July 2022 53
H AUDEN said that “when a man can
occupy himself with counting syllables,
either he has not yet attempted any
spiritual climb, or he is over the hump”.
In ‘Finnegans Wake’ Joyce finally
loosens up and counts syllables. It is one of the world’s
ironies that unpoetic ‘Ulysses’ is the book for which
he is celebrated, and which was read out on the smug
streets of Dublin this Bloomsday, as it is every year.
Whatever its value as a novel, as a work of art
‘Ulysses’ is a failure. Joyce is pulled between the world
he wants and the one he has, like Dedalus; like Bloom,
he knows there cannot be one without the other. Joyce
heaves his language around everywhere with the
greatest diculty, in each chapter restarting and
starting over again in a new style, but each time it does
not do what he wants. ‘Ulysses ’ swells and shrinks and
blows all over the place.
By Rory O’Sullivan
‘Finnegans Wake, Joyces greatest
work, ranks him among the rare
artists who actually achieved the
spiritual condition they sought
Beckett, in his essay ‘Dante... Bruno. Vico..
Joyce’ claims that ‘Finnegans Wake’ is an
attack on, well, everything – at least our
concept ofeverything,’ and that this attack is
all about language
Wringlings upon wronglings among incomputables about an
uncomeoutable (an angel prophetethis? kingcorrier of beheasts? the
calif in his halifskin? that eyriewringing one?) and the voids bubbily
vode’s dodos across which the boonomouths from their dupest dupes
were in envery and anononously blowing great
What Joyce, the artist, wanted, was not to give us an
exposition of the world we think we live in, but to
represent the world we do live in – to recall us to our
lives. He was not a philosopher but a soul-saver, a
missionary, and throughout his work, even ‘Dubliners’
and ‘Portrait of the Artist, ’ his subject is not the
meandering waters of life, as is so often believed, but
What, exactly, to convert people into, most of the
time he was unsure of. The last lines of the early books
(Stephen’s diary: “Old father, old artificer, stand me
now and ever in good stead” – Gabriel looking at the
snow “falling faintly… faintly falling”) are Damascene
moments, but they resolve not so much to carry out the
work as to figure out which work to undertake.
Joyce experienced the artistic version of the human
tragedy of finitude. For an artist who succeeds, the
reward of their years of labour is an insight strictly
secret and personal: theirs is a Church of One.
‘Finnegans Wake’, the hymnbook of Joyce’s Church
of One, has a remarkable coherence and unity, not just
of style, but of tone: it is rapturously exultant. In literary
terms it is the anti-‘Ulysses’: ‘Ulysses’ puts clear and
ordinary characters into a plot so straight and narrow
it is hardly worth the name, drowning them all in a
schizophrenic variety; whereas ‘Finnegans Wake’
moves with steadfast integrity towards and across
nothing. It is birdsong. It is tempting to call it a poem
100 years of ‘Ulysses’
54 July 2022
instead of a novel, but that would be no less arbitrary
because it is something altogether new.
Of course, the book does not make sense. But nor
does it make nonsense. Its language is not only
consistent but highly worked, careful, and complete:
the seventeen years Joyce claimed to have worked on
it were busily spent. Some of its lines are as beautiful
as can be, and even Borges in his negative review of
the book said that they were “not inferior to
Lines such as: “The augustan peacebetothem
oaks, the monolith riding stark from the moonlit
pinebarren” and “By the rivering waters,
hitherandthithering waters of. Night!”
These should empower us once and for all to reject
the idea that the book is complete nonsense – with
as much force as the academics who study it now do
the ‘Skeleton Key’ of its twentieth-century
professional decoders, Joseph Campbell and Henry
Morton Robinson.
‘Finnegans Wake’ is nearlysense, a nearlybook of
nearlywords that nearlyrhymeandreason – that is
how it is a masterpiece. It is easy to write nonsense
(monkeys, typewriters etc), hard to write hundreds of
pages of coherence; but what Joyce did is
breathtakingly dicult, not to mention outlandish.
Beckett, in his essay Dante... Bruno. Vico.. Joyce
claims that ‘Finnegans Wake’ is an attack on, well,
everything – at least our concept of ‘everything,’ and
that this attack is all about language because Joyce
recognises how the world as we know it is a language,
an ulterior language of languages. He is like Dante in
how he attempts to return the Lingua Inglese to the
status of a Questione, how for him the dictionary
words are a degeneration from the Adamic lexicon.
Beckett is right that English is “full of sophisms”,
words that mean nothing outside themselves. He
gives the example that the word ‘doubt’ suggests not
a single state or condition but stands vaporously
above several and obscures them (unlike e.g. Latin,
Dubitare, which specifically imagines ‘wavering’).
We can join Beckett in scouring the lexicon of
‘Finnegans Wake’ for a ‘desophistication’ of English,
in the vocabulary and syntax of which, in exchange
for the paltriness of semantic knowledge, we have
bartered away wisdom.
If we do so, Beckett and Joyce start to look like the
early Derrida – the one who was not yet a celebrity;
the Husserlian metaphysician who, some morning in
the 1960s, woke up and realised that new
technologies were revealing how language, brings
forth to us the world in a symbolic act (which he called
writing”) and, with the same stroke, murders it on
arrival. The Derrida who wrote: “Writing is unthinkable