With this chapter, the second half of Book I begins, and its methods and techniques will be quite different from those of the first half. We no longer have the sequences of tellings and retellings of the HCE story or, in the previous chapter, its gradual transformation into the story of the warring brothers. This chapter will be a close examination of the Letter, as tattered and barely legible as it might be.
Open the Wake, and “riverrun” appears out of white space, the start of a cascade of words that seems to have already begun elsewhere, and that will now snake its way across and down 628 pages until it reaches the white space of the sea into which it will dissolve again on the last page. Chapter I.8, the Anna Livia chapter, will begin with a typographical delta, forming the shape of her siglum, . Throughout the Wake, Anna Livia is among other things the very text we are reading. This has already been a focus of a number of comments the book has made. Immediately after the Mutt and Jute episode of I.1, for example, we had three paragraphs in which the river of type working its way across the page is also explicitly the passage of the river over the landscape it has helped form, ALP over HCE, with the “middenhide hoard of objects” left in its wake including those “curios of signs” (18.16), the distorted letters of “olives, beets, kimmells, dollies, alfrids, beatties, cormacks and daltons” (19.07-08: aleph, beth, ghimel, daleth; alpha, beta, gamma, delta). Ireland has even become covered with the betraying letters of a coloniser’s script and language: “Sss! See the snake wurrums everyside! Our durlbin is sworming in sneaks. They came to our island from triangular Toucheaterre …” (19.12-14). From these emerge the familiar figures of the story as we come to meet them, “Mister Typus, Mistress Tope and all the little typetopies” (20.12-13).
If the final chapter of Book I will be about Anna Livia in a narrative sense, telling in detail the long-awaited story of how she set out to quell rumour and exonerate her husband, then this present chapter is about in what we could only call a quite literal sense. In focussing on the document (the Wake itself?), it is not concerned with Earwicker and Anna Livia and their tribulations and scandals, or with the ways in which those conflicts of and spill out into the next generation of , , and or turn out to have been mirrors of some older and . This chapter is far more concerned with how character and story emerge, as effects, from that line of type as it moves across that “allaphbed” (18.18) of the paper. More than any other chapter of the book, this chapter that is focussing so singularly on a damaged, incomplete, illegible bit of writing is all about what we do when we read.
This chapter is about the letter, then, in both senses of the word: as missive, and, broadly, as the basic element of any written signification. Most of the time, it is not so much concerned with reconstructing a possible content, as it is with:
(a) the marks themselves, before and whether or not they have a determinable content. One of the frequent references throughout is the Book of Kells, breathtaking because of the elaboration of its decorative script than because of the familiar Gospels that are its basis.
(b) the surface on which these marks are written, damaged beyond legibility as it often seems to be from the middenheap of history.
The chapter begins with an invocation that plays on the opening of each sura of the Koran (“In the name of Allah, the merciful”) and the Lord’s Prayer. She is the “Bringer of Plurabilities” (104.02). The plural of that word is telling: not just plurability, but plurabilities, a radical, doubled plural: not only is this writing plural, there are irreducibly many ways of its being plural. This plural plurability is surely something every reader of the Wake feels all the time, in the constant unease that there must not only be many possible meanings just out of sight in any given reading, but that there must also be many possible ways of producing possible meanings in this “unhemmed” babel (104.03).
For a start, there are the names of this document in front of us, the letter that is also Finnegans Wake. It is “untitled,” but has “gone by many names at disjointed times” (104.04-05). A title is more than a name. Among the SOED‘s definitions, we find:
1. An inscription placed on or over an object, giving its name or describing it … 2. The descriptive heading of each section or subdivision of a book … 3. … an inscription at the beginning of a book, describing or indicating its subject, contents, or nature, and usu. giving also the name of the author, compiler, or editor, and of the publisher, and the place and date of publication.
In its plurabilities, the letter has none of these. In the course of its circulation, though, it has necessarily picked up many names: if you’re going to talk about it, you have to refer to it somehow. (And of course, for a long while neither did Finnegans Wake have a title. Until it was published in its entirety in 1939, the placeholder for a title was just the non-committal Work in Progress, with the final title the object of a guessing game Joyce encouraged among friends.) What we get in place of a title is a three-page list of some of those names. Only one of these names comes close to that sense of a descriptive prefatory inscription; it’s by far the longest, but it’s also the very last, and despite its assertion of its own veracity reads like the heading to a sensational broadsheet:
First and Last Only True Account all about the Honorary Mirsu Earwicker, L.S.D., and the Snake (Nuggets!) by a Woman of the World who can only Tell Naked Truths about a Dear Man and all his Conspirators how they all Tried to Fall him Putting it all around Lucalizod about Privates Earwicker and a Pair of Sloppy Sluts plainly Showing all the Unmentionability falsely Accusing about the Raincoats. (107.01-07)
For the most part, the names are separated by commas, but it’s hard to tell just how many names there might be, as some of the commas are surely internal to a single name. The example above has two of them. We also have, for example, “Twenty of Chambers, Weighty Ten Beds and a Wan Ceteroom” (105.03-04), which gives us 20 + 80 + 10 + 1 = 111, that recurring Wake numeral; and “Thee Steps Forward, Two Stops Back” (105.30-31). There are several cases in which it makes just as much sense to see a comma as internal as to see it as a separation: “I ask You to Believe I was his Mistress, He Can Explain” (105.13-14); “The Suspended Sentence, A Pretty Brick Story for Childsize Heroes” (106.13-14); “Allfour Guineas, Sounds and Compliments Libidous” (106.30-31). There are, however, two semicolons, at 104.24 and 105.32 (Rose and O’Hanlon’s Restored Finnegans Wake has these as commas, but that’s a variant not listed by Henkes and Bindervoet). The semicolons lead William York Tindall to suggest that the list is in three parts, “each part distinguished by substance and tone” (Reader’s Guide 99), belonging in turn to the three manifestations of , Issy, Kate and ALP.
