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Scrabbling in the ‘Wake’

Shakespeare and Joyce: A Study of Finnegans Wake

by Vincent John Cheng
Pennsylvania State University Press, 271 pp., $18.75

The corridors of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake are not much thronged with visitors or investigators these days. When the book was new, and a fresh challenge to the intrepidity of mental travelers, it seemed to offer endless perspectives, an infinitely unfolding panorama of verbal delights. To some extent it still does. But exegesis, with its deadly habit of grinding up and flattening out the text on which it is deployed, has done its work on the Wake. For those who follow the literature, even from a distance, it has preempted much of the excitement of discovery; and by pushing the frontiers ever farther back, it has rendered the book more forbidding than ever to the common reader. Writing about the Wake—a multifarious, polyglot, impenetrable book—was never easy in the first place; with the years it has got harder, and the club of persistent exegetes has diminished both in numbers and, if I hear the overtones aright, in expectations.

Vincent Cheng’s book Shakespeare and Joyce, which concentrates on Finnegans Wake, complements and builds upon William Schutte’s 1957 volume, Joyce and Shakespeare, which concentrated on Ulysses. Mr. Cheng writes frankly for Wake devotees (people “somewhat familiar with the Wake,” as he says); and he is explicit that for them his researches lead to no overwhelming revelation, no skeleton key:

While Joyce’s methods may be labyrinthine, his model is Daedalus, not Schopenhauer or Spinoza: the allusions, symbols, and puns may be difficult, but the thought expressed is usually simple…. Joyce’s simplicity derives partly from the fact that, even when he alludes to other writers, he is always speaking of himself and the thoughts that obsess him.

Thus when Joyce, in a single phrase of the Wake, mimics idioms from Macbeth and Hamlet, “we need not worry about all the meanings and implications of the Shakespearean lines themselves, nor about how Joyce might be reflecting on or commenting on them—for he is not.” He is merely picking up verbal echoes to fashion a pun that suits his own context.

Though it’s largely right, this preliminary passage perhaps states the case a little strongly. In fact Mr. Cheng recognizes and tries to demonstrate structural patterns in the Wake where Joyce’s psychological and spiritual—not just verbal—relations with Shakespeare enter into the shaping of his book. But to the extent that the Wake is a Joycean echobox of verbal tags devoid of significance, or pointing only to a few simple, obsessive ideas, that perception could well account for some of the discouragement currently enveloping Joycean studies. The problem is that by accumulating analogues and parallels, as one can do indefinitely, one merely arrives, by more and more elaborate byways, at the same familiar formulas. But it is time to give a close account of Mr. Cheng’s volume.

The book consists of several disparate parts. The first, divided into five chapters, analyzes basic Joycean attitudes and themes that he expressed by making particular use of Shakespearean allusions and plot configurations. Part 2 lists page by page the Shakespearean allusions in Finnegans Wake; previous scholarship had identified about three hundred of them, Mr. Cheng raises the number to about a thousand. Even with some necessary discounts, this is a major addition; and Mr. Cheng rightly says it has been the foundation of his enterprise. Part 3 consists of several appendixes in which the same Joycean allusions to Shakespeare are arranged by Shakespearean themes, topics, individual plays, and characters. A last appendix provides a compressed unit-by-unit summary of Shakespearean themes in the Wake; this section might profitably be consulted first of all by a novice in Wake studies, or someone in whose mind the details of the great labyrinth have become somewhat dim. Part 1 runs to a little more than ninety pages, Part 2 to about eighty, the several appendixes of Part 3 to approximately fifty, plus some twenty-five pages of notes and bibliography. The book thus contains about three parts of apparatus to two parts of text.

This proportion would be more distressing if Part 2, the list of Shakespearean allusions, were not clearly the best and most substantial section of the work. There is always a fringe of ambiguity about a list of this sort, especially in Joyce, whose distortions are so intricate and whose allusions are so covert that one often cannot be confident whether the allusion is in the text proper or only in the eye of the beholder. The murk is particularly thick because, as Mr. Cheng points out, Joyce’s eye is not always on the content of the original Shakespearean passage, so that incongruity on that level is not really a strong argument against the possibility of a relationship.

The sort of problem that comes up is suggested by the following example. When Joyce is depicting the primeval figure of the aboriginal HCE, he mentions in passing the two Irish counties of Leix and Offaly (Wake, 31:18). Should we suppose that in the second of these names he is referring to Ophelia? The counties are literal counties, they adjoin each other and are linked both historically and politically. The text spells them in the normal way; if Joyce meant Ophelia’s presence to be distinctly felt, he need only have spelled the name of the county “Offalia.” But he needn’t have wanted anything so “explicit.” Having Ophelia linked with a Scandinavian salmon (leix is the root from which we get lax) doesn’t do anything in particular for either, but incongruity of this sort is admittedly irrelevant. There are other things in the passage, maybe. HCE is a paterfamilias like Bloom, he is also the Hill of Howth, and therefore any mountain, hump, or eminence; in the counties of Leix and Offaly is found the mountain range known as Slieve Bloom. If he wanted to get in one allusion, Joyce may have had to take the other, willy-nilly, or he may have wanted both, or neither; we can guess, but we cannot know. Since Ophelia and Hamlet are pervasively, unquestionably present throughout the Wake, Mr. Cheng does better to list “Offaly” as a Shakespearean pun than to omit it; what his list can indicate only rudely is the extent to which it’s a matter of speculative judgment.

