Finnegans Wake – Book III Chapter 1

This was, by far, the easiest chapter to read in this book so far.  Why does Joyce reserve relatively straightforward prose for the 13th chapter of a book that the average reader most likely gives up on halfway through chapter 1?  In fact, the answer to the question helps explain the “content” if this chapter, and the organization of whole book.  Let me explain.

First, though, a quotation from Frank Budgen’s “James Joyce’s Work in Progress and Old Norse Mythology” (in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work on Progress that’s a link to pdf, which is worth reading in its own right, especially the first essay, by Samuel Beckett)

The difficulty in entering into the imaginative world of [Finnegans Wake] lies in no unessential obscurity on Joyce’s part but in our own atrophied word sense due in large measure to the fact that our sensibilities have been steamrollered flat by a vast hulk of machine made fiction.

“Our own atrophied word sense” is an excellent summary of what most other words look like after you’ve spent the better part of two weeks reading Finnegans Wake.   It just deviates so far from convention that you come to see the conventionality of everything else in stark relief.  That a book should have characters,” a “plot,” “themes,” “rising action” and “falling action,”, etc., is the sort of norm we generally accept.  If you read negative reviews of both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake on goodreads (not something I really recommend doing) – for that matter, if you read negative reviews of ANY book that is reputed to be “difficult” on goodreads, you will find people saying things like

I don’t read books to be challenged, I read them to be entertained.

That formulation is relatively subjective – more offensive are the insistent, normative reviews that say things like:

Any book that I can’t tell what’s going on and have been sucked in within the first few pages isn’t worth reading.

Budgen’s diagnosis for readers like this – you can think it’s snobbish if you like – is that since “our sensibilities have been steamrollered flat by a vast hulk of machine made fiction,” we are bothered/irritated/annoyed when they don’t.  This same thing happens with music – read negative reviews of any music that deviate from that mainstream and you’ll read very similar formulations.

So far, so predictable right?  Josh writes another post complaining about how people don’t challenge themselves to think about things, read hard books, listen to difficult music, go beyond being merely “entertained” blah blah blah.  What Book III Chapter 1 of Finnegans Wake have anything to do with any of this?

Book III moves toward the fourth generation (after the old gods [Finnegan], Olympian gods [HCE/ALP], and their children [Shem/Shaun/Issy]) it’s been called the “book of the people,” – and it’s also centered around a conservative, arrogant populist leader – Shaun.  This is the book by and about Shaun and Shaunishness, which is, more or less, the insistence upon certain norms in historically totally unreflective ways.

In other words, this point in the book embodies a mythic age (one inevitably recurrent in the flow of human history) when all the other possibilities of language are marginalized, censored or forgotten, and we’re just left with “our own atrophied word sense,” purporting to be the whole of language.  When the norms that run a society become so inculcated, so self-confident, so unreflective and our sense of history becomes so amnesiac that norms cease to look like norms; they become “just how things are and always will be.”  This is as true of language as it is of politics.  Rather than poesis as creation, we have “machine-made fiction.”  We have “an entertaining narrative that sucks you in right from the beginning” and all the other inane cliches of middle-brow reviews – or we have nothing.  A society ruled by Shaun becomes a society with no place for Shem.  Except that Shem’s not the kind of guy you can really get rid of.

Shaun is a leader fit for such a society.  If HCE is Bill Clinton, Shaun is George W. Bush.  And this chapter is not just written about a W-like leader, it’s written in the style of such a leader (and such a people).

We can break this chapter into four simple sections – a grandiose introduction of Shaun, Shaun holding forth in dialogue with his people (“we” in the text), the digression of the Gracehopper and the Ondt (a self-serving fable offered by Shaun himself), then finally Shaun’s departure (he totally loses his nerve when asked about his brother Shem).

I.  Introduction of Shaun

Shaun is introduced by a first-person, though initially nameless narrator (much like the “Cyclops” section of Ulysses.  Here’s a representative sample:

Shaun!  Shaun!  Post the post!  with a high voice and O, the higher on high the deeper and low, I heard him so… Whom we dreamt was a shaddo, sure, he’s lighseyes, the laddow!  … dressed like an earl in just the correct wear… (404).

