EXCREMENTAL SELF-CREATION IN FINNEGANS WAKE
To think excrement is to encounter life. A life that is not eternal, but intensely finite. A life that must devour and consume in order to grow; a life which consequently dies. To take shit seriously is to become a student of this life and to understand it at the level of process. Life lives through expulsion. Joyce is an author of life and our greatest thinker of shit. He stands apart from other authors within the tradition of scatological literature,1 because he does not simply view excrement as a satirical trope or as a means of ridiculing the pompous. Neither does he take recourse to the scatological merely in order to provide his work with a naturalism of the outhouse. Apart from all of this, Joyce's treatment of excrement is an integral part of his reformulation and rethinking of life, a project in many ways coincident with that of Finnegans Wake itself. To show this, I will take as my starting point an early discussion of excrement from Joyce's 1903 "Aesthetics" notebooks. Here Joyce considers the place of excrement within the dichotomy of nature and art. After this, I turn to three excremental scenes from Finnegans Wake--the Kabbalistic and emanationist creation story of the schoolbook chapter (II.2), Buckley's shooting of the Russian general (II.3), and Shem's preparation of fecal ink (I.7)--in order to argue that it is precisely by means of excrement that Joyce undoes this earlier distinction between nature and art in a new view of self-creation. In each of these scenes we find a moment of joining between creator and creation. Art is therefore shown to be nothing that happens apart from life or nothing that would be merely super-added onto life, but a way that life itself transforms itself in an expressive act of self-creation. If the maker is to mate with the made, to borrow what I will take as a guiding phrase from II.2, then the maker must mate with its shit via a notion of what I will term "excremental self-creation." 2 My paper concludes with a few brief and admittedly general remarks on excremental writing in the Wake.
Joyce's fascination with excrement is nothing that arises late in his career, he is already thinking of it in 1903. The "Aesthetics" notebooks of this period provide insight into Joyce working through the theories of Aristotle. In these notebooks we find a concise definition of art--"Art is the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an aesthetic end" (CW 145)--followed by a series of questions and answers in regard to it. The first of these concerns excrement:
QUESTION: Why are not excrements, children, and lice works of art?
ANSWER: Excrements, children, and lice are human products--human dispositions of sensible matter. The process by which they are produced is natural and non-artistic; their end is not an aesthetic end; therefore they are not works of art. [CW 146]
Apart from the strangeness of linking children, lice, and excrement together as human products (lice?), we should note that Joyce does grant that excrement is a human disposition of matter, like art. Excretion is expression, in other words. The problem, however, lies in the idea that this bodily production would not serve an aesthetic end. A strong distinction is thus made between the natural and the aesthetic, even though Joyce also notes that "the artistic process is like the natural process" (CW 145; emphasis added). This initial intimation of a connection between art and nature is made explicit in Finnegans Wake and precisely through the role that excrement assumes there. It is to the first of the three excremental moments of the Wake that I now wish to turn.
1) Waste of All Peacable Worlds (158.10): Stercoric Creation
Replete with Kaballistic imagery 3, the schoolbook chapter (II.2) present an emanationist view of creation which is explicitly brought into relation with both excrement and writing. My reading centers around the figure of "Ainsoph" (FW 261.23), named in the opening moments of the chapter, and a name for the unmanifest deity. According to Thomas Waite, author of an early treatment of the principles of the Kabbala and one of Joyce's sources for the chapter, this name is a "philosophical hypothesis," meant to indicate the god "prior to manifestation," where he is "nameless, even as He is beyond reach."4 The Ain-Soph is understood in the Zohar as "the limitless mystery of Divine Thought, the centre of all and the secret of all secrets--God unknown and unknowable in respect of His Essence" (Waite, Secret 28). Ain-Soph holds pride of place in the emanationist metaphysics of Kabbalistic thought as the withdrawn God. God withdraws but only in order to open up the space of giving and divine dispensation. The withdrawal of the Ain-Soph is coincident with the donation of the ten "Sephiroth," or avatars of God (the number ten abounds throughout the chapter).5
These Sephiroth as emanations of the Ain-Soph are themselves creators and responsible for the creation of the world. For emanationist thought, what the maker makes goes on to further make in a new emanation (or hypostasis). Consequently, as Joyce puts it "maker mates with made (O my!)" (FW 261.08) at the moment when the created becomes itself creative. At each end, from the Ain-Soph to the Sephiroth, creation is a matter of expulsion and overflow.
A marginal comment in the chapter terms this creative expulsion productive of the world, "Sarga, or the path of outgoing" (FW 294. L1), which McHugh annotates as "Skt sarga: process of world creation, letting go, voiding."6 Here the expulsive character of creation is identified with defecation. Creation is a letting go whereby the Ainsoph detaches himself from the world. Creation is a voiding where the Ain-Soph is emptied into the world (via the Sephiroth). The creation of the world is an act of defecation. In addition, this model of excremental creation can be applied to the Christian creation story to identify both God's creation of the world and the Fall of man (the expulsion from the Garden of Eden) as so many forms of defecation.
