On Not Reading for the Plot in Finnegans Wake
Independent Scholar, New York
Since narrative desire, according to Peter Brooks, is “what makes plot move us forward to the end” (Brooks 47), we can recognize a resistance to narrative in Joyce’s decision to reject “goahead plot” (Joyce 1957 318) as he was writing Finnegans Wake. As Attridge points out, the Wake is notable for the absence of those devices that enable a text “to arouse expectations, and to modify, complicate, defeat, or partially satisfy those expectations, arriving at full satisfaction—or something like it—only at the end” (Attridge 126). Although it is considered a dubious strategy to attribute the aesthetic pronouncements of Stephen in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to Joyce himself, it is tempting to see Joyce’s rejection of “goahead plot” as an extension of Stephen’s rejection of kinetic art. As the latter says in his extended discourse to Lynch, “Desire urges us to possess, to go to something...[and]…[t]he arts which excite them…are improper arts” (Joyce 1968 205). Stephen goes on to observe that the proper arts are static rather than kinetic. While the mind subject to kinetic emotion is urged onward in order to satisfy aroused expectations, the mind in apprehending static art “is arrested and raised above desire” (Joyce 1968 205).
Lauretis’ observation that a question, such as the one that opens the drama of Oedipus, “generates a narrative, turns it into a quest” and that “a story too is always a question of desire” (Onega 263) suggests that there is, according to Stephen’s theory, something improper in the very nature of narrative. On the one hand, the Wake’s directive to the reader to “Satis thy quest on” (FW 260.19) appears to urge the reader to partake of the sort of narrative desire that Lauretis describes. The reference to a question (i.e., Hamlet’s “that is the question”) transformed into a quest for the satisfaction of a desire are all consistent with her analysis. On the other hand, the Wake’s refusal “to arouse expectations” (Attridge 126) is implicit in one of HCE’s names—“[h]ave we cherished expectations” (FW 614.23)—since it suggests a retrospective criticism of forward looking desire. It also calls to mind Great Expectations, a novel notable for its ability to arouse and to undermine the kinetic emotions evoked by its title. As Brooks puts it, “this most tightly and consistently plotted of novels seems to expose plot as a kind of necessary error” (Brooks 140). As I hope to show, the Wake’s engagement with Great Expectations was central to Joyce’s critique of the kinetic demands of the traditional novel.
The refusal of the Wake “to arouse expectations” in order to “partially satisfy those expectations” (Attridge 126) contradicts it’s own dictum to “Satis thy quest on” (FW 260.19). While the phrase appears to endorse what Brooks calls “the active quest of the reader for those shaping ends” (Brooks 19) that will satisfy the desire for significance and meaning, it becomes ironic when placed in the context of Great Expectations. It is, in fact, Pip’s encounter with the inhabitants of the Satis House that sends him forward on his futile quest for an impossible love object and a delusive dream of gentility. Rather than progressing toward a satisfaction of these desires, however, the story traces a series of disappointments and reversals that undermine the very machinery driving the narrative. There is an element of Zeno’s paradox in Pip’s attempt to get closer to his goal.
The four sentences that follow the command also parallel Great Expectations in various ways. The entire passage is as follows: “Satis thy quest on. Werbungsap! Jeg suis, vos wore a gentleman, thou arr, I am a quean? Is a game over? The game goes on.” (FW 269.19-22). One can imagine the phrase “Jeg suis, vos wore a gentleman, thou arr, I am a quean” (FW 269.20-21) coming from Miss Havisham. As Gilmour observes, in taking Pip up, she “seems to have recognized his innate fitness to become a gentleman” (Gilmour 580). The Wake expresses this recognition as a garbled conditional: i.e, if you are a gentleman, then I am a queen—suggesting that Miss Havisham can satisfy her own aspirations for gentility by making a gentleman of Pip. In fact, when Pip comes to her with his changed clothes and manners, she is gratified when he kisses her “hand as if I were a queen” (Dickens 181). As Brooks observes, “[t]he dream of Satis House is properly a daydream, in which ‘His Majesty, the Ego’ pleasures himself with the phantasy of social ascension and gentility” (Brooks 119). The delusion is shared by both characters since Miss Havisham is no more a member of the gentry than Pip. Her wealth, after all, has come to her from her father’s brewery.
