Friday, 10 May 2019

Finnegans Wake as Magical Evocation

Hermes Trismegistus ('the emerald canticle of Hermes' 263.22)

'Joyce believed that his words were 'Words of silent power' (345.19)....he believed that he was entrapping some part of the essence of life within (Finnegans Wake's) pages.... that somehow the spirit of language was working through him of its own volition....Joyce was not in his own opinion simply writing a book, he was also performing a work of magic.'

J.S.Atherton, The Books at the Wake, 1959, p.15 



'With regard to the language used by Joyce, particularly in Finnegans Wake, it is sometimes forgotten that in his early years in Dublin Joyce lived among the believers and adepts in magic gathered round the poet Yeats. Yeats held that the borders of our minds are always shifting, tending to become part of the universal mind, and that the borders of our memory also shift and form part of the universal memory. This universal mind and memory could be evoked by symbols. When telling me this Joyce added that in his own work he never used the recognized symbols, preferring instead to use trivial and quadrivial words and local geographical allusions. The intention of magical evocation, however, remained the same.'

Frank Budgen, 'Further Recollections of James Joyce' in James Joyce and the Making of 'Ulysses', and Other Writings (1972)

'When I was writing on the ‘Aeolus' episode of Ulysses and the subject of the ‘Akasic records' mentioned in it cropped up in conversation, he seemed inclined to give some credence to the theory, held by certain occultists, that essentially thoughts, like matter, are indestructible and persist in some ‘repository’ out of space and out of time, yet accessible in certain privileged moments to the ‘subliminal self’.'

Stuart Gilbert introduction to Joyce's Letters, 1957, p.30

The Universal Mind and Memory is also called the Memory of Nature, Great Memory, and Spiritus Mundi or Anima Mundi (by Plato and Yeats). Gilbert tells us that Joyce read about it in the writings of the theosophist A.P.Sinnett.

'Consciousness is in indirect relations with the all but infinite memory of Nature, which is preserved with imperishable perfection in the all-embracing medium known to occult science as the Akasa.'

A.P.Sinnett, The Growth of the Soul, 1896, quoted by Gilbert, James Joyce's Ulysses

'Akasa' is from the Sanskrit word for sky. In his 1902 essay on Mangan, Joyce presents this all-embracing Great Memory as a source of comfort:

'In those vast courses which enfold us and in that great memory which is greater and more generous than our memory, no life, no moment of exaltation is ever lost; and all those who have written nobly have not written in vain...'

James Joyce, 'James Clarence Mangan,' 1902 

In Ulysses, the grieving Stephen thinks of his dead mother, folded away in the memory of nature along with her trinkets:

'Her secrets: old feather fans, tasselled dancecards, powdered with musk, a gaud of amber beads in her locked drawer. A birdcage hung in the sunny window of her house when she was a girl....Folded away in the memory of nature with her toys.'


And the liberator Daniel O'Connell's spoken words to his monster meetings may have been scattered to the winds, but they too survive in the Akasa:

'Gone with the wind. Hosts at Mullaghmast and Tara of the kings. Miles of ears of porches. The tribune's words howled and scattered to the four winds. A people sheltered within his voice. Dead noise. Akasic records of all that ever anywhere wherever was'

Even a casual encounter with a prostitute can be recorded in the Akasa:

'Against the wall. Face glistening tallow under her fustian shawl. Frantic hearts. Akasic records. Quicker, darlint!'



The best thing I've read about Joyce and the Universal Mind is Craig Carver's 1978 article 'James Joyce and the Theory of Magic', in the James Joyce Quarterly,  Vol.15. No.3. He quotes a passage from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where Stephen Dedalus experiences a timeslip, a vision of Viking Dublin:

'In the distance along the course of the slowflowing Liffey slender masts flecked the sky and, more distant still, the dim fabric of the city lay prone in haze. Like a scene on some vague arras, old as man’s weariness, the image of the seventh city of christendom was visible to him across the timeless air, no older nor more weary nor less patient of subjection than in the days of the thingmote
  ....So timeless seemed the grey warm air, so fluid and impersonal his own mood, that all ages were as one to him. A moment before the ghost of the ancient kingdom of the Danes had looked forth through the vesture of the hazewrapped city.'

