Joyce admired Wagner, alongside Ibsen and Hauptmann, as a fearless modern artist. His own writing ‘aspired to the condition of music’ (Walter Pater) long before and long beyond the ‘Sirens’ chapter of Ulysses, which like the ‘Oxen of the Sun’ chapter is a parody of the labour of style and a parody in particular of Wagner’s laborious musical style, with its opening roster of motifs, looking like the motif-lists in many guides to the Ring Cycle, and its quintet ‘as in Die Meistersinger, my favorite Wagnerian opera’ (quoted, Ellmann, 459, the quintet is perhaps in lines 192-432: Misses Douce and Kennedy, Mr Dedalus, Lenehan, and Boylan). At least from ‘The Dead’ on, his compositions present analogies with musical texture and structure. The flow of motifs of music and death throughout that story, as well as its division into twenty-four scenes, each with its specific musical form (as analyzed in O’Leary 1996; 1997), may already owe something to Wagner, though the story avoids any reference to him or to German music. Leitmotifs pervade the texture of Ulysses to the point of making it a sponge, absorbing motifs to saturation point, and reaching a climax in the recycling of all the novel’s motifs in the ‘Circe’ episode, where the text becomes a ‘self-consuming artefact’ (see O’Leary 2002). Full understanding of how motifs function in the texture of Joyce’s writing requires an analysis of its structures as well. This is a challenging area of study, in which many discoveries are no doubt yet to be made.
In Finnegans Wake Joyce invents a more radical form of literary leitmotif composition, which might be compared with the contemporary radicalization of motif and structure in the twelve-tone serialism of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. In a text added at the final stage of composition (Fordham, 131-2), Joyce compares his method with the splitting or annihilisation of the atom by Lord Rutherford in 1919 when he speaks of ‘The abnihilisation of the etym by the grisning of the grosning of the grinder of the grunder of the first lord of Hurtreford’ (FW 353). One might also compare it with Siegfried’s method in reforging the sword, by reducing it to splinters and smelting them in a crucible (no doubt reflecting Wagner’s own idea of his compositional techniques, notably in Tristan, the work for which he set Siegfried aside). Joyce splinters individual words and grafts them with words from many different languages, so that his set of motival phrases acquires an endless capacity for significant and ludic development and transformation. This is anticipated in Ulysses, particularly in the ‘Sirens’ chapter, where words are broken into sound elements and recombined—‘Clapclopclap. Encore, enclap, said, cried, clapped all’ (ll. 757-8)—and where we also meet the jingle effects that will be ubiquitous in Finnegans Wake: ‘Tipping her tepping her tapping her topping her. Tup. Pores to dilate dilating. Tup’ (ll. 706-7). But the realistic story is not undercut by these sound-effects.
In Finnegans Wake the abandonment of a realistic narrative frame allows motifs to develop purely musically, unbeholden to any concern with plot relevance. He Joyce goes beyond the saturation attained in Ulysses to produce a supersaturated and quite unmasterable text, which overwhelms any framework of understanding the reader brings to it, somewhat like the ‘saturated phenomenon’ of which Jean-Luc Marion speaks. Even if a complete catalogue of all the motifs, with a hypertextual guide to their interrelationships, were constructed, the problem of making sense of it all would remain unsolved.
Motivic density cannot be the only principle of composition in Finnegans Wake, which does present itself as a structured text, most obviously in its division into four parts and seventeen chapters. The fourfold division mirrors that of Wagner’s Tetralogy; Joyce’s fourth part is not divided into chapters just as Wagner’s first part is not divided into acts. Rheingold, billed as the Vorabend of the three principal dramas, has a marginal or eccentric place in the total scheme, and the same may be said of Joyce’s fourth part, which represents an awakening from the preceding night-dramas; Joyce ends with a morning after where Wagner begins with an evening before. The Wake begins all over again at the end, generated out of the letter A: ‘A way a lone a last a loved a long the’ (628:15-16), just as the Ring Cycle is generated out of the low E flat at the beginning of Rheingold.
Like any large-scale musical work, the text challenges us and obliges us to undertake structural analysis. But it is not clear whether the text will reward such analysis as music in the classical tradition does. Clive Hart’s title Structure and Motif in Finnegans Wake (1962) now seems naively optimistic, as if he expected the text to yield its structural secrets to any competent literary critic. Hart, indeed, abandoned Joycean studies as he realized to what a quagmire his inquiry led. Genetic studies show how the texture of Finnegans Wake became denser in the successive rewritings, but they have not yielded sufficient insight into the structural principles of the work. Indeed, it is still unclear if there are any significant structural features to be discerned, or if the patternings that may emerge will significantly affect our aesthetic apprehension and appreciation of the work.
In composing the work Joyce devoted most of his ingenuity to the constant enrichment of previous drafts by multiplying puns and allusions, with the result that the text becomes increasingly opaque. There is a spontaneous or organic structural aspect to this process: ‘A freestanding piece of text began to grow of itself and build into a larger textual unit. This unit in turn inspired other units… The text built its own “ports of call” as it grew’ (Slote, 15). The result confronted Joyce with problems of integration, particularly in regard to the HCE material making up Part I of the work and the Shaun material of what is now Part III: ‘With this separation of Shaun from the rest of the book he was faced with what was already a persistent problem in the composition of Work in Progress—how to fuse together the distinct parts’ (Van Mierlo, 360). He saw himself as an engineer, and the final years of his compositional effort ‘involved piecing the work together out of a jigsaw puzzle-like state’ (Slote, 27). The spontaneous gestation of structural aspects at the micro-level of rewriting and expansion and the deliberate engineering at the macro-level do not quite join up, as is the case in many books, but especially in this one, in which there is no reason why the proliferating textual growth should ever result is a book at all.
