mighty maze of human being and the freeing of conscience:
Joyce’s whirling mandala
great Finnegans wake game
+64 (0)9 444 3567
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Peter Nigel Best (Nigel Woodhouse), June 1998
Edition June 1998
Dedicated to Helen and Seeby: they
suffered my writing.
am very interested in the Universe -
am specialising in the universe and
that surrounds it.
all this about Ulysses?
the important book.
is the artist’s duty?...
praise and celebrate,
his love is great,
I have tried to do is to show... what
is, and what the resurrection is. Nobody
to know, or to remember, but the idea still
desire and pursuit of the whole is love
Treasury of traditional wisdom.
Whitall N. Perry, 1971.
James Joyce. Richard Ellmann.
New and revised edition, 1982.
Faber and Faber. 3d. ed., 1964.
John Bartlett. 15th ed.
Finnegans wake (Fw)
is the most valuable thing. Fw
is a quantum leap in culture, for this reason:
nothing else puts together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of life. (And not according to the wisdom and insight of James Joyce,
as great as that is, but according to the natural wisdom of people, as contained
in language: vox populi, vox dei.) We
humans have had till now only the parts of life, not the full knowledge of the
relationships of the parts that puts Humpty Dumpty together.
A car in parts is not a car, and without consciousness of life in its
wholeness, we have not experienced life at all.
We are dead in the only important sense.
This book is a claim to show how
Fw is lots of fun, as repeatedly promised in Fw;
and it is a claim to show that Fw is the greatest event in the humanities
in several thousand years. ‘Read
[Fw] once, and you can read no more; For
all books else appear so mean, so poor, Verse
will seem prose; but still persist
to read, And [Fw] will be all the
books you need’, FQ. I adapt John
Sheffield’s lines, on Homer, to Homer’s greatest son’s greatest work.
Fw is a reagent, a small quantity of which, mixed with a large number of
reference books, in the presence of an active mind, produces an intellectual and
literary revolution, a love-feast, a merry wake or ‘funferall’, Fw301, the
greatest party of wit and true feeling, the deepest insight into life, the most
elaborately detailed and most satisfactorily patterned mandala of life,
philosophy and literature, the profoundest initiation, the hottest, whitest
flame of consciousness or ‘uncreated conscience’ (Portrait
of the artist, end), and a thorough psyche-scrubbing for the future.
Fw can be read in only a few places.
It is not an extremely difficult book to read, as people who do not know
its density think; it is an impossible book to read. But studied in one small spot it is as fruitful as drilling
for oil in one place instead of digging all over the globe, as tasty as a slice
of cake, full of ‘plumbs and
grumes and cheriffs and citherers and raiders and cinemen too’, Fw6.
Any person of intelligence, without extraordinary linguistic or literary
knowledge, can, by taking a paragraph at random, researching it exhaustively and
chewing it over thoroughly, enter the treasure-house of Fw, an agonising
darkness of not understanding which gives birth to great mental light.
Making books of the languages, songs, books, names, etc, in Fw is sterile
and virtually futile. It is like taking a tapestry to pieces, one person taking
out all the gold threads, someone else the blue.
One, it will result only in the dismantling of Fw;
two, as it is after fifty years no more than a twentieth of the way to
completion, this dismantling will be completed in not less than a thousand
years, no use to anyone, or will be abandoned in a few hundred years;
and three, Fw will be still untouched, waiting, unknown, unsuspected and
On the other hand, because Fw is made out of wholes, not parts, like
myriad bubbles of the sea foam of Venus-Isis, all bubbles essentially the same,
thorough rumination of one page or paragraph opens the whole of Fw.
Fw is a paperchase or treasure-hunt: one is constantly looking for the
little clue that unveils the meaning and the fun.
And one is gradually turned into the Diana, the Goddess, one hunts.
It is hide-and-seek.
