Chapter 7 is one of the book’s more readable, conventionally structured sections. It’s, more or less, a biography of Shem aka “Shem the Penman,” twin brother of Shaun aka “Shaun the Postman,” both sons of HCE and ALP. Shem and Shaun are characters around which cluster all the fratricidal conflicts of history, literature, and religion. They are variously Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Romulus and Remus, Brutus and Cassius, etc. – but they also represent more abstract oppositions: sight (Shaun) vs. hearing (Shem), practice vs. theory, honesty vs. deception, space vs. time, masculinity vs. femininity, straight vs. gay, marriage vs. sex, etc. etc. etc. Read the pages of this text that describe Shem and Shaun, and you will find any binary opposition your mind can cook up, somehow attributed to these two characters.
One criticism of Chapter 7 is that it’s too readable (really – I’ve read this before). That criticism alleges that Joyce was too distracted by its autobiographical aspects, and so he didn’t render it in as artful a fashion as he could have. I find it pleasant in its relative accessibility; it reprises a theme found in Ulysses, that of art’s frustration with (but dependence upon) mockery. Ulysses opens not with Stephen Dedalus or Leopold Bloom, but with “stately, plump Buck Mulligan” and his taunting of Dedalus, who is basically unable to confront Mulligan with any force, and so retreats into himself. Introversion in response to annoying extroverts’ inanities being a theme close to my heart as well, I’ve always liked Stephen Dedalus more than a lot of critics seem to think even Joyce means for us to. Joyce himself was frustrated by the mockery of one Oliver St John Gogarty, and also by the conventional professionalism of his brother Stanislaus. Shem is Stephen Dedalus/James Joyce raised to mythical status.
I break Chapter 7 into three parts – the 3rd-person biography of Shem (as told by Shaun), the 2nd-person accosting of Shem by Shaun, and finally the (brief) 1st-person defense of Shem by Shem (which quickly gives way to his own cries to his mother), leading into chapter 8, all about ALP.
I. Shaun’s Biography of Shem
The voice of the narrative is taunting and belittling almost right away:
Shem is short for Shemus as Jem is joky for Jacob. A few toughnecks are still getatable who pretend that aboriginally he was of respectable stemming… but every honest to goodness man in the land of the space of today knows that his back life will not stand being written about in black and white. Putting truth and untruth together a shot may be made at what this hybrid actually was like to look at (169).
The clear, straightforward prose is a clear mark of Shaun, who is always far more interested in accessibility than truth. Two more markers of Shaun lurk here – “space,” and “actually was like to look at.” Space and visuality are two of Shaun’s prime attributes, and viewed thusly, Shem is ridiculous. We begin with his tale of “playing with thistlewords in their garden nursery” (169), conveying childhood as well as the Garden of Eden. Shem liked to pose unsolvable riddles and taunt the other children when they could not solve them.
Perhaps the most common form of insult about Shem is to complain about his “lowness” (171). This word or other forms of it appear dozens of times through this chapter. An early autobiographical cue comes when we learn that “he even ran away with hunself and became a farsoonerite, saying he would far sooner muddle through the hash of lentils in Europe that meddle with Irrland’s split little pea” (171). Shem fled Ireland for Europe, just like Joyce did in 1903.
Another mark of Shaun in this chapter are a couple of interrupting advertisements – “Johns is a different butcher’s. Next place you are up town pay him a visit. Or better still, come tobuy…” (172). These ads are the inevitable intrusion of profitability upon art (at least that’s how Shem would see them; Shaun would seem them as sensible attempts to profit from a story people want to hear).
Shem is explicitly tied to his earlier incarnations (Mutt, Hosty [author of the Ballad of Pearse O’Reilly] The Gripes, etc.) –
abusing his deceased ancestors wherever the sods were and one moment tarabooming great blunderguns (poh!) about his farfamed fine Poppamore, Mr. Humhum, whom history, climate and entertainment made the first of his sept and always up to debt… (173)
Recall that Hosty was described as a failed “beachbusker” who found his one big hit in his ballad.