The identity of the “I” turns out to be none other than an ass – literally, the donkey that follows around the four old scholars.  To wit:

But I, poor ass, am but as their fourpart tinkler’s dunkey (405).

This is really cool – what I realized about that donkey at that moment was how much of an archetype such a figure really is.  The toadie who accompanies the authoritarian.  Lear’s Fool.  The emporer’s (the one with new clothes) advisors.

After a long specification of all the food that noble Shaun eats – “his stockpot dinner of a half a pound of round steak very rare” (406), we get an account of Shaun in “dialogue” with this ass (and the “I” becomes a “we” – the collective asininity that flatters itself by flattering its co-productively asinine leaders).  On one level, that’s “the media,” but it’s also the rest of us in our parrotting of official dictates and conventional wisdom.

Our insistence on fashionability, trends in entertainment, and LANGUAGE, in the form of “catch-phrases” and cliches – formulaic Orwellian “strips of words” devoid of meaning.

But easy enough to read.

II.  The Dialogue

Shaun and “we” exchange mutually reassuring pro forma questions and answers.  Here’s a representative sample:

– But have we until now ever besought you, dear Shaun, we remembered, who it was, good boy, to begin with, who out of symphony gave you the permit?

– Goodbye now, Shaun replied, with a voice pure as a churchmode, in echo rightdainty, with a good catlikc tug at his cocomoss candylock, a foretaste in time of his cabbageous brain’s curlyflower (409).

Note there’s a gentle tone of rebuke in the “we’ voice – “who.. gave you the permit?” but those criticism are mostly ignored or brushed under the carpet by Shaun’s replies.  Also note that Shaun’s language encompasses some of HCE’s – “echo” being HCE backwards, and “cabbageous” being a reference to one of HCE’s first incarnation back in the early chapters, of “our cabbaging Cincinnatus.”  Shaun is the part of HCE that holds forth in imperial ideality.  Shem, for Shaun – encompasses all the other parts – all the bad parts.  There was no “crime” committed by HCE, from this perspective, there’s just the crime of trying to talk badly of one’s betters — HCE’s crime as reported by Shem gets totally transposed onto Shem himself.  In a society of Shauns, shooting the messenger makes complete sense – ignoring, though it does, that Shaun himself is the postman.  That doesn’t really make sense on its face – but watch that dumbshow from V for Vendetta, and it will start to.

III.  The Ondt and the Gracehopper

At “we”s prodding – “Song!  Shaun, song!  Have mood!  Hold forth!” (414), he regales “us” with the tale of “the Ondt and the Gracehopper.”  But note that even this request for “Song” speaks to one of Shaun’s deficiencies – his lack of creativity.  In Shaun’s society, there is no distinction between propaganda and art.  “24” is about the best we (not “we”, we) could do in the post-9/11 world.

The is straightforward moralism.  The “gracehopper” is the freeloading Shem; the steadfast, group-regarding “ondt” is the morally “pure puer” Shaun.   “The gracehoper was always jigging ajog, hoppy on akkant of his joyicity” (414).  He’s socially irresponsible, accomplishes nothing, is the stereotypical flaky artist (like the “beachbusker” way back in chapter 2).  The “Ondt” on the other hand, “was a weltall fellow, raumybult and abelboobied, byner saw altitudious wee a shelling in kopfers” (416).

The story is about the same as all the other Shem/Shaun reiterations – the two characters bicker with one another and eventually the story fades.  Before it fades, however, there’s a song.  This song is part “Tale of Shem” (I.7), and part “Ballad of Persse O’Reilly” (I.2).  Its final couplet shows that in a way, “we” and “Shem” fuse into one.  Lear’s fool, after all, repeatedly reveals Lear’s shortcomings with his “tu quoque” humor.  So here with the Gracehopper/we/Shem, addressing the Ondt/Shaun:

Your genus its worldwide, your spacest sublime!

