‘The real metaphysical problem today is the word’.
Mythic discourse begins when the individual characters of a narrative start to embody forces larger than themselves. The mythic transformation can have a religious, heroic, tragic or comic sense as instanced in the figures of Cordelia or Beatrice, Antony or Aeneas, Lear or Oedipus, Falstaff or Don Giovanni respectively. The characters of Finnegans Wake, Earwicker, Anna Livia, Shem, Shaun and Issy, are clearly of mythic proportions and, though Joyce uses every variety of myth from the Icelandic Eddas to the minor mythologies of modern popular culture as means of stuffing up the mythic body of his characters, the religious, heroic or tragic elements in the composition of these figures are entirely transformed into the comic mode, so that the product belongs indubitably to the genre of comic myth.
Thus it is misguided to seek religious messages in this twentieth century scripture, even though it presents itself as a long meditation on the Fall (the fall of Tim Finnegan from a ladder in the ballad which gives the book its name, parallelled with the obscure indiscretion of Earwicker in the Phoenix Park, with allusions to Adam, Babel, Ibsen’s Master Builder, Finn McCool, Humpty Dumpty, Wellington etc.).
The fall is a perpetual occasion for mischief right through the book, from the ribaldry of: ‘His howd feeled heavy, his hoddit did shake (There was a wall of course in erection. Dimb! He stottered from the latter. Damb! he was dud. Dumb! Mastabatoom, mastabadtomm, when a mon merries his lute is all long’ (p. 6), to the various ludicrous apologies made for or by Earwicker: ‘To such a suggestion the one selfrespecting answer is to affirm that there are certain statements which ought not to be, and one should like to hope to be able to add, ought not to be allowed to be made. Nor have his detractors, who, an imperfectly warmblooded race, apparently conceive him as a great white caterpillar capable of any and every enormity...’ (p. 33). And as this comedy is in addition always verbal and never philosophical it seems to offer no foothold at all for those who wish to discover a solemn significance in Joyce’s work.
However I think I can catch a glimmer of such a significance, and that it is not for nothing that the Fall is so central. FW enacts the fall of language and in doing so mirrors the crisis of contemporary culture, a culture in which all traditional languages have got out of their depth and no new and effective language has been found to replace them. The impotence of religious language may be reflected in such excursions as the following: ‘For the Clearer of the Air from on high has spoken in tumbuldum tambaldam to his tembledim tombaldoom worrild and, moguphonoised by that phonemanon, the unhappitents of the earth have terrerumbled from fimament unto fundament and from tweedledeedumms down to twiddledeedees’ (p. 258). Efforts at philosophical clarification produce such jumbles as: ‘The untireties of livesliving being the one substrance of a streamsbecoming’ (p. 597), and sober scholarly method cannot succeed in restoring to language its hold on reality: ‘To conclude purely negatively from the positive absence of political odia and monetary requests that its page cannot ever have been a penproduct of a man or woman of that period or those parts is only one more unlookedfor conclusion leaped at, being tantamount to inferring from the nonpresence of inverted commas (sometimes called quotation marks) on any page that its author was always constitutionally incapable of misappropriating the spoken words of others’ (p. 108).
The fatigue and breakdown of language is further illustrated in the multiplication of media of communication which serve only to increase the impossibility of communicating: ‘bawling the whowle hamshack and wobble down in an eliminium sounds pound so as to serve him up a melegoturny marygoraumd’ (p. 309).
Yet as it loses its ability to say anything language acquires an unprecedented richness, as it dances in a ceaseless whirl before our dazzled minds, stealing all the attention for itself now that its objective reference has vanished. No wonder that the fall is expressed by the hundred-letter thunder-word which occurs ten times in FW, for this tower of Babel construction imitates the hypertrophy of language to the point where it falls into meaninglessness and a new primitivity.
The thunder-word is perhaps to be brought into conjunction with the Silences of pp. 94, 334, 427, 501: together they represent the nihilism at the heart of the babble of tongues produced by a decadent civilisation. The frustrating opacity of the texture of the work can be seen as expressing the cul-de-sac into which Western culture has been led and as parodying the parade of signs without signification amid which we live.
If FW can thus be seen as addressing the crisis of modern culture, it must not be supposed that it is merely in order to despair of ever finding the way back to a viable Word. On the contrary Joyce seems to experience the collapse as a ‘happy fault’ and the book’s lapsarian style – lapses of pen and tongue, lapses of taste, Freudian slips and puns, bouts of senile or drunken rambling – exploits every way in which language can make a fool of itself, so that every phrase of it reveals another potential absurdity in the way humans express themselves.
The result is a fertile ferment in which the expressive devices of language are able to manifest all their vitality as they act and react upon each other, in oblivion of anything they may have once intended to express, like the serpentine designs in some old Celtic manuscript. The Mallarmean mystique of the Word enjoys a triumph in this implosion of all the speech of the world into the self-contained density of a book that is about nothing but itself. The fall of language is visibly and simultaneously a rebirth, the movement of collapse and parodistic deconstruction being countered by the creative restoration of the splendour of language in the prose that results.
