Sunday, June 28, 2020

16 June 1904 and the Letter in Finnegans Wake

James Joyce and Nora Barnacle in 1929.

It cannot be overstated how important Nora Barnacle Joyce was to the career and life of her loving companion James Joyce. The annual Joycean holiday Bloomsday celebrates Joyce's most famous book, Ulysses, which entirely takes place on June 16th, 1904, immortalizing the day on which they went out for their first date. That wasn't his only dedication to her, though. Nora was the muse that inspired Joyce's entire artistic approach, as he wrote to her in a letter from September 1909:

Guide me, my saint, my angel. Lead me forward. Everything that is noble and exalted and deep and true and moving in what I write comes, I believe, from you. O take me into your soul of souls and then I will become indeed the poet of my race. I feel this, Nora, as I write it.
(p. 169, Selected Joyce Letters, ed. Richard Ellmann, underline in original)

This year as Bloomsday approached, I went back to Brenda Maddox's excellent biography of Nora to read the chapter about the summer of 1904 when Joyce and Nora Barnacle first met. Nora had grown up in Galway before moving to Dublin where she landed a job working as a chambermaid and barmaid at Finn's Hotel on Nassau Street. It was in front of Finn's Hotel where James Joyce was walking by on June 10th, 1904 when he encountered Nora for the first time. It was love at first sight (although Joyce had poor eyesight even then at age 22). He approached her and asked for a date the following week. As Maddox writes in Nora, "In Dublin, far more than in Galway, Nora was vulnerable to unwanted male attentions... Wariness of the male was Nora's strategy for survival. When a well-mannered, well-spoken, amusing and unthreatening young man stepped into her path one day in Dublin, therefore, Nora was quite happy to accept his invitation to meet him one evening. But she did not appear." (p. 40)

They had set a date for June 14th, 1904 but Nora stood him up, likely because she couldn't get off her shift at Finn's Hotel in time. Joyce wrote to her in dismay and reading his letter it's funny to contemplate how close this historic couple came to never linking up in the first place:

15 June 1904 
I may be blind. I looked for a long time at a head of reddish-brown hair and decided it was not yours. I went home quite dejected. I would like to make an appointment but it might not suit you. I hope you will be kind enough to make one with me---if you have not forgotten me!  
James A. Joyce

Although June 16th is supposed to be the day they did finally get together and change the course of history, Brenda Maddox notes that there actually is no clear evidence in their letters that June 16th was the exact date. The main piece of evidence is that Ulysses takes place on that day. When Herbert Gorman was composing his authorized biography of Joyce in the 1930s he submitted a questionnaire to Joyce and received responses in the handwriting of Nora. He'd gotten answers to every question except one:

Q: Why did you pitch on June 16, 1904 for Bloomsday? Was it the day you met Nora? 
A: Reply later. 
(p. 41, Nora)

Gorman never did get a response about this and it was never confirmed during Joyce's life, probably because it was "too personal and too shocking," as Maddox surmises. If you are here reading this blog, I will take it for granted that you understand why that might be the case and what supposedly occurred between James and Nora on June 16th, 1904.

Moving on... in our Finnegans Wake reading group we recently read page 66 where there is a passage about the mysterious letter that keeps popping up all throughout the Wake, and that sparked a discussion about the postal service. Joyce in Finnegans Wake is frequently preoccupied with the postal service and on p. 66 in writing about the delivery of the letter he describes a postal service that sounds sorta like Fedex except there's a hidden meaning in its acronym: "Federals' Uniteds' Transports' Unions' for Exultations' of Triumphants' Ecstasies." The acronym here spells out FUTUE TE which would be the vulgar Latin curse word futue te meaning "fuck you" or "you all fuck." This comes at the tail end of a passage about how people all over the world and all throughout history getting together and having sex is how the species ensures its future (note the root for the word "future" is contained in futue te). If you parse that sentence, a rare Wake line with normal words, you can identify how it is a sophisticated and clinical way of describing people fucking. The first word federal, for instance, originally referred to a covenant and contains the root word for "faith" so this is all part of a faithful covenant, i.e. marriage. Faithful couples uniting in covenant for exultant triumphant ecstasies has allowed for the continuation of the species through time, that's basically what it says.

