Sunday, June 6, 2021

The Portal

Illustration from William Blake's Jerusalem

Some observations on the Gate or Portal in Finnegans Wake I.3

Towards the end chapter 3 (book one) of Finnegans Wake, a drunken German angrily bangs at the locked gate of an Irish pub shouting threats and insults at the pub owner for locking him out after closing time. The gate Joyce places at the entrance of his main character HCE's pub is a megalithic stone structure, described as a "stonehinged gate" (FW 069.15). 

I've been dwelling on the meaning of this gate in chapter 3. The door or portal is a recurrent image in the Wake. One of the many names used for the main character is Mr. Porter. The belligerent at the gate unfurls a litany of insults and nicknames at him including "Sublime Porter" (FW 072.02-3). That word porter has similar etymological roots to the word metaphor meaning "to carry across" like to carry across a threshold. I think that's relevant here because so much of the Wake and especially the part of the book I'm focusing on right now seems to speak in alternating metaphors. 

The banging at the gate calls back to an earlier clash at a doorway in chapter 1 when the Prankquean rains hell on Jarl van Hoother (Earl of Howth) for locking the door of Howth Castle. The "stonehinged gate" on page 69 is "triplepatlockt" and on the adjacent page appears the Prankquean, "a shebeen quean, a queen of pranks." (FW 068.22)

George Cinclair Gibson's insightful study Wake Rites: The Ancient Irish Rituals of Finnegans Wake (University Press of Florida, 2005) discusses the "Banging at the Gate" scene as a parallel enactment of one of the ancient Irish rituals practiced at Tara. The actions of the verbal assailant at the gate, Gibson explains, "are the precise components of the Druidic curse known as the glam dichenn. The most compelling of all ritual curses, the glam dichenn would have been directed at a disgraced leader or failed king and delivered only by a powerful Druid." (p. 123)

As for the location of this scene, Gibson notes: 
...the glam dichenn directed against the fated king of Tara is purposely delivered on a threshold. In Druidic tradition, threshold and liminal locations are the optimal loci for harnessing and generating magical power. Liminal locations---for example, 'the threshold separating the inside of the room or house from the outside world'---can be utilized by a Druid as 'the source of extraordinary powers because the liminal transcends normal distinctions between separate categories" (Nagy, "Liminality," 135-36).  A Druid would use these liminal places (for example, near a door, on the boundary between civilization and wilderness) to create a magically charged "atmosphere" in order to "help generate the power necessary for ritual" (Nagy, "Liminality," 138). 
(Gibson, Wake Rites, p. 124)
The "threshold and liminal locations" which Gibson says "are the optimal loci for harnessing and generating magical power" represent a junction point where worlds intersect. The door in Finnegans Wake is a threshold wedged between the world of wakefulness and deep sleep. The book itself is also represented like a door or gate, the sigla Joyce uses for the book is a square ▢ a type of portal. I think the gate also represents a portal to the afterlife or the underworld, chapters 3 & 4 feature numerous references to the underworld journey of the dead in the Egyptian Book of the Dead

The description of the gate on page 69 includes an odd textual quirk where a capital letter appears unexpectedly with "There" in the middle of a sentence: "Where Gyant Blyant fronts Peannlueamoore There was once upon a wall and a hooghoog wall a was and such a wallhole did exist." The gate, or hole in the wall, is fronted by two giant pencils---"Gyant Blyant" includes the Danish word blyant for "pencil" and "Peannluemoore" is phonetically Irish for "big pencil"---even within the sentence itself, before we get to the gate we first encounter two giants fronting or guarding it. These "faithful poorters" (FW 069.26) are akin to the doorkeepers at Tara, named Camellus and Gemellus, who are directly named later on in the next chapter when the gate incident is re-litigated (see p. 90). Since they are described here as two giant pencils, it would appear these twin guardians of the gate are like two big obelisks. The obelisk is another recurrent image in Finnegans Wake usually representative of the obelisk at Wellington Monument in Phoenix Park, but here since there are two pencils or obelisks it could be invoking the original Egyptian style of placing a pair of obelisks at an entrance way.

