"Was that voice ourselves? Scraps, orts, and fragments, are we, also, that?"- Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts
One relatively simple line from Finnegans Wake has been kicking around in my head for a while now. I say relatively simple because by Wakean standards, the language in this phrase is pretty straightforward. Yet, I've been stuck trying to unpack its meaning for a long time.
The phrase comes at the end of one of the most famous sections of Finnegans Wake, the listicle paragraph describing, in outlandishly catalogued detail, the interior of Shem the Penman's "Haunted Inkbottle" house on pgs 182-184. You can listen to Robert Anton Wilson reciting this passage with dramatic effect here:
There are so many brilliant and hilarious phrases for the things in Shem's house like "solid objects cast at goblins, once current puns, quashed quotatoes, messes of mottage ... tress clippings from right, lift, and cintrum, worms of snot, toothsome pickings" etc but what I've been thinking about is the final phrase of the paragraph where Shem is described as "writing the mystery of himsel in furniture." (FW 184.10)
"writing the mystery of himsel in furniture"
The two things that stand out to me are the bizarre quirk of the word "himsel" missing the letter f at the end of it and the use of the word "furniture" here. I kept wondering why furniture? And why not spell out the word "himself"? The Wake is made up entirely of little mysteries like these but this one so intrigued me because the phrase seems so close to being undistorted English in a paragraph that mostly uses recognizable words.
For context, the phrase appears at the end of a long paragraph and as the final clause in a very long sentence. It's in the Shem the Penman chapter, ostensibly narrated by his very hostile twin brother Shaun the Postman. Shaun the Postman begins the paragraph by describing Shem's house how a postman might describe a really disgusting, dilapidated hoarder house on his mail route:
The house O'Shea or O'Shame, Quivapieno known as theHaunted Inkbottle, no number Brimstone Walk, Asia in Ireland,as it was infested with the raps, with his penname SHUT sepia-scraped on the doorplate and a blind of black sailcloth over itswan phwinshogue, in which the soulcontracted son of the secretcell groped through life at the expense of the taxpayers ... (FW 182)
Shem the Penman really represents James Joyce himself, portrayed as a cartoonishly absurd and self-mocking caricature living inside a Haunted Inkbottle. (Joyce used lines from negative reviews for Ulysses as raw material for this chapter.) I love that description of "a blind of black sailcloth over its wan phwinshogue" which sounds like there is a black curtain covering the house's one window but is also alluding to the black eyepatch Joyce wore over his damaged blind eye.
Following this we get a close look at the inside of the house through a comically long catalogue of items. The sentence begins, "The warped flooring of the lair and soundconducting walls thereof, to say nothing of the uprights and imposts, were persianly literatured with ..." and then it goes on for an entire page, leading into the next page where the same sentence continues mocking Shem and his abode. Shaun says we might actually be able to catch a glimpse of Shem surrounded by all that junk in his house, "self exiled in upon his ego, a nightlong a shaking betwixtween white or reddr hawrors, noondayterrorised to skin and bone by an ineluctable phantom (may the Shaper have mercery on him!) writing the mystery of himsel in furniture." (FW p. 184.6-10)
So, why "furniture" here? Well, the most obvious answer is that we've just gotten this ridiculous description of a house and all the junk that its floors and walls were "persianly literatured with" which immediately connects all of the furnished objects in the listicle with literature. Since this passage is in fact Joyce describing his self-caricature Shem, the furniture filling up his Haunted Inkbottle house could be the literary matter Joyce collects and assembles in his books. He was "writing the mystery of himsel in furniture" because Joyce reveals mysteries about himself in the descriptions of all that junk furnishing Shem's house.
Furthermore, since Shem is "noondayterrorised to skin and bone by an ineluctable phantom" he's perhaps terrified of death, the inescapable phantom or "Shaper" he asks for mercy from. He's terrorized "to skin and bone" nearly scared to death. Part of why this line has been in my head recently is because during this dark season of death while so many have perished from coronavirus or complications therefrom, I've thought about the furniture that is left over when a dead person departs. All the things that person has accumulated throughout their life, from their desks and bookshelves and picture frames to their little scraps or fragments, all of that stuff is the detritus of a soul. With more than 200,000 people in my country having perished from this virus, their loved ones prevented from being in close proximity in their dying moments, so many families are left with the furniture of the deceased. These physical leftovers are the shells of their life.
I think what Joyce is getting at with "the mystery of himsel in furniture" is that the mystery of a person's true self or their soul can be searched for in the scraps or fragments or shells that are leftover after the person departs. Just think about a house occupied by someone with all their belongings. When that person dies and disappears, their physical belongings remain. All the things they loved or relied on, all the things that were important or meaningful for them remain. If you really wanted to understand that person or get to know them after they left you might try to uncover that mystery through the things that person kept nearby.
