- Noble Rot
I offer two points here, one embedded in the other. First, I have found myself becoming increasingly convinced that Finnegans Wake is a letter in a bottle. What follows are some reasons.
The book originates in Boston—”North Armorica”—from where what is sometimes called the North Atlantic Drift would have carried it to Ireland via the Gulf Stream, in which, as Stephen reminds us, “all Ireland is washed” (U 1.476). We also have this passage from ALP’s farewell at the Wake’s end:
We can sit us down on the heathery benn, me on you, in quolm unconsciounce. To scand the arising . . . At the site of salvocean. And watch would the letter you’re wanting be coming may be. And cast ashore. That I prays for be mains of me draims. Scratching it and patching at with a prompt from a primer. And what scrips of nutsnolleges I pecked up me meself. Every letter is a hard but yours sure is the hardest crux ever. Hack an axe, hook an oxe, hath an an, heth hith ences. But once done, dealt and delivered, tattat, you’re on the map. Rased on traumscrapt from Maston, Boss. After rounding his world of ancient days. Carried in a caddy or screwed and corked. On his mugisstosst surface. With a bob, bob, bottledby. Blob . . . . Sometime then, somewhere there, I wrote me hopes and buried the page when I heard Thy voice, ruddery dunner, so loud that none but, and left it to lie till a kissmiss coming. So content me now. Lss. Unbuild and be buildn our bankaloan cottage there and we’ll cohabit respectable . . . With acute bubel runtoer for to pippup and gopeep where the sterres be . . .(FW 623.24–624.2; my ellipses)
I suggest that this passage recounts HCE and ALP sitting atop Howth, probably where the Blooms did, scanning the harbor’s horizon for a letter [End Page 178] in a bottle to come bobbing up, containing the “American letter” of news and presents, chiefly monetary, which Boston Irish immigrants used to send back to their families once a year, usually at—”kissmiss”— Christmas.1 The letter is also, as Bloom imagines in “Nausicaa,” a “story of a treasure” (U 13.125) either of the Treasure Island sort—X marking the spot, right there “on the map”—or, thinks ALP, a confirmation of romance, perhaps the fulfillment of the dream of a husband, which, like Milly Bloom posting unaddressed letters in the mailbox (U 4.56), she had once cast on the waters, in one of those who-will-I-marry fortune-telling games that used to be popular among country girls.
Above all, I think this farewell passage forecasts the beginning of Finnegans Wake. ALP’s account of how she “pecked up” the “scrips of nutsnolleges” (FW 623.32) needed for her to write the letter in the first place recalls and forecasts Biddy’s pecking up the letter’s alpha-bits (FW 10.31–4); the “hack an axe, hook an oxe” sequence (FW 623.34 ff.) that quotes the “Axe on thwacks on thracks, axenwise” (FW 19.20)2 with which the deciphering of the letter begins; and “the “bubel runtoer for to pippip and gopeep” (FW 624.9). This last word grouping suggests some kind of periscope-like apparatus (but glassily transparent, like a bubble or a bottle), resembling a round tower rising from an earth mound, attached to the submarine that contains the besieged underwater HCE at the beginnings of Book I, Chapter 3 and Book II, Chapter 3. The former is described as a “glasstone” (FW 77.34) outfitted with glass panels (that is, a glass submarine), elsewhere a glass coffin (FW 76.11), like the one in the Grimms’ fairy tale of that name—in short, a really big bottle, big as the tower of Babel. And, of course, Joyce also implies a glass house, in which people who throw stones ought not to live. This is why the sound that most upsets HCE is that of a “[g]lass crash” (FW 44.19–20).
So, like Shem (FW 182.30–1), he lives in...