The Metaphysics of Memory — Part Three

David Proud
15 min readAug 11, 2020


tell me all about

Anna Livia! I want to hear all

about Anna Livia. Well, you know Anna Livia? Yes, of course, we all know Anna Livia. Tell me all. Tell me now. You’ll die when you hear. Well, you know, when the old cheb went futt and did what you know. Yes, I know, go on. Wash quit and don’t be dabbling. Tuck up your sleeves and loosen your talk-tapes. And don’t butt me — hike! when you bend. Or whatever it was they threed to make out he thried to two in the Fiendish park. He’s an awful old reppe. Look at the shirt of him! Look at the dirt of it! He has all my water black on me. And it steeping and stuping since this time last wik. How many goes is it I wonder I washed it? I know by heart the places he likes to saale, duddurty devil! Scorching my hand and starving my famine to make his private linen public. Wallop it well with your battle and clean it. My wrists are wrusty rubbing the mouldaw stains. And the dneepers of wet and the gangres of sin in it! What was it he did a tail at all on Animal Sendai? And how long was he under loch and neagh? It was put in the newses what he did, nicies and priers, the King fierceas Humphrey, with illysus distilling, exploits and all. But toms will till. I know he well. Temp untamed will hist for no man. As you spring so shall you neap. O, the roughty old rappe! Minxing marrage and making loof.

- ‘Finnegans Wake’, James Joyce, (1882–1941).

Two washerwomen are washing clothes in the River Liffey, gossiping about Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, the protagonist of ‘Finnegans Wake’; and about his wife, Anna Livia Plurabelle, her provenance, the source of the river being in the mountains, then descending, or falling, down upon the plain and on to Dublin, giving the gift of life and memories from the past and from history to the inhabitants. Falling is a recurring theme in the novel; as a young washer woman speaks to an elder, it is not always easy to determine which is which, they talk of Earwicker’s fall from grace, the ‘you know what’, although his crime is never specified but apparently involves three soldiers accusing him of some seedy goings on with two young women in Phoenix Park (‘Fiendish Park’); exposing himself possibly.

Whatever the ‘you know what’ refers to, besides never being specified it constantly changes in the retelling within the text; and this is true to what we now know about human memory. Once it was that eye-witness and memory were considered to be premium forms of evidence; then it was much easier to be jailed by judge or jury on the basis of corroborating eye-witness testimony and plausible hypothetical sets of circumstances that point to the accused as being the offender. But in these more enlightened times we have discovered that no matter how many people attest to a thing happening, the strength of their convictions nor the hypotheticals that could situate the accused as the offender come nowhere near to proving a thing actually occurred. Developments in the science of psychology prove human memory to be astonishingly flawed; it cannot be relied upon to recount events accurately. Elizabeth Loftus, (1944 — ), conducted a series of car accident and suggested phrases studies in which participants were instructed to observe footage of car accidents and then to recollect details of the accidents, providing answers and recounting events somewhat later on. The most important question they were asked was this: ‘About how fast were the cars going when they _____ each other’? The blank is the independent variable; depending upon the group being tested it could be replaced with any of the following: ‘contacted’, ‘hit’, ‘bumped’, ‘collided’, or ‘smashed’. Loftus discovered that the simple manipulation of language served to sufficiently alter the recount of events significantly. Words that had harsher connotations, such as ‘smashed’, resulted in higher recounts of speed than words that had milder connotations, such as ‘contacted’; the difference recorded sometimes being upwards of ten or more miles per hour despite people within the same contextual group observing exactly the same footage. One might therefore ask: just how reliable would a recount of events be if a witness was asked leading questions upon the witness stand?

Earwicker has a terrible reputation, insists the washer woman, look at the dirt on his shirt! The washing water has gone quite black, so many times has it been washed. The washer woman knows by heart where it will be soiled, the dirty devil! Burning her hands and starching herself cleaning his linen. What was it he did Holy Sunday? And how long was he under lock and key? It was in the news … O, the rough old rope! Mixing marriage and making love. And thus she continues, scrubbing away on the banks of the Liffey, in prose that is flowing with the names of rivers, in celebration of the water-mother bearing us onward… recalling historical events (how reliably?) while taking us forwards towards another epoch … but they are on opposite banks of Anna Livia and the river is widening: it is becoming harder for them to hear one another:

‘Can’t hear with the waters of. The cittering waters waters of. Flittering bats, fieldmice bawk talk. Ho! …. Can’t hear with bawk of bats, all thim liffeying waters of. Ho, talk save us!’

