Tuesday, April 3, 2012


Readers of this blog who are expectantly waiting for details of the last meeting will have to forgive me if I get to one question that perplexed me in particular from our reading then. It has to do with the passage that begins on the very bottom of page 223 with the word "Item." I happened to notice that the paragraph repeated this word four more times, changing only the first letter to each of the other four vowels. I was curious what Joyce was driving at, but though we found that  that otem probably related to totem and atem at the end related to both breath and Atem, the Creator god in The Egyptian Book of the Dead, I was eager to figure out the broader purpose here.

Well, today I finally got around to this. A couple of my fall back resources didn't quite give me the results I wanted, but I finally stumbled on a piece in The Books at the Wake, by James S. Atherton, which has been recommended to me before. And what I learned there is that, though this may well be about the creator god of the Egyptians, what it's really about is Lewis Carroll.

I'll start by saying that Atherton mentions that that initial "item" is also slang for "hint". But Atherton reserves the rest of the answer for later. In between, he has quite a bit to say about Carroll, alias, of course for Lewis Dodgson. Atherton says that Joyce and Carroll were both very interested in wordplay, and seem to have invented several of the forms separately. Joyce only came upon Carroll after the fact. But he soon saw that Carroll was a perfect HCE figure, with his doubtful relations with little girls and with his double identities.

The Item...Otem...Etem...Utem...Atem chain is what's called a 'word ladder' and it's a form Carroll invented, and apparently the only one that Atherton thinks Joyce didn't come to on his own. It involves changing one letter per word, and Atherton maintains that wherever you find one of these in The Wake, the passage has something to do with Carroll.

In this instance, there is a lot about Carroll, as a creator, being connected with the creator god of Egypt, Atem (sometimes spelled Atum). Atem's story is that he created the people of the world by spitting on a primordial mudheap at Heliopolis, but there is also another story in which Atem peoples the world by "spilling his seed".So, in another place in the book where Joyce refers to "a spitter that can be depended on", that's Dodgson/Carroll/Atem we're looking at.

One sentence that I found in this chapter is, I think, worth quoting here. Atherton says that in Finnegans Wake, Joyce holds no bitterness against anyone:

"But the obsession with secret guilt remains, underlying all the oddities, and the scholarship, the wit and the poetry, and the lyric beauty of the Wake."

We've touched on this before in the group, but I think it's worth remembering that despite the fact of this being a comic novel, this is the ground note of the book. It's what makes the Wake something more than just brilliant wordplay. It's what makes the book speak to our condition.


  1. Next week, April 25th is the anniversary of the day that Lewis Carroll first met Alice. I thought I'd talk a little about the Joycean aspects of Lewis Carroll.

    I am reading Cohen's biography of Lewis Carroll (aka Charles Dodgson), and I have already discovered a whole lot of Wake-related things.

    Anna Livia Plurabelle has a deep connection to Alice.

    First note that the Alice of Alice in Wonderland fame was APL--Alice Pleasance Liddell.

    Second, almost all his outings with the Liddell children were riparian, and moving through the stream was associated with his story telling.

    In terms of wordplay, the choice of Lewis Carroll as a pseudonym is very interesting! I can see why Joyce felt a certain fellowship with Carroll...

    First of all, the first name is obviously a transformation of his middle name, Lutwidge--to a first name with EXACTLY the same number of letters as Alice's first name!

    But wait there's more! (Don't you hate people who say that.) Not only does the last name, Carroll, have EXACTLY as many letters as Alice's last name, Liddell, the consonants and vowels are in the same places! In fact if you take Liddell=>Laddell->Larrell->Larroll, you need only replace with this first initial L with the his, C.

    But if that's not enough--taking "w" as a consonant,and the silent "e" as a vowel, the names Alice and Lewis (A-L, L-E, I-W,C-I,E-S) pair up oppositely, with each vowel corresponding to a consonant, and each consonant corresponding to a vowel. (Joyce uses a similar tactic "speaking with his mouth full" and spelling romantically in x's and o's, with potato as xoxoxo, for example.)

    Undigested facts.
    The story of Alice underground was first told on the 4th of July 1862. Let's see if this pops up somewhere in the Wake.

    Lewis Carroll had seven sisters in his family. I wonder if there is a connection with the seven rainbow girls....

  2. Ed this is great stuff. Why not make it into a blog post where more people will see it?

  3. Though there are a lot of references to Carroll in the book, I think it's been established that Joyce hadn't read much Carroll before starting the Wake. He was undoubtedly inspired by Carroll's portmanteau wordplay, but it seems that Joyce appreciated Carroll as a navigator of the unconscious ("watching bland sol slithe dodgsomely into the nethermore," 57). The pedophilia that moralistic biographers read into Carroll's relations with Alice certainly fired Joyce's already lascivious imagination, making Carroll a perfect parallel to the disgraced HCE.

  4. Thanks, Steve. The way I'm piecing it together, it's not that Joyce is following in Carroll's trail, as that once he discovered him, he found him to be yet another HCE figure who he could then work cleverly into the text. Parnell, who showed up in last week's meeting--which I haven't written up yet--is another, and I think there are more.

  5. I admit I never read Carroll's post-Alice masterwork Sylvie & Bruno. Since it has the title of one of Joyce's tragic heroes in the title, I would have expected it to supply pun fodder aplenty in the Wake. Not to mention that S&B begins in the middle of a sentence. Maybe someone familiar with S&B can find some parallels.