Samstag, 28. September 2013,

[Blog owners note: Hosting an essay about Finnegans Wake by best friend @weird_prophet, who also blogs at but felt that it didn't really fit in with her regular content there. I said anything fits here. A pdf of this essay can be downloaded here. For your online reading pleasure, it is also included below. Note that the formatting of the References section might be a bit wonky, I didn't find a good way to do that in markdown. Anyway, here goes:]

Finnegans Wake: "The Ant and the Grasshopper"

A (Divine) Journey into Day (and Out of Time)

Christina Scholz

James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is very much a novel about language, and about what language can perform. It is at the same time representing reality and presenting language (and the various functions of language). If you take a look at Joyce’s books in a chronological order from Dubliners over A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses to Finnegans Wake, there is a distinct shift from a realist world-making to a language-oriented text-making. Joyce achieves this by use of generators (cf. Mahler 2010: 109) - recombining elements or even words from different languages, resulting in words that, when being read, through certain patterns, similarities and free association, produce other words (cf. Freudian slips, or, as discussed later on, so-called ‘mondegreens’).

Through the medium of (highly programmatic) language and text-making, Joyce produces (rather than reproduces) the world, the city of Dublin, a set of archetypical (and thus constantly shifting, metamorphosing) characters – including allusions to, and connections with, the whole of Western culture (at least up to the time of his writing), and possibly even transcending it. The text creates and re-creates itself endlessly, not even having a conventional beginning and ending. Similarly (maybe even consequentially), there is no ‘solution’ or ‘ideal’ reading, no assumed “only way” it could have been intended by the author. This way a ‘heretical’ text is created (cf. possible allusions to Milton in the following interpretation of a selected passage).

Thus, the reader’s task is not to ‘solve’ it, but to surrender to the ‘game’ (cf. Mahler 2010: 111) and find more and more possibilities of ‘what to do with the text’, and perhaps even in what ways the text will affect the reader (and their approach, their ways of reading and interpreting a certain passage). Since the language used in Finnegans Wake is clearly distinct from an ordinary, everyday use of language, it is in a way related to poetry (even where the text appears to be prose, or at least related to prose), which allows for the assumption that the author is playing with language, and that the readers might decode more and more of the text by playing with it as well. They are encouraged to bring in more than just the semiotic meaning, more than just the signified(s), to track down the constantly shifting meanings (as in metaphor, as opposed to allegory, cf. Miéville 2011), the seemingly endless possibilities.

The first effect this unusual use of language has on the reader is disturbing - bringing to the readers’ attention that this is not an everyday text, shifting their focus to the use and function of language rather than content, and guiding them away from a conventional (maybe habitual) interpretation, and method of interpretation. Klaus Reichert aptly compares this effect to Šklovskij’s concept of estrangement or defamiliarization (Reichert 1989: 184). The readers’ impulse is then to ‘make sense’ of the text. Any unusual text, and especially one that seemingly opaque, containing so many neologisms, intertextuality, etc. demands additional work (and possibly creativity) from its readers. So what to do with this self-generating text?

Our usual approach in decoding a text is to translate it from the sign, the language to its meaning: interpretation, making meaning. If we reverse this ‘game’ (cf. Mahler 2010: 111ff) and, as suggested by Joyce’s creative wordplay, go back again from the meaning to the code, to focus on language itself, meaning is presented as material that seems to be there as material only (i.e. language as such is foregrounded). If we as readers surrender to this game, we are forced to consider the way language works and to think about the (usually) hidden aspects of language that are not transparent in everyday language use. Joyce’s use of language throws us back from a first (easy) interpretative reading to a self-referential level of language, which slows down the reading process (very much like reading poetry, which almost suggests itself considering his use of alliteration, homonyms, homophones, etc), intensifies the focus on the elements and uses of language, and in the end helps attain an increasingly wide range of possible interpretations as more and more associations manifest themselves.