Immediately after that, Finnegans Wake asks "Will it ever be next morning the postal unionist's (officially called carrier's, Letters Scotch, Limited) strange fate... to hand in a huge chain envelope ...?" The letter and the postal service can be seen to symbolically connote the continuation of the species, hence why the parcel is called "a huge chain envelope." Elsewhere in the Wake we read how "ancients link with presents as the human chain extends" (p. 254) and later on "Since ancient was our living is in possible to be. Delivered as." (p. 614) The "huge chain envelope" to be delivered might be viewed as the DNA chain of humanity through generations, the links in the chain are formed by couples fucking.

The mysterious letter in the book has many different associations: on one level it represents the book itself; on another level it factors into whatever narrative can be said to exist in the Wake since it appears at the end of the book as being written by the wife Anna Livia in defense of her besieged husband Earwicker; on another level it embodies the dream itself and the sleeper's attempt to carry the dream information across the threshold of sleep so he can remember it in the morning, as John Bishop has argued; and one might also see it the way Eric McLuhan did when he suggested the letter is actually a red herring.

Going back to Nora and the summer of 1904 for a moment, though, it appears there might be something more personal to the Wake's obsession with mailing letters. Brenda Maddox writes:
The swift progress of their love affair depended on a superb postal system. There were five deliveries a day, with the first collection at quarter-past one in the morning. Joyce, who liked to write in the small hours of the morning, took full advantage of the service. After he came in from seeing Nora, he would stay up writing long, painful, self-revealing letters ('It is only fair that you should know my mind on most things') and took them to the box, confident that she would get them in the morning. Both of them relied on letters posted before lunch to make or cancel a date that same evening... (p. 46, Nora)

With all of that, it seems there's some good evidence to suggest that the letter in Finnegans Wake may actually be a love letter. That brings us to what I feel is one of the most brilliant studies of Joyce ever written, Benjamin Boysen's book The Ethics of Love: An essay on James Joyce (published in 2013 by University Press of Southern Denmark). In this large and ambitious book, Boysen examines all of Joyce's works (including Chamber Music and Exiles) and argues convincingly that the main theme throughout all of them is Love. Boysen's book has a large section devoted to Finnegans Wake that is especially filled with original insights that I have not seen other Joyceans touch upon. Most relevant to our current consideration is his discussion of the letter.

Boysen calls our attention to a passage that starts on p. 420 of the Wake which describes some of the notable characteristics of the letter. Beyond the familiar qualities that it was written by Shem the Penman and carried by Shaun the Postman, the passage provides a long, cryptic and comical list of the letter's many misadventures in postal conveyance. Here is a list of some examples (with page and line numbers and my clarifying notes in brackets):

- "Initialled. Gee. Gone." p. 420.19 [Initials are gone.]
- "Tried Apposite House." p. 420.21 [Try opposite house.]
- "Nave unlodgeable." p. 420.23 [Name illegible.]
- "Noon sick parson." p. 420.24 [No such person.]
- "No such no." p. 420.25 [No such number.]
- "Opened by Miss Take." p. 420.26 [Opened by mistake.]
- "None so strait." p. 420.28 [No such street.]
- "Wrongly spilled." p. 420.33 [Wrongly spelled.]
- "At sea. D.E.D. Place scent on." p. 420.30 [At sea. Dead. Please send on.]
- "Kainly forewarred." p. 421.05 [Kindly forward.]
- "Overwayed. Understrumped. Back to the P.O." p. 421.07 [Overweight, understamped. Send back to post office.]

