Monday, April 04, 2005

Meta Finnegans ('s?) Wake

A reader was gracious enough to send me a link to this Ben Shapiro column from the beginning of March. The title is, "As art declines, will civilization follow?", which is a pretty good indicator that what we've got is not so much an originally conceived think-piece as a fairly ordinary result of the "substantively vacuous conservative trope + pompous author-specific stylistics = pseudo-sophisticated column" formula.

I'm not going to go into all of Shapiro's implicit admissions of a lack of culture, but suffice it to say, his answer to the question he poses at the outset is, "It just might. Sadly, it just might." You might, however be pleased to learn that Shapiro seems to have arrived at an objectively valid definition of what art is, though he won't say much more than that art has something to do with an "artist striving to put his message before the world," and "evok[ing] deep emotion in its audience." The closest we get to a general theory is this:
The need for subjectivism dictates that rigorous rules be cast aside. Paintings don’t have to look like anything. Music doesn’t have to sound like anything. Literature doesn’t have to say anything. Because, you see, the art, the music, the literature – it’s all within you.
So I suppose the point is that art is defined by a set of "rigorous rules." And those rules are...anybody's guess. But if Shapiro knows, and no doubt he does, it's cruel of him not to share a resolution to a philosophical problem that stretches back to Plato with the rest us.

Of course, such marvelous fatuity is standard fare with Shapiro, and there's really only one reason that I'm commenting on this column in the first place. And that is: Shapiro singles out Finnegans Wake for a smear. Well, sort of. He tries to. He stumbles immediately though, unable to spell the name of his target correctly:
The "literature" of James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake is over 700 pages of nonsensical drivel.
Ah yes, the scare-quote -- literature -- scare-unquote of James Joyce. And no doubt Joyce can be scary, downright overwhelming, to one such as Shapiro. We've been through this point before, but I guess it needs to be repeated. Finnegans Wake (no apostrophe) is the book. "Finnegan's Wake" (apostrophe) is an Irish-American folk song which inspired the title and some of the mythology of the book. [N.B.: I don't particularly care how the title of this site is spelled; it's named after both--ed.]

This kind of error would be an embarrassment if Shapiro were capable of being embarrassed; in any case, his charge that FW is "nonsensical drivel" looks just a bit suspect in light of the fact that he can't be bothered to read closely enough to get the title of the book in question right. Nor indeed, can he be bothered to read the excerpt he views as damning of the Wake's whole project; for if he did, and if (hah!) he understood it, he would understand that he has in fact selected one of the first of many fugal restatements of the book's mythic topology, a moment of (among other things) ecstatic multi-layered beauty.

This is what gets Shapiro's tefilin in a bunch (I can say it, I'm Jewish):
The great fall of the offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan, erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes: and their unturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since devlinsfrist [sic---it's "devlinsfirst"] loved livvy.
To give a rough idea of what's going on here: There is a legend in Ireland that the hill of Howth with its castle looking out into Dublin Bay is the head, the city of Dublin itself (to the west of Howth) is the belly, and the hills out by Phoenix Park (to the west of Dublin) are the feet of an immense, sleeping primordial giant, the spirit of Ireland itself, whose wife is the river Liffey. In the Wake that giant takes the name of "Finnegan," in reference to the mythic champion of Ireland, Finn MacCool, but also Tim Finnegan, the buffoon-hero of "Finnegan's Wake," who, like Humpty Dumpty, falls from a height to his demise; and "Finnegan" also tokens Huckleberry Finn, i.e. Finn in America, in keeping with the book's conception of the passage of primacy from father to son and from east to west (locally represented by the migration of the Irish to America), so that Huck Finn is Finn-again; and the "Finn-again" formulation itself neatly captures the death and rebirth theme of the Wake. Or in Joycean root-language:
Hohohoho, Mister Finn, you're going to be Mister Finnagain!...Hahahaha, Mister Funn, you're going to be fined again!
But to revert back to the Shapiro excerpt. Let's take things very slowly (I have a feeling Ben could use that):
the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes
Well now this isn't so unintelligible after all! To begin to understand the book, follow the narrator on his quest from the giant's head in the east to his toes in the west. The "hillhead" lets you know just where to begin: at Howth. To know where to stop, make sure you reach the " the knock out in the park," i.e. the place of the upturned graves at Phoenix Park, which is, interestingly enough, overlooked by Castle Knock [these coincidences keep piling up; you'd almost think Joyce meant there to be so many layers of meaning--ed.]. There, at the cemetary, where the gravestones mark out the giant's toes, you will have found the site of the "knock out in the park," i.e., where our hero was knocked out, i.e., where Finnegan's "great fall of the offwall" laid him "to rust [N.B.: rest and rust, see how this all works?--F.] upon the green."

So Finnegan's fall is off of a wall---no wonder one must begin at his "humpty" head and end at his "tumpty" toes; no wonder he was "erse solid man"---the erstwhile solid man is now sprawled out and shattered, or:
O here here how hoth sprowled met the duskt the father of fornicationists....
But "erse solid man" is also ere solid man, and though he may be fragmented, his rise back to life and solidity is already prophesied. Prophesy itself, and not just predetermination, is crucial. As well as the fall of Humpty Dumpty, Finnegan's crash replicates the fall of Lucifer from heaven, the fall of Adam from Paradise, and the very obscurity of language invokes the mysterious nature of original sin, soul sickness, and the gnostic revelation of the cure. This book is a commentary on the old Testament as well as a vision of redemption; notice that the Fall---later elaborately recreated by the Wake's nomic protagonist, HCE (or Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, Haveth Childers Everywhere, Howth Castle and Environs)---is set in Phoenix Park---Dublin's own Eden, and, as its name suggests, a place of resurrection as well as expulsion.

The last interpretive point I want to make (despite my temptation to keep writing about FW, this is a post about Ben Shapiro's philistinism) is that we get a sense of the supra-historical span of the book's frame of reference: it stretches back to the time when "devlinsfirst loved livvy," i.e., to that impossibly forgotten moment when Dublin and the Liffey first met. But in addition to love, there is a suggestion of aggression; the description of the relationship between Universal Male and Universal Female here and elsewhere connotes penetration and invasion, just as the book's musings on history are tied into the many aggressions perpetrated against Ireland by outsiders. E.g. Howth Castle itself, founded by Sir Almeric Tristam, on mission from Henry II; and, if you care to read any further, the saga of Tristan and Isolde, or Tristam and Iseult, or he and the two Iseults are a prominent refiguring of the constant man-wife, parent-child, and sibling-sibling tensions of the Wake.

On the other hand, maybe I'm wrong about all this, and Ben Shapiro's right, and it's simply "nonsensical drivel." Or maybe there's a surfeit of meaning, and Shapiro is just too stupid and ignorant to see that. You tell me.


At 9:46 PM, Blogger Fist said...



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