Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

On the Words of the Wake (and What to Do with Them)

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

On the Words of the Wake (and What to Do with Them)

Article excerpt

Discourse is thus the experience of something absolutely foreign ... a traumatism of astonishment.

--Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity (1) the Nichtian glossery which purveys aprioric roots for apostriorious tongues this is nat language in any sinse of the world....

--James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (2)

I ONCE IMAGINED JOYCE'S FINNEGANS WAKE as a realization (of sorts) of Flaubert's "book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the strength of its style ...; a book which would have almost no subject, or at least the subject would be almost invisible." (3) To put such a book into play, writing would have to free language from its traditional functions of mediation: designation, predication, narration, expressions of feeling, or (in short) forms of world-making whose aim is to make things, including ourselves, intelligible. One way to accomplish this emancipation would be to materialize language, treating words as things--for example, as typographical arrangements of letters on a page, as in Stephane Mallarme's Un Coup de des (1895) (4):


issu stellair

EXISTAT-IL autrement qu'hallucination eparse


COMMENCAT-IL ET -IL sourdant que nie et cios quand apparu enfin par quelque profusion repandue

en rarete


evidence de la somme pour peu



CE SERAIT pire non

dadvantage ni moins indifferemment mois autant LE HASARD

Choit la plume rhythmique suspens du sinistre


aux ecumes


nagueres d'ou sursauta son delire jusqua

une cime

fletrie par la neutralite identique du


In writing such as this, Mallarme explains, "we avoid narrative [on evite le recit]," so that the purely formal pattern of words--its "withdrawals, prolongations, evasions [retraits, prolongements, fuites]"--will result in "a musical score for anyone wishing to read aloud. The difference in typefaces [caracteres d'imprimerie] among the predominant motif, a secondary one, and those adjoining dictates its importance to the oral utterance [l'emission orale], and its range, average, up and down the page, will mark whether the intonation rises or falls." (4)

Mallarmes real achievement, however, was not just to musicalize language but also, and more importantly, to incorporate the white space of the printed page into the formal structure of the poem, leading one to imagine a "cenographic" poem whose surface would resemble the "white paintings" of artists like Kazimir Malevich and Robert Rauschenberg. (5) This would mean taking literally Mallarmes famous remark: "My work was created only by elimination.... Destruction was my Beatrice." (6)

By contrast, Joyces method, in much of Ulysses and all of Finnegans Wake, is that of the rhetorical figure of amplificatio, the heaping up of words and things--a process that (as in the work of Rabelais) always threatens to break any frame that could contain, among other unities, a narrative. (7) Recall the famous inventory of "The house of O'Shea or O'Shame, Quivapieno, known as the Haunted Inkbottle":

For this was a stinksome inkenstink, quite puzzonal to the wrottel. Smatterafact, Angles aftanon browsing there thought not Edam reeked more rare. My wud! The warped flooring of the lair and soundconducting walls thereof, to say nothing of the uprights and imposts, were persianly literatured with burst loveletters, telltale stories, stickyback snaps, doubtful eggshells, bouchers, flints, borers, puffers, amygdaloid almonds, rindless raisins, alphybettyformed verbage, vivlical viasses, ompiter dictas, visus umbique, ahems and ahahs, imeffible tries at speech unsyllabled, you owe mes, eyoldhyms, fluefoul smut, fallen lucifers, vestas which had served, showered ornaments, borrowed brogues, reversible jackets, blackeye lenses, family jars, falsehair shirts, Godforsaken scapulars, neverworn breeches, cutthroat ties, counterfeit franks, best intentions, curried notes, upset latten tintacks, unused mill and stumpling stones, twisted quills, painful digests, magnifying wineglasses, solid objects cast at goblins, once current puns, quashed quotatoes, messes of mottage, unquestionable issue papers, seedy ejaculations, limerick damns, crocodile tears, spilt ink, blasphematory spits, stale shestnuts. …

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