Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Finnegans Wake on the Trump-Ukraine Affair & Impeachment

The region of Crimea which was invaded and illegally annexed by Russia in 2014.
(Image from The Economist.)

Here in the United States we've been consumed lately by presidential scandals and the impeachment of our grifter-in-chief for shady crimes involving the countries of Russia and Ukraine. With our twice-monthly Finnegans Wake Reading Group of Austin meetings often coinciding with major news stories unfolding, there have been nights where we've been struck to find echoes of the news of the day inside the pages of the Wake. Recently there was a reverberant convergence of the two when we read James Joyce's version of the "lock him up" chant, "The Ballad of Persse O'Reilly," which begins on page 45. Here I'd like to discuss some ways Joyce's book comments on the present and take a look at how the Wake advises a populace to deal with a tyrannical, aspiring authoritarian like Donald J. Trump.

Anyone following the news recently has become familiar with the central role played by the region of Crimea in the current state of global affairs. In short: in 2014, Russia invaded and illegally annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea, the first time a country had violated another country's sovereignty in such a way since World War II. The western world watched on in horror and decided on a careful response in order to penalize Russia while avoiding starting World War III. The United States and the EU issued economic sanctions against Russia as a punishment---a very effective response it turns out because, as thoroughly outlined in Rachel Maddow's informative new book Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth, Russia is a petrostate entirely dependent on selling its oil to other countries. Those punitive sanctions incurred by Russia as a result of its hostile takeover of Crimea hit Putin and Russia where it hurts, putting the kibosh on billions of dollars flowing in from oil deals including a giant collaboration with ExxonMobil who had a deal to help Russia extract oil from the Arctic Circle. As part of their counter-response, the Russians attacked the 2016 US election to install the Putin puppet Trump much like they'd previously done in Ukraine with Victor Yanukovych, the Putin-installed candidate who was eventually overthrown by a revolt of the populace and fled to Russia. And now, not long after chants of "lock him up!" greeted the president of the United States at the World Series in the nation's capital, Trump finds himself being impeached because he extorted the Ukrainian president by dangling military aid as a bargaining chip in the midst of Russia's continued aggressive invasion of Ukrainian territory. That was the latest in a string of moves by the American president to benefit Vladimir Putin.

It's all a huge mess and the American people are sick and tired of it, but as it continues to unfold we'll no doubt continue to hear more about Russia, Ukraine, and the annexation of Crimea.

It turns out that when you read Finnegans Wake you are also repeatedly drawn to the regions of Russia and Ukraine with specific focus on Crimea. The Crimean War (1853-56) is an important recurring motif throughout the book. Why would a book that essentially centers around Dublin have so much to say about Crimea? There seems to be a number of reasons for it, not least because the word "crime" is embedded in the Crimean War and for Joyce all war is a crime against humanity. (See my piece "Waging Peace from the Inkbattle House: Finnegans Wake in the Shadow of War" for more discussion of war in the Wake.)

A bigger part of why the Crimean War is all over Finnegans Wake involves an apocryphal story Joyce's father loved to tell to his drinking buddies, the story of when Buckley shot the Russian general. So yes, not only is Finnegans Wake littered with references to Crimea, it also has a Russian general looming over everything in the book like a nightmarish cartoon version of Vladimir Putin. As with all the recurring elements in the Wake, the appearance of the Russian general mutates and morphs into various puns---on page 390 the Russian general appears as "the wretch in churneroil" a brilliant pun that evokes the modern Russian petrostate, a churner of oil, and the wretched leader of that country. (Can't help but hear a subtle echo of Chernobyl in there, too.)

At this point you might be thinking this is a silly creative projection onto a text that was published in 1939, but you should know that when you read Finnegans Wake you enter a textual representation of the dreaming mind, a phantasmagorical world unrestricted by the bounds of time and space. In "the no placelike no timelike absolent" (FW p. 608) of the book, all historical events and figures exist on the same plane and are continually "intermutuomergent" (FW p. 55) with each other. When you get into the world of Finnegans Wake, you begin to comprehend just how true are the adages about history repeating itself. When all historical facts and stories blend together into recurrent themes and archetypes dancing on the same plane, it does not take a huge leap to find elements that resonate or intersect with the news of the day in 2019. This was part of Joyce's intention and the Wake frequently celebrates its propensity to stay "as modern as tomorrow afternoon and in appearance up to the minute." (FW p. 309) If lines like that make it seem like you can look to Finnegans Wake to read the news, it's because you can.

