The Closing Word of Finnegans Wake
A few years ago, a selection of Richard Ellmann's essays on literature was published under the title A Long the Riverrun. The appearance of this volume produced an interesting situation in the finicky, bibliographic world of machine-readable catalog records. These records (for those readers who may be unfamiliar with the genre) are the rigorously formatted and encoded pages of data from which the information is generated for online library catalogs and, during the 1970s and '80s, for most research library card catalogs. The problem is one of indexing (in an online environment) or filing (in a card catalog). Put simply, do we expect to find the title of Ellmann's book indexed / filed under "A", being sensitive to the prepositional overtones of the title's first five letters, or under "L", ignoring the normally lame initial article as all indexes do, and as we would, for instance, when searching for such entries as A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake or The Joyce of Cooking? Indeed, seeking these latter two titles under the initial article would get us nowhere, and understandably so. But should we really expect all users of the catalog (especially Joyceans) to search under "L" for A Long the Riverrun? Might not the covering up of the initial "A" of Ellmann's title, for the purposes of the bibliographic search, result in the banishment of the text's name from the online universe and, for all practical purposes, from the library itself, though the book may remain in its proper place on the shelf? Who will read the library's copy of Ellmann's text when the typed command "find title a long the riverrun" is met with with the vexing and potentially foreclosing response "0 entries found"? The dilemma here, of course, is the status of the word "A": is it a word at all, or merely a lopped off letter cast adrift, as it were, in the Irish Sea to which Liffey is returning? Is it a non-filing, non-indexing indefinite article or some mutated grammatical leviathan?
And what about the status of the other apparent article in Ellmann's title: the "the" that announces, defines, and delimits the noun "riverrun"? In this case, it does not seem to be problematic -- provided, of course, that we do not quibble over the substantivity of the word "riverrun." And besides, in the context of the machine-readable catalog record, it has no significant part to play in indexing / filing, since it does not occur at the title's inception. But let's not gloss this "the" too rapidly. Its unassailable grammatical role in Ellmann's title is the result of a sleight-of-hand, for insofar as A Long the Riverrun is an allusion to Finnegans Wake, it presumes the circularity of Joyce's novel and, in fact, closes the circle, propping the text's initial noun (if it is a noun) on a modifier that does not occur until 625 pages later. Surely, this presumption of circularity, like any reading of virtually any moment in Finnegans Wake, is only partially correct. Doesn't it tend to conceal, in fact, the plain-as-day truth (which is, perhaps a little too self-evident as we hold the book in our hands) that Joyce's final novel ends with "the"?
According to Webster's New International Dictionary, the article, as a part of speech, is: "any of the words a, an, the or their equivalents in other languages, used before nouns to limit, individualize, or give definiteness (or indefiniteness) to their application." Clearly, articles do little else but serve the noun, clothing its substantivity with a wrap of specificity, or framing it with indefiniteness. A kind of semantic tofu, the article derives what flavor it has from the person, place, or thing that comes to color it, for without the noun the article cannot signify (anything), its only fleeting brush with meaning always instantaneously superseded by the advent of the noun it modifies.
Nonetheless, the potential force of the article should not be underestimated. Alexander Argyros, in his 1977 dissertation, "The Question of Truth in Sartre, Heidegger, and Derrida," points out that we pretend that the word "the" is "a useless triviality, at most a faceless journeyman, taking up space and doing little else" (5). However, he goes on to say, in his examination of the phrase "the philosophical novel":
By receding from the arena of meaning so that a space might be cleared wherein the noun may reside ... [the article] disguises the potency of its position so that substance might be lent to the substantive. "The" precedes a noun by pointing to the anticipated stability of its sense. Like a finger ... the "the" announcing "philosophical novel" would designate the cloistered grounds of substance, yet, in the same gesture, cannot help but open up the distance which disrupts the possibility of such domesticity (6).
