Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Running with the wolves

Please forgive a little re-cycling.  The following is a slightly-modified Amazon review of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.  The New York Times Book Review just this last Sunday featured the title story from her newly-published anthology, "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher."  Both Wolf Hall and its first sequel, Bring up the Bodies, took Britain's Man Booker Prize, a remarkable achievement, and many are waiting with anticipation for the promised third and final installment of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy.  My review of the first:    

One difficulty with reviewing a historical novel is determining the importance of historical accuracy. The very name "historical fiction" assumes a certain license with the facts, and its appeal often lies precisely in the freedom of a novelist to propose a fresh take on a story we already know. But there are limits, and it's not easy to say when revisionist history impermissibly blurs into "Springtime for Hitler."

Thomas Cromwell is one of the great stock villains of English history. Some few years ago I read G.R. Elton's England under the Tudors, in which Cromwell was famously re-evaluated as the genius of the Tudor revolution, an unsung visionary of the modern practice of reform by parliamentary legislation. Elton's limited rehabilitation didn't, however, go so far as to elevate Cromwell's character.

One has to give Hilary Mantel credit for taking on such a task. Wolf Hall opens with Cromwell being beaten senseless by his father, a somewhat manipulative way of initially engaging our sympathies. Mantel's Cromwell is not only capable and resourceful; he is a loving husband and father, a loyal retainer to his beloved Wolsey, and a semi-secret adherent to the new religion of simple goodness for simple people through the translation of the scriptures into English. The problem with this characterization, of course, is squaring it with what the historical Cromwell actually did: enabling the absolutism of the English crown (and the political, dynastic, and sexual desires of Henry), and the destruction of all who stood in its way. The result is a Cromwell who is sometimes a modern secular liberal, sometimes a Machiavellian, sometimes a proto-Protestant. This succession of personalities gives the novel a certain variety, but at the expense of consistent characterization. Like Stendhal's Julien Sorrell, Cromwell has memorized the Latin New Testament; also like Sorrell, it seems to have had no effect on him. There is no apparent progress or corruption; the Cromwell who takes in hapless children at the beginning is the same Cromwell who destroys Thomas More, John Fisher and the Carthusians at the end.

Readers of this blog will not be surprised by my registering some protest at the characterization of More. Yes, of course, this is fiction, and there is plenty to criticize in More's conduct as chancellor. But Mantel has taken the leading light of English Renaissance humanism and cast him as a sadistic, arrogant bigot. Anyone familiar with More's own writing, or the writing of those who knew him, or even the most critical of his modern biographers, will not recognize the nasty character that Cromwell finally sends to the block. And, given the announcement of film deals, it's hard not to suspect that Mantel will be shaping the popular public image of More for the foreseeable future.

Mantel's writing style is vigorous, and her characterizations have force and life. The overriding atmosphere, though, is one of claustrophobia--both physical and moral. There is a recurring theme of incest: Henry and Arthur with Catherine, Henry with Ann and her sister (and perhaps their mother), Cromwell with his wife's sister, Ann with her brother, and anybody and everybody in the Seymour clan at Wolf Hall. These inbred loves, and the squalid, violent conclusion, made it, for me, a relief to reach the end, and I doubt I'll be returning for the sequels.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Sacred languages

ἔγραψε δὲ καὶ τίτλον ὁ Πιλᾶτος καὶ ἔθηκεν ἐπὶ τοῦ σταυροῦ· ἦν δὲ γεγραμμένον· ᾿Ιησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν ᾿Ιουδαίων....καὶ ἦν γεγραμμένον ῾Εβραϊστί, ῾Ελληνιστί, ῾Ρωμαϊστί.

"Pilate wrote a placard and placed it upon the cross, on which was written, 'Jesus the Nazorean, the king of the Jews....And it was written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin."

Many religions have what can be called a sacred language.  Hindus have Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas, the Upanishads, the great epics, and the Bhagavad Gita. Therevada Buddhism, I understand, privileges the Pali canon, as Islam gives pride of place to Quranic Arabic.

