Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Page 108: now, patience

Happy Christmas! I got you a self-important aphorism.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Page 104: Annah the Allmaziful

One day all those spaces will have designs in them. But I got tired.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Page 103: by the waters of babalong

This is the last page of chapter four. And although I know I’ve left a lot of gaps that will need filling at some point, it still feels pretty momentous to me. I posted the first page of chapter four in July 2011, and it’s the last of three connected chapters that I started in October 2010. So I’m pretty happy to be moving on. You can expect a lot more skipping as I race towards chapters seven and eight, which are my favourite parts of the whole book.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Page 102: there’s a little lady waiting

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Page 100: the canonicity of his existence as a tesseract

It will be a long while before we see this guy again.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Page 101: so tellas tellas allabouter

I’ve been working on five or six pages at once for the past few weeks. There are some more that come before this. But look, it’s just an eye. Easy.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Page 96: bestly saved his brush

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Page 95: pass the push for port sake

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Book Notes page: a wilderness of ashes and bones

Another one of the things that I’ve been putting off for more than a year (a list that grows significantly more than it shrinks) is sorting out the resources page on this site, which I’ve been meaning to fill with delicious Finnegans Wake links and book recommendations ever since I first put it up. However, it’s perfectly clear by now that I’ll never do it by myself. So I’m calling on YOU, my kind, charming, strikingly attractive visitors (is that a new haircut?), to suggest some links and titles for me to post there.

What are the best Finnegans Wake resources both available and comprehensible to the general reader? For example, my own personal favourite is A Word in your Ear by Eric Rosenbloom. I have a generalised prejudice against the Skeleton Key-style readers, so any inventive alternatives to those would be much appreciated. (Anything that asserts or implies that the dreamer gets up and walks around will be approached with extreme caution, even if it was written by Anthony Burgess.)

Thanks for your help!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Page 94: the letter! the litter!

Took ages on this, didn’t I? Cannot explain it.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Page 93: and so it all ended

Note that while it may claim that the story has ”ended,” the chapter goes on for another 10 pages. The struggle continues!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Page 92: the maidies of the bar

Technically, there should be 28 girls here, but where the hell would I fit them all?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Page 89: both as like as a duel of lentils

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Page 91: equals of opposites

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Page 90: a loudburst of poesy

Back from holidays!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Page 87: sack, sock, stab and slaughter

Monday, July 23, 2012

A lot of late business

There’s a whole heap of things that I’ve been putting off posting for ages – what can I say, I’m a disaster – so now you’re going to get them all at once in a giant messy blast of updates.

FIRST OF ALL, I was really happy to take part in the first Haecceity exhibition with six talented artists! It was a lot of fun, and I’m enormously grateful to Cara Tobe and the other organisers, who all did an amazing job.

Photo: Marie Leskimo

And here’s the ex libris-style flyer that I designed to advertise the show.

The artwork displayed at the show is still available to buy. Contact the organisers if you’re interested.

SECONDLY, I’ve been sitting on this for months, but I was delighted to be featured on the front page of the James Joyce Literary Supplement. I love that they picked a newspaper-y one, too.

THIRDLY, the lovely people at the Library as Incubator Project were kind enough to run a feature on my work on their website. If you’re not familiar with the project, you should really take a look. It’s a fascinating idea to encourage libraries to develop into spaces to help artists work, study and collaborate.  They’re brilliant, inspiring people, so please please check them out.

Did I forget anything? The answer is almost certainly yes.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Page 86: an eye, ear, nose and throat witness

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Page 85: a child of Maam

Monday, July 9, 2012

Exhibition Friday

I’m taking part in a Haecceity Project exhibition this weekend at the Nouvel Organon gallery in Paris. Yes, obviously you should come! There’s booze and everything. I spent the weekend preparing by making super-high definition versions of some of the early pages. Completely unnecessarily, as it turned out. But still. Maybe I'll put them on my Society6 store. I know someone out there is looking for a metre-wide Finnegans Wake illustration.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Page 83: heart alive!

