Saturday, November 1, 2014

Book Review (Part 4 of 4): Joyce's Book of the Dark by John Bishop

"For too long were the stars studied and man's insides neglected. An eclipse of the sun could be predicted many centuries before anyone knew which way the blood circulated in our own bodies."
- James Joyce 

The eighth chapter of Finnegans Wake is perhaps its most famous section. Known for containing the names of over a thousand of the world’s rivers embedded in its prose, the chapter is devoted to the mother goddess archetype in Joyce’s mythology, the river-woman Anna Livia Plurabelle, “angin mother of injons… the dearest little moma ever you saw” (FW p. 207). In Joyce’s numerology the number 8 is associated with the female, the feminine life-renewing energy, perhaps because 8 is the symbol of infinity ∞ upright. In Ulysses, the 18th chapter is dedicated to Molly Bloom's final soliloquy consisting of 8 long sentences, and her birthday is on September 8th (also the birthday of the Virgin Mary). The centrality of the female in his final work is hinted at right from the opening word of Finnegans Wake, “riverrun” which contains 8 letters.

James Joyce considered the Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP) chapter to be the showpiece for his entire book. It was his pride and joy, the chapter upon which he was “prepared to stake everything." While the public and his own supporters were questioning the merit (and sanity) of the early published fragments from his Work in Progress, Joyce declared in a letter to his patron “either [ALP] is something, or I am an imbecile in my judgment of language.” Fellow Irishman James Stephens agreed, declaring it to be “the greatest prose ever written by a man.”

Joyce went through seventeen different revisions of the chapter during the Wake’s creation, constantly weaving new river names and foreign words into its pun-laden network, while exhausting himself into a “nervous collapse,” as he told Ezra Pound, from the thousands of hours he worked on it.

The chapter opens with the text forming a triangular shape, the delta symbol ∆ of ALP:

tell me all about
Anna Livia! I want to hear all
about Anna Livia. Well, you know Anna Livia? Yes, of course,
we all know Anna Livia. Tell me all. Tell me now. (FW p. 196) 

The ALP chapter consists entirely of a dialogue between two washerwomen scrubbing clothes on opposites sides of a river while chattering and gossiping to each other about ALP and her husband. All throughout the chapter, the inquisitive washerwoman (later referred to as “Queer Mrs Quickenough” FW p. 620) excitedly begs her opposite (“odd Miss Doddpebble” FW p. 620) to divulge more about Anna Livia: “Onon! Onon! tell me more. Tell me every tiny teign. I want to know every single ingul” (FW p. 201). As the chapter comes to a close, night begins to fall, the river widens and rushes more loudly, and the two women can no longer hear each other over the “hitherandthithering waters of. Night!” (FW p. 216).

A beautiful audio recording from 1929 captures Joyce reciting the closing pages of ALP with a playful and theatrical brogue, giving us our one single glimpse at how he intended his enigmatic work to sound. It’s noticeably mellifluous and musical, with Joyce rolling his r's and lilting the vernacular between the two chattering washerwomen.

John Bishop acknowledges that this flowing sonority is the most frequently praised feature of the chapter, but as with the rest of the Wake though, there is so much more to this poetic prose than its "sounddance" (FW p. 378). Initiating the need to explore deeper into the sediments of ALP, Bishop admits: “Not many readers, however, are likely to struggle through very many pages of prose so torturous as the Wake’s simply because, though they may not mean anything, they sound nice.” It is this often overlooked meaning that Bishop endeavors to elucidate.

For the ultimate crescendo of his unique and fascinating analysis of the Wake, Bishop devotes the final chapter of his Book of the Dark study to an investigative plunge into the “riverpool” (FW p. 17) of Anna Livia. With Joyce putting so much emphasis and hard work into his showpiece chapter, Bishop surmises, “we might make the chapter something of a test case of the book as a whole.” Similarly, while there are so many great insights throughout Bishop's Book of the Dark, its final chapter is so rich, enlightening, original and compelling that it could in fact stand as a “test case” for Bishop’s book as a whole. So, to conclude this lengthy summary of Bishop’s delightful and dense book, we shall take a close look into this last chapter, which he entitled "A Riverbabble Primer."

