Finnegans Wake, fascism, and the essential unity of the human race
Monday, 18 October 2021 05:16

Finnegans Wake, fascism, and the essential unity of the human race

Published in Fiction

Sean Ledwith shows how Finnegans Wake, far from being an incomprehensible waste of Joyce's genius, is an anti-fascist masterwork, uniting and celebrating the wholeness, richness and vibrancy of human culture

80 years ago, as the clouds of war darkened over Europe, one of the most notoriously baffling books of all time was published in Paris. From the moment of its release, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake acquired the reputation in many quarters of being not only baffling in content but also utterly unreadable in form. The first sentence alone often proves an insurmountable hurdle for many readers inclined to attempt to conquer this Himalayan peak of modern literature:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

Another 600 or so pages jammed with the same apparently random smorgasbord of portmanteau words, puns, incomprehensible allusions and dearth of narrative signposts is understandably unappealing on first inspection. The book was dismissed even by some of Joyce’s most loyal supporters who had hailed Ulysses in the 1920s as the masterpiece of the century.

Three of the most important advocates of that work denounced its follow-up as a criminal waste of Joyce’s undoubted genius. The poet Ezra Pound, publisher Harriet Weaver and Joyce’s brother Stanislaus all played key roles in securing the tortuous passage of Ulysses through the publication process, often in the teeth of aggressive opposition from the literary and social establishment of the day. All three, however, ultimately became estranged from the author due to their negative reactions to the Wake. HG Wells was another prominent supporter of Joyce left nonplussed by Finnegans Wake and who expressed his reservations directly to the author:

I don't think it gets anywhere. You have turned your back on common men — on their elementary needs and their restricted time and intelligence... What is the result? Vast riddles. Your last two works have been more amusing and exciting to write than they will ever be to read. Take me as a typical common reader. Do I get much pleasure from this work? ... No.

As a man of the left, Wells’ criticism also suggests that any social and political critique that might have been contained in Joyce’s previous oeuvre was entirely absent from the Wake and therefore the book has nothing meaningful to say about politics or society and represented pure self-indulgence on the part of the author. Wells’ judgement probably still reflects the consensus for most as Joyce’s final work is often cited as one of the greatest novels most people will never read.

Radical and subversive traditions

However, the 80th anniversary of Finnegans Wake is a suitable time to revisit the book and question both the notions that it is unreadable and that it has nothing to say about the world. In fact, a small number of commentators over the years have indicated that not only should the Wake be viewed alongside Ulysses as an indispensable part of the modernist canon, but the book actually draws its creative impulses from some of the most radical and subversive traditions in the West. One of the best commentators on the Wake, Bernard Benstock even goes as far as to suggest:

The political climate of ‘Finnegans Wake’ owes as much to fundamental Marxian dialectics as its psychological climate is dependent upon Freud and Jung and its evolutionary structure determined by Darwin. There is no reason to assume that Joyce was a Marxist but it is important to realise that Joyce was aware of the various political aspects of contemporary society spotlighted by Marx’s sociological perspective.

Benstock also draws attention to the fact that the Wake’s publication on the eve of WW2 is not incidental and that Joyce wished, in his own idiosyncratic style, to express his views on the rise of fascism that he had witnessed in Italy and France at close-quarters as part as long-term exile from his native Ireland. One year after completion of the work, Joyce was forced to flee France as the Wehrmacht launched its devastating blitzkrieg across the country, culminating with Panzers rolling through the streets of Paris that Joyce had regarded as home for almost twenty years. His record of helping Jewish families escape from Austria and Germany before the war is little known but dispels the myth that he was an apolitical figure in the 1930s, disinterested in the course of European politics. Using his contacts in the French and Irish ministries, Joyce arranged life-saving visas for scores of refugees fleeing the Nazi menace.

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James Joyce and Paul Léon

Paul Leon, one of Joyce’s closest supporters who defended the Wake, was arrested by the Gestapo due to his Jewish heritage and perished in Auschwitz in 1942. In his last months, Joyce fretted over the fate of his daughter Lucia, who due to chronic mental health problems was languishing in a sanatorium in Brittany. He would have known all too well the grim consequences that awaited such patients in the event of Nazi occupation. Even the muted welcome of the Wake itself was partly affected by Joyce’s revulsion against fascism. The American poet Ezra Pound, although a great advocate of Ulysses in the 1920s, was an unashamed supporter of Mussolini and Hitler by the time Joyce commenced work on the Wake. The differences between the two authors were not purely artistic.  