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Page 82: the least chance of a tinpanned crackler

Yes, I do realise that I’m already a week behind on my resolution! Another late night for me...

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Page 81: a cropatkin engaged the adversary

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Chapter Four

Chapter four marks the climax of the three-chapter cycle that I call the Humphriad, in which the story of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, humiliated local personnage, steadily transforms into that of primeval folk-hero HCE. We find HCE almost exactly where we left him, deep in his bed-grave, having a well-deserved rest. But once again, all the details have changed.

Joyce loved the paradox of progressing forwards and backwards at the same time. The narrative of HCE travels forwards (burial follows death follows life) through the repetition and development of the same set of events in different forms, but we witness those repetitions in reverse order, cycling further and further backwards in time. In the imagery of the book, we follow the river of time backwards from sea to source, towards an origin that grows more indistinct as we approach it.

After speculating on the nature of HCE’s dreams (is that meta? It might be, I suppose, but don’t say “meta”), the narrator describes the building and of his grave and the preparation of his interment (in effect, an enormous Viking ship burial), before passing to Kate Strong, a local widow, for her account of “old dumplan as she nosed it.” A scavenger, Mrs. Strong deposited her “filthdump” on the river bank in the Phoenix Park, the site of chapter two’s unnamed sin and the encounter with the Cad with a Pipe, now transformed into a mythic dreamtime, “where race began.”

It was on this same site that two combatants met for a peculiar battle. This is the most primordial version of the Cad Encounter, recast as a kind of primitive ritual in which the attacker, a “cropatkin”, beats a figure called the “Adversary” with a stick before requesting a loan. The Adversary regrets that he hasn’t a ten pound note to hand, but offers instead enough to buy a whiskey with. The mention of whiskey has a magical effect, and the pair make peace (“the treatyng to cognac”) and part as friends.

The themes of this ritual are developed when we return suddenly to the courtroom of chapter three, this time for the trial of a local reprobate named Festy King, who stands accused of numerous crimes, including possession of an unlicensed pig. A witness for the prosecution (W.P.) is called to the stand, but his incoherent examination quickly takes the form of a parodic catechism: equal parts accusation, philosophical argument and comedy double-act (“And both as like as a duel of lentils? Peacisely.”).

But by the time he has finished, Festy King has become Pegger Festy, “the senior king of all,” who defends his behaviour in a mixture of Irish and English which is taken by the assembly for a joke, “the good one about why he left Dublin.” In fact, the courtroom itself has become a performance or festival, in which W.P. is praised and hung with garlands by a troupe of dancing girls to the chant of “Show’m the Posed!", while the defendant escapes prosecution, but is driven into exile with jeers of “Shun the Punman!” The allusions to the names of the two brothers, Shaun and Shem, who will be properly introduced in subsequent chapters, seem to suggest that HCE, who up to this point was confronting a fairly interchangeable version of himself, has split into his two distinct aspects of messiah and scapegoat.

With that the party, and the inquiry, appear to be over. The four judges reminisce on the events, reworking yet more variations of HCE’s flight into exile. But questions still remain: what of the mysterious letter that was obliquely and directly referred to throughout the cycle? It still hasn’t been investigated. Who wrote it? And what of HCE’s wife, “she who shuttered him after his fall and waked him widowt sparing?”

God, I love these cliffhangers.


Saturday, June 9, 2012

Progress Report

The pace of my updates has become so slow and erratic lately, that some of you might wonder if I’m running out of steam on this project.

But I can assure that,


My enthusiasm is undiminished! In fact, the more I read and research the book, the more excited I get for the fresh challenge of the later chapters (Pure Typography! Watercolours!! Children’s Drawings!!! Yes! Yes!!).

In terms of my general life, on the other hand, I must admit I’ve been feeling pretty burnt out. Between a baby who still can’t sleep through the night, a mentally tiring day job, and frankly more design commissions than I can really handle at the moment, there have been whole weeks when I haven’t had the time or energy to draw for more than half an hour.

