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  • Joyce, Finnegans Wake, and the Energy Epic*
  • Enda Duffy (bio)

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Figure 1.

A reproduction for the installation Beuys (Still a Discussion), by Sean Lynch (b. 1978) of the sculpture Irish Energy, Joseph Beuys, 1973. Peat briquettes and Kerrygold butter, 21x8x6 cm, Collection Oliver Dowling, Irish Museum of Modern Art, copyright Joseph Beuys IVARO 2010.

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In the following essay I start with the conclusion I propose to reach. It is this: Finnegans Wake is the greatest book on energy ever written, the epic novel of the age of energy.1 It is a monumental encyclopedia of the varieties of human-energy generation, production, and deployment. As the great modern book of drinking, eating, disputing, laughing, celebrating, and dreaming—in short, of the liveliest and most intense communal ways of being alive—it is an anatomy of human-energy generation in all its best forms. In this sense the novel is about what Karl Marx called Stoffwechsel—that is, "metabolism"—by which he means the ways in which human and animal bodies take in energy, transform it, and expend it in other forms.2 In a philosophic register Finnegans Wake is also a remarkable Bergsonian text. In the wake of Henri Bergson's considerable influence on French and western philosophy before and after World War I, this novel finally and most completely synthesized the lessons of Bergson's thinking. (Intriguingly, Bergson, through his mother Katherine Levison, had Irish-Jewish ancestors; he also had family connections to the Celtic Revival since his sister Moina was married to Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, one of the founders of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.)3 Finnegans Wake may well be the most wide-ranging exploration of Bergson's élan vital ever attempted, the most astounding [End Page 10] vitalist work of art constructed by any of the modernists. Its governing impulse, I suggest, is to convert the vital into the raucous. The account at its core of the wildest night ever in a Dublin pub generates raucousness as the life mode of what the Greeks called thumos—the courage to precipitate energy into an event, to act.4

But Finnegans Wake is also a book about the vast energy resources of the planet that began to be harnessed on an unprecedented scale in the early twentieth century. Immersed in what began to be called the "energy crisis" only in the 1970s, this book is, in a real sense, about oil. In other words, the genius of Joyce's work is far from being simply a matter of the deconstruction of standard-language or realist-romance plots. Such modernist experiment is generally cast as the artist's reaction to urban anomie, the loneliness of a postcommunal life in the modern metropolis, the reification engendered by consumer culture and the demands of a money economy, the colonization of time for the modern subject, and the colonization of global space by the great western imperial powers. For an encyclopedic novel as ambitious as Finnegans Wake, however, the stakes were greater than any of these matters. Like most novels since the rise of the genre in the eighteenth century, it centers on the domestic sphere: in this case a pub in Chapelizod, Dublin, home of HCE (Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, Here Comes Everybody); ALP (Anna Livia Plurabelle), his spouse; and their children Shem, Shawn, and Iseult.5 At the same time, HCE is stretched out on the landscape as the topography of Dublin, his head the Hill of Howth, while ALP is the river Liffey that flows from Poulaphouca down to the city of Dublin, from which it streams into the Irish sea to ALP's cries of "I'll slip away before they're up" (627). The book is about the globe, the earth itself, as well as about the more traditional novelistic subject of an unhappy family. And its account of the earth, just as in its account of the family and of the raucous wake of the book's title, is a narrative of flow, of [End Page 11] change over geologic time, and of energy. Just as it is concerned with...


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