Since first discovering John Bishop's monumental book about 4 years ago, I've been disappointed about how little discussion there is about it on the internet. Now that I've finally gotten around to reading it (twice), I'd like to change that here.
Joyce's Book of the Dark is a masterpiece of literary criticism while at the same time an eye-opening scholarly consideration of sleep. Bishop begins with the provocative premise that Finnegans Wake is, at all times, a record of what goes on inside the body and mind of one sleeping person (that is, not just dreams, but even the extended mysterious dreamless periods) and proceeds to build upon that argument almost ad nauseam, deploying snippets from the text of the Wake relentlessly through twelve progressively groundbreaking chapters concluding with a most brilliant and original theory of what the flowing female character Anna Livia Plurabelle really represents in the book.
One of the most fascinating things about Finnegans Wake is that you can study it through any particular lense and construct a pretty good argument that the whole book is all about, for instance, fly fishing---as a funny New York Times piece explored once. There's a whole series of books on Kabbalah in Finnegans Wake; George Cinclair Gibson wrote a well-received book Wake Rites arguing that the ancient rituals of Tara underlie the whole thing; Benjamin Boysen's humongous new study of Joyce declares it's all about love; Marshall McLuhan posited it is “about the electric retribalization of the West” via technology and, following McLuhan, Donald Theall considered it a kind of hybrid literary-electronic-hypertext device. The Wake undoubtedly has a special verbal Rorschach quality to it, inviting endless interpretation, which is one of the reasons why it's so rewarding to read with a group.
Bishop's sleeping body argument is by no means a radical one, though. While Joyce offered few clues about his Work in Progress over the 17 years of its composition and died shortly after its publication without getting to explain much about it, he did certainly make it clear as day in his letters and conversations with friends that this book of his was to be about the night, a "reconstruction of the nocturnal life" and "an imitation of the dream-state." This is part of what makes Bishop's thesis so compelling. Many readers consider Joyce's Book of the Dark to be the finest analysis of Finnegans Wake that's ever been written and I have to agree. Building a gigantic scholarly mountain of material on top of his rather simple thesis, Bishop's text is definitely the most extensive treatment of the Wake thus far; with 385 pages plus 80 pages of footnotes (which are filled with enough enlightening material to form a small book on their own), it's about as wide as a coffee table book and is peppered with geographical maps, etymological charts, diagrams, and illustrations to convey his theories. He writes with an engaging, humorous though densely informative style while incessantly weaving in quotes taken from all over the Wake. This lends his argument an increasingly convincing credence but also forces the reader to slowly parse through passages since, essentially, you're oftentimes reading a collage of various Finnegans Wake snippets.
While Joyce’s most famous work Ulysses maintains a reputation for being impenetrable and puzzling, it's also sprung forth a pretty substantial library of exegeses which make quite clear the book's intentions and intricately constructed mechanisms. With an evolving, erudite and increasingly odd writing style, Ulysses tells the story of Leopold Bloom, a rather ordinary modern human being during a single day in Dublin, zooming closely into his inner experience and the way in which his mind and body interact with the world around him. While Ulysses is often associated with the stream of consciousness technique, Finnegans Wake, on the other hand, is essentially an account of the "stream of unconsciousness" as its hero drifts off into sleep. Ulysses follows one single day, and the Wake one single night. In the latter, though, all rationality, reason, relativity, spacetime and other daytime mental structures collapse and crumble along with the conscious mind. This is, as Bishop argues, part of the meaning behind Finnegan's fall on the first page, "The fall... of a once wallstrait oldparr" which is "retaled early in bed" (FW p. 3).
With the fall into sleep, there is also a fall inwards of our sensory perception, the world of objects disappears and we fully inhabit the world of our own bodies, in which all dreams take place. Everyone and everything we experience during our dreams is in fact ourselves (Bishop makes liberal use of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams to support this). The same goes for Finnegans Wake, in which a sleeping body underlies every scene, character, and event. As Bishop writes, "All things at the Wake start here, 'in the flesh.'"