Last week I saw the video of the commencement speech given by Neil Gaiman, which was doing the rounds everywhere. I’m sure everyone who uses the Internet must have seen it by now, but if you haven’t, I recommend you take a look. It gave me a lot to think about. In it, he describes his own path to becoming a writer, imagining his goal as a distant mountain and each decision as turn either towards or away from the mountain. He recalls turning down editorial job offers because they would have got in the way of that path, and learning from doing jobs just for the money, never to take a job just for the money.

Mr. Gaiman claims that he never had a career plan, but I’ve certainly never had his level of focus. When I graduated, I thought to myself, “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m sure if I wait around the answer will present itself.” As a career plan, I can’t recommend it, but I did eventually start doing this. I’m still not even sure what my ultimate goal is, but I know that this project must be an important part of it, simply because it’s the most personally rewarding work I’ve ever done. So I’m resolving now to avoid the distractions and to redouble my efforts on my personal work in general and to this project in particular. I still don’t know what that distant mountain is, but I think I’ll know it when I see it.

I’m going to try my best to get back to posting a page a week. My record pace of two pages a week might still be a bit optimistic at the moment, but I’ll work my way back up to it. In about 20 pages or so, I’ll have finished the fourth chapter and the second big milestone of the book.

I’d like to thank everyone who’s bought prints from my Society6 store (getting money for it really helps me to take this seriously!), and everyone who’s emailed me with praise and encouragement. Even though I probably haven’t responded to you yet (for reasons that I hope are now clear!) I truly appreciate it, and it makes me feel incredibly happy to know that people are getting some kind of value out of what I’m doing.

I’m in it for the long haul if you are.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Page 67: Long Lally Tobkids, the special

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Page 68: selling her spare favours

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Page 36: a nice how-do-you-do, version 2

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Page 80: what subtler timeplace of the weald

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Golden Bough, Part Three: Magic as Metaphor

Part Two
At this point, we’ve seen how magic works by imitating nature, and how that theory led to the worship of gods of nature who die and come back to life. Now it’s time to see what happened when the religious turned from filling their bellies to more mystical concerns.

A recurrent theme throughout Frazer’s history is the development of abstract thought; in other words, a culture’s ability to discuss abstract things in abstract terms. The concept of taboo is a primitive attempt to conceptualise morality, and therefore a very alien one to the modern reader. To see the supernatural as a blessing or a curse is so deeply ingrained that it’s almost impossible for us to imagine otherwise.

But the primitive philosopher recognises no such distinction: “the conceptions of holiness and pollution are not yet differentiated in his mind.” Taboo is a morally neutral force: an invisible energy which, like electricity, can be conducted from one thing to another, and which may be dangerous or beneficial depending on how it’s used.

Take the Old Testament rules that require a menstruating woman to sacrifice two doves. Traditions like that derived not from the idea that women’s bodies are filthy and disgusting (a modern notion invented in the 1950’s to sell douches), but from the primitive belief that menstruation and childbirth have a magical energy that needs to be safely discharged.

Later, we invent the ideas of sin and virtue, and the old taboos must be sorted into good and bad. This is a valuable idea for understanding the Wake, in which H.C.E. is constantly wavering between good and bad, holy and cursed, innocent and guilty, until finally the two sides separate into the characters of Shaun, the blessed son, and Shem, the cursed one.

But the shift to abstract thought isn’t sudden. The primitive mind continues to assume that everything has a physical reality, and attempts to treat abstract things like illness, death and sin like sticks or stones to be thrown away. A scapegoat (animal or human) might carry their sins away like so many rocks (or like Finnegan, a hod of bricks).

But in other cases, the new role is taken by the old god of the corn. Perhaps, as Frazer suggests, it was for reasons of efficiency – a two-for-one sacrifice. Perhaps at the beginning of the new year, which generally coincided with spring, people felt the desire to turn a new leaf. Whatever the reason, the implications are huge. We have now entered the realm of Jesus, the Buddha, and Earwicker, the Phoenix Culprit. The old rituals of death and rebirth take on an entirely new significance: the god dies not for our food, but for our sins. The harvest supper becomes the Holy Communion, and the rebirth of nature becomes the rebirth of the soul. The relationship between form and function shifts from metonymy to metaphor: the Bread of Life, once the promise of future bread, comes to symbolise the promise of life after death.