One last point. The letter is a “mamafesta” (104.04), which is not only the mother’s manifesto, but the very manifestation of the mother. It’s a reminder that what we’re reading is not just (what is said about) what ALP has to say, but, quite literally (and again in a very literal sense of literal), herself.
From the names to the document itself, a “polyhedron of scripture” (107.08). Much of the rest of the chapter will be a mock-lecture, sometimes with interjections of frustration from a presumed audience.
Some initial hypotheses about who might have produced the letter and what it’s about are entertained and dismissed—perhaps in order to be dismissed. A naive reader might dismiss it as “the tracing of a purely deliquescent recidivist” (107.10) with an unhealthy obsession: “presenting a strangely profound rainbowl in his (or her) occiput” (107.11-12) suggests that everything is to be seen through the rainbow associated with Issy’s 28 schoolfriends. The trigrams of the next sentence confirm the obvious identity of this repeat offender:
To the hardily curiosing entomophilust then it has shown a very sexmosaic of nymphosis in which the eternal chimerahunter Oriolopos, now frond of sugars, then lief of saults, the sensory crowd in his belly coupled with an eye for the goods trooth bewilderblissed by their night effluvia with guns like drums and fondlers like forceps persequestellates his vanessas from flore to flore. (107.12-18)
Entomophilous plants are those pollinated by insects, so to approach this as an entomophilust is to see it as a riot of insects and sex. A sexual mosaic, or chimera, is a single organism showing a mixture of male and female features—common in insects. Nymphosis is a term used for pupation, the stage between the immature and mature stages of the adult insect; but a nymph is also the name given to the immature form of certain insects such as cicadas and grasshoppers, in which the nymph has a strong resemblance to the adult. To top that off that confusion of generations, nympheus is also the Greek word for wedding. Oriolopos would seem to be a made-up genus of moth, an eternal chimerahunter attracted by the night effluvia put out by the female. The earwig has forceps, and this insect (perce-oreille, the French earwig) seeks, or persecutes, or sequesters the objects of his entomophilust; a vanessa is a genus of butterfly, and with Stella and Vanessa we have Jonathan Swift’s pet names for his much younger lovers, Esther Johnson and Esther Vanhomrich.
And the insects? Well, the word’s an anagram for incest. It’s another example of the way in which this chapter in particular focuses on the surface of the document rather than depths it might hide. It keeps you at the level of the marks on the page, preventing you from leaping too quickly at familiar meanings behind them, looking at the signifier at least as much as the signified. More than that, it’s an example of how this chapter, and the book itself, regularly hides in plain view the very things the sleeper is least able either to countenance or to forget. Entomology is a blind; what we need to follow is more like etymology. Insects themselves are really neither here nor there in this story. It’s the word itself that carries the weight, with its ineradicable burden of guilt every time it or anything connected with it comes around, as it will endlessly. It’s there in the very name of this avatar of or alibi or blind for , Earwicker, Persse O’Reilly, like an earworm that won’t go away.
[We know that Joyce had read and taken notes on Freud by this stage. One of the basic moves of The Interpretation of Dreams, and one that’s without precedent in the literature, whether it’s psychological, medical or divinatory, is that the logic of the dream is not carried in the literal or figurative signified meaning of its figures, but by the associations among the signifiers. A young woman tells of walking through a field of barley and wheat, cutting off ears as she goes. A young man in whom she is interested comes towards her, and she tries to avoid him. The obvious, bad and thoroughly clichéd reading would be to see those ears of wheat as phallic (as though it’s an insight that the word is full of things that are longer than they are wide), and the cutting of them as a preemptive defence against the young man’s attentions. But listen, says Freud: listen to the words. In German, the language in which the dreamer told her dream, those ears are Ähren, and that sounds just like Ehren, honour. The dreamer is fond of the young man, and the dream is about her desire for an honourable kiss, a Kuss in Ehren, which in order to emerge disguises itself as a Kuss in Ähren. (Freud recounts the dream in Chapter VI (F) of the Interpretation.)]
