- Finnegans Wake by James Joyce First Published 1939
James Joyce once famously said that if it took him seventeen years to write Finnegans Wake, then a reader should take seventeen years to read it. In his usual prophetic way, he turned out to be exactly right. My Finnegans Wake Reading Group started in July 2004. We finished in February 2021.
‘We’ll be dead before we get to the end!’ we often joked. In a sense we never really expected to arrive at the famous last words: A way a lone a last a loved a long the
And then it happened: page 628 was within reach.
James Joyce received the first copy of Finnegans Wake in his hands on 30 January, 1939, just in time for his 57th birthday on 2 February. So I scheduled our final reading for 2 February, 2021. But then I postponed it. And postponed it again. And then a third time. I had never done that before. For seventeen years I had been religious about sticking to the set day and time – the last Sunday of every month – no matter what. But now I realised there was part of me that didn’t want to read that final page. Because what would I do next? Finishing Finnegans Wake felt like the end of a long, literary marriage and I instinctively understood what that meant: a bad case of post break-up blues. Or was it because I’d been convinced that the Wake was a world without end when in fact, as Joyce writes, it was whorled without aimed.
Over the years I have intermittently recorded the Finnegans Wake reading group sessions, which usually run to around three hours. In 2004, I began with cassette tapes, then graduated to an iPad, and then iPhone. At first, I conscientiously transcribed the salient parts of each gathering, noting my favourite words and phrases:
psing a psalm of psexpeans, apocryphal of rhyme
in deep humidity
let us pry
you have reared your disunited kingdom on the vacuum of your own most intensely doubtful soul.
I’ve found my vacation in life
The ritual for FWRG was simple and remained unchanged for 17 years. We met around my kitchen table at 3pm on a Sunday afternoon. I made pots of tea. Others brought cake and biscuits. We took turns in reading – usually a few paragraphs at a time – followed by discussion and consultation of Roland McHugh’s Annotations to Finnegans Wake (third edition) – although this dependence became less regular as we realised how much more fun it was to work out the references for ourselves. After two or three hours we would break out a bottle of wine and keep talking until dark. It was always a thrill, always funny, always informative, always enjoyable. As the song says, ‘There’s lots of fun at Finnegan’s wake!’
For our final meeting I cleaned the teatimestained Wedgewood cups with bicarbonate of soda, the same cups we had drunk tea from since 2004, and ironed my best linen tablecloth. Our last meeting was attended by eleven people, Joyce’s magic number, signifying renewal. Over the years, members have come and gone but a core has persisted for the duration: a retired Welsh mathematician nicknamed Mr Google because of his encyclopaedic general knowledge, an English music reviewer obsessed with Wagner’s Ring cycle, a pop music reviewer and culture critic, a high school teacher, a woman who describes her job as ‘working in investment bank technology’, a retired solicitor, an Irish psychiatrist (specialising in drugs and alcohol) and me. During our time together we have weathered a litany of life events including: an almost divorce, an actual divorce, various depressive episodes, three births, two cancer diagnoses and one death.
Only very occasionally have I felt that I was too tired or not in the mood to play Hosty1 to the FWRG. Only occasionally did I fear that my brain would not stand up to so much taxing, to so much grappling with grammarless goobledygook. At times the effort feels physical. The way Joyce stretches language to its absolute limit is oddly gymnastic, exercising the mind out of its habitual postures. By the end of the session, however, I always felt electrified, switched on and alive to language in a new way – grateful to this magical passport into another linguistic universe, as well as thankful to Joyce for waking up parts of my brain that I’m certain would remain dormant without Wakean stimulus. The secret to approaching Finnegans Wake, as Joyce scholar Sebastian Knowles noted, is to see it as ‘a great tree of life instead of a radioactive stone only to be approached in a hazmat suit with a Geiger counter.’
The title of Finnegans Wake is, among other things, a call to consciousness. Joyce is shouting to his fellow countrymen, ‘Finnegans! Wake up!’ Indeed, this was his intention from the very beginning of his literary career, to shake people out of their semi-conscious existences. Dubliners he said, was a reflection of the moral and spiritual paralysis of his country, and Finnegans Wake, as he reminds us in the final pages,was a text that came loomening up out of dumblynass.
