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Mothers of Invention/Doaters of Inversion: Narcissan Scenes in Finnegans Wake

Christine Froula

Necessity is the mother of invention.


Nircississies are as the doaters of inversion. Secilas through their laughing classes becoming poolermates in laker life.

JAMES JOYCE, Finnegans Wake

[W]e know it to be characteristic of the libido that it refuses to subordinate itself to reality in life, to necessity.

SIGMUND FREUD, “The Theory of the Libido: Narcissism”

Every self-portrait presupposes what we might call a Narcissan scene: the artist gazing at his or her reflection in an attitude of desire—the sort of desire that impels representation. Often the mirror falls outside the picture’s frame, its implied place coinciding with that of the viewer before the finished portrait. When, however, the artist renders not just the reflected image but the mirror and the act of looking as well, the Narcissan scene becomes explicit and the act of self-portraiture self-reflexively analytic. To analyze such scenes of the self depicting itself in the very act of depicting itself is to discover something of the motives and dynamics that issue in its own creation, or, one might say, of the necessity that underlies its invention.

Joyce’s gallery of self-portraits holds up to our gaze a number of Narcissan scenes. In “The Dead,” the failed artist Gabriel Conroy catches a puzzling glimpse of his own face in the mirror after Gretta surprises him with her grief for Michael Furey1; in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the fledgling artist Stephen Dedalus looks in his mother’s mirror after he writes his first poem; in Ulysses, Bloom’s and Stephen’s gazes converge parallactically in Bella Cohen’s mirror, which reflects back Shakespeare’s face. In Finnegans Wake’s fuller rendering, the dreaming artist/hero answers necessity with “nircississies,” creating virtual images that mirror back his own desire by transforming necessity into “doaters of inversion.”2 Read in light of the earlier Narcissan scenes, this last rendering not only recapitulates them but exposes a dynamic that accounts for them all as narcissistic moments born of a certain necessity and issuing, by “inversion,” in “doaters,” or daughters. The transformation of necessity into self-gratifying “nircississies” and the self-mirroring desire that this inversion mediates involve an imaginary crossing of the boundary of sexual difference. This essay explores the dynamics of desire visible in Joyce’s Narcissan scenes, using his self-reflexive depictions of his own art of self-portraiture to account both for the fluid, dissolving, merging dream-selves of Finnegans Wake and for the dreamer’s pervasive crossings between, as he puts it, “[t]he form masculine. The gender feminine” (FW, 505.25).3

As early as Stephen Hero, Stephen/Joyce implicitly projects his own future art as a radical kind of self-portraiture, a self-vivisection that, in the very act of exposing his own inner workings, lays bare the workings of the culture that he inherits and reembodies. “The modern spirit is vivisective,” Stephen informs Cranly. “Vivisection itself is the most modern process one can conceive.”4 I take the selfvivisection that Stephen claims to perform as a master metaphor for his autobiographical art from Dubliners through the Wake, a trope that crosses self-portraiture with cultural history. Joyce, through his autobiographical artist figures, first represents himself engorging his culture and embodying it in and as himself, and then vivisects that culture in its reincarnation as himself. Studied in this light, Joyce’s self-portraits reveal themselves as a series of self-vivisections that probe progressively deeper, each performing a more radical and penetrating exposure of the artist and his culture than the last. Anatomizing the “body” of Western culture since Genesis in the act of exposing the artist’s metaphysical body, Finnegans Wake is Joyce’s ultimate and most elaborate fulfillment of Stephen’s early prophecy of his own “modernity,” his furthest realization of his promise to reveal “the esthetic instinct in action” (SH, 186).

Although the face of the dreamer in Joyce’s last self-portrait is familiar, the Wake’s self-vivisection cuts more deeply into the artistic process, laying bare structures and functions only glimpsed in the earlier works. The Wake’s narcissistic economy bridges the apparent gap between the book-as-self and the book-as-world. When, a few months after Ulysses appeared, Harriet Shaw Weaver asked Joyce what he would write next, he replied, “I think I will write a history of the world.”5 Finnegans Wake is a history of the world predicated on absolute subjectivity: on a simulated return to the state of originary narcissism, a vantage point from which the as yet unbounded self perceives no discontinuity between itself and the world. In late Joyce, the book-as-world containing discrete (if still autobiographical) characters mutates into the book-as-self-as-world. As intralinguistic boundaries dissolve, merging, condensing, and mutating the signs that mediate between one mind and another, so also discrete characters dissolve and merge until there are no boundaries and no characters, only virtual representations of the artist’s psyche—a simulacrum of regressive, originary boundarilessness. From the perspective of its artist-hero, lost in the sleep and dreams that Freud views as everyday versions of the narcissistic return, the book-as-self is indistinguishable from the book-as-world. Creating a language of dissolving boundaries to represent this originary, oceanic subjectivity, Joyce inflates narcissistic self-portraiture to epic dimensions and, by this crossing of genres, recreates the world in his own image.

If necessity is the mother of invention, what might it mean that nircississies are as the doaters of inversion? Necessity—limitation, constraint, lack—leads to improvisation, to inventing something that will do the trick in lieu of the thing that is wanted but missing; something that substitutes for, or even surpasses, that missing thing. From necessity arise creativity, inventions, art—in Joyce’s case, the art of self-portraiture. As necessity is the mother of Stephen’s “old father” Daedalus’ wax-and-feather wings, a body-ex-tending invention to free the earthbound man from his Cretan prison, no less is necessity the mother of Joyce’s own art. No less, too, are his playful inventions and inversions designed to extend his being beyond his body—to free him, that is, from what his art represents as the prison of his male body. Joyce’s punning reinscription of the proverb illuminates the interrelations among self-portraiture, narcissistic desire, and the obsessive sex and gender crossings found in the Wake and throughout his works.

