Probable Impossibilities and Improbable Possibilities — Part Five

Poppop array! For we’re all jollygame fellhellows which no-bottle can deny! Here be trouts culponed for ye and salmons hined and sturgeons tranched, sanced capons, lobsters barbed. Call halton eatwords! Mumm me moe mummers! What, no Ithalians? How, not one Moll Pamelas? Accordingly! Play actors by us ever have crash to their gate. Mr Messop and Mr Borry will produce of themselves, as they’re two genitalmen of Veruno, Senior Nowno and Senior Brolano (finaly! finaly!), all for love of a fair penitent that, a she be broughton, rhoda’s a rosy she. Their two big skins! How they strave to gat her! Such a boyplay! Their bouchicaulture! What tyronte power! Buy our fays! My name is novel and on the Granby in hills. Bravose!

- James Joyce, ‘Finnegans Wake’

A passage taken from the penultimate chapter of the Wake within which a bedroom scene is presented; as to whether or not it is an interruption of the dream or a continuation of it is indeterminable however. It is very late in the night at the household of the Porters (or the Earwickers; the dreamer Mr. Porter if we are no longer in the dream, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker if we are still there). Mr and Mrs Porter (or HCE and Anna Livia Plurabelle, ALP) having been aroused from their sleep or perhaps interrupted in their coitus, putting an end to any arousal, by a cry from Jerry (Shem), they go upstairs to comfort him, after which, at the end of the chapter, they return to their bed where they endeavour to engage in sexual intercourse (once again?) before being interrupted by a cock crowing as the dawn breaks. Jerry/Shem had been awakened by a nightmare of a frightening father figure, and Mrs. Porter comforts him with the words: ‘You were dreamend, dear. The pawdrag? The fawthrig? Shoe! Hear are no phanthares in the room at all, avikkeen. No bad bold faathern, dear one’. But if we are still in the dream it is ALP who is the comforter, and after all nightmares in German is Alpträume. You were only dreaming, says mother to tearful child, the terrible black panther father you were dreaming of is only in your imagination, your dreams were only shadow shows, there may be ‘thunner in the eire’, go back to sleep for morning nears.

D. H. Lawrence, (1885–1930), disapproved of what he took to be Joyce’s frivolity towards something so serious as bedroom matters, and upon looking into the Wake Lawrence discerned nothing other than ‘deliberate journalistic dirty-mindedness’. But Joyce, as I am at present engaged in trying to demonstrate, was an Hegelian in many ways, in particular in the absence of any one-sidedness in his thinking. Joyce is Shem the Pen and Shaun the Post in one, a union of incompatibles that Giordano Bruno, (1548–1600), gave expression to so exultantly and epigrammatically: in tristia hilaris hilaritate tristis; in sorrow, joyful; in joy, sorrowful. But of course the compatibility of incompatibles is not compatible for all; see my articles ‘A Geometry of the Absolute’ and the series ‘The One and the Many’, concerning, among other things, the unity of opposites. Joyce, like Bruno, believed in the unity of opposites; and it is moreover a central category of dialectics, (I have argued elsewhere that philosophy should always strive to be monistic); hence we discover in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770 -1831), numerous instances of such a unity; the finite and the infinite, force and matter, identity and difference, positive and negative, freedom and necessity, subjectivity and objectivity, means and ends, subject and object, abstract and concrete.

Giorgio de Chirico, (1888 –1978), ‘Comedy and Tragedy’

And the tragical and the comical. During the initial disturbance and the return to bed of the parents we are presented with four different perspectives of them, each by one of the four bedposts, in themselves variants of the four old men, the four evangelists, and the above passage comes from Mark’s ‘second position of discordance’, for upon awakening the son sees the father’s posterior whereupon, it coupling with the downstairs parental bedroom scene, it dims into a panorama in which parental fundament assumes the form of Phoenix Park, a scene that inescapably brings to mind that primordial setting the Garden of Eden ‘where anciently first murders were wanted to take root, as witnessed, first, by ‘Jeminy’, the twins, then ‘with one snaked’s eyes’; and in addition, of course, Earwicker’s fall is covered, his shameful indiscretion in the park, a recollection that is the source of so much consternation in the boy that the mother reassuringly promises him that the picture is just imaginary and that the ‘bad bold fathern’ will soon be going away to Dublin, an assurance which is rendered more forcible with slapping sound effects mimicking the clip clop of horse’s hooves; and the sun, she says, is rising, shining on that top-of-the-morning travelling coach; whereupon the household, waiting upon the arrival of the royal coach, becomes a court in waiting in the ‘half morning’ of near-dawn.

