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What is Finnegans Wake? An Incompletion in Alphabetical Order

What is Finnegans Wake?

An Incompletion in Alphabetical Order 

Philip Harvey 

This Incompletion is given with thanks to fellow members of the Finnegans Wake Reading Group in Melbourne. Many of the definitions derive from our discussions over the years, both in the room and on zoom. The quotes are from page 93 of ‘Finnegans Wake’, by James Joyce, with an introduction by Seamus Deane (Penguin, 1992). 

1.     AN ANTHOLOGY FW is an anthology of world literature, sacred and profane, reworked into original English, without sourcing of any of the quotes, or an index. It is an anthology of proverbs and sayings turned inside out and back to front, so that their proverbiality becomes simply the lever, or the ghost writer, or the template for whatever proverb or saying is next being invented. It is an anthology of stories bowdlerized and pulverised and reorganised to make up one basic story told over and over until it burgeons exponentially into one big story. That big story is made up of pages of microcosms of itself. FW is an anthology of poetic lyric fragments turned through a mangle into something strange and new.

2.     A BERLITZER ORGAN James Joyce’s experience as a foreign language teacher in Berlitz schools, especially in Trieste, is seen as formative for the hybrid language of FW. His post-Dublin life was lived in multilingual European cities, all of which treated English as, at the very least, a second language. Immersion in a spoken environment of differing tongues turns into a mode of expressing oneself in several languages at once on the page. Accounts of the author’s life say he loved to immerse himself in the crowd, or the café, listening to all the different languages of Trieste at once, just as we do on a Melbourne tram.

3.     A CASE STUDY A great deal of the book is composed on the couch. Also in armchairs, at tables, on the floor, and at the window. But the couch is where Joyce presents his dreams for our interpretation. He is an unusual case for a psychoanalyst. His own understandings of the unconscious are inlaid into the dream scenes. He speaks his obsessions, guilts, desires, transgressions, traumas, even as he makes them the dramatic characters of FW, as well as the impetus for its creation.  

4.     A COMPRESSION CHAMBER One of the impacts of reading ‘Ulysses’ is its level of detail on every page. To use two terms favoured by academe, Joyce moves past mere nuance into thorough granularity. This is true of his surprise vocabulary on any page, his non-signposted references to the same details in other parts of the novel, and his assumption that you will want to know as much about Dublin minutiae circa 1904 as any other reader. FW purportedly takes place in a hotel in Chapelizod and is recounted with a level of detail that is granular to the point of being somewhere through the looking-glass. The compression of this detail defies one of the assumed purposes of language: instant, direct communication. In this way it is mimetic of the overloaded state of mind of someone in a room of a hotel in Chapelizod, who is possibly drunk, possibly dreaming, possibly sleeping it off, or possibly dead. The only way to know for certain is to keep reading.

5.     A COURT REPORT Most crime fiction has a crime, an investigation, suspects, twists, and a solution. These things are all evident in the story, whether explicitly or subtly. The nature of the crime in FW is not really clear, even though it is central to the plot. Every effort appears to be made to uncover the true nature of this crime, or crimes, but ironically language seems to be a stumbling block to getting at the facts. The main character is a suspect, though by extension so is almost anyone who happens to happen upon a role in the narrative, including the hapless reader. Even if the reader just innocently opened FW once upon a time. There are more twists than there are letters of the alphabet. The conclusion reached is that not only will we not find out who did what when, we may not want to know. This process includes court hearings, the portions of transcripts of which show up from time to time. These reports are entertaining, baffling, insinuating, informative, uninformative, inconclusive, open and shut, and for all we know might be nothing more than hearsay.   

6.     A DREAM PLAY If history is the nightmare from which Stephen Dedalus is trying to awake, then FW is a description of the nightmare. In 1901, August Strindberg wrote ‘A Dream Play’, an extended piece of theatre enacted in a dream. In his prefatory note to the play Strindberg wrote: “The characters split, double, multiply, evaporate, condense, dissolve and merge. But one consciousness rules them all: the dreamer's; for him there are no secrets, no inconsistencies, no scruples and no laws.  He does not judge or acquit, he merely relates; and because a dream is usually painful rather than pleasant, a tone of melancholy and compassion for all living creatures permeates the rambling narrative.”

7.     A DRUNKEN RAVE Two Finns are at a bar. Drinks arrive and one Finn says to the other, “Cheers!” His friend replies, “Are we here to talk or drink?” At FW both are going on incessantly, drinking and talking. Two of the main characters are the glass of whisky and the glass of porter at the coffin of Finnegan.