The inscription over the cross in St. John's gospel has always suggested to me the three sacred languages of Catholic Christianity:  Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, Greek, the language of the New, and Latin, the language of the Church.  One might even, with important qualifications, call them the languages of the Holy Trinity, the historic languages of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

I don't mean to suggest that facility in a language has anything to do with entry into or the depth of one's practice of Christianity.  The majority of Christians through the ages may well have been illiterate, and obviously there are illiterate Christians whose devotion, charity and Christlikeness would put the average literate Christian to shame.  It's more a question about whether those Christians who have the opportunity, and the capability, to learn something of the sacred languages, should do so.

If, for instance, we ought to promote biblical literacy--as undoubtedly we should--does that not suggest that knowing the testaments in their original languages (to the extent that we have them) is of prime importance?  But, the objection runs, I'm not a genius--how can I learn Greek?  Well, however highly we think of the Greeks, they certainly weren't a race of geniuses.  I remember having this conversation with a young woman, objecting that she just wasn't smart enough or educated enough to know a second language.  During our conversation her gardener came in with his helpers.  She gave them their instructions in English, and they walked out speaking among themselves in their native Spanish, and she went back to telling me that only intellectuals could handle more than one language.

Learning another language certainly takes time and commitment.  But it's more a matter of will than intellect.  Poor and uneducated people, whether in the Old South or first century Palestine, will learn as many languages as it takes to get by.

Latin is sort of a special case.  It has no particular standing for the Eastern Orthodox, or for Protestants.  But for Catholic Christians it is the official language of the Church, the Church as Mater et Magister, Mother and Teacher.  Within living memory the most solemn worship of the Church was conducted in Latin (putting aside the Eastern Rites).  And though vernacular worship has been the norm since the promulgation of the Mass of Paul VI, the vernacular is still a translation from a Latin Roman rite, and there remains a vocal minority that prefers a Latin mass.  In that regard I think it's something of a shame that the appreciation of Latin in worship has come to be identified with reaction.  I understand full well that the majority of Catholics have neither the time nor inclination to learn Latin and I have no quarrel with mass in the vernacular.  But some limited availability of worship in Latin in no way threatens the prevailing approach.

I needn't mention how the acquisition of these ancient languages of the faith also opens up a world of incomparable literature.  Virgil and Homer, Plato and Cicero--these are names to conjure with.  Latin went on to become the common language of the West and remained the chief means of transnational learned communication through the day of Spinoza and Newton.  (It even occasionally shows its head in the title of blogs.)    

Latin is extolled within the Church as a common language, if not for the faithful, at least for the clergy.  Canon law requires that it be taught in ordinary seminary education.  How far that requirement obtains in real life I have no clue.  But it does promote, to some extent, that dream of a common language throughout the orbis terrarum.  If its usage today is limited, it can still be extolled, not only for its aspiration to universality, but for its long continuity.  As Pope St. John XXIII put it in his apostolic constitution Veterum Sapientia:

Neque solum universalis, sed etiam immutabilis lingua ab Ecclesia adhibita sit oportet. Si enim catholicae Ecclesiae veritates traderentur vel nonnullis vel multis ex mutabilibus linguis recentioribus, quarum nulla ceteris auctoritate praestaret, sane ex eo consequeretur, ut hinc earum vis neque satis significanter neque satis dilucide, qua varietate eae sunt, omnibus pateret; ut illinc nulla communis stabilisque norma haberetur, ad quam ceterarum sensus esset expendendus. Re quidem ipsa, lingua Latina, iamdiu adversus varietates tuta, quas cotidiana populi consuetudo in vocabulorum notionem inducere solet, fixa quidem censenda est et immobilis;

Furthermore, the Church's language must be not only universal but also immutable. Modern languages are liable to change, and no single one of them is superior to the others in authority. Thus if the truths of the Catholic Church were entrusted to an unspecified number of them, the meaning of these truths, varied as they are, would not be manifested to everyone with sufficient clarity and precision. There would, moreover, be no language which could serve as a common and constant norm by which to gauge the exact meaning of other renderings.  But Latin is indeed such a language. It is set and unchanging. it has long since ceased to be affected by those alterations in the meaning of words which are the normal result of daily, popular use. 

