed by rotating the E sigla for HC Earwicker, and that seems to be hinted at on page 100 with "tristurned initials, the cluekey to a worldroom beyond the roomwhorld" (FW 100.29). Bear in mind too that the wedge in the aforementioned "wedgewords" and "langwedge" is indicative of the keystone in architecture. So much of what all this is saying seems to be commentary on Finnegans Wake itself, Joyce's own history of the world thru the experience of one person asleep at night, the reader being led on an archeological dig thru the history of the human body and human experience.

That amazing line on page 100 depicting lit up ziggurats, "beaconsfarafield innerhalf the zuggurat" conjures in my head a very similar image as that provided by the recently deceased poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (himself a Joycean) at the end of his epic poem Time of Useful Consciousness (2012): "Macrotiendas in Teotihuacan/ The pyramids lit up like cupcakes." The below picture shows me sitting atop a ziggurat pyramid structure staring down the Avenue of the Dead in Teotihuacan, Mexico, with a James Joyce shirt on my back.

Exploring that ancient site of a complex pyramid city that was abandoned thousands of years prior, I couldn't help but think of Joyce and Finnegans Wake and the way he designed his book. The tour guide described how archeologists discovered buried remains underneath each of the ziggurat temples, they even found an "underground heaven, a mole's paradise" deep underneath the main ziggurat/pyramid, a series of tunnels decorated with gems to create the atmosphere of a mythical underworld amidst the stars. 

Joyce when he was finishing up writing Finnegans Wake worried that his highly complex masterwork might end up being neglected and abandoned. "Perhaps it will end in failure, be a wreck or ‘catastrophe’ ...and perhaps in the years to come this work of mine will remain solitary and abandoned, like a temple without believers." (Portraits of the Artist in Exile, p. 160-161, my emphasis) I think the Wake will always maintain the aura of an abandoned temple ripe for archeological exploration, but with Finnegans Wake group digs taking place all over the world and even assembling virtually via "Bangen-op-Zoom" (FW 073.26-27) amidst a global pandemic just like ours did, the great temple site has not remained solitary and the gems and treasures yielded from these group digs are invaluable to an appreciation of what the human mind is capable of.  

"So you need hardly spell me how every word will be bound over to carry three score and ten toptypsical readings throughout the book of Doublends Jined... til Daleth, mahomahouma, who oped it closeth thereof the. Dor." 
(FW 020.13-18)

(Thank you to Marcin Kedzior, Madeline Melnick, and the Austin Finnegans Wake Reading Group.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Notes on Delmore Schwartz (Part 2)

Continuing from Part 1 here 

Brooklyn poet Delmore Schwartz in 1938.

"as were it sentenced to be nuzzled over a full trillion times for ever and a night till his noddle sink or swim by that ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia" (Finnegans Wake, p. 120)

That ideal reader of Finnegans Wake, as described by Joyce in the above quote, could very well have ended up being the great poet from New York City, Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966), who read the Wake voraciously and also suffered from terrible insomnia. He developed an addiction to sleeping pills and alcohol as ways to settle himself down to go to sleep. It didn't help much as his mind was too active, he was known to stay up all night reading through stacks of books. 

In Saul Bellow's novel Humboldt's Gift (1975) where the main character Humboldt is based on Delmore Schwartz, there's a memorable scene in which the narrator spends the night at Humboldt's farmhouse in New Jersey. Deep into the night, Humboldt goes off on one of his brilliant and eclectic monologues about art, culture, baseball, politics, history, etc until finally the narrator retires to bed: "Next day he was still going strong. It made me giddy to hear so much subtle analysis and to have so much world history poured over my head at breakfast. He hadn't slept at all." (Bellow, p. 32)

In his journals, which were published in 1986 as Portrait of Delmore (edited by Elizabeth Pollet), Delmore jotted these lines of verse: 

Of three o'clock in the morning

Of four o'clock in the morning,

            and of the early 

Morning light I would be poet laureate (p. 221)

I am insomnia's poet, Delmore Schwartz  (p. 269)

Elsewhere in his journals, he modified Joyce's famous line: "History is a nightmare: during which I am trying to get a good night's sleep, which gives me insomnia." (p. 458)

So it figures that Delmore could be "that ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia" because he even treated the book Finnegans Wake exactly as Joyce suggested, "to be nuzzled over a full trillion times for ever and a night till his noddle sink or swim." His biographer James Atlas relates the intensity with which Delmore would read the Wake starting from its early excerpts: 

Delmore at seventeen was a self-styled member of the avant-garde; he read Hound & Horn, studied Pound's Cantos as they appeared, and collected first editions of everything T.S. Eliot wrote. transition was especially important to him now that excerpts of Finnegans Wake were appearing in its pages, and he pored over each new installment with Talmudic zeal. For the rest of his life, Joyce was to be his literary hero, Finnegans Wake a work he read and annotated with such intensity that his copies would fall apart; he went through several in his lifetime. (Atlas, p. 40)

A copy of Delmore Schwartz's Finnegans Wake now resides at the Beinecke Library at Yale University and by the wonders of technology you can view each page of the book and zoom in on the tiny details of Delmore's scribbled annotations. Over at the blog "Swerve of Shore to Bend of Bay" Peter Chrisp has written a beautiful post about Delmore Schwartz and his devotion to Joyce, including a close look at some pages from his annotated Wake. I am trying to avoid overlap as I don't want to step on Peter C's toes, but it was that post that initially sprung me off on my research of Delmore Schwartz.

