Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Book of Kells

Feast your eyes on this vision of beauty, Wake lovers! It comes from The Book of Kells, which you can see in the Treasury of Trinity College, Dublin. Trinity College has also made an amazing online version, which allows you to zoom in on details.

The text from
Matthew.1.18, says 'XPI h generatio' (an abbreviated version of 'Christi autem generatio sic erat' which means Now the birth of Jesus Christ was like this)

Joyce loved this book, and owned a volume of reproductions, with a description by Sir Edward Sullivan, published in 1914. He also sent a copy to his patroness, Harriet Shaw Weaver, as her 1922 Christmas present.

Joyce told his friend Arthur Power what the book meant to him:

In all the places I have been to, Rome, Zurich, Trieste, I have taken it about with me, and have pored over its workmanship for hours. It is the most purely Irish thing we have, and some of the big initial letters which swing right across the page have the essential quality of a chapter of Ulysses. Indeed, you can compare much of my work to the intricate illuminations. I would like it to be possible to pick up any page of my book and know at once what book it is.

James Joyce to Arthur Power (from an interview quoted by Ellmann, p.545) 

Although Joyce called the book 'purely Irish', similar gospels were being produced in Wales, Scotland and Northumbria, whose monasteries had close links with the Irish Church. The style of decoration is also not pure but a fusion of Celtic, Pictish, Anglo-Saxon, Mediterranean and eastern influences.

The 'Carpet Page' from the Book of Durrow
Scholars call these books 'Insular', because they were produced in islands off the west coast of the European continent. The earliest is the seventh century Book of Durrow, which is also in Trinity College. Another great example, the Lindisfarne Gospels, from around 700 CE, is displayed in the British Library. The Book of Kells, dating from around 800 CE, is one of the last great works of the tradition. Its decoration is so rich and varied that it's like an encyclopedia of Insular styles.

The Book is named after Kells, in Ireland, but there is an old tradition linking it with the monastery of Iona.
The first record of the book, in the eleventh century, calls it the 'great Gospel of Columkille.' Saint Columba, or Columkille, founded the monastery of Iona. He makes lots of appearances in Finnegans Wake.

The book may have found its way to Kells following the Viking raids on Iona, when the surviving monks fled the island.    

Though we think of Joyce as the most modern of the modernists, he told Arthur Power that he saw himself as writing in a medieval tradition:

I remember once standing in the gardens beside Notre-Dame and looking up at its roofs, their amazing complication — plane overlapping plane, angle countering angle, the numerous traversing gutters and roundels. In comparison, classical buildings always seem to me to be over-simple and lacking in mystery. Indeed, one of the most interesting things about present-day thought in my opinion is its return to medievalism....There is an old church I know of in Les Halles, a black foliated building with flying buttresses spread out like the legs of a spider, and as you walk past it you see the huge cobwebs hanging in its crevices, and more than anything else I know of it reminds me of my own writings, so that I feel that if I had lived in the fourteenth or fifteenth century I should have been much more appreciated....And in my opinion one of the most interesting things about Ireland is that we are still a medieval people, and that Dublin is still a medieval city. I know that when I used to frequent the pubs around Christ Church I was always reminded of those medieval taverns in which the sacred and the obscene rub shoulders...

Joyce to Arthur Power, quoted in Conversations with James Joyce

The sacred and profane also rub shoulders in The Book of Kells. There are small comical illustrations, like this cat chasing a rat which has stolen a communion wafer.

I wonder if Joyce's 'black foliated church' was St Eustache in Les Halles (right). It's gleaming white now, but would have looked black in Joyce's day.

In Finnegans Wake, Shaun says of Shem the Penman (Joyce), '
He's weird, I tell you, and middayevil down to his vegetable soul.' (423.27)

Shem is also described as 'making believe to read his usylessly unreadable Blue Book of Eccles' (179.26), where Ulysses is identified with The Book of Kells.  Eccles is the street where Leopold Bloom lives in the book. 
 Ulysses had a blue cover and a Blue Book was an almanac, or compilation of statistics. Stephen Gwynn's savage review in the Manchester Guardian summed it up as 'Seven hundred pages of a tome like a Blue-book are occupied with the events and sensations in one day of a renegade Jew' (Joyce never forgot or forgave a bad review).

You can see Joyce's medievalism in the way he structured Ulysses using colours, organs, symbols etc, as shown in the elaborate schema he produced for Stuart Gilbert and Carlo Linati. Dante would have felt at home with this way of writing a book.