I don't know if this is good linguistics.  This alleged immutability of Latin may be as aspirational as its universality.  But Latin certainly carries a kind of patina that no other Western language can claim.  I think of even the Harry Potter books, where Ms. Rowling put her spells into a kind of pidgin Latin.  Even children know that that's the language of antiquity, and of linguistic power.

Dr. Johnson once remarked, "Greek, Sir, is like lace; every man gets as much of it as he can."  We have to admit that precious few of us aspire to "getting" much Greek.  Latin may still carry some of that allure, however much it has faded.  For those with the time to take it up, I think it very worthwhile.  And most of us would have plenty of time, even with full time jobs and families, were we not preoccupied with television, and smart phones, and the web.

Monday, September 8, 2014

A shameless plug

Skill, I think, can be acquired by training and practice.  Talent may be more of a gift. I haven't got it.  So I married it.

My wife Jeanine is a painter who works primarily in pastels, mixed-media, and oils.  The October, 2014, issue of Pastel Journal has an article entitled "Creative Beginnings," featuring Jeanine and two other artists on their paintings' foundations.  I can't take you to the article itself, but the link below shows a little more of their work:


Thursday, September 4, 2014

A Traveler from the Maghrib

I have started reading an abridged translation of the Rihlah--the Travels--of Muhammad Ibn Ibrahim Ibn Battutah, whose wanderings from his native Morocco, between 1325 and 1354, took him as far east as China, and as far south as Timbuktu.  Living roughly a generation after Marco Polo, he exceeded the journeys of the better-known Venetian, and arguably anyone else we know of for centuries.

It was a time of relative peace between the Christian and Islamic worlds (the key word here being "relative").  In 1291 the last Christian stronghold in Syria, the fortress of Acre, fell to the Mameluke sultan al-Ashraf Khalil.  The Reconquista in Spain was mostly accomplished, save for the Muslim kingdom of Grenada.  The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks was still a century in the future.  Trade continued, as it always does, whenever it can, and pockets of minorities got on as well as they could within the larger civilizations. 

I have only gotten so far as Ibn Battutah's first pilgrimage to Mecca, by way of Syria.  Along the way he visits well-known shrines and tombs and consults with holy men, much as Christian pilgrims did.  He occasionally comes across heterodox groups, such as the "revilers" of Sarmin, and is careful to relate their extraordinary doctrines--here, an extreme hatred of the Ten Companions of the Prophet, to the extent that they cannot bear ever the number, "ten."  But their presence in an orthodox Sunni world is taken pretty much for granted.

He relates the following from his first visit to Syria:

"I witnessed at the time of the Great Plague at Damascus in the latter part of the month of Second Rabi of the year 749 [July 1348] a remarkable instance of the veneration of the people of Damascus for this mosque [the Mosque of the Footprints]....[A]fter performing the dawn prayer on the Friday morning they all went out together, walking barefoot and carrying Qur'ans in their hands.  The entire population of the city joined in the exodus, male and female, small and large; the Jews went out with their book of the Law and the Christians with their Gospel, their women and children with them; and the whole concourse of them in tears and humble supplications, imploring the favor of God through his Books and his Prophets."

There appears, to me, a great humanity in this joint response to a common calamity.  It is not, of course, what we would call religious freedom.  But it is an unusual marshaling of everyone to common prayer, of the sort that would be unusual even today, either in the secular West or in the Islamic states of the Near East. 