As if to emphasize the way in which that opacity of the signifier works, the next three sentences have about a dozen puns in Armenian, a language we can guess is quite unfamiliar to most readers of Finnegans Wake. There’s often a tension between the purely homophonic translation of what we see (that is, reading the unfamiliar words as if they were the English words they sound like) and the meaning of the words in Armenian. “Somehows this sounds like the purest kidooleyoon” (107.18-19) sounds as if it’s dismissing what’s gone before as nonsense, but the Armenian kidout’iun means science. The herou of “All’s so herou from us” (107.20) sounds like here, but herou is far. If “we must grope on till Zerogh hour like pou owl giaours as we are” (107.21-22), then on the one hand we are poor old owls or infidels groping on in the darkness till zero hour; on the other though, zereg hour is the break of day rather than the extinction of light—a time when we might expect the night sight of owls (doubled as pou) to be much less effective. This could be the amusing story of a husband’s wanderings, but it’s not (“Amousin [husband] though not but,” 23). What the clustering of Armenian words in these sentences emphasizes is something that any reader of the Wake is bound to feel, and not just here but throughout: that wherever you are, somewhere, in some other frame you just don’t have access to at the moment, whatever you’re reading just may make some sort of unexpected sense that stands to qualify or even overturn what you think it might be meaning. What we’ve got here is very different from the Jungian archetypes of Campbell and Robinson, where a small set of oppositions generates all conceivable stories. Instead, we have a potentially endless slide from one word to a strictly uncountable and incalculable number of other words. Campbell and Robinson read the Wake as a plurality of stories that have all in principle already been told. Plurabilities, though, open out to what the “Ithaca” chapter of Ulysses called “the imprevidability of the future.”
To the naif alphabetter, then, the letter looks like little more than the tracing of a habitual offender. The entomophilust sees sex and insects everywhere in it. We grope on. If we were to look closely at the document (the French bordereau, which is an inventory, a consignment notice, an invoice; it also gives us bord de l’eau, by the water, and, by folk etymology, bordello), we would see “a multiplicity of personalities inflicted on the documents or document” (107.24-25). Rather than its being the work of a singular figure we could discern through the text, we see again an insect-like swarming of possibilities. Rather than a source, we find something that has happened to the letter in the course of its passage in the middenheap of history. It is not even clear whether the letter itself is singular or plural. If we were unwary, we could be tempted to foresee in it the evidence of “virtual crime or crimes” not yet committed, just waiting for a “suitable occasion … to happen along” (107.26-28).
[What is the status of that incestuous desire? Are we to take it that HCE has sexually abused his daughter, or that he wants to? The “virtual crime” of a desire or fantasy may, after all, have many of the same effects as the performance of the fantasized action: anything from guilt and remorse to satisfaction. That the Wake is perpetually disrupted by HCE’s guilt is not in itself any evidence that he has committed the action. After all, we just don’t know what happened, if anything at all, in the Phoenix Park. The Wake is resolute in its refusal to confirm or deny any of the many versions of the story we hear, and so the emphasis moves away from the question of the truth or falsity of their various contents and is forever thrown back on to the bare fact of their insistence and repetition: they just don’t go away. Campbell and Robinson read the massive telling and retelling of versions of what looks like the same story throughout the Wake as evidence of its archetypality: that this is indeed the one human story that echoes down the ages and through all culture. But what they miss is the full implication of that repetition itself, the fact of the repeated act of saying it rather than the apparently common content. What, after all, is the type of story that doesn’t go away, but repeats itself at every turn, no matter where one starts from, and no matter how many times it’s already been said? Isn’t it a story in which the apparently universal reassurance of the content actually fails to work, so it all has to be done all over again, and with the same result that time too? What’s said is undermined by the very act of saying it, as if it can never be asserted enough times to make it stick. In this light, the nickname Here Comes Everybody (32.18-19) is not so much a simple declaration that HCE is Everyman, as a series of wishful fantasies of approval like Bloom’s apotheosis in “Circe”:
and while he was only and long and always good Dook Umphrey for the hungerlean spalpeens of Lucalizod and Chimbers to his cronies it was equally certainly a pleasant turn of the populace which gave him as sense of those normative letters the nickname Here Comes Everybody. An imposing everybody he always indeed looked, constantly the same as and equal to himself and magnificently well worthy of any and all such universalisation, every time he continually surveyed, amid vociferatings from in front of Accept these few nutties! and Take off that white hat! … (32.14-23)]
If we look closely at the document, then, we see a multitude of personalities in it. To make these “traits featuring the chiaroscuro coalesce, their contrarieties eliminated, into one stable somebody ” (107.29-30), you’d really have to squint, to look through closed eyes. This, the last sentence says in the comparison on which it hinges, is just like the way history works: the “providential warring of heartshaker with housebreaker and of dramdrinker against freethinker” (107.31-32) may look chaotic in its plurabilities, but stand back from it and it’s the way in which “our social something bowls along bumpily” down the generations, experienced not as without order but as a “jolting series of prearranged disappointments” (107.31-35).
