Probable Impossibilities and Improbable Possibilities — Part Three

Hey! Did you dream you were ating your own tripe, acushla, that you tied yourself up that wrynecky fix?

I see now. We move in the beast circuls. Grimbard and pancercrucer! You took the words out of my mouth. A child’s dread for a dragon vicefather. Hillcloud encompass us! You mean you lived as milky at their lyceum, couard, while you learned, volp volp, to howl yourself wolfwise. Dyb! Dyb! Do your best.

I am dob dob dobbling like old Booth’s, courteous. The cubs are after me, it zeebs, the whole totem pack, vuk vuk and vuk vuk to them, for Robinson’s shield.

Scents and gouspils! The animal jangs again! Find the fingall harriers! Here howl me wiseacre’ss hat till I die of the milkman’s lupus!

What? Wolfgang? Whoah! Talk very slowe!

- James Joyce, ‘Finnegans Wake’

Having floated down the River Liffey in a barrel to deliver the mysterious letter, Shaun, now Yawn, is tired and weary, lamenting and collapsing upon a hill; in the meantime four old Annalists wander by, deliberating over whether or not Shaun is ‘boosed’ or ‘rehearsing somewans’ funeral’, and embark upon a comprehensive cross-examination of him, upon which the provoked Yawn responds defensively in an exchange that abounds with wolves on the prowl; for Yawn is feeling hunted. ‘Do not flingamejig to the twoolves!’, he had pleaded, echoing Irish nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell, (1846–1891): ‘Do not throw me to the wolves’. The twoolves may well refer to the twelve men (apostles?) that recur throughout the narrative, but it is seemingly more probable that they are the two Woolfs, Virginia Woolf, (1882–1941), and Leonard Woolf (1880–1969) who, as directors of the Hogarth Press, had turned Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ down upon the grounds of indelicacy. Virginia was certainly a strange one; modernist writer, dismayed at discovering in Joyce’s manuscript a dog pissing, and a man farting, and upon that day she read no further. What, we may well ask, would she have made of the Wake, had she ever inquired into its pages? As for the other wolves here in this passage, they are self-evident enough, although the atmosphere of wolves on the prowl is heightened by those that are not. For instance: ‘The cubs are after me, it zeebs…’ (Hebrew zeebh); and the Lyceum where ‘you learned, volp, volp to howl yourself wolfwise’ was named after Apollo Lyceus, Apollo the wolf-god.

It would seem from the psychoanalytical allusions, and the passage referring to Yawn’s father, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, with nearly as much frequency as to the wolves, that the arrival of the wolves is due to an identification between Yawn’s neuroses and associations and those of a patient of Sigmund Freud, (1856–1939), Sergei Konstantinovitch Pankejeff , (1886–1979), the so-called Wolf Man who suffered from a recurring nightmare wherein as he lay in his bed he observed some white wolves sitting upon a tree in front of his open window, observing him. Freud’s eventual interpretation of the dream, after some input from Pankejeff, was that it resulted from Pankejeff having witnessed his parents having sex a tergo, from behind, that is to say, doggy style, at a very young age. Freud did, however, also posit the possibility that Pankejeff had witnessed sexual congress occurring between animals, and that this was displaced to his parents. And the Wake, like Freud‘s texts with which Joyce was perhaps familiar, dealing as it does with a nocturnal realm, features condensation (the unconscious process whereby two ideas or images combine into a single one bearing aspects of both, notably within dreams and fantasies), and displacement, and obsessions with desire and its changeableness and fluctuations. Freud wrote, concerning the Wolf Man: ‘If in my patient’s case the wolf was merely a father surrogate, the question arises whether the hidden content in the fairy tales of the wolf that ate up little goats and of ‘Little Red Riding-Hood’ may not simply be infantile fear of the father’. As far as that goes, I have always considered the story of ‘Little Red Riding-Hood’ to be concerned with a young girl’s fear of menstruation, (how else explain her strolling in bright red through a forest inhabited by wolves?), but be that as it may, Joyce’s especial employment of the Freudian case study of the Wolf Man somewhat overlaps with what is indeed a quintessential founding myth of the Wake.