The part that really struck me was his biographer James Atlas mentioning that Delmore's passion for the Wake was such that "he even annotated while sitting in the stands at the Polo Grounds." (Atlas, p. 327) That image---the poet Delmore Schwartz attending a NY Giants baseball game at the Polo Grounds and reading and annotating Finnegans Wake while he sat in the stands---that's what compelled me to write this. I am drawn to Delmore Schwartz because he loved Finnegans Wake and major league baseball like I do.

I have been trying to track down more details about that note---which game(s) did he attend? What pages of the Wake was he annotating? Since we have every page of his personal copy of Finnegans Wake available to view online and since his journals are available in published form, you would think this information might be discoverable. As I described in Part 1, Delmore would often jot the details in his journals when he attended a baseball game. I still have not been able to track down where exactly James Atlas got that information described in his excellent biography, though. I've been scouring Delmore's journals trying to find any mention of this. There's several times where he mentions indulging in following a Giants ballgame and reading FW on the same day. The closest thing I can find is this brief note from July of 1954: 

F[innegans] W[ake], 300-314. Giants doubleheader (losing second game)---distressed by nightfall. (Portrait of Delmore, p. 494)

I suspect this might be it. Delmore was a regular at the Polo Grounds when he lived in New York and he's pretty clear about it whenever he was following a game on the radio rather than attending in person. So it's possible this note indicates Delmore was there at the Polo Grounds watching the 1954 NY Giants (who went on to win the World Series that year) play a doubleheader against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday, July 11, 1954 and that he was also reading and annotating pages 300-314 of Finnegans Wake during the game. 

Recently I had the pleasure of participating in an online Finnegans Wake reading group session with the members of the Finnegans Wake Society of New York in which we read page 308. This is one of the strangest pages in the book, with text in three columns, footnotes, and even doodles in the margins. It's also one of the pages Delmore would have been annotating at the Polo Grounds during that doubleheader on July 11th, 1954. I found Delmore's annotations on this page (which he may or may not have scribbled while watching Willie Mays patrol centerfield for the Giants) to be pretty helpful in pointing out how the various blocks of text and drawings all interrelate. 

You can see at the top of page 308 how he drew lines connecting the countdown ("Aun Do Tri" etc) with the marginal text on the left. 

Detail, top of pg 308 of Delmore Schwartz's copy of FW. (Beinecke Library)

He also identifies connections between the middle text ("tea's set") and the marginal text on the right ("YOUR BEEEFTAY'S FIZZIN OVER") and he drew lines for the connection between the five and ten from the countdown to the footnotes below. He also drew links between the doodles on the bottom left and the marginal text on the right. 

Detail, bottom of pg 308 of Delmore Schwartz's copy of FW. (Beinecke Library)

In the meeting with the NY group, our collective unpacking of the page did find that some of these connections bore out. At a bare minimum, it's just incredible to look at all of these notes on this one page and try to think alongside Delmore as he reads the Wake. The page a palimpsest of different shades of ink and pencil written and overwritten over multiple readings (stains of coffee or beer are evident on many pages), hieroglyphic lines scratched and arrowed like a baseball scorecard

Close-up of a random baseball scorecard.

Finnegans Wake p. 308 with annotations by Delmore Schwartz. From the Beinecke Library of Yale website here.

*   *   *

Peter Chrisp in his post says that "Delmore Schwartz must have spent more time thinking about Finnegans Wake than almost anybody else. Yet it's a shame he wrote very little about the book." It is a shame indeed. Delmore was known for being a sharp and witty literary critic, surely he must have had lots of interesting things to say about Joyce and the book he loved so much. Peter C shared the one paragraph from Delmore's essay on "The Vocation of the Poet in the Modern World" where he talks about Joyce and Finnegans Wake at some length, stressing the global scope of the work and how it involves all of history. There's also a nice little footnote in that essay where Delmore argues that Finnegans Wake belongs in any serious discussion about poetry:

Joyce's two best works, Ulysses and his last book, are not poems in the ordinary sense of the word; and he wrote several volumes of poetry, most of which consist of verses far inferior to anything in his major books. But any view of poetry which excludes Finnegans Wake as a poem and Joyce as a poet merely suggests the likelihood that Joyce transformed and extended the limits of poetry by the writing of his last book. If we freeze our categories and our definitions, (and this is especially true in literature) the result is that we disable and blind our minds. (from Selected Essays of Delmore Schwartz, p. 22)

His stressing of Finnegans Wake as a work of poetry here is important. Beyond that, though, it's true that Delmore never got around to publishing any extensive writings about Joyce. A letter from September 1938 mentions his intention to write "an extended review of Joyce's new work" (see Letters of Delmore Schwartz, p. 59) but it doesn't seem to have ever materialized. 

In the preface to the Selected Essays of Delmore Schwartz (1970) the editors explain: "Another omission is more surprising. This volume contains nothing on James Joyce. Two short pieces could have been included, but the editors thought them too perfunctory, too hastily journalistic to represent adequately Delmore's vast knowledge of the work of his chief literary hero. A likely guess would be that an extended essay or book on Joyce was one of Delmore's long entertained projects and that he never accomplished the project precisely because he thought of it as crucial." (p. xiii) (Reading about Delmore Schwartz reveals many intriguing yet uncompleted projects he labored on for years, some other examples: a book-length study of T.S. Eliot, an edited/translated collection of Heinrich Heine, and a textbook on the history of poetry.) 