The timeless air, says Carver, is the Akasa. He then quotes a passage in the Wake where Joyce parodies the same text:

'It scenes like a landescape from Wildu Picturescu or some seem on some dimb Arras, dumb as Mum’s mutyness, this mimage of the seventyseventh kusin of kristansen is odable to os across the wineless Ere no oedor nor mere eerie nor liss potent of suggestion than in the tales of the tingmount.' 53.01

Carver says the vision is 'odable' because of the 'odic force', which Blavatsky, in Isis Unveiled, described as 'the divine light through which the soul perceives things past, present and to come.'

In the Cork episode of A Portrait, the sight of the word 'Fœtus' cut into a desk evokes another vision, of the student who cut it:

'A vision of their life...sprang up before him out of the word cut in the desk. A broadshouldered student with a moustache was cutting in the letters with a jackknife, seriously. Other students stood or sat near him laughing at his handiwork. One jogged his elbow. The big student turned on him, frowning. He was dressed in loose grey clothes and had tan boots.'

Carver comments:
' not a scene from personal memory, but a disturbingly real, if trivial, scene out of the universal memory. Its clear hard details are typical of such visions as A.P.Sinnett explains: 'We are in a position to remember it not in that dim shadowy way which physical memory alone achieves, but in such a way that the past before us in vivid perception of detail.''

These are uncalled visions from the Universal Memory. Joyce believed that, as an artist, he could use language to summon such visions. Carver quotes this boast of Stephen's:

'You have spoken of the past and its phantoms, Stephen said. Why think of them? If I call them into life across the waters of Lethe will not the poor ghosts troop to my call?'

'Oxen of the Sun' 

Carver also cites Joyce's 1912 lecture on Blake, in which he told his Trieste audience that he planned 'to recall (Blake's) spirit from the twilight of the universal mind, to detain it for a minute and question it.' 

Here's Carver's conclusion:

'The importance of memory and the past for Joyce's work is self-evident....It is no wonder then that Joyce was interested in the concept of the Great Memory, the all-recording Akasa, and the artist's relation to it. His whole work is in a sense an evocation of the memory of nature, imaginatively transformed and artistically embodied.'



'In his last work he includes all the memory of humanity, all histories, all the world, a  representation of universal life, of Allspace in a Natshall'.

Louis Gillet, 'The Extraordinary Adventure of James Joyce', 1941, Claybook for James Joyce, 1958, p.61

Another place where Joyce believed that we might experience the Universal Mind is in our dreams. In his Scribbledehobble notebook, he wrote:

'dream thoughts are wake thoughts of centuries ago: unconscious memory: great recurrence: race memorial'

In a wonderful lecture at the very first Joyce symposium, J.S.Atherton argued that the Universal Mind is the Dreamer of Finnegans Wake:

As I see FW it is everyone’s dream, the dream of all the living and the dead....It is the universal mind which Joyce assumes as the identity of the dreamer; he, of course, is writing it all down but everyone else contributes. Sometimes the contributions are those of 'the...intermisunderstanding minds of the anticollaborators' (118.25), but they are made all the same. The idea may seem strange. Like many of Joyce’s ideas it is spreading. The Jesuit biologist, Teilhard de Chardin, wrote 'Taken in its entirety, the living substance spread over the earth—from the first stages of its evolution—traces the lineaments of one single and gigantic organism. To see life properly we must never lose sight of the unity of the biosphere that lies beyond the plurality and essential rivalry of individual beings.'...One final word about my theory. It may also give the Wake (I say this with some diffidence) a purpose and a message. Joyce is saying that mankind is one. We are 'humble indivisibles in this grand continuum'(472.30). It is customary, or was until a year or so ago, to speak of Joyce as entirely uninterested in politics. He was an ardent pacifist; he saw the world as a single family. Can we not also see it as one in which it is time the boys grew up and stopped fighting? If so the Wake is not a “crazy book” but a work of importance for all of us.'