Within this catalogue of characteristics, Boysen notices the presence of Leopold Bloom---on p. 420.22 you find the initials "L.B." and p. 420.33 mentions "Return to City Arms" which would be City Arms Hotel in Dublin where Ulysses describes the Blooms as having once lived---and then he also points out the presence of Joyce's loving companion Nora in the phrase "Loved noa's dress." That would be "left no address" but it's also saying "I loved Nora's dress." He further observes the presence of Finn's Hotel, the place where Nora worked when Joyce first met her, in this passage: "Finn's Hot." (p. 420.25) (It's worth mentioning that, according to some sources, Joyce's original planned title for Finnegans Wake was actually Finn's Hotel.) Boysen calls our attention to another appearance of Finn's Hotel later on in the Yawn chapter (III.3) where Yawn is asked for the name and address---"name or Redress" (p. 514.17)---of the Wake's subject and his cryptic response is ".i..'. .o..l." (p. 514.18) We can't be certain but it is very likely the answer there is "Finn's Hotel." If that is indeed the case, Boysen concludes:
it means that all empty spaces, the uncertainties, the indeterminacies, and the obscurities of the book as such are meant to be interpolated by the singular event of James Joyce's coup de foudre [love at first sight, in French literally "stroke of lightning"] when meeting real love for the first time. What I suggest is nothing less than that Joyce's encounter with Nora---as commemorated in Ulysses by choosing 16 June 1904 (the date where Joyce had his first rendezvous with Nora) as the principal day---is similarly pointed out as a fateful event or Hintertext informing Finnegans Wake. (p. 351, The Ethics of Love)

To suggest June 16th, 1904 is a major event at the heart of not only Ulysses but also Finnegans Wake is a groundbreaking assertion for Joyceans and the literary world as a whole, as there's no literary event quite like Bloomsday. Boysen bolsters his theory by informing us that the passage on p. 420-421 which lists out all the addresses of the letter (which, as I mentioned, can be seen as a stand-in for the book itself) in fact lists out the addresses where James Joyce lived in Dublin in the years prior to his life-altering encounter with Nora in 1904.

I won't list them all out here, you can find a list of them at Fweet here, but Boysen makes it abundantly clear that the passage contains not only the names of the Dublin districts where pre-June-1904 Joyce lived but also many of the specific addresses (Fweet lists nine of them). On top of that, all of these addresses where Joyce lived before he met Nora are mutated in the language of the Wake to carry dark, depressing connotations. Quoting from Boysen once again:

As "Destined Tears" (FW p. 421.10), these early addresses (French destinataires) embody tearful destinies, which nonetheless did not come true on account of the amorous meeting. In other words, the letter comes to represent the author's metaphysical love-letter to existence, to love, and to himself as a young man not yet transformed by the amorous event. The letter is the mature author's gift to himself as a young man untouched by the amorous transubstantiation, testifying to Walt Whitman's lesson that "love is to the lover, and comes back most to him, / The gift is to the giver, and comes back most to him - it cannot fail" ('A Song of the Rolling Earth' 2, vv. 15-16). As it says in Issy's love-letter, the letter gives testimony on behalf of "my old evernew" (FW p. 460.36) self, which is transformed and ever renewed by the gift of love and existence. (p. 352, The Ethics of Love)

Elsewhere in his book, Boysen writes: "In sum, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are to be perceived as great love letters expressing an existential gift to history and humankind." (p. 348) We can now be sure that the historically famous day of June 16th, 1904 is a pivotal day not only for Ulysses but also for Finnegans Wake. Nora Joyce herself, speaking to Joyce's friends after her husband had died, in response to their questions about the great author of Ulysses, responded, "What's all this talk about Ulysses? Finnegans Wake is the important book." While there's no doubt that Ulysses deserves to be celebrated, maybe it's about time we heed Nora's words and start giving some more attention to Joyce's grandest epic, Finnegans Wake, when we celebrate James Joyce every year on June 16th.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Latest Examples of Reading the News inside Finnegans Wake

"News, news, all the news." - FW p. 28.21

"old the news of the great big world" - FW p. 194.23-24

Ever since the coronavirus shut everything down, our local Finnegans Wake Reading Group transferred to online conferences and since the reading group is one of the most fun and fulfilling things going on for many of us right now, we shifted our twice-monthly meetings to now meet every week. The online venue allows us to branch out and bring in people who are outside of Austin, so now we regularly have people joining us from California, Ohio, and even Taiwan. It's been extremely satisfying having these weekly gatherings and doing digital group excavations of pages from Finnegans Wake.

