Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Happy Bloomsday, 2011 (But really: Thoughts on Finnegans Wake)

Awake from dream, the truth is known: awake from waking, the Truth is – The Unkown.”
            --Aleister Crowley, The Book of Lies

Today is Bloomsday, the day celebrated by literary enthusiasts around the world as the day on which James Joyce’s magnificent novel Ulysses takes place. All throughout Dublin on this day, each chapter of the novel is publicly read at its appropriate time and place, as Joyce assigned each chapter a location and time (except for the final chapter, which occurs after midnight and, metaphorically, outside of time altogether).
Much can be said about the brilliance of Ulysses, but my thoughts on this fine Bloomsday turn mainly to Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s final masterpiece. This novel – and “novel,” in its original sense of “new” is the right word here – is less a traditional novel with a plot than it is a huge, 628-page language experiment.
Written in what Joyce called “basically English,” the novel seamlessly blends puns from dozens of languages into sentences that manage to maintain a roughly English sound and an English syntax.
The purpose of such a bizarre experiment? To create on the page a representation of dream consciousness: the central conceit of the novel is that it is one man’s dream -- and also the dream of all of human art and history -- and like all dreams, it operates on multiple levels simultaneously. Every single sentence – and virtually every word – can be read in numerous ways, all suggestive of a wide variety of themes (and many of which contradict one another). Thus, the novel does not merely represent a dream: it seeks to perform the function of a dream. The process of reading the novel is designed to be like dreaming (or like stumbling through a drunken stupor).
The “plot” of the Wake -- insofar as we can say it has a plot at all -- follows very loosely the broad outline of the old drinking song “Finnegan’s Wake,” in which the corpse of Tim Finnegan – killed by a drunken fall off a ladder, of course – is re-animated when, during a brawl that breaks out in the middle of his wake, a bottle of whiskey (usquebaugh, literally “water of life”) is broken over his corpse. Joyce uses this very silly image of the resurrected dead as the basis for a meditation on the fall and redemption of mankind, or, more mystically, the "fall" of the individual into a self-aware ego and the "rise" of an individual into enlightenment. 
The main character of the novel, HCE – an everyman whose name means, among other things, “Here Comes Everybody” – suffers a metaphorical “fall” when he commits a sexual crime in front of two young girls in the appropriately-named Phoenix park (his crime is probably public masturbation, but a number of other alternatives are suggested throughout the text, many of which are scatological and in line with Joyce's own predilections). He is subsequently accosted by a man in the park (a double for himself), who proceeds to ask him for the time, accuse him of a crime, mug him, and make sexual advances on him – all at once. In another version of events, HCE is attacked by “three soldiers,” who are also his sons and representations of his younger self. In yet another version, the soldiers spread rumors about him that poison his reputation. Thus attacked, HCE becomes fragmented and is divided into his component parts, his two sons Shaun and Shem (his extroverted and introverted aspects, respectively). These figures – who wear a variety of disguises in the novel – battle with each other in fights that resemble a number of historical wars until their mother, ALP – HCE’s wife, who is a feminine version of HCE and another manifestation of the girls who tempt HCE to his sexual crime – reunites them with the help of Shem, who scribbles down a “letter” from ALP (i.e. the text of Finnegans Wake itself). Thus reunited, the brothers transform into a new version of HCE, who starts the process all over again. This notion of “eternal return” – not to mention the classical epic device of beginning in media res – is reinforced and literalized by the fact that the book ends in the middle of a sentence and begins in the middle of the same sentence. Like any dream, one is always in the midst of it (cf. Inception for a popular take on this idea…whenever you are in a dream, you never remember how you got to the place you find yourself).
The novel thus explores the fall and redemption of mankind, the persistence of sexual guilt in the human psyche, and the cyclical nature of human events. As the novel itself puts it, “Teems of times and happy returns, the seim anew.”
Everyone got that? It actually doesn’t matter if you did.
Why is any of this important? Well, it’s not, really, except that 1) I personally find it interesting, 2) the novel is vastly entertaining, 3) it’s a perfect allegory for the division of the One into Many and the return of the Many to One, which makes it an excellent text for Thelemites to study, and 4) its writing style literalizes the idea of every statement containing its opposite, and one might say that a thorough understanding of the text can only be had “above the abyss,” if you will.
One of these days, I might even write a book on the Wake that lays it out in Thelemic terms. Until then, I may periodically post readings of parts of the novel, as the mood strikes me and as time is available.
I’ll leave you now with a passage from early in the book (before the dream gets too deep and too difficult to penetrate) that describes the letter, the text-within-a-text that is Finnegans Wake itself. I will follow this passage with some brief thoughts on ways to read it.