Pablo Picasso, ‘Personnage’, 1971

But oh the frightful sight of the father’s buttocks instantaneously attaining a mythical standing through their transmutation into the landscape through which the coach is rolling along; and the father turning whereupon his engorgement assumes the centrepiece of an almanac picture the figures of which, being a hunting scene, dog, horses, rider, young woman making her offering, ‘Squintina plies favours’, inhabit the scene of the festive homecoming that now transpires. and the triumphal celebration, applauding ladies wave from balconies, the bells of steeples ring out noisily, from St Laurence O’Toole’s, the Gardiner Street church, and the church in Westland Row; a feast with ‘fuddler’s free’ is spread for ‘Old Finncoole’: ‘For we’re all jollygame fellhellows which nobottle can deny!’ And the very best actors Tyrone Power, (1914–1958), Hilton Edwards, (1903–1982), Henry Mossop, (1729–1773), put in an appearance in the very best plays, such as John Dryden’s, (1631–1700), tragedy All for Love; or, the World Well Lost, written in imitation of William Shakespeare’s, (1564–1616), Antony and Cleopatra, and which centres upon the last hours of the lives of its hero and its heroine. And Dryden with characteristic Augustan humour pleaded thus:

Let those find fault whose wit’s so very small,

They’ve need to show that they can think at all;

Errors, like straws, upon the surface flow;

He who would search for pearls, must dive below.

Fops may have leave to level all they can;

As pigmies would be glad to lop a man.

Half-wits are fleas; so little and so light,

We scarce could know they live, but that they bite.

Such celebrations surrounding his home-coming! Bell-ringing, acrobatics, and more, all conveyed with typical Wakean high-spiritedness, and behind everything the easily distinguishable and sizeable which is to say plump Earwicker, ‘restrained by chain of hands from pinchgut’, making the fealty to ‘your grace’s majers’, arriving in his royal coach … and also in performance there is Shakespeare’s comedy ‘two genitalmen of Veruno’, The Two Gentleman of Verona:

That man that hath a tongue, I say, is no man,

If with his tongue he cannot win a woman.

And fireworks too: ‘Some wholetime in hot town tonight!’ Lots of fun and jollity to be had at Finnegans wake. The Ithalians in connection with Moll Pamelas refer to the cast of characters in Samuel Richardson’s, (1689–1761), The History of Sir Charles Grandison: ‘Men, Women, Italians’. And ‘boyplay’ is a byplay upon John Millington Synge’s, (1871 –1909), The Playboy of the Western World, and bouchicaulture is one of the many references in the Wake to Dion Boucicault, (1820–1890), Irish actor and dramatist; for instance, ‘dyinboosycough’. And my name is novel (Norval) is from John Home’s, (1722 –1808), Douglas:

My name is Norval; on the Grampian Hills

My father feeds his flocks; a frugal swain,

Whose constant cares were to increase his store.

And keep his only son, myself, at home.

The philosopher David Hume (1711–1776), expressed succinctly the high esteem within which he held Douglas by claiming that his friend possessed ‘the true theatric genius of Shakespeare and Otway, refined from the unhappy barbarism of the one and licentiousness of the other’; ( Thomas Otway, (1652–1685), Restoration dramatist). And yet Home was Joyce’s preferred exemplification of the quite terrible writer.