Emphatically putting the final flourishing touches on his fascinating and well-argued thesis that Finnegans Wake represents a rendering of the sleeping state of one man, Bishop takes a microscope to the vivacious streams of the ALP chapter to confirm his theory. He finds ALP’s massive network of rivers is undulating with the sound and pace of a pulse. In short, Bishop argues that the riverwoman Anna Livia Plurabelle represents the watery bloodflow heard pumping inside the sleeper’s body throughout the night.

This accounts for the overall back-and-forth dialogue structure as well as the recurrent rhythm of twos found “ufer and ufer” (FW p.214) again, echoing the binary sounds heard in “the pulse of our slumber” (FW p. 428). The sleeping mind absorbs and amplifies these sounds, unconsciously creating the dream association of flowing rivers until the sleeper becomes immersed in a “watery world” (FW p. 452).

Bishop extends this thread of logic further until we envision the sleeper lying in "foetal sleep" (FW p. 563) with the sounds of pulsing bloodflow triggering reminiscence of and regression to the prenatal bliss of "whome sweetwhome" (FW p. 138) when he was united with the body of his mother or “himother” (FW p. 187). Two hearts beating as one, “uniter of U.M.I. hearts…in that united I.R.U. stade” (FW p. 446).

Of course this is a very radical and unique idea, unlike any interpretation of ALP any Wake scholar has put forth before. It's also fun to ponder and Bishop, a scholar with about as much knowledge about Finnegans Wake as anyone else in the world (he’s been reading it for over 40 years and wrote the introduction to the Penguin edition), presents a most compelling case with his often spellbinding wizardry of exegesis.

*   *   *

“And low stole o’er the stillness the heartbeats of sleep.” - FW p. 403 

Beginning his inquiry into ALP, Bishop examines the chapter’s final paragraph, worth quoting here in full:

Can't hear with the waters of. The chittering waters of. Flittering bats, fieldmice bawk talk. Ho! Are you not gone ahome? What Thom Malone? Can't hear with bawk of bats, all thim liffeying waters of. Ho, talk save us! My foos won't moos. I feel as old as yonder elm. A tale told of Shaun or Shem? All Livia's daughtersons. Dark hawks hear us. Night! Night! My ho head halls. I feel as heavy as yonder stone. Tell me of John or Shaun? Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons or daughters of? Night now! Tell me, tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Telmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night! (FW p. 215-16) 

Despite his apparent absence on the surface, Bishop detects the presence of the sleeping and absent-minded man at the center of it all, HCE. His body knocked out, lying “Dead to the World” (FW p. 105), the sleeping figure’s “foos won’t moos” and his “ho head halls” because from head-to-toe he is unconscious and sunken by gravity into his bed, so that “I feel as old as yonder elm” and “I feel as heavy as yonder stone.”

As always with HCE though, “Earwicker, that patternmind, that paradigmatic ear” (FW p. 70) the ever-vigilant ears remain awake. Throughout the entire ALP chapter, those ears have ostensibly been overhearing a dialogue between two invisible washerwomen. As the chapter closes those ears are, according to Bishop, deciding whether to turn their attention outward to the sounds of “flittering bats, fieldmice” and whatever else creeps around at night, or to turn inward back to the sounds of the body where (in Bishop’s words) “a deafening rush of waters everywhere audible at the background of the world threatens to drown all hearing out.”

The fluid, splashy cadence of the washerwomen’s dialogue echoes these “chittering waters of… rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!” and Bishop leads us to believe these waters are actually the surging pulse of watery bloodstream in the sleeper’s ears. We find a hint in the conflation of “them” and “him” in the word “thim” from this paragraph: “all thim liffeying waters of.” These waters, streaming through an unfathomably vast network of river names, are one with the sleeper, HCE.

Moreover, in a revealing bit of detective work Bishop looks back at a passage from Ulysses, where the incisive scientific-thinker Leopold Bloom observes two barmaids holding a seashell to each other’s ears: “hearing the plash of waves, loudly, a silent roar… The sea they think it is. Singing. A roar. The blood is it. Souse in the ear sometimes. Well, it’s a sea. Corpuscle islands.”

