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.



James said...

It would be interesting to know whether JJ was familiar with the story of Gilgamesh. G. goes in search of the "water of life", & meets his ancestor Utnapishtim "the Faraway", who dwells in a land across a river - a mythic-religious metaphor for his no longer belonging to the "ordinary" world. U. is now "beyond" history, unlike his careworn descendant.

The "tree of life" (which was allegorised as the Cross - very Catholic !) in Eden is part of a geography that includes four rivers (Gen.2), which recall the rivers at the confluence of which dwells El, the supreme deity in the pantheon of Ugarit; AKA Ras Shamra. The Ras Shamra texts were discovered just a couple of years before JJ began FW.

There is a primeval man in the Gilgamesh Epic - Enkidu, the *alter ego* of Gilgamesh. The death of Enkidu - upon his bed - is the reason that Gilgamesh goes in search of eternal life. Is FW a search for eternal life, a quest-story into unknown parts ? The Gilgamesh Epic also has a "barmaid", Siduri, who is (1) a literary ancestress of Circe; (2) an avatar of Ishtar, the goddess of sexuality & war.

Stephen Crowe said...

I don't know if Joyce was aware of Gilgamesh. FWEET doesn't give any references to it. However, you can see the influence of Gilgamesh on many stories from the Bible and elsewhere that Joyce did use, and beyond that I think it shows how widespread these motifs are throughout many cultures (rivers, the tree of life, &c.).