In addition, it’s helpful to look for similar words in other languages, similar names in literature, etc. Every possible layer of our culture until (at least) Joyce’s time is referred to throughout the book – thus a never-ending text, and an encyclopaedia of culture, a ‘lexicon of life’ (Füger 1994: 259), is produced. Language is revealed as a construct that at the same time creates other (cultural, societal) constructs on a world-level. And finally, among other things, the book is also a treatment of our concept of time. Already the title suggests two opposite concepts of time in one space: Linear time vs. cyclical time.

The following is one possible reading of a passage from Finnegans Wake, i.e. the Grasshopper’s ballad from “The Ant and the Grasshopper” in Book III (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 418f).

1. Some preliminary questions

Why the ballad from "The Ant and the Grasshopper"? What kind of reading?

The ballad of “The Ant and the Grasshopper” is a piece of poetry contained in a longer prose chapter. This makes it one of many breaks in form and style, and it also shows the necessity of a different reading approach. When reading poetry, one has to slow down and pay more attention to elements that feature in prose texts to a lesser degree, if at all, e.g. sounds, alliteration, rhythm / metre, alternative meanings (through the use of generators, but also through literary, historical or cultural context, or free association). Atmosphere seems to be as important as context. Besides, the passage is a ballad, recited or probably sung by the character of the Grasshopper (or Gracehoper, another transformation of Shem the penman) to the character of the Ant (alternatively Ondt, referring to Shaun the postman), so it is very closely related to any kind of song – and once again reminiscent of the ballad of “Finnegan's Wake” and the whole topic of birth and re-birth and cycles within cycles.

Why is this passage worthwhile? Where is it?

The fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper is contained in what is known as Book III of Finnegans Wake: The Book of the People. The material of Book III is largely the dream of Mr. Earwicker between the late hour of his arrival in bed and the first crack of dawn (Campbell 1959: 256). Its main figure is Shawn the Postman, who is envisioned as a great man of the future, carrying forward the tradition of his ancestors and winning with ease the battles lost by his father (ibid). But despite his heroic deeds, Shawn is not depicted as a hero: he is only reluctantly accepted by the people, who after his moment of fruitless triumph sit over him in judgement (Campbell 1959: 256f).

In Chapter I (“Shaun before the People”), he gives a speech in front of ‘the people’ (i.e. the 29 maidens already encountered in an earlier chapter) to convince them that he is more meritorious than his brother Shem. In the course of his speech he tells them the fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper, transformed here to the Ondt and the Gracehoper, to illustrate his arguments.

Chapter II (“Jaun [Don Juan] & Iseult”) and Chapter III (“Yawn Recumbent” [the inquest]) are also part of HCE’s dreams, and Chapter IV (“HCE and ALP in their bed”) leads back to HCE and ALP in their bed leading up to the dawn of a new day.

The constant transformations of characters and situations and the underlying dream logic provide an interesting starting-point for various readings that differ from everyday prose interpretations. One could argue that they even justify going off on a tangent and following up ‘clues’ provided by misreadings or associations that might seem far-fetched at first.

What happens? What mechanisms are at work?

The fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper (Joyce, Finnegans Wake: 263ff) is based on Aesop's fable of the same title. The metrical foot used in the Grasshopper's (or Gracehoper's) song is an anapaest, a Greek metre, which brings the original fable to mind. Simultaneously it is reminiscent of the ballad of “Finnegan’s Wake”, especially since it takes up the theme of death and life (or death and rebirth, according to whether it is seen from a perspective using the concept of linear time, or one using the concept of cyclical time – both of which are repeatedly referred to in the text). Other recurring motives are: Egyptian mythology, insects, Biblical themes, rebellion of the son against his father (including a possible association with Milton's Lucifer), order vs. chaos, literature, philosophy, self-references to Joyce (and his work), and possibly even a suggestion of mysticism, the decoding of messages, initiation.

Switching from an interpretative reading to one in which language itself is foregrounded whenever the use of language suggests it brings out playful new versions of the fable as well as an encyclopaedia of cultural and historical references, and a seemingly never-ending scope as to possible meanings. In addition, each re-reading of the passage will necessarily change the text and its functions, thus re-making Finnegans Wake over and over again (in accordance with its major themes, and the story of its hero, HCE).