At this point, we get a frustrated interjection from the floor: “Say, baroun lousadoor, who in hallhagal wrote the durn thing anyhow?” (107.36-108.01). The Armenian sources continue here and in the next paragraph, and they bring with them that confusion of seeing and not seeing: baron is the honorific Mr, and Lousadour is the Armenian version of Lucifer, bringer of light, so the heckle is along the lines of, “Okay, mister bright spark, shed some light on this if you can…” It’s followed by a number of possible descriptions of the writer and the act of writing, concluding with one that looks more than a little like Shem, “a too pained [two-paned, spectacled] whittlewit laden with the loot of learning” (107.06-07). Or perhaps it’s Joyce.
The reply is an enjoinder to patience, and it’s tellingly one of the few sentences in the entire book that’s in a plain and unWakean English: “Now, patience; and remember patience is the great thing, and above all things else we must avoid anything like being or becoming out of patience” (108.08-10). A good plan adopted by many who haven’t mastered Confucian equinamity is to think about Bruce and the spider—or, less obviously, the Elberfeld Calculating Horses, a sensation in late nineteenth-century Germany, who it was claimed could count, read and perform complex calculations in arithmetic. It may be an indication that, patience or not, we are about to spiral into the improbable anyway. If, after years of looking around all sorts of obscure places, some investigator wants to reassure us that HCE was “properly speaking three syllables less than his own surname” (which only has three syllables anyway: 108.20-21), or that the ear of his name comes from a broadcaster’s trademark and the wicker from “local jargon for an ace’s patent” (108.23), then—and now we are back where we began, with the exasperated taunt that began the previous paragraph—where in Hell is “that bright soandsuch to slip us the dinkum oil?” (108.28).
The paragraph after this one will meet the objection with a suggestion on how we can read this opaque, tattered letter. Before that, though, we’re offered an assurance that such frustrations are hardly rare: “Naysayers we know.” (Or perhaps we no them, naysay the naysayers.) For us to conclude that “the positive absence of political odia and monetary requests” on the page means that it could never have been “a penproduct of a man or woman of that period or those parts,” would be as illogical as it would be to infer that “the nonpresence of inverted commas (sometimes called quotation marks)” means that the author was “incapable of misappropriating the spoken words of others.” We recall Stephen’s theory of art from Portrait, in which proper art aims to be static rather than kinetic; and Joyce’s dislike of “perverted commas” is well known.
Luckily, though, there’s another side to the question. Has any ordinary “dime a dozen” sort of chap”ever looked sufficiently longly at a quite everyday stamped addressed envelope?” (109.02, 07-08). For the moment, we are not going to consider the contents of the envelope, only the means by which they were delivered, the “enveloping facts” rather than the “literal sense or even the psychological content” (109.14, 12-13). Of the two brothers, then, this “ornery josser” we’re hypothesizing, this descendant of Finnegan (“of … Fung Yang dynasdescended,” 109.05-06) would seem to be closer to Shaun the Post than to Shem the Penman. Let’s focus on that “outer husk” (108.09).
In many way, this is quite a classic trope of hermeneutics, even the trope: truth lies under the surface; it’s veiled from us, even if only by figures of speech (by tropes, no less), and our job as readers and interpreters is to penetrate that veil and get to what’s underneath. Jacques Derrida famously unravels the figure of the veil in “Le facteur de la vérité” in his book The Postcard: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. If metaphor is a veil, it’s a veil that we nevertheless see the truth through, one whose very job is to reveal us the truth; so the veil is the metaphor of truth, and indeed the truth of truth, the truth of metaphor and the metaphor of metaphor. This paragraph of the Wake will take that entanglement and slow it down, to suggest we keep our attention for the moment on the veil itself, the envelope we have been delivered, with “all its featureful perfection of imperfection” picked up or inflected on it in its travels, the fortunes that are its face (109.08-09).
Or the clothing over its nakedness. Here the eroticism of that entomophilust from two pages back emerges again—and, as we might expect, in a complex denial. The sentence has the same shape as the one that made up most of the previous paragraph: to conclude X would be as wrong as to conclude Y. Here, “to concentrate solely on the literal sense or … psychological content … to the sore neglect of the enveloping facts” (109.12-14) would be “just as hurtful to sound sense (and let it be added to the truest taste)” (109.15-16) as a man’s being introduced to a woman and then immediately imagining her unclothed. That would be to ignore “the ethiquethical fact” that she is, after all, wearing some “definite articles of evolutionary clothing, inharmonious creations,” 109.21, 23): the running-together of ethics and etiquette gives us a stammer that suggests HCE, as do the partial trigrams buried in the folds of those garments, to be uncovered by “the hand of an expert” who could separate out their “surprisingly like coincidental parts” “for better survey” (109.28-30). That these are “definite articles of clothing” underlines the metaphor: what both covers and reveals the “natural altogether” (109.20) is the words we read, these lines of characters across the page, which as we have seen is . Who could doubt either the facts of this “feminine clothiering” or the”feminine fiction” of the sense that is behind them (109.31-32)—or that they could then be separated, contemplated simultaneously or in turn?
