The Infinitude of Finnegans Wake

(The Cosmic Impulse in Literature, part I)

Finnegans Wake is a book about anything and everything. Of course, the phrase “anything and everything” is usually used hyperbolically. However, I mean it quite literally. Whereas most literary works are only about some things, the Wake is about anything and everything: its world is absolutely unbounded, and this unboundedness is one of its central preoccupations. In the book, Joyce took up a cosmic impulse characteristic of great religious texts and metaphysical treatises, and found a way to give it distinctive literary expression.

When I talk about the world of a work, what I mean is simply things as portrayed by the work. Fictional worlds are usually partial. In the world of Hamlet, there are various objects and people, both real (Denmark) and fictional (Claudius). Various events (like Ophelia’s drowning) occur. And, various things (for example, that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are companions) are the case. We can quibble over where to draw the line. For example, since it happens ‘off stage’, does Hamlet actually portray Ophelia’s death, strictly speaking? However, some things are certain. Donald Trump isn’t in the world of Hamlet. Bugs Bunny eats no carrots there, nor does the universe contain any phlogiston. Such things are simply not portrayed by the play.

César Abin’s caricature of James Joyce, from transition no.21, March 1932

Most works of fiction are like this. They portray certain characters, events, settings, states of affairs, and so on, but not others. Indeed, to articulate their distinctiveness, we often characterize some of the specific things they portray. In Hamlet, the titular character, prince of Denmark, struggles with whether and how to avenge his father’s death. In Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a man hires a retired police officer to follow his wife and determine whether she’s been possessed by a ghost. And, in “The Wacky Wabbit,” Bugs Bunny sings a version of “Oh! Susanna” with Elmer Fudd in duet. Of course, we might, in such cases, insist that a mere report of the specific things a work portrays doesn’t capture its feel or significance. However, a delineation of such specifics will certainly be part of how we explain what’s special about a great many works. And this is precisely because fictional works often articulate their preoccupations in part by portraying them.

Not so Finnegans Wake, because it is amenable to no such delineation. Early in the process, readers who attempt to tackle this cipher of a book often do as they would with other books: look for a characterization of its world—and more specifically, of those particularities that have been foregrounded in its portrayal thereof. They seek out a list of main characters, a setting, a plot summary, and so on. When they do, they might be told that it’s about a certain family: a father HCE, his wife ALP, and their children Shem, Shaun, and Issy. They might read that it takes place in Dublin, and that it traces the consequences that befall the family upon the spreading of a salacious rumor about HCE.

With these and perhaps a few more details in hand, they crack open the book—turning, as one usually does, to the top of the very first page—and find this:

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


Puzzled, they continue on to the ‘sentence’ that follows:

Sir Tristram, violer d’ amores, fr’ over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe.


Now thoroughly confused, they wonder to themselves: is it all like this? They begin flipping through the book, and find passages like this:

Margaritomancy! Hyacinthinous pervinciveness! Flowers. A cloud. But Bruto and Cassio are ware only of trifid tongues the whispered wilfulness, (’tis demonal!) and shadows shadows multiplicating (il folsoletto nel falsoletto col fazzolotto dal fuzzolezzo), totients quotients, they tackle their quarrel.


And this:

TAFF (camelsensing that sonce they have given bron a nuhlan the volkar boastsung is heading to sea vermelhion but too wellbred not to ignore the umzemlianess of his rifal’s preceedings, in an effort towards autosotorisation, effaces himself in favour of the idiology alwise behounding his lumpy hump off homosodalism which means that if he has lain amain to lolly his liking—cabronne!—he may pops lilly a young one to his herth—combrune—) Oholy rasher, I’m believer!


These will be fond memories for any seasoned reader of the book. It’s that first “WTF!?” reaction that anyone gets upon first glimpsing the text. Most people, it’s safe to say, abandon the book at this point—perhaps dismissing it forever as an elaborate bit of madness or tomfoolery masquerading as great literature, or perhaps with a bland (and likely self-deceiving) intention to ‘return to it someday’.

