- Joyce, Race and “Finnegans Wake,”
Lucid and feisty, Len Platt here examines Joyce’s critical engagement, especially in Finnegans Wake, with western racism. Through a series of thematically linked approaches, the operations of racism are traced within a variety of discourses and ideologies. These range from, as might be expected, historiography, eugenics, social Darwinism, palaeontology, Wyndham Lewis’s writings,1 fascism, and Nazism to such more unexpected cultural forms as paleoanthropology, theosophy, musical theater, and what Platt calls “filth” (146) in the Wake. In this context, the latter comes across as the freshest, ironically, of these subjects. Platt illustrates Joyce’s use and mockery of these discourses in the distortions of Wakese, whose portmanteaus and multilingual polylogues constantly remind us of a kind of hybridity that always makes a nonsense of any claims to purity, racial or otherwise. Refreshingly, while Platt is in earnest, you can hear him chuckling as he deploys his quotations, especially in the chapter on “filth,” which has some hilarious material (146–63). And readers are likely to be amused, too, at Platt’s reminders (34), for instance, of the absurd hypothesis of HCE’s racial origin: “Hispano-Cathayan-Euxine, Castillian-Emeratic-Hebridean, Espanol-Cymric-Helleniky?” (FW 263.13–15). This notion of a linguistic hybridity that reflects a racial and cultural one might be a familiar argument from Vincent J. Cheng’s book of a similar title—Joyce, Race and Empire2—but Platt illustrates more broadly from the Wake than Cheng did, and the way he uncovers targets from a range outside British Imperial contexts is timely and compelling.
Platt’s readings of the Wake as cultural critique require a novelistic approach in which narrative and, in particular, character can be acknowledged. In Chapter 3 (42–68), for instance, he is able to identify Shaun’s character as one associated with both racism and Irish Republicanism: thus, the Wake offers a critique of the racism within the De Valeran republic. It might have been helpful, however, if a distinction between “biological racism” and “cultural racism” had been developed to clear up the problem of how, at several points throughout his work, Joyce adheres to racial markers, without his ever having recourse to biological determinism. In “Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages” (CW 153–74), Joyce may well argue for the hybridity of Irish identity, as he knew Daniel Defoe had done for English identity (both of which Platt uses as illustrations),3 but in the same breath Joyce also identifies the relative purity of Icelandic identity and seems to make a culturally racist joke against Icelandic isolation: who would wish to claim racial purity if that would make you similar to the Icelanders (CW 165–66). Despite his mockery, however, Joyce is not excluding [End Page 588] here the possibility of the existence of a degree of racial purity but instead its desirability. Moreover, the humor that relies on the explosion of racial stereotypes relies on the humor of recognizable racial stereotypes. But Platt is right to emphasize that it is in the excesses of the former where Joyce deploys his comic mastery to greatest effect.
At points, Platt does force some of his readings in, for instance, treatments of figures with conservative or mystical associations such as Giambattista Vico, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, and Giordano Bruno. Vico, we are told, was attractive to Joyce, because of his “refusal to accept European myths of [racial] origin” (21)—but the reason Vico disliked these myths was because they drew attention and authority away from the truth of the Bible’s historical account, which affirmed the Jews to be “the first people in the world.”4 Platt quotes this (26) but does not note the corollary: Vico’s adherence to the Bible produces a different but nonetheless racist theory of origins from those of European pagans, so that, far from rejecting all racist theories of origins, racism is underpinned by “Divine Providence.” Platt contends, rightly, that the formal and aesthetic possibilities in Vico may not be enough to account for his importance in the...