Wednesday, December 22, 2021

"So This Is Dyoublong?" Living inside the World of the Wake, Part 1

"He ought to go away for a change of ideas and he'd have a world of things to look back on." 
- Finnegans Wake p. 160

This past summer, in the midst of a breakup from a long-term relationship and needing to go far away, I embarked on my first ever trip to Ireland. I ended up spending much of the past few months in and around Dublin. For somebody like me who has been interested in the writings of James Joyce for almost 15 years now, with the last 10 years spent hosting a Finnegans Wake reading group that deciphers each page down to its tiniest details, and maintaining this blog devoted to the Wake, the experience of spending so much time exploring Dublin and environs for the first time was transformative. Suffice to say I have an entirely new perspective on Joyce's work now. My head is filled with thoughts and reflections, so much that I don't know where to start. But since I have so much to say about it, I'm going to start posting a series of reflections about the experience on this blog. 

My first few days in Dublin I recall being in awe at everything around me since I'd been reading about the details of the place for so many years. Landmarks felt oddly familiar and deeply significant even though I was seeing them for the first time. Howth Head, so prominent on the horizon when looking north or northeast, it wasn't just a piece of rocky terrain, it was the head of the sleeping giant Finn MacCool. The Wicklow Mountains weren't just some green rolling hills, they were the place where the sea-formed clouds rain down and become the source of the River Liffey, an ongoing natural cycle. Even the ubiquitous flocks of seagulls sprung to mind the squawking sea-birds in Book II.4 of Finnegans Wake, "Three quarks for muster Mark!" (FW p. 383.01) 

I grew up in New York City where famous sights like the Manhattan skyline, Verrazano Bridge, and Statue of Liberty were familiar aspects of home. An out-of-towner visiting a place like New York City for the first time would instantly recognize many of the landmarks and sights from the background or setting of the worlds of NYC-based films and tv shows. With Joyce's Dublin though, the city is not merely the setting for Finnegans Wake---so much of the book is about the landscape itself, the ecology, the littoral life of the coastal zone, the street grid and its voices, the layers of historical events that shaped the place. Dublin in the Wake becomes the universal city, a city rendered into text with so much mythical depth and detailed density it makes you contemplate all cities.

So far I haven't yet mentioned Ulysses in connection with my experience of Dublin. I certainly was interested in the Ulysses stuff during my time there. I swam in the Forty Foot in Sandycove, saw the magnificent Martello Tower (in fact, I stayed for a week in a different Martello Tower a stone's throw away, a story for another day), on an almost daily basis I walked along Westland Row just like Bloom and went to Sweny's Pharmacy to participate in readings a few times, I even made my way over to Eccles Street. There is no lack of Ulysses stuff in Dublin, the city seems to fully embrace the importance of Ulysses which was really cool to witness. A constant habit of mine while staying in Dublin and exploring Ireland was to always search inside the texts of both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake each time I experienced anything new. And the impression I got was that Finnegans Wake, even more than Ulysses, contains seemingly every single tiny detail of Dublin. Every street I spent time on, I looked for it in Finnegans Wake, and nine times out of ten I found it in there. Every district, every sight I saw, it all seemed to be there in the Wake. It became clear that Joyce redoubled his efforts to place every possible detail of the city of his birth into ink while writing the Wake over the last 17 years of his life. 

There were a few instances I noticed where Joyce had included some Dublin detail within Ulysses as part of a listicle, only to expand on it and scatter more references to it in Finnegans Wake. A couple quick examples---I spent a few days staying in a nice little district called Ranelagh in south Dublin, so I started looking for the place in Joyce's books. It pops up one time in Ulysses in a list delineating the route taken by one of the Invincibles prior to the Phoenix Park Murders, whereas in Finnegans Wake the neighborhood Ranelagh appears at least four times. Later on, when I went to Howth Head the little islet known as Ireland's Eye really stood out to me. It's a small island just off of Howth, a mysterious and striking sight visible from along the northern coast of Howth, the island has its own Martello Tower and the ruins of an early-medieval church. Ireland's Eye pops up once in Ulysses as part of a list of sites in the Cyclops episode, where in the Wake I have found at least a dozen appearances of Ireland's Eye. That could very well be because Howth and environs are so prominent in the Wake---a fact which really made a lot of sense to me once I saw Dublin and noticed Howth Head is an unmistakable feature on the horizon from almost anywhere.

A thought I kept returning to over and over was: how did Joyce, while in exile away from Ireland for the last few decades of his life, manage to render all of this in such precise detail? And why? Why would this genius author spend day after day writing only about this place (where he no longer lived) in such painstaking detail? As for the why, Joyce told Arthur Power, "For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal." On days when I wandered around in what seemed like a James Joyce theme park (a phrase I'm borrowing from former Dublin resident Robert Anton Wilson), casually walking down Westland Row, past Finn's Hotel, down to St. Stephen's Green, past the Shelbourne Hotel, over to King Street past the Gaiety Theater, back towards Grafton Street, up past Trinity College (all places that appear throughout Finnegans Wake) and then along the River Liffey, the river of life, the universal river Joyce anthropomorphized as Anna Livia Plurabelle in the Wake, I'd stop to stare at the varying ripples along the surface of the waters, and I was struck by a feeling I could only really convey in the following meme. I was this dude looking around at everyone else in the bustling city wondering how they didn't share my wonder for the Wake-ness of it all. 