And so it all ended. Artha kama dharma moksa. Ask Kavya for
the kay. And so everybody heard their plaint and all listened to
their plause. The letter! The litter! And the soother the bitther!
Of eyebrow pencilled, by lipstipple penned. Borrowing a word
and begging the question and stealing tinder and slipping like
soap. From dark Rasa Lane a sigh and a weep, from Lesbia
Looshe the beam in her eye, from lone Coogan Barry his arrow
of song, from Sean Kelly's anagrim a blush at the name, from
I am the Sullivan that trumpeting tramp, from Suffering Duf-
ferin the Sit of her Style, from Kathleen May Vernon her Mebbe
fair efforts, from Fillthepot Curran his scotchlove machree-
ther, from hymn Op. 2 Phil Adolphos the weary O, the leery,
O, from Samyouwill Leaver or Damyouwell Lover thatjolly
old molly bit or that bored saunter by, from Timm Finn again's
weak tribes, loss of strenghth to his sowheel, from the wedding
on the greene, agirlies, the gretnass of joyboys, from Pat Mullen,
Tom Mallon, Dan Meldon, Don Maldon a slickstick picnic made
in Moate by Muldoons. The solid man saved by his sillied woman.
Crackajolking away like a hearse on fire. The elm that whimpers
at the top told the stone that moans when stricken. Wind broke
it. Wave bore it. Reed wrote of it. Syce ran with it. Hand tore
it and wild went war. Hen trieved it and plight pledged peace.
It was folded with cunning, sealed with crime, uptied by a harlot,
undone by a child. It was life but was it fair? It was free but was
it art? The old hunks on the hill read it to perlection. It made
ma make merry and sissy so shy and rubbed some shine off Shem
and put some shame into Shaun. Yet Una and Ita spill famine
with drought and Agrippa, the propastored, spells tripulations
in his threne. Ah, furchte fruchte, timid Danaides! Ena milo melo-
mon, frai is frau and swee is too, swee is two when swoo is free,
ana mala woe is we! A pair of sycopanties with amygdaleine
eyes, one old obster lumpky pumpkin and three meddlars on
their slies. And that was how framm Sin fromm Son, acity arose,
finfin funfun, a sitting arrows. Now tell me, tell me, tell me then!
What was it?
A .......... !
? ..........0!