Scene and Set-Piece
Some help to finding shape amid the oceanic surgings of the text may be found by recalling two features of Wagner’s music-dramas: the scenic principle and the recourse to set pieces reminiscent of the ‘numbers’ of traditional opera. Joyce follows Wagner in making the scene the primary structural unit, disposing his material in musically structured scenes, in the eighteen episodes of Ulysses and the seventeen episodes of Finnegans Wake. But while each episode of Ulysses presents an overall structure that can be clarified in analysis, it is again not clear that such analysis will be rewarded in the case of Finnegans Wake.
Like strict observance Wagnerites, Joyce would fault the master for falling short of his own radical principles, for instance in allowing Siegmund to sing a number-aria in Act I of Die Walküre, at the expense of the principles of ‘unending melody’ and composition in scenic units (Martin, 17). Yet Finnegans Wake contains several set pieces, including ballads, that could compare with those in Wagner (such as the Ride of the Valkyries, Siegfried’s forging song, the song of the Rhine maidens in Götterdämmerung or that of the flower maidens in Parsifal). Joyce’s favourite, Die Meistersinger, is close on the surface to the old ‘numbers’ opera, though it often sets up traditional closed forms only to break through them in a subversive way, as can be seen in the dizzying unharmonized polyphony in the recapitulation of the C Major overture and in the contrast between the Prize Song’s first appearance and its free development in the final scene.
A characteristic set-piece is the ‘Ondt and the Gracehoper’ (FW 414-19) section, inserted in a not very smooth way into Finnegans Wake III, 1, a scene that has been called Joyce’s portrait of John McCormack (Scarry 1973). McCormack and Joyce were friends; Joyce gave the singer a copy of Tales Told of Shem and Shaun on their last meeting in 1929; in a 1934 letter to him he called him ‘the finest lyrical tenor in the world’; McCormack arranged Giorgio Joyce’s New York debut as a bass (Scarry 1974:533-4; 535). The inserted set-piece is a mise en abyme of the Shem/Shaun rivalry (plotted on to the virtual rivalry between McCormack, winner of the 1903 Feis Ceoil gold medal, and Joyce, who would have received the 1904 gold medal but for his inability to sight-read; see Ellmann, 151-2).
Like the ‘unending melody,’ the ‘scenic principle’ is an aspect of Wagner’s musical aesthetics that has been turned against him. Theodor Adorno notes that even the ‘thoroughly inspired’ second act of Tristan breaks down into a series of discrete episodes, of which each is ‘carried by a chief motif until it is completely exhausted’ and ‘compared with the simplest piece of Mozart’s is astonishingly poor in shapes’ (51). Joyce abounds in shapes and figures and is in no danger of ringing the changes on a single motif. The critical question is whether the accumulation of motifs builds up a truly satisfying scene, to set beside those of Ulysses. The episode uses very few of McCormack’s song titles, focussing instead on his appearance, taste in food, clothes and so on, which Joyce meticulously ‘researched.’ (He took a similar interest in Wagner’s personal life; Martin, 20.) Irish songs, especially Thomas Moore’s Melodies form a cluster of motifs throughout the entire text of the Wake, so they cannot be used to identify Shaun (or Jaun in III, 2) specifically with McCormack. A survey of Moore lines and titles illustrates the characteristics of the games Joyce plays with motifs. Sometimes Moore’s romanticism is deflated, as when ‘oft in the stilly night’ becomes ‘oft in the chilly night’ (40.13), or ‘Oh! breathe not his name, let it sleep in the shade’ becomes ‘O’Breen’s not his name nor the brown one his maid’ (56.32-3), and later ‘O breed not his same’ (420.4). The alteration goes in the direction of normal diction, erasing Moore’s archaic vocabulary and inversions. Sometimes a romantic utterance of Moore’s seems to be heard confusedly by the dreamer, as when ‘has sorrow thy young days shaded’ becomes ‘whereas sallow has long daze faded’ (51.1-2), or ‘Oh! blame not the bard’ becomes ‘O blame gnot the board’ (60.10), or ‘How dear to me the hours when daylight dies’ becomes ‘how dire do we thee hours when thylike fades!’ (427.17). The rewriting has sometimes a satirical thrust as when ‘avenging and bright fall the swift sword of Erin’ becomes ‘averging on blight like the mundibanks of Fennyana’ (55.4-5)—a glorious image of historical Ireland exchanged for a reminder of the Famine and a crossing of ‘Fenian’ with ‘Pollyanna,’ a character invented by Eleanor H. Porter in 1913, representing childish optimism. ‘Sweet Vale of Avoca’ becomes ‘sweet wail of evoker’ (471-2), a description of McCormack’s singing (here connected with Jaun).
Around these transmogrifications hangs the perpetually irritating question: ‘What is the point of it all?’ The game is not even played systematically (as in the case of the planting of river names throughout the Anna Livia Plurabelle chapter, I 8); the titles are scattered here and there in the text, with no apparent reason for them to appear in one place rather than another. The same is true of the many variants of the song-title ‘Come back to Erin’ (‘come back to my earin,’ 21.23-4; ‘come back with my earring,’ 22.10; ‘come bag to Moy Eireann,’ 312.1; ‘come back to Ealing,’ 446.21; ‘clambake to herring,’ 453.6) and of the phrase ‘how Buckley shot the Russian general,’ which perhaps more than any other produces a rich crop of ingenious metamorphoses. Wagner uses his leitmotifs to underline the significance of the dramatic action, but Joyce’s motifs seem to swirl about without any particular significance most of the time.