2. Reading the Gracehoper's Ballad

The paragraph preceding the ballad serves as a sort of introduction and sets the scene:

A darkener of the threshold. Haru? Orimis, capsizer of his ant-boat, sekketh rede from Evil-it-is, lord of loaves in Amongded. Be it! So be it! (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 418)

What is to follow seems to be a (rite of) passage, an in-between, a transition. Possibly even an initiation. Even though haru means spring (the season, which is also a sort of beginning, a transition) in Japanese, it is simultaneously reminiscent of the Egyptian god Horus (or Heru), who is among other things god of the sky, god of war and god of protection and appears in various forms that might even be different deities subsumed under one name. As HerusaAset (Heru, son of Isis), he is responsible for the pharaoh and represents both the royal heir and the newborn sun (cf. Hill 2010). “Orimis”, with its possible reference to Osiris (lord of the underworld, master over life and death) strengthens this interpretation, together with the “ant-boat” and “Evil-it-is”, the name of the rudder (cf. Ito 2002). His position as lord of the underworld is reflected again in “Amongded”, phonetically evoking an image of this dark realm across cultures: “among the dead”. And of course the implied father-son relationship brings us back to HCE (Earwicker, whose name comes up as an additional association to the insect theme that dominates this passage) and Shaun (the narrator), the rebellious son.

The threshold is darkened, but at the same time, we are following HCE’s dreams through the night towards morning, transitioning various states of order and chaos, passing thresholds and moments that again dissolve into a fluid stream of time. The ant-boat inevitably evokes another boat, the sun-boat, and, in accordance with the omnipresent theme of death and rebirth, the linear journey into night becomes a cyclical journey back into day. Finally, the invocation “so be it!” tells us that it is starting, and we realize that we are already on our way. The Gracehoper begins his song.

At the same time it is also an ending of sorts (which implies the crossing of another threshold): “so be it” is, among other things, a translation of ainsi-soît-il, the French for amen.

The thing pleased him andt, and andt, (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 418)

“The thing pleased him” immediately reminds us of the book of Genesis in the Bible. A world is created, which is also an ongoing process (“and and and”). ´Through repetition, this ongoing process also names and re-names the character to whom this ballad is addressed, the transformed ant: identity is assigned, but it is always different (cf. Finnegan/HCE).

He larved and he larved on he merd such a nauses (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 418)

What is repeated this time? The insect’s (the ant’s but also the grasshopper’s) first stage of development (right after its creation in the previous line): the larva (McHugh 1980: 418). Another beginning establishes the insect theme. (Note here that the earwick, as in Earwicker, is also an insect [cf. Ito 2002]. Even the shifting symbols “stay in the family”.) In addition there is reference to its origin on a meta-textual level: if we read “merd” as merde (McHugh 1980: 418), not only nauseating (ibid), ad nauseam (referring to the repetitions), but also reminding us of Shem the penman and the ink he made from his excretions.

The Gracehoper feared he would mixplace his fauces. (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 418)

For the first time, the alternative name Gracehoper is used, which suggests that our narrator is a believer in God, and also a repentant sinner. “Mixplace” tells us that things are not in their proper places; we find ourselves in a place of chaos rather than order. “Fauces”, which according to McHugh (1980: 418) suggests the almost homonymous “forces”, might provide an additional layer of meaning by showing us what it is that’s out of place. If the order of things is reversed, this could refer to the rebellion of the son, or – if we go along with the established biblical theme, the Fall of Lucifer (either in the Bible or in Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, making the Adversary more of a hero).

I forgive you, grondt Ondt, said the Gracehoper, weeping, (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 418)

The Gracehoper, trying to re-establish harmony between himself and the Ondt, offers forgiveness. Simultaneously, through divine forgiveness, order is (for the moment) re-established. Meanwhile, the ant has morphed into the Ondt, which means “bad”, “painful” in Danish: the Gracehoper’s opposite.

For their sukes of the sakes you are safe in whose keeping. (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 418)

Here Joyce uses alliterative repetition in the way of Old English ballads (three same stresses followed by one different repetition). Sukes means assistance, according to McHugh (1980: 418). At the same time “whose keeping” could also shift to “housekeeping” in an alternative reading (ibid). Of course, in accordance with the biblical theme, “safe in whose keeping” is also automatically connected with God (who forgives and protects).

