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Poetry and Apocalypse: Theological Disclosures of Poetic Language (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 46, Number 3-4, Spring-Summer 2009
pp. 624-627 | 10.1353/jjq.2008.0028

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In part 1, chapter 1, "Apocalypse and the Breaking-Open of Dialogue: A Critical Negative Theology of Poetic Language," William Franke connects Christian epic with the language of apocalypse by pointing to "the constitutive obscurity of apocalyptic revelation" (42). His focus on the relationship of epic poetry, from Dante to Edmund Spenser, John Milton, William Blake, and James Joyce, with the language of apocalypse is informed partly by his reading of Jürgen Habermas. Habermas's "concept of communicative reason" leads Franke to propose that "texts purporting to deliver apocalyptic revelations … must be understood essentially as forms of communication" (43-44, 43). Ultimately, he contends that "if 'reason' goes deep enough into its own (self-posited) ground, it discovers 'revelation'" (55).

Franke defines his primary term: the "moment of shattering of our world or discursive order is what I am calling 'apocalypse.' The word 'apocalypse' signals that the world order as we understand it collapses around us" (58). His view leads us to "a critical negative theology of poetic language," the subtitle of his chapter, which ultimately brings us to his discussion of Finnegans Wake.

Part 2 begins with chapter 2, "Linguistic Repetition as Theological Revelation in Christian Epic Tradition from Dante to Joyce" (97-123). Repetition is a key factor in Franke's discussion of epic, but even more important is the question of self-referentiality, which he connects to Dante, to Milton's poems, and, of course, to the entire body of Joyce's work. In Finnegans Wake, Franke points to the "mordantly ironic self-parody in the figure of Shem the Penman" (103). These are important features of apocalyptic language in large part because they extend "Augustine's horizon of subjective reflection" (102).

In his discussion of repetition, Franke considers Derek Attridge's "agenda for re-casting Finnegans Wake as revealing the way literature and language in general work" (113). Franke concentrates on the connection in Joyce between thought and language, which "displays a knack for repeating itself, for finding its own patterns of recurrence" (114). The circularity of Finnegans Wake is thus central to Franke's view of repetition (informed by Giambattista Vico) and his observations of the struggle for sense in Joyce's language. He writes, "By thematizing this circular pattern, Joyce establishes the grounds for faith that alpha and omega belong to the same language-in-process—though this may consist in many amalgamated languages" (116).

Franke ends his chapter on the Christian epic tradition by explaining that he has "interpreted Dante and his successors, particularly Joyce, as carrying out the mission of religious revelation within the modern horizon of disclosure as manifestation of phenomena to consciousness" (122). As he does so, he contends with the apparently negative theology of what purports to be secular language. He is bolstered in this view by the work of Thomas J. J. Altizer, who "reads revelation in this literature as apocalyptic in nature" (123).

The primary section of the book that will most interest Joyce scholars is chapter 3, "Typological Re-origination and the Theological Vocation of Poetry; or, How to Read Finnegans Wake as the Culmination of Christian Epic" (125-158). Here Franke begins a close examination of language while at the same time introducing typological analysis and the connection of literature to liturgy. Death in Finnegans Wake can thereby be interpreted as sacrifice and thus is linked to Christ's death, which Franke suggests is re-enacted in the novel: "Joyce literally 'actualizes' the Christ event in a variety of outlandish, irreverent, and yet irresistible ways" (132). In considering Christ as scapegoat, Franke reads the text closely: "This name, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, transmutes to 'Hircus Civis Eblanensis!' …, literally the 'goat citizen of Dublin'" (133—FW 215.27). He sees HCE as implicit in "'Hic Est Corpus meum,'" a reading he credits to Lucia Boldrini (133n).

While this chapter has some suggestive readings of the language of Finnegans Wake, much of its energy is aimed at connecting the text typologically to the Bible: "The idea that revelation can be consummated in poetry, in fully human interpretation and language, is seen to follow from revelation's ineradicably typological character, its actually constituting itself through literary repetition, right...

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