In Pip’s case, the daydream of gentility is merged with his daydream of romantic love. This conjunction allows him to construct a heroic master plot in which he is able to “do all the shining deeds of the young Knight of romance, and marry the Princess” (Dickens 179). Estella is, in fact, more queen than princess. In his first encounter with her, he is already smitten by the realization that “she was as scornful of me as if she had been one-and-twenty, and a queen” (Dickens 49), and it is from this moment that he conceives the desire for the nobility that would allow him to be worthy of her. By changing the word to “quean” (FW 269.21), however, Joyce comes closer to the true state of affairs. Both meanings of the word—shrew and prostitute—are indicative of the subterranean motivations that underlie the ostensive plot. As a shrew, Estella has been brought up to arouse desires for the express purpose of disappointing them. As a sort of high-priced courtesan in the bordello of Satis House with Miss Havisham as madame, she is driven by monetary, not romantic, considerations. As Walsh puts it, “Miss Havisham and Estella cannot escape from their economic role as ‘commodities’” (Dickens 717).
The third quest motif in Great Expectations that works against the other two, is the quest for knowledge. Though reasonably certain that his benefactor is Miss Havisham and that all of his desires will be satisfied when she reveals herself as such, Pip remains in a state of suspense until the moment of truth arrives. When the Wake declares “Satis thy quest on. Werbungsap!” (FW 269.20), the implication is that a word to the wise would be sufficient to answer the question. Or perhaps, as in the case of Oedipus, the wise thing would be to abandon the quest for an answer. In Great Expectations, this phrase appears at the end of a newspaper article disseminating a rumor that Pumblechook is responsible for Pip’s rise in the world. When the article concludes with a terse “VERB SAP” (Dickens 178), Pip is amused at the presumption and self-delusion of it all. He and most readers, however, are also deceived at this point in the novel, having been taken in by the elaborate McGuffin of the Havisham plot. When the true state of affairs is revealed, the bitter knowledge of his real benefactor short-circuits the desires that have driven the plot hitherto. As Brooks puts it, “[w]hen Pip has proved himself to be the successful detective in this quest…he discovers the knowledge he has gained to be radically unusable” (Brooks 135). In other words, his ability to “Satis thy quest on” (FW 269.20), fatally undermines his quest.
Pip’s fall after his discovery is presented in another section of the Wake. The description of someone scaling an “acute bubel runtoer for to pippup and gopeep where the sterres be” (FW 624.9-10) presents his aspiration for the twin stars of Estella and gentility in terms of the story of the tower of Babel with its disastrous attempt to scale the heavens. The conflation of Babel and ‘bubble’ is also pertinent since the appearance of Magwitch has been described as the point in the novel “when the bubble burst” (Dickens 570) for Pip. The neologism “sterres” (FW 624.10) develops the same idea. As McHugh points out, the word is a portmanteau combining the Dutch word for star (“ster”) with the Italian word for excavation (“sterro”) (McHugh 624). In other words, the more Pip climbs towards the fulfillment of his desires, the more he digs up the sordid realities that will cancel them out. In Trilling’s well-known formulation, “[t]he real story is not the gentility of Pip’s life but the hulks and the murder and the rats and decay in the cellarage of the novel” (Trilling 211).
When the Wake follows the above mentioned reference to Pip with a reference to Ibsen’s Master Builder, a parallel is drawn between the two characters. Like Pip (and the characters in the story of the Tower of Babel), Master Soleness scales the summit of a tower, only to plunge back to the earth. As the Wake describes the progression, “[a]mid the soleness. Tilltop, bigmaster! Scale the summit!…All your graundplotting and the little it brought!” (FW 624.11-13). The exclamatory imperatives recall the earlier command to “Satis thy quest on” (FW 269.20) with its encouragement to pursue a quest upward and onward. On the one hand, the master builder or “bigmaster” (FW 624.11) who realizes the futility of plotting can be applied to Dickens himself. As Brooks observes, in Great Expectations, the “master-plotter…seems to expose plot as a kind of necessary error” (Brooks 140). On the other hand, the ascending “bigmaster” is applicable to Magwitch as he prepares to reveal to Pip the truth about his expectations. When the latter asks from the top of the stairhead “[w]hat floor do you want,” the latter replies, “[t]he top. Mr. Pip” (Dickens 237). Magwich, in effect, scales the summit of Pip’s tower of delusion to throw him back into the mire. The latter’s “grand-plotting” is revealed to be the sordid “ground-plotting” of the former. The situation is also summed up in the phrase “Oncaills plot” (FW 235.16) (uncle’s plot) insofar as Magwitch is presented as Pip’s uncle and the effects of his revelation are compared by the latter to being buried alive as “the roof of my stronghold dropped upon me” (Dickens 235) (“BL onncaill: bury” (McHugh 235)). In any case, from this moment, Pip rejects the notion of a master plot in his life, and embraces the unromantic life of an unmarried clerk. As Brooks observes, “in Pip’s recognition of the general forfeiture of plotting [he renounces] any attempt to direct his life” (Brooks 138).
