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The Second Gospel in Finnegans Wake

From: Joyce Studies Annual
Volume 2009
pp. 224-247

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

The explorer would have liked to say something appreciative, but all he could see was a labyrinth of lines crossing and re-crossing each other, which covered the paper so thickly that it was difficult to discern the blank spaces between them. "Read it," said the officer. "I can't," said the explorer. "Yet it's clear enough," said the officer.

Kafka, In the Penal Colony

He would continually add passages in the margins and tag them for insertion with a variety of addition marks until the page was a dense, scrawled web of writing and revision.1

Because the four evangelists in the Wake—Mamalujo for short—are commonly treated as one person, their individuality has tended to be obscured. However, the unique character of each of the four gospels contributed in different ways to the formation of Finnegans Wake, and my focus in this essay is on Joyce's specific engagement with the words of Saint Mark. Alluding to the gospel of Mark in the phrase "[f]irst Murkiss, or so they sankeyed. Dodo! O Clearly" (533.20–1), Joyce also recalls one of the phases in the history of interpretation. This phase, which Wolfgang Iser refers to as the classical norm, begins with the author's disguising of "a clear meaning"2 and the reader's initial experience of mystification. This murky situation is cleared up by the critic who comes to "disclose the original meaning together with the reason for its disguise" (Pontalis in Iser 4). The implicit assumption of the stupidity (according to Skeat, "dodo" is "from Devonsh. dold, stupid"3 ) of the common reader who is unable to arrive at the original meaning without critical assistance goes along with the reduction of the text to a clearly delineated referential meaning (O Clearly). Henceforth, the text can be considered an object devoid of mystery. It had been mastered and can be added to the reader's list of accomplishments. While Joyce's plan in writing Ulysses, "[t]o keep the critics busy for three hundred years" (JJ 703), was designed to delay this moment of appropriation for as long as possible, it still falls within the purview of classical interpretation. Though things are murky at present, they will presumably "clear up a bit one way or another within the next quarrel of an hour" (FW 119.5–6) after the dust has settled from the conflict of interpretations.

Needless to say, this moment has not arrived yet for Joyce's last work. Landmark studies of the Wake regularly begin with pronouncements on the limitations of previous strategies of interpretation, as if every decade Joyce's "epical forged cheque" (FW 181.16) bounced anew, leaving its promised payment of meaning in arrears. In 1965, Bernard Benstock complained that "[t]ime, which was expected to bring all evidence eventually to the surface in an ordered pattern, so far has had the opposite effect."4 In 1974, Margot Norris observed that "the intellectual orientation of the work remains largely obscure."5 In 1986, John Bishop went even further, declaring that "nothing will ever make Finnegans Wake not obscure,"6 and in 1987 Phillip Herring maintained in reference to the Wake's difficulties that "no progress has been made in clearly distinguishing solvable from insolvable problems."7 Genetic criticism, with its enormous arsenal of archives, notebooks, and drafts, has traced in minute detail the process of Joyce's accretive writing method, which would appear to begin with a relatively simple message that is then obscured by his phantasmagoria of bric-a-brac. The delineation of the stages whereby Joyce's language "departs from clear and obvious sense" until it "begins to sound purely percussive and rhythmic"8 holds out the possibility that an original clarity can be retrieved. Even here, however, the hope of uncovering an ur-text of communicable meaning is undermined by the discovery that Joyce, as his writing style matures, is "no longer writing clear language that is subsequently darkened, but laying it down obscurely at its first level" (Fordham 80).9

It is appropriate that these questions should be raised by Joyce's reference to the second gospel—the most problematical of the four for...

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