Saturday, March 9, 2019

Carvings in the Claybook: A Reading of Finnegans Wake pgs. 18-19

From Id-Grids and Ego-Graphs: A Confabulation with Finnegans Wake by Jacob Drachler.

After cycling from the last chapter back to the beginning, our Austin Finnegans Wake Reading Group recently finished reading chapter 1. As often happens with this astonishingly rich book, there's been one section of the text that I've been stuck on, pondering for months. It's the part beginning on page 18 immediately after the discordant dialogue between two cartoonish Neanderthals named Mutt and Jute. The passage seems like a direct address to the reader instructing us how to approach the very text we are reading. The more I look at this section, the more I get out of it. In some ways it feels like a mission statement of Finnegans Wake, a convoluted self-commentary outlining the book's archeological treasures.

The entirety of pages 18 and 19 is what interests me but for the purposes of trying to keep this post as neat and focused as I can, let's focus especially on one notable paragraph spanning these pages.

Here's the paragraph, from pages 18-19:

(Stoop) if you are abcedminded, to this claybook, what curios of signs (please stoop), in this allaphbed! Can you rede (since We and Thou had it out already) its world? It is the same told of all. Many. Miscegenations on miscegenations. Tieckle. They lived und laughed ant loved end left. Forsin. Thy thingdome is given to the Meades and Porsons. The meandertale, aloss and again, of our old Heidenburgh in the days when Head-in-Clouds walked the earth. In the ignorance that implies impression that knits knowledge that finds the nameform that whets the wits that convey contacts that sweeten sensation that drives desire that adheres to attachment that dogs death that bitches birth that entails the ensuance of existentiality. But with a rush out of his navel reaching the reredos of Ramasbatham. A terricolous vivelyonview this; queer and it continues to be quaky. A hatch, a celt, an earshare the pourquose of which was to cassay the earthcrust at all of hours, furrowards, bagawards, like yoxen at the turnpaht. Here say figurines billycoose arming and mounting. Mounting and arming bellicose figurines see here. Futhorc, this liffle effingee is for a firefing called a flintforfall. Face at the eased! O I fay! Face at the waist! Ho, you fie! Upwap and dump em, ace to ace! When a part so ptee does duty for the holos we soon grow to use of an allforabit. Here (please to stoop) are selveran cued peteet peas of quite a pecuniar interest inaslittle as they are the pellets that make the tomtummy's pay roll. Right rank ragnar rocks and with these rox orangotangos rangled rough and rightgorong. Wisha, wisha, whydidtha? Thik is for thorn that's thuck in its thoil like thumfool's thraitor thrust for vengeance. What a mnice old mness it all mnakes! A middenhide hoard of objects! Olives, beets, kimmells, dollies, alfrids, beatties, cormacks and daltons. Owlets' eegs (O stoop to please!) are here, creakish from age and all now quite epsilene, and oldwolldy wobblewers, haudworth a wipe o grass. Sss! See the snake wurrums everyside! Our durlbin is sworming in sneaks. They came to our island from triangular Toucheaterre beyond the wet prairie rared up in the midst of the cargon of prohibitive pomefructs but along landed Paddy Wippingham and the his garbagecans cotched the creeps of them pricker than our whosethere outofman could quick up her whatsthats. Somedivide and sumthelot but the tally turns round the same balifuson. Racketeers and bottloggers.

There's a lot going on here. I'd like to discuss what I perceive to be the main themes and elements that are involved. I won't make an attempt to cover all of it, as there's just way too much happening here, but there are a few main threads that stand out to me. Namely these: the earth contains the stories of human history, its wars and invasions, within its substrata; letters themselves can be seen as organic material objects with historical roots; and we are getting a de facto guide to reading the text, instructions presented in dense Wakean language. Let's take a look at each of those aspects, in reverse order. (I am relying heavily on annotations from Fweet and John Gordon for this reading.)

