Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Chapter One

Tim Finnegan began life as the hero of “Finnegan's Wake”, a 19th-century song in the “stage Irish” tradition of American vaudeville, which was a lot like black minstrels, minus blackface, plus a whole lot of jokes about alcoholism. It’s not a particularly good song, and it probably would have flowed happily down the gutter of time were it not for James Joyce’s interest in it.

In the song, Finnegan is a hod carrier well-known for drinking on the job -- a habit which apparently leads to his premature demise by falling off a ladder. His family and friends gather for a wake which quickly descends into a drunken brawl (or as the song says, “shillelagh law was all the rage”, suggesting either that the Finnegan household kept numerous spare shillelaghs on hand, or even better, that the guests brought their shillelaghs for just such an eventuality). Bottles are thrown, one of which breaks over the casket, pouring whisky over the body of Finnegan and miraculously reviving him.

For all this song lacks in political correctness or musical quality, it was eerily perfect for Joyce's purposes. It's almost as if he wrote it himself. In chapter one of Finnegans Wake, this tale of a builder who falls to his death and is revived in the middle of his wake is retold on an epic scale. Or rather, an intermittently epic scale. Finnegan shifts ambiguously from being the middle-class drunk of the song to a culture-hero of mythological proportions. From hod carrier to Master Builder, he becomes the progenitor of civilisation itself. A god, whose death provokes nothing less than the coming of an age of darkness and the dawn of a new historical era. A man, his body is laid out for his wake. A colossus, his body becomes the topology of the land itself.

At the wake, his family, in one of many disturbing perversions of the story of Jesus, literally feeds on his body. When he wakes (not thanks to an anointment in whisky, as far as I can make out), they hold him down and convince him to stay dead. As this is a dream, the question of how much of him has already been eaten doesn’t arise. In any case, his relatives successfully subdue and bury him, in preparation for the arrival of his replacement, “a big rody ram lad” who will be “ultimendly respunchable for the hubbub caused in Edenborough.”

But his story, children, will have to wait for another time...



Timewheel said...

it is an anointment of whiskey: "Usqueadbaugham" page 24. followed by: "Anam muck an dhoul! Did ye drink me doornail?"
did you think i was dead?

Usqueadbaugham. usquebaugh means water of life in Gaelic, and is the root of the English word Whiskey.

Finnegan is resurrected by his favorite drink, but the guests prefer the metaphorical resurrection of his being replaced by HCE. which is of course how resurrection works in the real world. HCE is a guest at the wake, but by the end (beginning?) of it he has become finnagain, and himself been struck down.

Anonymous said...

very cool site

Stephen Crowe said...

@timewheel Thank you! I knew there had to be a reference to whiskey somewhere there, but it sailed right by me!