Finnegans Wake – Book II Chapter 2

This is the third time I’ve said this but it’s been true each time – this chapter was the most difficult yet.  By the end I decided that its being un-understandable was the point.  There’s a sense in which that’s true of the whole book (and a sense in which that sounds like a maddening justification for incoherence).  But ultimately reading this chapter was a powerful experience – I’ll try to explain why.

We can break it into three sections – one extremely long, incoherent textbook-looking jumble of lessons about (at least) grammar, geometry, history, and literature; one long list of bad essay questions (bad essay questions are immediately recognizable to this teacher-reader); a final letter by Shem, Shaun and Issy for their parents.

The overall effect is that of a massive, incoherent curriculum which is the object of study for Shem, Shaun and Issy, followed by unreasonable essay questions they are in no position to answer, followed by almost a plea for mercy to their parents.  In a way, this chapters does more justice to the experience of childhood education than any other more “straightforward” account could.

I.  The Lessons

I’ll start with a topological description, since “reading” this section was, for the most part, impossible.  If you click here, you can see what the first page look like as e-text.  You’ll note that the page is in a recognizable format, and if you don’t look at any of the words (most of which will seem like nonsense), the look of the page as a whole will be familiar.  Each page has four sections:

a)  Text, down a central column.

b)  Footnotes at the bottom.

c)  Italicized notes on the left-hand margin

d)  Capitalized summary headings in the right-hand margin.

In other words, we have here a textbook.  The trouble is, viewed in isolation, very little of it makes sense.  I’ll select a random page (264) and give an example from each of (a)-(d) above.

 (a)  By this riverside, on our sunnybank,2 how  buona the vista, by Santa Rosa!

(b) [Footnote 2] When you dreamt that you’d wealth in marble arch do you ever think of pool beg slowe.

(c)  [Note in left-hand margin] Move up.  Mackinarney!  Make room for Mackinarney!


Even setting aside the usual confusion about words and their misspellings, puns between languages, etc. (and that sort of obfuscation is actually relatively under control in this chapter) it is very, very difficult to make sense of what we have here.  Let’s try to deal with (a)-(d) separately.  I’ll “translate” into more easily managed English.

(a)  By the riverside on the sunny bank, how beautiful is the view by Santa Rosa.

(b) When you dreamt that you’d become wealthy in Marble Arch, did you ever think of “a pool bed slowe” [no idea how to parse this last bit].

(c) Mackinenry’s here, move up to make room for him.


I submit that each idea in this cluster of ideas has nothing whatsoever to do with the others, and that, more or less, this is true for 35 pages.

Even the different parts of the page do not remain consistent in style.  Sometimes the footnotes sound like academic explanations, sometimes chitchat of someone bored by a lesson.  Sometimes the left-hand column reads like a student’s scrawled notes, sometimes just irrelevant names.  Sometimes the right-hand column actually sounds like a title, and bearing it in mind helps you (to some extent) understand the text to its left.  At other times, it’s just incoherent and totally unrelated.

Nevertheless, there is at least a set of thematic clusters you can trace through these pages.

(i) A retelling of the HCE/ALP legen (260-265)

(ii) More focus on Shem, Shaun and Issy (265-268)

(iii)  A section that tends more towards Issy, and is about grammar:

From gramma’s grammar she has it that if there is a third person, mascarine, phelinine or nuder, being spoken abad it moods prosodes from a person speaking to her second which is the direct object that has been spoken to, with and at.  Take the dative with his oblative for, even if obseleted, it is always of interest, so spake gramma on the impetus of her imperative, only mind your genderous towards his reflextives such that I was to your grappa (Bott’s trousend, hore a man uff!) when him was me hedon and mine, what the lewdy saying, his analectual pygmyhop (268)

If you’re ever eavesdropped on a teacher who doesn’t themselves understand grammar, and is trying to teach a classroom full of kids about it, the above actually isn’t that far off!  I also appreciate “oblative” –> “obselete”/”ablative”: it expresses something I feel often in teaching Latin, namely that the ablative is really fascinating, has no exact analogy in English, and that fascination is impossible to convey to students who do not yet understand it.

