“Enough...have I read of it...to augur in the hurry of the times” (FW 356)
This essay stems from my deep fascination with the years surrounding the publication of Finnegans Wake---James Joyce’s struggle to complete his 17-year magnum opus in the late 1930s as World War II erupted. In 1936 he told a friend that “the disturbed conditions now abroad in the world” made it hard for him to work, “It has been almost impossible for me to continue writing with such terrible anxiety night and day.” (Bowker, 484) Once he finally handed in the finished manuscript of Finnegans Wake in 1939, Joyce lamented, “They had better hurry. War is going to break out, and nobody will be reading my book anymore” (Ellmann, 721). The convergence of humanity’s grandest literary construction appearing in conjunction with man’s most destructive conflict feels highly significant to me. Finnegans Wake was finally published on May 4th 1939 and within four months World War II began.
Generally speaking, the style of Finnegans Wake enacts a revolution against the laws and authority of the English language, but a close reading of the text reveals it is especially a revolt against the very forces leading humanity further into the “nightmare of history” at the time of its publication---militarism, racism, xenophobia, imperialism. In this essay, we will briefly explore the treatment of these themes all throughout Finnegans Wake. Part of my argument is that to invest the time to read and study Finnegans Wake, whether in 1941 Paris or in 2017 America, does not amount to merely an escapist pleasure to keep oneself occupied amid a time of distressing sociopolitical turmoil, military slaughter, and racial oppression---Finnegans Wake, in fact, directly and constantly confronts these issues, incisively revealing their psychological-anthropological roots while opposing them with viciously subversive, lovingly multicultural and playful humor. A rabidly witty exclamation of peace and individual freedom. As Helmut Bonheim declared in his book Joyce’s Benefictions, “Man’s birthright, Joyce argues repeatedly in Finnegans Wake, is to seek freedom from oppression, oppression of any kind.” In its revolt against authority Finnegans Wake conflates and blends many different references to invasions, racism, and cultural displacement throughout its entirety, culminating in St. Patrick’s usurping of the Druids at Tara in the last chapter. Within the many manifestations of the dark/light twin brother conflict of Shem and Shaun are references to: racial violence against blacks in America, Anglo-imperialism throughout Asia and Africa, and the suppression of the indigenous Celtic Druid culture by Christian invaders of Ireland in 432.
When Joyce was asked about the missing apostrophe in Finnegans Wake once, he explained it serves as a warning to the ruling classes that the oppressed always rise up in every historical cycle. Marshall McLuhan, whose study of the anthropology of warfare War and Peace in the Global Village includes quotes from Finnegans Wake on every page, would often assert that Joyce’s title signals a return to the tribal Finn (MacCool) cycle. A ricorso of the tribal tradition. The Wake’s revolt against history’s belligerent imperialists, brutal conquerors, and authoritarian tyrants comes through a revival of the archaic, the triumphantly resurrected voices of conquered and colonized cultures. Throughout the Wake we hear voiced blends of their languages, as in the Maori war chant in the Tavern chapter (to introduce the war-themed Butt & Taff cartoon on p. 335) or the Chinese and Japanese Pidgin speech of the Patrick vs Archdruid debate during the final chapter. In his illuminating study Joyce, Race, & Empire, Vincent Cheng contextualizes the historical atmosphere of racism against the Irish throughout the 19th century and describes Joyce’s response to racist views of Irish people as barbarians and savages akin to primitive bushmen: “[Joyce] rejects and reverses all these derogatory analogies to other races by using them in a positive, vital, and enabling manner; analogizing and equating the Irish with other races and colonized peoples by accenting the flattering aspects of such comparisons and by suggesting a solidarity of the marginalized and othered.” (Cheng, p. 27)
He engages in a “war in words” (FW 98) invading English with a barrage of dozens of other tongues. “Miscegenations on miscegenations.” (FW 18) Jacques Derrida, riffing on the single phrase “he war” from FW 258, insisted Joyce “declared war in language and on language and by language.” (Derrida, “Two Words for Joyce”) Yet Joyce’s “war in words” is powered by feelings of love and laughter, an undermining of the structures of authority through humor and levity. After all, Shem the Penman, emblematic of the author of the Wake, composes “o peace a farce” (FW 14), a piece of farcical art that is a force for peace, leading us to wonder “Is the Pen Mightier Than the Sword?” (FW 306) Hiding up in his “inkbattle house” (FW 176), Shem cunningly attacks the powers of “awethorrorty” (FW 516) with his comedic art, as Benjamin Boysen explains (The Ethics of Love: An Essay on James Joyce, p. 432):
With war looming over Europe in the 1930s, Joyce once remarked “Now they’re bombing Spain. Isn’t it better to make a great joke instead, as I have done?” (Ellmann p. 693) Some biographers have, I believe, misinterpreted comments like this from Joyce as representing a callous or indifferent attitude toward the war. A reading of the themes of war and cultural displacement in the Wake, though, tells a different story. Joyce was tuned in to what was going on in Europe and it inevitably bled into his writing. While busy whittling away at his “jeeremyhead” (FW p. 229), he kept up with and suffered the effects of the developments in Europe. As amply demonstrated in John Gordon’s enlightening article “Joyce’s Hitler,” in the 1930s Joyce “knew what was happening and what was coming.” After Hitler was elected in ‘33 Joyce thought the Germans were “going daft.” Seven years later, as Finnegans Wake appeared on bookshelves, a haggard Joyce worked to help his Jewish friends get out of harm’s way and then navigated a bureaucratic minefield to escape Nazi-occupied France with his family to Switzerland in December 1940. Barely a month later he was dead.
