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Stephen’s Wavespeech

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 3, Spring 2007
pp. 557-558 | 10.1353/jjq.2008.0004

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Stephen thinks, "Listen: a fourworded wavespeech: seesoo, hrss, rsseeiss, ooos. Vehement breath of waters amid seasnakes, rearing horses, rocks. In cups of rocks it slops: flop, slop, slap: bounded in barrels. And, spent, its speech ceases" (U 3.456-59). To my knowledge, those four words have been accepted as simply onomatopoetic and not been explicated. Stephen's effort is, indeed, a form of onomatopoeia, a selection of a few letters from the alphabet to imitate the sounds of the sea water. He provides associations or translations for the "wavespeech": "seesoo" into "seasnakes," "hrss" into "rearing horses," and "rsseeiss" into "rocks."

In the next episode, there is an example of cat speech: "Mkgnao," "Mrkgnao," and "Mrkrgnao" (U 4.16, 25, 32). Were the added letters chosen to capture the cat's sounds? Perhaps. But they also add the consonants related to the name of the god Mercury. Does the "wave-speech" have its mythic resonance?

Consider first the possible meanings of the "wavespeech." "Seesoo" may relate to an older Irish form for "mister," "sir," and "noble." The sounds "hrss" and "rss" correlate with the Middle High German and the Teutonic antecedents of the modern English "horse" in "hros" and "ross" (Stephen himself makes the etymological association to "horse"). "Seeis" correlates with the Greek verb "seio," "to shake," as in "seismic." "Ooos" recalls Greek "ousia" for "being." And the sound at the end, "s-ooos," recalls the Hebrew "sus" for "horse." Thus, the shore of Ireland is lapped with the sounds of language and history, with the natives' Irish, the invaders' German and English, and Ulysses's own references to Greek and Hebrew.

As "Mrkr" alludes to Mercury, this "wavespeech" in Stephen's onomatopoeia appears to sound out the phrase "rearing horses" or a sentence: "the noble [sea] horses are shaking [their manes]." Earlier in the same episode, Stephen thinks, "They are coming, waves. The whitemaned seahorses, champing, brightwindbridled, the steeds of Mananaan" (U 3.55-57). Thus, Stephen hears in the "wavespeech" the horses of Mananaan. Obviously, he is not miming the sounds given in raw sensation, but, rather, he constructs his perception of a small piece of existence by using some of what he knows of language and myth. Is he projecting, even imposing, his concerns upon nature? Is he discovering in nature his concerns? In which direction is translation occurring? While determining the kinds of exchange between him and the world depends on readers' interpretations, it begins with an exchange, another type of transformation in "Proteus."

These four words are minor ones in a long wordy day, yet they should be listed with moments presenting Stephen's creativity. As such a creative moment, his "wavespeech" recalls the inspiration for his writing of the villanelle in A Portrait: "Over his limbs in sleep pale cool waves of light had passed. He lay still, as if his soul lay amid cool waters, conscious of faint sweet music" (P 217). "Waves of light" into "music" is an abstract mode of "wavespeech." Then his "wave-speech" recalls Chamber Music's dream poem, "I hear an army charging upon the land," with its invaders and horses "shaking" as "[t]hey come out of the sea" (CP 44). Variations on this moment may easily be extended into a study of Joyce on the shore, ranging in his publications from the first poem of Chamber Music, "Strings in the earth and air" (CP 9), to the last paragraph of the (night-or dream-speech) Wake, its ocean's "cold mad feary father . . . moananoaning" (FW 628.02-03). There is a nexus worthy of further explication and extension: river, sea, waves, music, wavespeech, light, darkness, isolation, loneliness, eros, in dream, nightmare, perception, vision, creativity, fusion with literature, myth, and liturgy. In any case, Stephen's sounds are more than mere mimetic ones.

Sidney Feshbach is retired from teaching at City College, City University of New York, and is an adjunct research professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He writes about James Joyce, Wallace Stevens, John Berger, and Noam Chomsky.

Notes

1. My hearing aides for these resonances were the classicist Marshall Hurwitz and the linguist Joseph Malone. Errors of understanding and application are mine.



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