And it calls to mind an earlier incident, a Phoenician ship foundering in a great storm,

 וַיִּירְאוּ הַמַּלָּחִים, וַיִּזְעֲקוּ אִישׁ אֶל-אֱלֹהָיו, ...; וְיוֹנָה, יָרַד אֶל-יַרְכְּתֵי הַסְּפִינָה, וַיִּשְׁכַּב, וַיֵּרָדַם.  ו וַיִּקְרַב אֵלָיו רַב הַחֹבֵל, וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מַה-לְּךָ נִרְדָּם; קוּם, קְרָא אֶל-אֱלֹהֶיךָ--אוּלַי יִתְעַשֵּׁת הָאֱלֹהִים לָנוּ, וְלֹא נֹאבֵד.

In great fear the sailors cry, each to his own god....Jonah, though, slinks down into the hold, to be interrupted by the captain:  Why are you sleeping?  Get up!  Call upon your god!  Perhaps he will act for us, and we will not be destroyed.

We all know the story--at least the whale part--but of course it ends in Ninevah, where the purported tomb of the reluctant prophet has only lately been destroyed. 

I am always dismayed when I hear the ISIS militants called "medieval."  Of course medieval people could commit atrocities and acts of cruelty.  But we moderns have often given them a run for their money on that score.  The demolished tomb, before its destruction, was a simple but strikingly beautiful building, where both Christians and Moslems made pilgrimage for centuries.  It was medieval people who designed and built it, the work, roughly, of contemporaries of Ibn Battutah.  The iconoclasts who blew it to rubble, disdaining tradition and all reverence for a common (if very human) prophet, were, distressingly, thoroughly modern.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Uncle Remus, Aesop and Pogo

Last week, in a local shop, I came across a book I hadn't seen in decades, Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus:  His Sayings and His Songs.  The book, not surprisingly, was printed in 1957, and, with happy memories of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox, the tar baby and the brier patch, I bought it.

The Uncle Remus books remain in print, but there's no great mystery to their contemporary low profile.  They purport to relate folk-tales told by the plantation slaves and former slaves in the Old South.  Their offense is manifold.  Uncle Remus speaks in a thick dialect which in itself many would find most offensive, incorporating numerous racial terms now universally intolerable, up to and including the "n-word."  The atmosphere of the slave quarters is one of easy contentment, the very picture of  the antebellum argument that plantation slaves led happy, care-free lives under the eyes of kind and solicitous masters.  To the extent that Chandler has fictionalized, he is accused of falsifying.  To the extent that he accurately transmits the folklore of the slaves, he is damned for cultural appropriation.

All of this is understandable.  Much of it is unavoidably accurate.  And yet in a real sense, because there is genuine artistry in the animal tales, it's a shame that our concern about current, seemingly intractable, racial issues might require our abstention from such pleasures that, to an outsider, would seem entirely innocent.  As with Lincoln, who, in a speech given shortly before his death, said that he always loved the tune, "Dixie," and who, having captured it fair and square, had no compunction about having it played, it would be nice if the Uncle Remus stories could be subject to a similar capture.

That our concern is not slavery in general, but our slavery, our slaveowning, slavedriving heritage, is shown simply enough by considering the figure of Aesop.  Admittedly he's a shadowy figure, and what we think we know of him rests on the flimsiest evidence.  Nevertheless, what is most commonly said of him is that he was a slave.  And knowing that fact--if it is a fact--makes not a bit of difference to our enjoyment of his animal fables.

Now of course there was no real "Uncle Remus."  He was a combination of many slaves and ex-slaves Harris knew and would listen to when first employed on a Georgia plantation, the illegitimate son of a young Irish immigrant mother.  But the reality of Uncle Remus or Aesop is really beside the point.  Greek and American slavery were real.  But Greek slavery is far enough away from us that it doesn't spoil The Fox and the Grapes for us.