This insight about the Egyptians using obelisks in pairs to create a portal between them came from a FW reading group discussion over this chapter last year. Architecture professor and Joyce scholar Marcin Kedzior shared this information with me:
Obelisks were always raised in pairs in keeping with the Egyptian value of balance and harmony; it was believed that the two on earth were reflected by two in the heavens. Egyptologist Richard H. Wilkinson writes:
"The phenomenon of duality pervades Egyptian culture and is at the heart of the Egyptian concept of the universe itself. But rather than focusing on the essential differences between the two parts of a given pair, Egyptian thought may stress their complementary nature as a way of expressing the essential unity of existence through the alignment and harmonization of opposites - just as we today might use "men and women", "old and young", or "great and small" to mean "all" or "everyone" (129)."
(from here:

That point about duality pervading Egyptian culture links back to the Wake because duality and the unity of opposites are also central to Finnegans Wake. And I think the dualities and their powerful conflicts tend to cluster around gates, doors, thresholds in the book. The angry drunk guy berating HCE at the door is an opposing force, a polar opposite of HCE the sleeper himself. The violent confrontations depicted around this section, where the belligerent at the door goes on for pages describing how he wants to break HCE's skull and pummel him, I see these as being clashes within the sleeper HCE himself. The brutality of these clashes I think are similar to the destructive confrontations a soul goes through in its journey through the underworld or the Bardo---the type of thing that goes on in the Egyptian Book of the Dead or the Tibetan Book of the Dead where there are monsters and demons who will tear your flesh to pieces, putting your soul through the trial of your attachments and preparedness for nirvana or for reincarnation. 

I'm getting far afield here, so let me briefly summarize how I see all of this. The gate or portal, the megalithic "stonehinged gate" (FW 069.15) and everything that goes on around this part of the text are suggestive of a number of things: 
  • the sleeper HCE is crossing over a threshold and entering into the void of deep sleep, his persona obliterated. In John Bishop's introduction to the Penguin edition of FW, he notes "Chapters 3 and 4 of Book I are both murkier and harder to read than the first two chapters of FW---in part because HCE recedes even more deeply out of conscious life, now becoming literally absent... and therefore only indirectly represented, in rumor, gossip, and report." (p. xx)
  • Traveling across the threshold of the portal into deep sleep, within HCE are enacted ancient rituals of the divestiture of the High King of Ireland at Tara by the Druids at megalithic sites (see Wake Rites).
  • Descending into the underworld of sleep, HCE experiences the death and resurrection myths of Osiris in the Egyptian Book of the Dead
  • The megalithic portal or doorway which is the entryway to HCE's pub is also the gateway to deep sleep, to death, to rebirth, and an inviting open door for the reader to dive into all of the above, "Opendoor Ospices" (FW 071.13).
  • The megalithic gate becomes representative of HCE himself, or rather HCE transforms into a megalith or monolith or "monomyth" (FW 581.24).
I'll try to expand on all of these points here. While a reader can try to identify a "narrative" or "plot" in chapters 3-4 of the Wake, what I'm usually more interested to follow are the consistent patterns noticeable in the subtext. So much of chapter 3 seems to involve HCE's personal identity fading away as he falls into deeper sleep. The sleeper's sense of individual identity becomes obliterated, as described on page 51, "(since in this scherzarade of one's thousand one nightinesses this sword of certainty that would identifide the body never falls) to idendifine the individuone." Mythological and historical personages abound in this chapter. Siddartha, Buddha, Osiris, Blakean gods, the Prophet Muhammad, ancient Vikings and Celtic Kings and Druid Poets all appear and proliferate in these pages as it seems like the dead from across history and the entire globe gather to arrange for the passage of HCE into the afterlife, he is being "timesported acorss the yawning (abyss)" (FW 056.03). 

The sleeper HCE in ever deeper slumber loses his entire persona, buried in a coffin of sleep paralysis, his consciousness dead to the world, he's "nearvanashed himself" (FW 061.18), his ego extinguished in nirvana and near-vanished in sleep. H.C. Earwicker, or Mr. Porter the pubkeeper, disappears and is replaced by any number of mythological heroes and gods and kings undergoing trials against entities trying to devour him. All these entities seem to be parts of his own being. 

