- “Leafy Speafing”Drama and Finnegans Wake
“Soft morning, city!” (FW 619.20). So begin the final, familiar pages of Finnegans Wake. With incantatory power, the words inaugurate the book’s closing meditation on sleep and awakening, loss and reconstitution. In their cadences we hear the fears, wishes, and remembrances of the riverwoman before she rushes out to sea. Its repetition and implied colloquy set it apart from the previous 619 pages and mark it as a form of drama, though one with a curious set of problems: We’re not quite sure if our speaker, Annalivia, sleeps or awakens. In either case, it seems almost certain that she’s ﬂowing out to sea. Or at least, in her words, she’s “ending!” (FW 627.35). Her auditor, HCE, shares her predicament: perhaps asleep, perhaps waking up, not necessarily alive, and not exactly dead. They simultaneously ﬂow down the Liffey while lying in the bedroom, in bed, waiting for dawn. To complicate matters further, the river talks through apostrophe—”Soft morning, city!”—a rhetorical figure that addresses absence: in this case, a person or people lost to vitality through sleep, or death.
In “Drama and Life,” Joyce writes that drama need not be constrained by generic conventions, and “if a play or a work of music or a picture presents the everlasting hopes, desires, and hates of us . . . then it is drama” (CW 41). Drama, he says, involves representation of “underlying laws” of human life expressed as “literature in dialogue”(CW 39). Surely the hopes, wishes, and recollections initiated by Annalivia’s words, “soft morning, city” partake of these “underlying laws.” But given the passage’s basic situation—communication between not- quite-people who are not quite awake or alive—in what ways does Joyce’s redefinition of drama enhance our understanding of the book’s final pages? How, and in what sense, do the dumb speak, and offer us “literature in dialogue?” [End Page 171]
We can begin to unscramble some of the questions posed by the ending of the Wake through exploration of Joyce’s use of etymology as language theory.1 Joyce exploits not only the orthographical and lexical but also conceptual elements of words in their original as well as contemporary meanings. Let’s start with the Greek word drama, whose root carries the meaning “to do.” It possesses a short etymology but a long literary and philosophical history. Fundamentally, drama is about “speafing” (FW 619.20), speaking, the basic human mechanism for agency, or doing, in the world. In particular, Annalivia’s “leafy speafing” conjoins speech and “leaves,” a word derived from our early ways of thinking about codification of speech in writing. Although inscription began on various substances, from clay to papyrus, cloth, and metal, “leafy” hearkens to the byproduct of trees—paper, of which books are made. In fact, book (bokiz: proto- Germanic) comes from the word for “beech,” and invites us to consider original writing as etched on beech trees. Similarly, codex (caudex: Latin) means “trunk,” and captures the metaphorical idea that not only leaves but also pages and scrolls spring from branches. Annalivia’s “leafy speafing” thus comprises a prototype of letters and words, in turn the handmaidens of language.2
In a larger sense “leafy speafing” demonstrates awareness of etymological heritage as well as articulates states of emotion. In so doing, Joyce foregrounds the process of making words and attaches them to his ideas of language as prayer.3 In his description of the elements that comprise Finnegans Wake, Joyce singles out prayer as the verbal form most capable of conveying the affective and intellectual scope of his book.4 Joyce takes his ideas about language as prayer in part from Giambattista Vico’s theories in The New Science, which figures communication as originating in response to the divine, whether in musical, gestural, poetic, or spoken form.5 In short, Vico asserted that words have dynamic and evolutionary properties embedded in their shared origins, themselves metaphors for the function not only of language, but also of reality. Most of Vico’s etymologies are factually incorrect, perhaps intentionally so. Despite their falseness, Joyce found in The New Science a...