Teach Floh and Luse polkas, show Bienie where’s sweet (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 418)

The insect theme continues with Floh (“flea”), Luse (almost homophonous with “louse”) and Bienie (Biene meaning “bee”; also connected with sweetness – honey). There is also a hidden musical reference: “Luisa’s Polka” by Smetana (McHugh 1980: 418).

And be sure Vespatilla fines fat ones to heat. (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 418)

The insect in this line is the wasp (“Vespa”; “Vespatilla”). “Be sure Vespatilla fines fat ones to heat” completes what the previous line has begun: everyone gets their just desserts. Everyone is judged (at the end). “Fining” somebody (who deserves it) “to heat” also suggests the threat of hell(fire).

As I once played the piper I must now pay the count (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 418)

Again, something seems to be out of order: Of course the proverb that comes to mind is “who pays the piper calls the tune”. But “play” and “pay” are too easily confused in this line, especially since one would expect the text to say “pay the piper”, not “play”. In fact, in my first reading of this passage, I accidentally thought it went on, “I must now play the count” (as in The Prince and the Pauper), which at first made perfect sense in the context of order reversed. I only realized my mistake when I read it a second time. But that does not mean that the additional meaning generated by such a misreading has to be immediately rejected. Hugo Keiper explains this in his 2008 essay on another, related kind of misinterpretation, the so-called mondegreen (a mis-hearing of song lyrics):

[M]ondegreens apparently used to be seen for a long time as some sort of social semiotic taboo that most people left untouched (Keiper 2008: 34).

If you reject those misinterpretations as unfounded, you might miss another crucial aspect, i.e. what they might reveal about listener’s minds (Keiper 2008: 34). What happens in these instances is that new text is produced by the listener. Since many song lyrics (and literary texts) play with textual ambiguities, these mondegreens may be a deliberately evoked result - with a lot of different outcomes, depending on the listeners’, or readers’, backgrounds (cf. Keiper 2008:39).

[M]ondegreens can be seen as a marvellous empirical source of actual and everyday interpretations, or rather misinterpretations, of lyric poetry – ‘readings’ that come about quite spontaneously, that is, without the interference of situational factors that may be artificial and distorting, such as filling in questionnaires or answering a researcher’s questions. […] Viewed from this perspective, mondegreens may tell us a great deal about real-life decoding or ‘reading’ of oral texts […], with reference perhaps to some of the mechanisms and constraints affecting the reading of poetry, and of other kinds of literary texts. Keiper 2008:42)

Keiper stresses that the range of possible (and possibly valid) interpretations is very wide, and that through the study of mondegreens priority is shifting away from concepts like the ‘ideal’ listener or reader (cf. Keiper 2008: 42f).

[They] provide strong evidence against mainstream models of lit. crit. featuring ideal(ized) readers, who read a text exactly as it is supposedly ‘intended’ or ‘meant’ (or in any case as it 'should be ideally read’ according to a particular critic, or following so-called critical opinion, consensus, etc), and which claim that such readers do so availing themselves of the full context and semiotic potential inscribed in a text. Keiper 2008:43)

Especially an ‘open’ text (cf. Eco 1977) like Finnegans Wake with its many portmanteau words (cf. Füger 194: 274) and neologisms strongly suggests a wider perspective concerning possible ‘readings’ or interpretations, as indicated above. Thus, even misreadings can provide valuable additional insights not only into how the text is constructed and the implicit possibilities of reading and “decoding” it, but also into the mechanisms of the reading process itself and the workings of the readers’ minds. In this context, my (mis)interpretation pointing to the recurring motive of reversed order might again justify bringing back the theme of the rebellious son, or Milton’s Lucifer – who deems it “[b]etter to reign in Hell, then [sic] serve in Heav'n“ (Milton. „Paradise Lost“ 1:263). Alternatively (or additionally), the line about paying “the count” might suggest paying one’s due – which brings back the notion of order re-established.

