‘riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.’ Is how James Joyce’s novel Finnegans Wake begins. A strange, almost algebraic mosaic of text, this first line is one of the most coherent sentences of the seventeen chapters. The line starts in the middle of a sentence and finishes the half-sentence last line of the book, bringing the novel around again in a perpetual, cyclical motion. This book is a puzzle, a strange, radical rethink of language and civilisation that people dedicate their lives to decode.
The story tells of a publican, asleep and dreaming. The man embodies different identities in his dreams, one of a man who falls from god and high society, in a crime of sexual desire and sin, and in another, he witnesses the chaotic, cannibalistic wake of a worker named Tim Finnegan, who falls off a ladder and is assumed dead.
With the narrative of a dream, the novel’s non-sensical sequence and made-up words have order in their own way, exploring the chaos of a dreaming mind; the brief interruptions of passing characters (over 5000 in this story’s case); the desires of sin and transgression that only the unwoken mind can dare to explore. Joyce’s language, or non-language, creates the transcript of an active dream, one with careful arrangement and sophisticated meaning, despite how it reads at first glance. There is toil behind its nonsense, seventeen chapters and seventeen years of construction and deconstruction.
‘Can you rede (since We and Thou had it out already) its world? It is the same told of all. Many. Miscegenations on miscegenations. Tieckle. They lived und laughed ant loved end left. Forsin.’
Joyce’s intentions for this book were to bemuse critics, and in doing so, create a piece of modernism still considered one of the most complex texts of the 20th century. Much like William S. Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch, the jumping, interrupted lines, the nonsensical words and the non-linear structure create a psychedelic text – the ramblings of a man in a less-than-lucid state, but with as much care and purpose, if not more, as Joyce’s other works (Ulysses, Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man). Joyce actively and painstakingly unlearns all English rules of language and all scholarly rules of storytelling in creating this book. With no chronological plot and deniability of all other typical novelistic tropes, the book rejects the dominating prose of the last four centuries, and it becomes the antithesis of traditional fiction by being the night to its day, the darkness and sin to its lightness and life, the distortion to its order. But like night to day, one eventually becomes the other, in the same way that Joyce depicts life and history as cyclical with his perpetual story, taking from Giambattista Vico’s philosophical claim that history begins in a barbarism of sense and ends in a barbarism of reflection. This Viconian theory courses through the book, depicting the barbarism of Joyce’s world, of sin and greed and anarchy, separated into ages by carefully constructed hundred-letter words (‘bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!’).
The way that Joyce uses, or misuses, language allows us to question the very boundaries and rules of literature. He almost laughs at the serious critic, purposely confuses the reader and the analyser, and renders any quest for ‘truth’ and ‘meaning’ fruitless, any search in objectivity inane. The writer’s dedication to confusing critics makes us think about the hold highly educated, scholarly commentators have on the art of writing, how they, certainly at the time of publishing and even now, blunt creativity and restrict conceptual and unconventional text types and styles. In its unravelling, Joyce explores civilisation and chaos, how, like day and night, one becomes the other, and how in dreaming we can return to that barbaric state. Joyce’s work is one of philosophy, and critique, within the threads that make sense, but predominantly in the ones that fray.
The way that Joyce writes has forged a new path for creators. The piece sets a modernist example; self-aware, experimental, challenging the very structures and boundaries of literature and critical expectation, and it has truly created room for more novelists and artists to unlearn the rules of writing, to chronicle thoughts and unconsciousness in new ways, to question and explore philosophies and conceptual ideas. Comprehension in incomprehensibility is a new way of communication, a new medium, even, and one that thrives in the age of the internet, with the worldwide connection of fans and decryptors, but also with the constant, simultaneous and multilingual bodies of text that the world wide web puts together and churns out every second of every day. Today Joyce’s work resonates in ways he could not have predicted.
Writing the descent through desire, civilisation, mythology, the English language (Gaelic, German and more too), that we take when we sleep, Joyce ventures into the dream world, the literature of ‘the night’. By unlearning and relearning the very basis of writing – language – Joyce creates a cosmos of chaos that questions the rules of fiction and civilisation, and paves a way to let others rethink these boundaries too.
‘Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the’