Journal of Modern Literature 29.1 (2005) 76-93
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Two Ps in a Pod:
on Time in Finnegans Wake
In the library scene of Ulysses IX Stephen Dedalus presents us with an image of time from which time is virtually absent. "In the intense instant of imagination, when the mind, Shelley says, is a fading coal, that which I was is that which I am and that which in possibility I may come to be. So in the future, the sister of the past, I may see myself as I sit here now but by reflection from that which then I shall be."1 Notably the instant to which Stephen alludes captures the totality of Past-Present-Future, but only does so by subtracting from its focus time itself, which surely must have something to do with passage, with difference, and with change. Here, Past, Present and Future are in fact abstract concepts given over to space, and all that is left of the sense of time in Stephen's words is the fate of the fading coal. The parable of the coal illustrates an essential quality of time reproduced in the Wake's narrative and rhetorical strategies: time is grasped by the imagination as that which always eludes its own image. What we see when we look at this image (in place of time) is a field of objectified moments existing ideally and simultaneously. Held together by sight and preserved by reflection, Past, Present and Future can only be imagined as a cluster of fixed points abstracted from a linear continuum.
The glaring incongruity between time and the instant of its figuration is one of the Wake's foremost concerns. In the course of this paper I should like to examine the rhetoric employed by Joyce as he grapples with the paradoxes that motivate this incongruity. My intention is to demonstrate that a direct correlation exists between the Wake's stylistic difficulty and Joyce's endeavour to engage more rigorously with a definition of time that takes the production of difference and the motif of passing (or fading) into account. Two passages from Bergson help give substance to this thesis and clarify its pertinence to the thinking of time in Joyce's fiction. First, a metaphor from Time and Free Will (the liberty taken with the title in the English edition is, in our case, extremely [End Page 76] fortunate): "externality [Bergson explains,] is the distinguishing mark of things which occupy space, while states of consciousness are not essentially external to one another and become so only by being spread out in Time regarded as a homogeneous medium. [. . .] Time, conceived under the form of an unbounded and homogeneous medium, is nothing but the ghost of space, haunting the reflective consciousness." (Bergson Time 99) Second, from Creative Evolution, is a theory formulated in the course of a reflection on the mind's tendency to work by abstraction: "the human intellect, inasmuch as it is fashioned for the needs of human action, is an intellect which proceeds at the same time by intention and by calculation, by adapting means to ends and by thinking out mechanisms of more and more geometrical forms. Whether nature be conceived as a mechanical means regulated by mathematical laws, or as the realization of a plan, these two ways of regarding it are only the consummation of two tendencies of the mind. [. . .] In considering reality, mechanism regards only the aspect of similarity or repetition. It is therefore dominated by this law, that in nature there is only like reproducing like. The more the geometry in mechanism is emphasized, the less can mechanism admit that anything is ever created, even pure form. In so far as we are geometricians, then we reject the unforeseeable." (Bergson Evolution 51–52)
We know that for Bergson any equation of time with number (as in calculation and measurement) misses its object of reference altogether and amounts to a description of time as space. On the one hand Bergson's mention...