Let some of these enveloping, circumstantiating facts speak for themselves. This “isle is Sainge” (110.06): Ireland is the Isle of Saints, and wants for nothing. If the river wants salt, the brine comes in with the tide. If the country wants a delicacy to eat, it gets it, in this kingdom under heaven. In Ireland, as John Pentland Mahaffy, the Provost of Trinity, said, “the inevitable never happens, and the unexpected always” ; here, we have “Mayhappy Mayhapnot” saying of Chapelizod and Lucan (“Isitachapel-Asitalukin”), where the Earwicker story takes place, that they are “where the possible was the improbable and the improbable the inevitable” (110.07, 08, 11-12). If he was right, then “we are in for a sequentiality of improbable possibles” (110. (110.15), and “utterly impossible as are all these events they are probably as like those which may have taken place as any others which never took person at all are ever likely to be” (110.19-21).
The paragraph ends with an “Ahahn!”, which is at once an Aha! of recognition, the so be it of an agreed amen putting to rest all of those insistent naysayings that this paragraph and two previous have been trying to refuse—and a hen (or at least a German rooster, Hahn). The next paragraph is going to take us directly to that improbable sequence of events by which the letter not only survived its burial and near-obliteration in a midden, but was rescued from it by the scratchings of a hen.
In a few pages’ time, we’ll have a long description of the appearance of the letter that draws on the extravagances of the Book of Keels. This paragraph alludes to two of the other great discoveries of early Celtic art, the Tara Brooch and the Ardagh Chalice, both of which were found by children.
One day near midwinter, a child noticed a hen behaving oddly on a middenheap. A second child absconded with it and showed it to his stammering father, hoping for his approval (“trying with pious clamour to wheedle Tipperaw raw raw reeraw puteters out of Now Sealand,” 110.36-111.01: the Ardagh chalice was found in a potato field on the side of the ring fort Reerasta). It’s the battle of the brothers again (“a dual a duel to die to day” 111.02-03), fought once again on the middenheap of history, with Kevin/Shaun the Post doing what he always does, claiming for his own what really belongs to his brother. Nevertheless, although the other brother (Jerry, as he’ll be called in II.2) is Shem the Penman, he’s not the author of the letter, only its finder—and not even the original finder, as that’s the “original hen” (110.22).
… and that hen, as we’ve seen (Book I, 10-11), is a version of Kate, the older . Here, she’s identified as Belinda of the Dorans, over fifty years old and with a silver medal from “Cheepalizzy’s Hane Exhibition” (111.06-07). What she was scratching at looked “for all this zogzag world like a goodishsized sheet of letterpaper originating by transhipt [again, that conflation of Pen and Post, of inscription, transcription and shipment] from Boston (Mass.),” dated “last of the first,” 31 January, and addressed to a Dear somebody, possibly Maggy (111.08-11).
If this is the letter that’s supposed to exonerate HCE, it’s hard to see what the fuss is about, even allowing for all the redactions and obliterations that time and the rubbish heap have introduced. It seems an innocuous chatty letter about family and acquaintances—and it’s not even clear that it’s about this family. Dear Maggy, it reads. Well. Or maybe that’s, Maggy’s well. So are all at home. The heat seems to have curdled the milk for the cocoa. Something about the general election. Someone has a lovely face. A beautiful present of wedding cakes for dear someone, thank you. The “grand funferall” of poor Father Michael, whom we won’t forget till life’s end. Muggy’s well. How are you, Maggy? Hope to hear soon, must go now, love to the twins, xxxx, and a PS that has been made illegible by a teastain—or may simply be nothing but that teastain, which we can grasp at as being “a genuine relique of ancient Irish pleasant pottery of that lydialike languishing class known as a hurry-me-o’er-the-hazy” (111.22-24). The archness of that “relique” recalls the sentimental appreciation of faux-Irishness we saw earlier, in one of the first descriptions of the Earwicker inn: “How charmingly exquisite! It reminds you of the outwashed engravure that we used to be blurring on the blotchwall of his innkempt house” (13.06-08).
Why then how? Indeed. And is this one question or two? Is it Why then, how are we to read this as the letter of exoneration everyone’s after?, or is it First tell us why we should think this is that letter, then tell us how on earth we can read it that way? In short: What the …? The next paragraph is going to try, perhaps rather desperately, to make the case that despite appearances this really is the letter we want.
