Trigram

I’m not sure how many occurrences of the trigrams HCE and ALP there are, in all their forms, in Finnegans Wake.  I’m not even sure how you’d count them, or what would count as an occurrence. Obviously, any three words whose first letters give us the acrostic will count: so, without dispute, “Howth Castle and Environs” on the very first page, with caps to draw attention to itself (03.03: which seems a very fitting place to find the first trigram, and in the familiar edition it even has a line to itself, at the end of the first paragraph). Barely any less obviously, any permutation of the combination will count just as well: again without dispute, “To the continuation of that celebration until Hanandhunigan’s extermination!” (06.20-21), which is, I think, the first of the permuted trigrams.
But let’s stop here for a moment. There are already a number of things worth noting here. 
  • The first is the simple one that this acrostic I just cited isn’t quite continuous: there’s an “until” between the first word and the second. That doesn’t invalidate anything, it just indicates that we can happily take the trigrams as having a certain internal dispersal. The words giving us those letters can be separated by other words that don’t count.

Well and good. How many words, then? What’s the maximum number of words we’d allow between an H and a C, say, before we decided that it’s not really a trigram? One? Two? Three? Eleven? And why would we choose that number? How could we be sure that whatever n we’d name, there wouldn’t be an occurrence with separation n+1 that it really makes sense to think of as a trigram, because Humphrey’s written all over it thematically?

  • The second is that this acrostic is also already multiple. We have another C before we get to the main act, and the H is doubled internally in the word it introduces: “To the continuation of that celebration until Hanandhunigan’s extermination!” This particular repetition seems to emphasize the trigram, to make sure we don’t miss it. And repetition per se seems appropriate anyway, in general: one of the things that characterizes Earwicker is, after all, a stammer. Many occurrences that like this one are formed within a single word seem quite unproblematic: “Humme the Cheapner, Esc” (28.18-19) emphasizes the acrostic with that internal Che—and that Earwicker is accused of cheapening all sorts of things is, of course, at the heart of his problems.

But then, again, why stop there? Why these Hs, Cs and Es rather than the others in the sentence? Why not also, “To the continuation of that celebration until Hanandhunigan’s extermination!” I’m not saying we should include them, I’m just asking on what grounds we could rigorously exclude them. Could we give a clear set of incontrovertible rules for it, any more than we could put a firm and non-arbitrary limit on n?

There’s a lovely and complex example combining both of these on page 57, where the dispersal of the HCE trigram around an occurrence of the ALP trigram gives us the unexpected image of Earwicker embracing Anna Livia (and in a quite literal sense—it’s what the letters do): “Before he fell hill he filled heaven: a stream, alplapping streamlet, coyly coiled um [Hum, Humphrey], cool of her curls” (57.10-12). Chapter I.3 begins with the high chest-note C that finishes off the triumphant and scurrilous Ballad of Persse O’Reilly from the end of the previous chapter: “Chest Cee!” (48.01). Don’t the internal occurrence and repetition of the letters serve to emphasize that all of this has been about barely anything other than HCE all along?

  • Which brings us to a third possibility. Can we have an incomplete trigram?  What about the simple word “he,” which we could hardly do without? Doesn’t it suggest not only its continuation into the trigram, but also the possibility of a trigram that—as with so many utterances in Joyce, beginning with all those never-to-be completed sentences that mark the interior monologues in Ulysses—trails off incomplete under the weight of a guilt it can no longer countenance? Every time the word “he” occurs, then, it potentially bears this freight: “he” is an HCE that cannot quite speak its name, that stops at the apparently more neutral, noncommittal pronoun, unable to prevent that very incompletion from being a form of signature. We know that the word “he” signals guilt anyway every time it refers to Earwicker, as his guilt is everywhere in the book: what the incomplete trigram does is repeat that thematic concern on the level of the letter. Go to the end of the book, and part of its effect is that the final expected P of ALP never arrives, any more than the full stop: “A way a lone a last a loved a long the” (628.15-16). That loss gets emphasised even more in Danis Rose’s version, with its restoration of a lost word that’s also noted by Henkes and Bindervoet: “A way a lone a lost a last a loved a long the” (493). And in the final word, “the,” don’t we also have another final and quite appropriately incomplete occurrence of the HCE trigram? Again, my point is that we can never on principle exclude the possibility that there’s no longer any clear outside to those effects, some place in the text that would be immune to themand, what’s more, that this indefinition and fuzziness of boundaries is itself a vital part of those effects of the trigram.
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