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On the Vico Road

In response to:

What to Make of Finnegans Wake? from the July 12, 2012 issue

To the Editors:

In his attempt to come to terms with the literary Ultima Thule that is Finnegans Wake [“What to Make of Finnegans Wake?,” NYR, July 12], Michael Chabon remarks in passing that one of James Joyce’s chief sources for the work was “a fairly obscure Renaissance historiographer named Giambattista Vico.” Though in many ways an anachronistic (though highly original) thinker, the Neapolitan philosopher Vico can hardly be considered a Renaissance figure, since his main work, La Scienza Nuova (The New Science), was first published in 1725 and issued in a third edition in July 1744, six months after the author’s death.

But I found it curious that Chabon would characterize Vico, who anticipated some key concepts of Karl Marx and Auguste Comte, as “fairly obscure” in the pages of the Review, especially in an article that would tend to attract seasoned readers of Joyce, whose main influence for the structure of Finnegans Wake is well known to have been the cyclical philosophy of history propounded by Vico. If Chabon meant “fairly obscure” at the time Joyce began weaving Vico’s ideas into the fabric of his intimidating epic, I think that, too, is inaccurate, since Benedetto Croce, Italy’s most influential twentieth-century philosopher, had already called European-wide attention to Vico’s work in The Philosophy of Giambattista Vico (1911), which was translated into English by the historian R.G. Collingwood and published in London in 1913.

Vico’s influence was considerable on thinkers and artists as diverse as Herder, Coleridge, and Yeats, and Edmund Wilson begins his classic panorama of European socialism, To the Finland Station (1940), with an account of French historian Jules Michelet’s discovery of Vico in 1824 and his learning Italian in order to read him. Wilson comments that “from the collision of Michelet’s mind with Vico’s, it is hardly too much to say that a whole new philosophical-artistic world was born: the world of re-created social history.” He also claims that “it is strange and stirring to find in the Scienza Nuova the modern sociological and anthropological mind waking.”

Peter D’Epiro
Ridgewood, New Jersey

To the Editors:

Michael Chabon’s untangling of a passage from Finnegan’s Wake is very plausible; two additions would occur to most Dubliners like myself: “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s” refers more obviously to Adam and Eve’s, a church on the Liffey quay, and the “commodius vicus of recirculation” to the Vico Road whence, looking across the bay, one sees the Hill of Howth.

The bay—said by Dubliners to rival that of Naples—extends from Bray Head northward through Killiney and the Vico Road through the city and curves east and then south to Howth, hence the “recirculation.”

How the city and the garden fit together I don’t know. Do they? Did Joyce think they did? Is the city the garden from which Joyce expelled himself or was expelled?

Garrett Barden
Tallow, County Waterford, Ireland

Michael Chabon replies:

Mr. D’Epiro is correct. I was wrong to identify Vico as a thinker of the Renaissance, which preceded him. I am less willing to concede, however, that Vico is quite the celebrity Mr. D’Epiro makes him out to be. In this I believe I have on my side no less an authority than Isaiah Berlin, who, long after the publication of Finnegans Wake, wrote of Vico:

The philosophers and the historians of philosophy, with rare exceptions, ignore him still. Evidently it is the fate of his writings, like that of human culture in his own theory of corsi and ricorsi, to be forgotten, then to rise again, achieve brief glory, then again fall into oblivion, till the next cycle, and so on forever.

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