After seventeen years of labour, when Finnegans Wake was finally published, it was received, almost without exception, with incomprehension, and described, among other things, as ‘the most colossal leg-pull in literature’. It is, as Irish poet and critic Seamus Deane says, ‘in an important sense, unreadable’. So why have we persisted? Let me count the ways in which one can read the Wake:
- As a comedy.
- As a history of the world.
- As smut.
- As prophecy.2
Anthony Burgess described the Wake as ‘a great comic vision’ and ‘one of the few books of the world that can make us laugh aloud on nearly every page.’ Which was precisely Joyce’s intention. His partner Nora Barnacle used to complain about being kept awake at night by Jim’s uproarious laughter as he worked on Finnegans Wake. In an interview about Ulysses with Djuna Barnes, Joyce said of Ulysses: ‘The pity is the public will demand and find a moral in my book – or worse, they may take it in some more serious way, and on the honour of gentleman, there is not one single serious line in it.’ And this can be equally applied to Finnegans Wake, although the humour is a very different kind – manifesting mostly in the form of satire, wordplay and subverting the sacred and holy, as well as sending up the socially respectable. When he is satirising a socialite, for example, Joyce refers to her goddinpotty (garden party), which not only infers her plummy English accent, but also, because of Joyce’s cloacal obsession, creating a vision of God, the most holy, taking a dump. Putting sacred images and symbols into low and worldly settings is one of Joyce’s favourite tropes. As is taking Bible stories, such as the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and making it funny rather than tragic – combining a tired phrase, such as ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’ and turning it into Trickspissers vill be pairsecluded in relation to the original couple who were thrown out of God’s prelapsarian paradise. He’s also fond of re-inventing prayers. The Lord’s Prayer becomes Ouhr Former who erred in having . . . gibbous disdag our darling breed and ends with the glorious haloed be her eve, her singtime sung, her rill be run, unhemmed as it is uneven! Joyce likes the idea of God as Former, even as he suggests that His formations were a creative mistake. The word is used again in a re-cast of the prayer that opens the Catholic mass: In the name of the former and the latter and the holocaust. Allmen. And he doesn’t exempt himself from satire either, referring to himself as Jams Jarred and his final work as a crucefiction as well as a morse-erse wordybook – a kind of Irish morse code that is up to the reader to decipher.
Joseph Campbell called Finnegans Wake ‘a huge time-capsule, a complete and permanent record of our age. If our society should go to smash tomorrow (which, as Joyce implies, it may) one could find all the pieces, together with the forces that broke them, in Finnegans Wake.’
The Wake is described as a history of the world precisely because it includes so many fascinating historical incidents – from the Big Bang to the Battle of the Boyne to the making and dropping of the etym bomb.. ‘Etymon’ means an earlier form of a word or part of a word from which another word is derived. You could say that Joyce’s search is for the etymological equivalent of the atom, the etymological root of all words, the first word ever spoken.
At the moment, my favourite historical character is the famous sixteenth-century Irish pirate queen, Grace O’Malley, whom Joyce playfully renames the prankquean, in part, one assumes, because she was clearly a very wily woman who knew how to manage the politics and power play of the time. (In Irish her name is Granuaile and was one of the code-words used by Irish insurgents to represent Ireland itself.) This passage led me to learn about one of the few Irish historical female figures (apart from saints) who have remained in the popular imagination. Among Grace O’Malley’s many triumphs, in 1593, she successfully petitioned to have an audience with Elizabeth I, despite having spent years waging war against English rule. Her object was to negotiate the release of her brother and son who had been arrested and imprisoned in Ireland by the then English ‘president’ of Connaught. During the exchange between the two women, Grace sneezed and was offered a lace hankerchief by one of Elizabeth’s ladies in waiting. After using the hankie, Grace threw it in the fire, outraging all those gathered in court. She then explained that in Ireland only those of very low breeding would not dispose of nose-blowings in this way. The negotiation was successful and her relatives were released. And that was how the skirtmishes endupped.