What does it mean, then, for necessity to “mother” inventions that are also inversions, themselves mothers of some sort, whose daughters or “doaters” in some way resemble those “nircississies” which necessity has at once given birth to and become? Both Joyce and Freud invoke Narcissus as exemplar not simply of a pathological and doomed self-love but of an originary phase of human development that is never entirely abandoned or outgrown.6 Freud describes narcissism—the “universal original condition” of every human life—as continuing long past infancy to play a part in a whole range of normal activities, including sleeping, dreaming, illness, a “happy love,” and creativity, or what one might call, with the Wake in mind, a happy art (“TLN,” 423; “ON,” 83, 100). Joyce, for his part, demonstrated the Wake’s narcissistic ontology in ways that show he shared Freud’s view that this narcissism is entirely natural, normal, and universal. During the book’s composition Joyce struggled with despair when his friends reported that they could make nothing of his “universal history,” the Wake-in-progress; he professed amazement that they could find it incomprehensible. In an astonishing gesture—as Richard Ellmann says, “one of the strangest ideas in literary history”—Joyce dramatized his assumption that the narcissistic psychic economy that underlies the Wake is universal by suggesting that someone else finish it for him (JJ, 591). In 1927, between bouts of eye trouble, he proposed to Harriet Shaw Weaver that the Dublin-born poet James Stephens (whose name, date and place of birth, and vocation set him up for Joyce’s narcissistic self-mirroring) might take over and complete the composition of his book-as-self-as-world: “Of course he would never take a fraction of the time or pains I take but so much the better for him and me and possibly for the book itself. If he consented to maintain three or four points which I consider essential and I showed him the threads he could finish the design. JJ and S (the colloquial Irish for John Jameson and Son’s Dublin whiskey) would be a nice lettering under the title. It would be a great load off my mind”7 (JJ, 591–92).

Within the Wake and throughout his work, however, Joyce’s representations of narcissistic desire bring out a point that Freud more or less glosses over:8 that sexual difference makes a difference in the narcissistic return. Portraying himself in the Wake as a very young man, Joyce—the self-consciously “modern” artist—vivisects the Narcissan scene to reveal a regression to an earlier self that is also a transgression: a crossing of the boundary between male and female. For the male subject, the narcissistic return crosses the barrier between the masculine self (the father-identified ego) and a primordial self that, since it as yet perceives no boundary between self and m/other, is de facto female-identified. The early self that the narcissistic return recovers contains also the early mother; the return recovers the primal mother-identified dimension of the self that the son represses upon his cultural initiation into masculine identity.

Through art, as through fantasies, dreams, a “happy love,” the culturally initiated son can return or regress to an early, unbounded, undifferentiated self—a self that, since it precedes both ontological and sexual differentiation from the m/other, might retrospectively be experienced as daughter. Such a return would explain how the Wake’s dreamer dreams out “[a] tale told of Shaun or Shem? All Livia’s daughtersons”; it would account for the dreamer’s query, “Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons or daughters of?” (FW, 215.35, 216.1—2). Joyce’s invented nircississies, living sons become daughters by inversion, vivisect the “daughtersons” Shem and Shaun. These daughtersons, generated through Joyce’s art of the narcissistic return, are in fact “as” the daughters or “doaters” of an imaginary sexual inversion by which the son self-gratifyingly becomes daughter/doater as well, thereby recovering a primordial self undifferentiated from the mother.

But what motivates the narcissistic return? Wherein exactly does its pleasure lie? As necessity is the mother of invention, Joyce’s necessity is the mother of his inventions. Moreover, one of Joyce’s necessities is precisely to mother his inventions: his imaginary inversions of sons into daughtersons are transactions within a symbolic economy in which artistic creativity models itself on and substitutes for maternal creativity. Joyce’s play on mothers, doaters, and daughtersons carries forward his appropriative “inversion” of the Annunciation to describe his own art in Portrait: the “virgin womb of the imagination” in which he imagines his villanelle gestating vividly dramatizes the necessity, for Joyce, not merely to invent but to become a mother by inventing.9 Insofar as Joyce’s is an art of self-portraiture, furthermore—insofar as what he invents is himself—the “nircississies” that are (as) daughters/doaters of his inventive inversion gratify his longing to return to an early, female-identified state even as they reveal it. In Joyce’s art, the energy that fuels the narcissistic return expresses itself as a longing to cross not merely ontological boundaries but specifically the boundary of sexual difference, thereby at once to “mother” himself and to reinvent himself as daughter-by-inversion.

Throughout his works, Joyce’s Narcissan scenes dramatize sexual difference as the driving force of the son’s narcissistic return. In Portrait, Joyce’s first self-portrait of the young artist at work explicitly stages the scene of writing as just such a Narcissan scene, one in which the artist-son, by mothering his invention, symbolically crosses the boundary of sexual difference to become “doater” or “nircississie” as well, gazing at his own reflection in a glass or pool. Stephen writes his first successful poem the day after he rides the tram home from the party with E— C— and finds that something keeps him from kissing her, as he feels she would like him to do. The poem that he writes about this experience is not a realistic depiction of the failed kiss but a transformation of the failed literal kiss into a successful symbolic one. In the poem,

Although this poem originates in “real life,” as it were, Stephen does not draw from life mimetically. Rather, falling “into a daydream,” he rewrites history and in doing so makes good his loss or lack. The poem symbolically heals the wound that the artist sustains in real time and so transmutes “life,” or what Finnegans Wake will call “beogrifright,” into a self-gratifying work of art. The poem fulfills the unacted wish that the beogrifrightened Stephen censors in “life,” first by failing to kiss Emma and again by hiding his manuscript book.