There’s a lot more to be said about how Joyce used this material, and I hope to have time to cover it in more detail later. But there’s a wider point I want to make about Joyce’s whole project. We’ve seen how rituals intended to influence the growth of crops become metaphors for abstract ideas of sin and virtue. In fact all imitative magic functions as a metaphor: the sacrifice of the god is a metaphor for winter and his rebirth a metaphor for spring. The metaphor is the magic, but it works its power not on nature but on us. The manipulation of the abstract by association with the concrete: when we look at magic in these terms, it quickly becomes indistinguishable from poetry, and both become equivalent to dreams.

Commentators on the Wake often focus on the idea that it’s a “history of the world” mediated through a dream. But I think Joyce took up these subjects because he saw in the traditions of magic and religion the same tools and the same purposes that went into his own work: an exploration not of the world, but of himself. I have no idea how much of Frazer’s argument is true, and I don’t think it’s important. As with all Joyce’s sources, he took whatever stimulated his imagination, and made magic with it.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Golden Bough, Part Two: The Birth of Gods

Part One
In part one, we saw how the theory of imitative magic led to the ritual sacrifice of men in the role of gods of the land. As society grows in complexity, its theology develops with it. Old traditions begin to seem quaint and naïve. The reputation of the gods grows, as does the complexity of their mysteries, and finally their literal connection to things in the real world – to crops, kings and sacred animals – is broken altogether. In the stories of dying gods like Osiris, Attis, Adonis and Dionysus, we can see the shadows of Tim Finnegan and his successor, H. C. Earwicker.

But the humble, immanent origins of the gods is fossilised in the myths that surround them. Just like John Barleycorn in the old folksong, these human-shaped gods continue to re-enact the life cycle of corn. But new rationales must be invented to explain it. For example, Adonis is born from a tree because he originally was a tree. Demeter presents someone with a bowl of corn because originally, the corn presented in the worship of Demeter was literally the goddess herself. The confusing fuzziness of detail and intent in the Wake is not a Joycean invention, but an inherent feature of ancient myth.

Complicating matters further, a culture’s beliefs aren’t monolithic. So while the educated classes worship the new gods, an intuitive belief in animism persists among peasant farmers. They imagine new spirits of the corn, who eventually earn new names and eventually become new deities. Gods multiply and are forced to cohabit, becoming husbands and wives, parents and children. The character of the sacrifice ritual as the “eternal and pathetic contrast between youth and age” is dramatised in myths of family conflict (for example, the battle between Osiris’ son Set and his brother Horus).

The nature of sacrifice changes too. As the god drifts into the ether, the god-kings on Earth find suicide an increasingly onerous duty. They change the rules. Disturbingly, it was common for the king’s own sons to be killed in his place. Frazer tells of one Swedish king who killed nine of his sons until finally, a frail old man, he was prevented from sacrificing the last one, and died. Eventually the duty falls upon slaves and convicts, often after a short period acting in the king’s place. Later still, the actual death is left out of the proceeding entirely, and the man is banished, beaten, or ducked in the river.

The Tibetan Jalno is an especially interesting case. At each New Year, the ruler temporarily ceded his throne to the monk who bid the highest sum, who took the title of Jalno and ruled with absolute authority. At the end of his brief reign, a second substitute was chosen: a worthless beggar dressed in pantomime costume who went around the marketplace demanding alms, until finally, after a rigged game of chance with the Jalno, he was chased off into the mountains. If he died, people thought it a good omen.

The sacrifice of an animal undergoes a different change. The god eventually reaches a level of prestige that makes it seem absurd for a pig or a goat to literally represent them. So it becomes a mere offering, often rationalised by casting the animal as the god’s natural adversary (for damaging the plant sacred to him or, like the boar in the story of Adonis, for killing him). Thus, in a phrase that could be a summary for much of the Wake, the god is “sacrificed to himself on the grounds that he is his own enemy.”