A Failure of Development
Wagner’s music, in Adorno’s view, lacks the principle of development that made the Viennese classics great. ‘That motifs such as the sword-motif or Siegfried’s horn call can be mastered by no art of form is evident’ (47)—perhaps the same could be said of many motifs in Finnegans Wake, such as the siglum HCE, planted everywhere but intrinsically inert. If Wagner is likely to substitute a mere parade of motifs for dynamic development, Joyce’s motifs are generally very malleable; but their constant variation does not weave a real developmental process. While the multiplication of shapes and figures in Finnegans Wake knows no limits, unless it be that of a general unity of style, these inventions lack the weight and impact of the motifs in Ulysses, which like Wagner’s are bold, striking, and unmistakable in their identity, even when deriving from trivia of everyday life and speech. The problem then is not one of structure or development only, but also concerns the basic texture of the motifs. Those that occur on the first page are promising enough: Esau and Jacob, Moses and St Patrick, Tristan and Isolde, Swift with Esther and Vanessa, the Liffey. But they remain inert in their recurrences, lacking any capacity to germinate.
An apologist will insist that such demands for development and classical form are completely beside the point. Rather, a new form of literature, a literature beyond literature, is here coming into being. The structures of Joyce’s works had become increasingly open-ended from the already quite ironic stories of Dublin, which left much to the reader’s play of interpretation and judgement. The quest for structure in Finnegans Wake stumbles on a rather ‘fractal’ texture, to use a term from the ‘chaos theory’ that was so much in vogue some years ago (and that influence musical works such as Ligeti’s 1988 Piano Concerto). The constant pullulation of patterns and designs that Joyce allowed the text to generate thwarts every quest for classical closure. As Jewish communities are formed and enriched by the discussions of the Talmud, page by page, so Finnegans Wake devotees will find delight in their communal discussions of the text’s puzzles, with no anxious striving after an unimaginable final resolution.
Does the work open up the future of literature, of textuality, and of language itself (as Eunkyung Chun urged at the IASIL-Japan conference in October 2014), allowing a freedom and pluralism of interpretation that is fitted to the conditions of the modern global community? Its ‘singular textuality, Professor Chun argues, ‘requires a new type of readership, which is suited to a postmodern culture in an ethnically intermixed global world, rather than the readership typical of Modernist criticism, which reads the text as a “self-enclosed system”’; its liberating message is that ‘there is no absolutely authorized reading of reality.’ But perhaps classical Modernist texts such as Ulysses had already provided such liberation in a sufficient degree. When pursued to the extremes attained in Finnegans Wake this liberation can turn sour, becoming in its turn a kind of totalitarianism, in that the reader is deprived of any possibility of making any determinate statements or judgements about what is going on in the text. Professor Chun suggests that Finnegans Wake is a key work in an emerging ‘world literature.’ She argues that we cannot apply traditional literary criteria to this text just as we cannot apply restrictive traditional values to our current experience of the world. The characters of Finnegans Wake appear no longer human, but anonymous like natural energies or like the unconscious. The writing reaches back to irresistible forces in the depths of human nature that have no relation with the artifice of civilization, but in doing so it secures the basic elements of a new form of civilized life, opening unknown possibilities for literature in the coming new world.
This is an exciting vision, but if Joyce is the founder of a new ‘world literature’ in this sense, it sounds like a literature to end all literature. As defined by Goethe, world literature is about classics, and to write world literature one should engage with classics from summit to summit, as Goethe engaged with the history of literature in Faust II and with Persian literature in the West-Eastern Divan, or as Joyce himself engaged with the Odyssey in Ulysses, with Shakespeare in ‘Scylla and Charybdis,’ and with the whole history of literature (represented by English literature) in ‘Oxen of the Sun.’ While Finnegans Wake alludes to many books (and most memorably to Ulysses), it has fundamentally stepped back to a level or orality and textuality that is more primeval than books and that threatens to undermine the very institution of literature. In doing so it fulfils one of the modernist ambitions, to step back behind the formalisms of literature since Homer in order to give what Mallarmé, in a letter to Verlaine (16 Novermber 1885) called ‘l’explication orphique de la terre.’ A step back to the elementary origins of the universe is among Wagner’s ambitions, in the Rheingold prelude, and Mahler saw his Third Symphony as born of natural sounds and representing the entire cosmos—plants, animals, humans, angels, and divine love.
In Ulysses Joyce stands shoulder to shoulder with Shakespeare and Goethe the arena of world literature, but in Finnegans Wake no such direct engagement with literary history is possible, for all literary reminiscences are reduced to mere dream-figments and stripped of any high-flying claim to literary ‘dignity.’ Yet all these questions and concerns are implicitly consigned to irrelevance by a text that seems to declare in every line, ‘I am not playing that game anymore; in fact it is an old-fashioned game that can no longer be played.’ Or, since Finnegans Wake is opposed to Ulysses as the book of the night to the book of the day, any appeal to classical canons of literary value may be disqualified by their suspension in the world of dream. True, it is the waking artist who reconstructs this world of dream, and of madness, but he cannot allow himself in doing so to be constrained by over-rational expectations of classical development and structure. Like the lovers in Tristan, Finnegans Wake has embarked on a journey to the bottom of the night and must curse anyone who would recall it to the bleak realms of day.