“Well.” The letter’s four repeated reassurances or wishes that all’s fine get another four repetitions in this paragraph, but now they’re more like nervous pauses to allow for thinking on one’s feet: throat-clearing, ums and ahs to give a speaker time to cobble together a case.
The first thing we need to do is find some sort of explanation of why this letter appears to be nothing like the one we want. Let’s try a metaphor. Well, any photographer knows that “if a negative of a horse happens to melt enough while drying, well, what you do get is, well, a positively grotesquely distorted macromass of all sorts of horsehappy values and messes of meltwhile horse” (111.28-30). This must be (“freely”) something like “what must have occurred to our missive” (111.30-31) in its “heated residence in the … mudmound” (111.33-34). Parts of the letter must have been obliterated, others have been exaggerated in size. To read it, you need to stand back to try to get a better overall view of it, and at the same time you find you need some sort of lens to make out the detail anyway. If nothing we can see actually looks much like exoneration of HCE, well, that must have been in the bits that were obliterated. If all of it we can read appears to be domestic smalltalk, well, they must be the bits that have been exaggerated out of all proportion, and are not really representative of what we imagine the original must have been. How unfortunate. Everything we need the letter to be has vanished; and worse, everything we have left suggests that it was never there anyway.
The repeated “tip” throughout the passage is connected with the hen, and with Kate, ready to receive gratuities for guiding us through the museyroom (8.09-10.23). It also suggests that these very attempts to make sense out of this product of the rubbish tip might be doing little more than adding to it.
McHugh suggests that the meltwhile horse echoes Stephen’s parody of Aristotle in Ulysses: “Horseness is the whatness of allhorse” (U 9.84-85). It’s a ghostly whatness here, and might also be the one whose ghost has already cantered through the equestrianism of the earlier reassurance, “Luckily there is another cant to the questy” (109.01).
Again, the objection: but none of it makes any sense! This time, it’s met preemptively with sarcasm (“Gee up, girly!”—112.06), and a reminder that though the four gospellers may own scripture, any scholar-gypsy may, like the browsing and untutored hen, “pick a peck of kindlings yet from the sack of auld hensyne” (112.08).
We’ve seen earlier that when the Wake turns all uxorious on us (“How bootifull and how truetowife of her,” 11.29), it’s time to beware. Women have (and here the paragraph drips with sanctimony) always led men throughout the ages: “Lead, kindly fowl!” (112.09). Following her, man too may in time find “agreement in the nest” (112.11). Her instincts are as “sound as a bell, sir” in their “socioscientific sense” (112.11-12), her inborn motherly love protects and nourishes, and she is “ladylike in everything she does and plays the gentleman’s part every time” (112.16-17). That’s just what women do. How could a letter written by a woman do anything but defend her man? If we (men, sir) but let ourselves be led by her, the golden age will return. There can be no justification for “gloompourers” who doubt the letter (112.24). This isn’t so much an argument about the letter as a preemptive attempt to pour scorn on any possible objections. The hen’s discovery has—let’s be hyperbolic about it—changed everything about how we should be looking at literature.
The previous paragraph has concentrated on ALP as author of the letter, but this paragraph shifts to the tropes we associate more with Issy: her love of shopping (“We note the paper with her jotty young watermark: Notre Dame du Bon Marché,” 112.32), the “fansaties of a frizette” (112.36) who at sixteen (“sixdix,” 113.09) will be looking forward to her first dances (“What lumililts as she fols with her fallimineers and her nadianods,” 112.33-34, with those hints of the fall of a first sexual encounter), and the ways in which her experience of the world is mirrored to her in romance fiction (“But how many of her readers realise that she is not out to dizzledazzle with a graith uncouthrement of postmantuam glasseries,” 112.36-113.02).
There is something rather queasy going on here, with this eager roping-in of the daughter to defend her father from accusations of sexual misdemeanours. The threatened incoherence of the statement, the sheer multiplicity of its denial-upon-denial, and the way in which it always seems on the verge of breaking out in HCE’s signature stammer of guilt, all seem to strengthen the very suspicions they want to put to rest: “she feel plain plate one flat fact thing and if, lastways firdstwise, a man alones sine anyon anyons utharas has no rates to done a kik at with anyon anakars about [it]” (113.05-07). It’s doubly queasy when, as we’ve seen, this chapter has quite early on clearly shown the father’s fascination with his daughter’s maturation and sexuality (107.12-18). It’s triply so when this narrative’s eagerness to exculpate HCE looks so easily like a proxy for the man himself, his own wishful thinking. Issy in this passage is thus unsettlingly rather like Gerty in the “Nausicaa” chapter of Ulysses, who is not easily distinguishable from the projections of that dark, foreign-looking man admiring her from over in the rocks. We are assured that “All schwants (schwrites) ischt tell the cock’s trootabout him” (113.11-12). But who writes this, who says that’s all she wants, and is so sure they know what this young woman wants? If it’s the cock’s truth, is it the hen’s truth after all? Schwantz (literally, tail) is German slang for penis, just as cock is English slang for the same thing (and Truthahn is a German turkey cock: to “talk straight turkey meet to mate” in the next paragraph, 113.26, is to talk man-to-man). What we’re left with may just be the particularly masculine fantasy of a young woman avowing that all she ever really wants is what the man wants. Which is not all that far from one of the basic tropes of pornography. And if porne is “prostitute,” this excuse goes on to admit a succession of them: “Dancings (schwrites) was his only ttoo feebles. With apple harlottes. And a little mollvogels. Spissially (schwrites) when they peaches. [With a particular penchant for being urinated on?] Honeys wore camelia paints” (113.15-17). So shame on anyone who thinks evil of this [mal y pense]! The entire paragraph has become a labyrinth of disavowal, down to the final shrug of its being just another version of an old, old story.