"Another common Menippean trope is giving the reader instructions inside the book, telling the reader how to behave or how to read and interpret what he is reading. 'Joyce, like Sterne, was a writer who consciously sought to train literary critics to read his works, and to do so within the artifice itself,' reports Phillip Herring." (from McLuhan, Role of Thunder in Finnegans Wake, footnotes, p. 301)

What we have here is one of the Wake's many instances of providing the reader instruction on how to read the text. "Can you rede... its world?" One definition of the word "rede" is to interpret a riddle or a dream (it comes from the same root as "read"). We as readers have become interpreters of a puzzling dream-riddle. We must become like the prophet Daniel who interpreted the dreams of King Nebuchadnezzar and who later in the Book of Daniel is summoned to decipher another mysterious riddle. When the Babylonian king Belshazzar's feast is interrupted by a hand cryptically writing letters on a wall (the origin of the phrase "the writing's on the wall"), all the magicians and wise men are baffled as to its meaning, so the queen suggests seeking the advice of Daniel (another meaning of that word "rede" is to advise or counsel). Daniel gives his interpretation of the letters, seeing it as a warning that the king's days are numbered: "Thy kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians." Page 18 of the Wake presents the prophecy this way: "Thy thingdome is given to the Meades and Porsons." The Hebrew letters on the wall as interpreted by Daniel are "MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN"---we find echoes of this in our Wake paragraph: "Many... Tieckle... Forsin." (John Gordon suggests this could be the Wake's way of promising its reader many tickles of laughter in response to the book's sinful, bawdy humor.)

Detail from Belshazzar's Feast, Rembrandt (1638).

The Talmud apparently suggests that the words on Belshazzar's wall were also written vertically and backwards. Further down in this Wake paragraph we are given a similar description about the text we are trying to interpret. The words can be read "furrowards" or "bagawards" and the rotated F's in "ace to ace" could be taken as a hint that the reader of Finnegans Wake needs to maintain a completely flexible and open-minded approach, be prepared to read the words and letters in the text not only backwards and forwards or east and west ("Face at the eased!... Face at the waist!") but even vertically up and down.

Another important factor to consider in deciphering this riddle is that, whereas the letters Daniel interprets are inscribed on a wall, the etchings we encounter seem to be on the ground, carved into the surface of the earth itself. Hence why we are repeatedly told to "stoop" down to read it. In the Mutt & Jute dialogue on page 18, Mutt tells Jute, "He who runes may rede it on all fours." It seems we must get down and peer into the dirt to interpret this rune. We are, after all, looking at a "claybook"---a book of carvings in clay. Recall that word "rede" again, it could refer to early forms of writing using a reed to carve letters on clay tablets.

The letter carvings on the clay surface of the page are likened to agricultural carvings on the ground, thus we read: "A hatch, a celt, an earshare the pourquose of which was to cassay the earthcrust at all of hours, furrowards, bagawards, like yoxen at the turnpaht." We've got a hatchet, a chisel (celt is the name for a prehistoric chisel), and a ploughshare (ear is an archaic verb meaning "to plow"), attempting to break through the earth ("cassay" combines the word assay and the French casser for break or rupture) alongside oxen carrying a plow back and forth. The reference to oxen turning while plowing would be the literal meaning of the Greek word boustrophêdon which is used to describe the bi-directional system of writing found in some ancient texts or inscriptions where words are alternately written backwards and forwards on each line, "furrowards, bagawards, like yoxen at the turnpaht." Joyce immediately follows up with a sentence whose words are given left to right, then essentially the same sentence with the words provided right to left. This recalls the writing on the wall at Belshazzar's feast which Daniel reads vertically and backwards. The message to the reader of Finnegans Wake, again, seems to be: stay flexible! We must not be too literal-minded or "abcedminded." You must abandon the normal, straightforward approach to reading letters and words, even be prepared to read omni-directionally in order to interpret this riddle.


"Any word that draws attention to itself independently of its meaning, whether by inappropriateness or by density or richness of meaning or texture or any other feature (such as unusual spelling), becomes a thing, an object of scrutiny as an artefact... The word is become a thing with properties... In similar Menippean fashion, he even has us dwell on letters (in a manuscript) themselves as things... "
(Role of Thunder in FW, McLuhan, p. 33-34)

Spend a little time reading the paragraph on pages 18-19 and what begins to stand out is its preoccupation with letters and alphabets. Letters as objects. Similar to how Joyce deployed techniques in Ulysses to defamiliarize everyday objects and experience, the techniques deployed in Finnegans Wake defamiliarize not only words but letters themselves. Letters become, in McLuhan's words, objects of scrutiny, artifacts to be dwelled upon.

The paragraph we are looking at is deeply concerned, both in its allusions and on its surface level, with alphabets. It begins with the words "abcedminded" and "allaphbed" and later has "allforabit." The reader is immediately signalled to observe the curious nature of letters: "what curios of signs." Not just curious signs but curios which is a word for a bunch of rare, unusual, or intriguing objects, like trinkets or knickknacks. The Wake can thus be seen as a giant pile of letters like knickknacks or "A middenhide hoard of objects!"