The revolution primarily takes place linguistically and mentally in these special ‘funantics’ (FW 45)... By means of these funantics the self-proclaimed authority and dignity of the tyrants are reduced to their rightfully ridiculed and scorned abjectness…It is through the war of language, and the subsequent laughter (Latin risus) following in the wake of this, that regicide is performed as ‘risicide’ (FW p. 161).
In the wake of his death, with the SS swarming Paris, Joyce's secretary Paul Léon succeeded in gathering up his books and papers and sent them off to the National Library of Ireland. Leon was arrested by the Gestapo in August 1941 and imprisoned in Auschwitz where he was fatally shot by a guard. In December, a truck of SS officers showed up at the Shakespeare & Company bookshop one day asking to buy a copy of Finnegans Wake from Sylvia Beach, Joyce’s longtime friend and supporter. She replied that it wasn’t for sale, it was her last copy and she wanted to keep it for herself. Enraged, the German officer threatened to come back and confiscate the entire shop if she wouldn’t sell it to him. She persisted. They stormed off angrily. Over the span of a weekend, the ever resourceful Miss Beach figured out a way to rent the building’s top floor, hurriedly gathered the entire stock of books into boxes and transferred them up there, shuttering up shop. That was the end of her experience with the iconic Shakespeare & Co. She shut it down to save Finnegans Wake from the hands of a Nazi.
“Mounting and arming bellicose figurines see here.” (FW 18)
If we consider the role of Finnegans Wake within its historical epoch as a force for peace through subversive humor and intellectual pleasure then we will be contemplating what the Wake itself describes as “THE PART PLAYED BY BELLETRISTICKS IN THE BELLUM-PAX-BELLUM.” (FW 281) The part played by belletristics or beautiful literature in the war-peace-war cycle of history. The Wake as a “history of the world” depicts the patterns of wars and invasions that have shaped it, while always countering the cycles of recurring conflict with calls for “peace peace perfectpeace!” (FW 364). Yet conflict continues to arise ineluctably, like when the Phoenix Playhouse theater production is described as “a Magnificent Transformation Scene showing the Radium Wedding of Neid and Moorning and the Dawn of Peace, Pure, Perfect and Perpetual, Waking the Weary of the World” on p. 222, in the line immediately afterwards, “An argument follows.” The Wake celebrates the force of life’s continual resilience in response to man’s violent destruction, “Yes, before all this has time to end the golden age must return with its vengeance.” (FW 112) Life persistently re-arises from the rubble of the “bluddle filth” (FW 10) of the battle field like flowers growing out of the rotten remains of history’s “Killykillkilly” (FW 4). The image of flowers arising out of the dead heap of warring civilizations forms the core of the Wake’s perspective of history as represented through one vital passage that recurs often.
In the Wake’s vast tapestry of allusions and references, it’s the only quotation presented in its natural form, apparently borrowed from historian Edgar Quinet, quoted in French on page 281. In English it translates to:
Today, as in the days of Pliny and Columella, the hyacinth disports in Gaul, the periwinkle in Illyria, the daisy on the ruins of Numantia; and while around them the cities have changed masters and names, while some have ceased to exist, while the civilisations have collided with one another and shattered, their peaceful generations have passed through the ages, and have come up to us, one following the other, fresh and cheerful as on the days of the battles.The regions of Gaul, Illyria, and Numantia were all sacked and conquered brutally by the Roman Empire and yet throughout all these collisions of civilizations turning each other into rubble, the cities changing names and rulers over millennia, the flowers always continue to grow, laughing (“the hyacinth disports”) and surviving the clashes. The elements of this passage morph into important recurring motifs throughout Finnegans Wake, emphasizing the beauty and resilience of the plant world, which Joyce likens to cheerful, playful young children, the book’s heliotrope flower girls. On page 471 they all chant a chorus of “Peace!” in 29 different languages.