Joyce follows strictly the logic of dream composition. This excludes any linear coherent plot, any steady identity of characters, and even any regular grammar or syntax. As in real dreams there are stretches of coherent plot and discourse, and Joyce ‘cheats’ a little in the more orderly parts of the work. In the absence of a governing plot, Joyce has recourse to musical principles of composition. As in dreams motives may recur, so Joyce builds on dreamlike repetition, in particular with regard to the major nodal characters (HCE, ALP, Shaun, Shem, Izzy). Wagner’s use of leitmotivs is subordinated to a coherent linear plot, yet there are moments in the middle of long scenes in Die Walküre or Siegfried when one feels one is afloat in a dream, especially when in the midst of monologues that resume the entire story of the Ring. Wagner’s art aims to bring the unconscious to consciousness ‘Schopenhauer put Wagner is touch with his own unconscious. (As this is the key to what Wagner himself does for those who are susceptible to his art, it explains why his attitude towards Schopenhauer is similar to their attitude towards him)’ (Magee, 372). Readers of Ulysses find that the book sheds light on the most arcane recesses of their daytime consciousness. Does the reading of Finnegans Wake constitute a similar voyage into the unconscious? The textual machine does not empower leaps of unconscious insight. Freudian slips are supposed to indicate unconscious motives, but Joyce’s systematic multiplication of Freudian slips is more like the artificial dreams an analysand may serve up to the analyst, a production of symptoms meant to prove an interesting unconscious life, but in reality forming an elaborate defence. Joyce’s writing, unlike Wagner’s, is no longer open to the unconscious but seems rather to be reinforcing a massive system of defences.
Not plot and syntax only, but any firm temporal order is dissolved in dream. Finnegans Wake wanders freely across imagined times and no ordered sequence can be discerned among the events to which it alludes. To offset this chaos the temporality of music is drawn on. Here again tight classical structures would be inappropriate. Instead the text is arranged in movements, each episode conducting us through a series of them, with interruptive passages where the musical progress breaks down, wild percussive outbreaks.
Rilke and Mallarmé illustrate how an individual is transformed as he lives into his poetic identity, shedding earlier conceptions of self, world, and the divine. Joyce enacts the sacrificial dynamic of art in a more radical way, adopting the constraints of dream in which individual identity is constantly erased and in which all reassuring landmarks of coherence are sacrificed at every step in the writing. This is no guarantee, however, that the writer has been reborn as artist, or that the art he sacrificed himself for has jelled in a satisfactory form. Joyce became a victim of his textual machine. It is to be regretted that he did not abandon the project in 1927, when the first and third parts of the work, still the most enjoyable, were substantially complete—perhaps publishing them as two separate fragments. This would have spared him the nine years of stagnation and despondency that followed, until he rallied to complete the work in the later 1930s.
Joyce effectively transmuted dreamstuff into a strange new form of language, just as in Ulysses he captured daytime consciousness under a variety of angles in a spectrum of prose style. It might be that the dreamworld he created bears as dubious a resemblance to a realistic phenomenology of dreaming as the stream of consciousness passage in Ulysses do to the actual operation of the waking mind. There language got in the way, despite how it is chopped up; in Finnegans Wake language is never allowed to get in the way, being totally malleable to the impulses of the oniric world.
Lost in the Labyrinth
Like Wagner, Joyce began his work with some notion of social liberation. Wagner’s Schopenhauerian turn relegated his initial liberative project, inspired by Feuerbach and Bakunin, to second place, introducing a deep ambiguity into the question of what the Ring Cycle is supposed to be about. ‘The chief reason, I fear, why Wagner found it so difficult to hit on the right ending for The Ring is that the work itself is incoherent. When he began the text it was consciously intended by him to articulate the world-view of the revolutionary meliorist which he then thought of himself as being, yet… it turned into a tragedy under his pen, guided as it was by his unconscious intuitions’ (Magee, 370). One of the most devastating accounts of the incoherence of the Ring is given by George Bernard Shaw in The Perfect Wagnerite (1898; 4th ed. 1922), surely known to Joyce, who had read Shaw’s other critical classic, The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891) (Ellmann, 54). A prominent German music critic, Joachim Kaiser, is astonished at the insights attained by Shaw in 1898 and laments that Germany remained unaware of them. Shaw sees the Ring Cycle as collapsing into mere grand opera with Götterdämmerung, in which Brünnhilde changes character completely. But this inconsistency is already in the libretto, completed before a single note of music was written. ‘The ultimate catastrophe of the Saga cannot by any perversion of ingenuity be adapted to the perfectly clear allegorical design of the The Rhine Gold, The Valkyries [sic] and Siegfried’ (Shaw, 212). This problem is there from the start and is not due to the sixty year-old composer having ‘lost his old grip of’ what he had sketched at age 35 (Shaw, 237). This renders problematic Shaw’s claim that ‘if the history of Germany from 1849 to 1876 had been the history of Wotan and Siegfried transposed into the key of actual life,’ Götterdämmerung would have been the logical consummation of the cycle ‘instead of the operatic anachronism it actually is’ (239). ‘Cut the conference of the Norns and the visit of Valtrauta to Brynhild out of Night Falls on The Gods and the drama remains coherent and complete without them’ (218). But the ghostly Alberich and the reappearance of the Rhine Maidens are among other elements that root the last drama in the wider mythic framework, not to mention the way all myth-linked musical motifs are made to work overtime throughout the score. The change in the heroine’s character is one is a series: a bouncing girl when she first appears, she is every inch a goddess at the end of Die Walküre, and sheds her divinity to become every inch a woman at the end of Siegfried. She succumbs to destructive human passions in Götterdämmerung and in her final monologue all aspects of her character are on display: Valkyrie, goddess, woman, betrayed lover, and wise daughter of Erda, entrusted with the impossible task of summing up the meaning of the entire Cycle.
