James Joyce’s Lifewand

A version of this article was previously published in December 2013 at the antipode foundation

By Andy Merrifield

“He lifts the lifewand and the dumb speak” – James Joyce

One of the great humanist visions of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is the sigla HCE, coined after its fifty-something anti-hero, Dublin innkeeper Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Joyce homes in on a Saturday evening, on a single night’s sleep, after a whole day’s drinking, during a thunderstorm when Earwicker tosses over the previous day’s events and the whole of his life hitherto. His is the “patternmind,” Joyce says, the dream of a man dreaming a dream of the world. HCE are the “normative letters” of what Joyce calls “Here Comes Everybody,” a “manyfeast munificent,” an archetypal image of our collective, desiring unconscious. Yet this dreamer is “more mob than man,”“an imposing everybody he always indeed looked constantly the same as and equal to himself and magnificently well worthy of any and all such universalization.”

The puns and portmanteaus of Finnegans Wake, its roguish drolleries and comic lampoons, its decentered way of seeing reality, always seem closer to the truth of the world for me. Finnegans Wake always intrigues me more than Ulysses, which is a more grounded book, the tale of a specific city (Dublin) on a specific day, with specific dramatis persona—the Blooms and the Dedaluses—who all appear as themselves and only as themselves, in wide-awake daytime. Finnegans Wake supplies no “objective” frame of reference, and offers only subjective distortions and contortions, liquefactions and refractions, things nearer to the diffusive and expansive “patternmind” of capitalist reality.

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Finnegans Wake draft

Not that Finnegans Wake doesn’t have structuring. If Ulysses adopts Homeric punctuation, Finnegans Wake’s four-part ring cycle takes Vico to heart, Giambattista Vico, the eighteenth-century humanist author of New Science. Joyce borrowed Vico’s “poetic wisdom,” the belief that humans alone create the world, create one another into the facts of society. The other Vico idea, flagging out Finnegans Wake’s basic building block, is that civilizations pass through cycles, distinctive phases.

In the deep past, deities conditioned our life, watched over us, dissed us, held the key to our collective destiny. Later came a heroic phase, with faith not so much in gods as in heroic myths, myths about Caesar and Napoleon, about indomitable master-builders like Stalin, like Baron Haussmann, like Le Corbusier, like Robert Moses, etc. Finnegans Wake is full of jests about master-builders, full of allusions to Ibsen’s Master-Builder (Ibsen was the adolescent Joyce’s own cult hero). Ibsen’s Master-Builder reveals the frailty of the builder’s ego, his fear of falling, his mania to uphold supernatural powers, including sexual powers.

Vico was never a believer in progress; he didn’t conceive each cycle as advancement, as improvement in the human lot. Like Spengler, Vico’s line is cultural pessimism, the inevitability of decline: each reoccurring cycle doesn’t so much shine light as darken the sky; a foreboding beckons, a moral breakdown. History twists back on itself: each positive corso slips back into a barbaric ricorso, into a ruse of reason, into the terror of technocracy.

One time, not so long ago, we had god-like managers who acted as good social democrats, during the good old days of the public sector when administrative deities seemed to care about real people and gave the poor a break. We might label this divine phase the managerialist cycle, which seemed to crumble in the mid-1970s. Then we heard a thunderclap that foretold of a new period, a heroic cycle of mythical entrepreneurs, the 1980s, when public managers gave way to private moguls, to new myths about fearless people who innovate in our economy, to people who speculate and cogitate on the power of money, on its spectacular prowess.

Yet just when it seemed this heroic phase was set in stone, was holy writ, we began to witness it crack and crumble; we began to recognize that mythic entrepreneurial heroes of the stock market and private sector were only human after all, all-too-human, terribly human. Soon another cycle opened up, and another thunderclap was heard throughout our land; a cycle we’re living through right now, one in which “collisions with men” mean “collusions with money” and humans prey off one another, the epoch of the 1%, the parasitic era.

Parasites now chomp away at the common-wealth the world over. They eat away inside the social body, stripping peoples’ assets, foreclosing homes, dispossessing value rather than contributing anything towards its creation. Social wealth is consumed through conspicuously wasteful enterprises, administered by parasitic elites, our very own neo-aristocracy, who squander generative capacity by thriving exclusively from unproductive activities: they roll dice on the stock market, profit from unequal exchanges, guzzle at the public trough, filch rents from property and housing, gouge fees from ordinary people—mysterious, made-up fees, fees for utilities, for using ATMs, for borrowing money, for online transactions.

Vico’s pessimism seemingly wins out; the promise of our progressive all-too-human phase after gods and heroes isn’t so progressive after all. It’s one great big depressing lie thrown back in our faces. Those in control of society and the economy, and politics, summon up the dark forces of persuasion and fear, of fundamentalism and free-marketeerism, of theology and austerity, to command the bodies and souls of us all.

And yet, and yet… just when all seems lost, Joyce veers from Vico. When thunder strikes, it terrifies us; a screaming comes across the sky. We scurry for cover. Sometimes it terrifies us so much we seek the support and comfort of other people. Somehow the cycles of Finnegans Wake take us onwards, forwards towards progression not regression. Earwicker’s night sweats are shrugged off by morning; his inner demons have been overcome, his soul resurrected, refreshed and brought back to ordinary life, in broad daylight. After the tumult and turbidity of Saturday night, comes the peace of Sunday morning.