But what exactly is the nature of Stephen’s self-gratification here? Or, in the lingo of the Wake, “what goes on when love walks in besides the solicitous bussness by kissing and looking into a mirror?” (FW, 618.18–19). Why does an unacted kiss inspire Stephen’s first poem, and what does it mean that he cannot kiss in “life,” only in art? Joyce does not give us the text of Stephen’s poem but rather places a narrative about its inspiration and composition at the center of his canvas, inviting us to explore the artistic economy that produces it. While this creative economy might at first glance seem oedipal in nature (with E— C— cast as desired object in lieu of the mother his Clongowes experience has taught him to renounce, and the imaginary kiss signaling Stephen’s successful negotiation of the father’s law conceived as the incest taboo), the scene’s concluding psychodrama points to a deeper substrate. When, having completed his poem, Stephen goes into his mother’s bedroom and gazes at his own face in her mirror, he acts out a desire not merely to kiss E— C— but, by doing so, to recover an archaic, forbidden, woman- and mother-identified self through his creation of a work of art: that is, to mother his inventions and so recover himself as daughterson or “doater” by “inversion.” Gazing on his own face in the mirror that usually frames his mother’s, Stephen acts out the fantasy that artistic creation frees him from his imprisonment in late-born and partial masculinity and restores him to that primordial identity originating in the bodily union of mother and child. Framing his own face in his mother’s mirror—and implicitly aligning his symbolic creative powers with her material creativity—the young artist expresses a wish to recover, through his symbolic creativity, something more than the kiss as such, more even than the mother as desired object: the mother as desired self, the early mother/self renounced and repressed upon his initiation into masculine identity.

Together with others in Portrait, this scene suggests that what is at stake for Stephen/Joyce in the “solicitous bussness” of kissing is not simply sexual desire but identificatory desire. The artist Stephen’s deepest necessity or “nircississie” is not to kiss Emma but symbolically to become her through his act of creation. Later in Portrait, he acts out this identification explicitly: when he tries to recall what she looks like, he remembers only “that she had worn a shawl about her head like a cowl” (P, 82); and in the villanelle scene, in which Stephen becomes an inverted Virgin Mary, giving birth to flesh made word, he again remembers that Emma had “worn her shawl cowlwise about her head” and he “mak[es] a cowl of the blanket” he has wrapped around himself (P 221–22). For Stephen, the fledgling male artist, becoming Emma through fetishistic imitation of her habiliments is, more profoundly, becoming once more the woman-self originally mirrored in the mother. As virtual woman, he makes the divine Word flesh in his “virgin womb” even as he transfigures Emma into a godlike inseminator, “enfold[ing] him like water with a liquid life: … like a cloud of vapour or like waters circumfluent in space the liquid letters of speech, symbols of the element of mystery, flowed forth over his brain” [P, 223).

Joyce uses similarly inverted figures of sexual transaction in Ulysses, in Molly’s and Leopold’s memories of her tonguing chewed seedcake into his mouth on Howth Hill, and in the Wake’s allusions to Dion Boucicault’s Arrah-na-Pogue (Arrah of the Kiss), whose heroine has enabled her foster brother to escape from prison by secretly passing him the rescue plan by way of a kiss: “Lps. The keys to. Given!” (FW, 628.15). In all these moments the Joycean kiss inverts male and female procreative roles, figuring an act of female seeding or insemination the fruit of which is the male’s imaginary s/exchange of barren necessity for liberating fecundity.. For the Stephen of Portrait, writing is the proof of this exchange: the kiss transfers symbolic “seed” which originates in female fluid, mouth, or lips to the receptive male body/brain, working a transformation that frees what Joyce regularly represents as the artist’s “female” soul from his male body through artistic creativity.

The “solicitous bussness” of kissing becomes, in other words, a figure for desire’s escape from necessity—construed as the strictures both of the male or unfemale body and of the masculine ego culturally imposed upon that body—through a narcissistic return to a lost, originary female “body” recovered through and as symbol making. When Stephen, having written his poem, goes to his mother’s bedroom to gaze at his face in her mirror, he acts out the desire implicit in likening himself to Emma and his mother in this scene of writing. His gesture makes visible the quite specific nature of the gratification writing affords this artist-son by expressing—subliming—his repressed desire to remember an archaic, forbidden (since it transgresses the father’s law of masculine identification), female-identified self. Superimposing his own face over the site of his mirroring mother’s, Stephen symbolically returns to that primordial “place” in which he again perceives himself as virtually coextensive with her, no boundary between.

The symbolic economy of the narcissistic return explains why not least among the elements of the actual scene that Stephen “deem[s] common and insignificant” and so suppresses from his poem is sexual difference: “There remained no trace of the tram itself nor of the trammen nor of the horses: nor did he and she appear vividly” (P, 70). In Stephen’s poem, as in Joyce’s Portrait, “woman” does not exist in and for herself but rather represents his own originary state to which his own sense of loss compels him to return.10 The perceived “necessity” that compels his narcissistic return originates in the artist-son’s perception of his own male (or unfemale) body. The shape of Stephen’s symbolic quest and the Narcissan figure that almost ceremoniously completes it point to the nature of the lack that his narcissistic return symbolically compensates. Necessity is indeed the “mother” of Stephen/Joyce’s inventions; of the inversions that, transforming necessity into “nircississie,” are the parodically self-doating daughtersons to which his art gives birth.

As I noted earlier, Freud’s thinking about narcissism led him to speculate on a primordial identity prior to sexual desire: “It may turn out that, most basically and on the longest view, sexual energy —libido—is only the product of a differentiation in the energy at work generally in the mind.”11 This primordial identity, he suggests, preexists the differentiation between self and m/other and gives rise to (sexual) desire when that differentiation occurs. Thus, we may suppose, it belongs to and characterizes the “blissful isolation of the intrauterine existence, … the primal state … of absolute narcissism, in which libido and ego-interests dwell together still, united and indistinguishable in the self-sufficient self” (“TLN,” 424). If “absolute narcissism” is the blissful illusion of perfect wholeness and self-sufficiency prior to birth and self-differentiation, then narcissistic desire pursues the impossible dream of perfect identity between self and other, self and mother, self and world; it acts out a love of seeming sameness, a denial of actual difference, in an effort to restore the world to the self, if only in imagination.