Hoarsely their voices call for a tale of ‘stem and stone’, (Shem and Shaun, brothers, sons of Earwicker)… and the chapter ends with those two images, a washer woman turning into a tree, a symbol for change, for life, for creation; and a washer woman turning into a stone, a symbol for permanence, for the deadness of law and of authority. Getting ready for the next epoch, as night descends:

‘beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!’

In 1929 a recording was made of James Joyce performing this particular section of ‘Finnegans Wake’:

River Liffey at sunset.

As Anthony Burgess, (1917–1913), observed: ‘Finnegans Wake is as close to a work of nature as any artist ever got — massive, baffling, serving nothing but itself, suggesting a meaning but never quite yielding anything but a fraction of it, and yet (like a tree) desperately simple’. Such desperate simplicity of the tree and the stone recall (such is the workings of recollection) natural religion, as recounted by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770- 1831), whereby religion manifests itself in its simplest or most immediate form, without any division between nature and man; where nature itself is invested with a divine character; initially, in the form of light; subsequently, in the form of plants and animals.

Natural religious consciousness perceives the deity in plant and animal form, and in the form of animals the gods assume the most primitive aspect of individual character, a passage from a condition of mere life to one of desire, as the animal gods war with one another, a reflection of separate tribal groups and their struggle for dominion over each other. But for Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, a middle-aged tavern owner, the suggestion is of an earwig. He is often designated by variations on his initials, H.C.E., one form of which is ‘Here Comes Everybody’; that is, he is Everyman. And yet the form that Everyman assumes is part ape, part insect; and as the book proceeds and H.C.E.’s mind becomes more and more of a confused jumble, his name becomes likewise jumbled, as acrostics such as ‘hec’ or ‘ceh’ appear more and more as the book progresses, and fade towards the end. Earwig, a nocturnal insect, once mistakenly believed to enter the human ear at night to lay eggs in the brain. Earwig, to eavesdrop, to attempt to listen in. Earwig, to fill the mind of another with prejudice through insinuations.

And the dream continues, disclosing a complicated preoccupation with growing old, a wife that is no longer attractive to him, a longing for one final unrestrained sexual pursuit, perhaps even a revival of the sexual impulse, in a younger woman; but although granted access into the dream, ‘insect’ is really a deceptive concealment of another, taboo, word, namely, ‘incest’… and so he sleeps on, generating into a peculiar concoction of culpable, guilt-ridden man and lower beast and even lower crawling creature borne down with guilt; a suggestion of the ape, a suggestion of the insect. And Earwicker’s dream (if he is the dreamer here) endeavours to make the entire history of humankind devour his guilt for him; H.C.E. designates sinning humans in general and as universal abstraction… here comes everybody.

One is reminded of William Blake, (1757–1827), who claimed to have observed visions every day since when as a small child he had witnessed a tree ‘filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars’; and as for man and insect, he was informed by such angels that ‘fleas were inhabited by the souls of such men as were by nature blood thirsty to excess’. ‘The Ghost of a Flea’ depicts a sinewy and naked flea, its tongue protruded to lap up a bowl of blood. A suggestion of the human, a suggestion of the vampire, a suggestion of the reptile, a beast strutting amidst heavy and handsomely decorated curtains. Personality and human form are frequently granted by Blake to abstractions such as time, death, starvation, devastation; here the Flea is associated with defilement, debasement and bloodlust.

William Blake, ‘The Ghost of a Flea’, c. 1819–20.

‘But even regarding History as the slaughter-bench’ remarked Hegel, ‘at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of States, and the virtue of individuals have been victimised — the question involuntarily arises — to what principle, to what final aim these enormous sacrifices have been offered’.

To return to the evolution of religious consciousness, while society proceeds out of tribal divisions, empire with its attendant stability then emerges. ‘Spirit enters into another shape’, according to Hegel. The conception of God held by individuals is reflected in such individuals’ passage from persons engaged in warfare to persons engaged in agriculture; their self-conception is now that of persons that relate to the divine through their labour and the product of their labour. This very process spawns the artificer, the master-craftsman, whose task it is to put together objects replete with religious significance, so that henceforth the divine has being in a purely natural, that is to say, simply given, form no longer. Rather, religious thought has evolved to develop a new aspect of the yearning of Spirit; an aspect not forgotten, nothing is forgotten, in ‘Finnegans Wake’, in the master builder, ‘Bygmester Finnegan, of the Stuttering Hand’; a name to suggest Bygmester Solness, the middle-aged master builder in the play of that name by Henrik Johan Ibsen, (1828–1906).