Those who soldier on find very quickly that the details with which they began—and any others which they subsequently acquire—give them only limited purchase on the world of the Wake. Indeed, coming to terms with this fact is a virtual necessity for soldiering on. A reader intent on taming the book by figuring out precisely what happens where and when; who does what, and in what order is likely to throw it into the corner at some point, convinced that Joyce is taunting them: obscuring an essential element of what matters in understanding the text—its world—behind a veil of useless verbal trickery.

What this reaction presupposes, though, is that a text’s principal preoccupations must be bounded, as well as anchored in the specificities of its world—more precisely, in those particular things, people, events, and so on with whose portrayal it busies itself most. The latter sort of text solicits the reader to attend to such particularities. And, since texts are finite, in having this focus, it usually leaves limited space for itself to expand its world beyond certain limits.

In the Wake, though, the particular things, people, events, and so on that one finds in plot summaries, character sketches, and the like are not what the text leads us to, but rather from. The reader who’s irritated by the struggle to bring them closer is thus resisting the Wake’s lead. The wonders of the book aren’t unveiled by approaching such things—that is, by success in doing so. Rather, they reveal themselves to us when we patiently watch such particularities fade perpetually into the distance, always seeming to grow ever dimmer, but remaining there on display nevertheless. And this is because the haze through which we see them in their receding is the text’s way of guiding us to bear witness to the limitless expansion of its world.

How is this guidance accomplished? Fundamentally, by disorienting us in a particular way. The dividing line between readers who persist in reading the Wake and readers who abandon the enterprise with no desire ever to resume it lies in how they react to this disorientation. Quite simply, the former group is made up of those who find joy in it, whereas the latter is made up of those who don’t.

Anyone who is honest must admit it: the prose of the Wake is an awful mess. Whatever pretense to sense it puts up serves only to highlight its utter unruliness. The sheer disarray of the Wake’s text could be called lunatic raving, were it not for the fact that it exceeds the disarray of any lunatic raving we’ve ever witnessed, and by leaps and bounds. At times, it’s as if we’ve encountered the Platonic form of lunatic raving: the discourse of pure madness, untainted by the slightest hint of privation in sanity.

Some find this awful mess hateful. Some, however, find it exhilarating. I’m not talking about the enthusiasm of the reader who fancies that her cleverness and erudition are up to the task of cleaning up the mess. That’s bound to fade, because it’s bound eventually to hit a wall that it finds can’t be scaled. Instead, I mean a way of reading that welcomes the disarray, and is nourished by it.

It’s through the very features of the language that can inspire such a reading experience that Joyce expands the Wake’s world into absolute unboundedness. Much has been made of the book’s use of polyglot portmanteau, as well as its flouting of grammatical rules. Both of these are on ostentatious display in the excerpts above. Of course, many texts use such techniques. However, the Wake packs them in with a density that has no precedent. What in most texts would be the occasional flourish guiding the experienced reader in a particular direction becomes instead an overwhelming barrage that seems to send her in every direction at once, and so in no one direction at all.

Certain formal considerations can expose the mechanics of this effect. The guiding principle of these mechanics is the carrot on the stick. The text’s grammatical lawlessness isn’t simply the absence of law. Rather, at every turn it dangles the prospect of successful parsing, only to keep such parsing just out of reach. The syntactic uncertainty, in turn, bleeds into and facilitates the use of portmanteau to create semantic uncertainty in equal or greater measure. Lexical elements are joined to one another idiosyncratically, leaving no hope of compositional reconstruction. More than this, Joyce’s notorious scheming to mine upwards of seventy languages for these elements undermines any hope of being certain that we have even identified all of those making up any particular portmanteau, let alone understood precisely how and to what effect they’ve been joined. And yet, we are left without even the comfort of reading without continuing the attempt. There is just enough familiarity to spark one’s mind into labor by linguistic reflex alone, no matter how futile it seems.