The latter third of Great Expectations presents the odd spectacle of a novel outliving itself, its narrative continuing from sheer inertia after the grand-plot that drove it has broken down. As Brooks describes it, “we have the impression of a life that has outlived plot, renounced plot, been cured of it: life that is left over” (Brooks 138). Along the same lines, after the Wake calls into question the quest-inducing force of Satis House it adds a further question and answer: “[i]s a game over? The game goes on” (FW 269.21-22). This oxymoronic tendency to simultaneously end plot and continue narration is symptomatic of the transition from modernism to post-modernism. We find it, above all, in Joyce’s most eminent disciple, Samuel Beckett; for example, in Molloy’s observation about his life that “at the same time it is over and goes on” (Beckett 44) and the iconic ending to The Unnamable, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” (Beckett 577).
While Great Expectations begins in the grand tradition of the Bildungsroman, it winds up as a deconstruction of the form. As Brooks explains, while “the model of the Bildungsroman seems to imply progress…Pip’s story…becomes more and more the working through of past history” (Brooks 134). It should be noted that when Dickens was working on Great Expectations, he was losing his belief in the “progressive momentum” (Dickens 578) of the age that motivated his earlier works. Perhaps the definitive expression of this disillusion occurs in Moby Dick when Ishmael declares, “There is no steady unretracing progress in this life…But once gone through, we trace the round again” (Melville 404). The Wake contains a similar realization when it describes itself as an “exprogressive process” (FW 614.31)—that is to say, a process that was formerly progressive but which has become instead a “millwheeling vicociclometer” (FW 614.27) that retraces the same round ad infinitum. Significantly, this self-description comes directly after the question “[h]ave we cherished expectations” (FW 614.23) that bids farewell to great expectations and grand plotting. An analogous passage—possibly influenced by Melville—contains the dual exclamation “Hams, circuitise! Shemites, retrace!” (FW 552.8-9).
Pip begins his story as “an existence without plot” (Brooks 117) and ends it as “a life that has outlived plot” (Brooks 138). In between his quest for love and gentility miserably fails. A similar trajectory can be seen in HCE who ends up being voted “once and for all out of plotty existence…while his body still persisted” (FW 76.18-20). This persistence can be read as the afterimage of narrative. Once again, the nature of the story changes from a plot in which “some progress has been made” (FW 236.26) into an “exprogressive process” (FW 614.31). Just as the true nature of Satis House is a fixation that makes the “forward movement of plot impossible” (Brooks 119), the reiterative vortex of the Wake undermines the progress of “goahead plot.” For example, one notable plot element in the Wake occurs on pages 30-31 when William the Conqueror hunting with his “lady pack of cocker spaniels” (FW 30.19) gives HCE his agnoman of “earwigger” (FW 31.28) after asking about the purpose of “a flowerpot…fixed earthside hoist with care” (FW 31.3) and receiving the reply, “aw war jist a cotchin on thon bluggy earwuggers” (FW 31.10-11). The event is important enough to be recorded in “collateral andrewpaulmurphyc narratives” ( FW 31.35). On the other hand, after 163 more pages of the Wake’s narrative, the reader is told that “the flowerpot on the pole, the spaniel pack and their quarry…have not budged a millimetre” (FW 194.7-9). In the proliferation of narratives, something has arrested the advance of goahead plot.