J.S.Atherton,'The Identity of the Sleeper', A Wake Newslitter, Vol IV no 5, October 1967.

If Joyce saw himself as a channel for the Universal Mind rather than a conventional author many odd features of the Wake are explained. This may be why he added so many words from foreign languages which he couldn't speak; why he used as the basic material phrases extracted from hundreds of other books and newspaper articles (a way of magically absorbing these texts into his own); and why, in Ellmann's words, he 'was quite willing to accept coincidence as his collaborator'.
'Every dimmed letter in it is a copy and not a few of the silbils and wholly words....The last word in stolentelling!' 424.32
'Really it is not I who am writing this crazy book,' Joyce told a party of friends. 'It is you, and you, and you, and that man over there, and that girl at the next table.'  

Eugene Jolas, 'My Friend James Joyce' in James Joyce: Two Decades of Criticism (ed Givens), 1948 



Joyce's sense that he was a channel for something much bigger lies behind another magical idea – that his writing had the power of prophecy.


'I sometimes felt there was a hint of the uncanny in his facility of inner visualization, rather like that of the 'sensitive' who, under certain conditions, can evoke latent memories with a precision impossible to his normal self and occasionally displays clairvoyance. On more than one occasion Joyce told me that certain incidents in his writings ('A Painful Case' in Dubliners was one) had proved to be premonitions of incidents that subsequently took place.'

Stuart Gilbert introduction to Joyce's Letters, p.30  

'The word scorching has a peculiar significance for my superstitious mind not so much because of any quality or merit in the writing itself as for the fact that the progress of the book is in fact like the progress of some sandblast. As soon as I mention or include any person in it I hear of his or her death or departure or misfortune: and each successive episode, dealing with some province of artistic culture (rhetoric or music or dialectic), leaves behind it a burnt up field.' 

To Harriet Shaw Weaver, 2 July 1919, Letters p129

'In one of your letters, which I cannot refer to here, you mentioned some book or writings of on the subject of prophecy. It was in connection with the articles in a Viennese paper about the coincidence of 'A Painful Case'. May I ask you for the name of the writer?'

To Weaver, 9 December 1920, Letters p151  

'It is strange that on the day I sent off to you a picture of an epicene professor of history in an Irish university college seated in the hospice for the dying etc after ‘eating a bad crab in the red sea' I received a paper from Dublin containing news of the death at the age of 41 of an old schoolfellow of mine in the hospice for the dying, Harold's Cross, Dublin, professor of law in the university of Galway who, it seems, had lately returned from the West Indies where his health collapsed. More strangely still his name (which he used to say, was an Irish (Celtic) variant of my own) is in English an epicene name being made up of the feminine and masculine personal pronouns — Sheehy. It is as usual rather uncanny, I have written to his father (an ex M.P. for Meath) and did not care to think of it too much. ' 

To Weaver 23 Oct 1923 Letters, p.205
'Thanks for remembering my birthday. Ruggiero did so too....I have had many more since, Italian, one from Magdeburg, one by a Russian American, a remarkable one and, naturally enough perhaps, a strange symbolical affair from Helsinki — sent about 6 weeks ago — where, as foretold by the prophet, the Finn again wakes. I should not jest.'

To Frank Budgen 8 Feb 1940 Letters p 408 

'My daughter-in-law staged a marvellous banquet for my last birthday and read the closing pages on the passing-out of Anna Livia — to a seemingly much affected audience. Alas, if you ever read them you will see they were unconsciously prophetical! 
....I have received a number of foreign notices of my book.....the most curious comes from Helsinki where as was predicted, the Finn again wakes.'