Max Ernst, ‘Le Chien qui Chie’ (‘The Dog That Shits’), 1920

‘…the dog that craps dog wearing well despite the difficult terrain caused by heavy snow in the…’

The aforementioned Lyceum temple, of course, is now well known for its having been put to use in ancient Greece to accommodate philosophical debating, and it was there that Aristotle, (284–322 BCE), founded his peripatetic school of philosophy. And so, to continue my brief run through the ‘Poetics’ of Aristotle, I had arrived in the previous part with Aristotle venturing upon the question: What of the person chiefly involved in such actions that we observe in tragic drams? The tragedy, Aristotle pronounces, must not bring a perfectly virtuous man from prosperity to adversity, and it must not raise a bad man from adversity to prosperity, nor yet depict a villain receiving his just deserts, for none of these would satisfy the moral sense and at the same time inspire pity and fear. Aristotle therefore raises what is in effect the remaining possibility, that a man not eminently good and just but unmarked by vice and depravity, is brought to adversity by some error or fault (hamartia). But is not Aristotle thereby contradicting a statement that he presented to us earlier, that tragedy shows men better than in real life, for such would seem to be eminently good men? Much of the difficulty resides in the translation of hamartia, which has variously been rendered tragic flaw, conveying the idea of a radical character trait like excessive pride, or poor in judgement, or overly ambitious, or consumed by jealousy; or merely conveying an erroneous interpretation of some particular event. But at any rate Aristotle seems to intend a hero who falls short of perfection and yet is better than men usually are, and whose virtues and whose shortcomings are both related to the events of the drama within which he is placed.

Thus the greatest tragedy will have a complex rather than a simple plot, (mythos), and given that it concerns the sort of character described above, it will show a change from prosperity to adversity; and the fear and pity which come from the structure of the tragedy; for instance, when a hero intends or performs harm to a man or woman without knowing him or her to be his father or his mother or his son ior his daughter, is superior to the fear and pity arising from the spectacle alone, when, that is, we see the violent act enacted.

Max Ernst. ‘What a Day-What a Day; A Lost World’, 1925.

Four requirements are posited as requisite for character. First, it must be good; and any speech or action that shows moral purpose will express character, and if the purpose is good, will express good character. Second is propriety; any trait must be appropriate to the person in whom it is depicted. Third, the character must be true to life. And last, it must be consistent; or if inconsistent, at least consistently inconsistent. The construction of both plot and character should aim at the necessary, the probable, and the rational; and if any deviations occur, they must be outside the scope of the tragedy; for both the complication and the unravelling of the plot must arise out of causes within the plot itself, and a deus ex machina should be used only for events antecedent or subsequent to those of the plot. And while the depiction of character should be true to life, it should be yet more beautiful, like a portrait.

The two stages of the plot are the complication and the unravelling or denouement; the complication contains everything up to the turning point to good or bad fortune; The unravelling extends from the beginning point of the change to the end of the play. The dramatist should master both. With respect to existing tragedies, there are four types. There is the complex, depending entirely upon reversal of the situation and recognition. There is the pathetic, in which the motive is passion. There is the ethical, where the motives are moral. And there is the simple. If possible, the poet should attempt to combine all elements, to produce the best type, the complex; and he or she should not attempt to take an epic structure, which has a multiplicity of plots, and make it into a tragedy. Even the chorus should be regarded as one of the actors, and the choral songs should share in the action rather than serve as mere interludes. And as to thought, little needs to be added to what Aristotle has said in the ‘Rhetoric’; that thought comprises every effect produced by speech, and has as subdivisions: 1. Proof and refutation; 2. the excitation of the feelings such as pity, anger, fear; and 3. The suggestion of degree of importance (amplification). And just as incidents should speak for themselves without verbal exposition, the speeches should effectively produce the speaker’s desired effect on their own strength.

‘Dog Barking At The Moon’, 1926, Joan Miro

Aristotle then turns his attention towards the diction of poetry, which I shall leave until the next part. For now, some comments on what has so far been discussed. Aristotle took plot, mythos, to be essential to tragedy, whereas character, ethos, psychological and ethical considerations, are merely secondary to the plot. Upon such a view as this, characters are rendered as simply agents generating and responding to situations rather than men and women endowed with motives, principles and sentiments; indeed, mythos is defined as every event that is depicted and every action that is undertaken is a logical progression out of prior events. I discussed the Aristotle notion of mimesis with reference to tragedy in part one; what is it that is being imitated? For Aristotle it is the lives and actions of men and women rather than the men and women themselves; their conflicts, either of the inner kind or with others, the clash of opposing principles, are of little import in comparison with the logical (and thereby universal) progression of events. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1780–1831), however, placed character conflict as the central focus of tragedy, the conflicts between each character’s ethical justification and the resolution toward a greater rational good. I would tend to concur given that, to begin with, if tragedy imitates the lives and actions of men and women, our lives and actions are not part of a plot or narrative, other than in some kind of fanciful sense (many people, J. G. Ballard, (1930–2007), once mused, are seemingly content to live the lives of a minor character in a soap opera). And secondly, hamartia, tragic flaw. What is the tragic flaw of Hamlet, that constituent element in the logical development of the mythos leading to the death of all the principle characters? Thinking too much? As I pointed out in the previous part Hamlet has good reasons for not murdering Claudius immediately; but in any case, within the play itself Hamlet is seen to act impulsively and violently, in contradistinction to the brooding, thinking too much, kind of person.

