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The Historical Novel as the Denial of History:
From "Nestor" via the "Vico Road" to the Commodius Vicus of Recirculation
Prefatory Note on Modernism and PostmodernismShortly after the publication of Joyce's Ulysses, 1 T. S. Eliot advanced a generalized interpretation of the work as representing the voices of the "futility and anarchy which is contemporary history . . ." controlled, ordered, and given "shape and significance" by means of a myth. 2 Eliot's description, which fits The Waste Land as well, reflects his view that the classics of modernism were literary works whose syntactical structure paralleled the compositions of music or sculpture. Whether in prose or in poetry, these works were able to combine the impressionist realism of their predecessors like Flaubert and Conrad in their semantics with a linguistic reflective depth of their semiotics that made use of the parallel symbols and motifs encoded in the literary tradition.
In his later work, Finnegans Wake, however, Joyce seems to move beyond the modernist canon. The substance of the work in its treatment of historical events has appeared to correspond to a Derrida-like deconstruction of objective history. The technique of the work, if considered as a series of pastiche which are parodic of historical teleology, fits a Foucauldian account of the historian as genealogist. 3 The ironic conclusion would be that a great master of literary modernism had prematurely given birth to a postmodern novel.
The relationships between Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, however, are too complex to fit the distinction between definitions of modernism and postmodernism. Major themes of Finnegans Wake emerge from embryonic passages in Ulysses. The examination of the development of these themes from their simpler formulations in Ulysses can lead to an interpretation of Finnegans Wake that provides some measure of coherence for its complex maze. The discontinuities between Ulysses and [End Page 301] Finnegans Wake reflect the continuity of Joyce's literary experimentalism rather than a shift in his frame of reference, ideology, or style, from modernism to postmodernism.
Finnegans Wake as Anarchic Passages and Overarching Current:
The Coincidence of the Opposites of Vichian History and Anti-History
In many of the early critical studies of Finnegans Wake, the interpretations assumed that this work followed the model of Ulysses with two significant differences. The single mythical Homeric narrative against which contemporary events of Dublin life were mapped had been replaced by the multiple historical myths in the Vichian narrative of the fall, rise, and recurrence of history's gods and heroes. While Ulysses had recorded the diurnal events of Dublin life including the introspections and projections of its protagonists, Finnegans Wake was to represent the nocturnal life of Dublin, both in waking and dreaming, set within a framework of parallels to Giambattista Vico's study of history in The New Science.
The tracing of the plot line of Finnegans Wake as corresponding to the Vichian historical system, however, ran into difficulties. It became conventional, following Joyce's hints, for the critics to identify the episodes of Ulysses which corresponded to the matching chapters of Homer's Odyssey. Despite great critical effort, however, there emerged no similar identification of the segmented sections of Finnegans Wake with coordinating reference to the sequence of the historical ages in Vico's "history." The dense texture of Joyce's prose in Finnegans Wake with its multiplicity of connotation embedded in his polylingual vocabulary obstructed the univocal mapping of a series of obscure, dream-like happenings to any sequential or recurrent sequence of historical events. Despite Joyce's hints about his use of the "Vico Road," the "riverrun" of the historical voyage in Finnegans Wake does not traverse the demarcated channels of Vichian history but seems to be held fast in the thick sediments of language in which historical images pile upon each other.
In light of these difficulties, many of the interpreters of Finnegans Wake shifted their focus to detailed readings of relatively small sections of the work. Like the...