Ulysses, too, may be an incoherent work, ending in textual games, and literary critics who try to find a sublime design of the reuniting of father and son often seem to be merely paying lip-service to a dead schema, a schema that Joyce himself deconstructs in the last three chapters as if leaving aside a tiresome McGuffin. The work needed to be taken in charge by a powerful unconscious inspiration, such as underlies much of Wagner. Finnegans Wake may be a more coherent work, as a dream of the entire universe, but at a certain point its working out seems to lose steam.
To make an odious comparison with Wagner, we could note that Wagner’s leitmotifs never become opaque, however unexpected their metamorphoses and combinations. ‘The scaling of the combined musical, dramatic and psychological heights attained in Götterdämmerung, was an unrepeatable achievement… We have now arrived at an orchestral texture whose density is just about the maximum compatible with clear intelligibility, and any attempt to make the orchestra articulate yet more would be almost bound to result in an over-dense sound which, because of its greater homogeneity, would in practice communicate less’ (Magee, 395). Joyce is not concerned with ‘clear intelligibility,’ and may well have accepted the diminishment of communication caused by his over-dense and homogeneous texture. Perhaps he thought that the resultant clotted and viscous prose was an image of the unconscious, a faithful espousal of the language of dream and schizophrenia, and that any step back from it to lightness, space, and light would be false to the texture of the unconscious as he had uncovered it.
Adorno sees Götterdämmerung as exhibiting a clear contradiction between ‘the dynamic style of composition’ and the ‘older material of motifs of the greatest allegorical recalcitrancy’ to which it is applied (41). Joyce’s motifs are not so heavily burdened with defined significance, and offer no resistance to the compositional style. But even less than in Wagner’s case does this dynamic style constitute development. ‘While Wagner’s music unremittingly awakens the appearance, the expectation and the claim of presenting something new, in the strictest sense nothing new takes place. This experience is the core of truth in the accusation of formlessness’ (37). In Joyce’s case the newness of what he is doing is shown on the first page of the work, but the six hundred pages that follow can add nothing essential to this. The first page already tells us that there is nowhere to go from here, except around in circles. Joyce might reply that the same could be said of the eighth-century Book of Kells, which he admired as an expression of the Irish mind. ‘In all the places I have been to, Rome, Zurich, Trieste, I have taken it about with me, and have pored over its workmanship for hours. It is the most purely Irish thing we have, and some of the big initial letters which swing right across a page have the essential quality of a chapter of Ulysses. Indeed, you can compare much of my work to the intricate illuminations’ (quoted, Ellmann, 545). But Joyce pursues intricate design for its own sake, whereas the Book of Kells keeps in view its purpose of illustrating the Gospels. ‘Though the decoration of The Book of Kells is dense and, in places, bewildering, its themes, expressed in a variety of images, are constant. They allude in various forms, including animals and objects, to Christ, his nature and his life, his suffering on the cross and his resurrection’ (Bernard Meehan, quoted, Colm Tóibín, The Observer, 9 December 2012).
Joyce’s engineering efforts with the structure of Finnegans Wake again invite comparison with Wagner, whose work on structure obeys clear musical and dramatic purposes (see Lorenz; Berger). There are enigmas in Wagner’s musical structures, just as there are in the plots of his dramas, but these are never carried to the point of overriding the basic outlines of the musical and dramatic action. Where Wagner always kept the goal of effective communication before him, Joyce increasingly pursued form for form’s sake. Of Finnegans Wake Fordham says: ‘Its reality came to be more insistent than the reality of the world. And so it became concerned with its struggles with planning and projection, deformation and reformation—with gathering, arranging, selecting, shifting, bombarding, inserting, melding, fusing, rearranging, until these struggles are coded as character and event’ (219). Some of this is true of any writer embroiled in the throes of composition, and no doubt for Wagner also the world of the Ring became more real than the outer world. But as a man of the theatre Wagner could not forget the outer world; his characters had to grip hearers and spectators as they strutted in their tragic roles. Even if the original revolutionary inspiration of the work had morphed into a Schopenhauerian pseudo-Buddhist fatalism, the drama must go on. It is striking that the most programmatic and philosophical passage in the libretto, toward the end of Götterdämmerung, was not set to music; Wagner’s footnote explains that the music says it all, but in shying away from explicitness he betrays an unresolved confusion. The words are: ‘des ew’gen Werdens/ offne Tore/ schliess’ ich hinter mir zu:/ nach dem wunsch- und wahnlos/ heiligstem Wahlland,/ der Welt-Wanderung Ziel,/ von Wiedergeburt erlöst,/ zieht nun die Wissende hin./ Alles Ew’gen/ sel’ges Ende,/ wisst ihr, wie ich’s gewann?/ Trauender Liebe/ tiefstes Leiden/ schloss die Augen mir auf:/ enden sah ich die Welt.’ (I close behind me the open gates of endless becoming: the knowing one now heads for the holiest land of choice, without desire or illusion, the goal of world-wandering. The blessed end of all that is endless, know ye how I attained it? Deepest sorrow of grieving love opened my eyes: I saw the world end) (Wagner 1983 3:314). This pseudo-Buddhist pathos of endless rebirths does not fit the Ring at all, but it resurfaces more appropriately in Parsifal (in Kundry). Joyce was under no pressure to bring Finnegans Wake to a coherent conclusion; the more ambiguities multiplied, the more the texture was enriched. If the ending of Götterdämmerung is a glorious but worrying apocalyptic mess, Joyce arranges such a catastrophic confusion for every sentence of Finnegans Wake, staging the collapse of univocal meaning in every line. No bold Nietzschean affirmation or weary Schopenhauerian negation can show the way out of this labyrinth. It cannot even be mapped or mastered in a sovereign diagnostic vision.