A mutation of the Quinet passage first appears in Chapter 1 following the Willingdone Museyroom scene (FW 8-10), a tour through a museum of war artifacts located beneath Phoenix Park’s Wellington Monument. The Museyroom section condenses allusions to many dozens of wars and battles, mostly from the careers of Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington (Sir Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington or as the Wake dubs him, signaling his penchant for slaughter, “Sraughter Willingdone” FW 8), the generals who fought the Battle of Waterloo. Wellington and Napoleon become main figures in the text, the belligerents of Waterloo being a version of the Shem/Shaun warring opposites. The Wake’s anthropological view of warfare and militarism is always scatological, invoked right from the first page with “penisolate war” (FW 3), The Peninsular War where Wellington and Napoleon first clashed. Warfare in Finnegans Wake is reduced to a pissing contest (hence, Waterloo), having to do with the nether regions, characteristic of anal-territorial animal aggression implied by using excrement as territorial marker. As Timothy Leary liked to say, “The only intelligent way to discuss politics is on all fours.” Or as the Wake puts it, “All’s fair on all fours.” (FW 295). Think of the Russian General story or the Wake’s frequent allusions to General Cambronne who upon defeat at Waterloo exclaimed: “Merde!” (Shit!). In the Museyroom passage, the imposing symbol of imperialist power, Wellington’s big white horse becomes a “big wide harse” (FW 8, big wide arse). On p. 10 Wellington snatches Napoleon’s hat and wipes his horse’s ass with it as the ultimate insult. (Horses are central to Joyce’s treatment of warfare and racism---the constantly reappearing big white horse of imperial military power in opposition to the darkhorse Throwaway of the scorned Jew, Leopold Bloom.) Soon after all this horseplay we encounter a mutated version of the Quinet flower passage where “these paxsealing buttonholes have quadrilled across the centuries and whiff now whafft to us, fresh and made-of-all-smiles as on the eve of Killallwho.” (FW 15) The “paxsealing buttonholes” are (according to McHugh) flowers placed in buttonholes, but also bullet-holes or bungholes, as though the “paxsealing” peace pact is plugging the aggression of belligerent assholes bent on a motive of “Killallwho.”
Reading further into the Museyroom section, Vincent Cheng (Joyce, Race, & Empire) suggests “the hinndoo Shimar Shin...the hinndoo seeboy” involved on pg 10 invokes the notorious Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 wherein the British Empire committed a religious insult to their Hindu sepoy soldiers by greasing their cartridges in cows’ and pigs’ lard, leading to the Sepoy Rebellion. The conflict is notorious for the Empire’s violent thwarting of the mutiny, a horrific massacre recalled by an ex-soldier in Ulysses “who had blown a considerable number of sepoys from the cannonmouth without flinching.” (Notably from the ‘Cyclops’ chapter.)
The Hindu sepoy “Shimar Shin” is a Shem the Penman figure, who later on in the Shem chapter (I.VII) is rebuked for being a “semisemitic serendipidist...Europasianised Afferyank” (FW 191). A half-Jewish European-Asian-African-American, his brother considers him an “oaf, outofwork, one remove from an unwashed savage.” (FW191) He’s described as “a nogger among the blankards” (FW 188) and gets harassed by a policeman from the KKK, “Petty constable Sistersen of the Kruis-Kroon-Kraal.” (FW 186)*
*[Side note: the KKK are frequently subject to mockery in Finnegans Wake starting from the opening pages where “the Whoyteboyce of Hoodie Head” are out to “Killykillkilly” (FW 3). Later on they become “Flu Flux Fans” (p. 464) relying on “creed crux ethics” (Fw 525) and reciting from their “K.K. Katakasm” (Fw 533), an actual KKK code of calendar weeks and months that appears on p 549: “dark deadly dismal doleful desolate dreadful desperate.” Of course, the Wake immediately counters with “peace, perfect peace” as though Joyce is combating the KKK with prayers of peace.]