So saida to Moyhammlet and marhaba to your Mount! (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 418)

Mohammed (McHugh 1980: 418), together with Zaida, forms another couple. Together with the prophet comes the reference to the mountain (also suggested by McHugh 1980: 418). Again the order is reversed (“to your Mount”); there is a shift in power. Saida in Portuguese means an exit, a way out. Another possibility of interpretation is reading “Moyhammlet” as Hamlet (McHugh 1980: 418), and again we enter a whole subtext of conflict between a (step)son and (step)father. On the biblical level of interpretation we have marhaba, which is Arabic with Aramaic roots. Incidentally, Aramaic is the original language of several sections of the Bible, and also the language supposedly spoken by Jesus. Mar means “God”; haba means “love”.

Let who likes lump above so what flies be a full’un; (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 418)

Flies continue the insect theme; simultaneously there is reference to a universal order of things: as above, so below; to each his own.

I could not feel moregruggy if this was prompollen. (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 418)

Here, “moregruggy” again refers to an ant (McHugh 1980: 418), “prompollen” to a beetle (ibid).

I pick up your reproof, the horsegift of a friend, (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 418)

On the plot level, read literally, the grasshopper takes the ant’s rebuke, probably graciously (as the preceding and following lines suggest). Additionally, this line evokes the proverb “never look a gift horse in the mouth” (McHugh 1980: 418), and is also suggestive of the Trojan horse:

Equo ne credite, Teucri! Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis. – “Do not trust the horse, Trojans! Whatever it is, I fear the Danaans (Greeks), even when they bring gifts”. (Virgil. “Aeneid II” 49)

Joyce also alludes to Virgil in other parts of Finnegans Wake, and he is a fitting travel companion here in the night and the underworld of HCE’s dreams, since he is also Dante’s guide into hell in the Inferno.

For the prize of your save is the price of my spend. (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 418)

This line gives us a sense of order and justice. Literally read, it also brings us back to the morale of “The Ant and the Grasshopper”.

Can castwhores pulladeftkiss if oldpollocks forsake’em (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 418)

Another couple of twin brothers is alluded to here: Castor & Pollux (McHugh 1980: 418), who remind us of the twins Shaun and Shem. “Forsake’em” continues the biblical theme: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani” – “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (The King James Bible 2011: Matthew 27:46) are the last words of Jesus on the cross to his father, and again they are in Aramaic.

Thus, also the father/son theme is continued (on another level: Shaun vs. HCE).

Literally, rhetorically, the grasshopper is defending himself, as continued in the following line:

Or Culex feel etchy if Pulex don’t wake him? (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 418)

More insects: Culex is a gnat, pulex a flea; “etchy” can be read as “itchy” (McHugh 1980: 418).

The Gracehoper continues his defence (using a rhetorical question, its meaning along the lines of “I can’t help it; it's in my nature”) and implicitly appeals to the Ondt for mercy (as in the fable).

A locus to loue, a term it t’embarrass, (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 418)

The Grasshopper’s plea: “A locust” (McHugh 1980: 418) - referring to himself - “to love; a termite to embrace” (ibid). The abbreviated “t’” in “t’embarrass” is suggestive of a different abbreviation in French: (je) t’embrace. At the same time, “a term it t’embarrass” is very close to “(even) a termite would be embarrassed”, again an appeal to the Ant.

These twain are the twins that tick Homo Vulgaris. (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 418)

The twins are mentioned again, as if he was saying that brothers belong together.

“Tick” can refer to both the animal (McHugh 1980: 418) and time (another theme which is going to be continued).

The Gracehoper’s entreaty: all insects are equal; difference is not the way out.

All of the following rhetorical questions also reinforce the point the Grasshopper is making:

Has Aquileone nort winged to go syf Since the Gwyffyn we were in his farthest drewbryf And that Accident Man not beseeched where his story ends Since longsephyring sighs sought heartseast for their orience? (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 418)

In addition we have a sense of direction, spanning the whole world: north, south, occident, orient.

“Gwyffin” denotes a griffin, “drewbryf” a drawbridge (McHugh1980: 418).

