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  • Jove’s Word: Finnegans Wake, 80.20–81.13
  • Richard Beckman (bio)

HCE, a family of man composite, speaks in many voices and rarely sounds other than contemptible; nevertheless, like his prototype, Falstaff (wittier by far than HCE but like him white-haired, overweight, and self-pitying), he seems to steal our hearts by virtue of being Human, All Too Human. Like Falstaff, however, he can be dangerous. In another role, likewise dangerous, he is Jove as the Roman empire pictured him. Elsewhere he is seen colonizing the world in the role of imperialist; he even appears at times to be associated with some rather nasty, and even Nazi, folk. He stands over an abyss and contains one, but there is no sign that he is the least bit conscious of this. Like the family of man that he represents, he is both troubled and problematic. Through him, Finnegans Wake contemplates, with sympathetic skepticism, the traditional questions, “What is man?” and “Whither mankind?”

At some metaphysical level, HCE and the world are the same, for better or worse, all that we have. As Falstaff says, “[B]anish plump Jack, and banish all the world.” 1 In dreams too the world is identified with a man, for every image of the world projects an element in the dreaming self. Yet the dream would be meaningless if it did not refer to an external world that the dream reflects with a combination of blindness and insight. History may be a nightmare, but it exists, and not only as a personal nightmare but as happenings in the cosmos or in Europe or at the local tavern. Unnameable forces have brought it about in an unending cycle of being. The Wake alludes to many accounts of the creation, all of them unconvincing, but with one common theme: whatever is destroyed somehow emerges reconstituted.

Everyone likes a reconstitution, but for long stretches the forces of annihilation and their voices dominate. They give a sinister twist to Falstaff’s words, “Banish all the world.” They call for a return to the way matters were before creation, before life; they echo Mephistopheles in the “Prologue in Heaven” of Goethe’s Faust: “Your [the Lord’s] suns and worlds mean nothing much to me”; but, of course, Mephistopheles is “der Geist dass stets verneint,” the spirit that always denies. His attitude is taken up by Kate, who superintends a [End Page 373] museum of rotting artifacts. Kate, who merges with Katherine Strong the scavenger, oversees the journey from cradle to grave in the creepiest sense possible, the return to vacuity of “the first babe of reconcilement” to “its last cradle of hume sweet hume” (80.17–18), where Hume’s realm of unknowable causation transforms home sweet home into a rather sour metaphysical aporia.

This chilly mood of radical skepticism introduces two difficult and rewarding paragraphs in Finnegans Wake, 80.20–81.13, in the first of which, 80.20–36, the negation of all pleasure and hope is abruptly personified into the figure of Jove, who presides over a shrinking of the waters of life by the fires of destruction. His dictum is administered on a universal scale by cloudy deities and, locally, by pyromaniac priests and by Kate herself:

For hear Allhighest sprack for krischnians as for propagana fidies and his nuptial eagles sharped their beaks of prey: and every morphyl man of us, pome by pome, falls back into this terrine: as it was let it be, says he! And it is as though where Agni araflammed and Mithra monished and Shiva slew as mayamutras the obluvial waters of our noarchic memory withdrew, windingly goharksome, to some hastyswasty timberman torchpriest, flamenfan, the ward of the wind that lightened the fire that lay in the wood that Jove bolt, at his rude word. Posidonius O’Fluctuary! Lave that bloody stone as it is! What are you doing your dirty minx and his big treeblock way up your path? Slip around, you, by the rare of the ministers’! And, you, take that barrel back where you got it, Mac Shane’s, and go the way your old one went, Hatchettsbury Road! And gish! how they gushed away...

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pp. 373-384
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