It is a dance, in which all the most fundamental, simplest and most
subtle or obscure truths of life are whirling around one, smiling, teasing,
dressed in most unlikely and yet piquantly appropriate guises.
Fw is a wake, in which life-and-light itself is the reviver and the ‘rearriver’,
In this book I present the fruit of my own explorations;
alas, not my pleasure, but
only my own drunkard
condition and Buddhic belly,
to show others that there is food and there are horizons here.
Enter, Braveheart, the most magic kingdom of those kingdoms that are
real, and let the mysteries begin.
im possible! caveat lector
After twenty years affectionate study of Fw, I can only write:
Fw is the ----- book in the world. The
only epithet that I have found to stand in that gap with any certainty is darnedest. Fw is the darnedest book in the world.
I believe it may eclipse the Bible, the I
ching and the Koran, as it may have digested and incorporated them, indeed,
revealed them. I believe it must
greatly extend our ideas of the dimensions of human brilliance and brainpower.
It is, I think, a degree of synthesis of life’s many parts never before
dreamed of, never before attempted. On
the other hand, I have often wondered if it is not the most unnecessary, the
most useless, the most dispensable of books.
In ‘Style’, Howard Nemerov writes:
‘Flaubert wanted to write a novel
About nothing’, FQ. It
seems Joyce did.
I have been greatly excited by Fw, as if a door was opening for
humankind. It is the first attempt,
and a completely successful attempt, to fuse the many, many things of life into
a One that cannot be denied. The implications for all levels of life, moral to military,
theological to geographical, are as great as they could be.
It is the first book in human history that assumes the reality of
essentiality-particularity and is constructed from that assumption fully.
In the preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth writes:
‘In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners,
of laws and customs - in spite of things silently gone out of mind, and things
violently destroyed, the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast
empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all
time’, FQ. That description
applies resoundingly to the author of Fw; by
comparison, barely to any other poet.
There is a feeling of frustration. There
is a feeling in me that Fw was made too large for humankind to take a bite of.
I despair of finding an audience interested in going half the distance
necessary to grasp the game of Fw. However,
the vision in me of what Fw is impels me to make my twentieth beginning.
It is not easy to write about, it is not always easy to persevere in
studying it. It is the mountain of
life, of consciousness, far higher than Everest.
I am afraid the reader will drown in the quantity and overwhelming wealth
and variety of data. Fw is a book for heroes.
It addresses itself to a supreme effort. It is a book for goats and harts. It offers the most difficult task of those tasks not
impossible, to use Yeats’s formula. Fw
is in a sense an unwritten book. The
reader is given the materials - I hope in this book to give the reader the tools
and the plan - and the reader is left to write the book herself.
There is so much that can be said about Fw.
There is so much that needs to be said, if Fw is to take a place in human
culture. But the subject is so new that no order has emerged from
among the many things that can be said, from among the many points it can be
Generalities such as these become irritating;
but the facts that support and explain these generalities are numerically
so great I despair of interesting anyone in them long enough to reach the
conclusions. My tactical response
to this dilemma is to plan to nibble here, nibble there, with the reader, at
facts in the one paw and at conclusions in the other, mice that we are, until we
have devoured the whole mountainous cheese, until we have the facts to justify
the conclusions and the conclusions to justify the lengthy business of telling
It would be fine to be able to begin at the beginning and proceed via the
middle to the end, but Fw will not allow us to do this, either.
Its method, its assumption of the wholeness and oneness of the All is
highly infectious: I have in
all my attempts failed to move smoothly from one point to the next.
I have in previous attempts found myself there before I got there, in
another field entirely from the one I was in, or the one I was proceeding to,
and so on.
On the one hand, Fw is a thesis elegant to the point of vacuity.
On the other, it presents itself as the insane limit of complexity. It is so full of material, one is continually tempted to
accelerate; on the other hand, one
must proceed with infinite measure and rumination to move at all.