In the final part, we’ll see how these ceremonies are altered by the community’s shift in concern from their stomachs to their souls.
Part Three

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Golden Bough, Part One: The Science of Magic

I put off reading The Golden Bough for a long time. I had some idea how important it was to the composition of Finnegans Wake, but I think was intimidated by the monstrous size of the complete 12-volume edition. What if I read the abridged version, only to discover that it wasn’t enough, and my work wouldn’t be complete without slogging miserably through the rest of it? Having finally taken the plunge, I can confirm that the abridged version is quite sufficient (I’m sure that’s all Joyce read anyway), and it’s absolutely indispensable to understanding the Wake. In fact, it’s so packed with important ideas that even though I read it a full year ago, it’s only after rereading it now that I feel able to write something coherent about it. I posted something this time last year about the importance of Easter to the Wake story, so I hope it will become clear just how fitting it is to return to it now.

In fact, The Golden Bough is a fascinating read, not least thanks to Frazer’s decision to structure the book as a kind of murder mystery, in which he takes the role of detective, uncovering the motives behind an ancient and bloody Latin ritual. The King of the Wood of Nemi was an escaped slave who lived in a sacred forest near Rome. He earned his title by killing the previous occupant in single combat and thus lived in constant danger of being killed himself. Frazer attempts to explain this strange practice (as well as many other, more relevant religious traditions, not least those of Christianity and Judaism) by comparing it with a vast catalogue of magical and religious minutiae, constructing an overview of religious development, from the first stirrings of supernatural belief to the world religions of today.

The foundation of Frazer’s theory lies in the nature of primitive magic (Frazer used the kind of terminology that you’d expect from a 19th-Century anthropologist; for simplicity I’ll follow him as far as “primitive”, but stop short of “savage”). He calls it “sympathetic magic”, which comes in two varieties: imitative – to create the desired result by, you know, imitating it – and contagious – to affect something at a distance by acting on something formerly in contact with it. These two laws are often combined, but the most important is imitation, of which Frazer provides countless examples, from European peasants throwing water to make it rain, to the Brazilian Indian who, to increase the size of his “generative organ”, strikes it with a banana-shaped aquatic fruit.

But there’s more to magic than hitting your penis with stuff. It stands to reason that anyone who depends, as early agricultural communities did, on the cycles of nature for survival, will expend a great deal of effort developing ways to keep their crops growing on schedule. This is the first stage in Frazer’s history, in which first farmers, and later specialised magicians, invented magical rituals to ensure the sprouting of plants in the spring.

Following the principles of sympathetic magic, these rituals could include couples having sex in the fields or marrying trees to each other, but at some point they coalesced around the idea of spiritual possession. Early communities, Frazer tells us, believed that all things, animate and inanimate alike, had “souls”, and that magicians could become possessed by the souls of plants to encourage them to grow. Because of that, breaking bread takes on a profound significance: at every meal you are literally eating the body of God.

At a certain point, the plant that is the object of worship stops being seen as the body of the spirit, and becomes merely a lifeless vessel which the spirit can enter and exit at will. This is the first step in the conception of gods, and it represents a crucial advance in a culture’s ability to contemplate abstractions. Now the spirit can be equally worshipped in any form, perhaps as an animal associated with the crops (like a wren in the trees, or a goat in the fields) or, more importantly, in the body of a man-god. The magician or the king himself becomes the vessel of the life-giving power of nature, and thus becomes a god in human form.

But as Spiderman can tell you, with great power comes great responsibility. Each year, nature blooms with life in spring and withers in autumn. In accordance with the rule of imitation, the man-god’s life must follow the same cycle. Thus in countless religious traditions, the concept develops of a god who dies in the body of one man in order to be renewed in the body of another, either after a fixed term or when the incumbent begins to show signs of aging (apparently Shaka, king of the Zulus, was obsessed with procuring hair oil to hide his grey – draw your Gaddafi comparisons here). We can observe the influence of ideas like this in Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker’s confrontation with the young Cad with a Pipe.