Ovid’s narcissistic prototype pursues this desire to the point of no return. As Julia Kristeva points out, Narcissus gazes at his own image in a pool whose maternal waters, previously untouched by so much as a falling leaf, recall the mother-child oneness, before any cut, mark, or sign has intervened.12 Falling in love with his own image, Narcissus unwittingly acts out a hopeless and paradoxical wish for that early oneness. In striving to overcome the illusory difference between himself and the loved object, he simultaneously denies the real difference between himself and the watery element that mediates his illusory love. Desiring to become one with what is only apparently other, he overlooks the real difference between himself and his mere watery reflection—and between that reflection and an actual other who could be desired—insisting to the face in the pool that “almost nothing / Keeps us apart.”13 As Kristeva reads the fable, Narcissus finally “gathers that he is actually in a world of ‘signs’” and so gains “self-knowledge: ‘He is myself! I feel it, I know my image now.’”14 Yet, since even so he pines away, we might also say that Narcissus’ error, his failure to mark the difference between self and m/other, is ultimately a fatal failure to embrace a world of signs—a failure, by extension, to comprehend the dependence of desire, language, and representation upon difference: “If I could only / Escape from my own body! if I could only— / How curious a prayer from any lover— / Be parted from my love!”15 Instead of finding in the watery mirror the matrix for his recognition of identity and difference, Narcissus drowns, so to speak, in the m/other that he mistakes for himself; in a shadow that he mistakes for substance; in a primal scene of identity, or self-recognition, that he mistakes for one of love.

But whereas Narcissus pines away, metamorphosing into a flower on the grassy bank, Joyce sits and writes. Whereas Ovid’s Narcissus confuses the real with the reflection, the mere image—betraying what Finnegans Wake deplores as “a poor trait of the artless”—Joyce knows that he inhabits a world of signs (FW, 114.32). His symbolic art, with its power of differing from “life” or “beogrifright,” preserves him from Narcissus’ error. His not strictly mimetic writing re-creates the primal Narcissan scene by means of symbolic forms, thereby containing narcissistic desire and gratification safely within the psychopathology of everyday life—as geniuses do, according to Stephen Dedalus, who narcissistically and autobiographically explains to his audience in the library scene of Ulysses how “[h]is own image to a man with that queer thing genius is the standard of all experience, material and moral” (U, 195).

Not coincidentally, this remark also occurs in a context of daughters, doaters, and inversion, as Stephen speculates that the birth of Shakespeare’s granddaughter healed the poet’s narcissistic wound, softened his heart, lifted the shadow from the late plays: “Marina, Stephen said, a child of storm, Miranda, a wonder, Perdita, that which was lost. What was lost is given back to him: his daughter’s child” (U, 195). In the autobiographical artistic economy that the Stephen of Ulysses projects upon Shakespeare, the women in his family—Ann Hathaway, Judith, and Judith’s daughter—are, like E—— C——in Portrait, only figures for the loss of a daughter-self, the repressed early female self that the work of art “give[s] back to him.” This joyous recovery explains why, as Stephen says, the (grand)daughter’s “appeal will touch the artist,” while the “images of other males of his blood will repel him. He will see in them grotesque attempts of nature to foretell or repeat himself” (U, 195–96). Or, in Leopold Bloom’s rendition of this idea, “O Milly Bloom, you are my darling. / You are my looking glass from night to morning” (U, 63). The daughter/mother/wife is a funhouse mirror in whose image the Joycean artist seeks a reflection of his female soul, against the fathers, brothers, and sons who reflect clearly and unfor-givingly the “grotesque” masculinity he artfully contrives to evade.

Mirroring the writing self as the mother, Joyce’s self-vivisection of his own masculine “esthetic instinct” not only renders Stephen’s art through a Narcissan scene but writes the early mother into that scene as indistinguishable from the early self revived through the creative act. Joyce’s excavation of the narcissistic artistic economy underlying the ostensibly oedipal motive of the kiss casts light on the nature of the transgression he commits by writing the poem no less than by the kiss itself (evidenced by Stephen’s hiding his copybook). In Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, the oedipal crisis instigates and resolves itself in the institution of the father’s law (construed as the incest taboo, derived from the preeminence of the father’s desire) in the individual psyche. Kissing Emma would seem simultaneously to evoke that law and the transgression it forbids and to honor it, inasmuch as this kiss would displace oedipal desire, substituting a different object of desire for the mother. But Stephen does not kiss Emma, and Joyce’s vivisection of Stephen’s creative process uncovers a deeper stratum of desire which entails a different sort of transgression. If, in the oedipal model, male desire is a sexual drive to possess the woman as, or instead of, the mother, in the narcissistic model it is the male subject’s drive to possess her as himself—that is, the desire to return to, or to recover, the early mother/self. If, as I am arguing, Stephen’s secret, imaginary kiss is moved less by desire to possess Emma sexually than by desire to become her symbolically, this narcissistic desire transgresses against the very condition of the father’s law: the demand that he identify with the father and the father’s culture against woman, including the early mother with whom he was once merged. The kiss is taboo not because it transgresses the oedipal law but because it transgresses the law of paternal identification which forbids narcissistic desire, that is, desire for the self in the “place” (or symbolic “body”) of the mother.

Joyce’s dissection of Stephen’s (and his own) artistic economy articulates and clarifies some implications of Freud’s writings on narcissism as to the difference sexual difference makes in the structure of the narcissistic return and the nature of the gratification thereby attained. As we saw, Freud views narcissism as the primordial human condition prior to the differentiation of the self from the world and posits a narcissistic energy that makes no distinction between self and world, or self and m/other. As Freud describes it, even as the ego develops by departure from this primary narcissism, the narcissisism itself is never entirely abandoned; moreover, by virtue of its anteriority, narcissistic desire remains essentially independent of the (relatively late-born) ego’s demands. The regressive narcissistic states of everyday life (sleeping, dreaming, illness, happy love, happy art) recover, Freud writes, this primordial “absolute narcissism, in which libido and ego-interests dwell together still, united and indistinguishable in the self-sufficient self” (“TLN,” 424).