Early on in the text, Bishop introduces a thought experiment that he frequently returns to:
Suppose that we charged ourselves with the task of providing in chronological order a detailed account of everything that occurred to us not last night (such an account would be far too sketchy to be useful) but in the first half hour of last night's sleep; or better yet, suppose that we fall asleep tonight intent on preserving for liberal study in the morning a detailed memory of the first half hour of sleep. ... What we are likely to recall... is a gap of obscurity far more stupefying than anything Joyce ever wrote.
Alluding to the etymological source of the word "bed" which derives from a root referring to a dug up spot of turf (think "flower bed"), and quoting from various sources such as Schopenhauer who said "there is no radical difference between sleep and death," Bishop explains the numerous references in the Wake to a corpse---"the presence (of a curpse)" (FW p. 224)---as an intertwining of sleep and death. The sleeper in the Wake is, after all, "tropped head" (FW p. 34) and "Dead to the World" (FW p. 105), completely unconscious of himself as an entity with a name, address, personal history, etc. He no longer possesses an identity or has a body. He simply is a body.
Following this logic, Bishop makes a good case for the main character's recurring initials of HCE standing for hoc corpus est or "this is the body," a Latin phrase from the consecration of the Roman Catholic Mass. The HCE initials take on thousands of different permutations and varieties throughout the book, but while the Wake refers "to him by all the licknames in the litany" (FW p. 234) he is ultimately a corpse (German Leichnam "corpse"), "he's rehearsing somewan's funeral" (FW p. 477), "in beautific repose, upon the silence of the dead" (FW p. 452). Elaborating on his initial thought experiment, Bishop concludes:
These considerations will enable us to begin filling in the vast "blank memory" we all have of the night by allowing us to see that what must take place in parts of sleep void of dreams is the body itself, which has to be there in the "Real Absence" (FW p. 536) of everything else for one "to be continued." ... Since the content of our "knock[ed] out" hero's "tropped head" here is largely "his own body" (FW p. 185)... what is ultimately being represented is less a dream than the fertile ground of dreams ... Finnegans Wake, in other words, is a representation of a human body. This is only what we might expect of a work entitled the Wake, where, as at all wakes, the body is the life of the party.
This all comes from the chapter on “The Identity of the Dreamer” in which Bishop also ponders the daytime identity, the real regular human being who is the star of the show, lying asleep at the Wake. As Joyce filled his book with references to a giant garbage dump or rubbish heap, Bishop sees this as referring to the “chaotic trash heap of mnemonic bric-a-brac, scraps, trivia, personal memories, and particles of information gathered from such places as the Encyclopedia Britannica and Dublin’s papers and lore.” Sifting through the repeated elements within these scraps, one gathers that “our hero seems to be an older Protestant male, of Scandinavian lineage, connected with the pubkeeping business somewhere in the neighborhood of Chapelizod, who has a wife, a daughter, and two sons… What emerges from an examination of the details is the sense of someone as singularly unsingular as Leopold Bloom.”
Therefore, just as Joyce lifted a drab Dubliner in Bloom up to the lofty heights of a mythological Everyman in Ulysses, Bishop finds that the sleeping figure through whom all of Finnegans Wake emerges is a regular 50-something year old pubkeeper, a perfectly normal guy, or as the Wake so humorously describes him: “One of the two or three forefivest fellows a bloke could in holiday crowd encounter” (FW p. 596), “somebody mentioned by name in his telephone directory” (FW p. 118).
Whereas Bloom was a man with a very creative, intelligent, and inquiring mind, always trying to come up with new advertising ideas and pondering the scientific explanations behind natural events, Bishop postulates that Joyce chose a middle-aged Protestant publican to be the source of the lively cosmic and colorful circus of history that is Finnegans Wake to emphasize the dormant energies lying within all of us always. “What he is unconscious of is precisely his own potential, and the possibility that life could be so much more.”