And in the middle of all of this, we have another of those hundred-letter thunderwords. Adam Harvey, surely the most astute of any scholar-performers of Finnegans Wake, points out how little this fifth thunderword resembles the other nine. It’s neither closing an action or providing the opening to a new one, it’s undramatic and has no exclamation mark after it, and it seems to be almost entirely drawn from English rather than the Wake‘s usual pot pourri of languages. And it shares the same sort of sexualised romantic-novel diction that informs much of the rest of the paragraph: the dancing “himaroundhers” becomes a “kinkinkankan,” a lewd cancan with a family member, the very possibility of which brings out the stammer.
So let’s talk turkey, man to man. What the letter is saying (at least, what we’re told it’s saying, all appearances to the contrary) may be hard to believe, but are we to have ears and not see, or have eyes and not feel? Keeping in mind just how badly the letter has fared underground, let’s draw closer to it and see everything that remains to be seen—which is to say, both everything that’s left of it, and everything that still remains to be proved. We are about to make good on the initial description of the “proteiform graph” as “a polyhedron of scripture” (107.08): the rest of the chapter will be a detailed description and scholarly investigation of this strange object. Much of it invokes, and draws in particular on Sir Edward Sullivan’s introduction to, the Book of Kells.
Let’s take it for granted that no two readers are the same. You and I may not see eye to eye on anything (or “say aye to aye [or] noes from noes,” 114.01-02). Nevertheless, there are certain things about the document that “one cannot help noticing” (114.02-03), and they are what will concern us in the rest of the chapter.
We should note that the very claim to be no more than objective, to be talking about nothing more than the facts that should be obvious to anyone with eyes to see, may be the perfect way of disavowing all sorts of things. We’ve already seen Joyce do something very similar in the “Ithaca” chapter of Ulysses, after all. That famous description of Bloom’s turning on the tap, for example, reaches its comic climax with the petit bourgeois indignation (and whose would it be but Bloom’s?) that “selfsupporting taxpayers” should find themselves funding a flagrant waste of water by a public institution (U 17.182). (Critics often take it for granted that the style of “Ithaca” is scientific. But the joke is that it only looks scientific to someone who doesn’t really know what science looks like. Someone, that is, like Bloom, whose ideas of science come from the books on his shelves, such as the Child’s Guide.)
For a start, then, the letter appears to be cross-hatched: its lines run across the page, but also up and down it. The technique was common in domestic letters in the nineteenth century (and fittingly enough, Wikipedia even has the image of an 1837 crossed letter from Massachussetts!). As this paragraph says, “the intention may have been … domestic economical” (114.14-15): it saves in postage costs. To complicate matters, the writing may also be boustrophedonic, left to right and then right to left, as in the first passing description of the letter in chapter 1 (18.33-34). Its “lines of litters slittering up and louds of latters slettering down” (114.17-18) recall the Tower of Babel that is the wall from which Finnegan fell even earlier in chapter 1, with its “larrons o’toolers clittering up and tombles a’buckets clottering down” (5.03-04). Just as our first glimpse of the letter was of a “claybook” in its “allaphbed,” a “meandertale” that is the course of the river across the landscape (18.17, 18, 22), so too is the letter we now see a matter of the “geodetic,” with lines running both north–south and east–west according to the “cardinal points” (114.15, 03, 05, 07).
Another point: as we’ve already seen, during its time in the mudmound, the letter has accumulated a lot of “terricious matter” (114.29). This brings us again to the teastain at the foot of the page, which seems to have unfortunately blotted out the signature. One might think that would make it all the more difficult to argue that the letter is the authoritative exoneration we’ve been promised. Not so. We can best appreciate “its importance in establishing the identities in the writer complexus” by “never forgetting that both before and after the battle of the Boyne it was a habit not to sign letters always” (114.33-115.01). Whether that “always” means that they never got signed or only sometimes, the argument seems to be that the very lack of a signature is irrelevant (and perhaps even a sign of its authenticity). And if that’s the case, then surely that brevity is preferable to unnecessary verbosity. Why sign anything, when anything can act as a signature: a teastain, a drop of wax from the candle from which you’re writing, your cat’s pawmark, a mark from a cigarette or chewed clove, the very air itself? (The long parenthesis that interrupts the first sentence of the paragraph has set the scene for this, 114.22-28.) The problem has vanished. After all, we know a true friend more by so many things other than his footwear.