8.     A DUMP  The midden is an abiding image of FW, a great dump of fragmentary remains. Within this midden is hidden the secret letter, the letter is somewhere in the litter. The letter is composed of any human language, it is the ur-document that itself recurs through the ages. FW itself is an example of this ur-document, hidden somewhere in the great dump of written history.

9.     AN ENTERTAINMENT Like ‘Ulysses’, a readerly challenge of FW is our awareness that, for all its complexity, the author’s ultimate purpose is still one of entertainment. The whole stylistic contrivance, the infinite possibilities of meaning, the story within a story within a story, every last trick in the book and flick of the wrist is wilfully an entertainment. That this is what the author knew he must accomplish from the start, to entertain his readers even as he utterly bewilders them, will always be one of Joyce’s singular achievements. No matter how much he challenges us with unknowable references, he has to be entertaining. One step back and that’s how it appears: a glorious sideshow.    

10.                        AN EPIC When trying to locate FW in classical literary terms, it often seems to come closest to the outlandish comedy of Aristophanes. Like ‘Ulysses’ before it, the line between serious and not serious is too often very hard to see in FW. Its cyclical nature makes the story into a saga, though a saga in which historical time has no special sequencing, and where logical progression across generations is difficult to discern, having been condensed and mythologised. The abiding feeling of FW is one of epic. We sense that we are in midst of an epic, even if the characters don’t seem to be engaged in epic acts. With ‘Ulysses’ we at least had Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ as a reader’s guide, but here there is nothing in classical literature that serves as a clear comparison or model.      

11.                        A GAZOPHYLACIUM This Latinate word derives from the Greek for an offertory box or a treasury of precious objects. Joyce the dandy, a wearer and collector of tie pins, studs, and rings of precious stone, fills his pages with ornate words of his own invention, setting them out in his own secret arrays. The word was adopted during the late Renaissance as a term for dictionaries, including polyglots of multiple languages in parallel texts. Reading FW is like seeing a page of parallel texts blurring into one another, to the point where the main language sometimes becomes indistinguishable from its foreign language counterparts. Astonishing it is to spend time looking objectively at all of these hundreds of precious ornamented words, each one individually made out of the colours of different languages by the author himself.  

12.                        A GOOGLE SEARCH Joyce writes of “borrowing a word and begging the question and stealing tinder and slipping like soap,” an admission (as if one were needed) that FW is  deliberately full of uncommon words and challenging allusions. It was written for someone with access to a very large reference library. It was written for Google. The myriad mysteries of the book come some way to being explained thanks to the online search engines available from our armchair. Google was designed for FW. It’s aim of making all knowledge accessible makes the reading of the book easier and deeper. Tracking Joyce’s thinking, his personal mind pattern, has improved this century, thanks to the computer.  

13.                        AN INCOMPLETION From the day when Joyce first launched his work with the working title ‘Work In Progress’, FW has enjoyed a reputation for incompletion. An aura of incompletion surrounds the book. The implication continues that it will never be completed, even by the death of the author. This sense is reinforced by the manner and subject of FW, based as they are on a cyclic view of existence. The implication of the manner is that there is no one way of saying what is being said about the subject and that the subject never reaches closure. Episodes can only ever be temporary completions, as more variations on episodes emerge.    

14.                        AN IRREGULARITY On the experience of reading FW, Frances Devlin Glass writes, “I doggedly persist in the Utopian view that all irregularities will have an explanation, and will prove syntactical and semiotically justifiable, if only that they are misprints!” This readerly doubt about the genuine necessity, authenticity even, of each word in FW is one that any true reader of FW will experience. The demand for close reading of each line may not just be a deterrent to continuing, it raises regular uncertainty as to whether we are holding the right end of the stick as each new irregularity comes into view. A reader experiences the awareness that everything irregular in FW is actually regular in the book’s terms. Hence her next remark, that we (the Melbourne FW Reading Group) are “getting better at reading provisionally and multi-semantically, and perhaps less timorous of letting some more difficult to assimilate possibilities go.” 

15.                        A KEY TO ALL MYTHOLOGIES “And so it all ended. Artha kama dharma moksa. Ask Kavya for the kay.” Kavya is a Sanskrit word for Poetry and here the author asks Poetry, the Muse, memory, for the key. It could be the key to all mythologies, that grand 19th century intellectual program that continues into the 21st. Although Edward Casaubon never gets far in George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ with his research into the comparative study of the world’s mythologies, he is a minor example of a vast surge in collective knowledge that by the time of FW’s first sightings preoccupied major figures in religion, psychology, philosophy, and other fields. Carl Jung’s ‘Liber Novus’, also called ‘The Red Book’, written 1913-17 but only published in 2009, is another immense and creative one-man show in response to the global awareness of ‘all mythologies’ that we witness on every page of FW.   