In the same chapter, the pacifist Shem is reproached for taking refuge from the massacre of Bloody Sunday during the Irish War of Independence, “without having struck one blow…[he] kuskykorked himself up tight in his inkbattle house” (FW 176). The uproarious sounds of violence and national anthems in the streets literally scare the shit out of him, he is “hemiparalysed by the tong warfare and all the shemozzle… his cheeks and trousers changing colour every time a gat croaked.” (FW p. 177) Terrified, he hears the sounds of soldiers singing selections “from the Monster Book of Paltryattic Puetrie, O pura e pia bella!” (FW p. 178), a monstrous book of patriotic poetry---paltry attic or empty-headed puerility---where the chorus echoes Vico’s phrase for religious wars, “O pure and pious war!” And when a frightful Shem peeked outside through his keyhole using a high-powered telescope, “he got the charm of his optical life when he found himself... at pointblank range blinking down the barrel of an irregular revolver...handled by an unknown quarreller who, supposedly, had been told off to shade and shoot shy Shem should the shit show his shiny shnout out awhile...” (FW p. 179)
The ridiculous image of Shem is a farcical exaggeration of Joyce himself taking refuge from the warzone to create his epic. Joyce had scribbled away at Ulysses while “The war to end all wars” raged outside his window. As he later told his friend Jan Parandowski (in what must be my favorite quote from Joyce in relation to Ulysses):
I wrote the greater part of the book during the war. There was fighting on all fronts, empires fell, kings went into exile, the old order was collapsing with a crash; and I had, as I sat down to work, the conviction that in the midst of all these ruins I was building something for the most distant future. (Portraits of the Artist in Exile, p. 158)The Wake’s war themes converge at the center of the book where the Tavern chapter (II.3) features a pub full of rowdy drunks watching a television program featuring the cartoonish comedy duo Butt & Taff enacting the book’s ultimate war parable, the story of when Buckley shot the Russian General. Piling on to the war scatology theme, Buckley hesitates to fire at a Russian general he spots in the vulnerable position of taking a dump. Their apocryphal confrontation, supposed to have taken place in the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War, brings hundreds of references to that emblematic war (so important for Joyce since it was a war with the word ‘crime’ in it), while the battling characters bark at each other things like “May his boules grow wider so his skittles gets worse!” (FW 341) or “May his bowels grow wider so his diarrhea gets worse!” It’s striking to witness within this comedic skit of mega-warfare, amid all the "slopbang, whizzcrash, boomarattling" (p. 356), the "missledhropes...grenadite, damnymite, alextronite, nichilite" (p. 349) explosions, the blast of Buckley’s rifle firing upon the General becomes amplified into the force of the atomic bomb: a "pang that would split an atam" (p. 333) as “the abnihilisation of the etym… expolodotonates” (FW p. 353), enemies are "blown to Adams" (p. 313). All of this in a book published in 1939. On page 315, just a few lines apart we see "nogeysokey" with "it had a mushroom on it" a few lines above in a chapter with lots of Japanese or “lipponease longuewedge” (339) exchanged. Robert Anton Wilson even suggests the trigger of the atomic bomb, “uranium” appears in “guranium” on page 349. John Gordon notifies us that Joyce wrote the Tavern chapter fairly late in the composition process and catalogues a cluster of references to Nazism and a marching German juggernaut within its explosive pages. And an article in the latest James Joyce Quarterly (Vol 52.2, “Finnegans Wake’s Radio Montage” by Catharine Flynn) examines the way this chapter uses radio as a democratic medium in a reversal of Hitler’s authoritative propagandizing of radio in the 1930s. Joyce complained in 1935, “Any time I turn on the radio I hear some British politician mumbling inanities and his German cousin shouting and yelling like a madman.”
“A darktongues, kunning...Ethiaop lore” (FW 223)
In the final chapter the themes of warfare, invasion, cultural displacement, and political insurrection are so rich we couldn’t possibly touch on all of it here. Suffice to say, the chapter opens with a political revolution resonant of the 1914 Easter Rising (leading at least one prominent Joyce scholar, Hugh Kenner, to assert that the entire book takes place on the eve of the Easter Rising) immediately followed by a multicultural pagan celebration of the vernal equinox featuring bushmen dancing around stone monoliths and reference to the Sanskrit slogan for Indian independence, “Svadesia” (FW p. 594), meaning “self-governance” paralleling the slogan of the Easter Rising’s Sinn Fein rebels (“Ourselves, ourselves alone!”).