But it’s not just Irish history that a reader learns from the Wake. It is thanks to Joyce that I found myself researching Bullocky, a famous Aboriginal cricketer who was part of an all-Indigenous team that toured England in 1868, a story that was recently commemorated in Matt Scullion’s chart-topping country song, titled ‘1868’. Bullocky and various other team mates feature in one of a cluster of passages in the Wake that focus on the famous colonialist game of cricket. Declare to ashes and teste his metch! Three for two will do for me and he for thee and she for you. As is typical with Joyce, who finds a way to make almost anything smutty - nine hundred and dirty too not out - he manages to turn a cricket game into a game of sexual conquest. (What other writer could boast a steamy cricket scene?) It begins At half past quick in the morning. And her lamps was all askew and trumbly wick-in-her. . . Tipatonguing him on in her pigeony linguish, with a flick at the bails for lubrication, to scorch her faster, faster. And later, Goeasyosey . . .or we’ll both be bye and by caught in the slips for fear he’d tyre and burst his dunlops and waken her bornybarniesmaking boobybabies.
In the final line of this cricket passage, Joyce triumphantly ends with a conquering cock of the morgans. In fact, cocks appear on that page in various guises no less than six times. Simultaneously, he sends up the sport by referring to flannelly feelyfooling, a reference to Rudyard Kipling’s description of cricket as ‘flannelled fools’. And before reading Finnegans Wake I had zero interest in cricket!
And while we’re on the topic of the scrips of nutsnolleges I pecked up on my way through the Wake, it’s worth mentioning that Joyce had a special interest in the Antipodes, for which he offers much wordplay, my favourite being the antipathies. It was such fun when our group stumbled across the Noisy Friarbird, native to New South Wales, Thus faraclacks the friarbird. Listening, Syd! (I suspect he is also hinting at the lyrebird, whose repertoire of entirely plaigarised songs would have particularly appealed to a writer who referred to his own book as stolentelling.) But how on earth did he know about the extinct White Swamp Hen of New South Wales, the Prophyrio Albus, that appears as a footnote on page 264 as Porphyrious Olbion? Or the wiggywagtail? Or the cursowarries?
For our first few years of reading I thought of the Wake as an anti-depressant. I always felt better after administering a dose and the group often joked about being in need of a Finnegans fix. Then as we proceeded, I began thinking of it as an aphrodisiac. Hardly a FWRG session went by without uncovering a filthy reference of one kind or another. Anal sex, group sex, incest – nothing is beyond Joyce’s literary reach. Gender is fluid and characters change back and forth between male and female and also appear as various nonbinary identities such as the hemale. Often the sexual activity is not absolutely obvious – rarely is anything obvious in the Wake –but eroticism lies underneath the text like a subsoil. The principal male character, HCE, (short for Here Comes Everybody), appears to be a serial bisectual sex offender, who went floundering with his boatloads of spermin spunk about. Leaping freck after every long tom and wet lissy between Howth and Humbermouth.
Some have even accused the Wake of being nothing more than a series of dirty jokes, while others describe Joyce’s preoccupation as being with ‘the erotics of the word’. I am particularly fond of a passage that begins: How me adores eatsother. . .as I leaned yestreen from his muskished labs, even my little pom got excited. . . and a glorious lie between us, sweetness, so as not a novene in all the convent loretos, not my littlest one of all, for mercy’s sake need ever know, what passed our lips…
Sex in the Wake is nearly always illicit and often involves a triangle, as in the story of Tristan and Isolde, which is introduced, along with other the main themes of the book, on the very first page. It is also often comically fumbling, accompanied by unedifying odours and noises, and almost always thwarted and ultimately unconsummated. In his search for the buginning of the woid, Joyce wonders whether the grunts and groans of sexual pleasure – the lingo gasped between kicksheets – may well be the origin of language.