Bloom’s perspective helps to uncover Joyce’s and here we imagine the sea of blood in the human body that can be heard as a “souse in the ear sometimes” (souse meaning “the sound of water surging against something” according to the OED). And indeed, the sleeper in the Wake whose ears remain awake is surrounded by the ever-present sound of the “pulse of our slumber” (FW p. 428) and “the heartbeats of sleep” (FW p. 403). For while our hero seems lifeless in repose, “his heart’s adrone, his bluidstreams acrawl” (FW p. 74). Therefore, the “rivering waters of… Night!” are the sounds of deepest sleep since, as the Wake elsewhere attests, when HCE has completely succumbed to unconsciousness “to pause in peace… he would seize no sound from cache or cave beyond the flow of wand was gypsing water, telling him now, telling him all…” (FW p. 586 [Danish vand means “water”]).

To strengthen the viability of his theory, Bishop points out the prominence of this idea in studies on dreams and sleep. Havelock Ellis, for instance, wrote: “An increased flow of blood through the ear can furnish the faint rudimentary noises which, in sleep, may constitute the nucleus around which hallucinations crystallize.” Similarly, Freud wrote in dreams “all the current bodily sensations assume gigantic proportions” while in the eleventh Encyclopedia Britannica, the same edition Joyce plundered when writing the Wake, it states “the ear may supply material for dreams, when the circulation of the blood suggests rushing waters or similar ideas.”

With this foundational idea established, Bishop now begins plucking quotes from the pages of “Anna Livia Plurabelle” and notates the dozens and dozens of references to “nothing more than arteries and vessels of moving water (rivers).” You’ll also notice a main recurring theme in the chapter’s dialogue is hearing:

“Listen now. Are you listening? Tarn your ore ouse! Essonne inne!” [Turn your ear loose! Listen in!] (FW p. 201)
“Well, I never heard the like of that! Tell me moher. Tell me moatst” (FW p. 198)
“Make my hear it gurgle gurgle in the dusky dirgle dargle!... But you must sit still. Will you hold your peace and listen well” (FW p. 206)
“Oceans of Gaud, I mosel hear that!” (FW p. 207)
“Mezha, didn’t you hear it a deluge of times, ufer and ufer, respund to spond?” (FW p. 214) 

Embedded all throughout the text of ALP are the names of rivers and these lines, just a small sampling of what Bishop shares, are flooded not only with river names like Essonne, Moselle, and Mezha, you can also find the words “moat”, “deluge”, “ufer” (German Ufer for “riverbank”), “pond”, “oceans” and others here.

On the surface, the dialogue features one washerwoman begging to hear stories about Anna Livia from the other one. Viewed through the lens of Bishop’s theory, the lines take on a whole new life and “bring to mind the…out of sight” (FW p. 200), the sounds of streaming water, the liveliness heard in the deepest night. As told by Bishop:
Particled together of terms largely signifying arteries of moving water---rivers---these lines orient the chapter at the interior of Earwicker’s ear, which “overhears,” in the absence of all other sound, the vitality of its own bloodstream.
And then, further on, regarding the hundreds of river names:
Far from obscuring the chapter… [Joyce] was highlighting essential “hydeaspects” (FW p. 208) of the chapter; what readers have largely seen as a “mere device” motivated by an eccentric obsession was in fact an elucidative necessity crucial to the formation of a text representative of waters washing through the ear.

As we’ve contemplated at great length throughout this series of reviews, in deepest slumber when the constructs of consciousness have faded away, one becomes only a body. Essentially “being kayoed” (K.O.’d or knocked out, FW p. 85), the sleeper is practically dead, “rehearsing somewan’s funeral” (FW p. 477) except that there is in the background, “in the far ear” (FW p. 23), the sound of animation everpresent from the earliest stages of life until death (“Never stop! Continuarration!” FW p. 205). This sound reminds the unconscious sleeper that he’s alive and it’s quite enjoyable to hear: “O gig goggle of giguels. I can’t tell you how! It’s too screaming to rizo, rabbit it all! Minneha, minnehi minaaehe, minneho!” (FW p. 206).

