- Joyce’s Kaleidoscope: An Invitation to “Finnegans Wake”, and: Imagining Joyce and Derrida: Between “Finnegans Wake” and “Glas”, and: Joyce, Race and “Finnegans Wake”
Even the legal clarity demanded by the courtroom cannot tame the language of Finnegans Wake. When “an eye, ear, nose and throat witness” attempts to explain why “Hyacinth O’Donnell” has assaulted “the old kings, Gush Mac Gale and Roaring O’Crian, Jr.”, he suggests three different [End Page 635] motives for the “bad blood” between them: “on the ground of the boer’s trespass on the bull or because he firstparted his polar beeber hair in twoways, or because they were creepfoxed and grousuppers over a nippy in a novelette, or because they could not meace, (mute and daft) meathe.”1 In Joyce’s Kaleidoscope, Philip Kitcher glosses this passage, explaining that the combatants have fallen out: “possibly for relatively trivial reasons, possibly because they are contenders for the love of a girl [ . . . ] possibly because they are deeply incompatible and unable to speak ‘peace, peace’” (105). The passage is, however, not difficult simply because it supplies three different explanations for the dispute, but because Joyce’s punning multiplies the kinds of grounds set out in each explanation. Reference to the “boer’s trespass on the bull” combines allusion to the Boer wars of the late nineteenth century, with more recent events on the stock exchanges in the 1920s (bears and bulls are competing financial speculators) and the Papal Bull (“Laudabiliter”) of 1155 by which Pope Adrian IV granted Ireland to Henry II of England. Similarly “meace [ . . . ] meathe” does not simply connote “peace peace”; it echoes the Gaelic word “mishe,” which Joyce glossed as “I am (Irish) i.e. Christian” in a letter to his patron Harriet Shaw Weaver.2 Transformation of the final syllable suggests a lisp or some other difficulty of pronunciation, so that the phrase may function as a kind of shibboleth. Thus, while they may have fallen out over a girl (“a nippy in a novelette”) it is just as likely that the dispute reenacts various national, sectarian, and ideological conflicts. Joyce joked that Finnegans Wake dealt in “unfacts [ . . . ] too imprecisely few to warrant our certitude” (FW, 57), but the book’s challenge to factuality most frequently arises from the proliferation of possible alternatives rather than their scarcity. It can seem endlessly fecund, to the point where almost any reading of the book seems possible. The widely differing approaches taken by the three critics reviewed here further confirm this.
Samuel Beckett felt that this demanding composite language led, through the etymological roots of Joyce’s puns, to the foundations of language and human experience. The effect was holistic: “Here,” he claimed, “form is content: content is form.”3 In contrast, Kitcher finds the wordplay distracting. Joyce was “more concerned,” he claims, with “large central themes than with the details” (46), and “we should aim for . . . an understanding of the musical structure of the Wake, an understanding that discloses its grand form, the ways in which various sections and chapters contribute, the ways that the parts of the chapters fit together, the interlocking of the paragraphs. The words come last” (270–71). In this respect, his summary of Hyacinth O’Donnell’s unruly behavior is representative. He skims over the alternative readings embodied within Joyce’s portmanteau words (“the details”) in order to draw out the narrative that lies within, puzzling over the fact that there are three characters involved in the quarrel, rather than the usual archetype of two.
The narrative Kitcher solicits from this “grand form” builds upon John Bishop’s argument in Joyce’s Book of the Dark (1986) that Finnegans Wake attempts to convey the experience of dreaming. For Kitcher, the central dreaming character, HCE, looks back from old age over his life’s...