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.