Friday, November 23, 2018

Thunderword No. 2

- Finnegans Wake, p. 23

This, the second of ten 100-letter thunderwords scattered throughout Finnegans Wake (the tenth containing 101 letters, making 1001 in all), punctuates the climax of the explosive Prankquean fable (p. 21-23) and strikes resonant chords with many of its themes. As with everything in Finnegans Wake, thunderword no. 2 is so many things at once.

Our Wake reading group here in Austin recently made our way through the Prankquean episode and coincidentally, our friends in the Santa Cruz Finnegans Wake group also just finished reading about the Prankquean. Seana Graham wrote a nice blog post discussing their collective interpretations as well as the background of Grace O'Malley, the 16th century Irish pirate queen, a historic figure who became part of Irish folklore and who Joyce renders cartoonishly as the Prankquean. A provocative force who befuddles and terrifies the patriarchal Earl of Howth (called Jarl van Hoother in the Wake), the Prankquean represents feminine energy that forces change. Seana writes: "when I look at what is happening in our country, I see a similar principle at work."

A quick bit of background: the Prankquean episode is based on a story wherein the pirate queen Grace O'Malley showed up at the door of Howth Castle one night hoping for a place to spend the night. Established traditions were that the castle doors remain open during dinner time, yet the Earl of Howth defiantly shut the doors on O'Malley. At this blatant show of disrespect, O'Malley responded by kidnapping the heir of Howth. Instead of a ransom, she demanded the castle doors remain open for visitors. In the two-and-half page Finnegans Wake fairy tale version, the story is repeated three times with slight variations. In each instance, Jarl van Hoother is busying himself doing something creepy ("laying cold hands on himself" or "shaking warm hands with himself") when the Prankquean arrives at the doorstep and drops an unsolvable Zen koan of a riddle on van Hoother who promptly slams the door in her face, so she kidnaps and runs off with each one of twin children Tristopher and Hilary while Jarl van Hoother angrily hollers after her.

Joyce's fable of the Prankquean marks its three stages this way:

"And that was how the skirtmisshes began." (p. 21) 
"But that was how the skirtmishes endupped." (p. 22) 
"For one man in his armour was a fat match always for any girls under shurts." (p. 23)

In the third instance of the Prankquean's assault on the castle, Jarl van Hoother becomes so enraged that he dons an array of armor and his face turns every color of the rainbow in fury "like a rudd yellan gruebleen orangeman in his violet indigonation," but he was no match for the Prankquean. At first I thought the thunder clap was Jarl shutting the door loudly but "the duppy shot the shutter clup" contains the word "dup" which means "to open." That adds new meaning to the phrase "that was how the skirtmishes endupped"---the skirmish ended up with the door being kept open, as the Prankquean demanded. Similarly, after the thunder it says the Prankquean "made a sweet unclose."

Here is a video made by Wake performer extraordinaire Adam Harvey breaking down the sounds of this thunder:

The consonant-heavy thunderword comes as a fitting denouement to an episode marked by fiery storms, combustible anger, and ... bodily excretions. The ferocious Prankquean "lit up and fireland was ablaze" upon her initial arrival. When she departs, the skies rain down "falling angles" or "starshootings." Of course, her beguiling presence makes Jarl van Hoother erupt in volcanic anger and, as was hilariously discovered and discussed in our Wake group, loud explosive diarrhea.

Eric McLuhan's rich study The Role of Thunder in Finnegans Wake breaks down every syllable of each thunderword. In this one he finds a whole host of relevant themes and metaphors including: reference to the word "thunder" in over a dozen languages; lots of nautical terms in multiple languages (kicking off with "Perkod-" recalling Pequod, the ship in Moby-Dick) linking to the sea-faring piratess Prankquean; pairs of peas in a pod (recalling the Prankquean's repeated riddle, "Why am I alook alike two poss of porterpease?" [p. 22] a question for which there is "Noanswa!" [p. 23]); references to battles, enemies, cannon fire; clothing (recall van Hoother covers himself in layers of armor); charm and seduction (Prankquean is a kind of temptress, there are also words for "whore" contained in the thunder).

So, yes, this 100-letter word on one level represents the sound of thunder erupting, on intricate microcosmic levels it has a whole host of words in various tongues striking concordant notes with the episode's major themes, but it also quite simply enacts the onomatopoeic sounds of a loud, long fart. Or more likely a shart. I'm not kidding.

Finnegans Wake, p. 23
The thunderword is surrounded by indications that Jarl van Hoother is angrily sharting. It is perhaps an appropriate response to the Prankquean who, each time she arrives at the castle door, either defecates ("the prankquean pulled a rosy one" on p. 21, according to Fweet the slang "to pluck a rose" is when a woman defecates or urinates) or she urinates ("and she made her witter before the wicked" on p. 22---she made water). When she arrives a third time, van Hoother has "his hurricane hips up to his pantrybox, ruminating in his holdfour stomachs" (p. 22), clearly he's got an upset stomach. When he orders the castle door to be shut (each time he yells for the door to "Shut!" there's an echo of "Shit!"), it is said that "he ordurd"---there's the word "ordure" meaning excrement. 

Immediately following the reverberation of the thunderword, we are told, "And that was the first peace of illiterative porthery in all the flamend floody flatuous world." Can't help noticing the flaming, floody flatulence there, certainly offering hints that Jarl van Hoother let out a wet fart or a shart. The text also notes that "van Hoother was to git the wind up" which sounds like he farted. With all this in mind, we can't help now seeing words like "shutter" and "shurts" (p. 23) as indicative of van Hoother sharting on himself, angrily in his "violet indigonation."   

The more I read the Wake, the more I marvel at how Joyce blends together so much of the world's history and folklore, science and wisdom, seemingly every language known to man, and yet never does he cease to be silly and absolutely filthy. Yes, the Wake is in many ways a high-brow book, but it also has, on every page, the type of humor that would make schoolchildren laugh.