But, Holy Saltmartin, why can’t you beat time? (419)

A little close reading:  “Your genus” is both “your type” and also “your genius” is worldwide.  Your wisdom spreads over the world and there are lots of people like you.  Your spacest sublime – “your space is sublime” and also “your sublimity is ‘spaceest’ – spread over the widest possible space.  “But… why can’t you beat time?”  Seems obvious enough.  The universality of space that empire pursues is inherently unstable.  It always flatters itself as a permanent “end of history” (remember Francis Fukuyama’s claim back in the 90’s?)  But time always has its revenge.  The opposition of space and time have been a fundamental theme of the book: here they reach their clearest point of contention.

Shaun puts the story to rest (even though its telling contains the seeds of his destruction, seeds he doesn’t recognize) with a prayer:

In the name of the former and of the latter and of their holocaust.  Allmen (419).

IV.  Shaun’s Departure

The dialog continues as “we” praise Shaun: “Now?  How good you are in explosition!  Har farglung is your fokloire and how velktingeling your volupkabulary!” (419).  Later Shaun reveals the letter written by Shaun, in a bid to finally condemn him – the letter turns out to be just bits and pieces of confusing history, which Shaun alleges to be plagiarized.  This is always Shaun’s fundamental accusation against Shem – to borrow U2’s formulation, “every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief.”  But then something happens with “we” that destabilizes the situation:

-Kind Shaun, we all requested, much as we hate to say it, but since you rose to the use of money have you not, without suggesting for an instant, millions of moods used up slanguage tun times as words as the penmarks used out in sinscript with such hesitancy by your cerebrated brother–excuse me not mentioningahem?

-CelebrAted!  Shaun replied under the sheltar of his broguish, vigorously rubbing his magic latern to a glow of full-conciousness.  HeCitEncy!  Your words grates on my ares.  Notorious I rather would feel inclined to myself in the first place to describe Mr O’Shem the Draper with before letter as should I be accentually called upon for a dieoguinnsis to pass my opinions, properly spewing, into impulsory irelitz (421).

Even though “we” were only mentioning Shem in the midst of phrasing Shaun, even this mention is too much.  “CelebrAted!… Notorious I rather would feel…”

There was only one time during the whole of the George W Bush administration where I ever saw W actually look uncomfortable.  Well – he looked uncomfortable the whole time, but he also always was on message, so he really never had to be revealed AS uncomfortable in any media narrative.  But the one time he really, truly looked uncomfortable and had no obvious way out, at least the time that I remember?  When Stephen Colbert delivered his satirical broadside at the White House Correspondence dinner, I think in 2006?

Bush had this angry look on his face by the end – he had to keep laughing along, there was no real escape – but when Colbert finished, he gave him an extremely curt handshake and disappeared off stage about as quickly as you’ll ever see.  Things had gone off script – and it wasn’t insult or hostility that did it, it was tu quoque-style overidentification.  The only way into Bush’s arrogance, it turns out, was a repeated display of it in a mirror.

That’s more or less what happens in III.1 as well: Shaun loses his temper at the mere mention of his brother, at the possibility that he’s perhaps “celebrated” – Shaun’s vanity cannot take it.  To continue the Ulysses/“Cyclops” parallel, that’s what happens there as well.  Bloom makes some gentle criticisms of “the Citizen,” and all hell breaks loose (rhetorically anyway – what happens in he narrative is no more and no less than the citizen throwing a muffin tin at the departing Bloom).

As Shaun makes his exit, “we” continue to heap praise:

Turn your coat, strong character, and tarry among us down the vale, yougander, only once more!  And may the mosse of prosperousness gather you rolling home!… like the good man you are, with your picture pockets turned knockside out in the rake of the rain for fresh remittances and from that till this in any case, timus renant, may the tussocks grow quickly under your trampthcikets and the daisies trip lightly over your battercops (428).

Shaun leaves, and though the leaving happens because of humiliation and embarrassment, “we” find peace in maintaining the ritual fiction of the situation, the myth of the departing hero is put back in place.

While I was reading this chapter, I thought – this “we” thing seems contrived.  Now that I write about it – I think – perhaps Joyce just meant it literally.”  Who is “we”?  Us.

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