Another gray area has to do with verbal tags and clichés that Shakespeare used, to be sure, and Joyce as well—along with countless other writers and speakers over the history of the language. “More sinned against than sinning” is one of these tags, which Shakespeare used in Lear, and Joyce a couple of times in Ulysses, not to mention the Wake (523:9); but what sort of relation is implied in this conjunction is a very open question for each reader to decide. The language is full of tags and formulas like this one, or even less distinctive ones; we cannot suppose that every instance of duplication is a matter of significant influence, of deliberate intention. Joyce himself would have cared less than anyone else about the difficulties of his readers’ indecision; he welcomed the notion of the language as a scrapheap of used and discarded phrases that a reader might either recognize in a general way as secondhand goods or assign to a particular author, no matter which.

But the structure of Mr. Cheng’s study (though he recognizes its built-in bipolar bias, and tries to guard against it) invites him to see Shakespeare as a primary presence and other authors as secondary at best, shading down to negligible. So not necessarily for him, but for his book, it’s sometimes a matter of aut Shakespeare aut nihil. This sort of limited materials-accumulation is an important first step, but only a first step, toward the book itself. Reading the Wake is the art of integrating and synthesizing echoes from Shakespeare with those from Swift and Wilde and Anonymous, Scandinavian, classical, and Gaelic overtones, themes from the Bible, the Book of the Dead, comic books, Jungian archetypes, ecclesiastical and archaeological patter, nursery rhymes, music-hall songs, grandish opera, pidgin English, and a hundred other contributing elements. I am in no position to say how important the Swahili ingredient is, but those who can recognize it seem to say it is significant.

Whether this fluid, polymorphic, and deeply stratified exercise in multiple uncertainty can be comprehended within the form of a linear, black-and-white (black-and-what?) critical study is one of the more complicated, though doubtless not one of the more important, questions of our time.

Mr. Cheng does not, in the discursive part of his book (the first or “interpretive” section, as he calls it), put the question to much of a test. His account of Shakespeare-Joyce relations is unhappily diluted with a vast quantity of extraneous material only marginally relevant, if at all; it is repetitious to the point of circularity; it strains the terms of its comparisons beyond all probability; much of it is incorrectly and lamely written. The best part of the argument is found in two central chapters. Chapter 3 describes the parts played in the Wake by stage manager Michael Gunn, his Gaiety Theater in Dublin, the Shakespearean and other performances presented there, and Joyce’s use of Shakespearean stage history. This is rich and useful material, not all of it strictly Shakespearean, but effective in establishing the stage metaphor as a strong expressive element in certain parts of the Wake.

Chapter 4 deals with the several parallels between characters and actions in Hamlet and in the Wake; there are many, and most of them are convincing. A particularly interesting one, new to this reader, is the parallel between “The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly” and the poison poured by Claudius into King Hamlet’s ear. It is unfortunately more striking from a distance than close up. Hosty, creator of the ballad, is not the brother of HCE and does not aspire to marry his wife; Claudius, as the guilty usurper and object of Hamlet’s hatred, corresponds more closely to HCE than does the Ghost. We do not know that HCE ever heard the ballad that is said to have been poured in his ear: the parallel, though striking in broad outline, disintegrates when closely scrutinized. But of course if there were a scrap of decisive external evidence that Joyce intended it, that would alter the case entirely.

These two central chapters are beyond question the most substantial chapters of the study; by contrast, the later parts of the argument seem to run out of steam, reducing themselves in good part to paraphrase and somewhat wishful thinking. Indeed, Shaun accuses Shem of plagiarism, and various plays were falsely put forward during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the work of Shakespeare; but it would take a dialectician of genius to build a syllogism out of such materials.

The Wake is peculiar among literary books in being better read by a committee than by one person; it demands the kind of eclectic and polyphonic analysis recommended by Saint Paul in I Corinthians 14:26. Studied in congenial company, it imposes its own direction and pace, alternately groping and tentative, then explosive. Thought moves through and around the text in loops, streams, eddies, pools, and abrupt, careening leaps. The book harrows our habits, too; layers of long-settled and apparently stratified verbal convention are shaken and fractured. Whether our eyes are open or shut, the Wake renders our dreams less easy. Mr. Cheng’s book, like those already on the shelves, will best be used, not to domesticate this process, but to deepen our sense of its lawless seismic energy.

It is true that many of the patterns of the Wake, once learned, lead nowhere beyond themselves; like completed crossword puzzles, they turn inert. One of the critical clichés of our day deprecates any further expectation. We shouldn’t ask of a work of art that it have a meaning or destination, it is its own meaning and destination, the pleasure lies in the journey not the objective, and so on. The Wake provides a test of this formula, and while there’s not likely ever to be a definitive answer from on high, on the present evidence people with just one life to live seem to be saying the formula is insufficient. We ought to think of the Wake in this respect as the culmination of a development traced dramatically in Ulysses. At the end of the fourteenth chapter of this fifteen-chapter epic, when Bloom, after a long and often moronically detailed catechism, is falling asleep, the reader finds as an answer to the final question a small black dot. It represents better than any word the deep, undefinable darkness, the black hole of unconsciousness that swallows up busy Poldy and insufferable Stephen—in which only Molly, borne on a tide of blind tropisms, can swim and survive.

After the crucial black dot, Joyce’s writing as a whole moved ever deeper into the nighttime world, as witness the Wake itself, which is not in any sense “experimental” writing, but a deliberate plunge into a new verbal and mental world. But whether this brave new world is not as exhaustible, and in fairly short order as platitudinous, as the standard one—that is the question. It is a question one would be overjoyed to have answered with a resonant and convincing “No.” Perhaps the Joyce cenacles that still spring up wherever two or three acolytes are gathered together will come up with such an answer; meanwhile, the queer, enduring, colloquial vitality of the text continues to nourish a dwindling tribe.

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