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  • Suspended Pluralities:Postlapsarian Language and Pentecostal Writing in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake

This article examines the ways in which James Joyce’s final literary work, Finnegans Wake, locates itself in a mythological tradition that conceives of language as inherently flawed. In particular, I will be concerned with what I term Joyce’s non-words, that is, the neologisms that Joyce creates in great number in the Wake by fusing together standard words or by otherwise distorting their spelling. These non-words constitute an unusual challenge for the reader. Even as their multiple meanings open up Joyce’s book to an abundance of interpretations, their opacity plunges these interpretations into a state of extreme volatility, and they thus create what could be conceived as an intimidating, even unnerving richness of meaning.

I will base my analysis of this richness, and of its relation to the intrinsic imperfection of language as it appears in mythology, on a number of observations Jacques Derrida makes in his 1982 lecture “Two Words for Joyce.” In this address, Derrida’s watchword for the Wake’s unusual form is Joyce’s “double command”—the imperative through which Finnegans Wake demands of us that we read it, but also that we do so without simplifying and thus falsifying it for the purpose of reading.1 As Derrida puts it, the text demands of us, “Change me (into yourself) and above all do not touch me, read and do not read, say and do not say otherwise what I have said” (Derrida, 154). Needless to say, such a demand is impossible to fulfill, particularly (though not exclusively) with regard to those of Joyce’s coinages that are not words in any existing language, since any endeavor to interpret has to change the non-word in question before it can be read. [End Page 997] But precisely because this textual command cannot be fulfilled, it serves a number of critical functions in Finnegans Wake.

The double command prompts us to develop readings, yet at the same time, it partly invalidates any suggestion we make, as any proposed interpretation will also be a normalization and simplification that does violence to the text. The command perpetuates the interpretative process: even though it does not necessarily allow for an unlimited number of interpretations, it eliminates the possibility that any interpretation will produce the decisive answer and that the process will thus come to a halt. As Derrida puts it: “The endless plunge throws you back onto the river-bank, on the brink of another possible immersion, ad infinitum” (Derrida, 148).

As the process of interpretation goes on, even provisional conclusions are unable to position themselves outside of equivocality. One way to look at this is to say that since the double command forces us to commit a categorical mistake in our readings of non-words (namely, to read a text that differs from what is actually on the page), it puts competing meanings on much more of an equal footing than would be possible with a standard text. In a manner so fundamental that we almost stop noticing it, our interpretations are all wrong, insofar as they nonchalantly refer to words that Joyce did not quite write. This process of reading at two degrees rather than one degree of separation (text-alteration-interpretation rather than text-interpretation) bestows a precarious quality on our encounters with the text. The destabilizing momentum introduced by the step of alteration partly counteracts the impulse to distinguish between central and peripheral meaning, an impulse that for good reasons comes naturally to many modes of reading. On the one hand, one should be careful here not to infer some kind of carte blanche to devise whatever reading takes one’s fancy and then claim it to be as valid or invalid as any other. On the other hand, attempts to differentiate strictly and systematically between good and bad alterations of Joyce’s non-words often run the risk of effacing one of the principal characteristics of these coinages. As we will see, once we conceive of Joyce’s non-words as expressions that primarily demand particular care in the identification of their actual content, we...

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