16.                        A LONG POEM FW is one of the dozen greatest long poems in the English language. It is indisputably one of the longest. It’s thematic connection with John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ is evident throughout. Its concerns with the needy and necessitous behaviour of humans inside history touches at every turn William Shakespeare’s drivers in the plays.    

17.                        A MACARONIC PUZZLE Related to the fact that FW is a Berlitzer Organ is the glaringly obvious fact that wakese is a mode of expression using a mixture of languages. Words may comprise multiple puns from more than one language. Wikipedia’s entry for Macaronic Language states that “macaronisms … are one of the major compositional principles” of the book.

18.                        A NOVEL A Dewey classifier numbers FW at 823, under English Fiction. Its status as a novel is about the one definition agreed upon by most people. Previously, James Joyce’s main occupation was writing novels, so it logically follows that this FW too is another in the line. Once agreement is reached, the question becomes, what kind of novel? Whichever adjective we choose will add to the Incompletion, doubling and quadrupling definitions of the book.   

19.                        A NURSERY RHYME The central main male character of the story sometimes morphs into Humpty Dumpty. The timing of his fall happens with all the simplicity and seeming inevitability of a nursery rhyme. It is the way a nursery rhyme tells the truth, a way that is matter-of-fact and disarming, but that comes down hard. Because FW simply repeats the same story over and over again, it is like a nursery rhyme that we repeat all through life, as the occasion arises. Or, in this case, falls.   

20.                        A PROGRESS REPORT Despite its absolute finality as a literary work, with a title and publisher, the composition of FW was styled a work in progress. For this reason, its existence implies there is more work to be done. The book itself is but the latest update, the most complete set of instalments thus far. Existence itself is the determinant on how much more can be said in this vein. The very word ‘progress’ is paradoxical, for in fact little progress is ever made. Progress, in the sense of the word inherited from the Industrial Revolution, is rendered absurd when we understand the cyclic meaning of FW, which says that there is no progress, there is only an eternal repetition of human experience and behaviour across lifetimes.    

21.                        A RESEARCH PROJECT Despite its absolute sense of certainty as a work of art, which is Joyce’s sense of his own certainty, FW frequently leaves the reader with a sense of uncertainty, a sense of the provisional, that we are looking always at an experiment of the mind. This is another way of appreciating the book as a Progress Report; it is the latest Research Project to add to all the others.

22.                        A VERBAL OBJECT Works of literature are verbal objects. Their style, content and language can distinguish them as that particular set of verbal objects named Shakespeare, Swift, or Stevenson. FW is the most terrifying verbal object in world literature. The texture, look, and sound of the text is instantly identifiable as FW and no other work. While we may spot the creatures known as Austen in this habitat, oh yes to the unmistakeable shape of Browning, and detect a Christie at first sight, FW is unique. It is like meeting the yeti or the thylacine – you know what you are seeing but cannot quite believe your eyes.

23.                        A VISION W.B. Yeats’ large prose work ‘A Vision’ was published just as Joyce was getting underway with FW in 1925. Joyce’s admiration for his poetry was always mixed with scepticism about Yeats’ mystical theories, something he gave free satirical expression to in ‘Ulysses’. Yet Yeats in his own way is pursuing the ‘key to all mythologies’ program we have identified with Joyce, Jung and so many more. FW is a vision, though not the kind of vision found in ‘A Vision’. Question being, what do we think is the ultimate vision of FW? If we scoured all of his tabletalk books and unpublished letters, would we find Joyce’s answers written out in high Yeatsian prose of the kind found in ‘A Vision’? Perhaps if we treated it as a test case for visions, we could get nearer an answer by identifying all the points where the two great men agree and disagree.  

24.                        A WORLD HISTORY Just as FW is a key to all mythologies, so too the book is being written at a time when the concept of world history becomes more firmly established as a literary and historical practice. World history was becoming a popular reading pastime. Such histories thrive on imperial worldviews, big military events and shifts in political and economic fashions – all things that are rewritten in shorthand across its pages. Triumph or catastrophe, depending on which side you are on, pack the story with myriad reference. Catastrophes and triumphs start looking much the same in world history, something that also happens in FW. The big picture that rivets our attention turns into a pattern of human desire and folly through constant repetition of the same things in different generations, under different names.



  1. A wonderful, illuminating piece on Finnegans Wake


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