Before continuing further with the Hegelian account of tragedy and character conflict, allow me a perhaps seemingly odd digression on my part here, but it is important to be clear about Hegelian contradiction. In the ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’, there is a moment at which the understanding undergoes some kind of bizarre breakdown whereupon it takes hold as an object of its experience an inverted world; although it is in fact following through the logic of its own experience, the law of the inverted world, that is to say, ‘differences arise which are no differences’. All things turn into or prove to be their opposites. ‘Fair is foul and foul is fair’, as the witches in ‘Macbeth’ put it. The inverted world, a supersensible world. To quote at length from the Phenomenology:

‘From the idea, then, of inversion, which constitutes the essential nature of one aspect of the supersensible world, we must eliminate the sensuous idea of fixing the differences in a different sustaining element; and this absolute Notion of the difference must be represented and understood purely as inner difference, a repulsion of the selfsame, as selfsame, from itself, and likeness of the unlike as unlike. We have to think pure change, or think antithesis within the antithesis itself, or contradiction. For in the difference which is an inner difference, the opposite is not merely one of two — if it were, it would simple be, without being an opposite — but it is the opposite of an opposite, or the other is itself immediately present in it. Certainly, I put the ‘opposite’ here, and the ‘other’ of which it is the opposite, there; the opposite’, then, is on one side, is in and for itself without the ‘other’. But just because I have the ‘opposite’ here in and for itself, it is the opposite of itself, or it has, in fact, the ‘other’ immediately present in it. Thus the supersensible world, which is the inverted world, has at the same time overarched the other world and has it within itself; it is for itself the inverted world, i.e. the inversion of itself; it is itself and its opposite in one unity. Only thus is it difference as inner difference, or difference in its own self, or difference as an infinity’.

‘Dali at the Age of Six When He Thought He Was a Girl Lifting the Skin of the Water to See the Dog Sleeping in the Shade of the Sea’, 1950, Salvador Dali

The inverted world is not a Platonic realm, (Plato, (428/427 or 424/423–348/347 BC, who postulated the existence of a realm of Ideas over and beyond the natural world where the eternal truths abide); nor is the inverted world an inversion of the world of appearances; the understanding is working within its own laws; and in the process the intrinsic nature of objects within the phenomenal world suffer a contamination; the understanding is rubbing up against its own limits; and at the heart of the inversion a thing is what it is in its very being and it is its very opposite, all within one unity. For differences are limitless, unceasingly evolving and enhancing; and the differences in inversion are situated and settled within a similar sustaining element and an alternate qualitative element. There is an ancient metaphysical question: what is it that remains the same throughout change so that change, in something, can be said to have occurred? Differences cannot be located and established within a something from which they are estranged, an alternate sustaining element; rather, inverted differences are inner differences; the very same thing repels itself from itself, the very same thing changes given its natural propensity to generate changes, to project something other than what it is, that is to say, something that it is not and yet there remains a likeness within the unlikeness; for things that are unlike bear a relationship to each other that establishes the likeness; indeed, consciousness itself is unlike itself while also a unity, the very thing underlying the process of inversion; (yet another idea Jean-Paul Sartre, (1905–1980), lifted from Hegel, (see my article ‘A World of Gods and Monsters’ — Part Three); as Sartre puts it, (inverting Popeye’s famous declaration, one might say): ‘I am not what I am and I am what I am not’).

It is the understanding, of course, that is responsible for the process of inversion… thinking pure change,(Wechsel), or thinking of the antithesis within the antithesis (Entgegensetzung) itself, or of contradiction (Widerspruch); and yet the pure change here referred to is also an exchange; it is not a change from one thing into another; for the changing thing has no intrinsic meaning within itself but derives its meaning from the entire system of relations of which it is a part; the process of inversion occurs within a system of relations and the understanding is enforcing its law of laws and thereby uniting everything together. And within pure change the antithesis is two things being set in opposition to each other, set side by side, but contradiction implicates something more than that; it is to be remembered that Hegelian logic takes us far beyond traditional formal logic wherein contradiction is to do with two things being incompatible, x cannot be not-x at the same time and in the same respect; rather, in Hegelian logic a contradiction brings together things that are not merely opposing each other; such a contradiction does not block our progress forward; they are the very things in the Phenomenology propelling forward the process of development from one individual shape of consciousness to another individual shape of consciousness throughout the course of human history and the evolution of human culture.

