Sunday, April 21, 2013

Clay and Mercury

Finnegans Wake is a book of approximate language, a prose that uses, I'm told, words from some 65 or so different languages to create Joyce's idiosyncratic tongue in which he tells his tale. There is no way, really, to state definitively what Joyce meant to convey with each and every sentence. We can guess, and there are a lot of scholarly books that take guesses at this or that aspect of the Wake's text, but I am doubtful that there is any person on Earth who could translate this book into English. I'm doubtful Joyce himself could have performed that feat. Even if it was possible to move backwards through the process of creating the Wake, to resurrect Joyce's original writings (assuming that his first thoughts were in 1920s Irish English), the story is one of a dream, told in dream language, a narrative of a dream dreamt not only by Anna Liva Plurabelle, mother of Ireland, but dreamt by James Joyce as well. Joyce, I am attempting to say in my clumsy manner, didn't know the meaning--didn't understand himself all aspects of the symbolism--of everything he put into his novel. Which is natural and likely the case for most good novels. Writers move instinctively from passage to passage, from idea to idea, and no matter how much time is spent revising and reshaping the material, there will remain in the book elements that the writer himself cannot decipher, cannot explain, but knows full well fit into the book and must not be removed. The writer himself has an incomplete, an approximate, understanding of his own novel.

And so there's this provisional state that all reasonably complex art finds itself in, incomprehensible in some ways to every viewer, though some of the ideas the artist puts into the art will be visible and understood by some audience members and not others (including the artist, as I claim). Which means that--no matter how much we writers are exhorted to be precise in our meanings and careful with our language--there will always be vagueness here and there, foggy patches through which we can't see, shadowy things going on in corners or even right in the middle of the stage, and writers will only be able to write about these things approximately, via analogy and metaphor and guesswork. Which is all very interesting to me but also quite vexing, because I want clay and often I have only been able to produce mercury with which to model my figures.

Anyway, here's Joyce describing Anna Livia Plurabelle, wife of HCE, mother of Shem and Shaun and Izzy, also the river Liffey, also possibly Ireland herself, when she first meets HCE. Joyce describes Anna Livia as a young woman catching the eyes of all the young men and the envy of the other women, and also, simultaneously, as the river:

First she let her hair fal and down it flussed to her feet its teviots winding coils. Then, mothernaked, she sampood herself with galawater and fraguant pistania mud, wupper and lauar, from crown to sole. Next she greesed the groove of her keel, warthes and wears and mole and itcher, with antifouling butterscatch and turfentide and serpenthyme and with leafmould she ushered round prunella isles and eslats dun, quincecunct, allover her little mary. Peeld gold of waxwork her jellybelly and her grains of incense anguille bronze. And after that she wove a garland for her hair. She pleated it. She plaited it. Of meadowgrass and riverflags, the bulrush and waterweed, and of fallen griefs of weeping willow. Then she made her bracelets and her anklets and her armlets and a jetty amulet for necklace of clicking cobbles and pattering pebbles and rumbledown rubble, richmond and rehr, of Irish rhunerhinerstones and shellmarble bangles. That done, a dawk of smut to her airy ey, Annushka Lutetiavitch Pufflovah, and the lellipos cream to her lippeleens and the pick of the paintbox for her pommettes, from strawbirry reds to extra violates, and she sendred her boudeloire maids to His Affluence, Ciliegia Grande and Kirschie Real, the two chirsines, with respecks from his missus, seepy and sewery, and a request might she passe of him for a minnikin. A call to pay and light a taper, in Brie-on-Arrosa, back in a sprizzling. The cock striking mine, the stalls bridely sign, there's Zambosy waiting for Me! She said she wouldn't be half her length away. Then, then, as soon as the lump his back was turned, with her mealiebag slang over her shulder, Anna Livia, oysterface, forth of her bassein came. 

The river is not a metaphor for Anna nor vice versa; she is the river, and so later, Joyce gives us some more of the same:

Well, arundgirond in a waveney lyne aringarouma she pattered and swung and sidled, dribbling her boulder through narrowa mosses, the diliskydrear on our drier side and the vilde vetchvine agin us, curara here, careero there, not knowing which medway or weser to strike it, edereider, making chattahoochee all to her ain chichiu, like Santa Claus at the cree of the pale and puny, nistling to hear for their tiny hearties, her arms encircling Isolabella, then running with reconciled Romas and Reims, on like a lech to be off like a dart, then bathing Dirty Hans' spatters with spittle, with a Christmas box apiece for aisch and iveryone of her childer, the birthday gifts they dreamt they gabe her, the spoiled she fleetly laid at our door! On the matt, by the pourch and inunder the cellar. The rivulets ran aflod to see, the glashaboys, the pollynooties. Out of the paunschaup on to the pyre. And they all about her, juvenile leads and ingenuinas, from the slime of their slums and artesaned wellings, rickets and riots, like the Smyly boys at their vicereine's levee. Vivi vienne, little Annchen! 

The way the language works in Finnegans Wake (or one of the ways language works in the Wake) is to accumulate, to pile up and up and slowly form images that reveal themselves to the reader. The more of this novel I read, the more of this novel I'm able to understand, or at least the more of it seems understandable while I'm reading it. It's something like attending a concert of unfamiliar music: I can, if I pay attention, figure out some of the organizational principles of the music, see some of what the composer is doing in the pieces, and maybe catch on to how the movements relate to each other across the length of the works. But when the music's over, I can only hum a few snatches of it to myself and vaguely recollect my transitory impressions of the performance. So here I am, presently awake, trying to remember what it's like to dream the dream of James Joyce, who is dreaming the dream of Anna Livia Plurabelle, the river Liffey, the land of Ireland.

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