There are many abbreviated notes on Finnegans Wake to be found in Delmore's journals (edited by his second wife Elizabeth Pollet) but even there, when you read the introduction, you'll find a similar caveat: "The one major exception is the omission of Delmore's copying of other writers, particularly of James Joyce in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Much that was cut was either illegible or so fragmentary or chaotic that it would have choked any movement." (Portrait of Delmore, p. xv) Reading through the journals, Delmore mentions frequently that he spent time copying passages from FW. These copied passages have been omitted, but there are some interesting bits to be found like this versification of a FW line:

"To peek aboo

       Durk the


      Of slumbwhere" 

                  (FW, p. 580) 

(from Portrait of Delmore, p. 510)

The Wake as the height of poetry was a theme for him. In 1954, he noted "copying FW & letting it suggest the beauty & the future of language & of poetry to me." (p. 505) In 1943, he wrote this note on the Wake: "Liffey is Life, and it is a poem of nature, the male and the female principle, and all memory, hall memory." (p. 129) At another point he ruminates, "Reading FW must satisfy some deep need---beyond love of language & rhythm---since I go on, month after month, hour by hour." (p. 339) 

He also mentions a few times how important it must have been to Joyce's development as an author that he taught at a Berlitz language school. Finnegans Wake is a book that deploys more than sixty languages, after all. At one point Delmore writes this note: "FW: The Authorized King James version of Anglo-Irish International Basic English." (p. 624)

At another point, he praises an essay by Edmund Wilson on Joyce especially what he found to be "a beautiful and generous and exact statement: 'The demands that Joyce makes upon the reader are considerable, but the rewards are astounding!'" (p. 497)

It's also worth noting that, when he was teaching at Harvard, Delmore had a sort of rivalry with the scholar Harry Levin whom he loathed. Possibly because he was blinded by his intense dislike for Levin, Delmore argued that Levin's book on Joyce (James Joyce: A Critical Introduction, 1941) was terrible and his interpretations off-base. What's ironic and sort of ridiculous about the whole thing is Levin's book on Joyce was praised by Joyce himself for being a very sharp and accurate appraisal of his work. I've read Levin's book and I think it is superior to Campbell and Robinson's Skeleton Key among the early studies of the Wake. I think it holds up well. One wishes Delmore had written his own book on the Wake to counter his rival. 

Then again, there's that famous line from Joyce about mistakes. Delmore riffed on this in a journal entry from 1943:
Joyce says, The artist makes no mistakes. His mistakes are the portals of discovery.
    No, wrongly stated for the rhetoric of the paradox. The artist always makes mistakes; his mistakes are the only way in which he can make certain essential discoveries. (p. 135)

*   *   *

From Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow (a fictionalized account of Delmore Schwartz):

"Poets have to dream, and dreaming in America is no cinch. God 'giveth songs in the night,' the Book of Job says. I've devoted lots of thought to all these questions and I've concentrated hard on Humboldt's famous insomnia. But I think that Humboldt's insomnia testified mostly to the strength of the world, the human world and all its wonderful works. The world was interesting, really interesting. The world had money, science, war, politics, anxiety, sickness, perplexity. It had all the voltage. Once you had picked up the high-voltage wire and were someone, a known name, you couldn't release yourself from the electrical current. You were transfixed.... Where are the poets' power and interest? They originate in dream states. These come because the poet is what he is in himself, because a voice sounds in his soul which has a power equal to the power of societies, states, and regimes. You don't make yourself interesting through madness, eccentricity, or anything of the sort but because you have the power to cancel the world's distraction, activity, noise, and become fit to hear the essence of things." (Bellow, p. 316)

What's fascinating about Delmore's "famous insomnia" is that he so often wrote about sleep and dreams in his work. He was a poet of the liminal state, that threshold between waking and sleeping, a territory he must have been very familiar with. His most famous story is called "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" and many of his stories and poems involve dreams or the earliest inklings of dawn and waking up from a dream. He developed a great interest in Freud and psychoanalysis, he often wrote down his dreams in his journals and tried to analyze himself. He also tended to dwell on the type of ontological question about dreams and reality that opens his poem "The Fulfillment": 

"Is it a dream?" I asked. To which my fellow

Answered with a hoarse voice and dulled insistence:

"Dream, is it a dream? What difference

Does it make or mean? If it is only a dream

It is the dream which we are. Dream or the last resort

Of reality, it is the truth of our minds:

We are condemned because this is our consciousness." 

(from Summer Knowledge, p. 150)

*   *   *

Let's go back to that aforementioned note from 1954 once more---"F[innegans] W[ake], 300-314. Giants doubleheader (losing second game)---distressed by nightfall." (Portrait of Delmore, p. 494) This doubleheader took place at the Polo Grounds on Sunday July 11th, 1954. Exactly one year later, Delmore was again reading Finnegans Wake on July 11th because he jotted the date "7.11.55" in the bottom left corner of page 89 in his copy:

Detail from Delmore's Wake, pg 89.

There's an eerie significance here because it was on this same day a decade later when Delmore Schwartz died of a heart attack on July 11, 1966. 

Frequently in his journal Delmore would quote lines from Anna Livia Plurabelle's closing monologue from Finnegans Wake as the river of life flows out to the sea and her death. In October of 1943 he wrote: 

When yellow leaves or none or few

My leaves have drifted from me--- (p. 129)

He's quoting from the last lines of the Wake: "My leaves have drifted from me. But one clings still." (FW, p. 628) He draws on this same line again in this note from January 1944, a month after his 30th birthday: 

My years have rifted from me. One to thirty. How do I know how many more, and where will I be and when will I die and will I be sorry that I am I? Yes? Guess! (p. 147)

By the mid-1960s poor Delmore Schwartz had descended pretty deep into madness and addiction which he'd been struggling with for years. He suffered from paranoid delusions about the Rockefellers beaming signals into his brain from the top of the Empire State Building, he alienated his friends and loved ones as he lobbed unfounded accusations at them and even brought lawsuits against them, he concocted a delusional story in which his wife was cheating with someone she had never actually met, and he fell into a sad and pathetic state. Despite his psychological maladies he still managed to publish some poetry and hold down a job as a professor at Syracuse University (where he became a mentor to Lou Reed), but in 1966 he got anxious and left the university to head back to New York City. He bounced around a few seedy hotels in crappy neighborhoods and then on July 11th, 1966, while returning from taking out his trash, he suffered a heart attack and ended up dead in the hallway of a floor other than his. He was 52 years old. It's assumed he must have suffered for hours in the middle of the night because he was found on the floor with his shirt ripped open. His body was unclaimed in the morgue for a few days since nobody seemed to know who the once-famous poet was.