Ang Kiukok, (1931–2005), ‘Dog Fight’

This is a metaphysical viewpoint at odds with that of Aristotle for whom the opposite is one of two opposites and the things that are opposite exist as they are prior to becoming opposites, as hot is what it is and cold is what it is and neither exists as it is in virtue of that of which it is the opposite, for the opposition is extrinsic and not intrinsic; a detail that ‘philosopher’ and Christian apologist William Lane Craig, (1949 — ), has great difficulty in comprehending, as evinced through his nonsensical argument to explain the existence of sin in a world in which a good God is overseer; that God is the creator of positive reality, that heat is a positive reality, but that cold is a privation of heat, and sin, similarly, is a privation of a reality (whatever that means, something to do with a misuse of our freedom) and therefore not created by God. This is so confused, hot and cold either are what they are in themselves or they are what they are in a relation of opposition to each other. Or, in Hegelian logic, the opposite is the opposite of an opposite, the opposite is what it is solely through its opposition to something else. And the phenomena of the thing is experienced through opposition, for the other is immediately present in the opposite, opposites are by no means totally detached from each other, nor simply at a distance from each other by virtue of being in contradiction with each other.

Formal logic flounders as it endeavours to demonstrate the manner by which contradiction operates; it is simply taken as a brute fact that it does so, whereas Hegelian logic is at the very least an attempt to get to the very bottom of what contradictions might be; an opposite is present within its opposite and the relation of opposites or that of opposition assumes a kind of priority; but it is to be remembered that it is not process over things that is thereby prioritised, for the dynamic of opposition depends upon the inner difference of the things themselves that are opposites. And the process of inversion that occurs through the inverted, and inverting, world thereby discloses the means by which the world is getting us towards infinity given that it occurs precisely in each opposition and with each opposed member of the opposition. And as for a contradiction expressed in Hegelian terms, rather than a contradiction expressed in the terms of formal logic, I can think of no better illustration to make clear what such a contradiction is like than that of ‘the merry war’ that is waged between Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. They like each other, they can’t stand each other. They can’t live with each other, they can’t live without each other.

Francis Bacon, ‘Painting of a Dog’, 1952


I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick: nobody marks you.


What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?


Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come in her presence.


Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted: and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.


A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.


God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some gentleman or other shall ‘scape a predestinate scratched face.


Scratching could not make it worse, an ‘twere such a face as yours were.


Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.


A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.


I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer. But keep your way, i’ God’s name; I have done.


You always end with a jade’s trick: I know you of old.

Francis Bacon, ‘Study for a Running Dog’, 1954

And so to return to our tragic hero, a contradiction generating a contradictory situation, in the Hegelian sense; fine and flawed; innocent in the following of a just principle, guilty in the violation of something good and worthy; acting on behalf of the good and against it; from which it follows that the tragic hero may well be the victim of an internal tragedy. This is certainly the case with Macbeth:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,

The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.

I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.

Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible

To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but

A dagger of the mind, a false creation,

Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain?

I see thee yet, in form as palpable

As this which now I draw.

Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going,

And such an instrument I was to use.

Mine eyes are made the fools o’ th’ other senses,

Or else worth all the rest. I see thee still,

And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,

Which was not so before. There’s no such thing.

It is the bloody business which informs

Thus to mine eyes. Now o’er the one half-world

Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse

The curtained sleep. Witchcraft celebrates

Pale Hecate’s offerings, and withered murder,

Alarumed by his sentinel, the wolf,

Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,

With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design

Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth,

Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear

Thy very stones prate of my whereabout,

And take the present horror from the time,

Which now suits with it.

Old man murder, having been roused by the howls of his wolf, walks stealthily and quietly towards his destination …….

Zdzislaw Beksinski, ‘Untitled’, 1977.

And what of Hamlet? Not one who thinks too much, but one whose consciousness entertains two opposing positions; and what place can justice hold in a world in which the preservation of one good entails the violation of another? Hamlet is the tragic hero par excellence; in his understanding differences are inner differences, differences in their own selves, generating differences upon differences, differences leading him towards infinity; Hamlet is the victim of infinity and in the process the other principal characters become so too; and there is only one possible resolution for that, they all die.

To be continued ….