And so, for Joyce, the promise of this human phase is the promise of Here Comes Everybody, an enlarged democratic vista; a vaster, more inclusive form of humanity; an affirmation and exaltation, an act of integration—not disintegration. Here Comes Everybody is an opening up to the future not a narrowing of the present; if Braudel rightly saw financialization as a “sign of autumn,” as a cycle of decline and decay, then spring will always come around again for Joyce, replenishing those fallen leaves in a “commodious vicus of recirculation.” Finnegans Wake is a tragicomedy with a happy undertow, a chaosmos with a democratic ordering, a basking in a “panaroma of all flores of speech.”

Before us and inside us is a truly cosmopolitan world culture, our Here Comes Everybody. Here Comes Everybody is what global citizenship ought to be about—hence the “normative letters,” HCE—a citizenship that’s territorial yet one in which territoriality is narrower and broader than both “city” and “nationality”; a citizen of the block, of the neighborhood, becomes a citizen of the world, a universal citizen rooted in place, encountering fellow citizens across the corridor and at the other end of the planet, sharing world music together, reading books in every language, watching world cinema, entering Twitter streams and communing on Facebook. For good reason did Joyce offer of a variant on his Here Comes Everybody thesis: Here Comes Everybuddy, a wink to Facebook users everywhere.

World literature has morphed into world culture, and this world culture is now an arena in which a more advanced cosmopolitan citizenship emerges—might emerge—a Here Comes Everybody forever present at its own birth pangs. Or almost everybody, a 99% of everybody. In this citizenship perception replaces passport and horizon is almost as important as habitat; a perception and horizon simultaneously in place and in space, off-line somewhere local, and online somewhere planetary, somewhere virtual. It is a space, in other words, in which Everybody meets Everybuddy, staving off Everybully (as Joyce cautions), a passionate embrace between bodies and buddies.

It’s a dream space in which there’s reconciliation between Earwicker and Ann—a.k.a. Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP), the “bringer of plurabilities,” the wife and mother of Earwicker’s twins, Jerry (Shem) and Kevin (Shaun), and daughter Isobel (Izzy). ALP’s presence flows through Finnegans Wake like Dublin’s Liffey River opening up the sea, like Paris’s Seine creating Being, washing away the grime of life. Both the Liffey and the Seine gush through Anna like a river of blood, like healing waters, like the ebb of death and the flow of renewed life. The “Sein annews,” Joyce says: it’s the sinew and core of his and HCE-ALP’s very Being, their “Sein.” (Sein is the German verb “to be.”) Meanwhile, the Seine “anews,” is eternally reoccurring and constantly renewing, forever bridging the past and the future, like in Anna Livia’s beautiful closing elegy, expressing cleansing waters and the healing powers of reunification, of a rising up to a new level:

“Soft morning, city! … No wind no word. Only a leaf, just a leaf and then leaves. The woods are fond always. As were we their babes in. And robins in crews so. It is for me goolden wending. Unless? Away! Rise up, man of the hooths, you have slept so long! Or is it only so mesleems? On your pondered palm. Reclined from cape to pede. With pipe on bowl. Terce for a fiddler, sixt for makmerriers, none for a Cole. Rise up now and aruse!” 

What does this HCE-ALP alliance rise up towards? Collisions of men and women don’t, Joyce implies, necessarily have to be “collusions with money,” nor even collusions with oppression and sexism. They can also express complex collideorscapes, that magnificently suggestive concept from Finnegans Wake: “what would that fargazer seem to seemself to seem seeming of, dimm it all? Answer: A collideorscape!”

Joyce’s fargazing saw one great big kaleidoscope, a collision of people, people encountering other people, a coincidence of opposites, the coexistence of unity within disunity, a human kaleidoscope in which each separate image, each separate mix, changes with each respective shake. Human patterns and colorations depend upon how things come together, how coincidences take hold, how they congeal to form other realities, other ways of seeing and acting. Something new here is disclosed. Perhaps above all else, the collideorscape is a “collision” or “escape,” a collision and an escape, a dialectics of liberation, a thesis and antithesis creating new synthesis. Joyce hatches his Great Escape here, his Great Escape from language, and our Great Escape from the dominant order.

Indeed, the Joycean collideorscape amounts to nothing less than the contingent creation of a new political movement, one struggling to impose its singularity as a mass democratic movement, one building democracy through the scattered shards of social movements the world over. Therein each scattered shard bonds and reinforces the other, forms a new patternmind of an offensive front and rearguard defense. Efficacy will likely be predicated on how protagonists organize themselves internally yet coordinate themselves externally, reach out to one another to create a broader, more inclusive constellation of dissent, coexisting horizontally and democratically, overground and underground. The ensuing collideorscape refracts fresh light on things, creates a new political aura, a different shape and sound to social reality. This is what Here Comes Everybody has to be about, can be about. An intersection. The lifewand in which the dumb speak.

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