The Neuter Subject of Finnegans Wake

  • Jean-Michel Rabaté


The semiotic approach to such intractable masterpieces of modernist or post-modernist writing as Pound’s Cantos, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake or Arno Schmidt’s Zettels Traum, to name but a few of this century’s literary monsters, often proves awkward, disappointing and ill-adapted to the experimental quality of their idioms. When experimenting with language these texts create a language of their own, they displace all conventional norms of creation as well as of reception, and become ‘idiolects’, properly speaking, which cannot easily be reduced to a set of codes underlying them.1 But if, having realised the idiolectal quality of the work, one refuses to apply exterior concepts and remains within the confines of its specificity, then the commentary will hardly avoid turning into a repetitive and sanctifying gloss, running the risk of forfeiting any critical leverage it could bring to bear on the text. Besides, when the text seems to anticipate whatever critical discourse can be elaborated about it by constantly writing about itself, as is clearly the case with Finnegans Wake, when the parade of parodic exegesis debunks all the notions of ‘code’, ‘discourse’, ‘semantics’, all understood in their metaphysical naïvety and mythical candour as the tools of a traditional language which the new idiolect aims at subverting,2 it becomes extremely difficult to situate an adequate exegesis: it cannot be ‘inside’ nor ‘outside’ the text — but it can attempt to describe the loops of the text to its ideal or real reader, and appreciate the subversive power of its renewed semantics.


Grammatical Gender Divided Subject Semiotic Approach Neuter Subject Arabian Night 
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  1. 2.
    This is a common assumption shared by the French Joyceans as shown by the selection of essays in Derek Attridge and Daniel Ferrer (eds): Post-Structuralist Joyce (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Samuel Beckett, ‘Dante … Bruno. Vico .. Joyce’, in Our Exagmination Round his Factification… (1929) (London: Faber and Faber, 1972) p. 14.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    For a good introduction to literary iconicity, see Geoffry N. Leech and Michael Short, Style in Fiction, (London: Longman, 1984) pp. 233–43, andGoogle Scholar
  4. Derek Attridge, The Rythyms of English Poetry (London: Longman, 1982) pp. 287–95.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    David Hayman, Joyce et Mallarmé. I. Stylistique de la Suggestion. II. Les Éléments mallarméens dans l’oeuvre de Joyce, Lettres Modernes (Paris: Minard, 1956).Google Scholar
  6. 13.
    See Jack P. Dalton, ‘Music lesson’, in A Wake Digest, ed. Clive Hart and Fritz Senn (Adelaide: Sydney University Press, 1968) pp. 13–16.Google Scholar
  7. 18.
    Thomas E. Connolly (ed.) Scribbledehobble: The Ur-Workbook for Finnegans Wake (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1961) p. 25, and JJA [28], Notebook VI.A, 21.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Jean-Michel Rabaté 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jean-Michel Rabaté
    • 1
  1. 1.University of DijonFrance

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