Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Blake's Prophetic Works and the Imaginative Thread of Joyce's Finnegans Wake.

Joyce was omnivorous. And as a result, it is possible to trace practically anybody as his predecessors and influences in the composition of Finnegans Wake. However, there appear to be a handful of influences on Joyce that are writ large, such as Bruno, Vico, The Egyptian Book of The Dead, and Lewis Carroll. I will suggest that the influence of Blake also played a major role (1).

Early in his career, Joyce gave a series of lectures mapping the realist and imaginative currents in English literature at the Università Popolare, Trieste (2). The twin poles he furnished for this literary cartography were Defoe, and Blake.

It is tempting to see in this dichotomy a foreshadowing of Joyce's development here: progressively more and more deeply imaginative and original treatment of more and more extensive exploration of the details of everyday existence. In doing so, by his own inner realist logic, when incorporating the conscious and finally the unconscious mind, his methods would take a decidedly imaginative direction. As Joyce extended his realist domain he successively exhausted and shed each progressively more original (and progressively darker) stylistic shell. First, exploring human drama and incident (Dubliners and Portrait), he then directed his scrupulous attention to human society, technics and conscious human awareness (Ulysses), and finally (Finnegans Wake) into a dim and blurry, yet paradoxically painstaking, comedy of myth, history, the unconsciousness, sleep, and dreams. Yet even in Finnegans Wake, Joyce's naturalism sought to build his imaginative structure on what Blake called the “minute particulars” of observation. I will argue that Blake's imaginative structures provided models for certain aspects of Finnegans Wake.

However, at first glance there would not appear to be a close relationship for Joyce with this Romantic and mystical poet he cited as his epitome of the imaginative pole. Joyce was a lapsed Catholic and materialist, with an aesthetic orientation, a realist in the technical sense, and a highly refined and subtly distanced intelligence, with a nuanced and somewhat whimsically earthy equivocating spirit that sought to simultaneously redeem and embrace everyday life, and therefore built upon the commonplace the “outward sign of an inward grace”.

Blake's orientation was primarily spiritual, and was a devout, albeit highly unorthodox Protestant Christian who fled from the ordinary, and urgently wished to redeem human beings from the oppression of religion, law, excessive rationality and sexual repression. Blake's mind had a decidedly otherworldly cast. Blake's humor lacks most of the Joycean whimsy and earthiness, and rather tends towards the choleric irony of the truly earnest. Although a writer, Blake was also a practicing printer and visual artist, whereas Joyce was neither.

Nonetheless both share a surprising number of traits. Both were unafraid of obscurity and ambiguity. Both attempted to describe nonrational states of consciousness. Both believed in the primacy of art. Both were highly unconventional. Both were largely self published, and marginalized. They were both interested in artistically totalizing universal experience. (3) And both unwaveringly followed a personal path into territories largely incomprehensible to their contemporaries.

Blake's major prophetic poems represent an earlier venture to create a universal myth, and provide many surprising thematic similarities to and anticipations of Joyce's final work. We also know that Joyce was quite familiar with Blake's poetry, and had read his unfinished major prophetic poem “The Four Zoas”, as well. Of all of Blake's works, the “Four Zoas”seems to bear an especially close structural affinity to Finnegans Wake, and I will argue that there are significant parallels between Wake, as well as other of Blake's work, such as “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.”

In Blake's “Four Zoas”, Albion, Blake's Universal Man, and analog of the Kabbalah's Adam Kadmon(4), the primal soul that contains all souls within it, and an anthropomorphic representation of the universe, is shattered into partial aspects of reduced consciousness, through a dream sequence of nine nights, and reassembled into a spiritual and psychological whole. HCE in Finnegans Wake shares a similar role as the universal being, a Humpty Dumpty, that encompasses all, who has a great fall, and whose consciousness lies in fragments and seeks reintegration. In both cases the fragments take on independent existence as separate beings. And in both cases, the original pure and undivided consciousness has passed through a form of “forgetting”, where it no longer recognizes these beings as offshoots of itself.

 In both works, time is treated in an unconventional way. Events in Blake's treatment are atemporal everpresent archetypes, and in a sense constitute consciousness states that exist outside of time. (Blake uses the term “eternity”, not in the sense of everlastingness, but rather as a term for atemproality.) In Finnegans Wake, time is cyclical and therefore eternal, and also overlaid, so that the past and future are contemporaneous “forriver”.