For the reader of the Wake, soaking in this chapter’s peculiar “lappish language” (FW p. 66) requires letting go of the reflex to make literate, rigid sense of everything. The sounds of “affluvial flowandflow” (FW p. 404) in Anna Livia Plurabelle are where the heart of the matter lies. Far from “sangnifying nothing” (FW p. 515, French sang, “blood”) though, the watery words here are “deeply sangnificant” (FW p. 357). It’s just that one needs to become an “antiabecedarian” (FW p. 198) and focus on the close personal intimacy of “intimologies” (FW p. 101) instead of etymologies. Far from Hebrew, Russian, or Hindu, we are here dealing with a language of “ebro” and “reussischer Honddu” (FW p. 198, German russischer means “Russian”). Note that Ebro (in Spain), Reuss (Switzerland), and Honddu (Wales) are all rivers.

Advising the reader on how to “cross that odd threshold separating phonetics from acoustics, and then again that threshold separating the acoustics of the external world from the acoustics of the internal” Bishop details the unique aural nature of Anna Livia’s text this way (please pardon the mess of quotations, this is just how Joyce’s Book of the Dark appears at times):
Unlike Hebrew or Hindu… whose “alphabets” are fixed by patriarchal law and lexicon with changeless graven letters---“aleph, beth, ghimel, daleth, and so on and so forth”---the “ebro” and “Honddu” of which Anna Livia is composed are “spilled” (FW p. 420 [not “spelled”]) in an arterial “alpheubett” (FW p. 208) whose “nubilee letters” (FW p. 205)---“alpilla, beltilla, ciltilla, deltilla” (FW p. 194) “and soay and soan and so firth and so forth” (FW p. 200)---are “linked for the world on a flushcaloured field” “in scarlet thread” (FW p. 205 [in the “flesh” and calor---Latin “warmth”---of the sonorous and “scarlet-threaded” bloodstream]).

Having now thoroughly established the basis of his argument, Bishop proceeds to extend his interpretation of Anna Livia Plurabelle further. As with most of his large and dense book, he builds up his theories exhaustively and what we’ve discussed so far here is merely to attune the reader to what is to come next. For if we are to now perceive “the wiggly livvly” (FW p. 204) as a “scarlet thread… Linked for the world on a flushcaloured field” (FW p. 205) then a reading of ALP and the Wake as a whole shall now yield fascinating new insights and treasures.

*   *   *
I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than 
the flow of human blood in human veins.
- Langston Hughes, The Negro Speaks of Rivers 

How beautiful that Bishop’s massive treatise, which has up til now explored and emphasized the unconscious and slumbering physical body underlying all of Finnegans Wake---from the play of light within his closed eyelids down to the “tumptytumtoes” (FW p. 3) his head is no longer aware of---should now culminate with an exploration of the ebullient ever-undulating blood stream, the music of our existence. It’s always there after all, faintly swooshing along “in the far ear” (FW p. 23), usually drowned out by the noises of everyday life. It’s only “under the dark flush of night” (FW p. 527) that we tend to hear its rushing waters.

Here in the chapter celebrating ALP, while our sleeping hero is “drammen and dromen...and droming” (FW 198-199) through the night “with Corrigan’s pulse and varicoarse veins” (FW p. 214) steadily streaming along life fluids, he lays “in contemplation of the fluctuation and the undification of her filimentation” (FW p. 209 [filament = thread]). The sound of bloodflow echoing through his ears creates numerous associations in his dreaming mind and Bishop now uses this sound as a springboard for a dazzling display of free associative riffs and Wakean exegesis.

Firstly, since our sleeper is a resident of Dublin the watery sound in his ears brings forth in his mind an association with the body of water he’s most familiar with, the local River Liffey. Considering the original Gaelic spelling of the name is “Life” we can begin to sense Joyce blurring the lines between “the river of lives” (FW p. 600) inside everyone (“anny livving” FW p. 327) and the “Brook of Life” (FW p. 264) in Dublin. On this topic, Bishop agrees with the assertion of Adaline Glasheen in her Third Census of Finnegans Wake where she argues that “in FW every ‘life,’ ‘live,’ ‘alive,’ ‘living,’ names Anna Livia and the Liffey.”

The Wake also frequently refers to Anna Livia’s “auburnt streams” (FW p.139) of red hair, an image that now begins to take on a new meaning. Adding to all this, in Bishop’s footnotes he quotes a letter Joyce wrote to a friend during the composition of ALP where Joyce, never holding back from a sly pun, compared the Liffey to “the longest river on earth.” Bishop surmises that this is likely an oblique reference to HCE’s bloodstream: 60 or 70,000 miles of blood vessels course two thousand gallons of blood daily through networks of “scarlet thread” (FW p. 205) in every human body.

