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Northmen … Norman … Noman: Conquest and Effacement in Finnegans Wake

From: Joyce Studies Annual
pp. 242-260

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There exists also another type of barbarian, who comes from the heights:

a species of conquering and ruling natures in search of material to mold.

Joseph Valente’s description of justice as an imperative that translates “tyrannical force into legitimate authority” recalls Joyce’s description of Irish civilization as the reconciliation of “nordic aggressiveness and Roman law” (CW 165). Both of these statements are analogous to the Wake’s characterization of HCE as “our friend vikelegal” (FW 131.21–2). In other words, Viking force translated into law presents the friendly face of legitimate authority. Considering that the vice-regal lodge was the representative of English power in Ireland, the phrase further emphasizes that political legitimation is consistent with “colonial disenfranchisement” (Valente 9). Things become even more convoluted in light of the fact that, at the time Joyce was writing Finnegans Wake, this institution of colonial rule had been re-appropriated by the Irish who were using it to enforce their own brand of Viking violence. All in all, Joyce’s linguistic maze is an apt illustration of Derrida’s question: “How are we to distinguish between the force of law of a legitimate power and the supposedly originary violence that must have established this authority?” The paradoxical situation can be stated as follows: While force is necessary to establish the law, the maintenance of law requires the suppression of force.

Simultaneously widening and narrowing the perspective, the Wake declares that “Northmen’s thing made southfolk’s place” (FW 215.24–5). As Ogden points out in a note quoted by McHugh, “[t]he high place on which the Norwegian Thing had its meeting has now become Suffolk place.” The existence of this place of meeting already implies the translation of force into law as the Vikings consolidated their possession of Dublin. In addition, a process of adjustment between a ruling elite and ruled population is suggested by the thing/folk opposition because, in the Norse system of rule, “the ‘thing,’ ” as an assembly of “the retainers of a king, earl or chief, contrasted with the “ ‘folkmoot,’ the assembly of the whole people.” Finally, a process of displacement has leveled the high place of the ruling elite, leaving in its wake a habitable place for a less warlike, more democratic people. From a Derridean perspective, the series is comparable to the advent of structural analysis that becomes “possible only after a certain defeat of force” has occurred insofar as “one can glance over a field divested of its forces more freely or diagrammatically.” In other words, the form of force remains after it has been “expelled from the site” (Derrida 6) it has brought into existence. As the Wake tells the story, although Northmen made the place, their expulsion has left in its wake a local habitation for the Southern folk.

All of these meanings are relevant to the so-called “Normanist controversy”—that is, the question of role of the Scandinavian Northman in creating the forms of nation, state, and empire, in their Southern conquests. In addition, the tendency of the Normans to be absorbed into and effaced by the cultures they conquered and organized makes their fate representative of the entropy of history—showing how energies of founding force are irreversibly dissipated by the adjustments of social life. In this study, I examine these themes as they appear in the Wake. I will concentrate on three figures representing three stages in the Norman story: Rurik, founder of the Russian Empire; Rollo, founder of the Duchy of Normandy; and Strongbow, carrier of the Norman strain into Ireland. I will also suggest that Joyce’s identification with these figures was, in part, genealogical insofar as his family was of Norman extraction. In other words, Joyce translated this oft-repeated story of conquest and effacement into his own modernist project of impersonalization and self-expulsion, most famously described by Stephen as the artist/God refining himself “out of existence” (P 213).

At the center of the Normanist theory is the semi-legendary Scandinavian Prince Rurik, who is described in the Wake as “ruric or cospolite” (FW 309.10)—which is to say, either country-dweller (“L ruricola rustic” [McHugh 309]) or...

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