Now, I have touched on the echoes of Trump in the Wake briefly once before. It's pretty striking that Finnegans Wake features a main character who is, among other things: a builder of skyscrapers, preoccupied with building a wall (and he falls off that wall, like Humpty Dumpty), owns a hotel, has two sons and a daughter who he exhibits incestuous feelings for (in the Wake these feelings are sublimated through dream, in the case of the American prez Trump these feelings are explicitly, repulsively expressed often), he gets embroiled in a vague scandal about watching two girls urinating, has nightmares about a Russian general, and gets overthrown and humiliated by a popular uprising. The last part is still slowly unfolding in Trump's case.

The same day that the comeuppance began for Trump, when House leader Nancy Pelosi announced that Congress was officially launching an impeachment inquiry into Trump's behavior with Ukraine and Russia, that night our Finnegans Wake reading group gathered to read page 45 of the text. How perfectly fitting that when the 45th president of the United States was finally going to be held accountable, we were reading "The Ballad of Persse O'Reilly" which begins on page 45. The ballad is a raucous, bawdy diatribe against corrupt political leaders, the Wake's own "lock him up" chant complete with musical score and thunderous applause.

The ballad exposes Persse O'Reilly (a stand-in for all tyrants and corrupt politicians as well as the Wake's main character HCE) as a fraud and a cheat who should be jailed in Mountjoy, the prison in Dublin. Joyce scholar William York Tindall called this ballad "one of Joyce's better poems---better than any in Chamber Music and better by far than any in Pomes Penyeach." You can hear a performance of the ballad here. It's got a hilarious Irish pub vibe and to me this rendition sounds sorta like Adam Sandler's comedy songs from the 90s:

There are a bunch of things in "The Ballad of Persse O'Reilly" that seem to speak to our situation today. To begin with it offers hope for Americans with Humpty Dumpty falling of his wall "hump, helmet and all." In this context I can't help seeing the "helmet" as Trump's doofy and bizarre helmet of hair and thus Trumpty Dumpty. The first stanza uses "-ump" sounds a lot--Humpty Dumpty, rumble, Crumple, Hump.

The Oliver Cromwell tyrant figure is accused of behaving like a "soffsoaping salesman" selling shitty cheap items. "Soft-soaping" means to flatter, like a salesman. I picture Trump selling his vodkas and steaks, a phony salesman always hawking worthless garbage (trumpery: worthless junk).

Next we learn that the locals nicknamed him "He'll Cheat E'erawan" which also perfectly fits Trump, who had set up a fake university and defrauded students to the tune of $25 million and was penalized for running a fraudulent charitable foundation, not to mention the Trump name being associated with cheating vendors and contractors during his days as a real estate tycoon.

Then we get the Wake's most piercing rebuke of Trump on page 46. I touched on this line once before but it's worth revisiting and expanding on.

So snug he was in his hotel premises sumptuous
But soon we'll bonfire all his trash, tricks and trumpery
And'tis short till sheriff Clancy'll be winding up his unlimited company
With the bailiff's bom at the door,  
(Chorus) Bimbam at the door.  Then he'll bum no more. 

The sumptuous hotel premises line is just too perfect, with our dear leader spending most of his weekends golfing at his Mar-a-Lago resort or some other sumptuous hotel premises of his. "But soon we'll bonfire all his trash, tricks, and trumpery"---this line provides me an absurd amount of hope and optimism, coming from a book with such a sweeping view of world history. At some point this WILL end and this egregious fraudster WILL go down. That word "trumpery" meaning "showy, but worthless" couldn't possibly describe Trump and his entire family any better. The line evokes an image of the Trumps thrown out of the White House and all their "trash, tricks and trumpery" tossed into a bonfire.

The rest of this line gets pretty interesting when you dig into it. I can't help but hear "sheriff Clancy" as sheriff Nancy rounding up the "unlimited company" of Trump's corrupt cronies, that clown car of endless goons like Rudy Giuliani, Bill Barr, Mike Pompeo, Mick Mulvaney, ad nauseam. This line is saying it won't be long til this crew gets strung up and hung by the sheriff (Clancy was a sheriff in Dublin during the time of Ulysses). Adding to the fascinating Nancy echo here is this note from Fweet's annotations of this line, indicating that Joyce plucked that simple phrase "tis short till" from a 1922 newspaper article: "11 Nov 1922, 327/2: 'Our Ladies' Letter': 'Like that, I suppose 'tis short now till we'll have women labourers in the Government." How fitting that a powerful woman in the American government is about to lay the hammer down on this company of malign morons. Or specifically its chief executive Trumpty Dumpty.