It would be an absurd case of reductionism, of course, to present the Wake as primarily an anti-fascist tract, but Bernard Benstock persuasively makes the case that Joyce regarded himself as the equivalent of the Irish monks who, at the onset of the Dark Ages of the early medieval period, sought to preserve the culture of the classical world as the forces of barbarism and darkness, in their eyes, closed in on civilisation. The astonishing breadth of allusions and references from the cultures of the world that Joyce draws on in the Wake is testament to his conviction that diversity and pluralism are essential to the flourishing of human beings and, implicitly, that the intolerance and racism of the far right represent a modern barbarism which must be resisted. One of the most celebrated (and accessible) sections of the book, the Anna Livia Plurabelle passage, rhapsodises on the richness and vibrancy of the tapestry of human societies over millennia:

In the name of Annah the Allmaziful, the Everliving, the Bringer of Plurabilities, haloed be her eve, her singtime sung, her rill be run, unhemmed as it is uneven!

A clarion call for multiculturalism

Incredibly, phrases and vocabulary from some seventy languages have been identified in the book, along with a cornucopia of references to virtually all the major world religions, including Confucianism, Hinduism, Taoism and the Eddas of Scandinavia. Joyce had memorably chronicled his own loss of religious faith in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, published in 1902,but he never lost an appreciation of the importance of ritual and spirituality for millions around the world and would have been keenly aware of how the Nazis aspired to eradicate supposedly non-Aryan forms of belief.

Another one of the great scholars of the Wake, James Atherton, contends Joyce used the Koran, for example, as ubiquitously as a telephone directory, and incorporated the suras, or chapters, of Islam’s holy book throughout the text. As a major European writer in the first half of the twentieth century researching and utilising in depth a plethora of non-Western culture, Joyce has no equal. Even in our time, as Islamophobia permeates the ideology of the far right, Joyce’s willingness to absorb the vitality of other cultures stands out as exemplary. The fact that Joyce, who was practically blind by 1939, chose to deploy his encyclopaedic and labyrinthine knowledge of the varieties of human belief in such a gargantuan exercise can be seen as a heroic act of defiance in the face of an oncoming nightmare. It is not unreasonable to argue that Finnegans Wake is the ultimate literary clarion call for what we now call multiculturalism.

Benstock’s case that the left-wing credentials of the Wake have been neglected for too long also rests on Joyce’s use of two philosophers who can be seen as progenitors of the tradition of historical materialism and antecedents of Hegel and Marx. The ideas of the eighteenth century Italian thinker, Giambattisto Vico, are integral to the Wake – as evident in the book’s first sentence. He was one of the first philosophers to work towards a materialist philosophy of history, which did not perceive events as the unfolding of some form of plan based on the will of unseen but all-seeing deities. Vico devised a cyclical version of history, comprising of three epochs – the divine, the heroic and the human, climaxing with what he termed a ricorso, or reversion back to the beginning. Famously, the last sentence of the Wake links back to the first in a satisfying completion of the Viconian cycle: A way a lone a last a loved a long the.....


Giambattisto Vico

Contrary to the view that the Wake is an incoherent and rambling mess, the four sections of the work loosely follow this scheme – albeit, with typical Joycean mischief, in reverse! Samuel Beckett, friend and collaborator of Joyce, in one of the earliest interpretations of the Wake argued the author’s appropriation of Vico symbolises an individual’s journey through belief, marriage and burial. Benstock, however, makes the case that Vico’s four stages are a historic first draft of Marx’s outline that humanity progresses through modes of production, climaxing with communism. The great author of Capital himself was not unaware of the role Vico played in paving the way for historical materialism:

Darwin has interested us in the history of Nature's Technology, i.e., in the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which organs serve as instruments of production for sustaining life. Does not the history of the productive organs of man, of organs that are the material basis of all social organisation, deserve equal attention? And would not such a history be easier to compile, since, as Vico says, human history differs from natural history in this, that we have made the former, but not the latter?

Trotsky also begins his epic history of the Russian Revolution with a reference to Vico’s ideas.

The other major conceptual underpinning of the Wake is provided by Giordano Bruno, the sixteenth century Italian astronomer and philosopher who was executed by the Catholic Church for his heretical ideas on heliocentrism. More important for Joyce, however, was Bruno’s radical views on the unity of opposites and the limitations of dualism, which are impossible to study now without being reminded of similar ideas in the Hegelian dialectic. In a work from 1584, Bruno writes:

...even in the two extremes of the scale of nature, we contemplate two principles which are one; two beings which are one; two contraries which are harmonious and the same. Therefore height is depth, the abyss is light unvisited, darkness is brilliant, the large is small, the confused is distinct, dispute is friendship, the dividend is united, the atom is immensity.... Here are the signs and proofs whereby we see that contraries do truly concur; they are from a single origin and are in truth and substance one.