‘Urania and Melpomene’, 1680–81, Louis de Boullogne II

The Wake is an epic tragical comedy indeed; the compatibility of incompatibles; Moll Pamelas, moll, a prostitute. and Melpomene, the muse of tragedy. And so, to finish off my summary of Aristotle’s Poetics, in a chapter near the end Aristotle lists certain criticisms such as might be applied to a poet’s work, and offers replies which the poet might make; some dozen criticisms are gathered around five general objections: that things might be called either impossible, irrational, morally harmful, contradictory, or contrary to artistic correctness; and to provide the necessary foundation with which to withstand such charges, Aristotle draws to our attention the following statements.

The poet, as imitator, can imitate one of only three objects; things as they were or are, things as they are said or thought to be, or things as they ought to be; and the vehicle of his expression is language. The standard of correctness must be acknowledged to be the same in poetry and politics, just as it is not the same with poetry and any other art; but the faults of poetry may be either essential or accidental and if a poet poorly imitates, through want of capacity, the error is essential, but if the error is of imputing a wrong gait to a horse or a wrong treatment to a physician, this error is not essential to the poetry but accidental. And when something is challenged as impossible, it must be justified by reference to artistic requirements, a probably rendered impossibility being preferred to an improbable possibility, or to a higher reality, the ideal sometimes serving the artist better than the actuality. The irrational and the depraved are justly censured when introduced with no artistic necessity, and seeming contradictions should be examined, as in dialectic, by asking whether the same thing is meant in both cases, in the same relation, and in the same sense. Furthermore, if a description is called factually untrue, the poet may reply that he has described things not as they are but as they ought to be, or as men say them to be, such as the tales concerning the gods. In addition, if the morality of a particular act or saying is challenged, it is required to point out that we cannot look to that alone but must consider by whom, when, how, and why. Aristotle here suggests, but neglects to say directly, that the aesthetic question of whether an immoral act should be depicted is different from the political question as to whether or not the act is moral.

Various objections are met by a due regard for language, as when the critic has missed metaphorical intent, or an ambiguity, (see the Dryden quote above which I provided in anticipation of this point of Aristotle’s), or some legitimate sense of the word used, such as usage among a foreign people. And in his last chapter, Aristotle attacks the then existing opinion that the epic is a higher form of art than the tragic, given that his opponents have said that the more refined is the higher, and that whatever is received as best by the better sort of audience is the most refined. The art that imitates anything and everything, (like the Wake?), is most unrefined, since boorish audiences are pleased only when something of their own is thrown in, (the secret of the Wake’s appeal to me?), and tragedy provides gesture and spectacle to appease such an audience; and so the epic, not being in need of these, must be the higher of the two.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, ‘Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse’, 1784

(Sarah Siddons, (1755–1831), a noted performer of Lady Randolph in Douglas)

Aristotle addresses this argument, first by diverting its force, for the censure attaches not to the poetic but to the histrionic art, and the deliverer of an epic may be just as guilty of excessive gesture as an actor. Furthermore, it is not all gesture and spectacle, but bad acting only, that should be condemned. And again, tragedy can secure its effect without being staged, by the mere reading, so that if this fault were present, it would not be an inherent but an accidental one. And so it is tragedy that is superior, having not only all the elements of epic, but also the accessories of song and spectacle, which produce the most vivid of pleasures; and it attains its end within narrower limits than does epic, a concentrated effect being more pleasurable than one more diluted. Finally, the tragedy is superior in unity, any epic being capable of providing the material for several tragedies; it fulfils, therefore, its proper function better and is a higher art than epic poetry. And so the Poetics come to an end.

Aristotle’s conclusion underwent something of a reversal back in favour of his opponents in the twentieth century; that dramaturge of the modern Bertolt Brecht, (1898–1956), conceived of the term non-Aristotelian drama to circumscribe the ambit of his own dramaturgical pretensions, commencing in 1930 with a string of notes and essays under the title On a non-Aristotelian drama, and non-Aristotelian drama is the epic form of drama, which is to say, of a kind the dramaturgical structure of which abandons the familiar characteristics of classical tragedy in favour of the characteristics of the epic, but interestingly and unquestioningly the definitions of epic and tragedy are in both cases taken from Aristotle’s Poetics. And Brecht identified his own musical The Threepenny Opera as an instance of the epic form.