The paragraph plays all kinds of games with letters, including but not limited to the Wake's typical toying with the familiar letters HCE and ALP. We have the aforementioned rotated F's, lots of P's and Q's, R's, and S's, W's and double-O's ("stoop"), and can't forget A, B, C, D's. Letters are not only seen as curios or trinkets, but here they also become bits of food, like Alpha-Bits cereal. We are led to think of letters as bits or bites, discrete bits of signification that combine to form systems which give rise to our language and our history. "When a part so ptee does duty for the holos we soon grow to use of an allforabit." One tiny, petit part doing its duty for the whole, leading to an alphabet or an all-for-a-bit. Looking again at this sentence, we might focus on that word "grow" and come to realize that these letters are not standalone objects, they're pieces of organic matter with tendrils and roots. We already talked about this paragraph's preoccupation with agriculture, it seems what's being harvested here are letters themselves. Letters are akin to organic bits or bites of food: "Olives, beets, kimmells, dollies, alfrids, beatties, cormacks and daltons." Here we have not only crops, seeds, foodstuffs but also echoes of the first letters of both the Hebrew (aleph, beth, ghimel, daleth) and Greek (alpha, beta, gamma, delta) alphabets.

We are also directed, right here* on the page, to observe letters as food pellets or peas fulfilling the payroll of the tummy: "Here (please to stoop) are selveran cued peas of quite a pecuniar interest inaslittle as they are the pellets that make the tomtummy's payroll." Notice how this sentence blends the image of letters as food and also letters as coins through reference to silver, pecuniary, interest, and payroll (John Gordon shares that P's would also be shorthand for the currency of pence). Letters are not only mini-bites of food, they're alphabetic bit-coins or trinkets. Allforabit. The sentence with its "cued peas of quite a pecuniar interest" also cleverly draws our attention to the many P's and Q's scattered throughout these pages. PQ's appear together often throughout Finnegans Wake, indicative of many things (and a fun coincidence for me since my initials are PQ) including the presence of the confounding Prankquean character who poses riddles about peas. In the context of this paragraph though, I think they are intended to make us take a closer look at the actual shapes of letters. A lowercase "p" is a backwards "q" and vice-versa. A "b" is an upside-down "p" and a "d" is a backwards "b" and so on and so forth.

We also read a couple sentences later, "Thik is for thorn..."---which sounds like "this is for thorn" where thorn is actually a letter in Old Norse, Old English, and Gothic alphabets that represents the "th" sound yet looks sort of a like a combined lower-case "p" and "q" together:

By way of the thorn, the scattered P's and Q's serve to illuminate the paragraph's many allusions to old alphabets. There are numerous references to runes on pages 18-19, including directly stating "He who runes may rede it on all fours" and later "But the world, mind, is, was and will be writing its own wrunes for ever..." The paragraph we're focusing on also has this: "Futhorc, this liffle effingee is for a firefing called a flintforfall." Futhorc is the name for a primitive Gothic rune alphabet, derived from the first six characters of that alphabet, where the aforementioned thorn letter is the third character. That Futhorc sentence is a tough one to crack but my speculative reading is that the many F's in the sentence and the many F's in surrounding sentences are indicative of the Neanderthal characters, Mutt and Jute, observing the many F-shaped runes in the Futhorc alphabet. I think all of the F's and the reference to Futhorc runes also connect to the appearance of "balifuson" later on in the paragraph. BLFSN are the first letters of the early Irish Ogham alphabet and their appearance resemble F's. On another note, since we've already alluded to primitive methods of writing by carving letters into a clay surface with a reed, the word Ogham literally means "point-seam" referring to the seams carved on a surface by a sharp weapon. The etymology of the word rune also apparently includes root words meaning cut, scratch, or dig.

The paragraph ends with reference to "Racketeers and bottloggers" or racketeers and bootleggers which to me, in this context, conjures the image of a bookie's scorecard scribbled with layers of obscure symbols, letters and lines. The paragraph following this one begins with "Axe on thwacks on thracks, axenwise." The experienced Wake reader might see this as referring to the letters XXXX that supposedly conclude the Letter that's often discussed in the book. This might also resemble the scribbles of the racketeer's scorebook. On top of all that, Fweet provides us with this enlightening factoid: "the Avestan words 'taša' (axe) and 'thwaxš-' (be busy) both derive from the Proto-Indo-European root 'tek-' (to make), which in English gave rise to such words as 'text' and 'texture.'" Avestan is yet another ancient alphabet, linked with Sanskrit, and the information here that the word axe derives from the same root as text and texture beautifully ties together what we have discussed so far with point-seams, carvings in a claybook, and the appearance or texture of letters or text on the surface of a page. X's and axes.