At first, the master-craftsman merely fabricates objects of geometric form, the abstractedness of which renders them unsatisfying to religious consciousness, and hence the master-craftsman starts to produce objects of plant and animal form. Finally the religious objects assume human form, but at such a level that the statues of gods that the craftsman has created are unable to communicate to humans in terms that a human comprehends; such a limitation must be overcome, and the divine is subsequently seen as engaging with us in our language; the creator of gods is a craftsman no more, rather, an artist, a creator of gods that come to acquire a function of expressibility. Natural religion evolves into religion in the form of art; and this is the religious outlook of ethical Spirit exemplified by the Greeks; such a level of attainment by religious consciousness is made possible by the social structures of poleis, Greek city-states:

‘[Spirit] is for them neither the divine, essential Light in whose unity the being-for-self of self-consciousness is contained only negatively, only transitorily, and in which it beholds the lord and master of its actual world; nor is it the restless destruction of hostile peoples, nor their subjection to a caste-system which gives the semblance of organization of a completed whole, but in which the universal freedom of the individuals is lacking. On the contrary, this Spirit is the free nation in which hallowed custom constitutes the substance of all, whose actuality and existence each and everyone knows to be his own will and deed’.

In the Anna Livia Plurabelle section of ‘Finnegans Wake’, the anthropomorphic Gods that appear are, of course, Neptune and his son Triton, with mention given of Hero, priestess of Aphrodite, and her lover Leander who swam the Hellespont:

‘Or where Neptune sculled and Tritonville rowed and leandros three bumped heroines two?’

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, ‘Neptune and Triton’, c.1622–23.

But the poleis only ever achieve an unsettled and uncertain harmoniousness; and the consequent resolving into parts will then be reflected in the absolute art of Greek tragedy, whereby religion in the form of art arrives at an end stage, anterior to the point at which ‘Spirit transcends art in order to gain a higher representation of itself’. The turning-point from natural religion to religion in the form of art involves a turning away from mankind’s relation to nature, to mankind’s relation to the poleis, so that the gods now embody the state; in the goddess Athena, for example, rather than natural phenomena:

‘These ancient gods, first-born children of the union of Light with Darkness, Heaven, Earth, Ocean, Sun, the Earth’s blind typhonic Fire, and so on, are supplanted by shapes which only dimly recall those Titans, and which are no longer creatures of Nature, but lucid, ethical Spirits of self-conscious nations’.

But though the gods now assume a human form and are inherently connected to the human community, it is not easy to begin with for a religious artist to bring together these gods and the people, as religious art acquires sculptural form.

At this stage the artist aspires to be simply an instrumental agent for the gods, as he or she endeavours to put to one side his or her creativity and rather be merely inspired by the gods themselves; but he or she is also cognizant of the fact that labour has been undergone in the production of the statues; the artist is present in his or her own creations; and as he or she is also present in what he or she has produced, the artist stands between the people and their gods. The worshippers may feel that the statues that have been cast have allowed the gods to be present among them, nonetheless, the artist knows that he or she has merely created a representation, he or she was unable to forget him or herself in it.

Rather than seeing their gods as mute, it is necessary for religious communities to make their gods speak, and then they may be properly worshipped, not merely through the forms of sculpture, but also through hymns, in which the writer can permit him or herself the conceit of believing him or herself as a mere scribe, recording the words of the gods themselves, as Hegel explains:

‘The work of art therefore demands another element of its existence, the god another mode of coming forth than this . . . This higher element is Language — an outer reality that is immediately self-conscious existence . . . The god, therefore, who has language for the element of his shape is the work of art that is in its own self inspired, that possesses immediately in its outer existence the pure activity which, when it existed as a Thing, was in contrast to it’.

And it is through language, of course, that the contradictory and seemingly irresolvable tension between imagination and memory, both cultural and personal memory, is articulated in ‘Finnegans Wake’…. to be continued in part four….

Notes to quoted excerpts of ‘Finnegans Wake’:

Excerpt 1:

1. You’ll die when you hear = a hyperbolic statement, suggesting extreme feelings of amusement, etc.

2. old cheb = old chap, an expression of familiarity; a person’s father esp. when old; and Cheib (Swiss German), chap, mildly pejorative.

3. went futt = to go phut, to come to a sudden end; to break down, cease to function; and futt (Swiss German), away. To watch it, to be careful.

4. don’t be dabbling = dabble, to wet by splashing; to play about in shallow water; to employ oneself in a dilettante way in (any business or pursuit) without going deeply or seriously into it.

5. to roll up one’s sleeves = to prepare for action.

6. to loosen = , i.e., (a person’s) tongue, to make him/her speak.

7. butt = to strike, esp. with the head or horns, (perhaps the river is narrow enough for the washerwomen’s heads to collide as they bend to immerse Earwicker’s shirt.

8. hike = to raise or toss with the horns; and a long walk; and hike! (Anglo-Irish), stop!, halt!, go back! (call to a horse).