This is where the ideas of Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico and their major influence on Joyce become so important. It is through his study of Vico that Joyce developed the perspective of the human body containing the entire history of the species within it. As Joyce’s friend Frank Budgen once wrote:
We carry around within us in the unvisited yet populous recesses of our minds signatures of a past infinitely more remote. From the dawn of life to the moment in which we live all experience is written in the structure and function of our bodies---all is preserved in the depths of our memories. This is the unknown country into which we are led when we begin to read [Finnegans Wake].
Since there is an unbroken link of life (as Joyce wrote in Ulysses “The cords of all link back, strandentwining cable of all flesh”) from the earliest humans all the way down the line of history and ancestry to yourself as you are right now, your body contains all of that history within it. Our bodies weren’t instructed how to evolve in the womb from a one-celled organism into a human being, nor do we consciously move our bodies to digest our food or circulate our blood. This important information is all contained within the unconscious wisdom of the biological system. It’s all within our DNA. And this is what Finnegans Wake explores as it depicts the night, when the conscious mind dissolves into the body.
* * *
Einstein raised an amused eyebrow. "Jeem," he said, "you look into words like a biologist looking down a microscope. I begin to believe you really meant all those paradoxes you were reciting last night, about the content of mind being nothing but words."
"The history of consciousness is a history of words," Joyce said immediately.
- Robert Anton Wilson, Masks of the Illuminati, p. 229
A recent issue of New Scientist magazine (Sept 7-13, 2013) featured a cover story about how linguists now say “it is possible to excavate thousands of years of human history from the words we speak.” Unfortunately, there is no mention of 18th century Italian philosopher/historian Giambattista Vico who pioneered this idea in his book The New Science (a strange omission considering the synchronicity between their titles). In one of the more enlightening chapters of Joyce’s Book of the Dark, Bishop thoroughly describes Vico’s special brand of verbal archeology and takes us through its major role in Joyce’s conception of the style of Finnegans Wake and even draws interesting parallels between the Wake and The New Science.
It is generally recognized by Wake critics that Vico’s work, The New Science, strongly influenced Joyce but, as Bishop strongly contends, they don’t even come close to recognizing the magnitude of that influence. Every study of the Wake simply repeats the same facts: that the whole text, split up into its 4 books, is structured around Vico’s idea of a cyclical history (“vicous cicles” FW p. 134) with 4 repeating stages and that references to these 4 stages reoccur throughout. While this is certainly true, it doesn't begin to touch upon the importance of The New Science which, Bishop argues, Joyce conceived “as an intellectual foundation that would underlie Finnegans Wake as the Odyssey had Ulysses.”
Vico’s work is essentially an attempt to reconstruct how the rational, enlightened mind of modern man grew out of the beastly animal lifestyle of cavemen, who Joyce calls “our family furbear[s]” (FW p. 132) or forebears. This is an important endeavor as, while we’ve built layers and layers of reason atop our irrational aboriginal mind over the centuries, these irrational foundations still underlie and influence our current state. Predating Freud, Vico invents his own version of depth psychology to burrow into the ancient sources of the human mind to its original infantile state out of which language and civilization eventually grew. While Freud was focused on the influence of one’s parents in striving to cure irrational disturbances within the psyche, Vico’s perspective is that all of history weighs down upon us. As Bishop explains:
The individual cannot purge himself of neurotic unhappiness by rethinking familial past alone, because his parents are largely innocent transmitters of a language and an ideology determined by a history that transcends them and himself both. Fully to understand the irrationalities understructuring his mind, he has to exorcise his parents’ parents, and his parents’ parents’ parents, and [quoting Vico] the ‘first men, stupid, insensate, and horrible beasts,’ who laid down the foundations of human civil life and consciousness.