‘By Aristotle’s definition’, Brecht wrote, ‘the difference between the dramatic and epic forms was attributed to their different methods of construction’; and method of construction here refers to the relation the play establishes between its parts and its whole: ‘The epic writer Döblin provided an excellent criterion when he said that with an epic work, as opposed to a dramatic, one can as it were take a pair of scissors and cut it into individual pieces, which remain fully capable of life’. (Bruno Alfred Döblin (1878–1957)). (In my own writings on the Wake I must see if I can connect Döblin and Dublin by some means). Brecht also defined the divergence between the traditional Aristotelian dramatic and his own epic as corresponding to idealist and materialist philosophical positions: ‘The epic drama, with its materialistic standpoint and its lack of interest in any investment of its spectators’ emotions, knows no objective but only a finishing point, and is familiar with a different kind of chain, whose course need not be a straight one but may quite well be in curves or even in leaps. … Whenever one comes across materialism epic forms arise in the drama, and most markedly and frequently in comedy’, whose ‘tone’ is always ‘lower’ and more materialistic’.

Whatever a materialist perspective upon the world actually amounts of that I am uncertain; but looking upon the human being in particular from such a perspective supposedly yields a form particularly suitable and advantageous for the dramatist, the epic form; and for Brecht contemporary science, (including human sciences, and of course for Brecht in particular historical materialism), discloses the human being as determined by and determining of its circumstances, both physical and social; and the epic form thereby enables the drama to stage humanity in a way that incorporates such a scientific understanding; the dramatist then is enabled to display the human at the level of interpersonal relationships in interaction with the larger forces and dynamics at work in society, at the supra-personal, historical scale: ‘Today, when the human being has come to be seen as ‘the sum of all social circumstances’ the epic form is the only one that can embrace those processes which serve the drama as matter for a comprehensive picture of the world. Similarly man, flesh and blood man, can only be embraced through those processes by which and in the course of which he exists’. And furthermore epic drama rejects the principle of natura non facit saltus, the principle that states that nature does not make jumps, which was as it happens a foundational methodological assumption of Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, (1707–1778), employed in his categorization of plants and animals.

‘Calliope, Muse of Epic Poetry’, c. 1789–1800, Charles Meynier

I do not know if anyone has ever argued for the comic as the highest form of drama or poetry but that would be as mistaken as to take either the epic or the tragic as being so; for all would be one-sided; indeed, art reaches its pinnacle, as in the Wake, through the union of incompatibles, through unity in diversity; not by for instance separating materialism and idealism as Brecht did and then favouring one above the other but by seeing them in true Hegelian fashion as being identical. Applying Hegelian philosophy to a tragic drama such as Hamlet certainly yields some interesting results, as I shall now demonstrate. Hegel’s theory of tragedy is well known; through the action of the tragic hero the main institutions of ethical life, the family and the state, come into conflict; for the essence of tragedy is conflict, not an ethical conflict between right and wrong, but a conflict between legitimate rights and institutions; and such conflict stirs up the fixed and settled, which is to say, the norms and institutions of ethical life, threatening them with being destroyed. Such conflict arises out of the false consciousness of the tragic hero, who, convinced of his or her own integrity, embodies a stubborn fixity of will that issues in one-sided action that both violates another legitimate right and plunges the hero into self-contradiction. He or she refuses to acknowledge what, if he or she were true to him or herself, he or she should honour; and the resolution of the tragedy requires that the hero capitulate, to acknowledge that which he or she refuses, to broaden his or her perspective. And if he or she does indeed capitulate the tragic end may be avoided, but by not doing so the hero is undone by the very powers that he or she refused to acknowledge; and thus the tragic resolution is constituted by a fundamental contrast, for on the one hand, the spectator of the tragic unfolding undergoes consternation witnessing the ruination of one who is noble and excellent, but on the other hand at a fundamental level the spectator is conciliated in the matter of this ruination, for a conflict and loss of essential institutions that hold everything together would be even more unendurable; and so the ruination of the hero, whose one-sided action threatens to destroy ethical life, is necessary, and constitutes a healing process, for essential rights and institutions of ethical life are thereby upheld.

