Academic journal article European Joyce Studies

Waking "For an Equality of Relations"

Academic journal article European Joyce Studies

Waking "For an Equality of Relations"

Article excerpt

These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. (Matthew 20:12)

Rarely equal and distinct in all things. (fw 306 F7)

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Regular or prolonged exposure to Finnegans Wake has significant social consequences. These effects - unlike, say, the bleary-eyed hipness achieved by binge viewing of entire television series, which thereafter fuels knowledgeable exchanges and valuable cultural fluency - seem to alienate their subjects from the world. Reading everyday functional texts such as street signs, telephone directories, and restaurant menus becomes unexpectedly strange and difficult, and - let's be honest - the chances of finding someone with whom to puzzle over the riddles of the Wake and giggle through the protracted bouts of puns that it offers (and inspires) are more than slightly slimmer than those of finding someone to discuss the latest surprise disembowelment in Game of Thrones. But the difference I want to underscore isn't a matter of faddishness: the repeat viewer of such shows, the online gamer who gives up whole weekends to the quest, grow more authoritative and more certain in these imaginary worlds, and thus able to disregard the tedium or injustices of mere meatspace. The Finnegans Wake reader, it seems to me, instead becomes more doubtful and bewildered in both worlds in proportion to one another.

There might be perceptible stages of acclimatisation - if that is the right word - to the Wake. Among the later stages, or at any rate not among the first, is a suspicion of words and phrases in the text that seem immediately sensible, i.e. to all appearances syntactically sensible arrangements of readily identifiable words. In turn a reader may grow - as I, for one, have grown - suspicious of the Wake passages of which I seem (or seemed) to have some comprehension. We might think of this as one of those reversals of the unfamiliar, a sort of squaring of the uncanny, not unlike the moment in a foreboding narrative or dream when the recognisable friend who greets us in the terra incognita is revealed, precisely when it dawns on us how very out of place he is, as not our friend at all.

Thus a phrase such as "an equality of relations" (fw 283.11), which seems innocuous enough, not one of the verbal constructions in the text most likely to halt a reader conversant in English, and familiar as a slogan with no definite context, now gives great pause. I propose to dig into this phrase as a way into the Wake, and as a way of understanding its politics - in other words, to try to understand why the Wake has these aforementioned social effects on its readers.

While literary history and cultural theory have adopted a now familiar set of socio-political terms for understanding the power relations of representation as well as cultural and textual production (including, for example, oppression, marginalisation, authority, privilege, sovereignty, and so on), conspicuously and perhaps unsettlingly absent is "equality." It understandably remains an elusive if not altogether opaque concept: what does it mean to say that one thing, person, or quantity is "equivalent" (of the same meaning or value) as another? Does it not seem that criticism - so much of it, if not by general definition - is a negation of equality, an establishing of different values?

More specifically, the words "Joyce" and "equality" might seem to have nothing to do with one another, despite the fact that the persistent and popular conception of Joyce's works (and, often as not, his views) as coldly elitist and inaccessible has in recent years faced some refutations, however measured. (It is interesting to note that, for example, while Declan Kiberd makes the case that Ulysses is a book of everyday life abducted by academics and kept hostage in an ivory tower, from which heights it must be rescued, no comparable appeal is offered for Finnegans Wake.1) These works, it is worth remembering, are in some cases many years apart from one another, and the name "Joyce" more aptly signifies an impressionable, highly sensitive, and adaptable man with a lifetime of international experiences than a stabilised set of aesthetic principles and social views. …

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