John Bishop in his wonderful study, Joyce's Book of the Dark, provides large, beautifully elaborate diagrams showing the etymological roots of certain words to illustrate the way the Wake plays with the shared historical roots of different words. What I envision from contemplating the materiality of letters through this paragraph are similar root diagrams showing the historical roots of the very letters we use to make words. Something like this, perhaps.

*I think this paragraph is a good example of Beckett's maxim, that the Wake is not ABOUT something, IT IS THAT SOMETHING ITSELF.


Throughout this passage we are told four times to stoop, to get down on all fours in order to perceive "A terricolous vivelyonview this." That is, a view of the living earth (terricola is Latin for earth-dweller) from within the pages of a book (vivlio is Greek for book). This, this book. The book of life and the book of the earth. As we've seen already, the passage features abundant allusions to agriculture and crops. We also find ourselves surrounded by mentions of grass, mud, sod, soil, and pastures with earthbound crawling worms and snakes. "Sss! See the snake wurrums everyside! Our durlbin is sworming in sneaks."

What I think we are getting here on pages 18-19, once we follow the book's advice to stoop down in order to read its world, is a representation of all of the history embedded within the layers of the earth. The recurrent symbol of the mound or garbage dump in Finnegans Wake is a rich embodiment of this idea. All of the detritus of history gets piled up in a giant mound of trash or a midden heap. Page 19 seems to relish this: "What a mnice old mness it all mnakes! A middenhide hoard of objects!" The midden pile of history's rubbish inevitably decays, getting absorbed into and becoming a part of the earth itself. Mutt describes this natural process to Jute in this beautiful passage from the top of page 18:

And thanacestross mound have swollup them all. This ourth of years is not save brickdust and being humus the same roturns.

The "thanacestross mound" is an ancestral mound that's also a giant pile of death---Greek, thanatos---that hungrily (Greek kestreus means hungry) swallows us all up, making the mound swell up. We all came from dust and will eventually return or "roturn" to dust or rot into an urn, because humus, the Latin word for soil, is the same destination for all humans, "being humus the same roturns." The passage we've focused on echoes these axioms: "It is the same told of all... They lived und laughed ant loved end left." All humans living on "this ourth of years" will in the end be left as a part of "the earthcrust at all of hours."

In the paragraph we've been focusing on, Joyce applies this notion of the past being embedded within the layers of the earth's surface specifically to Dublin. For example, the Mutt and Jute dialogue on page 18 dwells on the era of Viking-ruled Ireland including a few direct references to the Thingmote, a raised mound in Dublin where the Vikings gathered to vote on their laws. While Finnegans Wake supposedly represents Joyce's "history of the world" he tends to use the history of Dublin as a microcosm for the patterns of world history.  As I've written about before, one thing that is central to Joyce's view of history is war. A point of emphasis for Joyce seems to be that the "nightmare of history" is driven by waves of wars, invasions and occupations. With this in mind, if we now look at the passage on page 18-19 again we will find it is loaded with wars and it particularly emphasizes the pivotal historical invasion which, in Finnegans Wake, comes to embody the tragedy of all hostile invasions: St. Patrick's arrival in Ireland in 432 AD, confronting the Celtic Druids at Tara, and casting out the "snakes" or the indigenous pagan religion of the Druids.

Patrick's usurping of the Druids at Tara becomes the climactic moment of the Wake in Book IV where Patrick and the Archdruid hold a debate, but the hostile takeover of Patrick and his Christian missionaries is a recurrent theme throughout the Wake, often associated with warfare. John Gordon describes Patrick's confronting the Druids at Tara as the "Wakean Armageddon" (Plot Summary, p. 269). George Cinclair Gibson's mind-blowing study, Wake Rites: The Ancient Irish Rituals of Finnegans Wake offers plenty of context and detail for the impact of Patrick's arrival and its centrality to the Wake. He writes: "In Wakean terms, Patrick's victory at Tara meant the defeat, suppression, and forgotten memory of the other and earlier tradition. This loss results in collective memory amnesia---which then spawns its own array of problems. James Joyce sought to remedy this amnesia and endeavored to redress the loss wrought by Patrick at Tara through the seventeen-year labor of Finnegans Wake." (Wake Rites, p. 82)

It's interesting to observe some echoes between the section we've been studying and the Patrick vs. Archdruid confrontation on pages 611-613. That section is immediately preceded by a dialogue from an alternate version of Mutt & Jute called Muta & Juva where they make a number of allusions to warfare and invasions. The passage we are studying on pgs. 18-19 contains a wide range of references to warfare and in the latter half it describes Patrick's exterminating of the Druids (or "snakes"). A very minor but undeniable little detail directly linking the two is the bizarre article "the his" appearing on page 19 when describing Patrick: "along landed Paddy Wippingham and the his garbagecans cotched the creeps of them..." The same article conjunction "the his" appears six times in the Patrick vs. Archdruid passage on pgs 611-612.