Joyce was himself perfectly aware of this condition of his work - in Fw
he sports continuously in the ocean of this extremeness -
the pun way madness lies - and is continually victim of it in a sense,
yet he always managed in this wind to hold on to or recover his hat.
He has ‘intestions’, Fw301:
guts, and intentions that exist by tension.
Nerves all ready!
At the time when humanity is approaching the extinction point of
acceleration, Joyce had the nerve, guts and faith, the ‘Pure Fool’,
world-saving stupidity, to offer a book that demands infinite measure, leisure
and patience, that calls on unthought-of stores of spiritual playfulness and
The face we see peering through Fw is like one of those pictured smiling
faces that make a sad face upsidedown; however,
the face is whirling so fast we cannot see whether it is sad or gay.
We are instantly dealing with trivia and quadrivia, and with the Trivium
and Quadrivium; we impatiently face
some insignificant Dublin minutia - which we have no time for because our life
is styled ‘problematic’ - and are immediately in a welcome perspective
larger than seen before in the history of culture - in which our problems are
While we hang over the cliff holding on to a tree root with tiger birth
above and panther death below and the white and black rats of day and night
gnawing at the root, Joyce writes for eighteen years in the interbellum and
offers us a game that takes us fifty years just to find the rules (herein
presented). The game is offered in
the spirit of the highest spirit, but how are we going to rise to it?
Joyce in his faith no doubt took the advice implied in the anecdote in
which someone says to his fellow before a conference:
‘Do you mean to say that because they cannot understand sense, you are
going to talk nonsense to them?’ Joyce
cannot help talking in the higher sense of a generous and wise spirit, shining
as a higher, whiter mountain in a brighter sunshine, whether we hear the
‘Because it is there’ or not. We
can aspire to that, risk failing at the greater goal, or listen to the crumbling
faiths of less Worded talkers.
Fw is an impossible book. It
is as though it has been written at infinity where parallel lines meet and other
impossible things happen. Nothing exists; everything
is merely a partial description of It, of the All, the One.
We may not in the end be able to state a grand conclusion;
we may only be able in the end to say:
look! look!, and point, as though we were looking at a perfect five-sided
cube, inexplicable and there.
One might say a circle is a figure at infinity, in the impossible, for it
has no beginning or end, no parts, is emptiness and maximum fullness too.
A circle departs, journeys and returns and yet has no beginning or end.
Fw is saturated with circularity. It is replete with the circle’s
getting nowhere (‘going round in circles’) and the circle’s perfection of
completion. Fw has the character of
being full, superabundant and at the same time, empty, vacuous.
It is similar to the absolute frivolity and the perfect seriousness of
God that allows all things to be. It
is where extremes meet, to compliment one another, to complete one another, and
to cancel one another out in a something that cannot be seen, a Zen moon, a
white goddess made from bubbles, a neither-this-nor-that.
Fw is a kind of ode to the circle, because the circle portrays that
mysterious something/nothing that God alias
humanity alias life is.
One might say that Fw is the world’s first white rainbow, for its
greatest charm is the production of linguistic mental entities which are highly
particular and colourful and at the same time generalities, universals.
‘THE PARTICULAR UNIVERSAL’, Fw260.
Everything is not a one among many, but a sample of the whole.
‘One principle must make the universe a single complex living creature,
one from all’, Plotinus, FQ. Millions
of particulars are in Fw, but they reveal themselves as parts of the universal
mandala. The excitement of the study of Fw is the effect of being in
the process of having the universal pattern revealed in particulars.
‘Poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than
history, since its statements are of the nature of universals, whereas those of
history are singulars’, Aristotle, Poetics,
FQ. (History also partakes of the importance of poetry, when its
particulars are taken as typical. We
have no reason to study the past as past.)
The I ching, for example, has a
pattern, a oneness hanging over it. The
incomprehensible oneness is first divided in two, Yin and Yang.
With an apparently arbitrary six, these two are combined in every
possible way, namely two to the power six or sixty-four ways.