One of the elements of this arrest is the modality of the “not yet” (see Attridge 86-92)—a hesitation preceeding recorded events. While the sailor king on page 31 is described as “draining a gugglet of obvious adamale” (FW 31.11-12), the same character on page 194 has “not yet drunk a gouttelette” (FW 194.7). This idea is expanded in the second paragraph of the Wake where the reference to five different scenarios are modified with the adverb “passencore” (FW 3.4-5) (F pas encore: not yet) and “not yet” ( FW 3.10, 11). According to Campbell and Robinson, this passage, along with the next two paragraphs, holds “in suspension all the characters and plot motifs of the book” (Campbell and Robinson 24). The distinction between plot and plot motif is important. While the former is a determination of events, the latter is a reiteration of themes. By refusing to move beyond the mere suggestion of narrative possibility, the Wake lingers in what Miller calls “the ‘nonnarratable’ state of quiescence assumed by a novel before the beginning and supposedly recovered by it at the end” (Miller ix). The adjective “nonnarratable,” however, applies only to the traditional plot-driven novel. In the Wake narrative thrives even in a plotless stasis.
While readers of the Wake are perhaps “arrested and raised above desire” (Joyce 1968 205) in the sense of what Brooks calls “the narrative of desire” (Brooks 48)—that is, in terms of an identification with the goal-oriented quest of a protagonist—they are submerged in a self-generating “desire of narrative” (Brooks 48) that perpetuates discourse for its own sake. In other words, while the Wake subverts the kinetic dis-equilibrium that moves plot forward, it also resists the recovery of equilibrium that brings narrative to an end. The difference also corresponds to Brooks’ description of a movement from desire as the motor of “the narrative plot, to desire as the motor of narration, the narrating discourse” (Brooks 52). This transition also changes the valence of the “not yet.” In contrast to its earlier intention not to begin, the Wake’s declaration of “Cry not yet! There’s many a smile to Nondum” (FW 20.19) (L non dum: not yet) affirms a counter urge to keep the narrative going in spite of the desire to “stop, please stop, do please stop, and O do please stop” (FW 124.4-5). While a “telling is always in terms of the impending end” (Brooks 52)—or as the Wake puts it, “every telling has a taling” (FW 213.12)—this sort of self-generating narrative refuses to conclude. Brooks’ description of a conflict in which “the desire to end is matched by an ever more complex, deviant, transgressive-filled resistance to the end” (Brooks 156) is given a concrete focus in the Wake’s declaration of “Ath yetheredayth noth endeth, hay? (FW 346.23-4). McHugh points out the reference to the hymn “The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended” (McHugh 346). In Joyce’s version, however, the thankfulness for an ended day is contradicted by a counter claim that today is not yet ended and even yesterday is as yet ongoing.
One of the exemplary instances of a narrative whose sole purpose is to persist, occurs in the Tales of One Thousand and One Nights. Scheherazade will remain alive only as long as she can keep her story going. As Brooks puts it, “the sultan’s desire derailed by his wife’s infidelity”—much as Miss Havisham’s desire is derailed by the failure of the groom to show up on her wedding day—is deflected from its murderous intent when Scheherazade succeeds in “prolonging it, precisely by narrativizing it” (Brooks 60). To do this she employs one of the customary devices for arousing desire in reader or listener: the cliffhanger. She breaks off her story at a crucial moment, leaving the sultan eager to hear a conclusion continually postponed until the next night. In other words, the sultan’s desire to have the narrative concluded—along with the life of the narrator—is countered by her desire to keep it going. The Wake presents the sultan’s suspense as a suspended sword of Damocles when it maintains that “in this scherzarade of one’s thousand one nightinesses that sword of certainty which would indentifide the body never falls” (FW 51.4-6). Readers of the Wake, however, are not put in a position to identify with the sultan’s desire for closure. What they are offered instead is “the constant presence of narrative experience” in the absence of “a developing thread of narrative discourse” (Hayman 132).