But herein lies a special problem for the son, one that Joyce’s Narcissan scenes explicate. The narcissistic return, in recovering this primordial state of being, recovers also the early mother from which the self is not yet differentiated. That is, the narcissistic return is a return to an early mother/self against which—indeed, on the burial site of which—the male-identified ego erects itself in patriarchal culture.16 The first law of the father dictates that the son repress his early female identification in favor of a masculine identity constructed dialectically against woman/the mother; it requires, in other words, that the son construct not just a differentiated ego or self but a specifically male-identified one. The narcissistic return thus entails a double transgression, a double crossing, not only of the boundary of sexual difference on which the male-identified ego posits itself but also of this law: the law that prescribes male identification and in the very act of doing so charges that boundary, like a metaphysical electric fence, with the status of a taboo, forbidding the son’s return to that originary state. If, as Freud writes, narcissistic desire seeks to recover the primordial mother-child union, “the blissful isolation of the intrauterine existence” that is everyone’s “original condition,” Joyce’s self-vivisection uncovers the fact that, in the son’s case, the narcissistic return involves an outlawed desire, a forbidden archaic self, a primordial identification with femaleness the repression of which is the very condition of the relatively fragile male-identified self, as of masculinist culture as such. The son’s narcissistic return as Joyce depicts it entails not only a crossing of the ontological boundary between self and other but the crossing of the boundary of sexual difference between self and mother, which is to say, a breaking of the father’s law. From the perspective of the culturally instituted masculine ego (or father-identified self), then, the narcissistic return would appear to be intrinsically transgressive, flouting the cultural “law” that makes the mother-identified child over to the father and to masculine culture.

Joyce’s narcissistic writing economy thus acts out a strategic evasion of the (culturally constructed) masculine ego’s demand that the threatening, archaic, female-identified self be repressed. Carrying further the self-vivisection of Portrait’s “To E—— C——” scene, Finnegans Wake capitalizes on the criminality of the male artist’s narcissistic writing economy, playing with and parodying the joys of transgression through exhibitionistic gender crossings that repeatedly insist upon “[t]he form masculine. The gender feminine” (FW, 505.25). Freud writes that we do not outgrow our primary narcissism in maturity but only partly renounce it, never entirely willingly, completely, or securely. Consequently, he says, we remain fascinated by the transgressive antics of such free spirits as children, criminals, humorists, artists, and cats, who—appealing to this repressed desire—“compel our interest by the narcissistic self-importance with which they manage to keep at arm’s length everything which would diminish the importance of their ego. It is as if we envied them their power of retaining a blissful state of mind—an unassailable libido-position which we ourselves have since abandoned.”17 Finnegans Wake exploits all these embodiments of narcissistic desire, including the cats. “Children may just as well play as not. The ogre will come in any case,” Joyce wrote Harriet Shaw Weaver in defense of his dream-book, pursuing in face of nearly all his friends’ incomprehension his project of “retaling” in a dreamer’s language of puns, errors, and baby talk the world-shaping crimes of HCE, mirrored in the word-shaping crimes of Shem/Jim the Penman (JJ, 582).

The autobiographical artist figure Shem is at once Joyce’s most playful representation of his art’s transgressiveness and his most revealing.18 Shem/James is defined, or better produced, by his “low” crime, which his “biografiend” deplores as “beneath all up to that sunk to” (FW, 55.06, 171.13). It is not only social laws that Shem’s crimes deliberately flout but quite specifically the law of the father that dictates gender identity, as “the first riddle of the universe” that he poses to his “little brothron and sweestureens” spells out: “when is a man not a man? … when he is a … Sham!” (FW, 170.5, 170.23–24). Shem is so bad that his “back life will not stand being written about” (FW, 169.7–8), and that “back life” is precisely what Joyce the autobiografiend does write about in the Wake, purloined-letter style, in a language that hides its meanings from the sharp, logical, censoring eye/I even as it gleefully and gratifyingly parades them before the secret, criminal, humorous, feline eye/I, the playfully regressive reader who finds in Shem, and in the symbolic return to his inadmissible “back life,” a flagrant recognition of forbidden desire.

The Wake glosses one aspect of Shem’s ostentatiously scandalous “back life” as that early time when sons were “doaters” or “daughtersons.” Writing mediates this secret, subversive return to little-boy/girlhood in Finnegans Wake as it does in Portrait: “[t]hat… is what papyr is meed of, made of, hides and hints and misses in prints” (FW, 20.10–11). Shem’s “papyr” is his own skin—in both senses, his own “hide”—which, covered with signs in the special ink this “alshe-mist” fashions out of his own excrement, at once hides and hints at the status he gains through writing of being symbolically female, a “miss” in print (FW, 185.35). The litter that “literature[s]” Shem’s study floor includes “neverworn breeches”—signifying as a mere discarded costume the culturally constructed masculine identity that he refuses to inhabit—along with an enormous garter collection (not described as “neverwom”) (FW, 183.10–18). As Shem’s means of transgressing the (masculine) ego’s barricades, writing is the very essence of his crime. It is “stolentelling”—language stolen from the female/self whose repression masculinist culture decrees (FW, 424.35). It is “patent henesy,” a foray into forbidden gender identity, a crime compounded by Shem’s shameless “scribicide” of hen and author Biddy Doran—his murder of the female mother/author in order to appropriate all symbolic creativity to himself (FW, 463.18, 14.21). Shem’s writing is, therefore, not just plagiarism but, worse, heretical “pelagiaris[m],” a pun that invokes the fourth-century Christian heretic Pelagius, who denied the doctrine of original sin, holding that children are born innocent (FW, 182.3). With respect to orthodox accounts of a male-authored Creation, Shem’s “pelagiaris[m]” is heretical in its very positing of the “original hen” (as in Biddy Doran, the maternal chicken/mother-god, who, by virtue of her authorship of the “litter” that runs from alpha to omega, appears to have preceded the patriarch-egg HCE/Humpty); and he adds injury to the mother to his insult of the father by his plagiarizing, pelagiarizing, female-impersonating, scribicidal usurpation of her authority (FW, 110.22, 93.24).