Mysteries and worlds contained within everyday objects is a theme throughout Joyce's work. Recall the line from the "Oxen of the Sun" episode in Ulysses, "Any object, intensely regarded, may be a gate of access to the incorruptible eon of the gods." Part of the debate about Shakespeare in the "Scylla and Charybdis" episode dwells on the Bard having left his "secondbest" bed to his wife after he died and what that bequeathed piece of furniture may have implied. In the "Ithaca" chapter, after Joyce lists out all of the furniture in the living room of 7 Eccles Street, Bloom considers the significance invested in two chairs: "Significances of similitude, of posture, of symbolism, of circumstantial evidence, of testimonial supermanence." It's that "testimonial supermanence" that is most relevant to why Joyce might suggest the mystery of a self can be uncovered in furniture. The permanence of furniture outlasts the person and could provide a tribute to who they were.
Now, what about the quirk of that word "himsel"? Why did Joyce have to truncate that word? Maybe he left out that final letter just to annoy the reader or just to be weird or maybe because the letter f is already nearby in the word "furniture." The word "self" appears several times in and around the passage we're looking at: on p. 182.19 "endlessly inartistic portraits of himself" and on p. 183.03 "exceeding in violent abuse of self and others" and on p. 184.06 "self exiled in upon his ego" and 184.11 "our low hero was a self valeter." So then why "himsel" rather than himself?
I think I've figured out the answer but my reasoning is subjective and convoluted so I'll need you to follow me on this. That word "himsel" refers to Hansel from the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale. I will explain why, but first I should mention Joyce puns on Hansel and Gretel multiple times in the Wake (see p. 551.09 and p. 618.02). And I feel like the presence of Hansel in "himsel" on page 184 is verified in the passage immediately following "himsel in furniture" where we get a detailed description of Shem's alchemical oven ("an athanor") and of course the oven is a major part of the Hansel and Gretel story.
Moreover, "the mystery of himsel in furniture" could be alluding to the bread crumbs left over by Hansel to create a path to follow home. The mystery of the self to whom all that furniture belongs could be unraveled by following the breadcrumbs of their belongings, and again I'll remind you that in this passage Shem's house is said to be "persianly literatured" with all these objects so literature and furniture might be seen as synonymous here.
Other lines from the Wake feed into my theory. This line on page 68 offers an interesting hint: "The column of lumps lends the pattrin of the leaves behind us." In the word "pattrin" Joyce is punning on the Gypsy word "patrin" which (according to Fweet) refers to "a Gipsy trail, handfuls of leaves or grass cast by the Gypsies on the road to denote to those behind the way which they have taken." This is exactly like the breadcrumbs left behind by Hansel, only it's more mysterious because it involves Gypsies using leaves for a traveler to follow. Think of how leaves can be the pages of a book. Of course, it's also a pun on pattern, we are looking for patterns to follow. In the very next sentence on page 68 is the phrase "life, limb, and chattels" where chattel is furniture or personal possessions. This hearkens back to Shem on page 184 terrorized "to skin and bone" and writing his mystery in furniture.
That word "chattel" appears again at the bottom of page 598 in a sentence describing the archetypal family of HCE and ALP living over millions of years through their offspring with reference to all the belongings of their descendants including "their orts and their everythings that is be will was theirs." (FW p. 599.01) That word "orts" is important here, orts are scraps or leftover pieces of food, like breadcrumbs. The word "orts" pops up on page 69 in "your horde of orts and oriorts" where it is combined with Armenian words that mean young men and young girls, again following the theme of passing things down to descendants. And on page 67, again in the context of a passage talking about the perpetual upswell of future generations inheriting the leftovers of the past, we get the phrase "orses and hashes" which refers to lots things but I think "orts" are echoed in there.
I bring all of that up to reinforce the possibility that "the mystery of himsel in furniture" involves seeking out the stories of the past by following the breadcrumbs left behind. Joyce scatters tons of clues all throughout the book and the reader is encouraged to play the role of detective, picking up little bits of evidence, putting it all together and trying to form a story. An important metaphor in Finnegans Wake is the dump or trash heap. The hoarder's nest in Shem's house is part of a broader pattern. The book itself is a sort of trash heap of cultures, languages, histories, random scraps of information, stories from Joyce's life, etc. For the reader sifting through it all, even with just a few pieces you can start trying to make sense of it. You can identify and follow patterns or patrins.
While I wouldn't suggest "the mystery of himsel in furniture" has now been solved, I think we have at least identified some intriguing evidence, some meaningful scraps. I think that's why in the closing lines of the book we read "The keys to. Given!" (FW p. 628) The keys to unlocking the mysteries of the Wake are scattered all throughout the book. We're told this at the very end because it pushes us to cycle back to the first page and start digging in all over again. The search never ends.