And Hamlet? Does not Ophelia, after being told to get herself to a nunnery, sum up the consequences of the tragic hero’s inner conflict and self-contradictory position while foreshadowing her own descent into madness:

Oh, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown! -

The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword,

Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state,

The glass of fashion and the mould of form,

Th’ observed of all observers, quite, quite down!

And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,

That sucked the honey of his music vows,

Now see that noble and most sovereign reason

Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;

That unmatched form and feature of blown youth

Blasted with ecstasy. Oh, woe is me,

T’ have seen what I have seen, see what I see!

George Dunlop Leslie, ‘Willow’, Henrietta Rae, Ophelia, 1890

But wait! ‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t’. Hamlet even avows his intention to act ‘strange or odd’, and to ‘put an antic disposition on’. Hamlet is the sanest most self-aware person in the play; not least because of a recognition of death as an irrational necessity, with which recognition his thought processes are haunted… to be or not to be. With Ophelia it is quite different. I need first however to delve into some Hegelian logic before elevating Ophelia to the status of a truly Hegelian tragic heroine. True to the idea of the union of incompatibles, of unity in diversity, the distinction between appearance and reality is also spurious, so to is that of objectivity or subjectivity; rather, they are identical. Combine this with Hegel’s view that we can only know and comprehend what occurs in experience: ‘Nothing is known that is not in experience, or, as it is also expressed, that is not felt to be true, not given as an inwardly revealed eternal verity, as something sacred that is believed, or whatever other expressions have been used’. Which makes it quite clear that Hegel is an empirical realist and an idealist.

Experience, however, is a field within which subject and object customarily exist in undifferentiated unity and harmony, while at the same time it is not a steady state field because it is a process of learning and growth, and in the learning process the self encounters opposition, an Hegelian negation; and upon encountering the negation the self posits it as another, thus alienating itself from itself, distinguishing subject from object; and as the self seeks to recover its lost unity by altering both itself and the other, this is Hegelian mediation, it reunites them within a more inclusive whole. When the self arrives at a solution, the Hegelian Aufhebung, it returns to its original harmony enriched by the learning experience. Rather than distinct realities then, self and object are moments or functions in a process, and, as Hegel says: ‘Experience is the name we give to just this movement, in which the immediate, the unexperienced, i.e., the abstract, whether it be of sensuous (but still unsensed) being, or only thought of as simple, becomes alienated from itself and then returns to itself from this alienation, and is only then revealed for the first time in this actuality and truth, just as it then has become a property of consciousness also’.

And what is involved in this realization? Ophelia descends into madness because she does not realize the negative; she experiences an increasing dissociation of thought and being, and the identity of thought and being is fundamental to our feeling at home in the world; and yet Ophelia’s dissociation is characterised by an increasing collapsing in of the present into the past, of subjectivity into mere shadows, recall ALP, your dreams were only shadow shows, Ophelia’s subjectivity is now mere shadow shows, her communication degenerates into symbolical idiosyncrasies, (‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts’). This is very much anti-Aufhebung, and Aufhebung is resolution remember; Ophelia’s consciousness becomes more and more misguided by shadows, by past internalizations, for she sucked the honey of Hamlet’s music vows, and with it becoming more and more symbolical and her immediacy to the world becoming more and more abstract she becomes less and less free and instead of Geist, spirit, she is Geist, meaning, the real ghost of the play.

But what finally elevates her to the status of true tragic hero, paradoxical as it may sound, (but I merely echo Hegel’s contention, that nothing is known that is not felt to be true, not given as an inwardly revealed eternal verity, as something sacred that is believed), are the words of the ‘churlish priest’ at her funeral ceremony concerning this maybe victim of suicide even though it was truly the only way out, an anti-Aufhebung:

Her death was doubtful,

And, but that great command o’ersways the order,

She should in ground unsanctified have lodged

Till the last trumpet. For charitable prayers

Shards, flints and pebbles should be thrown on her.

Yet here she is allowed her virgin crants,

Her maiden strewments, and the bringing home

Of bell and burial.