Shem/Jymes makes “litteringture” not only out of his crimes but out of his guilt (FW, 570.18). His biografiend depicts him condemned for his sins to life in his own filthy, haunted inkbottle, at moments transmuted into the foul fowlhouse that shelters his shamming female creativity, where he is terrorized and tormented perpetually by the ghost of the repressed and appropriated mother, ever threatening return: “Mother of moth! I will to show herword in flesh. Approach not for ghost sake” (FW, 561.27–28). As in Ulysses, the buried mother’s ghost threatens the fragile and illusory stability of the narcissistic self who defends against her perceived powers by symbolically incorporating them. In the Wake’s dream-world Joyce parodies Stephen’s art, transmutting the high-flown “virgin womb” of his imagination into the shamming art of egg laying that Shem copies from the “original hen,” in defiance of the “Uncontrollable Birth Preservativation (Game and Poultry) Act” (FW, 184.15–16). As his transgressive, transvestite “ABORTISEMENT” makes clear, Shem’s symbolic mothering adorns itself in raiment borrowed from theology even as it exhibitionistically parades itself as comic, self-conscious shamming: “Jymes wishes to hear from wearers of abandoned female costumes, gratefully received… . His jymes is out of job, would sit and write. He has lately committed one of the then commandments but she will now assist. Superior built, domestic, regular layer” (FW, 181.27–32). Arraying himself in the habiliments of femininity, Shem becomes a sham-man, subject of “the farst wriggle from the ubivence, whereom is man, that old offender, nother man, wheile he is asame” (FW, 356.12–14). Joyce may be incorporating in this passage an error in the telegram he received from his father to summon him home from Paris to his mother’s deathbed: NOTHER [Mother] DYING COME HOME FATHER.”19 The question of identity, in any case, reduces for this artist-son to a question of origins, implicitly rendered in the Wake in the form of the question: Who came first, the chicken or the egg? More specifically, the artist-son of the Wake, the artist-son as Shem/sham, finds the question of his identity inseparable from the fact of the mother as origin, the mother in respect to whom he was once “asame”—that is, “nother man,” not a man, in other words, a mother/man—in the early world of narcissistic desire to which his shamming and playing return him. His crimes, his offending art, the inversions born of purported necessity attest to his experience of his own difference from the mother and from himself: his sexual difference, the open-ended riddle through which his shamming words seek sameness through their very difference.

In the Wake,; then, Shem/Jymes writes not as a woman but “as” a “woman.” That is, he writes not as though he were a woman—not as he writes in Molly Bloom’s monologue—but as a man parodying his own desire to write like a woman (although this is arguably a difference more of degree than of kind). He writes, in other words, like a man vivisecting the vicissitudes of his own gender identity, his own relation to sexual difference, by means of symbolic terms that allow him to “borrow” feminine clothes, feminine positions, which become meaningful precisely and only through their appropriation by a desire that represents itself as not merely accidental to but determined by a male body. Expelled from the “Dustbin’s United Scullerymaid’s and Househelp’s Sorority,” Shem/ Jymes can still insist on his identification with his “inverted” self, that female self, constituted by “borrowed” symbols, which he represents as the daughter/doater born of—and necessitated by—his male body: “[L]etters be blowed! I is a femaline person. O, of provocative gender. U unisingular case” (FW, 181.17–18, 251.31–32). This Shem/Jymes, this writing I—criminal, provocative, wishfully “female,” feline—flaunts his borrowings and stealings in the very act of claiming an identity not self-evidently his: an I that “is” instead of “am,” its reconstructed status betrayed in its inability to utter itself in the first person. The I that “is” in Finnegans Wake can exist only by predicating itself on “capital” borrowed from women and cats: it cannot simply assume the attributes it flaunts but must explicitly underwrite itself through naming them. The narcissistic, “femaline” I of the Wake is an I self-reflexively (and inextricably) in debt to the letters that constitute it, as its very effort to utter itself acknowledges: I.O.U.

By the same token, this cross-gendered I demonstrates the accidental relation of sex to the gender play of its letters. The I’s of the Wake—fluently merging, emerging, remerging—dramatize identity as a kind of fluid dynamics, unbounded by body or essence, as virtual and free as the forming and dissolving symbols that momentarily constitute it. All the dream-selves of the Wake interpenetrate: all the men are women, one might say, all the women men, a situation that undresses gender down to a matter of mere letters, carved neither in stone nor in flesh. The dreamer, echoing Mr. Deasy, can be Eve, “no better than he would have been before he could have been better than what he warrant after” (Fw, 359.7–9). He can sham a womb, “crying out something vile about him being molested after him having triplets, by offers of vacancies from females in the city” (FM, 530.5–7). He can confound gender boundaries, as in “[t]his missy, my taughters, and these man, my son,” the slipping demonstratives again doubling and crossing “taughters” and “son” (FW, 543.15–16). He can recall, in doing so, the daughterson James Augusta, the author as daughterson, imaginatively resurrected in the Wake as Kevin Mary (his mother now become his middle name), the hydrophobe now transformed into the hydrocomic Hydrophilos of his obscene “back life”: who, having exercised/exorcised the daughter within, his “holy sister water,” that she might fill his tub, and meditating on “the regeneration of all men by affusion of water,” solipsistically achieves that “feminiairity which breathes content” (FW, 605.36–606.01, 606.11–12, 22–23).20 Whereas, then, the artless Narcissus succumbs to his own “poor trait” and falls for his “poolermate,” Joyce with his happy art does not sink but swims, buoyed up by fluid letters, his imaginary “salvocean” (FW, 114.32, 526.38, 623.29). At home in a world of endlessly dissolving signs, the Wake’s playful narcissist sees in the face in the mirror (“meme mearest!”) “Crystal elation!” (Christe eleison, “Christ, have mercy”), a merciful escape from the necessity of his own body (FW, 527.3, 528.9).