For more than a dozen years I had been a passionate reader of the Wake, so much that I was even writing this blog solely devoted to talking about this one book, and throughout that whole time I had never experienced Dublin and had only a minuscule appreciation for the actual Irish elements of the text. It was always just that I loved the literary pyrotechnics and have always been fascinated by the Wake as the darker and more under-appreciated twin of Ulysses, this mysterious text which Joyce labored on for so many years, through so many hardships and then died right after it was finally published. Once I finally made it to Dublin, the incomprehensible Wake I'd been puzzling through for so long began to make sense on a level I'd never experienced before. I can say without a doubt, you cannot truly comprehend the phrase "from swerve of shore to bend of bay" until you've seen Dublin. The swerving shore and bending bay is such a distinctive quality of that coastline and that coastline is such a fundamental part of that city.

Speaking of the coastline and the opening sentence of the Wake... my favorite spot in Dublin, the place that struck me the most and which remains tattooed on my heart, is Vico Road. The view from Vico Road is one of the most breathtaking sights I've ever witnessed. 

View from Vico Road.

...more Vico Road views.

"The Vico road goes round and round to meet where terms begin."
- FW 452.21

Prior to experiencing the place, Vico Road in Dalkey had always seemed like it was simply a curiosity, a funny coincidence that there just so happened to be a road in the Dublin area named for the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico whose writings so heavily influenced Finnegans Wake. For a week I stayed in the beautiful old town of Dalkey and realized Joyce must have spent significant time there, I believe he had a teaching job in a school there. In Robert Nicholson's book The Ulysses Guide: Tours Through Joyce's Dublin I read that the Nestor chapter where Stephen teaches a class (and which chapter contains the only mention of Vico Road in Ulysses) most likely takes place at a school in Dalkey and I noticed Dalkey seemed to be home to many schools, the town was always filled with students in the afternoons. The Ulysses tour book mentions that Stephen likely walked down to the Dalkey train station after teaching class. Vico Road is a short walk from the Dalkey train station. 

For me, as a Wake nerd knowing the significance of Vico to Joyce, walking to Vico Road felt like a sort of pilgrimage. My first glimpse of the views from Vico Road blew my mind, I'd no idea it was such a beautiful place. It turns out this gorgeous area was thought to resemble the Bay of Naples in Italy and that's why the roads nearby are named after the Neapolitan Vico and the town of Sorrento on the Amalfi coast (Vico Road connects to Sorrento Road and Sorrento Park---Sorrento appears a few times in FW). During my trip, I was fortunate to meet a girl who lived right near Vico Road in Killiney Beach and so I got to spend a lot of time in that area staring out at those gorgeous views. That part of town truly felt enchanted to me. There's just a vibe over there. Having spent so much time there, trying to see that area through the eyes of young Joyce, it is now my theory that the area around Vico Road---where one looks southward at the promontory of Bray, and northward at Dalkey Island with its own Martello Tower and medieval church ruins, with the bend of bay and Irish Sea stretching out in between---made such an impact on the young Joyce that it significantly contributed to his fascination with Vico (which, if I'm not mistaken, had begun around the time of his earliest writings and grew into a full-fledged obsession with Vico in the Wake).

I also think it was not only Joyce's appreciation for Vico's theories but also his memories of Vico Road itself which led to its placement in the first sentence of the Wake: 

riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. 

After witnessing all of these places firsthand, I feel there is an uncanny ecological poetry to this sentence. Tough to put into words but where I felt I understood this most clearly was while standing atop Killiney Hill (Molly Bloom recalls walking up Killiney Hill for a picnic, by the way). Close near Vico Road, there's a path that will take you up to the top of Killiney Hill, from which you can see a panoramic view of the whole city of Dublin. I think it's the best possible view of the city, and from there looking out at the jutting peninsula of Howth, and looking down at the river ostensibly in the lowlands in the heart of the city, casting your glance out to the swerving shore going southward, you begin to sense how that natural cycle so central to the Wake actually functions---the waters of the river rushing eastward and dispersing out to sea, spreading along the coast northward to Howth, and southward to the area along Vico Road, only to eventually evaporate into clouds which rain down on the westward hills (and the elevated areas of Howth and Vico Road) and drain into the river to recirculate and start the cycle over again. 

Looking out at that panoramic view I had a vision that Joyce had rendered this city into ink on page with Finnegans Wake, as thoroughly and successfully as one possibly could transform a piece of populated land into a book. I was thinking of how the Wake describes itself as a mysterious written object that was discovered "in the course of deeper demolition" (FW 110.28), buried underground where it "acquired accretions of terricious matter" (FW 114.29). I pictured the book as an organic object, "underground and acqueduced" (FW 128.09) soaking in all the dirt and sewage of the city which fed the text's fusing together with the layers of earth and its history, branching out rhizomatic roots "of increasing, livivorous, feelful thinkamalinks; luxuriotiating everywhencewithersoever among skullhollows and charnelcysts of a weedwastewoldwevild" (FW 613.19-20). Even in the modernized city there are still so many old structures in Dublin such that it seems you're often staring back centuries into history, living alongside ghosts. Exploring Dublin, and thinking over the Wake's obsession with burials, archeological excavations, and resurrections sprung to mind how every city, seen through a Wakean timelapse, involves so much dispersion and dissolution down into the ground. We are all always walking on soil mixed with the blood of the dead, or as the Wake has it, "while a successive generation has been in the deep deep deeps of Deepereras. Buried hearts. Rest here." (FW 595.27-29)

To be continued...


  1. Wonderful, Peter. I had a similar experience, of much shorter duration, visiting Dublin in 1982, tramping around the city with my paperback copy of the Wake in hand.

  2. This is absolutely lovely, Peter. My pal Cathy and I (both members of the Santa Cruz FW reading group) spend several day in Dublin some years back walking the haunts of JJ, the Wake, and Ulysses, but I long to return and spend much more time doing so. Till then, this piece of yours will have to suffice.