These make a circle, a mandala, a whole. The whole of life is described in terms of sixty-four
characters. Clearly the author of
this division was able to see the whole, the pattern. As he lived, he could see the sixty-four in flux, in motion
and he could see that the sixty-four explained every facet of life.
The number was relatively arbitrary, but life’s multiplicity and
dynamic unity was not.
Life, it is clearly assumed by the I
ching, divides and is one, like a tree.
Which number one chooses depends on the height at which one describes the
tree’s divisions. At different
heights the tree is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 12, 17, 28, 64 - in fact, every number
from one to infinity.
Yet while it is clear from the I
ching that this pattern existed for the author, it is not revealed to us.
With deep study it might slowly take shape in our minds, but it is not
written down. I suppose that it was
for the emergence of this pattern that Confucius wished to have forty years to
study the I ching.
The point to us is that in Fw this pattern is
written down. It may take just as
much time for us to discover it through Fw as it would have taken for Confucius
to discover it in the I ching.
The difference is that the pyramid with Joyce reaches the ground:
that is, that Fw can take us from the infinity of particulars, (which
everyone can grasp) through every level of unification right to the top, the
essence. Joyce uses the scientific
method described by Bacon: ‘There
are and can be only two ways of searching into and discovering truth. The one flies from the senses and particulars to the most
general axioms... this way is now in fashion.
The other derives axioms from the senses and particulars, rising by a
gradual and unbroken ascent, so that it arrives at the most general axioms last
of all. This is the true way, but
as yet untried’, FQ. Bacon means
there is only one way of discovering truth.
By comparison, the I ching takes the reader only from a high level of the pyramid
(where there are sixty-four blocks) towards the top, and one has to be a highly
intuitive abstract thinker to begin and to continue on the study that Confucius
wished he had time for. Joyce, one
may say, is democratic. He offers
this coherence of all wisdom of life to the modern, democratic, literalistic
thinker, who, thanks to the Zeitgeist or to the promotion of a scientific prose
of one word for one thing, is cut off from a sense of wholeness more than are
theocratic and aristocratic man.
Joyce takes the most colourful, specific, lively ephemera and, revealing
them in their universal character, shows how to piece them together (and thus
all other particulars in all times and places) into the All-One mandala/tree/pyramid.
This will of course unlock all other mandalas, or contribute greatly to
the grasp of the oneness in all other mandalas and universal patterns and
universal literature, as well as the oneness in - not to leave that out - life
The Bible does not point to a branched oneness the way the I
ching does, but since it comes from life, the branched oneness must be
present in it too. The Bible is
like the first few bottom layers of the pyramid.
There is little hint of the oneness that the completed pyramid announces.
In the Bible is a richness of materials, with little hint as to how these
might fit together into a greater, intellectually radiant whole.
Fw gives us many clues to guide us towards a structure for the Bible, to
enable us to analyse towards the profundity and simplicity of the Bible.
Fw, then, is an organising principle for the world.
It is a university in which anyone may train to understand life to a
degree that has not been envisaged by any culture, that has been envisaged by
very few men, perhaps only by some prophets, by the author of, and some students
of, the I ching, by some creators of mandalas, and perhaps by some Irish
ollaves. It is a liberal education
that will be a great revelation to those who have had a very extensive liberal
In Joyce’s very great purpose to organise life or reveal its patterns
more than ever before to more people, Joyce hit upon a technique of great power,
implicit in all his work, whose origins are the origins of all language, of such
simplicity that one wonders that it has not been used before.
Abstract language suffers from vagueness and lack of energy.
Its universality is fettered to its colourlessness.
Colourful language on the other hand is more narrowly confined to time
and place. As language acquires
colour and energy it loses universality and is therefore less able to signal its
participation in a great pattern. For
all time, language has suffered from this dilemma without a solution being
found. It has always been difficult
to grasp philosophy and to tie it back to the lived moments of an individual.