The emphasis on the importance of assimilation and synthesis in the thought of Bruno is adapted in the Wake in the form of numerous dualistic personality clashes between archetypes broadly representing the artistic and scientific mentalities. The dialogues between the brothers Shem and Shaun, St. Patrick and the Arch Druid, Mutt and Jutte, the Ant and the Grasshopper and many others throughout the book play out the contests between ideologies, nations and classes which have driven human history forwards. The dialectical power of these discussions, which Hegel and Marx would have appreciated, is revealed as no participant decisively emerges victorious and that, in the unfolding spiral of social development, everyone and everything contributes in some form. Alternatively, as Joyce in his inimitable way puts in the Wake:

a clappercoupling smeltingworks exprogressive process, (for the farmer, his son and their homely codes, known as eggburst, eggblend, eggburial and hatch-as-hatch can) receives through a portal vein the dialytically separated elements of prededent decomposition for the verypet-purpose of subsequent recombination so that the heroticisms, catastrophes and eccentricities transmitted by the ancient legacy of the past….

Joyce’s desire in the Wake to conserve the best elements of human civilisation is focused not only on identifying the cultural artefacts that have evolved over centuries, such as languages and religions, but also on those fields of enquiry that were emerging in his own lifetime. In the 1930s, relativity and quantum theory represented the most trailblazing branches of scientific discovery, and sections of the book clearly indicate that Joyce appreciated the revolutionary implications of these areas in terms of our understanding of the world. Einstein’s seminal notion that space and time are not separate categories but form a unified space-time continuum that shapes the universe is one of the other dualities that Joyce undermines. The author’s awareness of the transformative nature of Einstein’s view, of course, is in stark contrast to that of the Nazis who drove the great physicist, along with many of his Jewish colleagues, out of Germany:

And let every crisscouple be so crosscomplimentary, little eggons, youlk and meek, in a farbiger pancosmos.

Joyce’s appreciation of Theoretical Physics was famously reciprocated in 1963 when Murray Gell-Man turned to the Wake to name a newly discovered elementary particle of matter that is smaller than a proton or a neutron. Hence the ‘quark’ was born!

Barely any aspect of human activity is overlooked in the Wake. In one memorable passage, Joyce utilises the names of some of the finest cricketers of the age, alongside some of that sport’s distinctive jargon. The book incorporates numerous devices and techniques that were being pioneered in the contemporary worlds of advertising, cinema and television, such as montage and sloganeering. Joyce’s disdain for the elitist differentiation between high and low culture, and his preference for emerging ‘democratic’ art forms, is even apparent in the book’s title, which is taken from a popular American ballad.

A rallying call for revolution

In the light of all these elements being conjoined in a single text, it is difficult to think of any other artistic enterprise created by one person that so spectacularly illustrates the concept of totality, as understood by Marxist philosophers such as Gramsci and Lukacs. Benstock and other left-wing commentators have interpreted the climax of the book as a rallying call for revolution as HCE, the key protagonist, experiences a personal paradigm-shift that mirrors the transfigurative nature of political upheaval. Typically, Joyce utilises the vocabulary of Asiatic mythology to articulate this leap into the future:

Sandhyas! Sandhyas! Sandhyas! Calling all downs. Calling all downs to dayneArraySurrec-tion! Eireweeker to the wohld bludyn world. O rally, O rally, O rally! Phlenxty, O rally! To what lifelike thyne of the bird can be.

The supposedly unreadable nature of the work is partly a linguistic consequence of this attempt to compress the essence of humanity into a single document that acknowledges the multitudinous achievements, failures and ideas of our collective experience as a species. For potential readers who have avoided the Wake so far, it might be worth considering that in the age of the internet, the book is actually far more accessible now than it was at the time of first publication.

Joyce’s breath-taking erudition can now be followed and tracked much more conveniently than for the first generation of readers. In that sense, it is a work for the 21st century even more than the 20th. Similarly, it could be argued that only in the globalised and hybrid era of late capitalism in which we are now situated is it possible to fully appreciate the grandeur and scope of Finnegans Wake. The book is a remarkable instancing of the emerging spirit of cosmopolitanism and a powerful riposte to narrow nationalism and chauvinism, both in Joyce’s time and ours.