The faint, barely audible sound of the pulse in HCE’s ears also reminds his sleeping brain of other hard-to-hear sounds like “flittering bats, fieldmice” (FW p. 215), and especially the sound of whispering, which is how gossip tends to travel. Hence the chapter’s format of two washerwomen gossiping back and forth to each other. The entire chapter consists of this dialogue, a unique arrangement representing (as Bishop convincingly argues) the dual sound of the heartbeat, systole and diastole or as the Wake calls it, a system of “systomy dystomy” (FW p. 597).

The entire ALP chapter, whether taken as a whole or in its many rhythmic phrases, is rife with dual forms. “Wish a wish! Why a why?” (FW p. 203) That sound, “didn’t you hear it a deluge of times, ufer and ufer, respund to spond? You deed, you deed! I need, I need!” (FW p. 214).

Some other associations derived from the binary sound of bloodflow in the sleeper’s ears:

  • the story of his bloodlines or genealogy. All of the migrations and miscegenations of one’s ancestry are essentially contained in their blood which has been passed down through blood relatives. There are many passages in ALP concerning the far-reaching family history alive inside “the living sons or daughters of” (FW p. 215) mankind and the idea of human history being contained inside our bodies is a major theme of the Wake as a whole (see Part 1 of this review). 
  • the sound of blood beating and washing through his ears conjures the repetitive sounds of scrubbing or a washing machine and indeed, when you sleep your blood is cleansed and replenished. As Bishop points out, “sleep forces everyone in the world to clean up his act and, no matter who he is, cleanses him of his filthy habits.” Smokers can’t smoke, drinkers can’t drink, etc. This is why, as is declared in the ALP chapter, “Ireland sober is Ireland stiff” (FW p. 214) because an Irishman sobers up when he sleeps. The washerwomen lament: “You will need all the elements in the river to clean you over it all.” (FW p. 188) 
  • Bishop doesn’t mention this but when I consider the ALP chapter through the lens of his bloodstream interpretation, then the curious account of ALP presenting all her one thousand and one children with often macabre gifts from “her mixed baggyrhatty” (FW p. 209) seems to make a little more sense. In a letter to his patron, Joyce wrote that ALP’s bag of gifts “contains the ills flesh is heir to” and one senses this may be referring to congenital diseases. At the end of that passage, ALP also bestows the 29 flower girls with “a moonflower and a bloodvein” (FW p. 212) which seems to suggest menstruation. 

One final association Bishop derives from this sound of the heartbeat and its purling bloodflow is perhaps the most extraordinary argument presented in his great book. As one curls up and enters into “foetal sleep” (FW p. 563), wouldn’t that constant sound of a pulse and flowing life fluids hearken back to the time when one existed entirely in a world of water, the sound of a heartbeat always present? As the Wake asks of those darkest depths of the night: “where have you been in the uterim?” (FW p. 187).

The rhythms of the ALP chapter, the constant back-and-forth, watery sound washing through the sleeper’s ears now begin to lead him “backtowards motherwaters” (FW p. 84) and we picture the sleeping HCE as “Wasserbourne the waterbaby” (FW p. 198).

* * * 

(from Stephen Crowe’s “Wake in Progress” project)

“Happier then. Snug little room that was with the red wallpaper.” - Ulysses, p. 155 

“Our relationship with the world which we entered so unwillingly seems to be endurable only with intermission; hence we withdraw periodically into the condition prior to our entrance into the world: that is to say, into intra-uterine existence… One third of us has never been born at all."
- Geza Roheim, The Gates of the Dream 

“One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.”
- Joyce, defending Finnegans Wake (letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver in 1926) 

Sleep as intrauterine regression is a well-established tenet of psychoanalysis. Freud wrote of sleep being “ existence in the womb” returning one to “the foetal state of rest” (Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis). This appears even at the very end of Ulysses when, transitioning toward the night world of the Wake, Bloom goes to sleep and becomes “the childman weary, the manchild in the womb.” Freud’s disciple, the Hungarian psychoanalyst and anthropologist Geza Roheim, explored this notion in his book The Gates of the Dream where he writes: “the sleeper turns into himself and falls back into the womb, his own body being the material substratum of the dream-womb” and “the environment into which the dreamer regresses is both [his] own body and the maternal womb.”