Tristan is famous for its unresolved chords: ‘The very first chord of Tristan… contains two dissonances, one of which is then resolved but the other not; the same is true of the second chord, and the third and the fourth; and throughout the work the perpetual longing of the ear for the resolution of discord is at every moment partially satisfied and partially not’ (Magee, 380). Similarly, in Finnegans Wake one is perpetually longing for a resolution of the text's riddles, but every partial satisfaction is attended by a new dissatisfaction. The final chord of the opera does bring a peaceful resolution, as Isolde ecstatically embraces ‘unconsciousness, highest bliss,’ but there can be no resolution of Joyce’s massive accumulation of dissonances. If Tristan is a ‘musical equivalent of Schopenhauer’s doctrine that existence is an inherently unsatisfiable web of longings, willings and strivings from which the only permanent liberation is the cessation of being’ (Magee, 380), Finnegans Wake spins a web from which there is no liberation.
An Autistic Turn
The world of work moves between the two poles of engagement with others, with all the stresses this entails, and reclusive retreat to one’s one private sphere, which can also produce depression and paralysis (see Kato). Wagner was a hugely self-absorbed artist, but Joyce seems to have gone so far in choosing the autistic option that he ended up losing genuine creativity. Wagner was visited by inspiration to the end, because he laid himself open to it, but there is little sign of that in Joyce after 1927. The text nourished its own continuation, and the outer world provided material suited for its sustenance, but in no way could the text respond to any profound stimulus or challenge from the outer world, for the terms of its engagement with the world are set from the start: everything must be treated as a joke or a dream. Edmund Wilson and others deplored ‘Joyce’s lack of rapport with his audience’ (McCarthy, 176). Joyce’s characterization of Finnegans Wake as a work of music rather than literature is less a proud Paterian boast than a rationalization, since neither the complex texture nor the shadowy structure of the work effectively provide, after a given point, the satisfactions of musical texture and structure, or of literary texture and structure either. It might be replied that just as representation is banished from modern painting and melody from modern music, at least among certain avant-gardes, so a radical literature must forgo these structural and textural satisfactions, which always depend on reassuring conventions. The most powerful structure is that which frustrates all expectations of structural closure, and the richest texture is that which punctures harmony at every point, forbidding any settled enjoyment.
As Joyce rewrote every sentence of his work in successive drafts, constantly enriching its texture, the text became increasingly less dynamic and dramatic. Wagner’s art was oriented to public performance, with all the practicalities this entailed, so the leitmotival skein of the Ring Cycle was never allowed to feed obsessively on itself. He did not go back to rewrite Rheingold or Die Walküre in light of the richer style he had developed when he returned to the project (after the fourteen-year break during which Tristan and Die Meistersinger were composed) in the third act of Siegfried. The sequence of the four music-dramas thus maps Wagner’s own development, whereas only genetic criticism allows one to discern the progress of Joyce’s style in Finnegans Wake—and ‘progress’ is not quite the word, for the very nature of the project excludes real stylistic innovation.
In current Wake criticism, the story of the work is becoming the story of its composition, and it is hard to see how this story can claim high literary interest. The huge labour of identifying the them all and tracing over successive drafts how the texture of the writing is built up, does not yield a commensurate reward. Structural analysis is very rewarding in Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses. But the structures to be uncovered in Finnegans Wake are of less moment; they do not shed deep light on the text.
An Unsuccessful Use of Wagner
Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde was the ‘hypotext’ of one of the six sketches with which Joyce began, integrated into the final text at a late stage of composition in II, 4. Indeed, at one stage he seems to have thought of giving the Tristan story the same role for Finnegans Wake that the story of Odysseus has for Ulysses. Joyce was aware of the medieval sources of this story, alluding to Bédier’s Isolde of the White Hands (FW 527; Fordham, 182) and followed up modern echoes of it, including Yeats’s courtship of Iseult Gonne, so named by her mother Maud (‘mad gone on him,’ FW 526; Fordham, 176-7). As a tragic drama, which is all of a piece, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is not as remote as the Odyssey, the major hypotext of Ulysses, nor as obscure as ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel,’ used in ‘The Dead,’ but it is not a promising hypotext. Its plot is too narrow, intense, and tragic to allow of much in the way of comic expansion. The characters, as always in Wagner, are modern neuropaths in archaic disguise, so there is little to be done in the way of modernization or demythologization. To allude too closely to Wagner’s powerful drama would risk importing a rival artistic world into the texture of Finnegans Wake, so Joyce takes a glancing, lateral attitude to this source, treating it in the mode of farce and parody. But what is the point of a protracted comic parody of a pure tragic drama?