There's an interesting and sort of subtle indication of the interlink between entities when the angry drunk at the gate is berating HCE. Notice the dualities in this description of the language used: "swishing beesnest with blessure, and swobbing broguen eeriesh myth brockendootcsh" (FW 070.03-4). Mixing business with pleasure, or a bee's nest with blessings, and swapping broken Irish with broken Deutsch. I think the presence of the words "eerie" "myth" and "brocken" also indicate a reference here to the Brocken spectre, a phenomenon where an enormous shadow of an observer appears on a cloud, made legendary by the propensity for this spectre to occur when an observer stands atop the Brocken peak in Germany. This phenomenon has been referenced frequently in literature, most memorably for me in Thomas Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow. I think the presence of the Brocken spectre in this passage of Finnegans Wake is confirmed a few lines later with "roebucks raugh at pinnacle's peak" (FW 070.13) plus other references to hikers on a mountain top. 

So the confrontations with hostile entities can be seen as conflicts within HCE himself or with his shadow. One of these encounters takes place at a megalithic stone structure, first introduced as "one of the granite cromlech setts" (FW 061.14). The chapter seems to alternate between describing HCE inside an elaborate coffin and describing HCE being harassed at a doorway, with lots of Egyptian references embedded in these passages. The impression I get when reading this part of the book is that HCE is being prepared for reincarnation, "striving todie, hopening tomellow" (FW 060.29), he's placed inside a pyramid like a dead pharaoh, "reberthing in remarriment out of dead seekness to devine previdence... first pharoah, Humpheres Cheops Exarchas." (FW 62.07-21) Since we're jumping from Druids to Egyptian pharaohs here, it's worth mentioning that Joyce, from his early writings, made connections between the ancient Irish Druids and the Egyptian priests, memorably declaring in "Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages" that, "Ancient Ireland is dead just as ancient Egypt is dead."

Example of a granite cromlech.

HCE in this section seems to be traveling like the sun on a journey under the earth at night and through the stars, this is the mythical image of Osiris in his night-boat. Whether it's Stonehenge or Egyptian pyramids, these ancient temples were usually designed as star-gates and at this point of the book, cosmic elements abound as HCE seems to be floating among the stars in a boat:

"combing the comet's tail up right and shooting popguns at the stars" (FW 065.11)
"gazing and crazing and blazing at the stars" (FW 065.13)
"they all were afloat in a dreamlifeboat" (FW 065.29-30)

We get another reminder that we are actually talking about a coffin but the way it is described, "The coffin, a triumph of the illusionist's art" (FW 066.28), suggests death is an illusion and that our main character will eventually re-appear just "round the coroner." (FW 067.13) I should also point out this section contains a paragraph all about sex for procreation followed by a paragraph about the delivery of a letter through the post. John Bishop in Joyce's Book of the Dark wrote about the letter passage on p. 66 as having to do with a dream experienced by the sleeper and his attempt to transfer this dream information across the threshold of sleep into consciousness in the morning: "Will it ever be next morning the postal unionist's ... strange fate ... to hand in a huge chain envelope... ?" (FW 066.10-14) The passage about posting a letter is bracketed by paragraphs about procreative sex and a special coffin used in a magician's act. In discussing the recurring images of ancient portals throughout FW, George C. Gibson in Wake Rites confirms that "HCE's passage through these perilous thresholds is an act associated with themes of rebirth, Easter, initiation, and the transition from the old world to the new." (Wake Rites, p. 197)