Another example of concluding the quest for an answer with another quest-inducing question is provided by the serialized novel. As Brooks observes, writers who were paid by the line “learned to shape their plots to the exigencies of serialization” (Brooks 147))—in other words, by a need to keep going instead of concluding. ALP’s desires have been shaped by these economic considerations when she is described as “seeking her way, a chickle a chuckle, in and out of their serial story” (FW 28.25-6). Much like Scheherazade, these writers designed a provisional ending for their installments which also created “a new moment of suspense and expectation so that the terminal tag, “la Suite a demain” (the nineteenth century’s “tune in tomorrow”), could take its full toll on the reader” (Brooks 147). ALP reveals herself to be a willing victim of this ruse when she speaks of what “I read in Tobecontinued’s tale” (FW 626.18). In another sense, however, like Hamlet, she is simply “reading the book of [her]self” (U 9.115). Miller’s claim that “the narratable inherently lacks finality…[and] can never be properly brought to term. The tendency of a narrative would therefore be to keep going” (Miller xi) finds its analogue in ALP’s chapter where she is commanded to “Never stop! Continuarration! You’re not there yet. I amstel waiting. Garonne, Garonne!” (FW 205.14-15). The name of one of her rivers—the Garonne—expresses her Beckett-like urge to “go on.” Going on, however, is not the same as going forward to a specific goal. The random movements and changes that allow the river to “curara here, careero there, not knowing which medway or weser” (FW 209.21-22) have no such final point in mind.
Narrative proliferates in the absence of conclusive meaning or event in those peculiar forms of telling called gossip, rumor, and chatter. Miller’s observation that “[t]he undetermined language of chatter, exceeding the task of communication, answers mainly to a sheer need to talk—or better, a need not to stop talking” (Miller 39) provides a context for understanding the description of ALP “babbling, bubbling, chattering to herself” (FW 195.1-2). The fact that her words are directed “to herself” emphasizes that her chatter not only exceeds the task of communication, but dispenses with it altogether. The origins of plotless narrative in what Mary McCarthy calls the language of “gossip and tittle tattle” (in Miller 39) is also suggested by the small talk of “gossipaceous Anna Livia” (FW 195.4) and by the Wake ’s description of itself as “[t]otalled and toldteld and teldtold in tittletell tattle” (FW 597.8-9). But the urge to tell all—what Brooks calls “the need to tout dire” (Brooks 33)—must also contend with the cautionary figure of Miss Bates from Emma who “[i]n her ‘impatience to say everything’…tells nothing much worth hearing” (Miller 40). Miller claims that this character dramatizes Austen’s belief that the novel that dispenses, as the Wake did, with the plot-driving elements of “suspense or delay” risks becoming nothing more than “boring, supererogatory prattle” (Miller 41). This is a common criticism of the Wake, from Leavis’ claim that all of Joyce’s prodigious efforts produced nothing more than “monotonous non-significance” (Leavis 124) to Lewis’s complaint of a “stupefying monotony” (Lewis 106) in the tradition of the euphuism of Nash. Nonetheless, Joyce found beauty in nonsense and was determined to “let annapal livibel prettily prattle a lude all her own” (FW 337.8-9).
Switching genders, we move from the Miss Bates of Emma to the meandering of Anna Livia “by that maritime way…to Master Bates” (FW 209.5-8)—another important motivator of the self-generating narrative. While Brooks notes the relation between masturbation and autotelic narrative in such writers as Rousseau and Genet (Brooks 38, 103), the same relation is suggested in the Wake’s imperative of “Onon! Onon!. Tell me every tiny teign. I want to know every single ingul” (FW 201.21-22). The first word refers to both the river “Onon” and the biblical “Onan” who gave his name to the act of self-pleasuring and become its very type. This erotic onwardness takes in everything from Stephen’s ardent “on and on and on and on” (P 172) to Beckett’s unwilling but compelled “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” (Beckett 577). On the other hand, the narrative desire in this passages is generated as much by the audience’s erotic itch to hear all as by the narrator’s need to tell all. As the Chapter opens with its pudendic exclamation, “O tell me all about Anna Livia! I want to hear all about Anna Livia” (FW 196.1-4).