Another serious sticking point is the dialect.  It was something that Harris was quite serious about.  He wanted to write the tales just as he heard them, in the very speech used by the slaves.  That technique didn't necessarily demean or mock those who used it, but we hear it, so to speak, on the other side of "Amos 'n Andy," after it has become, not merely put to comic use, but itself, alone, a form of ridicule and smug superiority.

Which brings me to the case of Walt Kelly's Pogo.  I have loved the Pogo comic strips since I was a kid.  (No, to be more accurate, since I was a teenager, since the Pogo strips in the newspaper utterly baffled me when I was in elementary school.)  Kelly, though a northeasterner, wrote Pogo in an invented dialect that hews close to that of the deep South (not surprising, since the strip is set in the Okefenokee swamp).  He actually began in the forties with a comic about a young African-American named Bumbazine living on the edge of the swamp, and having adventures with his talking animal friends.  From the one exemplar I've seen the dialogue is just barely in dialect.  As the strip developed, Bumbazine disappeared, and animal characters took over, and the language became a thing of wonder.

"Mam heerd tell a man over here figgers he's gon run for public office...mam sent the tads over to be kissed up.  Us can't bear kissin' the ugly li'l' sprats ourselfs but we understan's you politicians kisses 'em free of charge."  That's Mr. Frog bringing his tadpoles to Pogo.

"Ef you don't lemme loose, I'll knock you agin,' sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, en wid dat he fotch 'er a wipe wid de udder han', en dat stuck.  Tar-Baby, she ain't sayin' nothin', en Brer Fox, he lay low."  That, of course, is Harris.

What's the difference here?  Obviously in neither case do the animals have any human ethnicity.  Nevertheless, in the case of Pogo, the dialect is somewhat non-specific.  In the tar-baby story the particular ethnicity of the fictional story-teller is directly expressed in the dialogue of the animals.  I myself don't find the use of the dialect offensive, but I understand how others could.

One probably intractable problem with Harris, at least for the foreseeable future, is his free use of terms for African-Americans which remain, in most contexts, unprintable.  There exists, of course, one still-popular work that has managed to overcome that issue, Huckleberry Finn.  But that book's importance in American literature, coupled with Twain's irreproachable humanitarian bona fides, give it a pass that is probably unavailable to Uncle Remus.

That leaves us with two unpalatable alternatives:  setting aside the Uncle Remus stories entirely, or bowdlerizing them.  Those of us of a certain age may conceivably plead that, since our characters are fully formed and too rigid to bear much improvement or corruption, we can privately enjoy these stories without much risk.  But for children, and school libraries, and popular media, they unhappily probably belong with Disney's (partly-scrubbed) Song of the South in the "unsuitable and quarantined" vault--at least in their original form.

There was much talk, with the election of President Obama, of the entry of the United States into a "post-racial" era.  Well, most of that talk has now run up against reality.  Much as I love the Uncle Remus stories, I know how they can be, and would be, used in shameful and unsavory ways.  I am glad we don't have actual censorship, and I am sure that a day will come when they can be read, enjoyed and criticized as freely as Aesop's fables.  But we are still far from that day.  


Wednesday, August 13, 2014


Again wake.  And as all good dreams must come to a fin, and glad as I've been in your company then, please join me in reading the closing lines, slowly and thoughtfully:

"If I seen him bearing down on me now under whitespread wings like he’d come from Arkangels, I sink I’d die down over his feet, humbly dumbly, only to washup. Yes, tid. There’s where. First. We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the           riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and..." OMIGOD NO!  IT'S STARTING OVER AGAIN!  SOMEBODY THROW THE SWITCH!

(Ha ha)

It is one of the best-known features of Finnegans Wake that it is a tale of "doublends jined," that the end loops back to the beginning, so that there is no real start or finish, only an eternal recurrence.

Now I think that's undoubtedly right, but it's also wrong.  Dreams don't run over and over again.  Night gives way to day, not night after night after night.  And to bring it back to this particular book, the Wake, in its concluding pages, ycleped Part IV, takes the plain form of a conclusion, the dawn breaking, the dream making its way to forgottenness, the River Liffey, as Anna Livia, flowing joyfully, relentlessly into the sea.  So the book ends; also, it doesn't.  Imagine that.