9. threed = pierce, penetrate; and three; and tried; and thried (Anglo-Irish Pronunciation), tried.

10. make out = to succeed in accomplishing; and to effect, achieve; and to establish by evidence, argument, or investigation, to prove; and to interpret for oneself; to decipher,to succeed in reading.

11. fiendish = characteristic of a fiend, superhumanly cruel and malignant; and phoenix (Phoenix Park, Dublin).

Phoenix Park, Dublin. (Wellington Monument).

12. reppe = repe , to touch, and rep, a man (or woman) of loose character.

13. steep = to soak in water or other liquid (for the purpose of softening or cleansing).

14, stupe = to moisten (lint, tow, etc.) in some hot liquid so as to form a stupe (a piece of tow, flannel, etc., wrung out of hot liquor and medicated, for fomenting a wound or ailing part).

15. wik = wick; and week.

16. times = washed 100 times.

17. to know by heart = to have in the memory, to know by rote.

18. soil = to make foul or dirty, especially on the surface.

19. dud = of little or no worth, bad, worn out, useless

20. scorch = to burn superficially.

21. starve = to die of hunger, to perish or be in process of perishing from lack or insufficiency of food.and to suffer extremely.

22. famine = want of food, hunger; hence, starvation

23. wallop = to beat soundly, belabour, thrash.

24. battle = to beat (clothes) with a wooden beetle during the process of washing, or in order to smooth them after they are dried.

25. rusty = stiff; having the colour of rust, of a (disagreeable) light reddish brown.

26. mouldy = covered with mould; decaying or decayed; of the nature of mould or fine soil.

27. tail = sexual intercourse; and end, conclusion; and Anglo-Irish phrase: at all at all.

28. Sendai = city in Japan; and Animal Sunday, observed by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in many parts of the world.

29. under lock and key = in prison, and Lough Neagh, lake in east-central Northern Ireland; and loch, a lake.

Rams island, Lough Neagh.

30. prier = a close inquirer, an inquisitive person, nisi prius (Latin), unless before: legal warrant to bring a cause to trial at central court unless before that date it shall have been tried locally.

31. fieri facias = cause to be made (type of writ).

32. whisky.

33. distil = to subject to the process of distillation.

34. exploit = an act or deed; a feat, an achievement displaying a brilliant degree of bravery or skill.

35. ‘time will tell’ = till, attract, entice; prepare, care for; and temp, temperature, tempo; and historically, to be silent; sh!; and ‘time and tide wait for no man’, first used by St. Marher, 1225: ‘And te tide and te time þat tu iboren were, schal beon iblescet’. (‘The tide abides for, tarrieth for no man, stays no man, tide nor time tarrieth no man’).

36. neap = of tides: to become lower, to tend towards the neap; and proverb: ‘As you sow so shall you reap’, ‘Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap’. (The Bible, Galatians VI).

37. dirty.

38. Rappen (German) = black horse; and Swiss cent.

39. mixed marriage = a marriage between persons of different races or religions; and minxi (Latin), I have urinated; minxit (Latin), he urinated.

40. loof = the palm of the hand; and love; and loo (slang), watercloset; and oof (slang), money; and loof (Dutch), foliage.

Excerpt 2:

1. chitter = of birds: to utter a short series of sharp thin sounds, to twitter; and chittering (Anglo-Irish), constantly complaining. us!

2. flitter = of birds, etc.: to flit about, to fly with low or short flights; and to flutter.

3. back talk = a retort or reply which is regarded as superfluous or impertinent.

4. thim = (Anglo-Irish Pronunciation), them.

Excerpt 3:

1. rivering = flowing in river form.

2. to hither and thither = to go to and fro, to move about in various directions.

Excerpt 4:

1. Neptune = Roman religion and mythology, the god of the sea, corresponding to the Greek Poseidon; and, he 8th planet of the solar system, with tts satellite Triton, discovered one month after the planet in 1846.

2. Neptune Rowing Club = one of several rowing clubs whose boathouses were on Thorncastle Street, Ringsend, only a few blocks from Tritonvile Road, around the turn of the century.

3. scull = to proceed by means of a boat propelled with a scull or a pair of sculls.

4. Tritonville Road = in South-East Dublin, near Ringsend; and row, to use oars, sweeps, or similar means, for the purpose of propelling a boat or other vessel.

5. Leander = youth of Abydos who swam the Hellespont nightly to visit Hero until he drowned.

6. bump = to strike solidly, to come with a bump or violent jolt against.

7. Hero = priestess of Aphrodite in Sestos on the Hellespont, beloved by Leander.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Parting of Hero and Leander’, c. 1837.



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.