In dreaming, all their sunshine seemed so sad,As though the current of the dark To BeHad flowed, prophetic, through the happy hours.Amy Levy, "Xantippe: A Fragment"
In 1917, Lord Ernest Rutherford split the atom and helped usher in the nuclear age. Twenty-two years later, in Finnegans Wake, James Joyce deliberately radicalized the problems of writing by dissecting and rejoining the roots of language and, in the process, added by chance an eventual contribution to physics in coining the neologism "quark" (FW 383.01). Joyce puns on this interdisciplinary parallel in the famous phrase often used to describe the revolutionary style of his last work: "The abnihilisation of the etym" (FW 353.22). The annihilation of the atom becomes, through etymology, a comment on the earliest formation of words out of nothing (in Latin, ab nihil-"from nothing"). Indeed, in discussing the creative style behind the Wake, Joyce suggested that he had composed it "out of nothing."1 If words, or etymons, appear without primordial order and lead to a deconstruction of the divine origin of language, these playful references nevertheless suggest that in the beginning of human speech was a word. Yet even the most cursory forays into the Wake agree that it assaults not only traditional conventions of narration but also the very idea of a founding logos. As if an encore to the virtuoso parody of styles that structures Ulysses, Finnegans Wake is a text in which the multiplicity of languages gobble each other up and churn out a concatenation of neologisms, nonsense, and nuanced profundities. To recoup a sense of the depth of style, narration, and effect of the Wake remains an unfinished scholarly task, one that may, among other uncoverings, point to an alternative grammar of Being.
Joyce's use of Ur significations of "to be" in the last book of Finnegans Wake suggests that this verb itself is inflected in any logos. By tracing Joyce's repetitive, proximate insertions of the Indo European root for "to be," "*es-," I will show how this linguistic style corresponds to a philosophy that intrinsically links language and Being. Through Joyce's puns and relentless collocation of es morphemes, [End Page 115] the verbal high jinks of the ricorso use the smallest bits of language to elaborate an ontological concept. Drawing on the work of Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault, I argue here that Joyce similarly questions Being to perform a new grammar for beings.2 In effect, the ricorso is an etymological allegory that subversively comments on one of its central themes, resurrection, by implying that Being is a continuous present defined by close relationships among individuals.
As Book III of the Wake winds down and dawn approaches, Johnny MacDougall, the last of the Four Old Men, now inscribed as a bedpost, proceeds to offer his perspective on the bedroom of HCE and ALP. The "[f]ourth position of solution" that he presents indicates some possible discord with the three synoptic positions-"How johnny!" (FW 590.22-23, 23). With the advent of Book IV or the ricorso, the work-long parallel between the Wake and the four Gospels begins to finish its cycle of commentary on the themes of death and resurrection. In an assortment of varying pagan, Christian, and linguistic forms, resurrection lies at the center of Book IV. Hugh Kenner states that Book IV "corresponds, in ways too obvious to require enumeration, to the Resurrection at the climax of the Lenten sequence, and to the Last Gospel (John I) at the close of the mass proper."3 On the other hand, James S. Atherton, in commenting on the numerous travesties Joyce makes of the liturgy, undercuts an orthodox interpretation of the Wake by reminding us of the "many quotations that would have to be ignored by anyone claiming to prove that Joyce was a devout Catholic treating the Mass with respect."4 When the Wake was written and when Kenner was drawing his parallels between the mass service and Joyce's last work, a priest recited the Last Gospel at the close of the liturgy as...