Joyce was in a medieval frame of mind when he began writing
Finnegans Wake. The early sketches were all based on Irish medieval myths and history - King Roderick O'Conor, St Patrick and the Druid, Tristan and Isolde, The Annals of the Four Masters and St Kevin. Most medieval in style is the St Kevin piece, which is structured according to ecclesiastical and angelical hierarchies, liturgical colours, canonical hours, gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the seven sacraments. Fweet describes its pattern as 'nine concentric circles, superimposed with two crosses, one of space (ascending angels and descending clergy crossing at lines 24-5), one of time (forward hours and backward sacraments crossing at lines 30-31)'

On pages 13-14 of the Wake, Joyce gives us a look at some medieval annals of Dublin. A gap in the chronicle is explained:

Somewhere, parently, in the ginnandgo gap between antediluvious and annadominant the copyist must have fled with his scroll. The billy flood rose or an elk charged him or the sultrup worldwright from the excelsissimost empyrean (bolt, in sum) earthspake or the Dannamen gallous banged pan the bliddy duran. A scribicide then and there is led off under old’s code with some fine covered by six marks or ninepins in metalmen for the sake of his labour’s dross...

Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, in The Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944), argued that the inspiration for this passage was Sullivan's description of the unfinished opening page of Matthew's Gospel, with the text 'Liber generationis' ('The book of the genealogy' of Jesus Christ).


Here's Sullivan's description:
'The rudely-drawn figure standing in the lower left-hand corner is said to represent the Evangelist. The smaller and much more naturally drawn figure at the top may also be intended for him. The difference of execution in the two cases would, I suggest, almost justify the conclusion that the larger figure was a later addition in order to fill a space left vacant when the original artist had touched the Manuscript for the last time.  I think, too, that we can almost see from the illumination itself the very place where he was hurried from his work.'

'There are many unfinished portions in the whole page; for instance, the small face to the left of the upper limb of the L, the piece of the border of the same limb just above and to the right of the face, and possibly the space into which the right elbow of the upper figure projects.'
'But more noticeable than all these is the unfinished condition of the intertwined letters ER in the circle which forms the lower portion of the antique and curiously formed B. The dark line surrounding the red E is only half completed. The interruption of so very simple a feature of the work seems to tell a tale of perhaps even tragic significance.'


Joyce also parodies Sullivan at length in Finnegans Wake Book One, Chapter 5, which he called 'The Hen'. J.S.Atherton has a good description of this chapter, in which a hen, Belinda of the Dorans, scratches a letter out of a 'midden' or 'mudmound':

This midden is a symbol, elaborated later, for the inhabited world in which men have left so many traces. The letter stands as a symbol for all attempts at written communication including all other letters, all the world's literature, the Book of Kells, all manuscripts, all the sacred books of the world, and also Finnegans Wake itself. One reason why The Book of Kells is included here is that it was once 'stolen by night...and found after a lapse of some months, concealed under sods' (Sullivan)  The Books at the Wake  p62-3

Literature discovered in a rubbish heap reminds me of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt - vast amounts of papyrus has been excavated from the dumps here, since 1896. But I can't find any specific reference to this in the Wake. 

From Vivien Igoe's James Joyce's Dublin Houses
Joyce's dour brother, Stanislaus (a model for Shaun in the Wake) has a story of the younger Joyce children finding two books in the ashpit of their house in Fairview (right). The children called these the 'ashpit books':

One was a song-book, the first pages of which were missing. It contained a large and miscellaneous collection of classical and traditional songs, popular ballads and many so-called comic songs, the humour of which always remained a mystery to me. The other was a closely and badly printed collated edition of the four gospels in a red cloth cover... 
My Brother's Keeper, p112

Could this be the inspiration of 'The Hen'?  

I learned from PQ's excellent A Building Roam blog that, this year, Dublin archaeologists have been excavating this very ashpit! They discovered around 200 glass slides, mainly on religious subjects, used in magic lantern shows. PQ has also posted on The Book of Kells.

The document found in the Finnegans Wake dump originated as an everyday letter from an Irish family in Boston to relatives back home in Dublin. Over time, it has been transformed by 'heated residence in the heart of the orangeflavoured mudmound' (111.33), taking on a life of its own (like Finnegans Wake). It's compared to a melting photographic negative which, as PQ writes in his blog, makes the discovery of photographic slides in Joyce's own ashpit an amazing synchronicity.

Here's part of Joyce's great description of its appearance, which goes on for four and a half pages:

Look at this prepronominal funferal, engraved and retouched and edgewiped and pudden-padded, very like a whale’s egg farced with pemmican, as were it sentenced to be nuzzled over a full trillion times for ever and a night till his noddle sink or swim by that ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia: all those red raddled obeli cayennepeppercast over the text, calling unnecessary attention to errors, omissions, repetitions and misalignments... 120.09-16

These 'red raddled obeli' come from Sullivan's text:

One important instance of correction is to be found on fol. 219 R., where the text of the preceding page, fol. 218 V., has been erroneously repeated. Attention is drawn to the error by four obeli in red, running down the middle of the page between the lines, and others round the margins, and red lines about the corners.  