Through his analysis of ALP, Bishop discovers that the sound of running waters, the heartbeat pulsing through the ears of the dreaming HCE, sends him back to a re-experiencing of the encapsulated aquatic world of the womb. The floating bliss of sleep transforms the sleeper’s space from being inside a “room” or “home” to what the Wake calls a “woom” (FW p. 465), “wome” (FW p. 201) or “whome” (FW p. 296).

This last chunk of the 12th and final chapter of Bishop's exploration of the Wake is my favorite part of the book. Over the final 30 pages or so, Bishop engages in a kind of exegetical alchemy, summoning and dissecting an abundance of Wake puns/quotes that support and further advance his captivating sleeper-in-the-womb theory. It truly speaks to the Wake’s mysterious magic that a reader can approach the book with a specific angle in mind and suddenly witness everything resonate with it: “O, foetal sleep! Ah, fatal slip” (FW p. 563).

With the watery womb world now in our focus we shouldn’t be surprised to encounter, for example, the Ave Maria in the following sequence from ALP, “Wasserbourne the waterbaby? Havemmarea, so he was!” (FW p. 198), as Bishop reminds us of the familiar line from that prayer: “blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” He similarly accounts for the recurrence in the Wake of the Angelus, a daily Catholic prayer which celebrates the Incarnation of Christ in the womb of Mary featuring the line “et concepit de Spiritu Sancto,” Latin for “and she conceived of the Holy Ghost.”

Close scrutiny of the ALP chapter (as we’ve done recently in our Wake reading group here in Austin) reveals a proliferation of themes having to do with the source, origins, genesis, the beginning, etc. The Irish county where the River Liffey originates is referred to as “Wickenlow, garden of Erin” (FW p. 203), for instance. The names of the twin African lakes (Victoria and Albert Nyanza) said to be the sources of the Nile River appear embedded in these pages, as well as the languages of Swahili and Bantu (“kissuahealing with bantur for balm!” FW p. 204) considered to be spoken in that region. For Bishop, this is all intended to evoke our origins, our source, the beginnings of life inside the womb.

Following this interpretation, the delta ∆ symbol for ALP might now represent the female delta, the “deltic origin” (FW p. 140) from which HCE and every human being naturally springs. We recall that the ALP chapter’s opening lines are in a triangular shape, springing from one original or “urogynal” (FW p.619 [Greek gynĂȘ is “woman”]) letter “O” (FW p. 196) suggestive of the female aperture. (Note that “O” also suggests the French “eau” meaning water.) This interpretation of the ∆ symbol appears in the Wake’s “Nightlessons” chapter where Shem sketches a Euclidean diagram with two triangles in the center and explains to Shaun, “I’ll make you to see figuratleavely the whome of your eternal geomater” (FW p. 297) where “figuratleavely” would suggest peeking behind the fig leaf. Later we read, “pubably it resymbles a pelvic or some kvind” (FW p. 608) or a pubic symbol resembling a pelvis of some “kvind” (kvinde is Danish for woman).

Contemplating all of this leads us to a new view of the sleeper, as we envision “Humperfeldt and Anunska, wedded now evermore in annastomoses by a ground plan of the placehunter” (FW p. 585). Here we have Humphrey and Anna, HCE and ALP, always united, connected or “wedded” by the anastomosis (connection of blood vessels) of the “placehunter” or placenta. “The old man on his ars” (FW p. 514) asleep reverts back to the experience of being a child inside the body of a woman when he was “confounded with amother” (FW p. 125), combined with the body of another. He now becomes a representation of the “Madonagh and Chiel” (FW p. 490) or Madonna and Child, the sleeper described as a “hemale man all unbracing to omniwomen” (FW p. 581) as he relives the time when “femelles will be preadaminant” (FW p. 617), the genesis before Adam and patriarchal males, when the female was predominant. 