As we get to the passage with the "stonehinged gate" on page 69, we encounter more dualities. The long paragraph preceding the gate scene starts with "Oh! Oh!" (FW 067.32) and ends with "(ah! ah!)" (FW069.02), Joyce's way of summoning alpha and omega. In the "stonehinged gate" paragraph are more celestial references, with the dual "Isther Estarr" and "Yesther Asterr" suggestive of the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar with the word star evident in both names. The text places us "In the drema of Sorestost Areas, Diseased." There are a number of meanings here (including, phonetically, the Irish for "Irish Free State"), but one of the ways I read it is "Solstice Areas, Deceased" in reference to Stonehenge or some other ancient abandoned solstice temple site. Stonehenge was important for Joyce. There are at least half a dozen direct references to Stonehenge in Finnegans Wake, and as Peter Chrisp mentioned in his blog post about Joyce's development of the HCE character, when James Joyce visited the site of Stonehenge in 1931 he remarked, "I have been fourteen years trying to get here." The quote comes from David Hayman's book A First Draft Version of Finnegans Wake (p. 3), where Hayman says Joyce was referring to the work he was engaged in with Finnegans Wake

The "stonehinged gate" paragraph on page 69 further amplifies the significance of the gate metaphor with several references to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, "to garble a garthen of Odin and the lost paladays when all the eddams ended with aves." (FW 69.09-11) The gate becomes "an applegate" (FW 69.21) suggesting an apple tree in this garden, also inside the gate are sheep and goat and other livestock harvested by the primordial farmers. The etymology of the word paradise literally means "to build an enclosure around." So like we've said, this gate is a portal, an intersection of worlds. It could be a gate to the dreamworld, to the afterlife, to the cosmos, or to the lost paradise. Or all of the above, that's how the Wake works.

Outside the gate, the belligerent drunk German continues to badger HCE with 111 different names mocking him. HCE refuses to "respond a solitary wedgeword" (FW 072.18) and attempts to not acknowledge "his langwedge" (FW 073.01). Those words "wedgeword" and "langwedge" are important and revealing here. We're talking about a "stonehinged gate" which serves as a portal between worlds. The gate would be wedged in between two separate dimensions. HCE doesn't respond and doesn't want to further drive a wedge between he and his assailant. Joyce placing the word "wedge" in association with language here could be alluding to ancient cuneiform writing which was wedge-shaped. But also, as we discussed in our FW reading group when we covered this passage, there's more to it because in architecture a wedge serves as the keystone holding together a doorway. 

Keystone wedge in architecture.

The wedge actually holds dualities together, strengthening the gate structure. This is the "langwedge" of the Wake, uniting opposites, often in this book you'll find polarities merged inside one word or phrase. With the appearances of that word "wedge" at the end of chapter 3, the stone architecture of HCE's gate builds into something more elaborate. No longer just a gate, now it has become a megalithic tomb. A nebulous somebody or nobody is seen to "build rocks over him" (FW 073.09) and he is safely ensconced in an "archcitadel" (FW 073.24) with "chambered cairns" (FW 073.29). Chambered cairns are neolithic burial monuments for the dead:

By Islandhopper, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Even though the text says of HCE within his intricate stone tomb that "he med leave to many a door beside" (FW 073.28), the persona of the man asleep is hard to find. He seemed to say goodbye to his angry assailant right before traversing the portal, crossing over into time-bending dimensions on the other side lightyears away, he "proceeded with a Hubbleforth slouch in his slap backwords... in the directions of the duff and demb institutions about ten or eleven hundred years lurch away in the moonshiny gorge of Patself on the Bach. Adyoe!" (FW 073.18-22) All that's left for us to examine is the increasingly ornate megalithic structure, "skatterlings of a stone" (FW 073.34) forming an "eolithostroton" (FW 073.30). Now separated from HCE by time spans in the thousands of years we become archeologists trying to develop "a theory none too rectiline of the evoluation of human society and a testament of the rocks from all the dead unto some the living." (FW 073.31-33) And then Joyce ends the chapter on the following page with pretty clear indications that the main character has now fallen into deepest sleep. 

In describing the sequence of events from this part of the Wake, John Bishop emphasizes that this all "seems to have to do not only with HCE's disappearance from consciousness, but also with his physical 'arrest,' his immobilization in the world of night; while in chapter 4, a significant turning point in the book, a process of 'disselving' and dispersion begins, as HCE fades from central focus into a remote background." (p. xx, Penguin edition of FW) In chapter 4, we once again encounter some references to Egyptian pharaohs buried deep inside pyramids, HCE's coffin becomes like a torpedo or submarine transporting through an "underground heaven, or mole's paradise" (FW 076.33). Further within chapter 4, HCE officially becomes no longer a somebody but an everybody, on page 88 he is named "Here Comes Everybody" with each letter representing the name of some historical or mythical figure.