(Not) besiegt literally means (not!) conquered (McHugh 1980: 418), but (with the drawbridge up) can also be “besieged” (cf. the Trojan war and the “horsegift”). If we read “beseeched”, though, as literally in the text, we remain with the Gracehoper’s plea. This also fits the “longsephyring” that can be picked apart into “longsuffering” and “zephyrs” (McHugh 1980: 418).

Finally, there is the theme of time and death again: “where his story ends”; and “heartseast“, homophonous with ”heart ceased”.

We are Wastenot with Want, precondamned, two and true, (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 418)

Another idiom: “Waste not, want not” (McHugh 1980: 418), and also some of the recurring religious motives: “(pre-)condemned” and “damned” allude to hell again, and also to original sin and to the Fall of Lucifer (Milton again, and the uprising against a tyrannical father figure).

Till Nolans go volants and Bruneyes come blue. (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 418)

Nolens volens means “willy nilly” (McHugh 1980: 418). In accordance with the preceding line, order has again changed to chaos. There is also a notion of time: “Till Nolans go volants” (possibly French for “flying”) “and Bruneyes come blue” sounds nonsensical (especially if you read “brown eyes” for “Bruneyes”), which could mean something like “till the end of the world / doomsday”. It is also reminiscent of the (seemingly nonsensical, or at least wildly improbable) prophecy in Macbeth: Till Birnam Wood remove to Dunsinane (Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Macbeth I:III:2).

An additional meta-reference is evoked, too: The “Nolans” in combination with the “Bruneyes” remind one of Giordano Bruno (of Nola) whose theories, together with those of Giambattista Vico, support a lot of the structure of Finnegans Wake (cf. Füger 1994: 267f). In this case it might reinforce the Grasshopper’s plea for confraternity: every power in nature must evolve an opposite in order to realize itself and opposition brings reunion (Bruno, quoted in Füger 1994: 268).

Ere those gidflirts now gadding you quit your mocks for my gropes (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 418)

More insects: “Gidflirts” shifts to gadflies (McHugh 1980: 418). There is also an allusion to the Mookse and the Gripes (ibid), another passage in Finnegans Wake (Joyce: Finnegans Wake 152ff), which opens up a whole new level of meta- and subtext, since it contains overt references to Joyce himself and his writing of Finnegans Wake.

“[…] you quit your mocks for my gropes”: Is the Gracehoper still pleading, or is he now threatening the Ondt? He seems to be mentioning a deadline, too, but that could also refer to the approach of winter.

An extense must impull, an elapse must elopes, (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 418)

One more reference to order and dependency: “an elapse” (time) “must elopes” (not time; an exit) – either “time flies” (if we are talking about linear time), or not at all (“elopes”, cyclical / non-linear time).

Of my tectucs takestock, tinktact, and ail’s weal; (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 418)

“Of my tactics take stock” (McHugh 1980: 418); “tic tac”, “all’s well” (ibid) – which can be continued with “that ends well”, another Shakespeare reference, and again an end.

“Ail” (pain) becomes “weal” (happiness, prosperity, welfare) – if the Ondt gives in.

The rhythm and alliterative repetitions mimic the ticking of a clock as well.

As I view by your farlook hale yourself to my heal. (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 418)

“Hale” and “heal” go well with the “all’s well” from above; while “to my heel” suggests another plea: “follow me; we belong together” (cf. the twins). This notion of sharing is also illustrated in the following lines:

Partiprise my thinwhins whiles my blink points unbroken on Your whole’s whereabroads with Tout’s trightyright token on. (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 419)

In addition, “whiles” can also mean time (linear as well as non-linear: an expanse of time, or simultaneity). A tout is a solicitor or barker.

My in risible universe youdly haud find Sulch oxtrabeeforeness meat soveal behind. (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 419)

“In risible” contains “invisible” and, simultaneously, laughter (McHugh 1980: 419) - but separated, thus already implying a possible negation. There is also a reference to Aristotle and Aquinas’ “visible universe” (McHugh 1980: 419) – but at the same time “invisible” suggests things behind things (cf. mysticism). The next line contains “ox”, “beef”, “meat”, “veal” (McHugh 1980: 419), but also “mit soviel”+”behind” – s. above.