Noted Wake scholar Jorn Barger emphasized that the boundary between Joyce’s completion of Ulysses and the genesis of Finnegans Wake is ambiguous enough that readers might gain important insight on one by looking for clues in the other. Fortifying his already enthralling argument, Bishop looks back at the reflections of Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses who wonders if “amor matris [Latin, “love of mother”], subjective and objective genitive, may be the only true thing in life.” Later on, the ghost of Stephen’s mother tells him “years and years I loved you, O my son, my firstborn, when you lay in my womb,” an oddly exaggerated gestation period which the Wake now clarifies. The “innate little bondery” (FW p. 296) between us and our mothers, between the sleeper and “amother” (FW p. 125) is not a neat little boundary but an innate bond that remains with us for our entire life, fully experienced each night when we fall back into the womb of sleep. Taking this further, Bishop argues that since we all remain connected to our mothers “in a never-broken continuity that makes Here Comes Everybody a membrane and member of other people.” ALP then not only represents the mother of HCE but the mother of all of us. She seems to be foreshadowed in Ulysses where we read of "our grandam, which we are linked up with by successive anastomosis of navelcords." 

That last line comes from the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter of Ulysses which takes place within a maternity hospital and whose predominant stylistic structure is the embryonic development of the English language through 9 evolving stages. Joyce’s notebooks reveal that he did extensive research on embryology to write this chapter. Bishop also notes how he was extremely fascinated by and observant of the developing child in the belly of his wife Nora when she was pregnant with their daughter Lucia. Clearly, he had a deep interest in the mysteries of the womb. 

In Ulysses, Stephen imagines all the umbilical cords of humanity linking back through generations like telephone wires to Adam and Eve. “The cords of all link back,” he ponders. That word “cords” takes on new importance in the Wake. Bishop the etymological detective notes that the Latin cordis or cors means “heart”---when we read a reference to “Concord” on page in the ALP chapter it is suggesting “two hearts beating as one" (Latin concordia). In his footnotes (note 26, pg 458), Bishop quotes from a modern study of life inside the womb where it states “The sound that dominates his world, though, is the rhythmic thump of the maternal heartbeat… The reassuring rhythm of its beat is one of the major constellations in his universe… It comes to symbolize tranquility, security, and love to him.” 

As HCE sleeps, the sound of “the core of his cushlas” (FW p.203 [Irish, cushla, “pulse”]) or the sound of his own heartbeat recalls the time when he was one with “amother” back “in those moments of ouryour soft accord” (FW p. 446). It was “a coil of cord” (FW p. 433) that was “the uniter of U.M.I. hearts” and kept them together “in that united I.R.U. stade” (FW p. 446). Thus, the sleeper realizes the original source of the pulse sound heard in his ears: “My heart, my mother! My heart, my coming forth of darkness!” (FW p. 493)

Looking back at Ulysses once more, a line from the poetry of Swinburne features prominently and receives a revealing echo in the Wake. While Swinburne wrote “I will go back to the great sweet mother, Mother and lover of men, the sea” the Wake suggests that all of its characters and the whole human race as represented by Here Comes Everybody “slept their sleep of the swimborne in the one sweet undulant mother of tumblerbunks.” (FW p. 41) 

When he began writing the Wake, Joyce described it as a “history of the world” and Bishop’s analysis adds new depth to this idea. For, unlike any history of recorded events such as the accounts of the origins of the Roman Empire written by the historian named Livy, the watery sounds of Anna “Livvy” (FW p. 204) provide us with a “hystry” (FW p. 535) of what happened last night when we went back to the womb state (Greek hysteros meaning “womb”). Plumbing these depths, Joyce in the Wake attempts to provide a universal account of all history by focusing in on “The Vortex” (FW p. 293) from which life springs and back into which we descend each night. Having piled up pages of references in the Wake to the watery womb regression of sleep, Bishop eloquently concludes:
The convergence of all these ciphers suggests that the Wake, because it is about the night, is also necessarily a cosmogony, whose subject is the fluid torrent of creative power out which the world originates every morning and always. For in the Wake, creation is not a historical event that happens only once, with a remote big bang in the Garden of Eden, but a “hystorical” event (FW p. 564 [Gr. hysteros, “womb”]), happening constantly in the “garden of Erin” and other modern nations as people keep on waking up and children keep on spilling into the world.