Knowing that Delmore had a love for the Anna Livia monologue at the end of FW and knowing the sad circumstances of his death, I can't help but think of these lines in relation to him: "...never heed of your name! O bitter ending! I'll slip away before they're up. They'll never see. Nor know. Nor miss me." (FW p. 627)

In his notes from 1945 he jotted down these lines from the end of the Wake:

And I rush, my only! into your arms---

I done me best when I was let---


I mounted the steps of the high chair and recited, pointing my finger: "I done me best when I was let---"

(p. 262)

*   *   *

James Atlas in Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet describes how Delmore fell into a depressed state shortly after his 28th birthday. And then, "The death of James Joyce a month later increased his desolation, and he summoned William Barrett [NYU professor of philosophy and his close friend] from Providence to come up and 'keen for our dead brother.' From then on, Delmore always referred to Joyce as 'our poor dead king,' echoing Mr. Casey's lament for Parnell in A Portrait of the Artist." (Atlas, p. 198-199)

Even though Delmore never got around to publishing a full-length study of Joyce, fortunately we do have a poem that he wrote in tribute to his literary hero. This poem appears in the posthumous collection Last and Lost Poems published by New Directions in 1989.

A King of Kings, a King Among the Kings 

              (by Delmore Schwartz) 

Come, let us rejoice in James Joyce, in the greatness of this poet,

     king, and king of poets

For he is our poor dead king, he is the monarch and Caesar of English,

     he is the veritable King of the King’s English


     The English of the life of the city,

     and the English of music;


Let them rejoice because he rejoiced and was joyous;

For his joy was superior, it was supreme, for it was accomplished

After the suffering of much evil, the evil of the torment of pride,

By the overcoming of disgust and despair by means of the confrontation       

of them

By the enduring of nausea, the supporting of exile, the drawing from

     the silence of exile, the pure arias of the

     hidden music of all things, all beings.

For the joy of Joyce was earned by the sweat of the bow of his mind

     by the tears of the agony of his heart;

     hence it was gained, mastered, and conquered,

     (hence it was not a gift and freely given,

     a mercy often granted to masters,

     as if they miraculous were natural --)

For he earned his joy and ours by the domination of evil by

     confrontation and the exorcism of language

     in all its powers of imitation and

     imagination and radiance and delight....

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Rare Recording of James Joyce Society Meeting in NYC featuring Joseph Campbell, Padraic Colum

This recorded meeting of the James Joyce Society of NY took place on Oct 23, 1951 at Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan. This a must-listen for Wakeans. Joseph Campbell provides a good introduction to newcomers and then reads select passages from the book, really capturing the lilt of the language beautifully. Padraic Colum shares personal memories of his old friend James Joyce. There is a Dr. Schwartz on the recording as well, and I thought it might be Delmore Schwartz (who was captured in a photograph with a group at Gotham Book Mart in 1948) but this Dr. Schwartz seems to have met Joyce personally which Delmore never did. Lately I've developed a great interest in Delmore Schwartz, reading his biography, his journals, and his letters, with no mention of this historic occasion anywhere so it must be a different Schwartz. 

The gathering sounds sort of like a Finnegans Wake reading group. Listening to it I could feel myself there in that tiny Manhattan bookshop in 1951, enthralled listening to Campbell explore the text he loved so much, and seeing James Joyce come to life in the reflections shared by those who had known him personally. This was only ten years after Joyce's death.

"It was cultivated with a meticulosity bordering on the insane" - one of the members describing Joyce's approach to writing Finnegans Wake.

The recording is on YouTube thanks to the account "repetition compulsion" who has also posted the Anthony Burgess FW video and has also shared a video of Jean Erdman (Joseph Campbell's wife) performing her musical play "The Coach with the Six Insides." 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

"the mystery of himsel in furniture" FW 184.10

"Was that voice ourselves? Scraps, orts, and fragments, are we, also, that?"
- Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts 

One relatively simple line from Finnegans Wake has been kicking around in my head for a while now. I say relatively simple because by Wakean standards, the language in this phrase is pretty straightforward. Yet, I've been stuck trying to unpack its meaning for a long time. 

The phrase comes at the end of one of the most famous sections of Finnegans Wake, the listicle paragraph describing, in outlandishly catalogued detail, the interior of Shem the Penman's "Haunted Inkbottle" house on pgs 182-184. You can listen to Robert Anton Wilson reciting this passage with dramatic effect here:


There are so many brilliant and hilarious phrases for the things in Shem's house like "solid objects cast at goblins, once current puns, quashed quotatoes, messes of mottage ...  tress clippings from right, lift, and cintrum, worms of snot, toothsome pickings" etc but what I've been thinking about is the final phrase of the paragraph where Shem is described as "writing the mystery of himsel in furniture." (FW 184.10)

"writing the mystery of himsel in furniture"

The two things that stand out to me are the bizarre quirk of the word "himsel" missing the letter f at the end of it and the use of the word "furniture" here. I kept wondering why furniture? And why not spell out the word "himself"? The Wake is made up entirely of little mysteries like these but this one so intrigued me because the phrase seems so close to being undistorted English in a paragraph that mostly uses recognizable words.  