Your feats end enormous, your volumes immense, (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 419)

Again, an “end” of sorts, and in “your volumes immense” a possible allusion to all the cultural/literary references in the text (and possible hidden meanings alluded to in the previous line).

(May the Graces I hoped for sing your Ondtship song sense!), (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 419)

Again, the Gracehoper is referring to himself and his name. The Graces he hopes for are obviously personified in this line, referring to the Greek Graces, the goddesses of charm, beauty and creativity. “Sing your song sense” might mean that the seemingly opaque text needs to be decoded in order to make sense, to give up its hidden meaning(s), as mentioned above.

Your genus its worldwide, your spacest sublime! (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 419)

Here, “spacest” might (also) translate to “species” (McHugh 1980: 419).

But, Holy Saltmartin, why can’t you beat time? (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 419)

“Saltmartin” can mean both St Martin and another insect (McHugh 1980: 419).

The imploring “why can’t you beat time?” might (among other things) be a reference to the song (the ballad) and its rhythm. Re-establishing the theme of time, it might also imply that the Ondt can’t “beat time”, can’t escape linear time. It is always planning ahead (cf. the fable), remaining in linear time; it symbolizes the worker and also stands in for the postman. The Gracehoper on the other hand, the penman, the artist, spends his life outside linear time (in elysium, in cyclical time). As in the original fable, the ant is slave to time, while the grasshopper is simply not concerned.

Finally, in the following paragraph, Joyce uses a (version of a) formula that not only symbolizes another ending but also adds a sort of morale, like a fable should have:

In the name of the former and of the latter and of their holocaust. Allmen (Joyce. Finnegans Wake: 419).

The terms “former” and “latter” (apart from referring to the father as the one who came before and the son as the one to later take his place, also cf. Shaun & HCE) only make sense in relation to time.

“Holocaust” means: an end to that. There is also the obvious allusion to death.

In this context, apart from the obvious amen, “all men” might mean: may all men be liberated from linear time (and “saved” in the religious sense: attain grace).

Finnegans Wake doesn’t have a beginning or end. It begins and ends in mid-sentence, thus forming an endless cycle. Every re-reading will inevitably be different, both because of the previous knowledge of the text as such, and because of a difference in background knowledge and a multitude of personal factors that might have changed since the last reading. This, together with Joyce’s abundant use of generators, of portmanteau words and neologisms (as shown above), makes the novel an interesting and fecund text for possible interpretation, and also for finding out more about different processes of reading and interpretation and about the readers’ minds. It is therefore necessary not to stipulate a concept of an “ideal reader” or of a “right way” to interpret anything about it, but rather to approach it with an open mind, and to engage in playful interaction with the text.

My interpretation of the Gracehoper’s ballad from “The Ant and the Grasshopper” is and can only be one of a seemingly endless number of possible readings, a recording of a moment in time. The next time I read this passage, it will already have shifted, maybe acquired new meanings, maybe lost a few of the ones I saw before. It has already expanded since the first time I read the text, and I expect it to undergo many more transformations.

In this way, I hope I have succeeded in providing a plausible example of how Finnegans Wake works, what it does to the reader, and what results from creative interaction with the text. I think the best way to describe it in only a couple of words is - like the novel, and even the title itself - because of its inherent ambiguity more than the seeming paradox one might see, and hopefully transcending it: Constant / Change.


Primary Sources

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Joyce, James (1992/2000). Finnegans Wake [1939]. Introd. S. Deane. Modern Classics. London: Penguin.

Milton, John (1674). “Paradise Lost”. [Online] Dartmouth Milton Reading Room. [2011, April 20].

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Campbell, Joseph and Henry M. Robinson (1944/1959). A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake. London: Faber & Faber.

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Keiper, Hugo (2008).”’It's a hard egg’: Mondegreens and other (mis)construals of pop lyrics – and what they can teach us” [2008]. In: Nada Šabec. Literature and Culture in a Global Context. Ed. English Language. Zora 57. Maribor: 32-45.

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Reichert, Klaus (1989). Vielfacher Schriftsinn. Zu Finnegans Wake. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.