For Blake the divided human soul is represented as a fourfold entity, the four Zoas, which represent creativity/imagination/spirit, reason/law/judgement, emotion/love, and body/desire/need. HCE, Joyce's Divided Man lies spread out and “dud” stretching to the four corners of the earth, the four “dimmansions” of space-time--between his bedposts which come alive as the Four Annalists/Evangelists, each the patron of one of the four Viconian Ages. These follow the archtetype of fourfold forms, “three and one different or special”: north is the compass point to which the needle points; time is the one dimension of the four that is consumed; John is the Evangelist who seeks to put a more spiritual/philosphic gloss on things; the Ricorso is the Age of Chaos, the “a-wake-ening” of all forms at once; Urthona, the Zoa that represents creativity/imagination/spirit, and thereby incorporates all the various energies that need to be reassembled.(5)

To the waking mind polar opposites are subject to the dissective hygene of Aristotelian logic, so that the inconvenient other can be disowned. But in a dream world, or seen from a non-rational level of consciousness, opposites become what Blake called “contrarities”, and are “equally true.” Blake tends to approach this as a drama in “eternity”, splitting off and recombining to reach resolution; since this is “eternal” (in the Blakean sense) these polar opposites coexist. Joyce's pun-language has the luxury of combining two meanings in the same word with true simultaneity, and therefore takes the form of an epiphany, or frozen continuous moment, rather than a drama (albeit understood in a special timeless way).

However, both authors have linguistic strategies for expressing simultaneous contrarities. Both use forms of humor. The Joycean weapon is the pun. Joyce very frequently uses them in such a way that they suggest not merely different meanings, but opposite meanings, rendering the reader gobsmacked, and even wondering, for example, “if life is worth leaving.” Although Blake's language is certainly obscure, he does not make such extensive use of puns. However he frequently makes use of irony, and deliberately uses certain words in a very special sense. For example, although very spiritually oriented, Blake's always uses the term “religious” in a negative sense, and treats“chastity” and “virginity” as opposites. In “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, he actually reverses the roles of Hell and Heaven, Satan and God; the proverbs in its “Proverbs of Hell” section are what Blake believes. There is one particular aspect of Finnegans Wake that particularily follows the ironic construct of “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”.

The brothers dual/duel in Finnegans Wake represent the relation of the disinherited other, Shem, to the heir, Shaun. In the “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” Satan's account is that he really is Jesus, and that he “built heaven from what he stole from the abyss”. Taking the ironist view of “Marriage” opens a particular reading of the twins. A exoteric reading of Finnegans Wake would see Shem (Lucifer) as despicable merely. The ironist view suggests, rather, Shem is all of the scary needful bits of HCE that he cannot acknowlege, and is the gatekeeper of art, spirit and enlightenment; Shaun all that his repressive consciousness can accept and approve. In Finnegans Wake the Universal Man cannot live without the integration of these two contrarities.


I have dispensed with references to quotes from Finnegans Wake, and other quotes that should be familiar.--ES


Whose Blake Did Joyce Know and What Difference Does It Make?Anita Gandolfo
James Joyce Quarterly
Vol. 15, No. 3 (Spring, 1978), pp. 215-221

By Elaine Mingus (need to find)


Joyce's lecture on Blake, was part of the series announced as "Verismo ed idealismo nella letteratura inglese (Daniele De Foe–William Blake)" (that is, "Realism and Idealism in English Literature") and presented at the Università Popolare, Trieste. The first lecture on Defoe took place on 9 February 1912 (see John McCourt, The Years of Bloom [Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2000], pp. 178–179). This may be the faircopy from which Joyce presented the lecture.

(3) I must create a system or be enslaved by another mans--Blake 
In the religious writings of Kabbalah, Adam Kadmon is a phrase meaning "Primal Man". The oldest rabbinical source for the term "Adam ha-Ḳadmoni" is Num. R. x., where Adam is styled, not as usually, "Ha-Rishon" (the first), "Ha-Kadmoni" (the original).

It is said that Adam Ḳadmon had rays of light projecting from his eyes. In Lurianic Kabbalah, Adam Ḳadmon acquired an exalted status equivalent to Purushain the Upanishads, denoting an anthropomorphic concept of the universe itself. In this variant of mythopoetic cosmogenesis and anthropogenesis, the "Adam Soul" is described as the primeval soul that contained all human souls.

anthropomorphic concept of the universe itself. In this variant of mythopoetic cosmogenesis and anthropogenesis, the "Adam Soul" is described as the primeval soul that contained all human souls

In “The Four Zoas”, the quarrel between the Urizon and Urthona reminds one of the brother duel. However, in the “Four Zoas”, Urthona is not treated ironically, but heroically. The Zoa representing the mind usurps the the place of the Zoa that represents the spirit instead of confining itself to those things that are appropriate for rational consciousness, resulting in the fragmentation and disintegration of all aspects of being. )


  1. Great stuff, Ed. I don't really know my way around Blake, but I am not surprised that Blake and Joyce would have some parallels. It would be more surprising if their separate and highly individuated explorations took them to two entirely different places. As my professor Donald Nicholl liked to say, the true seekers are all feeling along the same grain of reality.

  2. Thanks. By the way the meeting when I was feeling sad and distracted I was trying to place the references to marriage hearse and harlots cry, although I knew it was Blake, I couldn't place the quote. It's "London", of course. Last stanza.

    "But most thro' midnight streets I hear
    How the youthful Harlots curse
    Blasts the new-born Infants tear
    And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse "

    “The harlot's cry from street to street / Shall weave old England's winding-sheet.”