Mikhail Vrubel, ‘Hamlet and Ophelia’, 1888

Notes to ‘Finnegans Wake’ quotation:

1. ate = past tense of eat (verb); ating (Irish Pronunciation), eating.

2, tripe = the intestines, bowels, guts, as members of the body; hence, the paunch or belly including them.

3. acushla = darling.

4. wrynecked = having a wry or crooked neck, having a distorted neck; and Reinecke Fuchs — Goethe’s ‘Reynard the Fox’.

5. fix = a position from which it is difficult to escape; a difficulty, dilemma, predicament.

6. circulus (Latin) = circular figure, circle; and best circles; and medieval beast cycles; and circus.

7. grimbarb = badger (in ‘Reynard the Fox’).

8. Panzerkreuzer (German) = armed cruiser; and pancer, beaver (in ‘Reynard the Fox’).

9. dread = extreme fear; apprehension or anxiety as to future events; and Childared.

10. vice- = With personal designations, especially titles of office, indicating that the person so called acts temporarily or regularly in place of, in the absence of, or as assistant to, another who properly holds the office or bears the title or name.

11. encompass = to surround entirely, overlay as with an envelope or shell

12. milky = Of persons, their actions, attributes, etc. Soft, gentle; in bad sense, timorous, effeminate, weakly amiable; and (Romulus and Remus, as well as various Irish saints, suckled by wolves).

13. lyceum = (With capital initial.) The proper name of a garden, named for Apollo Lyceus (‘wolf-like’), with covered walks at Athens, in which Aristotle taught his philosophy; Used allusively as the proper name of certain places of study or instruction.

14. volpes (Latin) = volpe (Italian), fox; and (onomat.).

15. Dan Crawford: ‘Thinking Black’: ‘There, leaping about from tree to tree, exactly like a monkey, was a horrible human being stark naked. A poor woman this who had lived nearly all her days as an animal amongst animals… She has forgotten how to speak with human modulation and can only screech, a literal proof this of the Spanish saying, “Live with wolves and you will learn to howl”’.

16. dyb (Danish) = deep.

17. dob = to betray, inform against; and dobh (Hebrew), bear; and (stuttering).

18. like old boots = vigorously, thoroughgoingly (slang.).

19. courteous = graciously polite and respectful of the position and feelings of others; kind and complaisant in conduct to others.

20. cub = orig. a young fox; by extension: the young of the bear and of other wild beasts.

21. zeebh (Hebrew) = wolf; and zebsti (Serbian), to get cold; and seems.

22. totem = Among the American Indians: The hereditary mark, emblem, or badge of a tribe, clan, or group of Indians, consisting of a figure or representation of some animal, less commonly a plant or other natural object, after which the group is named.

23. pack = a number of animals kept or naturally congregating together; applied spec. to a company of hounds kept for hunting, and to those of certain beasts (esp. wolves), and of birds (e.g. grouse) which naturally associate for purposes of attack or defence.

24. vuk (Serbian) = wolf.

26. Robinson, Shields — Mr Staples found in Thom’s, 1899, listed under: Broken, Ship and Commercial: Robinson Shields, N.21 City Quay.

27. goupil (French) = fox; and saints and gospels.

28. gang = U.S. A collection or herd of animals of the same species, esp. of elk or buffalo; Also, a pack of dogs; and Animal gangs, Dublin hoodlums in 1930s drawn from men who tended cattle on cross-channel boats; and janken (Dutch), to howl, to yelp, to whine.

20. Fingal = Finn’s name in Macpherson’s Ossian poems. Fingal is a Scottish hero who comes to Ireland and fights the Danes. The Irish called certain Norse invaders, fingal or fingall, meaning ‘fair stranger’.

32. harrier = a kind of hound, resembling the fox-hound, but smaller, used for hunting the hare; and Fingal Harrier, an Irish rabbit hunt.

33. hold.

34. wiseacre = one who thinks himself, or wishes to be thought, wise; a pretender to wisdom.

35. milkman = a man who sells milk; a man who milks cows.

36. lupus = an ulcerous disease of the skin, sometimes erosive, sometimes hypertrophous; a wolf; and lupus (Latin), wolf.

37. Wolfgang von Goethe: ‘Reinecke Fuchs’.

38. whoa = a word of command to a horse or other draught-animal to stop or stand still.

Archaic Ionian Hydria Depicting Heracles Bringing Cerberus to Eurystheus, c. 530 BC

‘For the Mookse, a dogmad Acaanite, were not amoosed ….’

- ‘Finnegans Wake’



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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.