The author himself also demonstrated the best way to approach the Wake is to read it aloud, as a lot of the subterranean allusions and nuances of the text emerge more noticeably in arguably the original art form of human beings – oral story-telling.

There is no evidence that Joyce was aware of Gramsci’s work (perhaps unsurprising in light of the latter’s incarceration in the 1930s) but Finnegans Wake is an unwitting monument to the great Italian Marxist‘s belief that our historical development, if permitted by a suitable course of events, will facilitate the cultural unification of the human race. Not in the sense of imposing uniformity but in the sense of recognising the commonality of experiences and beliefs that have driven men and women over millennia, and culminating in a new age of universal tolerance.

To conclude: an understanding of the historical and ideological ingredients of the Wake indicates that early sceptics such as Wells and Pound could not have been more wrong. As fascism rears in hideous head again in our time, with its visceral politics of hate, the message of the Wake about the essential unity of the human race is emphatically worth another look.

Cré na Cille: a comedy and a bald statement of unacceptable class rule
Monday, 18 October 2021 05:16

Cré na Cille: a comedy and a bald statement of unacceptable class rule

Published in Fiction

Eoin Ó Murchú reviews Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille, translated from the Irish as The Dirty Dust by Alan Titley, Yale University Press 2015

Cré na Cille is regarded as the greatest modern prose work written in the Irish language. Its depiction of the reality and context of peasant life is often compared to Joyce’s Ulysses, and has had an equal impact on those who speak or read Irish.

The action – or rather dialogue – takes place in the graveyard as the dead speak to each other, remembering only the events before their deaths but continuing the squabbles and differences that were their mark when alive. Over all there lurks the voice of authority, an authority that is rightly comparable to that of the Catholic Church over rural Ireland.

Ó Cadhain was a revolutionary Republican, a senior member of the IRA who was imprisoned during the Second World War, writing this book in the internment camp. A native of the Irish-speaking district of Conamara in the West of Ireland (one of the Irish districts known as the Gaeltacht), he saw the degradation of the community who lived there and recognised that as that community dies so did its language and culture. As he later wrote, the Irish language revival is the revival of the people who speak the language.

He was strongly influenced by the Soviet writer Maxim Gorky, and many of his short stories have a strong socialist realist character. Chief among these is An Bóthar go dtí an Ghealchathair (translated, along with other short stories, as Road to Brightcity in the collection of that name by Eoghan Ó Tuairisc, Poolbeg 1981). This story, while depicting the harshness of life for a peasant woman, shows that huge resilience of spirit of the poor striving for a better world, if not for themselves, then for their children at least.

But it would be wrong to see Cré na Cille in exactly the same light. Cré na Cille is not a social criticism that gives us a manifesto for resistance. Rather it is a description of a society that immerses itself in the trivia of its existence. It is an accurate depiction of the state of Gaeltacht society at this time, if society is the right word in any case: a society that was dying as its people emigrated, leaving behind grinding poverty and backwardness.

For this people, authority is something external. A central part of the book is the parody of the church’s teaching of eternity, and the need for total obedience to that authority comes across immediately as something ridiculous but real at the same time. These declarations of authority and the revelations of what we might call the dialectics of nature so presented mark off the ten interludes of the book.

These interlude beginnings recast eternity as a process of ripening and decay, of birth and real death, which have to be set against the Church’s teaching of eternity as a progress ever upwards (except for the damned) to the paradise of being with god after death. Here, death is a natural end of a natural cycle. Meanwhile, in the graveyard the real dead continue their trivial squabbles – squabbles which depict the reality of the way people in that community – the Conamara Gaeltacht – interacted: alienated from the outside world, and unable to be part of it. And the fact that eternal life is shown as a carrying-on of the aimlessness of then existing life (where the only future was in emigration, in exile) is in contrast to the Church’s promise of being happy with God in the next world.

The world Ó Cadhain describes is really an unacceptable world.

Cré na Cille is rightly compared to Joyce’s Ulysses. This is the great work of English-language fiction in Ireland, because it depicts the real nature of Irish and Dublin lower middle class life. Its final message though is that of silence, exile and cunning.

Cré na Cille depicts the reality of Irish-speaking peasant life – its ineffectiveness and irrelevance, but its final message is that the promises of authority are false. “Ní de ghlaschloich an Oileáin do chrois-sa ná mo chrois-sa”. (Neither your cross nor mine are made from Conamara marble).