The “maritime way” (FW 209.5-8) also suggests that blending of the “cadence of waves with thought” (Fabricant 62) that characterizes the yarns of sailors suffused with the inconclusive onwardness of an endless voyage. In contrast to the Stephen of Ulysses who distrusts “aquacities of thought and language” (U 17.240), Joyce conceived of the Wake as a work “whose fundamental theme would be the murmur of the sea” (Potts 203). Here the tale is composed a surplus of narrative desire mirroring the reiterative presence of the teller. As Fabricant explains, “the narrator is both the detached creator ‘spinning his yarn’ and also the very stuff of his creation” (Fabricant 62). When Bruno appears in the Wake as “that quaintesttest of yarnspinners” (FW 50.18-19) he stands for the narrative obsessions that traverse the entire book. Rather than arriving at a specific destination, the reader is caught up in a “baffling yarn [that] sailed in circles” (FW 320.35). What Stevens celebrates as the “mid-sea…motion of thought / And its restless iteration” (Stevens 48) the Wake describes as a proliferation of “oldworld tales of homespinning….which reliterately whisked off our heart so narrated” (FW 431.31-33)—a narrative that blends the ‘literate’ and the ‘reiterative.’
There is an irresolvable conflict between the desire to tell all and the self-generating narrative that always produces something more to tell. In Ulysses, Bloom imagines the former as an urge for union moving inexorably “to the goal of quiescence” (Brooks 103): “Tell her: more and more: all. Then a sigh: silence. Long long long rest” (U 5: 298-9). In the Wake, the literary analogue is presented as the author’s compulsion to write all, likewise ending in rest or arrest: “Coccolanius or Gallotaurus, wrote it, wrote it all, wrote it all down, and there you are, full stop” (FW 118.13-14). On the other hand, the reference to a cock and a bull (“L Taurus, bull; L gallus: cock” (McHugh 118)) suggests that the undertaking is impossible. The whole purpose of the cock and bull story is to go on for as long as possible—frustrating the desire for a quiescent conclusion with “an ever more complicated postponement or detour” (Brooks 103)—in the absence of any point or even subject matter. The apotheosis of the form is, of course, Tristram Shandy—a work that Joyce acknowledged as one of his models for the Wake (Ellmann 554). Instead of a conclusion, Sterne ends his work with Mrs. Shandy’s question “what is this story about?” followed by the reply, “A Cock and a Bull…And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard” (Sterne 615). Hayman’s observation that the Wake does not present us with “tales, unless we think of the ‘shaggy dog tale’ as a conventional narrative, a tale which is all tail, one completely lacking in point and punch line” (Hayman 131) is indicative of Joyce’s debt to Sterne. In any case, the Wake’s famous observation that “every telling has a taling” (FW 213.12) can mean either that a “telling is always in terms of the impending end” (Brooks 52)—the tail end, that is—or that it will wag on indefinitely.
Sterne was also central to Joyce’s resistance to the demands of “goahead plot” or what Brooks calls “plot as a form of desire that carries us forward” (Brooks 37). Tristram, in fact, criticizes the “vicious habit of reading straight forwards” (Sterne 83)—and works to subvert this habit with a proliferation of digressions, backtrackings, and delays that are interminable. Fabricant’s reference to the many instances of “going backwards and forwards at the same time” (Fabricant 63) should be supplemented by the many instances in which neither is possible; for example, Toby’s efforts to explain his military terms in which “he could get neither backwards or forwards” (Sterne 104) or, more generally, the description of thoughts that swim in the mind “without being carried backwards or forwards” (Sterne 179). The same futility appears in Great Expectations when Joe describes the unprogressive life of the inhabitants of the marsh as “no backerder, if not no forarder” (Dickens 170)—an unprogressive backdrop to Pip’s forward-looking ambitions. In any case, the Wake emphasizes the impossibility of plotted progress by giving as one of the names of its mamafesta the title “Thee steps forward, two stops back” ( FW 105.30-1), and describing its boustrophedontic writing as forever going “furrowards, bagawards” (FW 18.32), rather than straight forwards.