Tomorrow we’ll see how the sacrifice of human gods led to the creation of anthropomorphic, heavenly deities like the ones we recognise from ancient myths.
Part Two

Friday, March 30, 2012

Page 65: he’s fair mashed on peaches number two

Monday, March 19, 2012

Page 77: allaboardshoops!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Page 79: Kate Strong, a widow

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Page 61: Sylvia Silence, the girl detective

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Page 60: one of our coming Vauxhall ontheboards

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Dante’s Wake

James Joyce famously said that he was happy to go down in history as “the cut-and-paste man”, and perhaps no other writer is so promiscuous with references and allusions. But whatever his flirtations with Shakespeare or Homer, he was always going steady with Dante. Dante Alighieri, author of the Divine Comedy (the epic poem in which the poet himself journeys through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven) was Joyce’s all-time literary crush, and no matter how unique Finnegans Wake might appear, almost every important element of its design has a logical antecedent in the work of the 14th Century poet.

For example, take the eccentrically detailed use Joyce makes of his own autobiography. Not only does he detail obsessively the geography and society of his hometown of Dublin and the people he knew, he includes references to people and events that only close friends and relations of the author could possibly understand. Ideas he had for books he had in adolescence, stories his father used to tell, his predilection for women’s underwear... That’s a pretty weird thing to do by any standards, but I’ve no doubt that Joyce took courage in his decision from Dante’s choice to fill his work with references to Florentine politics, meetings with deceased Florentine historical figures and old friends, and even to personal aspects of his own life: for example, his status as a political exile, and most importantly, his love for Beatrice Portinari, a Florentine woman who became Dante’s Dulcinea, an idealised representation first of courtly and finally of divine love.

Even the most difficult aspect of the Wake, its language, can be illuminated somewhat by the Comedy. In Dante’s Italy, Latin was still used as the common written language. But Dante believed that a standard vernacular Italian could replace Latin as the language of poetry in Italy. Unfortunately, standard Italian did not exist, so Dante had to invent it. The Comedy was composed in a combination of Italian dialects from across the peninsula. Obviously, when Joyce decided to combine however many dozens of dialects and languages to create the language of the Wake, his intention was not to create a new standard dialect of English. But he surely had in mind those Medieval Italians who read Dante’s work for the first time and discovered there a new language, equally familiar and unfamiliar to all.

But it’s in the content of the two works that the most interesting similarities lie. Dante’s poem describes a literal journey into the Underworld, but that setting is only the pretext for an exploration of the spiritual struggle with sin and the quest for moral purity. Joyce’s book describes a figurative journey into the “underworld” of a dream, but its true subject is the emotional conflict of the individual psyche.

The question of allegory takes us to Dante’s theory of poetics, which was based on Biblical scholarship in the Middle Ages. Medieval theologians interpreted the Bible on four levels of allegorical meaning: the literal, the typological (an allegory to the story of Jesus), the tropological (a moral rule for everyday life), and the anagogical (related to the nature of the Afterlife). Church doctrine taught that these allegorical meanings were the result of divine inspiration, but Dante thought that poets should imitate the system, composing their work with three layers of allegory concealed within. So the Comedy is at once the literal story of Dante’s pilgrimage, an allegory for the death and resurrection of Jesus, a detailed exploration of the nature of sin and virtue, and complete geography of the Afterlife.

When Joyce adapted this system for Ulysses, he did so in a fairly clear and similarly hierarchical fashion. The story of Leopold Bloom is at once a vividly literal portrayal of turn-of-the-century Dublin life and an allegory for the story of Odysseus. But in Finnegans Wake the system explodes. There is no literal layer at all, only a shifting series of varyingly coherent scenarios from which allegorical senses erupt in every direction (of which the most mysterious is ironically the most mundane: the identities of the dreamer and his family). In the Wake, a Medieval love of ordered systems and hierarchical lists collides with a very modern loss of trust in their validity. At the centre of the Comedy lies God. At the centre of the Wake lies the chaos of a mind at war with itself. It is Dante’s natural post-Freudian heir.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Page 47: The Ballad of Persse O'Reilly 3/3