Tristan is the most thorough expression of Wagner’s curious philosophy which he found confirmed by Schopenhauer. As he writes to Liszt in 1854: ‘I have at last found a quietus which in wakeful nights helps me to sleep. This is the genuine, ardent longing for death, for absolute unconsciousness, total non-existence. Freedom from all dreams is our only final salvation’ (Magee, 379). Perhaps Joyce was initially attracted to Tristan as a nocturnal drama, which might match his dreamworld, but in the end he does not seem to have reacted to this dimension of Tristan at all, leaving its presence in the Wake without justification. The Wake, as its title shows, does not aim at non-existence but at the continued Viconian recycling of history, ‘the seim anew’ (FW 215:28), the very Welt-Wanderung from which Wagner seeks a nirvanic escape.
Tristan, unlike the Odyssey, leaves little room for improvement, enrichment, updating, or critical rewriting (though one might see Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande as a critical response to it). Joyce contents himself with comic parody of the surface plot and draws from it a cluster of rather insignificant motifs, as when Isolde’s ‘Mild und leise,’ is rewritten as ‘Mild aunt Lisa,’ ‘Mildew Liza,’ ‘mild but likesome, etc., or when ‘Tristan’ becomes ‘treestone.’ The character of Issy is named after Isolde, but her connection with the Isolde story is slight. An incestuous relation between Shaun and Issy can be overlaid with the names of Tristan and Isolde, and H. C. Earwicker, also incestuously connected with Issy, can play the role of King Mark. It is never clear whether Joyce sheds any real light on such themes as narcissism, incest, and voyeurism, as he causes them to pop up everywhere in a language that has become a generalized Freudian slip. The most specifically Wagnerian cluster of motifs thus fails to engage with Wagner himself either musically or thematically.
Or perhaps Joyce had an ideal of jollying up the Tristan story, making it part of the fun at the wake, a cheerful Irish turn-about of German melancholia. The Viconian cycles are not then a paralyzing determinism but a celebration of history as a merry round dance. Perhaps Joyce is rather espousing a version of the Nietzschean ‘eternal return of the same,’ which is supposed to betoken an affirmation of life as it is, an ex-Schopenhauerian and ex-Wagnerian embrace of ‘the innocence of becoming.’ But just as the ringing affirmations of Thus Spake Zarathustra sound increasingly shrill and desperate, so does the sustained comic brio of Joyce’s performance seem designed to stave off a pervasive gloom that may in the end get the upper hand. The upbeat tenor of most Joyce criticism seems to miss the degree to which his art is locked in a battle with nihilism (see O’Leary 1989:328-34), the same battle that is going on in Flaubert, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Stefan George, Hofmannsthal, and many other Modernist artists. Living in a disenchanted universe and putting all their eggs in the basket of Art, they aspired to write books ‘about nothing’ (which is one aspect of ‘aspiring to the condition of music’).
In Finnegans Wake both the author and the subject matter are sublated into an enactment of literature itself, of style, in a kind of transcendental turn. This can spell a new intimacy with the real, as the labour of form allows common words, incidents, moods to emerge in their mute undiluted presence, in a bonfire of the conventional procedures of narrative and characterization. If pushed to its logical conclusion, content can fail altogether, and the texts become sets of writing gestures with nothing to write about. In contrast to Ulysses, it seems that Finnegans Wake, especially in its later phases of composition, enacts such a breakdown of literary communication. It was optimistic to write that ‘here Joyce carries to its logical conclusion the dialectic, at work in all his texts, between the free play of writing and the classic laws of textual unity’ (O’Leary 2000:113). These ‘laws’ seem to have dwindled to rather mechanical principles, mere weaving of connections, with no indication of why these connections should have any more significance than the completion of a crossword puzzle. Some make much of the way ‘logocentric totalization is thwarted’ (ib.), but that is not a significant achievement when there is no logocentric system set in place to work against. To find in the patternings of the Wake ‘comic mimings of redemptive order’ that are ‘indicative that the ultimate drift of Joyce’s art is not simply identical with Derridian dissemination’ (ib., 118) is perhaps doubly wishful: the elements of order are set up only to be undermined straight away, and the subversive aspect of this does not have the strategic, reflective, critical force of Derrida’s demonstrations of the effects of dissemination that undercut transparent, univocal reference. All would be well if one could add, ‘Then, just sit back and enjoy the music.’ But the musicality of Joyce’s text is compromised by the leadenness of his principles of composition.
In 1978 I wrote, ‘Mythic discourse begins when the individual characters of a narrative start to embody forces larger than themselves.’ That applies to Ulysses but not to Finnegans Wake, since such a distinction between individual character and mythic figure cannot stand up in the dreamtalk. Joyce enlarges his notion of myth in Finnegans Wake, so that the entire cosmos and its macro-history is in play at every moment, just as in the Ring Cycle Wagner stages the beginning and end of the universe. Indeed the entire story of the Ring may be only one cycle (the English title of the Tetralogy thus taking on a Viconian overtone), since at the end Alberich is still at work under the earth and the fatal gold is again in the Rhinemaidens’ hands, from which it is easily wrested. But Wagner’s mighty figures do not dissolve into their cosmic significances. Even the fire-god Loge has a distinctive quirky individuality. HCE, ALP, Shaun, Shem, and Issy, in contrast, are Everyman or Everywoman figures, or rather ‘archetypes,’ with only the ghostliest of individual lineaments. Wagner’s works were reinterpreted as archetypal dramas by Wieland Wagner in the 1950s: his ‘effort to give shape to Wagner’s archetypical music-theatre on the stage of our time’ embarks on ‘the way to the mothers [Goethe]—thus to the origin of the work’ (Mayer, 164), and in doing so clears away all the cumbersome stage machinery which disappointed the composer himself and was among the factors that disgusted Nietzsche at the 1876 Bayreuth Festival (Gregor-Dellin, 727; Peters, 62). Joyce does for the genre of the novel what Wieland Wagner did for his grandfather’s stagecraft, abolishing all conventional properties in order to let fundamental archetypical relationships come to the fore. Just as many felt that the radical new staging destroyed the dramatic force of Wagner’s works, replacing it with pallid abstracitons (see Kaiser, 222-4; 231-53), so critics such as Joyce’s blunt-spoken brother Stanislaus found in Finnegans Wake ‘the witless wandering of literature before its final extinction’ (quoted, Ellmann, 577).