What emerges amidst all this disorientation is a kind of other language. By this, I mean something quite different from an identifiable language other than one’s own. This isn’t to say that the Wake can’t give the latter impression. Quite the contrary: it can at times seem to be written in an unknown language—an extraterrestrial language, perhaps, or a descendant of English from some far distant future. Through cosmic irony or historical vagary, this language bears enough of a resemblance to English and other human languages to seem as if it were written in them. However, every string of letters separated from those before and after it by spaces in the Wake is a word in this language’s lexicon, and every chain of such words is grammatical—all of it expressing perfectly sensible meanings. Thus, if we were to run with this conceit, we’d have the comfort of imagining that if we were to be taught these elements and the rules for combining them, we’d be able divine what these meanings are.

However, this conceit would be a mistake, a sedative illusion—the same kind of mistake that people have made in calling the Wake’s language an idioglossia. The Wake isn’t written in any one language—not even a fictional one, or a Joycean idiolect. Rather, its carrot on a stick is essential, ineliminable. In the way it teases us with a promise of meaning that cannot be fulfilled in its uncontrollable endlessness, the Wake seems as if written, not in any single language, but in all languages for which marks like these could serve as a vehicle. Everything that could be made an object of thought, experience, or concern, as well as all the things that can’t, is mentioned by some such language. All ways in which all such things could be arranged are expressed in the grammar of some such language, along with all the metaphysically impossible and even logically alien ways. The Wake is something even vaster than Borges’s Library of Babel, in condensed form.

It’s through being written in other language that Joyce’s book expands its world without limit. In the elusiveness of its language, it could at any moment be talking about anything whatsoever, and this possibility is constantly made vivid to us in the process of reading it.

In saying this, we don’t have to deny the significance of the story of HCE and his family, any more than we have to deny the importance of Leopold, Stephen, and Molly for Ulysses. In both cases, Joyce used the story of certain Dubliners as the launching point and means for an expansion into vastness. However, as prodigious as Ulysses’s expansion is, Finnegans Wake radicalizes this impulse far beyond it. In Ulysses, Joyce deploys his technical prowess according to an architectonic that nourishes the sense that the book is finite, controllable; with each of its eighteen chapters corresponding to some particular element of Homer’s Odyssey, and comprehensible according to its own organ, color, art, technic, etc. In doing so, Joyce offers us, not a carrot on a stick, but merely a carrot far away, yet approachable. In contrast, the vastness of the Wake is of another order entirely. It is, in fact, more than vastness: it is absolute infinitude.

This infinitude is mirrored in the book’s circular form, with no beginning or end. Of course, the usual inscriptions of the text have a start and a finish. As with most editions, in my Penguin Books edition the text starts on page 3, and continues on through page 628. But famously, the text finishes with the beginning of the sentence with whose continuation it starts: “A way a lone a last a loved a long the”…“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s…” Thus, the start of the text constitutes no beginning to the book, and the text’s finishing no end to it. On the contrary, an inscription of the book proper to its form would be as one long line of text written on a continuous loop of paper. Or to put the point another way, a reading of the book that commenced only at its beginning and ceased only at its end would be made up of infinitely many repetitions stretching infinitely far into both past and future.

However, despite all of this, it would also be a mistake to oversell the Wake’s distinctiveness in being about anything and everything. As sui generis as the book can seem, it isn’t unique in this regard. Rather, it’s simply one among many books that aspire to give us a view of anything and everything.

Many such texts are cosmological—they set out to articulate the order in which all things whatsoever are arranged. Great religious works often do this. The Bible as it’s usually interpreted tells us the story of everything whatsoever—its origin, its history, its fundamental nature—as do the Pali Canon, and many canons of myth. The most ambitious metaphysical works—Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Spinoza’s Ethics, Heidegger’s Being and Time—do so as well. The fact that these texts dwell on certain specifics—Jehovah, Siddhartha Gautama, substance, Dasein—doesn’t detract from this aim. Rather, such specifics are the vehicles for leading the reader toward an unbounded view of things.