My FWRG has often been mocked as a pseudo-Bible study group for putting so much time and effort as well as faith in a seemingly impenetrable text. (On the odder hand, I do believe that hotels would be much more interesting if they swapped out the Gideon’s for the Wake, especially in you were stuck in quarantine.) That the Wake is a book of prophecy is not something I expect any rational person to believe. Would anyone, short of a madhouse, believe it? asks the Wake. However, we are not the only students of this text who have come to treat the book as a kind of oracle after repeatedly experiencing strange coincidences and synchronicities.
Gradually coming to see the Wake as a kind of I-Ching is common among Joycean aficionados. Events both large and small, public and personal, often seem to be reflected in this mysterious all-knowing work, as though it were giving us feedback, or, as communications theorist Marshall McLuhan called the phenomenon – because of its future-telling nature – ‘feedforward’.3
Finnegans Wake has been described as a history of the world but Joyce’s version of that history is not, unsurprisingly, chronological. Sometimes it feels as though the river of time is running backwards or is outside of time altogether. Towards the end of the book Joyce mentions a flash from the future and around the middle he refers to a pang that would split an atam and then the abnihilization of the etym. Midway through he is consistently blown to Adams which appears only two pages from it had a mushroom on it….nogeysokey. This is from a book that was published six years prior to the first dropping of the atomic bomb.
And then there’s the way that the Wake seems to echo current affairs. One self-confessed ‘wake fiend’ reported reading page 43 the day after Princess Diana was killed in 1997 and finding a deuce of dianas ridy for the hunt . . . who, as they were juiced . . were evidently under the spell of liquor.
Once these coincidences begin to emerge regularly, it’s difficult for a reader to resist rushing to the oracle every time a major event hits the news. When, for example, the sex scandal around Barnaby Joyce erupted in 2018, I couldn’t help searching the Wake for a reference.
Barnaby Joyce’s father was named James Joyce. It would be difficult to have that name and not be aware of the Irish literary giant – even in Tamworth – and I began to wonder if Barnaby had possibly been named after Barnaby Finnegan, a song of adultery and political rise and fall that is referenced four times throughout the Wake.
‘He was one time our King of the Castle
Now he’s kicked about like a rotten old parsnip. . ..
He ought to blush for himself, the old hayheaded philosopher
For to go and shove himself that way on top of her
. . . ‘Tis sore pity for his innocent poor children
But look out for his missus legitimate!’
When Trump came into power, the same ballad gave Wakeans hope that there would be an end to his era:
‘So snug he was in his hotel premises sumptuous
But soon we’ll bonfire all his trash tricks and trumpery
And ‘tis short till sheriff Clancy’ll be winding up his unlimited company’
Indeed, one leading Joyce scholar has recently written an essay entitled ‘Joyceradamus: Foretelling the Age of Trump in Finnegans Wake’.
Others have found equally unlikely ways to interpret the Wake as a form of fortune-telling. In 2015, another Wake fiend reported in the Irish Times about how the book had predicted Irish boxer Conor McGregor’s victory in the UFC title match at the MGM Grand Las Vegas. The columnist had ‘grown convinced that Joyce had created his own surreal, crazed dream language in part so that future readers might glimpse events of their own time through free association; Joyce wanted to amaze future readers with scenes that would seem to them like prophecy.’ This has happened to me so often that I am no longer amazed. The week that Kevin Rudd took power for the second time – a recirculation if ever there was one – we came across the word ruddist. And when we met on the day of the Ireland-Australia rugby Grand Final day in 2018 the very first line of the page we were up to read: Dunsink, rugby, ballast and ball. (We had all been aware that the rest of the country was obsessing about sport and hoping to rise above it but Joyce, being an aficionado of popular culture, wouldn’t allow that.) The following year, when I returned to Sydney after a six-month fellowship at the Australian National University, I sat down at my kitchen table, very happy to resume our reading from page 569, and on it were the words Cantaberra, the city I had just left, and Broughton, the name of the street I had arrived back to. Call it bibliomancy or plain old Joyce-induced madness but it’s certainly fun to spend time with a book that appears to take an interest in your personal life.
