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  • Vico’s Scienza Nuova and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake
  • Donald Phillip Verene

Two major thinkers introduce Vico into the twentieth century— Benedetto Croce and James Joyce. Croce’s interpretation of Vico stems from his La filosofia di Giambattista Vico (1911) and from his use of Vico in the development of his own idealist philosophy. Croce’s approach to Vico dominated the understanding of Vico’s significance for a good part of this century. Recent trends in Vichian scholarship, beginning with Isaiah Berlin’s Vico and Herder (1976), have abandoned Croce’s idealist interpretation and have found in Vico’s works original doctrines of imagination, poetry, language, myth, and culture.

Neither the Crocean approach to Vico nor the new directions Vico scholarship has taken have come to grips with the other source introducing Vico to the twentieth century—the writings of Joyce. Joyce’s trilogy—A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Ulysses (1922), and Finnegans Wake (1939)—is one of the greatest literary accomplishments of our time. Finnegans Wake, perhaps accompanied by Ulysses, is destined to become one of the great works of world literature in the Western canon as the twentieth century comes to an end. There are Vichian allusions in Portrait, references to Vico in Ulysses, and Vico’s Scienza nuova (New Science) is the basis for Finnegans Wake.

Although many have first encountered the name of Vico through reading Joyce, little attention has been given to Joyce as an interpreter of Vico, or as a bearer of Vico’s truth. What are the connections between the Scienza nuova and Finnegans Wake? 1 My aim is briefly to review the evidence and to make some suggestions about the connections [End Page 392] between Vico and Joyce that have not been fully seen. The two figures, I think, who have said the most interesting things about Finnegans Wake are Samuel Beckett and Anthony Burgess. This is not to discount the body of critical literature, principally in English, that has developed on Vico and Joyce. 2 Beckett and Burgess, both being writers themselves, have a grasp of Joyce from the inside, in a way that a literary critic can never have, who must always take hold of any work from the outside. Both Beckett and Burgess immediately saw the importance of Vico for Joyce.

In “Dante. . . Bruno. Vico. . Joyce” (1929), published among the first essays written on Finnegans Wake, Beckett sees that Joyce has an under-standing of Vico’s ideas that is very different from Croce’s. 3 Furthermore, unlike later commentators on Joyce who may mention the importance of Vico’s cycles for Finnegans Wake, Beckett saw that not only were the cycles important, but even more important were Vico’s conceptions of providence, language, myth, and imagination. Beckett, like Burgess later, is clear that Joyce’s intention in Finnegans Wake is not to produce an interpretation of Vico. Joyce’s purpose is to write a great work of literature that will rank in importance with the Western classics. Joyce takes from all the “books at the wake,” including the Scienza nuova, whatever suits his purpose—and in so doing introduces Vico to us in a way no one else does. Beckett puts Vico together with Dante Alighieri, whom Joyce at one point calls “the divine comic Denti Alligator” (p. 440), and with Giordano Bruno, “The Nolan of the Calabashes . . . Saint Bruno” (p. 336). From Beckett’s perspective we approach Joyce’s work rightly—through the Italians.

In Joyce’s trilogy, Portrait is the book everyone can read, because it follows the ordinary pattern of the narrative of an autobiographical novel. Ulysses is the work most readers think they probably can read, although they find its “stream of consciousness” style difficult. Finnegans Wake is the work from which few have read anything, and very few have read it from beginning to end. To encourage people to gain access to this difficult work Burgess produced a condensed version, A Shorter Finnegans Wake, that reduces the original to about one-third its length. Despite his reduction, Burgess is clear that Joyce’s original work “contains not one word too many, and there is the danger that to...

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