Fabricant’s observation that Tristram Shandy lacks “a progressive movement” dramatizing instead “the way in which process triumphs over product” (Fabricant 61) is also relevant to the Wake’s transition from a Work in Progress to a “warping process” ( FW 497.3) (warp: “to twist out of shape” (Skeat 600)). This transformation changes the nature of story as we can see from the appearance of a character in the Wake who “according to his own story…was a process server” (FW 63.31-32). The process server who delivers a message to arrest the recipient (compelling him or her to appear in court) is replaced by a story-teller who subverts arrest by serving a process. As Cadbury points out, this section of the Wake is based on a newspaper account of two men breaking into a store in Dublin (Crispi 73). Translated in the language of the Wake, however, the story becomes a repetition of past events that range from the invasion of Northmen to the destruction of Carthage (FW 64.2-3). In other sections of the Wake, the word ‘story’ no longer refers to the telling of a specific series of events, but to an archetypical pattern that is repeated ad infinitum. For example, in the claim that “it is but an old story, the tale of a Treestone with one Ysold” (FW 113.28-29) the battle between Shem and Shaun for the favors of their sister becomes the pattern for all sexual rivalries past, present, and future. In addition, the reference to “[t]he olold stoliolum! From quiqui quinet to michemiche chelet and a jambebatiste to a brulobrulo” (FW 117.10-12) presents the old story of history in terms of the writings of Quinet, Michelet, Vico, and Bruno who all presented it as a process of unprogressive repetition.
While the Wake’s insistence that “I tell you no story” (FW 55.2) can be read as a protestation that it is telling the truth, we can also interpret it as a refusal to subscribe to the conventions of plot-driven story telling. In this, Joyce was only continuing a protest that was initiated in earlier writings. As MacCabe observes, “A Portrait refuses to tell us stories” (McCabe 64), and the appearance of the gnomon (a geometrical figure with one side removed) on the opening page of Dubliners is the appropriate emblem for a series of stories in which a satisfying climax has been deliberately withheld. In another sense, however, Joyce was trying to re-define what a story was. While he insisted that he was perfectly capable of following the recipe of “a chronological scheme,” he wanted “to tell the story of this Chapelizod family in a new way” (Ellmann 554). Consequently, events occur in the Wake “at no spatial time processly which regards to concrude chronology” (FW 358.6). While the events reported in an everyday newspaper story, such as the one referred to in the previous paragraph, occur at ‘a special time precisely with regards to concrete chronology,’ the events in the Wake are accompanied by no such points of orientation. Chronology, in fact, is apparently rejected as a ‘crude’ convention.
The Wake’s lack of lack of chronology is a defining feature in Hayman’s theory of nodality. As he writes of nodal self-generation, “their random and achronological distribution obviates conditional suspense” (Hayman 132). Once again, suspense as a way of maintaining narrative desire in the reader is replaced by a meandering onwardness that is not based on delayed gratification. While a strict chronology is essential to a story in which expectations are successively aroused, delayed, complicated, and satisfied, random intrusions are fatal. Hence Shaun who has been entrusted with delivering a message that one can only hope will fill some gap in knowledge is urged to go “along the winding ways of random ever” (FW 405.8-9). As Hayman puts it, the many evocations of “narrative-dramatic genres” in the Wake are continually “destroyed by a text which refuses sequential presentation” (Hayman 132). Concerning the vexed question of the contents of the letter, the reader is led to expect that the narrative is leading to some point of “fulfillment which will satisfy our craving to know” (Hayman 132). When the paltry contents are revealed in Book IV, however, “the suspense generated by this motif is not dissipated” (Hayman 133). In fact, there is nothing to dissipate insofar as suspense has not been “at any point crucial to the reader” (Hayman 133). The expected knowledge is disseminated throughout time and space, not gathered into the confines of an envelope.
The Wake also disturbs the relation between story and discourse—terms that have been critical for the development of the field of narratology—by weighing the balance in favor of the latter. As Culler defines the terms, a story is “a sequence of actions or events, conceived of as independent of their manifestation in discourse” while a discourse is “the discursive presentation or narration of these events” (Culler 170). In the normal practices of telling we come to know the former through the latter. In the Wake’s version, however, “[t]hey tell the story….ages and ages after the alleged misdemeanour” (FW 35.1, 5-6). The telling, apparently, has lost contact with the story it is meant to convey. Though there are many versions of and allusions to the supposed event in the Wake, and many people have “threed to make out [what] he thried to two in the Fiendish park” (FW 196.10-11), no one knows for sure what HCE’s crime actually was, or, since it is merely alleged, whether it even took place. Taking place, in fact, is a minor consideration insofar as conjectured “events” in the Wake “are probably as like those which may have taken place as any others which never took person at all are ever likely to be” (FW 110.10-21). The general situation is described by Attridge as one in which “the multiple and endless accumulation of events and beings in the world and the equally endless telling of stories belong to two quite different orders of reality” (Attridge 87).