After this initial fame, Shem
with increasing lack of interest in his semantics, allowed various subconscious smickers to drivel slowly across their fichers… with a meticulosity bordering on the insane, the various meanings of all the different foreign parts of speech he misused (173).
Again Joyce answers his critics by aping them – not least of whom Stanislaus, who is was highly critical of what he saw as Joyce’s abandonment of the common reader in his Finnegans Wake.
As with most other chapters in this book, we get a couple of lengthy catalogs. There is a list of games Shem played as a child, and then later a long list of things one could find in Shem’s study – “he kuskykorked himself up tight in his inkbattle house, badly the worse for boosegas, there to say in afar for the life” (176). It seemed significant that he locks himself away just as HCE had earlier (in chapter 3, after he was chased out of town/tried/convicted, largely as a result of the success of the ballad we now know Shem or his stand-in wrote). So art becomes, somehow, patricidal, and since Shem is really an aspect of HCE, patricide becomes suicide.
This chapter contains a line often quoted in Joyce scholarship – “… amid the inspissated grime of his glaucous den making believe to read his usylessly unreadable Blue Book of Eccles” (179), i.e., Ulysses. The catalog of his writings includes also “imeffible tries at speech unasyllabled… fallen lucifers… borrowed brogues… once current puns… seedy ejaculations… spilt ink, blasphematory spits… godmothers’ garters [this is just one of a long list of women’s underthings found] … chambermade music… writing the mystery of himsel in furniture” (184).
Another often-quoted line (especially by the post-structuralists and the psychoanalytic critics): Shem “wrote over every square inch of the only foolscap available, his own body, till by its corrosive sublimation one continuous present tense integument slowly unfolded all marryvoising moodmoulded cyclewheeling history” (185-186).
Eventually we find Shem accused of HCE-like crimes “reeling more to the right than he lurched to the left, on his way from a protoprostitute… with his arch girl, Arcoiris, smockname of Mergyt” (186).
II. Shaun Addresses Shem
Stand forth, Nayman of Noland (for no longer will I follow you obliquelike through the inspired form of the third person singular and the moods and hesitensies of the deponent but address myself to you, with the empirative of my vendettative, provocative and out direct).
Just as Shem, like HCE before him, goes on trial, Shaun gives up the pretense of biography and shifts from the “third person singular” into the “provocative” and “empirative.” The tone changes to outright hostility and imperious accusation: “you will need all the elements in the river to clean you over it all and a fortifine popepriestpower bull of attender to booth” (188).
This section ends with a haunting “third person singular” sentence, which sounds like a stage direction:
He points the deathbone and the quick are still. Insomnia, somnia somniorum. Awmawm (193).
III. Shem’s Self-Defense
Shem tries to swear off his brother – “My fault, his fault, a kingship through a fault! Pariah, cannibal Cain, I who oathily forewore the womb that bore you… it is to you, firstborn and firstfruit of woe to me, branded sheep… ” (194). This foreswearing quickly morphs into Shem’s words more or less adopting the fetal position and pleading for his mother:
because ye left from me, because ye laughed on me, because, O me lonely son, ye are forgetting me!, that our furfbrown mummy is acoming, alpilla, beltilla, ciltella, deltilla, running with her tidings (194).
And just as the text prepares us for chapter 8, we get another haunting 3rd-personal stage direction, and then an onomatopoetic water-word:
He lifts the lifewand and the dumb speak.
Shaun = “deathbone”, Shem = “lifewand”? Shaun’s attempt to establish order becomes death; Shem’s insistence on art (fraudulent though it may be), reaffirms life. Shaun is the one that didn’t want Finnegan to wake up, the crowd that chased HCE back to his own. Shem is that same restoration of Finnegan waking up, and HCE escaping.
Later on, we get a “tale of stem or stone.” But first, Anna Livia Plurabelle (chapter 8, and the close of book I).