If the family at the centre of Finnegans Wake is a kind of archetypal family, representative of all families, they could be said to play the role of a royal family, observed in all their private affairs by readers across the world and across the generations. Princes Harry and William are a perfect modern equivalent for Shem and Shaun, the two warring brothers in Finnegans Wake. Kate is another important character in the Wake as the servant girl who lives with the family, witnessing all that happens and cleaning up after them. Meghan is mentioned in Megan’s versus Brystal Palace which appears just below ‘Royloy’ – Joyce’s play on the word ‘royally’, and one line above The playgue will soon be over.
I am not the first Australian to become a devotee of the Wake. Perth-born Clive Hart has a special place in Joyce studies because he was one of the very first academics to take Finnegans Wake seriously. After majoring in French at the University of Western Australia, in 1956 Hart travelled to Paris to study at the Sorbonne where he discovered Joyce. His doctoral dissertation resulted in the pioneering text Structure and Motif in Finnegans Wake, after which Hart became a central figure in the first wave of Wake scholarship. Together with Fritz Senn, the ‘godfather’ of Joyce studies, Hart co-edited A Wake Newslitter, the first attempt to collaboratively read and interpret Finnegans Wake. The Newslitter wasproduced in mimeographed hardcopy at the University of Sydney in 1962 and posted to other puzzled readers. Then, through an exchange of glosses – each submitting their insights by mail – they joined forces in the hope of reaching a greater understanding, very much like my own FWRG. (This is one of the extraordinary things about Finnegans Wake. It is not for the individual but for the collective reader, to be read cooperatively with other people.) Hart went on to put together A Concordance to “Finnegans Wake” in 1963 and continued to attend annual Joycean gatherings at the James Joyce Foundation in Zurich right up until the year before his death in 2016.
These days a contemporary version of the Newslitter exists in the form of a website called FWEET, which stands for ‘Finnegans Wake Extensible Elucidation Treasury’ and at the time of writing it is the depository of 86,345 notes on Finnegans Wake. These elucidations have come from readers all over the world, including two of the more conscientious members of my own Reading Group. Each year it seems that more and more people are discovering that this ‘unreadable’ text might actually have something meaningful to say.
Is it a cult? Or an addiction? A magic spell or an intoxication? When Thornton Wilder finally gave up his obsession with Finnegans Wake he described it as ‘renouncing that drug’ and bequeathed his Wakean ‘apparatus’ to a friend and ‘two addicts in England’.
For many years, readers and scholars described the Wake as a dream because of its surreal quality, its strangeness and irrationality. The accepted interpretation was that Joyce was attempting to capture the dreaming state in which we spend a third of our lives and reflecting the weird style of nonsensical storytelling that our unconscious minds create. This is the reason why the Wake is called the book of the dark. But one commentator has suggested that it’s not a dream at all, but rather the literary expression of a psychotic episode.
Throughout the writing of Finnegans Wake, Joyce watched his daughter Lucia become increasingly unwell. Eventually she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent most of her life in institutions. The highly esteemed Joycean scholar, David Hayman, observed that the first jottings for Finnegans Wake were around the time of the first symptoms of Lucia’s illness and the word schizophrenia expressly appears in the early notes. Some Joycean commentators believe Lucia’s complicated ‘schizophrenic language’ inspired the Wakean style, with one scholar arguing that there are ‘entire interludes’ in the Wake that are ‘demonstrably schizophrenic hallucinations’. Could the most misunderstood mental illness be one of the most important inspirations behind Joyce’s masterwork?
In the very earliest literature about the condition of schizophrenia, originally termed dementia praecox, it was often described as ‘a waking dream’ where the sufferers lived in a ‘twilight zone’. Eugen Bleuler, the Swiss psychiatrist who invented the term schizophrenia in 1908, believed that ‘thinking in dreams and schizophrenic autistic thinking are essentially identical.’ His contemporary, the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin, also described the ‘wholly incomprehensible talk’ of his patients as similar to the language of dreams. And Jung believed that if a dreamer walked around acting like a person awake, it would present ‘the clinical picture of dementia praecox.’