* * * 

In his book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, Leonard Shlain argues that the development of language created an emphasis on linear left-brain thinking which led to the rise of patriarchal values, while right-brain holistic perspectives and veneration for the goddess simultaneously faded away from society. In Finnegans Wake, Joyce brings forth a new deluge, turning the English language into an alphabet soup in the renewing waters of the goddess Anna Livia Plurabelle, and subverting the left-brain dominant laws of patriarchal reason and rationality. 
“In the name of Annah the Allmaziful, the Everliving, the Bringer of Plurabilities, haloed be her eve, her singtime sung, her rill be run, unhemmed as it is uneven!” (FW p. 104) 
Bishop calls our attention to these opening words from the celebration of the “mamafesta” (FW p. 104) of the Wake, replacing the “man” of “manifesto” with “mama” and mimicking the patriarchal deities of the Koran (“In the name of Allah, the All-merciful”) and the Bible (“thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”). 

As a re-enactment of the night, the Wake takes us “backtowards motherwaters” (FW p. 84) to celebrate the ever-renewing and restoring powers of the feminine while undermining the daytime, linear, patriarchal laws of language and "the use of raisin" (FW p. 130). Reason no longer applies, it has dried up like a raisin. 

The sleeper at the center of it all falls back into the world of infancy, an old man becoming young once again, replenishing his vitality inside the dream-womb and experiencing a rebirth each morning. For Bishop, the Wake’s focus on the rejuvenating experience of sleep and the forces involved therein is a celebration of the feminine force of renewal, "the constant of fluxion, Mahamewetma" (FW p. 297) where "Mahamewetma" hints at both the wet womb world of the mother ("Think of your Ma!" FW p. 206) and the Hindu mahamavantara, a vast renewing cosmic cycle.

Whether HCE is the refreshed adult man who awakens at dawn or a new baby who enters the world in the wake of gestation in the womb, the dynamic is the same. As the Wake has it: “We only wish everyone was as sure of anything in this watery world as we are of everything in the newlywet fellow that’s bound to follow.” (FW p. 452) 

While by no means an exhaustive or all-encompassing study of the Wake (as if such a thing were possible), Joyce’s Book of the Dark is an exhilarating intellectual journey that will completely change one’s perspective about what sleep is. Bishop's sleeping-body interpretation is only one out of a myriad of ways to approach the book, but his full-fledged plunge into this theory highlights the Wake's boundless depths and constantly metamorphing, rippling surface waters. I've mostly provided a skimming summary of many of his arguments here and omitted mentioning plenty of fascinating chunks of discussion in order to keep this essay at a reasonable length. There's a whole illuminating section on the Egyptian Book of the Dead that I haven't even mentioned. You'll have to seek it out for yourself. I cannot recommend Joyce's Book of the Dark strongly enough (or perhaps a lengthy 4-part review is strong enough?) to those who have an interest in Joyce’s magnum opus. A work of art in itself, Bishop’s book is exactly the type of creative, in-depth, and vast treatment the Wake deserves. 


Some final notes:
A former English professor at UC Berkeley, John Bishop had been working on two new books, one about Ulysses and one a sequel to his Wake book, when he suffered a stroke in 2010. From what I've heard, he has recovered but remains confined to a wheelchair and has the use of only one arm. If he never produces another book, this one giant, entertaining and magnificent work of analysis on it own represents one of the great contributions to literary scholarship.

If you're interested in hearing more of Bishop's work there are a few good sources available on the internet:
  • A video of Bishop presenting his lecture "Child's Play: A Finnegans Wake Primer" at Boston College is available on YouTube. He introduces the peculiarities of the Wake and breaks down the Prankquean episode through the lens of his sleeper theory. Be forewarned, he reads very fast.
  • My friend Gerry Fialka, host of the Venice Finnegans Wake reading group, got to interview Bishop back in 2009 and you can listen to that HERE. It's a superb interview with both personal discussion and plenty of heavy topics.
  • On iTunes University, you can listen to a whole semester of Bishop's lectures at Berkeley on modern English literature for free. Only one lecture covers Joyce but the rest have a boatload of gems. Highly recommended.
  • In this UC Berkeley newsletter on page 7 you can read a tribute to Bishop who retired in 2010. 

(Photo credit for image at the top: Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss. From Brain Pickings blog.)


  1. I'm forever transformed by this review. Great work.

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  3. You found Bishop's book "much harder to understand than Finnegans Wake"? That seems like a bit of an overstatement.

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  5. A rich illumination indeed! Thanks for checking out the blog.

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  7. Nice. (Preferred to keep it short.)