10/30/20 — This Week’s Reading Review

Somehow, somewhere, sometime in the midst of worrying about the election, the future of the country and the world I managed to make a good amount of progress in Finnegans Wake. I am finally into Part III of the book; a part which William York Tindall informs us was titled “Shaun” by Joyce (223). Shaun, of course, is one of the pair of brothers in Holy Family whose story the Wake is always telling, retelling, not-telling, tailoring, and retailing (to use a few of Joyce’s beloved words for narration). What else do we know about him? He is, like Cain, not his brother Shem’s keeper. He is, like Wyndham Lewis, a spatialist and rival writer. He is, like Stanislaus Joyce, a diarist, a non-writer, and a reproachful censor of his brother’s writing and way of life. In the endless varieties of the Wake, Shaun is many other things as well. Chapter XIII adds to this list: Jesus Christ the Spatial Messiah to Shem’s/Joyce’s Judaic temporal messiah, and the Ondt to Shem’s the Gracehoper.

The parable of the Ondt and the Gracehoper is one of the more widely-read and celebrated parts of Finnegans Wake. It is a parable told to by Shaun in his Christian mode as he floats down the River Liffey in a Guinness barrel. In addition to being a reimagination of the story of Finnegans Wake and its tale of family usurpation, variation through the generations, and the infinite varieties contained within simple quantities, the Ondt and the Gracehoper stands as one of Joyce’s finest self-portraits of himself and his brother Stanislaus, whom he conflates with all those writers and censors who have questioned his work. The self-portrait of the parable is self-critical, but ends on a note of mock self-confidence, flung back at the self-secure Ondts of the world. Having admitted that the Gracehoper may have lived a squandered life full of wasted money and time — having admitted in essence, the life of bourgeois security has its virtues of comforts, stability, and happiness-until-death — the poem which closes out the parable is one of Joyce’s most succinct defenses of himself and his art:

Your feats end enormous, your volumes immense,
(May the Graces I hoped for sing your Ondtship song sense!),
Your genus its worldwide, your spacest sublime!
But, Holy Saltmartin, why can’t you beat time?
” (419).

Yes, Joyce says to the Ondt/Wyndham Lewis/Stanislaus, you may have beaten the world as it stood during your time by achieving comfort and earthly happiness. Yet only Joyce and the infinite, squared-circle of Finnegans Wake will escape time after having so thoroughly wasted it.

I mentioned earlier that Shaun is, in this section of the book, conflated with Christ as he goes through the stations of the cross. My spontaneous understanding of this is that it is a comment upon the inferiority of Christianity’s mortal, spatial messiah to Judaism’s yet-to-come, complex, temporal and infinite messiah. We would do well to remember Joyce’s prolonged engagement with and attraction to Judaism, which colors not only Finnegans Wake but also Ulysses. There’s also probably some legwork which should be done here on how Joyce’s understanding of the world was affected by the scientific discoveries of the subatomic realm, which he narrates in an earlier chapter. Sadly, that requires knowledge I do not possess. I will instead direct your attention to a short parable by another writer of Joyce’s generation, one whom he never read and to whom his work was losing ground in the 1930s: Franz Kafka. I have in mind his parable “The Coming of the Messiah.” It is brief enough to reproduce here:

“The Messiah will come as soon as the most unbridled individualism of faith becomes possible — when there is no one to destroy this possibility and no one to suffer its destruction; hence the graves will open themselves. This, perhaps, is Christian doctrine too, applying as much to the actual presentation of the example to be emulated, which is an individualistic example, as to the symbolic presentation of the resurrection of the Mediator in the single individual.

The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary; he will come only on the day after his arrival; he will come, not on the last day, but on the very last. “

To me, this gnomic joke of a parable vibrates in extreme sympathy with Joyce’s theological vision in Finnegans Wake. The messiah cannot by limited by the spatialists, only by attending to the infinite varieties of the articles of faith with all their textual ironies, complexities, and paradoxes can something like immortal beauty be achieved.

I’ve rambled enough for now, I’ll join you again on Thursday,

Michael Ducker.

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