For context, the phrase appears at the end of a long paragraph and as the final clause in a very long sentence. It's in the Shem the Penman chapter, ostensibly narrated by his very hostile twin brother Shaun the Postman. Shaun the Postman begins the paragraph by describing Shem's house how a postman might describe a really disgusting, dilapidated hoarder house on his mail route:
The house O'Shea or O'Shame, Quivapieno known as the 
Haunted Inkbottle, no number Brimstone Walk, Asia in Ireland, 
as it was infested with the raps, with his penname SHUT sepia- 
scraped on the doorplate and a blind of black sailcloth over its 
wan phwinshogue, in which the soulcontracted son of the secret 
cell groped through life at the expense of the taxpayers ...  (FW 182)

Shem the Penman really represents James Joyce himself, portrayed as a cartoonishly absurd and self-mocking caricature living inside a Haunted Inkbottle. (Joyce used lines from negative reviews for Ulysses as raw material for this chapter.) I love that description of "a blind of black sailcloth over its wan phwinshogue" which sounds like there is a black curtain covering the house's one window but is also alluding to the black eyepatch Joyce wore over his damaged blind eye. 

Following this we get a close look at the inside of the house through a comically long catalogue of items. The sentence begins, "The warped flooring of the lair and soundconducting walls thereof, to say nothing of the uprights and imposts, were persianly literatured with ..." and then it goes on for an entire page, leading into the next page where the same sentence continues mocking Shem and his abode. Shaun says we might actually be able to catch a glimpse of Shem surrounded by all that junk in his house, "self exiled in upon his ego, a nightlong a shaking betwixtween white or reddr hawrors, noondayterrorised to skin and bone by an ineluctable phantom (may the Shaper have mercery on him!) writing the mystery of himsel in furniture." (FW p. 184.6-10)

So, why "furniture" here? Well, the most obvious answer is that we've just gotten this ridiculous description of a house and all the junk that its floors and walls were "persianly literatured with" which immediately connects all of the furnished objects in the listicle with literature. Since this passage is in fact Joyce describing his self-caricature Shem, the furniture filling up his Haunted Inkbottle house could be the literary matter Joyce collects and assembles in his books. He was "writing the mystery of himsel in furniture" because Joyce reveals mysteries about himself in the descriptions of all that junk furnishing Shem's house. 

Furthermore, since Shem is "noondayterrorised to skin and bone by an ineluctable phantom" he's perhaps terrified of death, the inescapable phantom or "Shaper" he asks for mercy from. He's terrorized "to skin and bone" nearly scared to death. Part of why this line has been in my head recently is because during this dark season of death while so many have perished from coronavirus or complications therefrom, I've thought about the furniture that is left over when a dead person departs. All the things that person has accumulated throughout their life, from their desks and bookshelves and picture frames to their little scraps or fragments, all of that stuff is the detritus of a soul. With more than 200,000 people in my country having perished from this virus, their loved ones prevented from being in close proximity in their dying moments, so many families are left with the furniture of the deceased. These physical leftovers are the shells of their life. 

I think what Joyce is getting at with "the mystery of himsel in furniture" is that the mystery of a person's true self or their soul can be searched for in the scraps or fragments or shells that are leftover after the person departs. Just think about a house occupied by someone with all their belongings. When that person dies and disappears, their physical belongings remain. All the things they loved or relied on, all the things that were important or meaningful for them remain. If you really wanted to understand that person or get to know them after they left you might try to uncover that mystery through the things that person kept nearby. 

Mysteries and worlds contained within everyday objects is a theme throughout Joyce's work. Recall the line from the "Oxen of the Sun" episode in Ulysses, "Any object, intensely regarded, may be a gate of access to the incorruptible eon of the gods." Part of the debate about Shakespeare in the "Scylla and Charybdis" episode dwells on the Bard having left his "secondbest" bed to his wife after he died and what that bequeathed piece of furniture may have implied. In the "Ithaca" chapter, after Joyce lists out all of the furniture in the living room of 7 Eccles Street, Bloom considers the significance invested in two chairs: "Significances of similitude, of posture, of symbolism, of circumstantial evidence, of testimonial supermanence." It's that "testimonial supermanence" that is most relevant to why Joyce might suggest the mystery of a self can be uncovered in furniture. The permanence of furniture outlasts the person and could provide a tribute to who they were.
Now, what about the quirk of that word "himsel"? Why did Joyce have to truncate that word? Maybe he left out that final letter just to annoy the reader or just to be weird or maybe because the letter f is already nearby in the word "furniture." The word "self" appears several times in and around the passage we're looking at: on p. 182.19 "endlessly inartistic portraits of himself" and on p. 183.03 "exceeding in violent abuse of self and others" and on p. 184.06 "self exiled in upon his ego" and 184.11 "our low hero was a self valeter." So then why "himsel" rather than himself? 

I think I've figured out the answer but my reasoning is subjective and convoluted so I'll need you to follow me on this. That word "himsel" refers to Hansel from the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale. I will explain why, but first I should mention Joyce puns on Hansel and Gretel multiple times in the Wake (see p. 551.09 and p. 618.02). And I feel like the presence of Hansel in "himsel" on page 184 is verified in the passage immediately following "himsel in furniture" where we get a detailed description of Shem's alchemical oven ("an athanor") and of course the oven is a major part of the Hansel and Gretel story. 