Part IV is the shortest of the four parts, only about thirty pages in my edition.  But it is still divided into four of what I have called divisions.  After a beginning ("Sandhyas! Sandhyas! Sandhyas!") that again evokes an upanishadic closing (as Eliot did in "The Waste Land"), the harbingers of day from the beginning of the sections seem reasonably clear to me:

"Calling all downs. Calling all downs to dayne. Array! Surrection! Eireweeker to the wohld bludyn world. O rally, O rally, O rally! Phlenxty, O rally!"

"Dayagreening gains in schlimninging. A summerwint spring-falls, abated. Hail, regn of durknass, snowly receassing, thund lightening thund, into the dimbelowstard departamenty whither-out, soon hist, soon mist, to the hothehill from the hollow, Solsking the Frist...."

"What has gone? How it ends?
"Begin to forget it."

The forgetting, I think, is the forgetting of the dream that typically happens when we awaken.

The last division is the invocation of Anna Livia as the Liffy flowing to the ocean, as well as the fall of leaves:  "Soft morning, city! Lsp! I am leafy speafing. Lpf! Folty and folty all the nights have falled on to long my hair. Not a sound, falling. Lispn! No wind no word. Only a leaf, just a leaf and then leaves."  It introduces perhaps the most lyrical section of the Wake.

And what can I say here in closing?  First, I guess, that I don't see that the Wake has any particular claim on anyone.  I wouldn't call it one of those books anyone has to read to understand this or that (except, possibly, the works of James Joyce).  If I had to choose a single best book by Joyce I'd still have to go with Ulysses. 

Still, no one should succumb to finneganphobia.  It's a book everyone's going to miss most of.  Having taken Joyce seventeen years to write (spending much of his time, apparently, deliberately obscuring it) there's no way that anyone with a life is going to be able to read it as Joyce wrote it, to understand what he was referring to, to glean where he was going, to get what he was getting at.  Puzzled?  Join the club.  It can still be exhilarating, and, even as I was bogging down a bit toward the end, still I find that I miss pulling it off the shelf, and a great advantage of having not gotten so much of it is that I find that I can open it anywhere and still be amused and challenged and entertained, and even  laugh at something that flew five miles over my head the first time through.

Joyce is Literature, but he can be very, very "lowbrow," vulgar, tasteless.  His excuse is the dream.  The proverbial foul rag and bone shop of the heart is quite indiscriminately ransacked.  That closeness to his own common environment is part of what makes him difficult, and which makes me fear that the obscurity of this book will grow exponentially over time.  For all the small library of commentaries and keys explaining Joyce, I am thankful he can still be read straight on, without the volumes of explanation he will undoubtedly require a century hence.

A side effect of reading Finnegans Wake is the advantage of developing and exercising a facility to read with ambiguity.  Anyone who's tried to read a foreign language (or contemporary poetry) knows the need to suppress that frustration with knowing most, but not all, of the meaning attached to the words on the page.  Assuming you don't explode with rage after the first twenty pages, the Wake gets you into a frame of mind to accept what's there and move on with the hope of filling in the gaps tomorrow; maybe some meaning will later emerge.  It's an important skill for any reader to have.

In the end, though, it's about the book, and its art, and its impossible pretentions to wholeness.  I had thought at one point that the Wake might be likened to a koan.  A very long koan.  But I certainly wasn't struck with enlightenment at its conclusion.  Perhaps it is more like the eleventh teaching of the Bhagavad-Gita, in which Krishna instructs Arjuna:

...see my forms
in hundreds of thousands;
diverse, divine,
of many colors and shapes.

See the sun gods, gods of light,
howling storm gods, twin gods of dawn,
and gods of wind, Arjuna,
wondrous forms not seen before.