Furthermore, and more specific to the case of the articles which grace the final lines of Finnegans Wake, Jacques Aubert, in his essay "riverrun," speaks of such phenomena as "the actualization of a noun as it emerges from an echo," and "the actualization of the article" (71-72), which comes to light through the adverbial dismemberment, absurd adjectival nominalization, and terminal nounal echo in the Wake's concluding "A way a lone a last a loved a long the" (FW 628.15-16). Indeed, what we are witness to at the abrupt conclusion of ALP's final, flowing monologue is a definite article calling attention to itself. Without a noun to mask the empty space-to-be-signified that has been cleared by the article's powerful grammatical performative, the "the", like a finger pointing at nothing, comes to signify, in and of itself, signification. Put another way, we are fooled by the finger's pointing at a void. Our attention is misdirected away from the finger itself and, when faced with a semiotic situation with no apparent signified, the resulting anxiety that we experience may leave us scrambling for a referent. Joyce has slyly provided us with one in the "riverrun" that abruptly opened the text days, weeks, or months earlier in our reading. However, we are also led to regard the "the" itself, as a cat, say, or an infant might stare at an extended index finger without seeking anything further in the space beyond its semiotically suggestive tip. The dangling "the" names itself when naming. It nominalizes itself, becomes a sort of noun, a name.
Now, let's set this substantive article aside for a moment and briefly consider the relationship between Finnegans Wake as a whole and the mysterious, elusive letter, penned by Shem, but composed apparently by ALP. As Suzette Henke notes in her James Joyce and the Politics of Desire:
Each of the multiple versions of the letter serves as a textual paradigm for the Wake itself, acting as a semiotic microcosm in which it has, like a puzzle or rebus, been playfully embedded. The letter is one of the central aporias of the book, an enigmatic document whose gaps and fragmented utterances reflect, in miniature, the polysemic discourse of its fabulative matrix (185).
This paradigmatic coupling of the entire text of the Wake with its theme of the letter is not new, of course. Roland McHugh, for example, interprets Joyce's use of the square siglum as standing for "the document (any book, letter, writing, treasure)" and, in particular, for Finnegans Wake as book, as physical object (118, 121). And Stephen Heath, citing verbatim one of the text's many allusions to itself, remarks: "The text is precisely 'that letter selfpenned to one's other'" (60). What is most important to glean from Henke's observations, however, is her focus on the letter and, by extension, on the entire text as aporia. Joyce's discourse, in both its microcosmic and macrocosmic manifestations, fails to yield a stable signification on account of its signifying too much. This semiotic surfeit might be read in psychoanalytic terms as a refusal of the phallus, of stable meaning, or at least an undermining of its potency.
The problematic "the", dangling as it does at the end of the novel, can be regarded in a similar context. First of all, it represents, in a way, a further microcosm of the text in its paradigmatic rapport with the letter. Margaret Solomon, in her Eternal Geomater, maintains that there is a close association in Joyce's book between the words "three," "tea," "tree," and "the" and the "tripartite aspect of the letter 'T'" (59). The letter itself (that is, the alphabetic T) she sees as essentially phallic (60). But it is important to note that the phallic aspect of the T / three / tea / tree / the group harbors within it the shadow of its own castration. As Solomon remarks, citing Bernard Benstock, the "the" which ends the novel suggests an emasculated "theo" (the word, that is, with its terminal vowel pruned), the definite article thus representing a castrated god (B. Benstock 112-113; cited in Solomon 81-82). Here, once again, we glimpse the traces of a missing letter in a semiotic instance that seems to signify a lack, while disseminating too much sense.
Secondly, the connection between ALP's letter and the text of the Wake suggests further evidence that the concluding "the" may not be an article at all, but rather a noun or name. As Henke points out, the final "the" can also be read as thé (French "tea"), deprived of its rising acute appendage, of course (203-204). And it's no surprise that the final signifier in Finnegans Wake should connote tea, since ALP's letter is sometimes said to contain a "teatimestained terminal" (FW 114.29-30), a splotch of tea obscuring the missive's signature: "With a capital Tea for thirst. From here Buvard to dear Picuchet. Blott" (FW 302.8-10).
Thus, the signifying noun-less / name-less article that ends Finnegans Wake both points to and conceals a final aporia. As teastain, it both masks and thereby becomes the signature on the book as letter. As phallus bearing the traces of its own castration, it both fills and reveals the substantive lack that it specifies and delimits.