In their structures no less than in their highly self-conscious functions, Joyce’s inversions gesture toward their own necessity: not, by any means, the male body as such, but, unmistakably, the male body as represented by the masculinist culture that Joyce reincarnates in himself and vivisects in the dream-self of Finnegans Wake. The spirit of Joyce’s letters can (and must, if we are to read the fluid dynamics of gender identity in his work with any accuracy) be traced back to the flesh to which they insistently refer, precisely in their function as compensatory “inversions,” born of necessity, bearing “nircississies.” The mind that inhabits that flesh constructs its sexual difference as a wound or lack that obsessively generates compensatory myths of quasi-female generativity. It would, of course, be absurd to claim that Joyce’s inversions issue necessarily from his male flesh, or that only such invented inversions are as it were conceivable by him or by male artists more generally. At the same time, Joyce’s self-vivisection reveals, in his own particular yet culturally recognizable case, a compensatory erection of a symbolic economy upon a male body represented as disadvantaged in comparison to the mother’s, a body symbolically made whole through a regressive reincorporation of a fetishized maternal body by means of his happy art.

Even as Joyce’s inversions demonstrate the unnecessariness of essence to accident, of the sexed body to the signs of gender, then, they necessarily (or nircissistically) presuppose an essentialist position. Before one can transgress a barrier, one must first posit it; and in positing the barrier Joyce’s dreamer-artists implicitly posit gender as reality, accident as essence. Agreeing with Kristeva that it is a mistake to look for “female” subject positions in Joyce’s works, I want also to suggest that the essentialism of Joyce’s texts originates in and continues, even as it deconstructs, a masculine subjectivity that defines itself by its very reification (or essentializing) of masculinity, femininity, and the boundary between them. Joyce’s myth of a “vaulting feminine libido … controlled and easily repersuaded by the uniform matteroffactness of a meandering male fist” gratifies a desire that his self-vivisections represent not only as not specific to female subjects but as quite specific to this particular masculine subject: one who inhabits a male body and interprets himself in respect to sexual difference as does the Wake’s dream-subject, his pen-wielding male fist meandering through and re-creating his culture’s mythologies of the feminine (FW, 123.8–10). In the Wake’s parodic dream-world, Joyce self-consciously generates “feminine fiction[s] stranger than the facts,” much stranger: daughters, doaters, daughtersons that—like Marina, Miranda, and Perdita in Stephen’s Shakespeare theory—make up the male artist’s self-professed loss or lack (FW, 109.32). Orchestrating all these “doaters of inversion,” these female shadows of a substanceless early self, is finally a substantial artist-son who, unlike Ovid’s Narcissus, turns necessity (“If only I could escape my own body!”) into invention, casting himself imaginatively into reflecting pools of language; remembering and recovering his drowned early self while never forgetting that “here’s nobody here only me” (FW, 624.30).

1. For an illuminating analysis of Gabriel Conroy as an autobiographical projection of a failed artist figure, see Adrienne Auslander Munich, “Form and Subtext in Joyce’s ‘The Dead,’” Modern Philology 82 (1984): 173–84.

2. James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (New York: Viking Press, 1939) 526.33—35; hereafter cited in the text as FW with page and line numbers. “Secilas” inverts and multiplies “Alices,” performing at the level of the letter the Wake’s thematic play on narcissism, mirroring, and inversion.

3. See also Claudine Raynaud’s exploration of the narcissistic theme in the Wake, “Woman, the Letter Writer/Man the Writing Master,” James Joyce Quarterly 23 (Spring 1986): 299–324. Arguing that the female writers in the Wake are always overmastered by male authorial desire, Raynaud asks whether language will “ever speak woman’s desire? Is she condemned to be the end of the wor(l)d, the ‘flesh-without-word’ [FW, 468.06]? Will she ever write letters that have not been taught to her by a writing master?” (319). In the view that we are mistaken to seek “woman’s” voice or desire in Joyce’s texts, I take the female voices/writers in the Wake as representing Joyce’s own ventriloquised male desire, that is, as figures of the male dreamer/writer’s desire to be female; hence, as driven by a narcissistic writing economy that has nothing to do with representing “women” as such.

4. James Joyce, Stephen Hero, ed. John J. Slocum and Herbert Cahoon (New York: New Directions, 1944, 1963), 186; hereafter cited in the text as SH.

5. Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 536–37; hereafter cited in the text and notes as JJ.

6. See Sigmund Freud, “On Narcissism: An Introduction” (1914), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1957), 14:73–102; hereafter cited in the text and notes as “ON”; and “Twenty-Sixth Lecture: The Theory of the Libido: Narcissism” (1916–17), in A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, trans. Joan Riviere, ed. Ernest Jones and G. Stanley Hall (New York: Washington Square Press, 1952), 419–37; hereafter cited in the text as “TLN.”

7. Joyce remarked on the coincidence that he had for some years been carrying in his pocket photographs of Patrick Tuohy’s portraits of his father, himself, and James Stephens; when he discovered that the poet Stephens was born in Dublin on February 2, 1882, his own birthdate, he regarded him as his “twin” (JJ, 593).