‘Word salad’ is the expression commonly used by medical practitioners, historically and contemporaneously, to describe the language of people with schizophrenia – a jumble of words with no syntax and apparently no sense. (This refers to people with schizophrenia who are unmedicated or mid-psychotic episode; with proper treatment, people with schizophrenia do not produce word salad.) Word salad is also a description that could be aptly applied to Finnegans Wake.
Like her father, Lucia was multi-lingual. She grew up in Trieste speaking Italian, English and French. Carl Jung, who treated Lucia briefly in 1934, noticed that his multilingual patients often freely intermingled different languages and wondered whether these ‘etymological leanings’ were a reflection of the very slow word evolution evident in all languages. Later he speculated that ‘a philologist would be able to make valuable observations’ if such a specialist could be in the room with ‘speech-confused patients’ and that such observations that ‘would help us to understand . . the history of language’.
If Joyce has one overriding obsession it is exactly that: the origin, history and development of language. Did he believe he had found a clue in Lucia’s special language? According to Joyce’s biographer, only Joyce had the capacity to follow his daughter’s ‘swift jumps of thought which baffled other people completely.’ And even as his daughter’s condition deteriorated, he insisted that the problem was that Lucia was an innovator who was not yet understood. Jung admitted that Lucia’s portmanteau words and neologisms were remarkable but was not convinced of her genius.
Lucia’s diagnosis led Joyce to familiarise himself with the major studies on schizophrenia. He was also familiar with seminal studies done in the field of psychoanalysis, especially those dealing with schizophrenia. As a concerned parent, he had reluctantly relented to the pressure to consult Jung about Lucia’s condition and remained doubtful about the therapeutic benefit of psychoanalytic methods and refused the offer to be psychoanalysed by Jung himself.
You have homosexual catheis of empathy between narcissism of the expert and steatopygic invertedness, declares a character in the Wake. Get yourself psychoanolised!
— O, begor, is the response, I can psoakoonaloose myself any time I want.
Many years after meeting Joyce, Carl Jung reflected on Finnegans Wake in a way that strangely echoes Joyce’s own remarks about his daughter: ‘In any other time of the past Joyce’s work would never have reached the printer, but in our blessed twentieth century it is a message, though not yet understood.’
Nowadays, the more progressive methods of treating schizophrenia, including the Finnish approach known as Open Dialogue, emphasise the importance of listening to a person who is in psychosis rather than immediately medicating them. ‘There is a belief that psychosis has its own language,’ a practitioner of the Open Dialogue approach from Nepean Hospital explained to me. ‘The psychotic voice also needs to be heard.’ By listening carefully to the word salad, it is thought that a clue about the source of the psychosis might be revealed. In the medium, there may be a message.
We reached the end of Finnegans Wake at 5.21pm on 21 February, 2021.4 The sublime final pages of the Wake are narrated by the principal female character, Anna Livia Plurabelle, reminiscent of the last chapter of Ulysses, which is given over entirely to Molly Bloom.
In these passages of supreme poetic beauty, similar to a magisterial piece of music, the composer re-states his grand themes. Familiar tunes return – the tale of fallen humanity, the promise of forgiveness, the rainbow covenant, the human habit of repeating failures. Characters we have come to know and love also reappear: Mute and Jute, the Ant and the Grasshopper, Shem and Shaun, Tristan and Isolde, and of course the couple at the centre of the narrative, Anna Livia Plurabelle and Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Certain familiar settings also return: the courtroom scene which doubles as the final judgement; the public inn, which is also the family home as well as a theatre and a church.
By the time we reached those last words A way a lone a lost a last a loved a long the . . . I was ready to go right back to the beginning so we could complete the famous broken sentence that opens the book. . .riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commondious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle & Environs.
Finnegan, begin again.
The group, however, had already agreed to take a break from Joyce and read Paradise Lost, which will only take, the Milton enthusiast assures me, a year or two. After that, we are unanimous in our desire for a recirculation of Finnegans Wake.
If I make it to the end of the second round, I will be 81.