It is worth noting some of the many elements of warfare scattered across pages 18-19. On page 18, the sentence that's presented both backwards and forwards describes "bellicose" military troops: "Here say figurines billycoose arming and mounting. Mounting and arming bellicose figurines see here." The clash of battle lines seems to be what's happening with the description of opposite directions facing off, "Face at the eased! O I fay! Face at the waist! Ho, you fie!" That last word could be a call to "fire!" A recurrent battle cry motif in the Wake is "up and at 'em!" which here becomes "Upwap and dump em, ace to ace!" where the flattened F's could be the supine corpses of dead soldiers on the battlefield. We already noted the elements of food, finance and PQ's in this sentence: "Here (please to stoop) are selveran cued peteet peas of quite a pecuniar interest inaslittle as they are the pellets that make the tomtummy's pay roll." It also refers to the rations fed to soldiers; Tommy is the name for a British army private and there's this famous saying from Napoleon: "An army travels on its stomach." (Kudos, John Gordon.) What better way to encapsulate the beastly clash of men exchanging launched rocks than this alliterative line: "Right rank ragnar rocks and with these rox orangotangos rangled rough and rightgorong." All of these invasions and skirmishes leave a lasting imprint on the memory of the land itself, Joyce seems to suggest.

When we read of snakes swarming the land, it's actually a description of the once thriving Druid culture of ancient Ireland. "Sss! See the snake wurrums everyside! Our durlbin is sworming in sneaks." Legend has it that St. Patrick exterminated all the snakes from Ireland, but it is likely that there were not actual snakes in Ireland to begin with. The snakes are metaphors for the Druids. We get a hint of this in that word "wurrums" carrying an echo of the Wurra-Wurra, a Druidic idol stationed at Tara before it was destroyed by Patrick. I believe one other possible hint lies in the description of the snakes or Druids as having arrived from "beyond the wet prairie rared up in the midst of the cargon of prohibitive pomefructs"---my admittedly conjectured interpretation is that this refers to ancient Irish psychedelic mushroom cults, as I wrote last year there is evidence of this throughout the Wake and Peter Lamborn Wilson wrote a book investigating the role of psychedelic mushrooms in ancient Celtic cultures.

The references to snakes and "prohibitive pomefructs" could merely be conjuring the serpent in the Garden of Eden with its forbidden apple (pomme) but I think it is much more than that. In Wake Rites, George C. Gibson provides a powerful argument that the language of Finnegans Wake represents Joyce's resurrecting of the "Dark Tongue" of the Druids, an important and supposedly magical language spoken by the poets who were a ruling class in Celtic culture. Patrick not only usurped the Druids, he also banned the "Dark Tongue" and I think "prohibitive pomefructs" (prohibited poems) acknowledges this.

In a perfectly Wakean fashion, the passage on pgs. 18-19 concludes in a tragicomic manner as the snake exterminator Patrick becomes "Paddy Wippingham" an Irish Dick Whittington, the character of British folklore who used cats to clean up rat-infested England. The downfall of pagan Celtic society becomes, in this passage, a manifestation of the warning Daniel gave to King Belshazzar. After all, the writing on the wall essentially said "God has numbered the days of your kingdom" and "Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians" echoes of which appear at the beginning of this passage (p. 18): "Thy thingdome is given to the Meades and Porsons." Daniel's prophecy came true, Belshazzar was killed, his kingdom was usurped. By the end of the Wake passage, "Paddy Wippingham" has arrived with his Christian missionaries and we read (p. 19): "Somedivide and sumthelot but the tally turns round the same balifuson. Racketeers and bottloggers." Thus came the collapse of the kingdom of the High Kings of Tara, the Druid culture divided and exterminated with mathematical precision. The "Wakean Armageddon." Racketeers and bootleggers took over, appropriating Celtic culture and turning the land into a commodity for commerce. The invaders blended with the invaded and the history of the world rolled on. "It is the same told of all. Many. Miscegenations on miscegenations."


  1. really enjoyed this article. thanks. -dave

  2. Thanks, great article for a new reader, hope you'll write many more and inspire others to do the same.