Colloques & Conferences de l'Universite Lyon 2, Modernism and Unreadability / Modernisme et Illisibilite

"To Read What Was Never Written": Finnegans Wake, Hypersignification and the Politics of Historiography

Daniel Shea

Temps: 2008-10-23  04:35  – 05:10
Dernière modification: 2008-07-07


The problem of "readability" raises particular problems for the modernist text. A text such as Joyce's Finnegans Wake clearly defies any traditional notion of clarity, narrative structure, or even linguistic consistency. The modernist text's interrogation of dominant narratives and perspectival reliability inevitably challenged traditional readability, for reading clarity can only result from the very kind of aesthetic hegemony against which the modernist artists struggled, in Pound's words, to "make it new." Uncovering suppressed and alternative meanings, this study argues, is the measure of a text's self-awareness as a product of both historical and linguistic forces, if, indeed, the two can be made distinct. Following the argument established by Walter Benjamin's analysis of the use of allegory as the inauguration of a modernist mode of representation as mirroring in the German Trauerspiel, I further argue that Joyce's Finnegans Wake replaces a traditional system of signification, based upon the concept of the transcendentally indicating word-as-symbol (which the allegorical supplanted), with what can be called hypersignification, the production of meaning through mirrored homophonics, sliding signifiers, puns, and transcultural linguistic simultaneity, effectively collapsing history, myth, and language into a shared semiotic pattern. However, the Wake's weave is more than aesthetic form, for, in following the pattern and the often-disappearing narrative threads, Joyce's ideal reader is forced to engage what Benjamin refers to as historical materialism, the grounding of historiography in the material rather than a transcendental sense of historical progression. On the one hand, Joyce characteristically plays with the two perspectives, presenting Finnegan's fall as the creation of Dublin and Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (HCE) and Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP) simultaneously as historical characters, mythic figures, common Dublin citizens, and geographical locations and landmarks. However, the importance of the material within the sense of historical narrative can be found in the potentially fratricidal relationship of HCE and ALP's sons Shem and Shaun in the Wake; their struggle reveals the Ursprung, or origin of history in Shaun's appropriation of Shem the Penman's stories, written on the "foolscap of his own body," which are subsequently transformed into an aestheticized, "official" history, presented as outside of any meaningful human participation. This aestheticized transformation of a culture's connection to its material production is particularly relevant in terms of fascism's corporative politics and mythic reconstruction of history, the dominant political backdrop of Finnegans Wake and of modernism in general. Recovery of these lost stories, embodied in ALP's letter which contains the "true" story of HCE's crime, like seeing the consciousness of the suppressed classes recovered in the folk tale, depends upon a revised theory of reading: instead of clarity and cognition, the modernist text demands, as Joyce and Benjamin independently note in their writings, "cunning" and an approach to reading which amounts to a tactical challenge to authority. Through its aesthetic challenge, the modernist text suggests a political dimension not only to literature but to the act of reading itself.