February 2nd is a very special day in Joyceana.
For James Joyce, February 2 was, in Richard Ellmann's words, a 'talismanic' day: a point on the great wheel of time where an event of the present could resonate in 'sacred coincidence' with correlative events of an earlier cycle, thus imbuing the present with a potency that is at once symbolic, mythic, or even numinous. On February 2, 1939, Joyce, with his family and friends, celebrated his own birth fifty-seven years earlier as well as the 'birth' of his magnum opus---the arrival of the first printed copy of Finnegans Wake.
This 'talismanic' day, February 2, also coincides with the ancient Irish feast of Imbolc, one of the four great holy days in the Celtic wheel of the year. (Imbolc's bowdlerized vestiges can still be found in both Candelmas and Groundhog Day.) Imbolc is sacred to the goddess Brigit, the one-eyed patroness of Ireland's visionary poets (the Filidh), her mythologists, and her storytellers. In pagan Ireland, Imbolc, birthday of the ancient goddess, observed the arrival of light after long darkness; Imbolc celebrated the birth of a new cycle of life and also honored the goddess whose gifts---poetic insight, mnemonic ability, linguistic skill, knowledge of the ancient lore, and 'fire in the head'---allowed her votaries to preserve and continue the ancient Irish tradition. Thus, the feast day of this archaic Irish goddess of poets is also the birthday of the modern Irishman who, perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, embodies the very gifts she was understood to bestow.
That's from the wonderful first page of Wake Rites: The Ancient Irish Rituals of Finnegans Wake by George Cinclair Gibson, perhaps the most important and illuminating book that has been written about Joyce's opus so far. Ever since we came upon page 611 in our Austin Finnegans Wake Reading Group, beginning the climactic St. Patrick vs the Archdruid Berkeley debate, I've been absorbed in and astounded by the insights presented in Wake Rites.
In it, Gibson describes seventeen as "the sacred number of regeneration for the pagan Irish." Tonight, on Joyce's birthday and St. Brigit's Feast Day in the 17th year of the 21st century, on the 17th floor at the graciously accommodating Irish Consulate, reading from the 17th chapter of the book Joyce wrote over a 17-year period, we dug into what is generally considered the book's climactic scene. Page 612, depicting the legendary confrontation between the invading Catholic Patrick with his mumbling groaning missionaries ("mister guest Patholic with alb belongahim the whose throat hum with of sametime...cassock groaner fellas of greysfriarfamily" 611.7-8) crashing the ultimate pagan Irish ritual ceremony at the Hill of Tara and defeating the Archdruid in a debate in front of the High King of Tara, usurping the archaic order of the poets, knocking the sage on his ass, and banning the ancient Irish seer-poet's mysterious and magical Dark Tongue language forever.
It is in the final chapter of Wake Rites, in discussing the extra bizarre language of the Patrick/Druid debate, where Mr. Gibson gives the most convincing and comprehensive argument I've yet seen for the reason behind the absurdly obscure language throughout Joyce's most treasured work. Gibson posits that it is Joyce's revival of the ancient Irish Dark Tongue:
In Old Irish, this artificially constructed tongue was known as bélra na filed, 'language of the filidh,' and was striking in its outrageous presentation, colorful characteristics, and nearly impenetrable obscurity. Bélra na filed (also called the 'Dark Tongue') is a language nearly incomprehensible in its polyglot logorrhea; language sometimes blathering, at other times ranting, ribald, profound, or scatological, and everywhere laden with absurd catalogues of everything; language rife with riddles, and riddled with puns, neologisms, and a plethora of polysemes and portmanteaus..."
This is the language spoken by the Archdruid Berkeley or "Balkelly" on pgs 611-612 in his extremely dense, silly and scientific debate with Patrick on the nature of the visible world and the light spectrum. Joyce describes it wonderfully through a language that actually is the thing itself ("the Ding hvad in idself id est" (p. 611)): "in other words verbigratiagrading from murmurulentous till stridulocelerious in a hunghoranghoangoly tsinglontseng." (p. 611) A verbal rambling flowing like the Huang He river in a sing-a-along sing-song style. The Druid's language is representative of the riverine "riverrun" language of Finnegans Wake itself. The flamboyant, rainbow-flavored "heptachromatic sevenhued septicoloured" style of the Druid battles against the invading black-and-white perspective grey-frocked Catholic Patrick "shiroskuro blackinwhitepaddynger" (p. 612) in a confrontation carrying out a core argument for the style and essential purpose of the book itself. As Joyce wrote to his patron, "Much more is intended in the colloquy between Berkeley the archdruid and his pidgin speech and Patrick the [saint] and his Nippon English. It is also the defense and indictment of the book itself."
How unbelievably special it was for us to experience the exegetical exploration of this page, the recovery of the ancient past, the Druidic Irish language of the seer-sage-poet "Bilkilly-Belkelly-Balkally" whose patroness is St. Brigit, on February 2nd at the Irish Consulate. I'm thankful to Adrian Farrell at the Consulate for so kindly hosting us and sharing in the fascination of Joyce's revival of the ancient Irish poetic wisdom.
Read more about this important passage over at Peter Chrisp's essential blog where he outlines the evolution of what was one of the earliest sketches Joyce composed for Finnegans Wake.