One aspect of being involved in a regular Wake reading group that always intrigues me is how, without any intention on our part, we always manage to encounter material on the page we're reading that seems to speak directly to what is happening in the news that day. I've written about this phenomenon before (most notably when the Wake seemed to offer commentary on our Trump predicament), it is a quality about Finnegans Wake that has interested me for a long time, ever since the first time I attended a Wake reading group many years ago in Venice, California where the guy sitting next to me made a bunch of notes about contemporary references on the page we were reading. The upcoming Super Bowl, Bush and Cheney, oil wars in the Middle East, it was all there on the page. My mind was blown.

Oddly, these synchronicities never stop popping up. Like I said, these connections happen when you aren't looking for them. Finnegans Wake simply cannot help itself, it always has something to say about the news. I want to give you three examples from the last few weeks of our reading group to show you what I mean.

- Usually we read one page per meeting, but when we were on page 66 we found it to be so dense and overflowing with allusions and references and topics for discussion that we split that one page into three separate sessions. So in our last session we read the final paragraph which begins with "The coffin, a triumph of the illusionist's art..." and so on. We spent about two hours unpacking just that one paragraph and what we took from it, if I remember correctly, was that the paragraph was saying even though somebody was in a coffin it was an illusion in the sense that their legacy was only just beginning, their legacy would go on to have a life of its own, giving birth to new cycles of life (through their memory, through their children and their descendants, etc) even while their body was left to decay, consumed by subterranean creatures and reduced to ashes. This is an important theme throughout James Joyce's work, that absence can be the greatest form of presence, that the dead take on a more powerful life after death. Of course, it so happened that the day we read this passage was the day of George Floyd's memorial service where he was mourned as he lay inside a golden coffin. And George Floyd, in death, has now become an incredibly powerful figure, a name known across the world, the impact of his tragic killing has sparked an enormous uprising intent on societal change. I think of Floyd's sweet little daughter sitting atop the shoulders of Floyd's friend Stephen Jackson and proclaiming "Daddy changed the world!"

- The following week we were reading page 67 which features a special constable or policeman taking the stand in a trial and giving an eyewitness account of some occurrence in the book. At one point while the policeman is speaking, Joyce uses the phrase "he guntinued." The presence of this constable character opened up a whole discussion about police and the history of policing, which apparently originated from British colonialism and the need to keep colonial subjects in line. Of course, this discussion about the police and their history sprung up amid the backdrop of heated debates going on in the United States about the need to reform our police system. In a bizarre coincidence, the passage on 67 with the policeman features the phrase "You are deepknee in error, sir" which we couldn't help but connect with the horrific image of the policeman Derek Chauvin putting his knee on George Floyd's neck for nearly ten minutes until he died.
(I should also mention that this same passage with the policeman and subtle appearances of police violence featured the word "tailliur" which conjures up Breonna Taylor, the young black woman who was killed while sleeping in her home in Louisville, Kentucky.)

- The most recent one really struck me as being uncanny. While we were reading page 68 we stopped at this sentence and chewed on it for a while: "Nor needs none shaft ne stele from Phenicia or Little Asia to obelise on the spout, neither pobalclock neither folksstone, nor sunkenness in Tomar's Wood to bewray how erpressgangs score off the rued." It is a very dense and difficult sentence to unpack, but there are some good clues in there. That word "stele" refers to a type of ancient monument, a stone slab with inscriptions. You've got an obelisk, another monument, in there. The portmanteau word "pobalclock" combines two Irish words which basically translate to "folk stone" and there is "folksstone" following right after "pobalclock." Fweet mentioned that there is a stone pillar monument in the town of Folkestone in England marking the spot where Saxon invaders landed on the shores. You see where this is going? The sentence essentially says we don't need monuments to mark where the invaders landed, we don't need to recognize those "erpressgangs"---a word combining the German erpressen meaning "to blackmail or extort" and also press-gangs which were groups that kidnapped men and forced them to enlist in the military. All of this stuff rung an uncanny echo with the ongoing debates in the United States about removing statues and monuments that commemorate Confederate generals or slave owners or other historical figures known for their roles in perpetuating America's history of bigotry and racial oppression. Page 68 is very rich and fascinating, there's a lot to it, but for me it was pretty mind-blowing to come upon this sentence about statues and monuments and how we don't need them if they're commemorating invaders and oppressors in the midst of what is happening in America right now. Finnegans Wake never disappoints.