Moreover, "the mystery of himsel in furniture" could be alluding to the bread crumbs left over by Hansel to create a path to follow home. The mystery of the self to whom all that furniture belongs could be unraveled by following the breadcrumbs of their belongings, and again I'll remind you that in this passage Shem's house is said to be "persianly literatured" with all these objects so literature and furniture might be seen as synonymous here. 

Other lines from the Wake feed into my theory. This line on page 68 offers an interesting hint: "The column of lumps lends the pattrin of the leaves behind us." In the word "pattrin" Joyce is punning on the Gypsy word "patrin" which (according to Fweet) refers to "a Gipsy trail, handfuls of leaves or grass cast by the Gypsies on the road to denote to those behind the way which they have taken." This is exactly like the breadcrumbs left behind by Hansel, only it's more mysterious because it involves Gypsies using leaves for a traveler to follow. Think of how leaves can be the pages of a book. Of course, it's also a pun on pattern, we are looking for patterns to follow. In the very next sentence on page 68 is the phrase "life, limb, and chattels" where chattel is furniture or personal possessions. This hearkens back to Shem on page 184 terrorized "to skin and bone" and writing his mystery in furniture.

That word "chattel" appears again at the bottom of page 598 in a sentence describing the archetypal family of HCE and ALP living over millions of years through their offspring with reference to all the belongings of their descendants including "their orts and their everythings that is be will was theirs." (FW p. 599.01) That word "orts" is important here, orts are scraps or leftover pieces of food, like breadcrumbs. The word "orts" pops up on page 69 in "your horde of orts and oriorts" where it is combined with Armenian words that mean young men and young girls, again following the theme of passing things down to descendants. And on page 67, again in the context of a passage talking about the perpetual upswell of future generations inheriting the leftovers of the past, we get the phrase "orses and hashes" which refers to lots things but I think "orts" are echoed in there.

I bring all of that up to reinforce the possibility that "the mystery of himsel in furniture" involves seeking out the stories of the past by following the breadcrumbs left behind. Joyce scatters tons of clues all throughout the book and the reader is encouraged to play the role of detective, picking up little bits of evidence, putting it all together and trying to form a story. An important metaphor in Finnegans Wake is the dump or trash heap. The hoarder's nest in Shem's house is part of a broader pattern. The book itself is a sort of trash heap of cultures, languages, histories, random scraps of information, stories from Joyce's life, etc. For the reader sifting through it all, even with just a few pieces you can start trying to make sense of it. You can identify and follow patterns or patrins. 

While I wouldn't suggest "the mystery of himsel in furniture" has now been solved, I think we have at least identified some intriguing evidence, some meaningful scraps. I think that's why in the closing lines of the book we read "The keys to. Given!" (FW p. 628) The keys to unlocking the mysteries of the Wake are scattered all throughout the book. We're told this at the very end because it pushes us to cycle back to the first page and start digging in all over again. The search never ends.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Video: Anthony Burgess - "Lots of Fun at Finnegans Wake" (1973)

In this extraordinary video, Anthony Burgess walks us through the basic plot points and features of Finnegans Wake while hanging out inside a pub. He even sings the Ballad of Persse O'Reilly. Check it out.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Video: Binaries & Bibliomancy: Finnegans Wake as the Western I-Ching

(contributed for Maybe Day 2020

This essay was originally presented at the 2019 James Joyce Symposium in Mexico City and earlier this week I recorded it as a video for the virtual Maybe Day celebration on July 23rd celebrating the work of Robert Anton Wilson. "Binaries & Bibliomancy" essentially builds upon the theories presented in Wilson's great book Coincidance where he outlines an isomorphic relationship (in mathematics, systems that are parallel in form) between the I-Ching and Finnegans Wake. In my piece I talk about the machinery of these two distinctly different classics, how both books are built as thinking machines, always up-to-date, always encouraging open readings. The Wake advertises itself as a book of "Opendoor Ospices" (FW p. 71) allowing for open-door readings and "Ospices" or auspices, consulting for prophecy much like the I-Ching. As Finn Fordham described it in his book Lots of Fun at Finnegans Wake, "Through its continuously self-generating transformation, it is a text of modulation and becoming, flux and flow, an alternative classic of change to the I Ching."

Robert Anton Wilson Day was officially declared to be July 23rd by the mayor of Santa Cruz, California. John Higgs wrote a great article in The Guardian years back describing what RAW Day is all about. I enjoy the Santa Cruz connection with RAW because our Austin Finnegans Wake Reading Group has a lot of Santa Cruz links. We've had multiple longtime members from Santa Cruz who became good buddies of mine, the host of the Finnegans Wake Reading Group in Santa Cruz is also an old pal of mine, I got to visit up there and attend their Wake groups multiple times. Robert Anton Wilson also had a Finnegans Wake reading group in Santa Cruz for many years. Last time I was there I got to hear stories from folks who knew RAW and also knew Norman O. Brown, the legendary UC Santa Cruz professor, scholar, and theatrical Wakean.

I want to thank Bobby Campbell ( for putting together the amazing virtual tribute to RAW with contributions from a talented group of RAW readers. There's some incredible visuals, writings, comics, and videos over at the 2020 celebration of Happy Maybe Day. I also got to participate in a live panel with the contributors that was a really inspiring and informative time, really enjoyed it and grateful to be a part of this event.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

16 June 1904 and the Letter in Finnegans Wake

James Joyce and Nora Barnacle in 1929.