Stephens, for his part, resisted Joyce’s narcissistic attempt to assimilate him with ironic good humor; in “The James Joyce I Knew,” he describes how Joyce called him in Paris and “revealed to me that his name was James and mine was James, that my name was Stephens, and the name he had taken for himself in his best book was Stephen: that he and I were born in the same country, in the same city, in the same year, in the same month, on the same day, at the same hour, six o’clock in the morning of the second of February.…

“Well, I was astonished. I was admired at last. Joyce admired me. I was beloved at last: Joyce loved me. Or did he? Or did he only love his birthday, and was I merely coincident to that? When I spoke about my verse, which was every waking minute of my time, Joyce listened heartily and said ‘Ah.’ He approved of it as second of February verse, but I’m not certain that he really considered it to be better than the verse of Shakespeare and Racine and Dante. And yet he knew the verse of those three exhaustively!

“… If I were Joyce’s twin, which he held, then I had to celebrate this astonishing fact in my own way. So upon our next birthday I sent him a small poem… . Joyce reported back to me that he was much obliged. He practically said ‘Ah’ to my poem, and I could almost see him rubbing his chin at it” (JJ, 593).

8. “On Narcissism” betrays Freud’s anxiety about acknowledging the crucial role that early maternal identification plays in male no less than female development in his elaborate deflection of the issue of a possible primordial identity of sexual and ego instincts by means of an analogy that opposes the bodily mother-child relation (“primal kinship”) to the “legal fiction” (James Joyce, Ulysses [New York: Random House, 1961), 207; hereafter cited in the text as U with page number) of an explicitly proprietary paternity, identifying the “science” of psychoanalysis with the latter: “It may turn out that, most basically and on the longest view, sexual energy—libido—is only the product of a differentiation in the energy at work generally in the mind. But such an assertion has no relevance. It relates to matters which are so remote from the problems of our observation, and of which we have so little cognizance, that it is as idle to dispute as to affirm it; this primal identity may well have as little to do with our analytic interests as the primal kinship of all the races of mankind has to do with the proof of kinship required in order to establish a legal right of inheritance. All these speculations take us nowhere. Since we cannot wait for another science to present us with the final conclusions on the theory of the instincts, it is far more to the purpose that we should try to see what light may be thrown on this basic problem of biology by a synthesis of the psychological phenomena” (“ON,” 79). Although Freud does not here explicitly identify the “primal identity” that precedes the “differentiation in the energy at work generally in the mind” with the early mother/self, his kinship analogy—which superimposes the name and law of the father upon what Freud, like Joyce, imagines more or less as the maternally produced “strandentwining cable of all flesh” (U, 38)—suggests that at stake in this question Freud does not wish to pursue may be the prestige of the oedipal complex, and so of the father’s name and law as the origin of social identity.

9. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ed. Chester G. Anderson and Richard Ellmann (New York: Viking Press, 1968), 217; hereafter cited in the text as P.

10. Cf. Sarah Kofman’s observation that men’s fascination with the narcissistic woman “is nothing other than the fascination exerted by their own double, and the uncanny feeling [Unheimlichkeit] which men experience is the same as that which one feels before any double or any ghost [revenant], before the abrupt reappearance [reapparition] of what one thought had been forever overcome or lost” (“The Narcissistic Woman: Freud and Girard,” Diacritics 10 [September 1980]: 39; cited also by Raynaud, “Woman,” 314).

11. See note 8.

12. Julia Kristeva, Tales of Love, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 42, 113. Milton’s adaptation of Ovid’s Narcissan scene to Eve’s nativity in Paradise Lost (4.45 1ff.) brings into high relief the opposition between the father’s law or word and a watery maternal origin.

13. Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Rolfe Humphries (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983), 71.

14. Kristeva, Tales, 104.

15. Ovid, Metamorphoses, 72.

16. I am elaborating here some implications of object relations psychology, with its emphasis on the developmental importance of early maternal identification. See, for example, Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).

17. I cite here Joan Riviere’s revised version of the Standard Edition’s Cecil M. Baines translation of “On Narcissism,” in A General Selection of the Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. John Rickman (New York: Doubleday, 1957), 113.

18. For a fuller treatment of the Shem/James figure, see my “Past Eve and Adam’s: Revolution and Return in Finnegans Wake,” in Joyce and Woolf: Gender, Authority, Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

19. The Rosenbach manuscript, in Joyce’s hand, reads “Nother”; Gabler’s 1984 text adopts this reading. Herbert Gorman, James Joyce (New York: Rinehart and Co., 1939, 1948) writes that the telegram read: “MOTHER DYING COME HOME FATHER” (108). This is also the reading of the 1922 Ulysses (U, 42) and of Ellmann’s rendering (JJ, 128), which capitalizes all the letters but cites only Gorman and the 1922 Ulysses, not the actual telegram.

20. For a different perspective on the Wake’s transsexual aspirations, see Margot Norris’s reading of the Saint Kevin episode, “The Last Chapter of Finnegans Wake: Stephen Finds His Mother,” James Joyce Quarterly 25 (Fall 1987): 11–30. Norris sees in Saint Kevin in his tub a regressive recapitulation of the Stephen who sits in his bath being scrubbed by his mother in Portrait; she views the merging of son into mother as a “bridg[ing of] all the great ontological chasms: between time and space, between life and death, between male and female”: “Stephen, by imaginatively enacting his intellectual musings in dream, is reconciled with his mother, immersing himself and disappearing mystically into the lake that is her figure, only to become part of her own regression into childhood…. By the end of the Wake it has all become reconciled; dying has become being born and gestation, male has become female, who in turn becomes male, for every son was once his mother, and every mother was once her father, and space has become time as the present retrieves all the past it embodies” (11, 28–29). Whereas Norris views sexual difference as one among many “ontological chasms,” I read Joyce’s self-vivisection as revealing a psychic economy of narcissistic “bridging” fantasies that belongs not to a universal subject but to one constructed as specifically masculine, a subject for whom such bridging and merging serves not merely as disinterested transcendence of “ontological chasms” but as a means to his invention/inversion of himself as “daughterson,” which is to say, a symbolic reconstitution of his early mother/self.

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