This partially explains why Joyce frequently rejected the influence of modern psychoanalysis, once declaring “my imagination grows when I read Vico as it doesn’t when I read Freud of Jung.” Bishop points to a strong Vico influence in all of Joyce’s work, even accounting for the complete re-writing of his first novel which began as Stephen Hero and turned into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with a detectable Viconian perspective as the prose depicts Stephen’s mind growing from childish talk toward refined, intellectual language. Vico sees the aboriginal human mind as equivalent to the mind of a small child and it is out of childish babble that “articulate language began to develop by way of onomatopoeia, through which we still find children happily expressing themselves.” (A later chapter in Bishop’s book, “The Nursing Mirror”, explores the playful childishness of the Wake and begins by quoting Freud who wrote, “dreams simply make us into children once more in our thoughts and our feelings” and concludes with Bishop declaring “one must become a child again if one is to read the Wake.”)
Examining the historical development of consciousness through language, Vico’s New Science posits that language begins with the body. This is the first key etymological principle espoused in his book, “Words are carried over from bodies and the properties of bodies to signify the institutions of the mind and spirit.” Hence we use the word “head” for the top or beginning of something, refer to the “eye” of a needle, “mouth” for any opening, “teeth” of a comb or rake, “hands” of a clock, etc. (Bishop even points to the root of the word “language” which derives from Latin lingua or tongue.) These origins are present in all of our language if we consider the deepest etymological roots of words, as Bishop displays with massive two-page charts showing the various networks of words that grew from one common original root.
Vico’s next two etymological principles highlight how important his work truly was for Joyce in creating the Wake, which he called his “history of the world.” The second principle holds that “the internal social history of a people is implicitly preserved in and transmitted through its language, and that all words carry a subliminal record of an entire past: etymology, in short, is also a form of history, or verbal archaeology.” Studying the origins of words and common roots between certain words begins to shed light on the dynamics of the earliest social groupings, the original families and their developing hierarchies. This of course calls to mind the one family of Finnegans Wake which seems to lie behind all characters in human history, their tensions evident in phrases like “The family umbroglia” (FW p. 284) and “family histrionic” (FW p. 230).
The third of Vico’s etymological principles states that the etymology of language “can reveal not only the internal social formation of a people, but also the international forces that transformed that people through trade, war, migration, colonization” and “miscegenations on miscegenations” (FW p. 18). When nations collide, their cultures and languages collide as well. This is especially true of the English language since their empire expanded to the far reaches of the globe, pillaging other nations while splicing in pieces of their language. As the Wake has it, “our social something bowls along bumpily, experiencing a jolting series of prearranged disappointments, down the long lane of… generations, more generations, and still more generations.” (FW p. 107)
Since it is language that structures our consciousness and creates our reality, we carry all of this history within us. This vast history is what Joyce draws forth through the unconscious mind of HCE. Bishop notes that the Wake “treats its central figure as the raddled blur of millions of persons, most of whom are completely absent from the consciousness that they unconsciously helped to shape. ‘As a singleminded supercrowd’ (FW p. 42), our hero is ‘more mob than man’ (FW p. 261).” The endless gamut of historical figures that pop up on every page of the Wake are there because, in a strange way, they are present in the unconscious (timeless and spaceless) sleeping mind of this humdrum middleaged pubkeeper as having contributed to it. Bishop comes to this incisive conclusion:
HCE’s personality, then, is defined not only by family and contemporaries, but by people as remote in history as Christ and Constantine and Attila. These people are members of his personality: they arise in his ‘nightlife’ not simply in composite structures that obliquely capture his identity, but as parts of him, by virtue of having made parts of his consciousness possible. Thousands of people from the past and from all nations crowd into HCE’s dream to constitute the mind beneath his mind. In the individually dreaming body they establish a thickly entwined human community whose evolution in history has vitally formed the ground of his wakeful life. His ego or ‘I…be the massproduct of teamwork.’ (FW p. 546)