One further consideration. Adaline Glasheen, in her 1954 article, "Finnegans Wake and the Girls from Boston, Mass.," documents rather convincingly a likely source for ALP's enigmatic letter. A certain Christine L. Beauchamp, who appears as a case study in Morton Prince's 1906 text, The Dissociation of a Personality, was a young girl from the New England capital whose persona was indeed quite fragmented. One of her "others" was a girl named Sally, who was "gay, unconventional, witty, impish, and sweet" (Glasheen 91): in other words, an Issy-type. Sally would sometimes torment Christine with cruel jokes and "disturbing letters." These letters were, then, "selfpenned to one's other" (FW 489.33-34). At one point, Sally buried a box of these letters "in a secret place in a wood" (Glasheen 94). Now, there is an indication near the end of Finnegans Wake that ALP wrote the infamous correspondence in her youth, as Issy, and then buried it: "Sometime then, somewhere there, I wrote me hopes and buried the page" (FW 624.3-4). In a midden heap, perhaps? In the woods? This secret place, this dark, concealing forest, this hole in a region where one might also expect to find traces of waste matter, is not entirely unfamiliar, just overlooked. As Shari Benstock contends: "Anna Livia insures that Earwicker's secret is safe by hiding the letter in the one place he would not think to look, a place he knows too well, and one he assumes can only be filled by him" (S. Benstock 230; cited in Henke 188). This hiding place is ALP's vagina, the treasure map to which Shem sketches out so clearly for the slow-witted Shaun in the "Study Period" chapter. It is the locus, in psychosexual linguistic terms, of signification's origin, the primary aporia which the phallus comes to veil.
This hiding place that is known only "too well" and the grammatical lack signaled by the "teatimestained terminal" "the" which ends Finnegans Wake and is perhaps too self-evidently conclusive to retain our attention before our exegetical glance leaps 625 pages backward in textual space to focus on a clothing substantive, a nounal fetish -- these two troubling manifestations of the effluvially empty origin of the signifying chain of language, of the letter peeping through the mists of the unconscious, are reminiscent of the place of concealment chosen by the Minister D-- for the "document of last importance," which he has pilfered in Edgar Allan Poe's "Purloined Letter." D-- hides the document in plain sight, so conspicuously in fact, that the letter calls attention to itself. But D-- has taken care to turn the letter's envelope inside out, to soil and crumple it, and to substitute his own name for that of the addressee, so that the stolen missive comes to resemble something that is completely different from what the Paris police, who search his apartment, have been led to expect. They are guilty, as it were, of failing to heed the warning Professor Jones's applies to ALP's letter: "to concentrate solely on the literal sense or even the psychological content of any document to the sore neglect of the enveloping facts ... is just as hurtful to sound sense" (FW 109.12-15).
Finally, in his "Séminaire sur 'La Lettre volée'" (his "Seminar on 'The Purloined Letter'"), Lacan points out that: "ce qui est caché n'est jamais que ce qui manque à sa place, comme s'exprime la fiche de recherche d'un volume quand il est égaré dans la bibliothèque" ("what is hidden is only ever what is missing from its place, as the tracing card puts it when a volume is lost in the library" -- Lacan 35; my translation). Which brings us back to the indexing / filing problem with which I began this essay. As is evidenced by the "the" which concludes Finnegans Wake and the letter in Poe's detective story, we must be careful not to dismiss too quickly the role of those signifiers that do not conform precisely to our expectations. The final "the" in Joyce's novel, although it does combine quite nicely with the text's opening "riverrun" to bring a certain circularity to the novel, is also the mark of the book's closing signature -- in a way, is the book's closing signature. The teastain both conceals and replaces the letter / novel's original signer, calling the origin of the text into question while naming its originary lack. In the case of Ellmann's title, the cataloger must be careful not to rule out the possibility that the initial "A" in the book's name may be something more than an article. He/she should provide additional access to the title so that it can be found when searched as either "Along the Riverrun" or "A Long the Riverrun," in addition to the perfunctory "Long the Riverrun." Otherwise, like the purloined letter or the Wake's concluding signature, Ellmann's book might be forever lost, or at least missing from its place.
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