Arjuna, see all the universe,
animate and inanimate,
and whatever else you wish to see;
all stands here as one in my body.

Or, to bring it back west, we might rest content with what Dryden said of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales:  "Here is God's plenty."

I have arguably devoted a disproportionate amount of time to blogging the Wake.  Maybe so.  I think I blogged, not so much for the blog itself, but rather as a means to help myself with the reading of the book.  That is to say, Finnegans Wake is so odd, so formless, so baffling, that I found it helpful, in going through it, to continually ask myself, "What can I say about this part?"  The implied promise to blog forced me to be more active than usual in reflecting on the readings as I went along, and I think that in itself promoted understanding and made the experience all the more fruitful.

In reading any blog series the beginning is the end, the end the beginning.  So, to bring the enterprise to an end, if any stray reader wishes to peruse all the Wake entries, from the other end, they can be found as follows:

1.  Sin against Fate (March 19)
2.  Sense or Sensibility (April 18)
3.  A quarter dunned (May 22)
4.  Too clever by half (June 27)
5.  Finnegans Wake, Part II, third division (July 9)
6.  Finnegans Wake, Part II, fourth division (July 15)
7.  Finnegans Wake, Part III, first division (July 20)
8.  Finnegans Wake, Part III, second division (July 31)
9.  Finnegans Wake, Part III, third division (August 11)
10.  Finnegans Wake, Part III, fourth division (August 12)
11.  Fin (which is where we came in)

शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Finnegans Wake, Part III, fourth division

"What was thaas? Fog was whaas? Too mult sleepth. Let sleepth."

The beginnings of many of these latter sections suggest, almost clearly, that the night is passing.  The previous division suggested dawn and waking, but didn't quite make it, and this one begins putting us back firmly in the sonambulant state.  We drowse still.

And yet.  And yet.  I have to admit, as I approach the end, I give in to the temptation to hurry up and finish.  This is not good.  This is a book that requires patience.  And when you get impatient, Finnegans Wake can get tedious.  Sense only surfaces slowly.

Soon after the beginning we are presented with a "dumbshow," a sort of pantomime, with HCE and ALP and the children sporting what some think their "real" names, Bartholomew and Mrs. Porter.  There may be a parallel with a chess game, as, throughout the division, each of our "four" notes a position:  Matt a "first position of harmony," Mark, a "second position of discordance," Luke (implied), a "third position of concord," and at the end, John, with a "fourth position of solution." 

The performance eventually makes its way into an indictment of "Honuphrius," presumably Porter/Humphrey/HCE, for infidelity, unnatural coitus, blasphemy and sacrilege.  This unaccountably transforms, in a sentence or two, into the details of a ridiculously detailed commercial legal claim.  The four watchers then seem to withdraw: 

"— He sighed in sleep.
"— Let us go back.
"— Lest he forewaken.
"— Hide ourselves.
"While hovering dreamwings, folding around, will hide from fears my wee mee mannikin, keep my big wig long strong mano-men, guard my bairn, mon beau.
"— To bed."

The narrative then goes elsewhere, for page after page, and ends with "John's" fourth tableau, the end of part III of the Wake, and a real promise of the morning:

"Fourth position of solution. How johnny! Finest view from horizon. Tableau final. Two me see. Male and female unmask we hem. Begum by gunne! Who now broothes oldbrawn. Dawn! The nape of his name-shielder’s scalp. Halp! After having drummed all he dun. Hun! Worked out to an inch of his core. More! Ring down. While the queenbee he staggerhorned blesses her bliss for to feel her funnyman’s functions Tag. Rumbling.
"Tiers, tiers and tiers. Rounds."

Again I have missed much, skipped lots.  Anyone can return, when you or I wish.  The night recedes.  I think I'm absorbing more, but it seems so much less necessary or useful to articulate the connections, to point out this or that reference or tie when the whole cacaphony is winding up.  There is a weariness, or a surrender, as the end looms.  But maybe it's just from starting to rush.