Due to the suspicions concerning Ophelia’s death she will lie in unsanctified ground until the end of time, the furthermost compatibility of incompatibles, a resolution that is the ultimate in non-resolutions. Now that is tragic … and epic … and comic … and in case you have doubts about the latter, it is at Ophelia’s burial ceremony that Hamlet somewhat bizarrely declares that for her sake he would ‘drink vinegar’ and ‘eat a crocodile’ .. is that appropriate for a funeral of his most beloved? … Shakespeare and Joyce both knew what they were doing in creating literature surpassed by none others.

‘Fatality’, 1893, Jan Toorop

In tristia hilaris hilaritate tristis.


Notes to ‘Finnegans Wake’ Quotation:

1. array = to prepare, ‘dress’; to make ready (food); and hip, hip, hurray!

2. fellows; and ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow… Which nobody can deny’ (song).

3. culpon (obsolete, to cut into pieces, cut up, slice.

4. chine = to cut along or across the chine or backbone; spec. To cut up (a salmon or other fish).

5. sturgeon = a large fish of the family Acipenseridæ, having an elongated, almost cylindrical, body protected by longitudinal rows of bony scutes and a long tapering snout, found widely distributed in the rivers and coastal waters of the north temperate zone.

6. tranche = a cutting, a cut; a piece cut off, a slice.

7. capon = Humorously applied to various fish; esp. a red-herring.

8. barb = The specific term for carving a lobster.

9. Hilton Edwards = as Mr Wilder points out, 20th-century Dublin actor

10. give; and Mumm Champagne.

11. moll = minor; prostitute; Defoe: ‘Moll Flanders’; and Melpomenê, muse of tragedy.

Salvador Dali, ‘Melpomenê’, 1973

12. accordingly = in accordance with the sequence of ideas; agreeably or conformably to what might be expected; in natural sequence, in due course.

13. play actor = an actor of plays, a dramatic performer.

14. Gate Theatre, Dublin; and crash the gate, to enter without paying or without permission.

15. Mossop, Henry (1729–74), Dublin-born actor who long played with Barry; and the command performance relates additionally to one at the Smock Alley Theatre, which was famous in connection with Dublin’s two great eighteenth-century rival actor/managers, the imperious Mossop and the emotional Barry. In 1784 the Viceroy, the Duke of Rutland, commanded there the production of John Home’s ‘Douglas’ (‘My name is Norval, on the Grampian hills . . .’). But having recently made himself unpopular he was hissed and groaned on the command night.

16. Verona = the name of a city in northern Italy, scene of Shakespeare’s ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’; and veruno (Italian), anyone, no-one.

17. penitent = one who repents; a person performing (ecclesiastical) penance; and Nicholas Rowe: ‘The Fair Penitent’ (1703 play, performed in Dublin).

18. Broughton, Rhoda (1840–1920), English novelist, author of ‘Red as a Rose is She’; and brought on (to stage).

19. rhodon (Greek) = rose; and rhoda (pl.) (Greek). roses.

20. scenes

21. strave = obs. pa. tense of strive (v.); and strava (Serbian), fright, panic, terror.

22. gat = pa. tense of get (v.) + gatten (German Slang), fuck.

23. bouche (French) = mouth; and Dion Boucicault.

24. Tir Eoghain (tirowin) (Gaelic) = Eoghan’s (‘wellborn’) Land; tribal land of N. Ui Neill; co., anglic. Tyrone; and William Grattan Tyrone Power (1797–1841), best stage-Irishman of his generation.

25. fay = religious belief; credit, authority; promise, assurance; In quasi-oath: par ma fay (by my fay); and W. and F. Fay, actors of early Abbey Theatre.

26. ‘My name is Norval; on the Grampian hills / My father feeds his flocks…’ — John Home, Douglas, 11.1 (Joyce’s favourite example of a bad writer).

27. Granby = Dublin actor; and GRAMPIAN HILLS, Mountain system of Scotland, boundary between Highlands and Lowlands.

28. bravo = capital! excellent! well done!

Ophelia, moon of Uranus, image taken 21 January 1986




David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.

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David Proud

David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.

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