The book’s climactic conclusion (pgs. 611-613) recalls St. Patrick’s invasion of Ireland in 432, a calculated conquest meant to disrupt the most important pagan Irish festival-ceremony of the year. Joyce places great importance on this historic event (this section was one of the earliest sketches he wrote for Finnegans Wake) and litters the text with references to invasions and war, as when Thanksgiving Day becoming “Yankskilling Day.” (FW 618) After Patrick defeats the Archdruid in a debate, he orders the suppression of the Druidic “Dark Tongue”, the magic language of the poets. George Cinclair Gibson’s landmark study Wake Rites: The Ancient Irish Rituals of Finnegans Wake provides great insight on this subject, as he writes: “In this ultimate act of colonization, the language that was the heart of the indigenous Irish tradition, the language that held its history, its religious and spiritual precepts, its poetry and mythology, is banned by the non-Irish invader now celebrated as patron saint of Ireland.” (Gibson 222)
But, as Gibson exhaustively documents, Joyce resurrects the Dark Tongue of the Druids in the language of Finnegans Wake---the characteristics of the two languages “are identical,” he states. Therefore, Joyce retells the story of Patrick conquering the Druids through the very language which Patrick banned. Joyce hurls the “verbal spear” of the native Irish poets, “transforming English,” Gibson writes, “from an ‘imperial humiliation’ into a ‘native weapon.’” (Gibson 236)
Subsequently, in the book’s final invocation of the Quinet flowers quote, a passage on p. 613 describes an abundance of plant life bursting with growth from out of the underworld. Flowers arise joyfully, “of increasing livivorous feelful thinkamalinks; luxuriotiating everywhencewithersoever.” The renewal of life proliferates out of the decay “among skullhollows and charnelcysts of a weedwastewoldwevild.” Later reference to “Rosensharonal” (FW 620) invokes the Russian General again but it’s also a rose arising in charnel---charnel referring to a chamber of dead bodies and bones---reiterating the image of flowers growing out of the morbid piles of bones left over from history’s death-march of warfare. These resilient flowers are, for Joyce, the renewing generations of children, represented by the Wake’s Heliotrope flower girls. “The child we all love to place our hope in for ever.” (FW 621) I’m reminded of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Vineland where the main character is a teenage girl named Prairie struggling against an authoritarian government.**
**[Fittingly, Pynchon concludes his essay on George Orwell’s 1984 (in his introduction to the 2003 Plume edition) in a hopeful manner, contemplating a photo of Orwell holding his 2-year-old son: “It is the boy's smile, in any case, that we return to, direct and radiant, proceeding out of an unhesitating faith that the world, at the end of the day, is good and that human decency, like parental love, can always be taken for granted - a faith so honourable that we can almost imagine Orwell, and perhaps even ourselves, for a moment anyway, swearing to do whatever must be done to keep it from ever being betrayed.”]
Some scholars have characterized Joyce’s treatment of war and peace in Finnegans Wake as naive or bland, especially in light of the ongoing events surrounding its creation. But Joyce was an artist creating a work of art. His history of the world hardly shies away from the atrocities unfolding; you’ll inevitably find wars and invasions referenced on nearly every page. More importantly though, the combined ideological imagery that emerges from his most important works, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, with pacifist Leopold Bloom (aka Henry Flower), Molly his “flower of the mountain,” and their rhododendrons on Howth; the Wake’s frequent allusions to naturalist authors Pliny & Columella with their hyacinths, periwinkles, daisies, and especially the “fungoalgaceous muscafilicial graminopalmular planteon” (FW 613) growing out of piles of bones and skulls---I find this quite beautiful, inspiring, and enduring.
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Bowker, Gordon. 2011. James Joyce: A New Biography. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
Boysen, Benjamin. 2013. The Ethics of Love: An essay on James Joyce. Denmark: University of Southern Denmark.
Cheng, Vincent John. 1995. Joyce, Race, and Empire. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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Fitch, Noel Riley. 1985. Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties & Thirties. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Flynn, Catherine. 2015. “Finnegans Wake’s Radio Montage: Man-Made Static, the Avant-Garde, and Collective Reading.” James Joyce Quarterly 52.2.
Gibson, George Cinclair. 2005. Wake Rites: The Ancient Irish Rituals of Finnegans Wake. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.
Gordon, John. 1999. “Joyce’s Hitler.” Joyce through the Ages: A Nonlinear View ed. by Michael Patrick Gillespie. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.
McLuhan, Marshall. 1968. War and Peace in the Global Village w. Quentin Fiore. New York: Bantam Books.
Potts, Willard, ed. 1979. James Joyce: Portraits of the Artist in Exile. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Wilson, Robert Anton. 1988. Coincidance: A Head Test. Reno: New Falcon Publications.
© Peter Quadrino