The gender and grammar-twisting goes on for a few pages (268-272), and shifts to a brief retelling of ALP’s giving everyone gifts (from I.8).

(iv) more talk about politics and history, during which Shem and Shaun become more prominent (272-292?).

(v)  Geometry lessons and diagrams (293 has a picture of two circles whose overlapping sections inscribes two triangles, one of which is labeled as ALP and the other as alpha-lambda-pi (i.e., Greek ALP).

On 296, “hogwarts” appears.  I’m not sure if this is a neologism we can credit to Joyce or a reference to something else.

(vi) Shift to religious/textual study (298-306).  More identification of Shaun as a temporal, worldly leader  – “And Kev was wreathed with his pother” (303).

II.  The end of the lessons/Start of the Assignments

The left-hand margin is filled with historically significant names – “Cato.  Nero.  Saul.  Aristotle.  Julius Caesar.  Pericles.  Ovid.  Adam, Even.  Domitian.  Edipus.  Socrates.  Ajax.  Homer.  MarcusAurelius [no space].  Alcibiades.  Lucretius” etc (306).

In the central text, there are lists of titles and questions.

What Morals, if any, can be drawn from Diamuid and Grania?  Do you approve of our Existing Parliamentary System?  The Uses and Abuses of Insects, A visit to Guinness’ Brewery… Is the Co-Education of Animus and Anima Wholly Desirable?…” (306-307).

The notes here get more informal, with one that made me laugh out loud after 40 pages of struggle:

[307 footnote 4] I’ve lost the place, where was I?

Right at the end of this section there’s a vaguely Indo-European looking number list, from 1-10: “Aun, Do, Tri, Car, Cush, Shay, Shockt, Ockt, Ni, Geg, Their feed begins.”

Next to each number in the left-hand margin is a word.

Pantocracy.  Aun

Bimutualism.  Do

Interchangeability.  Tri

Naturality.  Car

Superfetation.  Cush

Stabimobilism.  Shay

Periodicity.  Shockt

Consummation.  Ockt

Interpenetrativeness.  Ni

Predicament.  Geg

Balance of the factual by the theoric Boox and Coox, Amallagmated.  Their feed begins.

It’s mildly tempting to try to attribute meaning to each of these pairs (and to the numeric deformations themselves).  But then it’s also tempting to see it as an intentionally confusing badly written textbook.  From there we can draw a greater lesson – passing on “the wisdom of the past” is an inherently futile, doomed enterprise that’s bound to create this sort of jumble, and the frustration it causes students through the ages is itself inevitable as well.


With our best youlldied greedings to Pep and Memmy and the old folkers below and beyant, wishing them all very merry Incarnations in this land of the livvey and plenty of preprosperousness through their coming new yonks


jake, jack and little sousoucie

(the babes that mean too)

As a teacher, this looks really familiar to me.  To wit:

I.  A really long incoherent lesson (one that takes too long and the teacher still insists on trying to “get through” it all) that the teacher is interested in and perhaps understands but not the students, who goof off, sometimes in the margins and sometimes in the notes.

II.  A confusing and badly written list of essay topics that will supposedly test the students’ knowledge of the foregoing (i.e., I)

III.  A total failure to address any of the questions in III and a childish regression into a pleading note to one’s parents and teachers to spare them from harsh judgment and an appeal to the emotions.  I’ve seen students do this – on a final exam they know they’ve failed, they’ll write a note that says something like “come on, you’re a cool guy, don’t fail me please!”

In other words, this chapter was mind-blowing nonsense.  It took about 2 hours to read the 40 pages or so, but it all came together somehow, and made me see, in the most brutal manner possible, just what we really do to ourselves under the heading of “education” – we try to compress centuries of received wisdom into arbitrarily distinguished subjects, and then conclude, generation after generation, that “these kids today” just can’t do it.

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