Whence the logistics of proverbs and sayings, trying to make wisdom more
available by making it more portable. It
has not always been easy to realise the universals implicit in poetry, either.
When people do catch on, by instinct or feeling, we call it great poetry,
as in, say, Wordsworth’s poem on the host of daffodils.
How to escalate the commerce between universals and particulars?
How to have the advantages of both without the disadvantages? It must give us wonder to find that this problem, patiently
borne with for so many millenia, has been stunningly solved in our time by
perhaps the greatest poet of all time - and that the work involved in this
solution has been hidden for fifty years.
Joyce simply takes two words, as particular and as colourful as may be,
that physically will combine without obliterating each other, and sets them down
to live together as one word. In
going together, they have to point towards what they have in common.
What they have in common is inevitably a more universal essence.
One of the great charms that Fw has over other great books is the amount
of colour, locality, and particularity. In
this it is like Rabelais or Shakespeare. But
instantly this particularity and accidentality is universality and essentiality.
Compare Dante, Paradiso 33:
‘I saw all that which is scattered through the universe bound by love
in one volume,... substances, accidents and their relations [costume],
as though fused together...’
Note that Joyce’s invention, the epiphany, is simultaneously
particularity and universality. In
an epiphany, while the subject matter is particular, it, assisted by artistic
precision or artistic magic, rings silent bells deep in the mind.
It is like a dream: one
thing is presented, quite describable, and quite absurd perhaps, and another
thing is present, difficult to describe, hard to grasp, perhaps not noticed,
but perceptively meaningful; just
as Wordsworth’s poem is describably about daffodils, less describably about
something more universal, a plenitude of the heart or goodness deep in the
mystery of life, or, prosaically, euphoria or gladness.
Fw is a portrait of the whole field of dreams, a field which includes the
field of life, for life has the same structure as dream:
a visible moving picture rendered absurd by mortality and change, and a
hidden Ariadne’s thread of continuity and sense.
It is said that there are techniques for yogis to enter the dream-state
at will and I think it not unlikely that Joyce had this ability.
It is the poetic ability, to see the universal in the particular. We have evidence of this in Joyce’s interpretations
(clearly profound if inexplicable to us) of some of his and others’ dreams,
and in the interesting deep-striking view (quite deliberately included by Joyce
to give us another clue, I suspect) that Stephen takes of the song of the Jewish
girl and the boy in the catechistic chapter of Ulysses:
his understanding is immediately towards universals - and they are a
poet’s intuitive penetrating epiphanic universals, not merely the universals
of classification. I am sure Joyce
was an interpreter of dreams in the rank of Joseph and Daniel.
I suspect this is why he ‘bucked back’ at suggestions that he go to
Freud or Jung: his intuitive abilities at dream analysis exceeded
theirs; he was way ahead of them.
Like dreams, then, and like the intuitions of poetry and all metaphor,
Joyce’s new language is instantly particular and universal, colourful yet
relevant. When someone said that Fw
was trivial, Joyce accepted that, adding that it was sometimes quadrivial.
(‘Trivial’ is etymologically ‘three-ways’.)
Yet Joyce is as passionately universalising as he is trivialising or
particularising. Joyce is the least
trivial man; thanks to his new
language technique, far less trivial than the greatest philosophers.
And on the other side, his technique permits him to use degrees of
triviality even a poet would not use.
As a poet he respects colour, immediacy, energy.
As an artist and philosopher he respects form.
He alone follows the pattern of the universe in respecting the union of
colour and form, universal and particular.
As much as Fw is in the style of a dream, it is in the style of life.
The rainbow, which Joyce uses as the overall symbol of the first full
paragraph of Fw (Fw3), witnesses the peaceful coexistence of form (the arc) and
the many-coloured world. In
‘Giovanni’s dream’, in ‘The human tragedy’, Anatole France describes a
rainbow-coloured wheel of all life in all its falsenesses, like a Gothic rose
window, which, spinning, turns to the white of truth.