Of red hæmatite of an earthy nature, such as is termed raddle, there is a plentiful supply in the County Antrim

You can see these obeli, which look like crosses, if you go to folio 218.v. in the online version

Joyce's whole description is modelled on Sullivan's, which begins like this:

Its weird and commanding beauty; its subdued and goldless colouring; the baffling intricacy of its fearless designs; the clean, unwavering sweep of rounded spiral; the creeping undulations of serpentine forms, that writhe in artistic profusion throughout the mazes of its decorations; the strong and legible minuscule of its text; the quaintness of its striking portraiture; the unwearied reverence and patient labour that brought it into being; all of which combined go to make up the Book of Kells have raised this ancient Irish volume to a position of abiding preeminence amongst the illuminated manuscripts of the world.
Here's part of the Gospel of John from The Book of Kells. At the bottom centre, just to the right of the griffin, there's a symbol like a big green C. Sullivan describes its purpose:

The symbol C, known in Irish MSS. as "head under the wing" or "turn under the path" ...indicates that the words immediately following it are to be read after the end of the next full line.  

Joyce parodies this at 121.08:

the curious warning sign before our protoparent’s ipsissima verba (a very pure nondescript, by the way, sometimes a palmtailed otter, more often the arbutus fruitflowerleaf of the cainapple) which paleographers call a leak in the thatch or the aranman ingperwhis through the hole of his hat, indicating that the words which follow may be taken in any order desired

The most important page for Joyce was this one, called the Tunc page. It illustrates Matthew 27.38 'TUNC CRUCIFIXERANT XPI CUM EO DUOS LATRONES' (then there were crucified with him two thieves). The 'XPI' is the Greek monogram of Christ.

Joyce describes this page on page 122, where he says its design was inspired by the 'cruciform postscript', or kisses on the letter from Boston found in the dump by the hen!
Originally there were four kisses  (‘with four crosskisses for holy paul holey corner holipoli whollyisland’ 111.17), but three of them have been scraped away, leaving just one:

then (coming over to the left aisle corner down) the cruciform postscript from which three basia or shorter and smaller oscula have been overcarefully scraped away, plainly inspiring the tenebrous Tunc page of the Book of Kells (and then it need not be lost sight of that there are exactly three squads of candidates for the crucian rose awaiting their turn in the marginal panels of Columkiller, chugged in their three ballotboxes, then set apart for such hanging committees...

('Oscula' and 'Basia' are Latin terms for kisses).

If you look at the Tunc page, you can see the three squads of candidates sitting in their ballotboxes. Joyce is drawing a connection between these panels and the three missing kisses, scraped away from the letter. If you draw lines connecting the heads of the men in each panel, you do make an X. At the bottom, you can see the big X, which Joyce associated with the surviving kiss on the bottom of his letter.

Sullivan talks about the punctuation of the book at great length. On page 124, Joyce turns to the punctuation of the letter - the original document 'showed no signs of punctuation of any sort' (123.33), but if you hold it up to the light, you can see it's been 'pierced by numerous stabs and gashes made by a pronged instrument' (124.01-3) 

Yard inquiries pointed out  that they ad bîn "provoked" ay /\  fork, of à grave Brofèsor; àth é's Brèak—fast—table; ; acùtely profèssionally piquéd, to=introdùce a notion of time [ùpon à plane (?) sù ' ' fàç'e'] by pùnct! ingh oles (sic) in iSpace?!’ 

Scotland Yard enquries suggest that these have been made by a grave professor at the breakfast table with his fork! By piercing the letter, he’s punctuated it - introducing the notion of time into something spatial (a 'plane surface'). The exclamation mark after 'punct' is an image of the Professor's fork hovering over the hole it's just made - maybe expressing the paper's surprise at being punctured! (It later turns out that these holes are just the marks of the hen's beak). 

The Book of Kells was undated. Sullivan wrote: 

Indications to suggest its time of birth have been sought in all possible directions. Historical evidence is of little assistance. The Manuscript itself fails us where, conceivably, it might have helped us most, for the page that should have told its story is unfortunately no longer there. 

The Wake letter is also undated 

the studious omission of year number and era name from the date, the one and only time when our copyist seems at least to have grasped the beauty of restraint 121.28 

Here's Joyce poking fun at himself – the ‘beauty of restraint’ was completely foreign to the author of Finnegans Wake!  

Yet he did put dates on his books.


1 comment:

  1. Wow great post. I too love the BOK. When I was kid you used to be able to just wander into Trinity College and see it for free. Different page each day. Now its pay up, and for lots of other things that used to be free. In some ways the days when the monks used to make those books (on scraped animal skin called vellum) was the high point of Irish culture. When most of Europe was in the dark ages Irish monks kept learning (Xtian anyhow) alive and then reintroduced it to the continent.That detail and rich elaborateness in the BOK seems to have always been a part of Irish culture.