The schoolbook chapter does not stop here, however. A connection is also drawn between creation as excrement and creation as writing. According again to A.E. Waite, "the instruments, the matrices of the material world, are said by the Kabalists to have been the letters of the Hebrew alphabet"7 ("Every letter is a godsend" [FW 269.17]). But whereas in the Kabbalistic account these letters are also spoken words of God for Joyce they become lines, strokes of the pen.8 HCE's description in the chapter as, "Length Withought Breath, of him, a chump of the evums," points to this linear or written quality (FW 261.13-14). The alienation of God into the text, the concealment of God in the word, means that "To book alone belongs the lobe" (FW 305.31; Ger.: Lob = "praise"). In a reversal of the Gospel of John, Joyce speaks of a text "Where flash becomes word and silents selfloud" (FW 267.16-17). This word is no longer the spoken word of God, but the written word, and as such it is full of silent vowels (Ger.: Selbstlaut = "vowel") and other textual peculiarities. Numerous other references could be cited. 9
For a thinking of excrement, the classbook chapter presents a threefold analogy between divine creation, defecation, and writing. It also presents us with a unity of maker and made as the pivot-point of creation. Each of these ideas recurs again throughout the Wake and informs its conception of excrement.
2) Manurevring in Open Ordure (344.17): Why Buckley Shot the Russian General
In the story of Buckley shooting the Russian general we encounter the solitary Russian general in the Crimean war in bad need of a bathroom. The story in its broad strokes is easily told: while on campaign, the Russian general undoes his trousers and squats down in order to defecate. At the same moment, the soldier Buckley gets him within the sights of his rifle. Finding his enemy in such a state, Buckley pauses before shooting. The Russian general concludes his act unharmed and then tears up a clod of turf with which to wipe himself. It is only at this moment that Buckley fires. Beckett's remark upon first hearing the story is well-known, "another insult to Ireland."10 Nevertheless, there is more in this than a national insult. The general's act and the necessity of his death are key to understanding the role of shit in Finnegans Wake.
In Joyce's telling, Buckley sights the general as he is "lyoking for a stool-eazy for to nemesisplotsch allafranka and for to salubrate himself with an ultradungs heavenly mass at his base" (FW 343.27-29). The general drops his pants, "when I seeing him in his oneship...lugging up and down his livepelts...expousing his old skinful self tailtottom by manurevring in open ordure" (FW 344.12-18) and Buckley is consumed by a shuddering fear: "I no sooner seen aghist of his frighteousness then I was bibbering with vear" (FW 343.34-35). He is near enough to smell him (he "caught the pfierce tsmell of his aurals, orankastank"; FW 344.25-26), but cannot follow through: "my bill it forsooks allegiance...I was babbeing and yetaghain blubbering" (FW 344.27-29). "I confess withould pridejealice when I looked upon the Saur of all the Haruousians with the weight of his arge fullin upon him from the travaillings of his tommuck and rueckenased the fates of a bosser there was fear on me" (FW 344.32-36).
What is so fearful about a general defecating, we might ask. Perhaps Buckley is embarrassed to slay an enemy in such an unarmed state. This reverence before defecation is telling. It is not simply a matter of the Russian general not being able to defend himself, nor is it simply a matter of respect for an unspoken code of war whereby victor and victim should recognize one another in a duel to the death. Buckley's hesitation (another recurrent theme of the Wake) is a reverence before the act of creation, it is a fear we would more sooner think to be experienced in the face of God rather than a shitting general.11 It is a hesitation which holds itself back in the presence of the creative act. This act of creation is nothing limited to Gods, but (now made scatological) extends across all life.
Buckley further explains his refusal to shoot the general with the words "I adn't the arts to" (FW 345.02-03), which returns us to Joyce's concerns in his 1903 text. Buckley does not have the art to shoot the general in the midst of so natural an expression. Art is no longer viewed as antithetical to life or antagonistically disposed towards it, but as its own continuance. Art cannot act against nature, because it is itself another name for the action of nature and the basic movement of nature (physis) is expression.12
Be that as it may, we know that Buckley does indeed shoot the general:
For when meseemim, and tolfoklokken Rolland allover ourloud's lande, beheaving up that sob of tunf for to claimhis, for to wollpimsolff, puddywhuck. Ay, and untuoning his culothone in an exitous erseroyal Deo Jupto. At that instullt to Igorladns! Prronto! I gave one dobblenotch and I ups with my crozzier. Mirrdo! With my how on armer and hits leg an arrow cockshock rockrogn. Sparro!
Buckley fires only once the general wipes. The general wipes to erase all connection between himself and his production, to completely detach himself from it and leave no remainder. There can be no trace of stool about him.