‘Finnegans Wake 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…. 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…. 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’ (O’Leary 1978). After the decades of postmodern theorizing that have passed since I wrote those words, one is tempted to ask if Joyce did not accept too readily the diagnosis of a breakdown of traditional communication and did not embrace too readily a fatal homeopathic remedy, espousing the disease with a vague hope of curing it. The disease has a creative, proliferant dynamism, just as cancer has (see ’s studies of cancer in contemporary Irish verse), and it may have deceived its host into thinking that he was in the throes of immense creativity. But the richness of Finneganese is fool’s gold; a babble no longer obliged to articulate anything outside itself, it offers only confused echoes of the real world, never bearing any existential or moral weight, but serving only as fodder for a musical mumble. Joyce espoused radical possibilities or impossibilities of his time, just as Nietzsche had done, and enacted them to the full as no one else could have done. Both saw themselves as rising superior to the nihilism of the West while injecting themselves with it fearlessly.
I attempted to find a resurrectional pattern in the writing: ‘Finnegans Wake 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…. 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.’ In fact while such an effect is aimed at by Joyce and partly achieved, any movements of resurrection in the text are drowned by the monstrous or cancerous growth of its tissue, which militates against such movements. Derrida’s remark, in a note in the middle of his 1967 book, Speech and Phenomena, described the work enigmatically as a commentary on Finnegans Wake. The subsequent career of deconstruction made the meaning of that remark quite clear. The adventure of a writing that never closes on the thing itself but opens up the endless spacing and postponing of the play of différance was at first felt to be a liberation, just as some find the open-endedness of Finnegans Wake liberating. Finn Fordham notes that Joyce’s revisions may not enrich but rather conflict with the basic text, ‘a conflict which forms part of Joyce’s anti-foundationalism and anti-essentialism… Moreover, the revisions themselves become “basic text,” potential loci of future enrichment or conflict’ (223). Is this all supposed to be good for us, as the Heart Sutra is?: ‘Emptiness means that things do not exist as they seem, but are like illusions and like dreams. They do not have a nature and findable core of their own’ (Brunnhölzl, 9). The Buddhist deconstruction is always at the service of enlightenment and compassion, whereas Joyce’s text seems to be at its own service. What human or liberative or even aesthetic purpose is served by his work on completing the vast tapestry? Has it more in common with some monstrous Sudoku than with the sovereignty of artistic creation?
‘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…. 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.’ The trouble is that while these patterns may be found in the text they are quickly submerged by others. The patterns cannot establish themselves as a directing overview. The falls are not regularly converted to comic rises. Indeed, what Christopher Ricks calls Joyce’s ‘desperate esperanto’ (cited, Fordham, 223) might even sound like a frustrated howling.
Similarly, when HCE is linked with Wagner’s Wotan (see Martin), this is only one fleeting trait of HCE, washed over by countless others. The various allusions to Valhalla and the rainbow bridge in Rheingold can hardly be taken as ironic or critical commentary on Wagner’s world. The allusions merely accumulate without any clear purpose.
Quoting the ninth question in the quiz chapter (I, 6), ‘If a human being duly fatigued by his dayety in the sooty... were… accorded, throughout the eye of a noodle, with an earsighted view of old hopeinhaven... then what would that fargazer seem to seemself to seem seeming of, dimm it all?,’ and its answer, ‘A collideorscape,’ I suggested that the ‘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.’ But since the text is not engaging with history at all, how can it escape from it? I also wrote: ‘As the fall is “retaled” (3.17) 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.’ But myth crumbles away just as much as history does in Joyce’s linguistic machine. All that is left is a kind of music. Joyce’s struggles with the structure of his text seem to have little to do with enhancing its final meaning. Wagner no doubt faced equally challenging structural problems. At the level of plot, the combination of the legend of Siegfried’s death, from the Nibelungenlied, with the more archaic god-plots from the Volsunga Saga poses such a challenge. The coherence of the thought and symbolism was not assured; indeed there may be an accumulation of incoherences in the Ring Cycle, making the final scene of Brünnhilde’s immolation a stupendous jumble. In contrast Isolde’s Liebestod is the logical culmination of Tristan both musically and dramatically. Anna Livia’s final monologue in Finnegans Wake is modelled on Wagnerian predecessors, and on the similar Wagnerian fade-outs in ‘The Dead’ and Ulysses. But it cannot be expected to draw the themes of the book together logically or even to provide a final satisfactory cadence.
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Adapted from: 'Joyce's Radical Wagnerism,' English Literature and Language 51 2014):1-21 http://ci.nii.ac.jp/naid/40020378240