Note, for example, how the parody of the four old men on p. 384 is constructed as a collage of three tenses (past, present, future) and three persons (we, you, they) so that the helplessness of the garrulous discourse is redeemed by the cubistic richness of its elaboration at Joyce’s hands:
‘There was old Matt Gregory and then besides old Matt there was old Marcus Lyons, the four waves, and oftentimes they used to be saying grace together, right enough, bausnabeatha, in Miracle Squeer: here now we are the four of us: old Matt Gregory and old Marcus and old Luke Tarpey: the four of us and sure thank God there are no more of us: and, sure now, you wouldn’t go and forget and leave out the other fellow and old Johnny MacDougall...’.
The rebirth of language is celebrated not only in the fine complications of the texture, but also in the system or pseudo-system of symbols and recurrent motifs which presides over the elaboration of Finneganese and confers on the work the cachet of formal unity. The language of FW refers as consistently to the book's mythology as the language of newspapers refers to events of the day, yet in such a way as to make us aware that the mythology exists for the language, as the theme which makes it possible, rather than as its objective referent.
Hence the five main characters dissolve into five genres of abundant chatter. and their metamorphosis into mythic figures is one with their melting into styles of monologue. That is why neither the myths used by Joyce nor the myths he creates are what most constitute the real mythic power of FW, which resides in its language.
The mere look of the words on the page speaks to our linguistic dilemma as religious myths spoke to the anxieties of men in older cultures, laying bare the forces of destruction implicit in our language and also setting free its vitality, just as the myth of the ‘dying and rising God’ lays bare the dynamic underlying seasonal changes and attunes one to its vital impact.
FW invites comparison with the work of two other men – Friedrich Nietzsche and T. S. Eliot – who had recourse to myth in order to counter the nihilism they too detected at the core of the modern world.
Nietzsche attempted to celebrate, with crazed fixity, the mythic notion of ‘the eternal return of the same’ – a metaphor it seems to me for the paralysis of a world in which no value or goal can be discerned to give our words meaning or our lives a direction – and he felt he had overcome nihilism in surrendering to the imposing necessity with which this mythic figure asserted itself. Joyce also uses a notion of eternal return as the basic mythic structure in FW, but as a comic device enabling him to show language picking itself up and putting itself together again after its fall.
Eternal return can be used as a suitably lightweight paradigm of comic redemption, comparable to the traditional happy ending. Comedy is expected to laugh at life's problems, not to solve them. Nor is there anything to prevent a comic artist from poking ironic fun at the very solution he purports to propose, as Joyce is all the time laughing at his elaborate Viconic cycles. The spirit of detached acceptance which Nietzche aimed at in embracing the eternal return could perhaps be properly achieved only in the mode of comedy.
Certainly T. S. Eliot found no solace in eternal return and at the beginning of Four Quartets we find him rejecting it for the eschatological dynamic of the cross, the only effective way of redemption. In The Waste Land he had found in cyclic myth a relief from the sterility of modern culture, but the relief came in the form of a nostalgia for transcendence rather than comic acceptance and buoyant recuperation in the manner of Joyce. Later he dominated this mythic material in a formal articulation of faith, subjecting the whirl of words to the meaning they strain to express, thus triumphing in language over language in a way that is supplementary to Joyce's comic approach.
In Joyce the Fall is equated with creation – divine, sexual, literary – and since every verbal slip in his linguistic paradise rights itself by joining all the others in their merry dance, there is no possibility or need of redemption. Where Eliot parodies the language of the age in order to purify it and make it the bearer of a deeper meaning, Joyce achieves its total corruption and causes it to run riot in meaninglessness in a parody whose only redeeming grace is its aesthetic richness. The problem of the word for Eliot is the agonising emptiness of its eternal return, yet as Joyce sets this eternal return in motion he shows it capable of a snowballing vitality which belies its apparent inanity. The word for Eliot is tragic finitude, for Joyce it is comic infinity. For both it is the battleground where meaning can be won from encroaching futility and decay.
History for Joyce, as for Nietzsche and Eliot, is a nightmare from which one tries to awake, and until one does one remains helpless before the contents of one’s mind’, a victim of a constipated culture. Nietzsche's escape was through a critical rejection of all the lies, especially holy lies, which were what made history such a nightmarish force, and through the project of a new start. Eliot aspired to a conservative reprise of the values of tradition in a new constellation and in ‘‘Little Gidding' indulges a vision of history falling into a meaningful pattern as a ray of heavenly light traverses its divisions and confusion. Joyce however revels in the absurdity of history and finds his escape in mastering the whole show, by means of his outlandish cyclic constructs, and treating it as a comic performance:
‘If a human being duly fatigued by his dayety in the sooty, having plenxty off time on his gouty hands and vacants of space at his sleepish feet... were at this auctual futule preteriting unstant... accorded, throughout the eye of a noodle, with an earsighted view of old hopeinhaven with all the ingredient and egregiunt whights and ways to which in the curse of his persistence the course of his tory will had been having recourses,... then what would that fargazer seem to seemself to seem seeming of, dimm it all?’ (p. 143)
The answer, ‘A collideorscape’, suggests that the fusion of all the available scraps of historical reminiscence into a linguistic kaleidoscope, in which the perpetual tumble of history becomes a pleasant patterned spectacle, is a device that provides at the same time an escape from history. As the fall is ‘retaled’ (p. 3) the absurdities of history are replaced by the creative freedom of the tale, which thus represents in a form peculiar to our age the phoenix of myth rising from the ashes of history.
From: The Crane Bag 2 (1978)