The same cosmological impulse shows up in fiction. The most well-known (though certainly not the only) example is probably the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien. Although most people know his work from movies and assorted pop culture ephemera, his lifelong project—encompassing many thousands of pages beyond his novels—was that of constructing the history and nature of his fictional cosmos: Eä, of which the continent of Middle-earth, as well as the world of Arda in which it is found, are simply parts.

However, the cosmological impulse is distinct from the cosmic. The former is just one of the forms that the latter can take. Finnegans Wake, in particular, is cosmic but not cosmological. Its view is unbounded, but it doesn’t try to put everything whatsoever into any coherent, unified order. In fact, it does the opposite: it presents anything and everything under the aspect of the sublime. Sublimity, in the sense I have in mind, is radical ungovernedness. What shows up to us as incomprehensible and overpowering is the sublime. Cosmological works like those mentioned above attempt to lead us from the particular to the order of the unbounded. They try to show us a way (fictional or otherwise) that everything can be seen to hang together in some comprehensible whole.

The Wake doesn’t do this at all. More than failing to do so, its language—its carrot on a stick—constantly calls our attention to that failure. We are presented with various particularities. HCE is caught by three soldiers committing a transgression involving two young girls in Phoenix Park. ALP gives a monologue as she pours, river-like, into the ocean.

However, every handle on such particularities one thinks one has seems to pull out of reach. HCE’s transgression might be any number of things—raping his wife and daughter; watching two girls urinating; or a misinterpreted casual glance in their direction. And HCE might be Adam, Humpty-Dumpty, one of the soldiers, Tristan stealing two Isoldes, or all of these figures at once, or none of them. ALP becomes the river Liffey. More than this, though, she becomes all rivers, all quantities of water, but also Eve, her own daughter, and every woman; as well as everything that gives rise to or is nourished by water. Every particular drifts into indistinction with every other.

The key to enjoying Finnegans Wake lies in not only understanding its cosmic dimension, but in overcoming the anxiety and irritation that naturally come from its language’s unruliness—overcoming terror at the sublime. Each reader must decide whether the effort is worthwhile. Those who put in that effort find, eventually, that reading the Wake can be like playing. It can induce the kind of ecstasy one had as a child while running at full force along no path in particular, screaming and laughing for no particular reason. The disorder becomes, not a threat, but an invitation: a giddiness embedded in anything and everything that can only be seen in full acknowledgment of its ungovernedness, and that gives rise to giddiness in the one who sees them that way.

5 thoughts on “The Infinitude of Finnegans Wake

    1. Mandel Cabrera

      The text gives off the impression of being endlessly complex, which includes seemingly endless recurrences and interconnections among uses of language. For example, as I mentioned in the post, the character of ALP (the mother) is associated with water motifs: whenever ‘watery’ language shows up, ALP is somehow present.

      Yes, Wake interpretation is an 80 year old sub-industry. I’m not claiming that the book can’t be interpreted. I’ve tried to interpret it a bit in my post. However, I don’t think ‘deciphering’ is the right model for reading the book. To decipher a use of language is discover a clear meaning that seems hidden, because the medium in which it’s been expressed is obscure to us. This is what happens when we decipher an encoded message whose method of encoding we initially didn’t know. If Joyce’s method were merely one of encoding a message that is, in itself, completely clear, then he would be exactly what he’s often accused of being: an obscurantist. On my reading, this isn’t at all what he’s doing, though.


  1. Michael Jung

    Very impressive to read while on the train, Spinozian has kind of great sense of seeing world. I just leave comment now, and I’m going to figure out what it is about whole text. It was great feeling of connection when I hear pierre bensusan from you!


    1. Mandel Cabrera

      Thanks, Mike. Finnegans Wake is one of my favorite books. I think even most people who hate the book would concede that it’s among the strangest and distinctive literary texts ever produced.


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