This technique, of sandwiching two words to speak of a third invisible
essence, is in essence the same as the famous parallel of Ulysses
and the Odyssey. Joyce is not only interested in getting us acquainted with a
character called Bloom and with a town called Dublin and its characters and
character. The parallel reminds us
that there is a third thing, namely what Ulysses
and the Odyssey have in common, a
third thing that is going to exist when Dublin,
Ulysses and the Odyssey
have disappeared, something that will be in hearts and in great writings always.
Perhaps poets usually look after the particulars and let the universals
look after themselves. Perhaps
Homer did this. One may suspect
that Joyce sensed a special need in our generation, in the generations around
his time, that we, so literal, so scientific, respecting differences far more
than similarities, need a leg-up into those deeper levels of poetry and story
that are intimations of the ‘familiness’ of the world, and of the continuity
and preservation of all consciousnesses. Perhaps
the emergence of a science of dreams is a sign of the decline of the poetic
intuition that can understand dreams; and
it seems that Joyce wanted to share his dream despite that decline, to share
that universal dream of which that decline was a part, a rhythmic and right
Although the parallel between Ulysses
and the Odyssey is a platitude of Joyce studies, virtually no exploration of
this fertile area has been made. T.
S. Eliot recognised it as a scientific discovery, but no attempt has been made
to codify the parallels. There was
in the early years discussion of Molly’s faithfulness, but no one considered
the question in the light of Penelope’s proverbial faithfulness.
Superficially, there is contradiction between Molly’s technical
adultery and Penelope’s extraordinary faithfulness.
But Molly’s whole meditation is a proving in her heart of her love of
Leopold. In fact, the chapter
corresponds to the famous proving of Ulysses by Penelope.
Despite the beautiful power and the reiterated yeses of the closing,
enveloping, orgasmic end of her meditation and, significantly simultaneously, of
the book, some writers manage to find debatable the implication.
Joyce said that Molly countersigns Bloom’s passport to eternity.
It is her decision, come to in that very free-thinking way, that settles
what is apparently till then a question. The
parallel allows Joyce to ‘say’ the profounder things without indelicate
intrusion into the text.
The parallel also allows us, on the other side, to get some hint or
glimpse into what are the profundites of Homer.
Ulysses and the Odyssey
comment on one another. There is a
book that can be written explicating the Odyssey
by looking at Ulysses.
The problem of life is reading life by surface, by appearance, by the
letter. Does Molly commit adultery
or not? If you say yes, you
commit yourself to a materialist, Pharisaical worldview.
Her spirit is faithful, and a spiritual outlook will say she is faithful.
At this, the superficial, letter-of-the-law spirit will roar with horror
and rage. Ulysses and Joyce’s Fw multiword technique challenge us on the
fundamental dichotomy of life.
Listen to Joyce in the Mangan essay (essential reading for anyone who
would understand and love Joyce, a very great and neglected essay):
‘Poetry, even when apparently most fantastic, is always a revolt
against artifice... It speaks
of what seems fantastic and unreal to those who have lost the simple intuitions
which are the tests of reality.’ He
is talking about the spirit versus the letter.
Here we certainly seem to have the voice of one knowing a world beyond
what others know, a writer speaking at age twenty quite simply from reality,
towards the sleepers. Hence
Thus Joyce writes from a point where the lack of essential difference
between dream and life is clear, from the point where dream is the meaning and
the indication of life. One effect
that the poetic perception of life has is that everything is the whole, is the
One. Microcosm is macrocosm.
Everything is decoration, is revamping of the essential thing.
Kosmos, as well as being world, is also:
decoration, ornament. Maya.
Lila. The one pattern once
seen is seen in everything. The
variety, the multiplicity, is the celebration of the One.
The One may be celebrated in many things.
on to part 2 of again...