After Butt's telling of the shooting, Taff remarks, "Ah, you were shutter reshottus and sieger besieged" (FW 352.25). This reflexive moment brings us back to the idea of a maker mating with the made; the shooter is shot and the victor is conquered. But Butt's action here accomplishes this coincidence through quite different means. Rather than a creation that would then become creative (Sephiroth), here we have the slaying of a creator who would bear no relation to his creation. Buckley fires in the name of shit, that it is not without relation to creator and in the name of the creativity of all creation.13
3) Obscene Matter Not Protected by Cropriright (185. 30): Shem's Ink
The significance of the defecating general is clearly seen when compared with Shem, who, in the preparation of his ink, goes through similar motions as the Russian general. In the Latin passage of I.7 we read (in McHugh's translation):
the artist, the eminent writer, without any shame or apology, pulled up his raincoat & undid his trousers & then drew himself close to the life-giving & allpowerful earth, with his buttocks bare as they were born. Weeping and groaning he relieved himself into his own hands
[FW 185. 14-17; McHugh 185]
Shem's exposure here is without shame. It is even presented in Latin with the express intention of preventing any embarrassment on the part of the reader (to avoid the feeling of "pink" in one's cheek):
Let manner [manure] and matter of this for these our sporting times be cloaked up [cloaca] in the language of blushfed porporates that an Anglican ordinal, nor reading his own rude dusky tunga, may ever behold the brand of scarlet on the brow of her of Babylon and not feel the pink one in his own damned cheek.
Rather than seek to hide, Shem sounds a trumpet and "from the foul dung mixed, as I have said, with the 'sweetness of Orion' & baked & then exposed to the cold, he made himself an indelible ink" (FW 185. 24-25; McHugh 185). Shem prepares and ink and writes upon his own body, "the first till last alshemist wrote over every square inch of the only foolscap available, his own body" (FW 185. 34-36). Herein lies the difference between Shem and the Russian general: Shem writes, the general wipes.
Contra the general's attempt to erase all trace of excrement, Shem's writing is an open display of it. The general finds death through his hubris, Shem a transformed life. His writing, as he says, serves to reflect "from his own individual person life unlivable, transaccidentated through the slow fires of consciousness into a dividual chaos, perilous, potent, common to allflesh, human only, mortal" (FW 186. 03-06). Shem's writing brings him into community with others. He is no longer isolated and distinct from others, but opened to them, with a life now lived as "common to allflesh." His own unlivable life (the impossible life alone) is made "dividual" and shared in a community. The general's wiping away of the trace is an attempt to remain distinct and removed from his shit, as an isolated ego apart from the world and others, a creator without relation to his creation. Shem, on the contrary, accepts finitude and receives community. The general must die because he forsakes our human existence.
The idea of the maker mating with the made is found at its strongest with Shem. He takes himself for his paper and writes upon himself with an ink of his own excretion. This is self-creation in the literal, though not only literal, sense. Self-creation, the mating of maker with made, is the pinnacle of creation and always a matter of finitude.
4) Finnegans Wake and Excremental Self-Creation
Joyce's division between art and nature as found in the 1903 "Aesthetics" notebook is abandoned by the time of Finnegans Wake. Joyce imagines instead a form of artistic self-creation whereby the greatest work of the artist would be the artist him/herself. The maker mating with made motif found in the above cited passages (and others to be found across the Wake) points to this conception of the maker itself as a product of artistic effort. If we were to adhere to the terms of the 1903 essay, then we might say that nature achieves its highest form in art and that art is always a work of nature. Life itself must become artistic, in other words. But if we take seriously the idea of maker mating with made then art and nature can no longer stand as two separate realms opposed to one another. These are the abstractions of the Russian general. Instead, there is only an aestheticization of the natural united with a natural art. This is self-creation.
But why then excrement? Each of the above cited passages also features excrement in a prominent role. What is the relation between self-creation and stercus? For Joyce, the creation of a life is a totalizing project. Self-creation is the creation of a whole life. It should come as no surprise that the Joyce who strove so hard for self-sufficiency, the Joyce of an exaggerated egoism, should demand of life that it be whole. The highest level of creation is self-creation and the pinnacle of self-creation is the creation of a whole self. The schoolbook chapter shows that excrement is created, the Buckley passage that the creator must bear a relation to its creation, and the Shem story that excrement is itself creative. Maker mates with made. Were Joyce to leave excrement out of this artistic vision, something of this life would remain outside of it, too. There would be an outside. Joyce seizes upon excrement in order to reintegrate it with the created life in the quest for a whole life. To seize this life at where it is most common and to make of it something now unique, requires, like Shem, the taking up of excrement into our hands. Only these whole and fully unique lives can be lived in community with others. Self-creation is the shameless expression of nature that makes the human a human.
The greatness and singularity of Finnegans Wake lies in the way that this text enacts its own thought. The very ideas of the text inform its composition and this is equally true of its conception of excrement. The Wake is written with words that are expulsive insofar as they do not retain a meaning apart from their context (they are not the words of a Russian general), but instead are intensely contextual and thereby bring about a community of readers (they are the words of a Shem). The book requires interpretation, calls for an interpretive community, in a way that other books do not. The reader must become creative. Joyce creates a readership which itself must become creative in response. What is delivered to us is not something finished and accomplished, evident and clear, but precisely a "chaos" has been dividuated to us, one in which we must take part. We must bear a relation to it. Joyce holds a particular place in the history of scatological writing precisely because he does not write about shit, his writing is that shit itself.
© Andrew Mitchell, 2004
|volume 5, issue 1, 2004|