Like most passages in Finnegans Wake, this paragraph sums up the entire “plot” of the novel, and it specifically addresses the beginning and end of all things (and the way that the end of things is a beginning and vice versa), the alpha and the omega.
The four Sanskrit words at the beginning of the passage are the four yogic aims of life, success, pleasure, duty, and enlightenment  respectively. We are told to “Ask Kavya for the Kay,” which refers back to page 8 of the novel: “For her passkey supply to the janitrix, the mistress Kathe. Tip.” Tipping Kathe (both paying her and fucking her) is the key to – in that earlier passage – a museum that houses all of history, the Wellington Museum (transformed by Joyce into the “Willingdone Museum” – a history of all the wills that have been done. Note that Wellington and Napoleon are two versions of HCE in the novel. As an amusing sidenote, the museum is also called the “museyroom,” which is the place of the muse – history itself – and also a mushroom, the shape of HCE’s erection, the crime of which generates all of history in the novel’s scheme).
“Kavya” is Sanksrit for poetry (technically, a kind of elevated style found in court epic poetry) and also doubles as another version of Kathe. Ask poetry for the key, for poetry – like woman – holds the key to enlightenment (we might say, in Thelemic terms, that the woman referred to here is the Holy Guardian Angel, the High Priestess of the Tarot; and the "poetry" is the poetry of Finnegans Wake itself, which represents the confusing flux of life itself). Also, if we remove the “kay” from Kavya, we’re left with avya, a Sanskrit word meaning, roughly, pure knowledge, which we may gloss as enlightenment.
The passage describes the origins of the letter, its loss and discovery, and its contents. Toward the end of the paragraph, it rehearses the plot of the Wake, with HCE cast as Agrippa who, confronted with Una and Ita (the two girls, Irish for famine and thirst), “spells tripulations in his threne.” That is, he conducts a tripudiary (a form of Roman divination) among other spells, he is divided into triple (the three soldiers),  and experiences tribulations (the fall in the park) from his throne, which simultaneously suggests “threnos,” a classical ritual mourning for death (his symbolic death in the park).
“[F]urchte fruchte,” is German for “fear fruits,” and the “timid Danaids” refer to the Greek legend of the fifty daughters of Aegyptus, who slew their husbands in the middle of the night. The phrase is also a play on “Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes” (“I fear the Greeks, though they bear gifts,” Aeneid II: 49, spoken of the Trojan Horse that brought about the fall of Troy, the culmination of a war set into motion by the apple of Eris). To summarize, the two girls in the park are themselves “fearful fruit,” like the apple that set off the war that brought about the end of Troy and the apple in the Garden of Eden (Phoenix Park) that brought about the end of man’s Paradise. Like the Danaids, these girls/fruit – who are a form of HCE’s wife, ALP – slay HCE by bringing about his fall.
What follows sounds like unmistakably like a game of “eeny meeny miney moe,” though the reference is also to the Greek nursery rhyme, “ena melo, melo mou” (one apple, my apple). The line continues with the fruit theme and implies that the crime in the park – and, by extension, all of the conflicts and wars of history – is ultimately nothing more than children’s games, as it actually is depicted later in the Wake II: I.
The sing-song nature of the remainder similarly tells the tale of the Wake. “[F]rai is frau,” suggests both “woman is free (frei)” – the girls tempting HCE to his crime? – and Hamlet’s “frailty, thy name is woman,” along with the Macbeth’s “fair is foul and foul is fair” (note that this is spoken by the three weird sisters, probably another version of the three soldiers, and it works also to identify opposites).
Much, much more could be said about this one passage – and connections drawn to many, many passages in the Wake, which are reverberated and amplified here, but it is curious to note that the passage culminates in the Alpha and the Omega mediated by ? and !, in much the same way that Aleister Crowley does in The Soldier and the Hunchback and The Book of Lies (indeed, the third chapter in The Book of Lies – technically the 0th chapter – is numbered 0!).
It should be noted that Joyce knew something of the Qabalah, as later chapters of the Wake make explicit, so it’s almost certain he knew of the idea of zero as the origin of all things. To put it in Thelemic terms, the journey of the A to the O at the end of this passage suggests, among other things, the journey of the individual (A, a symbol of the pentagram and the microcosm for Crowley) towards dissolution in the body of Nuit (O!), mediated by insight and skepticism. The events of the park symbolically represent the birth of the ego as separate from the universe and its drive towards dissolution.
Did Joyce actually study Crowley, though? The answer, from everything I can ascertain, points to no. Joyce would have probably known of  Crowley – and indeed, there are one or two words in the Wake that suggest him – but I’m unaware of any evidence that would suggest that Joyce had anything more than a passing acquaintance with the name and reputation.
This means that the fact that Ulysses is set in 1904 – the same year as the reception of The Book of the Law – the fact that the Wake refers to itself as a Kairokorran (a Koran written in Cairo, like Liber AL?), and even the fact that the paragraph I glanced at for this post begins on page 93 (the sum of the word “Thelema” in Greek) – amount to nothing more than coincidences, but perhaps meaningful coincidences to the correct interpreter.
I’d be happy to be proven wrong, but I don’t think there’s anything that suggests that Joyce had an understanding of Thelema, as expressed in the writings of Aleister Crowley.
However, this is not to say that we cannot take a work like Finnegans Wake and analyze it using a Qabalistic and Thelemic framework. Since Joyce was drawing on such primordial forces of the human psyche, it would be surprising indeed if we could not draw fruitful insights by examining the text from the perspective of virtually any spiritual system.
I hope, as time goes on, to add other readings of the Wake and develop a series of posts on this text – and other works of art – from a Thelemic perspective.


  1. Very cool. Years ago, I spent hours photocopying nearly the entire contents of DiBernard's "Alchemy and Finnegans Wake." Now, much of it is online at Google books... :-)

    "From golddawn glory to glowworm gleam!"

  2. Thanks for the link, Cygnus. Very interesting!

    There is a lot of great material on the Wake that's available. Beginners will probably want to start with Campbell's classic "Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake," which was the first study that "cracked the code" of the text, so to speak.

    "From golddawn glory to glowworm gleam!"

    Indeed. For more on glow worms, see chapter 11 in the Book of Lies.