One of the most persistent master-plots determining narrative desire concerns the progress of knowledge and the development of the understanding. As Brooks puts it, “narrative itself [is] a form of understanding and explanation” (Brooks 10). From this perspective, we can judge the Wake to be an anti-narrative when it exclaims “Hirp! Hirp! For their Missed Understandings!” (FW 175.27) or includes the complaints of a less-than-ideal reader that “Magis megis enerretur mynus hoc intelligow” (FW 478.17-18) (“L [quo] magis enarratur [eo] minus hoc intellego: the more completely it is explained the less I understand this” (McHugh 478)). While the Latin “enarratur” illustrates the connection between narration and explanation, Joyce’s transformation of the word to “enerretur” suggests both “erring” and “return.” Sterne emphasizes the futility of the quest for knowledge by showing how all explanatory systems return to an ignorance in which everything still remains to be explained. As he writes, after “the great Harvest of our learning” has been brought about “by slow steps of casual increase,” we will only be compelled to “to begin over again; or, in other words, be exactly where we started” (Sterne 88). As the Wake describes the Sisyphusian task, “all that has been done has yet to be done and done again” ( FW 194.10), and after even the most profound act of sense making we will have to “begin again to make soundsense and sensesound kin again” (FW 121.15-16).
Explanatory narrative is always told in terms of the beginning and the end. On the one hand, it is an “active quest of the reader for those shaping ends” that will “bestow meaning and significance on the beginning and the middle” (Brooks 19); on the other, a quest for “origins and the tracing of a story forward from origin to present” (Brooks 6). The Wake undercuts both of these expectations with the claim that “the inception and descent and the endswell of Man is temporarily wrapped in obscenity” (FW 150.30). The reader is suspended between contradictory claims that the beginning and end are briefly wrapped in obscurity and that they will always be hidden by the very nature of time. As Brooks explains, the reader’s “desire to wrest beginnings and ends from the uninterrupted flow of middles” is also a desire to be free of “temporality itself” (Brooks 140). The Wake undermines this quest insofar as it “has no beginning or end…It ends in the middle of a sentence and begins in the middle of another sentence” (Crispi 22). Another way of looking at it is that it is forever beginning in the middle—or as the Shaun says of his brother, “he’d begin his beogrefright in muddyass ribalds” (FW 423.18). While Shem’s tendency to begin his story in medias res is both frightening and funny, Joyce found the release from explanatory beginnings and ends liberating. As the Wake puts it, “in the muddle was the sounddance” (FW 378.29-30)—the release from the obsession with original or ultimate meanings opening up new possibilities for the rhythmic dance of words. The Wake should be seen as an epic illustration and celebration of Kermode’s observation that “man is always ‘in the middest,’ without direct knowledge of origin or endpoint” (in Brooks 95).
The wheel that turns without getting anywhere is the appropriate emblem for a work in which “the narrative of desire” (Brooks 48) that progresses from a beginning to an end is replaced by a “desire of narrative” (Brooks 48) that only wants to keep going. As Tristram insists, the irrepressible but undirected humors of his house are what “makes the wheel of life run long and cheerfully round” (Sterne 335). In the words of the Wake, “I know how racy they move his wheel” (FW 213.3-4) and “ round the wheel of her whang goes the millner (FW 341.4-5). In addition, when the Wake insists that it is “willed without witting, whorled without aimed” (FW 272.4-5), the spinning motion of its wheel is maintained in the absence of an intention or a goal—an interminable discourse suited to a “world without end.” Joyce claimed that he was following in the footsteps of Sterne by building “many planes of narrative” (Ellmann 554) in his last work. The result was an enormous variety “of narrative experience” in the absence of “a developing thread of narrative discourse” (Hayman 132). More than a wheel, Sterne described this sort of ordered disorder as an intricate machine with “one wheel within another” which “has been kept a-going;--and, what’s more, shall be kept a-going” (Sterne 95). The Wake, likewise, insists that “his still’s going strang” (FW 276.22) and offers this bit of unhelpful clarification to its uncomprehending reader: “[t]here are sordidly tales within tales, you clearly understand that?” (FW 522.5-6).