To Constantine Curran, 11 February 1940, Letters, p 408 


You can find hundreds of references to the occult in Finnegans Wake. Len Platt has compiled an annotated list of references to Madame Blavatsky. Fweet provides Joyce's borrowings from Blavatsky's Isis Unveiled, 1877; W.J. Perry's The Origin of Magic and Religion, 1923; and Arthur Waite's The Occult Sciences 1891. There are also more than a hundred quotations from the spells of the Egyptian Book of the Dead

Another good source is Enrico Terrinoni's book, Occult Joyce: The Hidden in Ulysses, 2007, whose opening chapters are online here. He gives a useful summary of Joyce's occult reading:

'Among the volumes on occult subjects  he had in his personal library in Trieste, we find many texts concerning occult matters, like Jacob Boehme’s The Signature of all Things, Emanuel Swedenborg’s Heaven and Its Wonders and Hell, two books on theosophy and discipleship by Annie Besant, a tract on the occult meaning of blood by Rudolph Steiner, a study in French on Spiritism, a volume by Merlin called The Book of Charms and Ceremonies Whereby All May Have the Opportunity of Obtaining Any Object They Desire, a translation of Plutarch’s theosophical essays, a study on Yogi philosophy and oriental occultism, a work by Giordano Bruno and a study on him, and finally several works by Blake and Yeats. Joyce remained interested in the occult also in his more mature years. In the Paris library we find a copy of The Occult Review (July 1923) which features essays and articles on the “Practical Qabala,” the “Akasic Records,” and “the alleged communication with Madame Blavatsky.” The Paris library hosts also other books on similar subjects...'


Saturday, 4 May 2019

Happy 80th Birthday Finnegans Wake!

Finnegans Wake is 80 years-old today!  It was officially published on 4 May 1939, though Joyce had received the first copy from Faber on 30 January, in time for his birthday party on 2 February.  It was simultaneously published in London, by Faber and Faber, and New York, by the Viking Press.   

Publication also meant the revelation of a secret, which Joyce had kept for sixteen years - the title of the book.

This is the Viking Press cover.

Here's Faber and Faber's version. What they share is the reddish brown colour of the River Liffey, which Joyce had previously chosen for the Anna Livia Plurabelle booklet. He told an Italian journalist, 'The river at Dublin passes dye-houses, and so has reddish water.'

Apart from the covers, the texts are the same, and both publishers' names appear on the title page.

For publicity, Joyce agreed to a photo session for Time magazine with Gisèle Freund, in March 1939. This was the only time that Joyce was photographed in colour. 

Joyce also looks reddish brown, just like his book!

You can read Freund's account of the session on my post marking the Wake's 75th birthday. 

Time magazine put Joyce on their cover on 8 May. They have a framed copy on the wall of the Palace bar in Dublin (left)The magazine carried a long article, titled 'Night Thoughts':

'All children are afraid of the night; when they grow up, they are still afraid, but more afraid of admitting it. In this frightening darkness men lie down to sleep and dream. Generations of diviners, black magicians, fortune tellers and poets have made night and dreams their province, interpreting the troubled images that float through men’s sleeping minds as omens of good & evil. Only of late have psychologists asserted that dreams tell nothing about men’s future, much about their hidden or forgotten past. In dreams, this past floats, usually uncensored and distorted, to the surface of their slumbering consciousness. This week, for the first time, a writer had attempted to make articulate this wordless world of sleep. The writer is James Joyce; the book, Finnegans Wake — final title of his long-heralded Work in Progress....

As a gigantic laboratory experiment with language, Finnegans Wake is bound to exert an influence far beyond the circle of its immediate readers. Whether Joyce is eventually convicted of assaulting the King’s English with intent to kill or whether he has really added a cubit to her stature, she will never be quite the same again....

Joyce’s idea in Finnegans Wake is not new. More than a hundred years ago, when Nathaniel Hawthorne was living in Salem, he jotted in his notebook an idea for a story: 'To write a dream which shall resemble the real course of a dream, with all its inconsistency, its strange transformations . . . with nevertheless a leading idea running through the whole. Up to this old age of the world, no such thing has ever been written.''

So the Time cover bears the text 'he wrote Hawthorne's dream book'.

The article also reveals that 'At present Joyce is not writing. His wife is trying to get him started on something, because when he is not working he is hard to live with.'

You can read the whole article here. 