Cré na Cille has also to be understood in the context of an idealised depiction of the Gaeltacht as one peopled by comely maidens and rosy-cheeked children, which was a creation of the middle class Irish-language revival movement. This movement was an important part of the national revival which brought about the War of Independence and the truncated, neo-colonially subservient semi-independence which ultimately emerged. It emerged in this way of course because the class forces who wanted no change in the existing system of social relations but wanted to claim their share of the spoils managed to take leadership of the national struggle – and recast an analysis that suited their class aims.

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Ó Cadhain shared the view of James Connolly, the revolutionary socialist leader in the 1916 Rising, who declared that the Irish working class – unsullied by property interests – were the only incorruptible inheritors of the fight for Irish freedom. Ó Cadhain saw his own people, the impoverished agricultural labourers of the West as being of that class, but without the organisation that capitalism imposed in the cities.

The idealised version of what Irish society before the Conquest had been and could again be was essentially created by middle class city intellectuals. It was a version that was far removed from the reality of the lives of Gaeltacht people and with which they could not identify at all, and had at its core the idea that if the British went we would seamlessly fall back into a glorious world of harmony and plenty that supposedly had existed in the past.

But real then-existing Irish Ireland was not an ideal. It was the remnant of a defeated world, and the reality of people’s lives was far from the idealised version put out.

In this, Cré na Cille is at one with Flann O’Brien’s An Béal Bocht, published in 1941, eight years before Cré na Cille. Ó Cadhain, of course, wrote it during his incarceration in the Curragh camp during the war.

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O’Brien’s is a parody of unrelenting misery. The Gaeltacht is called Corca Dorcha (the dark land), and where some writers glorified the Gaeltacht, O’Brien took the opposite course. Or again Séosamh MacGrianna’s An Druma Mór, which brings up the real divisions in Irish-speaking society – not a parody but an unwelcome look at a real world.

Ó Cadhain instead rooted his parody in the Conamara Gaeltacht that actually existed, and that he knew. His aim was to show that this was not the ideal world for which we should be striving, and reflected his campaigns for economic development, (including his campaign for relocation of the Gaeltacht community to richer land in the east, in Meath, where a people with an assured economic future could really revitalise their language and their culture).

These ideas had first been put forward by the Republican Congress in the 1930s, as they fought for the national question to be understood as essentially a social question for a change of class rule: a struggle for recasting the Gaeltacht and rebuilding it anew throughout Ireland. And all through Cré na Cille, the voice of authority was the voice that ignored all the protestations of the people. It was a voice that had to be listened to, that had to be obeyed. This Catholic voice did not want change – it wanted obedience.

Translation is always difficult, and Titley has done a good job on the conversations. But I don’t think his title or major references explain properly what is involved. Cré na Cille literally means Churchyard Clay – a title which references the religious context for all the non-religious chatter of the dead.

Again, the great clarion cry “Is mise Stoc na Cille. Éistear lemo ghlór! Caithfear éisteacht …” is rendered as “I am the Trumpet of the Graveyard. Hearken unto my voice. You must hearken to what I have to say”.

First of all, the word Stoc. The famous Irish lexicographer, Patrick Dinneen, as was his wont, gives several possible meanings for this in English: the root or trunk of a tree; a trumpet; livestock; seed or race; a war trumpet; or a true breed bloodline. For me, and I think for Conamara people, Stoc here means “I am the Root-stock of the Church. Listen to my voice! You must listen ...”

Such a translation captures better, I think, the brooding authority that ruled the lives of the people, and left them trivialised and marginal – an authority before which they trembled but which they were not part of.

Cré na Cille proclaims no salvation. But the people who had it read out to them in Conamara pubs recognised the characters, the context and nodded their heads to the need for something different. And for those outside, who struggled to undo the English Conquest, and to regain the essence of Irish nationality through the language revival and other political projects, Cré na Cille was a cruel reminder that salvation did not lie in a narrow-minded past.

“Tá ceisniú agus ceasacht dhá dtabhairt ar aoibheall agus ar aeríl. Tá laige ag cur droim díbeartha ar an neart. Tá éadóchas ag sárú an ghrá.”

“Questions and querulousness nibble at joy and the carefree spirit. Weakness is beginning to banish strength. Despair is overwhelming love.”

I would translate this differently, more literally: “Questioning and complaining are taking on joyful play and happiness. Weakness is evicting strength. Despair is defeating love.”

Cré na Cille is not a manifesto for change, but a bald statement of what is unacceptable. That is its power; that is its appeal. But throughout it is a comedy, because the foibles of real people and their interactions are amusing. Black humour if you like, but very funny nevertheless.