It cannot be overstated how important Nora Barnacle Joyce was to the career and life of her loving companion James Joyce. The annual Joycean holiday Bloomsday celebrates Joyce's most famous book, Ulysses, which entirely takes place on June 16th, 1904, immortalizing the day on which they went out for their first date. That wasn't his only dedication to her, though. Nora was the muse that inspired Joyce's entire artistic approach, as he wrote to her in a letter from September 1909:

Guide me, my saint, my angel. Lead me forward. Everything that is noble and exalted and deep and true and moving in what I write comes, I believe, from you. O take me into your soul of souls and then I will become indeed the poet of my race. I feel this, Nora, as I write it.
(p. 169, Selected Joyce Letters, ed. Richard Ellmann, underline in original)

This year as Bloomsday approached, I went back to Brenda Maddox's excellent biography of Nora to read the chapter about the summer of 1904 when Joyce and Nora Barnacle first met. Nora had grown up in Galway before moving to Dublin where she landed a job working as a chambermaid and barmaid at Finn's Hotel on Nassau Street. It was in front of Finn's Hotel where James Joyce was walking by on June 10th, 1904 when he encountered Nora for the first time. It was love at first sight (although Joyce had poor eyesight even then at age 22). He approached her and asked for a date the following week. As Maddox writes in Nora, "In Dublin, far more than in Galway, Nora was vulnerable to unwanted male attentions... Wariness of the male was Nora's strategy for survival. When a well-mannered, well-spoken, amusing and unthreatening young man stepped into her path one day in Dublin, therefore, Nora was quite happy to accept his invitation to meet him one evening. But she did not appear." (p. 40)

They had set a date for June 14th, 1904 but Nora stood him up, likely because she couldn't get off her shift at Finn's Hotel in time. Joyce wrote to her in dismay and reading his letter it's funny to contemplate how close this historic couple came to never linking up in the first place:

15 June 1904 
I may be blind. I looked for a long time at a head of reddish-brown hair and decided it was not yours. I went home quite dejected. I would like to make an appointment but it might not suit you. I hope you will be kind enough to make one with me---if you have not forgotten me!  
James A. Joyce

Although June 16th is supposed to be the day they did finally get together and change the course of history, Brenda Maddox notes that there actually is no clear evidence in their letters that June 16th was the exact date. The main piece of evidence is that Ulysses takes place on that day. When Herbert Gorman was composing his authorized biography of Joyce in the 1930s he submitted a questionnaire to Joyce and received responses in the handwriting of Nora. He'd gotten answers to every question except one:

Q: Why did you pitch on June 16, 1904 for Bloomsday? Was it the day you met Nora? 
A: Reply later. 
(p. 41, Nora)

Gorman never did get a response about this and it was never confirmed during Joyce's life, probably because it was "too personal and too shocking," as Maddox surmises. If you are here reading this blog, I will take it for granted that you understand why that might be the case and what supposedly occurred between James and Nora on June 16th, 1904.

Moving on... in our Finnegans Wake reading group we recently read page 66 where there is a passage about the mysterious letter that keeps popping up all throughout the Wake, and that sparked a discussion about the postal service. Joyce in Finnegans Wake is frequently preoccupied with the postal service and on p. 66 in writing about the delivery of the letter he describes a postal service that sounds sorta like Fedex except there's a hidden meaning in its acronym: "Federals' Uniteds' Transports' Unions' for Exultations' of Triumphants' Ecstasies." The acronym here spells out FUTUE TE which would be the vulgar Latin curse word futue te meaning "fuck you" or "you all fuck." This comes at the tail end of a passage about how people all over the world and all throughout history getting together and having sex is how the species ensures its future (note the root for the word "future" is contained in futue te). If you parse that sentence, a rare Wake line with normal words, you can identify how it is a sophisticated and clinical way of describing people fucking. The first word federal, for instance, originally referred to a covenant and contains the root word for "faith" so this is all part of a faithful covenant, i.e. marriage. Faithful couples uniting in covenant for exultant triumphant ecstasies has allowed for the continuation of the species through time, that's basically what it says.

Immediately after that, Finnegans Wake asks "Will it ever be next morning the postal unionist's (officially called carrier's, Letters Scotch, Limited) strange fate... to hand in a huge chain envelope ...?" The letter and the postal service can be seen to symbolically connote the continuation of the species, hence why the parcel is called "a huge chain envelope." Elsewhere in the Wake we read how "ancients link with presents as the human chain extends" (p. 254) and later on "Since ancient was our living is in possible to be. Delivered as." (p. 614) The "huge chain envelope" to be delivered might be viewed as the DNA chain of humanity through generations, the links in the chain are formed by couples fucking.

The mysterious letter in the book has many different associations: on one level it represents the book itself; on another level it factors into whatever narrative can be said to exist in the Wake since it appears at the end of the book as being written by the wife Anna Livia in defense of her besieged husband Earwicker; on another level it embodies the dream itself and the sleeper's attempt to carry the dream information across the threshold of sleep so he can remember it in the morning, as John Bishop has argued; and one might also see it the way Eric McLuhan did when he suggested the letter is actually a red herring.

Going back to Nora and the summer of 1904 for a moment, though, it appears there might be something more personal to the Wake's obsession with mailing letters. Brenda Maddox writes:
The swift progress of their love affair depended on a superb postal system. There were five deliveries a day, with the first collection at quarter-past one in the morning. Joyce, who liked to write in the small hours of the morning, took full advantage of the service. After he came in from seeing Nora, he would stay up writing long, painful, self-revealing letters ('It is only fair that you should know my mind on most things') and took them to the box, confident that she would get them in the morning. Both of them relied on letters posted before lunch to make or cancel a date that same evening... (p. 46, Nora)

With all of that, it seems there's some good evidence to suggest that the letter in Finnegans Wake may actually be a love letter. That brings us to what I feel is one of the most brilliant studies of Joyce ever written, Benjamin Boysen's book The Ethics of Love: An essay on James Joyce (published in 2013 by University Press of Southern Denmark). In this large and ambitious book, Boysen examines all of Joyce's works (including Chamber Music and Exiles) and argues convincingly that the main theme throughout all of them is Love. Boysen's book has a large section devoted to Finnegans Wake that is especially filled with original insights that I have not seen other Joyceans touch upon. Most relevant to our current consideration is his discussion of the letter.

