James Joyce (1882-1941) was an Irish poet and writer, academically known for his experimental use of language and wit in such works as Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939). He was a master of rhetoric, as he was a master of mimicry, but the figure of speech he is best known for, and arguably the quintessential artist of, was one of the lowest, that of the pun. “After all, the Holy Roman Catholic Apostolic Church was built on a pun,” he was quoted as saying,”It ought to be good enough for me.” Joyce was referring to the verses in Matthew, where Jesus tells Simon Peter, “Thou art Peter”—an Anglicization of the Greek Petros—“and upon this rock”—petra—“I will build my church.”. A pun is a verbal coincidence: a word that just happens to sound like another word. In this respect, the whole of “Ulysses” (“Oolissays” is how Joyce pronounced it) is a kind of pun. It’s a story about people and events on a day in Dublin that mirrors the events in Homer’s Odyssey.
Scholars have even coined a term for a pun displaying his nuances or level of complexity, the “Joycean Pun”. While there aren’t any steadfast rules in identifying them, they usually consist of a mixture of languages; the presence of very obscure information embedded within them (from a variety of topics); sexual innuendo; words that scan easily and don’t read as puns, but become puns when spoken aloud and multi-tiered puns that combine several of these traits with double, triple, even quadruple innuendos. Finnegans Wake is written in a unique style with almost every word a multilingual pun or portmanteau. The name of this blog, “Joycean Rum” is a malpropism on Joycean Pun, and a Joycean Pun on Joycean Pun. This is the effect submerging oneself into Joyce can have on language and conceptualization.
James Joyce was born in Dublin February 2nd, 1882, as the son of impoverished ex-politician, former tax collector and failed distillery owner, John Stanislaus Joyce. His mother, Mary Jane Murray, was ten years younger then his father, a devout Roman Catholic and an accomplished pianist. Educated by the Jesuits from early childhood through attendance at Belvedere College in Dublin (1893-97), Joyce was deeply affected by the heavy presence of Catholicism and prudence. In 1898 he entered the University College, Dublin, and graduated in 1902. Joyce’s earliest publication appeared in Fortnightly Review in 1900 and was an essay discussing Ibsen’s play When We Dead Awaken. Post graduation saw Joyce spend a year abroad, working in Paris as a journalist, until returning home to be with his mother at her deathbed. Not long after her passing, Joyce left Dublin again in 1904, this time with Nora Barnacle, a chambermaid who he spent his life with.
Joyce published some of the most revered and analyzed pieces of literature of the 20th century, and possibly of human history (depending who you ask). One thing is certain, Joyce’s works were meticulously constructed. Perhaps no novelist in history has been as concerned with synchronicity as Joyce. As Samuel Beckett – a novelist who knew Joyce intimately – wrote “To Joyce reality was a paradigm, an illustration of perhaps an unstatable rule…..It is not a perception of order or of love, more humble than either of this, it is a perception of coincidence.” Over a hundred synchronicities appear in Joyce’s Ulysses, a novel describing an ordinary day in Dublin (“a day when nothing and everything is happening,” as Edna O’Brien wrote recently).
Finnegans Wake is in many ways an extension and enlargement of the forbidden and “unthinkable” areas of human experience first explored in Ulysses. It is more “difficult” than the earlier book, much more “obscene,” more experimental in styles, much funnier, and contains many, many more synchronicities. The title of FW comes from an old bar-room ballad, in which Tim Finnegan, a hod carrier, has too much to drink, falls from his ladder, is pronounced dead, and is taken home for a Wake. In typical Irish fashion, the mourners get roaring drunk, start to fight, and heave whiskey bottles at each other; one whiskey bottle hits the coffin, and the “corpse” sits up crying, “Bad luck to your souls, did you think me dead?” This is an Irish folk-equivalent of the myths of Osiris, Dionysus, Attis, Adonis, Jesus, etc.—all of the dead and resurrected gods (including Hyacinth) in Frazer’s Golden Bough.
What this first sentence says is: “riverrun”. It’s the river Lethe, which we will meet in a thousand reincarnations because Anna Livia Plurabelle is the personification of the goddess river. The river runs past Eve and Adam’s and there is a church there on the shore named Adam and Eve in Dublin. “From swerve of shore to bend of bay“, then this strange phrase, “brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation“. This announces the great architectonic plan of the Wake. That it is fact going to be based on the sociologica; ruminations of Giambattista Vico’s Scienza Nuova. The vicus mode of recirculation, Vico’s theory of the fall and redemption of mankind was that there were four ages – I can remember gold, silver, iron and clay, and so this idea of the recirculation of the connectedness of the cyclicity of the-as he says, the same again, again and again. Finnegan and again; the same again. This is one of his great, great themes is the recurso. Everything comes again, nothing is unannounced. Every love affair, every dynastic intrigue, every minor political disgrace, and a minor political disgrace figures very prominently in this book because as the carrier of Adam’s sin, the great dilemma for Humphrey Earwicker is he is running for a minor political post, Alderman, but apparently one night, uh, rather juiced – there’s many versions and you hear them all and they’re all given in dreams and mock trials in an accusatory fantasy. He either innocently took a leak in the park or he fondled himself in some way in the presence of Maggie and her sister in such a way that his reputation is now at great risk and it all depends on the testimony of a cad – a soldier or perhaps three soldiers. It’s never clear. It’s constantly shifting. And this question of what happened when by the mund of the magazine wall, where our maggy seen all, with her sisterin shawl haunts the book because on it turns the question of whether H.C.E. is a stalwart pillar of the community or in fact a backsliding masturbator and a monster as one always is if one is trapped in a James Joyce novel.
One doesn’t need a degree in ecology, shamanism, or conservation of natural resources to gain this much insight into Joyce, but varieties of knowledge in all matters pays off the diligent reader of The Wake. It is a litmus test of sorts one ones trivial knowledge, but is a piece of literature that rewards due diligence. The same passage can be read again at any point and one is bound to understand more, to associate another layer of meaning behind a pun due to the reading of other chapters, pop culture references from Joyce’s day and prior are littered throughout this novel. Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker is what Joycean scholars have surmised is the dreamer of the dream and the book’s protagonist. His initials are punned repeatedly during the book and are thought to be representative of the concept of the lineage of man after Adam, Haveth Childers Everwhere, Here Comes Everbody and in the first paragraph with Howth Castle and Environs, which is located in Dublin and is the setting for the rise, fall and redemption of mankind. Joyce said he got the surname, Earwicker, off a tombstone while walking. In his book of essays, Coincidance: A Head Test, Robert Anton Wilson writes,
Earwicker sounds much like “earwigger” and Joyce’s dreamer, a Protestant, seems to suspect that his Catholic neighbors maliciously pronounce it that way behind his back. The earwig is reputed in folklore to cause dreams by crawling into the sleeper’s ear, so the association Earwicker-earwig is appropriate for a book of dreams. The earwig is also an insect, and FW is crowded with insects, including the Ondt and the Gracehoper in a celebrated passage, but also featured are fleas, lice, bedbugs, butterflies and others. As Fritz Senn has noted, “insects” is often a disguise for “incest” on the Freudian level of the dream.
Joyce considered Ulysses to be his “Day” book, specifically June 16, 1904. Finnegans Wake was his “Night” book and took him 17 years to write. I have spent 8 years attempting to finish reading and analyzing it. I shall probably spend as long annotating those revelations here (but it shall take a day and night at least). Or there. Or everwitchwere.
Follow up posts with be retroactively linked in this article as written.