Friday, June 27, 2014

Too clever by half

Tim Finnegan's encomium:  Halfway through.

The last two sections of Part I of Finnegans Wake arguably take on, to a more noticeable extent than before, the overt character of dreams.

Readers of Ulysses quickly catch on that each chapter has its own "gimmick;"  that is to say, each chapter takes on a distinctive narrative method.  For instance, the chapter conventionally called the "Oxen of the Sun," proceeds from an initial union of Old English and Latin through the stylistic stages of English over the centuries, mirroring the gestation of an unborn human child.  Finnegans Wake follows something of that kind of pattern in its unnumbered breaks within the four parts.

"Shem is as short for Shemus as Jem is joky for Jacob."  So begins this next section, and the conventional wisdom calls Shem one of the sons of HCE and ALP.  It's an embarrassing section to read when the meaning, in parts, leaks out.  Freud notes that sometimes, in dream experiences, "man habe sich dessen gar nicht geschämt."  Shameless himself here, Shem can indeed be said to shame us in the central action of this section, which I'm hesitant to summarize.  It's more infantile and scatological than anything else, and, when we get to the very point of the action, Joyce switches to a partly intelligible Latin, punctuated with parenthetical bursts of English to assist the Latinfree.  It brings to mind an old English translation I used to own of Kraft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis.  Whenever the text described an unusually disturbing activity, it would switch to Latin, to protect the unlearned.  I imagine that Joyce is here following (or parodying) such procedure.

I don't mean to imply that Shem's actions are entirely clear.  There is as always a deliberate obfuscation, bringing to mind the Freudian observation that dreams veil as much as they reveal.

Section I ends with the washerwomen and the dirty laundry, in the form, mostly, of a dialogue beside a river. These are HCE's and ALP's bed sheets being scrubbed, Joyce continuing his unflinching navigation of the detriments of bodily life, calling to mind some of the less sparkling testimony at the Oscar Wilde trial.

(Here, for the first time, entirely divorced from the action, I realized that, translating "ALP" into Hebrew letters produces "aleph," the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, an appropriate moniker for she who may or may not also be "Chava," "Eve," the mother of all living (as whiskey, which revives poor Tim Finnegan at his wake, is Irish for "water of life."))  (Humiliatingly, then, I find I can do nothing comparable with HCE). 

Part II begins with a relatively clear reference to a playhouse, and a playbill with some recognizable characters or players:  Seumus, Sean, Ann, Hump, an Izod who may become Isolde.  Sometimes it's followable, and sometimes it seems to sink into randomness, and I want to cry, "For God's sake, Joyce, give me a break! throw me a bone!"  Eventually it ends with "Upploud!" and oddly liturgical phrases:  "O Loud, hear the wee beseech of thees, of each of these thy unlitten ones!  Grant sleep in hour's time, O Loud!"  La comedia e finite, the little ones are put to bed, and peace/sleep solicited in the approximate language of compline.

Now since I'm reading the Wake in a pristine, new, and rather costly edition, I am loathe to write in the book itself.  But the thing screams out for annotations--to translate the silly puns into sentences, to see if any themes are emerging, to pat myself on the back for "getting something." 

Then, lo and behold, a new section starts up with annotations (of distinct character) in the left and right margins, and copious footnotes, all of which are as nonsensical and nonsequetrous as the text, and my relative satisfaction at having managed to sail the opaque prose--not with understanding, perhaps, but with relative dispatch--is upended by suddenly having to look left and right and below.

This new section looks first like a journey, then like a lesson.  It veers into math ("While on the other hand, traduced by their comedy nominators to the loafer's terms...."), then to a geometry problem ("O unbox your compasses.  I cain but are you able?").  Now I may be oddly mistaken, but the center of his figure of two intersecting circles reminds me of the rules of proportion governing the classical nude, and the text following suggests coitus, especially from the suggestion of an identification of the lower triangle of the figure.  We are back at the beginning, as man knows woman and Cain and Abel follow, and generations are generated.  And we end the section with epigrams associated with the eminent.

I've mentioned Freud a couple of times in this post.  His Traumdeutung, published about thirty years before Joyce began the Wake, was still, I think, a powerful influence in Joyce's day.  The meaning of dreams, per Freud, was often sexual, fundamentally irrational, but always disguised.  For all Freud's follies I do think he was right that dreams form and function as symbols, in a surprisingly non-random, sophisticated way.  But their meaning is for the sleeper alone.  There can be no encyclopedia of dream meanings; they are individually symbolic.  If I dream of Rudyard Kipling addressing a roomful of Tweedle-dees, the meaning for me is different from what it would be for you.  So, again, if I peep into Joyce's dream, or HCE's what meaning am I to glean from it? It becomes as much mine as his.  Hence the strangely personal experience of this peculiar book.

Just before the halfway point a new section starts.  I think it may be a tavern.  I will report later.

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