Boysen calls our attention to a passage that starts on p. 420 of the Wake which describes some of the notable characteristics of the letter. Beyond the familiar qualities that it was written by Shem the Penman and carried by Shaun the Postman, the passage provides a long, cryptic and comical list of the letter's many misadventures in postal conveyance. Here is a list of some examples (with page and line numbers and my clarifying notes in brackets):

- "Initialled. Gee. Gone." p. 420.19 [Initials are gone.]
- "Tried Apposite House." p. 420.21 [Try opposite house.]
- "Nave unlodgeable." p. 420.23 [Name illegible.]
- "Noon sick parson." p. 420.24 [No such person.]
- "No such no." p. 420.25 [No such number.]
- "Opened by Miss Take." p. 420.26 [Opened by mistake.]
- "None so strait." p. 420.28 [No such street.]
- "Wrongly spilled." p. 420.33 [Wrongly spelled.]
- "At sea. D.E.D. Place scent on." p. 420.30 [At sea. Dead. Please send on.]
- "Kainly forewarred." p. 421.05 [Kindly forward.]
- "Overwayed. Understrumped. Back to the P.O." p. 421.07 [Overweight, understamped. Send back to post office.]

Within this catalogue of characteristics, Boysen notices the presence of Leopold Bloom---on p. 420.22 you find the initials "L.B." and p. 420.33 mentions "Return to City Arms" which would be City Arms Hotel in Dublin where Ulysses describes the Blooms as having once lived---and then he also points out the presence of Joyce's loving companion Nora in the phrase "Loved noa's dress." That would be "left no address" but it's also saying "I loved Nora's dress." He further observes the presence of Finn's Hotel, the place where Nora worked when Joyce first met her, in this passage: "Finn's Hot." (p. 420.25) (It's worth mentioning that, according to some sources, Joyce's original planned title for Finnegans Wake was actually Finn's Hotel.) Boysen calls our attention to another appearance of Finn's Hotel later on in the Yawn chapter (III.3) where Yawn is asked for the name and address---"name or Redress" (p. 514.17)---of the Wake's subject and his cryptic response is ".i..'. .o..l." (p. 514.18) We can't be certain but it is very likely the answer there is "Finn's Hotel." If that is indeed the case, Boysen concludes:
it means that all empty spaces, the uncertainties, the indeterminacies, and the obscurities of the book as such are meant to be interpolated by the singular event of James Joyce's coup de foudre [love at first sight, in French literally "stroke of lightning"] when meeting real love for the first time. What I suggest is nothing less than that Joyce's encounter with Nora---as commemorated in Ulysses by choosing 16 June 1904 (the date where Joyce had his first rendezvous with Nora) as the principal day---is similarly pointed out as a fateful event or Hintertext informing Finnegans Wake. (p. 351, The Ethics of Love)

To suggest June 16th, 1904 is a major event at the heart of not only Ulysses but also Finnegans Wake is a groundbreaking assertion for Joyceans and the literary world as a whole, as there's no literary event quite like Bloomsday. Boysen bolsters his theory by informing us that the passage on p. 420-421 which lists out all the addresses of the letter (which, as I mentioned, can be seen as a stand-in for the book itself) in fact lists out the addresses where James Joyce lived in Dublin in the years prior to his life-altering encounter with Nora in 1904.

I won't list them all out here, you can find a list of them at Fweet here, but Boysen makes it abundantly clear that the passage contains not only the names of the Dublin districts where pre-June-1904 Joyce lived but also many of the specific addresses (Fweet lists nine of them). On top of that, all of these addresses where Joyce lived before he met Nora are mutated in the language of the Wake to carry dark, depressing connotations. Quoting from Boysen once again:

As "Destined Tears" (FW p. 421.10), these early addresses (French destinataires) embody tearful destinies, which nonetheless did not come true on account of the amorous meeting. In other words, the letter comes to represent the author's metaphysical love-letter to existence, to love, and to himself as a young man not yet transformed by the amorous event. The letter is the mature author's gift to himself as a young man untouched by the amorous transubstantiation, testifying to Walt Whitman's lesson that "love is to the lover, and comes back most to him, / The gift is to the giver, and comes back most to him - it cannot fail" ('A Song of the Rolling Earth' 2, vv. 15-16). As it says in Issy's love-letter, the letter gives testimony on behalf of "my old evernew" (FW p. 460.36) self, which is transformed and ever renewed by the gift of love and existence. (p. 352, The Ethics of Love)

Elsewhere in his book, Boysen writes: "In sum, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are to be perceived as great love letters expressing an existential gift to history and humankind." (p. 348) We can now be sure that the historically famous day of June 16th, 1904 is a pivotal day not only for Ulysses but also for Finnegans Wake. Nora Joyce herself, speaking to Joyce's friends after her husband had died, in response to their questions about the great author of Ulysses, responded, "What's all this talk about Ulysses? Finnegans Wake is the important book." While there's no doubt that Ulysses deserves to be celebrated, maybe it's about time we heed Nora's words and start giving some more attention to Joyce's grandest epic, Finnegans Wake, when we celebrate James Joyce every year on June 16th.