'He devoured the reviews of Finnegans Wake, but quickly grew disappointed and even morose. As each one was read he listened intently, then sighed.' 

Richard Ellmann James Joyce, 1982, p.722

The angriest review was from Richard Aldington:

'Common honesty compels this reviewer to state that he is unable to explain either the subject or the meaning (if any) of Mr Joyce's book; and that, having spent several hours a day for more than a fortnight in wretched toil over these 628 pages, he has no intention of wasting one more minute of precious life over Mr Joyce's futile inventions, tedious ingenuities, and verbal freaks....the boredom endured in the penance of reading this book is something one would not inflict on any human being, but far be it from me to discourage any reader who prefers to use a perfectly good five-dollar bill to buy Finnegans Wake rather than to light a cigarette with it. (The latter of course will give more lasting satisfaction.) Translated into native Tasmanian, this book should have a well-deserved sale.'

The Atlantic Monthly June 1939

Malcolm Muggeridge was also baffled:
'Mr. James Joyce's Finnegans Wake faces the reviewer with peculiar difficulties. In the first place he cannot read it, only battle through a page or so at a time without pleasure or profit. This would not, in itself, matter so much; but he does not know what the book is about. The dust jacket, which might be expected to help, says nothing except that Finnegans Wake has taken sixteen years to write, that it has been more talked about and written about during the period of its composition than any previous work of literature, and that it would inevitably 'be the most important event in any season in which it appeared'.... Considered as a book, and considering the object of a book to be by means of written symbols to convey the author's emotions to the reader, Finnegans Wake must be pronounced a complete fiasco. Such a word as 'bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!' is not merely senseless, it is absurd. How many mornings Mr Joyce devoted to coining this particular word, I do not know; perhaps it only took him one morning or just an hour or so; but in any case he was wasting his time as surely as, more surely than, a village idiot trying to catch a sunbeam.'

TIme and Tide, 20 May 1939

The American poet, Louise Bogan looked at Joyce's claim that he was writing about the night and unconscious. She also compared the final published text with earlier versions:

'There is nothing whatever to indicate that Joyce has any real knowledge of the workings of the subconscious, in sleep or otherwise....The later versions of the fragments already published seem to be changed out of sheer perversity: a clause is omitted leaving nothing but a vestigial preposition; a singular noun is shifted to the plural and the meaning is thereby successfully clouded ....The most frightening thing about the book is the feeling, which steadily grows in the reader, that Joyce himself does not know what he is doing....To read the book over a long period of time gives one the impression of watching intemperance become addiction, become debauch....The book's great beauties, its wonderful passages of wit, its variety, its marks of genius and immense learning are undeniable....But whatever it says of man's past it has nothing to do with man's future...and there are better gods than Proteus...'

Nation 6 May 1939 

In New York, Alfred Kazin wondered about the book's status as a dream:

'How, you will ask, can Joyce know a dream? The answer of course is that he can't. In reality Finnegans Wake is a stupendous improvisation, a great pun. Even in sleep one cannot imagine an Irish-Norwegian brewer remembering words in a language he has never read....It is the sleep, not of one man, but of a drowsing humanity. All cultures have a relation to it, all minds, all languages nourish its night speech....As one tortures one's way through Finnegans Wake an impression grows that Joyce has lost his hold on human life....He has created a world of his own, that night world in which all men are masters and all men dupes, and he has lost his way in it.'

New York Herald Tribune, 21 May 1939 

Here's an anonymous reviewer in the Irish Times

'One feels its power, the kind of gleaming genius behind it, but no communication of anything is achieved.... There are moments of beauty, the measured sounds of lyrical prose which beat upon the ear, but which do not come into the understanding, and always an airy gesture beyond the words which make it as if Mr. Joyce had greatly enjoyed doing all this despite the torture of the sixteen years' labour that it took. Yet pleasure never altogether reaches to the reader....The reader begins to reject constructively the formlessness which is all around him; he tries to find a way out, to relate to some kind of plan of his own, even one of these, embedded pages. There are lingering lovely passages like flickers of gold. By following the small light they give there may be real illumination a little further on. But the light fails, and he is left to wander round and round in the maze.... It may appear, therefore, in the ultimate view, that although after Ulysses (Joyce) had no more to say, in Finnegans Wake he went on saying it'
The Irish Times, 3 June 1939
The most perceptive review came from the Scottish poet Edwin Muir:

'The book has the qualities of a flowing stream, sound and rhythm; the rhythm is sometimes beautiful, as can be tested by reading passages aloud....There are parodies of the sagas, skits on almost every style of writing, enormous catalogues in the vein of Rabelais, snippets of folk-lore, echoes of music-hall songs, all slightly dissolved, all tending to flow into each other, and producing a continuous effect of storytelling while continuously avoiding the commission of a story. To dip into this flux for a little is refreshing, but to stay in for long is to be drowned, 'with winkles, whelks and cocklesent jelks', in Mr Joyce's enormous Baroque moat. A reader might well cry 'Lifeboat Alloe, Noeman's Woe, Hircups Emptybolly!'

The Listener, 11 May 1939

The Wake's avoidance of storytelling was also discussed by Harry Levin, in Joyce's favourite review

'As a novelist he is, though not a failure, perhaps a bankrupt. He can no longer narrate; he can only elaborate....he has no story to tell. He merely effects a poignant kind of cross-reference.... Among the acknowledged masters of English – and there can be no further delay in acknowledging that Joyce is among the greatest – there is no one with so much to express and so little to say.... Sooner or later it gives a prejudiced reader the uncanny sensation of trying to carry on a conversation with an omniscient parrot.'

'On First Looking into Finnegans Wake', New Directions in Prose and Poetry, 1939   

The Observer had the inspired idea to commission Oliver St John Gogarty - Buck Mulligan himself! - to review Finnegans Wake:

'When I think of the indomitable spirit that plodded on, writing Ulysses in poverty in Trieste, without a hope of ever seeing it published, I am amazed at the magnitude of this work, every word of which in its 628 pages had to be weighed, twisted, and deranged in order to bring up associated ideas in the mind....The immense erudition employed, and the various languages ransacked for pun and word-associations is almost incredible to anyone unaware of the superhuman knowledge the author had when a mere stripling. In some places the reading sounds like the chatter during the lunch interval in a Berlitz school. Every language living and dead in Europe gabbles on and on. But what is the motive force behind this colossal production? Finnegan’s wake [sic] may be the wake, that is the funeral celebration, as well as the panegyric, of civilisation. Resentment against his upbringing, his surroundings, and finally against the system of civilisation throughout Europe, perhaps against Life itself which Finnegan may represent, created this literary Bolshevism which strikes not only at all standards and accepted modes of expression whether of Beauty or Truth but at the very vehicle of rational expression. This arch-mocker in his rage would extract the Logos, the Divine word or Reason from its tabernacle, and turn it muttering and maudlin into the street. It is impossible to read the work as a serial. It may have a coherency and a meaning. What is wrong with the meaning that it cannot be expressed? Ripeness cannot be all in this instance, nor can a myriad-minded man full of infinite suggestion satisfy the reader with suggestions alone. Perhaps it is wrong to look for a meaning where there is every meaning. It may be unmodern to expect sense. Lewis Carroll stopped short brilligly, but this goes on lapsing as everlastingly as Anna Livia. There is nothing new under the sun: it is only exaggerated. This is the most colossal leg-pull in literature since McPherson’s Ossian. Mr. Joyce has had his revenge.’

Joyce liked this review. He told Frank Budgen, 'Gogarty is an athlete, a cyclist and a swimmer. He should know what staying power is.'

Henry W Clune, in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, on 13 May 1939, looked at many reviews. He concluded that the writers 'couldn't quite get at the thing but seemed to think that it must be significant. They felt a brilliant panorama lay before them if only they could get the swaddled eye sheets off their heads and have a long penetrating look....But for the life of me I can't see how anyone who is unable to understand Mr Joyce (and I have read of no who does understand him) should pay $5 for his book.'