By the end of chapter 4, where there was once a person now there is only an increasingly ornate stone structure, envisioned with "beaconsfarafield innerhalf the zuggurat" (FW 100.19). Maybe HCE is now the illuminated inner half of a ziggurat. He's no longer an entity but a geometrical structure, confirmed by "the canonicity of his existence as a tesseract." (FW 100.34-35) By the following chapter he has truly become a megalith, where the "trilithon sign M" (FW 119.17) is a fallen letter E meant to look like a trilithon

FW 119.17

This evolution of HCE into a gateway portal built of stone that is also an elaborate "eolithostroton" (FW 073.30) or ziggurat or tesseract entombing him reminds me of a Gopuram, the monumental and ornate entrance tower to a Hindu temple.

Gopuram, gateway entrance to Hindu temple

This transformation of a seemingly human character into a ziggurat or tesseract stone tumulus is weird and confusingly abstract, but bear in mind that structure is also a gate or door and Joyce repeatedly hints at having dropped keys for the reader. One of these keys might be the aforementioned trilithon sign formed by rotating the E sigla for HC Earwicker, and that seems to be hinted at on page 100 with "tristurned initials, the cluekey to a worldroom beyond the roomwhorld" (FW 100.29). Bear in mind too that the wedge in the aforementioned "wedgewords" and "langwedge" is indicative of the keystone in architecture. So much of what all this is saying seems to be commentary on Finnegans Wake itself, Joyce's own history of the world thru the experience of one person asleep at night, the reader being led on an archeological dig thru the history of the human body and human experience.

That amazing line on page 100 depicting lit up ziggurats, "beaconsfarafield innerhalf the zuggurat" conjures in my head a very similar image as that provided by the recently deceased poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (himself a Joycean) at the end of his epic poem Time of Useful Consciousness (2012): "Macrotiendas in Teotihuacan/ The pyramids lit up like cupcakes." The below picture shows me sitting atop a ziggurat pyramid structure staring down the Avenue of the Dead in Teotihuacan, Mexico, with a James Joyce shirt on my back.

Exploring that ancient site of a complex pyramid city that was abandoned thousands of years prior, I couldn't help but think of Joyce and Finnegans Wake and the way he designed his book. The tour guide described how archeologists discovered buried remains underneath each of the ziggurat temples, they even found an "underground heaven, a mole's paradise" deep underneath the main ziggurat/pyramid, a series of tunnels decorated with gems to create the atmosphere of a mythical underworld amidst the stars. 

Joyce when he was finishing up writing Finnegans Wake worried that his highly complex masterwork might end up being neglected and abandoned. "Perhaps it will end in failure, be a wreck or ‘catastrophe’ ...and perhaps in the years to come this work of mine will remain solitary and abandoned, like a temple without believers." (Portraits of the Artist in Exile, p. 160-161, my emphasis) I think the Wake will always maintain the aura of an abandoned temple ripe for archeological exploration, but with Finnegans Wake group digs taking place all over the world and even assembling virtually via "Bangen-op-Zoom" (FW 073.26-27) amidst a global pandemic just like ours did, the great temple site has not remained solitary and the gems and treasures yielded from these group digs are invaluable to an appreciation of what the human mind is capable of.  

"So you need hardly spell me how every word will be bound over to carry three score and ten toptypsical readings throughout the book of Doublends Jined... til Daleth, mahomahouma, who oped it closeth thereof the. Dor." 
(FW 020.13-18)

(Thank you to Marcin Kedzior, Madeline Melnick, and the Austin Finnegans Wake Reading Group.)

1 comment:

  1. Hard not be reminded that Virgil leads Dante through a gateway and an inscription that commences : “Through me the way into the suffering city” … and concludes: “ Abandon every hope, who enter here.” An inscription whose meaning Dante finds difficult until glossed by the maestro.