So, “speaking anent Tiberius and other incestuous salacities among gerontophils…” (115.11-12). Were we? Really? The concerns of that passage some 8 pages ago, where the “hardily curiosing entomophilust”‘s passions buzzed with insects (107.12-18) have suddenly emerged again, as if we’ve been speaking about them all along. In a sense, we have: everything that’s been said about the letter has had at base the desire to exculpate HCE. Even here, the very statement of those salacities make them someone else’s fault: they belong not to the old man, but to the lover of old men, a gerontophile. Issy seems to have gone from being the suspected object of her father’s amorous attention, to the one who will excuse him, to the seducer.
No sooner is that suggested, though, than we are given “a word of warning” that will take it all back—but just for a moment, as the necessary disavowal that will let us continue. Some “softnosed peruser” (115.13-14)—no doubt one of those “gloompourers” who were deplored for their disbelief some pages back (112.24)—might imagine such a seduction, but “we grisly old Sykos who have done our unsmiling bit on ‘alices, when they were yung and easily freudened” (115.21-23) know better. The word “father,” for example, doesn’t always mean that much put-upon relative who pays the bills (or settles our hash): the letter does, after all, mention a “Father Michael.” We psychoanalysts could tell you exactly what a neurasthenic sex-mad young woman really means. “And Mm. We could” (115.35). But do we have to? It’s all too human a story anyway. (Note how the threat gets papered over with a putative generosity.) We could also easily interpret everything in the letter quite differently, as, say, a parable of the Spartacist International: “Father Michael”would be the old regime, “Maggie” the revolution, “cakes” the party funds, and “dear thank you” the national gratitude (116.07-11). Now we’ve said that, we can get back once more to the sexual interpretations that are, after all, at the heart of the investigation. The prostitute would be a woman standing in front of a doorway to a brothel, the curate the common Irish term for a barman, that “beautiful present of wedding cakes (111.13-14, 116.21-22, where the “cakes” become “kates,” a slang term for prostitutes) would be more than enough to spark enmity between brothers, and that “Maggy’s tea” that stands in for the signature and sounds so much like “your majesty,” might well be the sort of endorsement we’re after, “a boost from a born gentleman” (116.24-25).
The paragraph concludes with another would-be justification, a pre-emptive defence against the obvious charge that all of this is only zealous overinterpretation: surely, it says, if the letter is actually doing what we’re claiming it does, wouldn’t we expect it to be suitably modest in its words? After all, where would the practices of “wickerchurchwardens and metaphysicians and … advokaatoes” be if they spoke in the gasps of the bedchamber (those “allvoyous, demivoyelles, languoaths, lesbiels, dentelles, gutterhowls and furtz,” 116.27-29)? Conversely, where would the human race itself be if the language of passion, wherever it’s encountered, were the jargon of the university (and again, seven terms: “ichabod, habakuk, opanoff, uggamyg, hapaxle, gomenon, ppppfff,” 116.32-33)?
This paragraph is an elaboration of the old-and-all-too-human-story argument. Love has always been like that, and the (Viconian) cycle of birth, marriage, burial and rebirth rolls on: “The lightning look, the birding cry, awe from the grave, everflowing on the times” (117.03-04); “a good clap, a fore marriage, a bad wake, tell hell’s well, such is manowife’s lot of lose and win again” (117.05-06). A shrug of the shoulders: we should be resigned to it.
The assurances continue. If youth only knew, and if age only could! It’s “the olold stoliolum” (117.11), told everywhere, throughout the ages, and in every language, as familiar as “an ould cup on tay”(117.30).
Aren’t there just too many of these assurances? If this is an age-old universal human weakness known to everyone, why are we being reminded of it so often, and in the most florid variations? And isn’t there a familiar stutter in that “olold stoliolum,” as if the very declaration is failing to convince even the speaker, and seems hollowed out in the very act of making it. The stutter (underlined below) even seems to be forever on the verge of naming itself (in red):
The olold stoliolum! From quiqui quinet to michemiche chelet and a jambebatiste to a brulobrulo! It is told in sounds in utter that, in signs so adds to, in universal, in polygluttural, in each auxiliary neutral idiom, sordomutics, florilingua, sheltafocal, flayflutter, a con’s cubane, a pro’s tutute, strassarab, ereperse and anythongue athall. (117.11-16)
When everything one says seems to be immediately in danger of revealing what it wants to hide, to utter is to stutter.