I should also mention the ballad's references to a "bucketshop store" and "unlimited company" (p. 45) which each refer to criminal business schemes, another perfect fit for the lifelong schemer Trump. Also, as regards the clown car angle of "unlimited company"---this section of the Wake is preceded by a string of shady side characters being introduced to us before we meet the composer of the ballad. There's a pair we meet that, to me, feels like the Wake's version of the henchmen Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, slimy Russian goons who helped Trump with his Ukraine scheme. The pair is named Treacle Tom and Frisky Shorty---one just got out of jail for theft, the other just got off a prison hulk (a prison ship), and the two meet up at a racetrack to plan some robbery or extortion schemes (see FW pg. 39).

At the bottom of p. 46 there's an accusation that involves the ballad's subject having accosted a woman "while admiring the monkeys"---a reference to a notorious 1906 incident that took place in the Central Park Zoo where a famous opera singer named Enrico Caruso was accused of pinching a woman's butt and then went thru a highly publicized trial for it. Remind you of anyone? No? How about this part from the next stanza:

He ought to blush for himself, the old hayheaded philosopher,  
For to go and shove himself that way on top of her.

Next month, Trump will be deposed in a court case brought against him by a woman who accused him of rape. She's one of over a dozen women who've brought up similar charges, a pattern that's all too apparent for a man who was caught on tape bragging about grabbing women "by the pussy."

When we were discussing this part in our reading group and laughing over the absurdity of the parallels I sorta threw up my hands at one point in flabbergasted disgust over how these same patterns just keep repeating throughout history. We're about to be in the year 2020 and we still have political scandals involving lecherous creeps assaulting women, a pattern so well-established that it's referred to mockingly in Joyce's book from 80 years ago.

The rest of the ballad mocks the Trump-like character for his looming fate which will find him in jail, his trousers torn apart ("rent in his rears") and his ass buggered by fellow inmates. You can see why I refer to this as Joyce's version of the "lock him up" chant.

When I took a break from writing this post to take out the trash, a neighbor walked by and said to me, completely out of the blue: "throw the politicians in the trash, not the recycling." We can only hope Trump meets such a fate. The closing lines of "The Ballad of Persse O'Reilly" invoke Humpty Dumpty once again:

And not all the king's men nor his horses  
Will resurrect his corpus 
For there's no true spell in Connacht or hell
(bis) That's able to raise a Cain.

My neighbor's comment about throwing politicians (ie, Trump) in the trash rather than in the recycling seems an echo of this stanza. (Involvement with the Wake oddly tends to proliferate these coincidences.) Once we finally dump Trump, they won't be able to bring him back again, his children (see Cain and Able in the last line) won't be able to rise up to take his place, and we'll finally be freed of the "fafafather of all schemes for to bother us." (FW p. 45)

Lastly, I should mention that in Finnegans Wake the main character undergoes numerous legal trials, he's frequently embedded in webs of litigation. The book is filled with legalese. The complicated knots of law language remind me of the mental gymnastics American citizens have undergone the last year or so as we've tried to understand why the special counsel Robert Mueller did not prosecute the president even though he was shown to have committed numerous crimes in Mueller's report. (In the lines right after the ballad, pg. 48 a dense cloud moves in and obscures things like Barr did and we get "Corpo di barragio!... a poisoning volume of cloud barrage indeed.") As I write this now, Trump has officially been impeached, the equivalent of a president being indicted. Soon, he'll get his day in court with a trial in the Senate. I don't pretend to be optimistic about the reality of what may unfold there but viewing things through the lens of the Wake I can't help but hope for a result where the jury deliberation unfolds as it does for the Persse O'Reilly figure, HCE : "reserving judgment in a matter of courts and reversing the findings of the lower correctional, found, beyond doubt of treuson, fending the dissassents of the pickpackpanel, twelve as upright judaces as ever let down their thoms." (FW p. 575)

That's as knotty and vague as the legal news we've been hearing about Trump, and it goes on and on similarly but just like the harsh rebuke in "The Ballad of Persse O'Reilly," I think the thumbs down from the judges indicates a conviction. God-willing, Americans will see a similar verdict. Then before all is said and done, we who've suffered through years of this lawless lowlife will get to watch him "arraigned and attainted, listed and lited, pleaded and proved." (FW p. 127)