, Volume 38, Issue 1, pp 161-175

“Paradox lust”: the fortunate fall according to Joyce in finnegans wake

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Abstract

A half century ago Atherton started cataloguing the plethora of books in the Wake, and fifteen years ago Hogan concentrated on Milton’s work among those furnishing more potent, complex, and extended allusions. Not since Rabelais’s, Cervantes’s, Sterne’s, and Goethe’s fictions, which demonstrated how to journey through vast realms of culture and paradigmatic literature, has any author acted with such sovereign freedom as Joyce to align a convergence of all books and language over the ages with his own search for wisdom. The fact that Joyce achieved a very personal synthesis out of the referential immensity adduced in the Wake should not deter us from recognizing certain deep patterns which qualify Joyce as a renewer of important tradition. The patterns of concern here as encountered in Joyce finally carry us over into experiencing a kind of “modern mysticism” that is not exclusively apophatic but also simultaneously directly affirmative, although not explainable in any routine discursive fashion. Joyce’s idea of a divine creative principle that appears to “fall” in the course of bringing forth its own purpose in a “creation” has an honorable place in theological, cosmogonic, and mystical thought in the European tradition. A number of Renaissance savants and poets believed that various paradigms embodied in ancient myth, including the biblical story of Adam and Eve, reflected this proposition. Several streams feeding from the Renaissance over Romanticism into Modernism and interesting to Joyce (e.g., early anthropological myth analysis, cabala, theosophy, etc.) kept alive the poetic vocabulary by which to express an encounter with the baffling puzzle of Being as a drama played out by the human race, an evolutionary drama with both historical and psychological dimensions. Joyce’s contemporary, Thomas Mann, while quite different in many respects, shares Joyce’s perception that a parallelism exists between the “fall” of Being or Spirit, the “agon” of human development, and the problem of a seemingly absurd mind/body division. Although keen interest in poets like Blake, the heroic power of the imagination, and the Luciferic theme is prominent in Ulysses, a movement occurs in the Wake away from the Bildungsroman structure toward a more encompassing visionary sense of rebirth. In the Wake Joyce “revises” the Miltonic version of the fall (as well as the Dantesque and others) in a way consonant with Goethe’s revision of the meaning of the recorded three millennia of human striving in Faust II; the Goethean coda anticipates Joyce in “fulfilling” the inner tendency which surfaces from the biblical account of the family romance onward and appears instantiated repeatedly in the world theater/history. Joyce’s version abandons the apocalyptic model of a once-only creation and privileges the alternate model of an eternal or permanent universe, but according to Joyce the repeatable story of the “fortunate fall” eventuates in a requisite salvational insight suited to the Viconian “eternal return”: in the words of the mother, “first we feel, then we fall”. Joyce reinvents the basic sacraments poetically to reflect the ultimate union of creator and creation, and the Wake’s famous coda confirms the sacred mission and destiny of love’s “body” (which is also by analogy the text’s body or embodiment).

A short version of this essay has been presented as a talk at the Modern Language Association in Los Angeles in January 2011 in the session “Joyce and Narrative,” sponsored by the International James Joyce Foundation.