‘William & Catherine Blake’s Lesson in reading Finnegans Wake’ or ‘In Praise of Stichomancy.’

There is an interesting section in Peter Ackroyd’s biography of poet and visual artist William Blake in which his wife Catherine, (née Boucher) practices the art of stichomancy. Stichomancy is the secular variant on bibliomancy, the opening of the Bible on a random page either in order to divine the future or to gain some spiritual insight. Blake recorded Catherine’s attempt in his notebook: “My Wife was told by a Spirit to look for her fortune by opening by chance a book which she had in her hand it was Bysshes Art of Poetry.”

As those who have practiced stichomancy will know, it rarely fails to produce something of interest or personal significance. From Blake’s account, it was a text by Aphra Behn, a Restoration-era dramatist and poet. Presumably, the erotic poem On a Juniper Tree Cut Down to Make Busks. The poem is just over one hundred lines long, but the following excerpt will be sufficient to give an impression of the overall work:

Kind was the Force on ev’ry Side;

Her new Desires she could not hide

Nor would the Shepherd be denied.

Impatient, he waits no Consent,

But what she gave by Languishment.

The blessed Minute he pursued,

Whilst Love her Fear and Shame subdued;

And now transported in his Arms,

Yields to the Conqu’ror all her Charms.

His panting Breast to hers now joined,

They feast on Raptures unconfined,

Vast and luxuriant, such as prove

The Immortality of Love.

Blake was pleased by the result, probably because of his view of the poem’s moral. For Blake, it was a vindication of the eternal nature of love. It is available here and contemporary readers will probably find it far more problematic than Blake did. http://www.bartleby.com/334/693.html He transcribed the poem and then made his own attempt, using John Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid. Ackroyd writes that he locates a passage concerning a tree that withstands the elements because of how deeply fixed its roots are. The exact passage is somewhat difficult to locate, as Virgil uses the image of the tree as an emblem of stamina in the face of adversity a number of times throughout the Aeneid. The following is my best guess.

As, when the winds their airy quarrel try,

Justling from ev’ry quarter of the sky,

This way and that the mountain oak they bend,

His boughs they shatter, and his branches rend;

With leaves and falling mast they spread the ground;

The hollow valleys echo to the sound:

Unmov’d, the royal plant their fury mocks,

Or, shaken, clings more closely to the rocks;

Far as he shoots his tow’ring head on high,

So deep in earth his fix’d foundations lie.

No less a storm the Trojan hero bears;

Thick messages and loud complaints he hears,

And bandied words, still beating on his ears.

Sighs, groans, and tears proclaim his inward pains;

But the firm purpose of his heart remains.

As one will often find oneself doing when practicing stichomancy,  Blake interprets the passage, as having revealed some inner truth, and as he is never far from making proclamations of this kind, declares that he is: “in Gods presence night & day.” This anecdote appears towards the end of Ackroyd’s biography, at which point the reader will be aware that Blake occupied a liminal space in the milieu of the eighteenth century literary scene in his lifetime. He spent much of his life living almost in poverty, his poetry and his paintings went largely unappreciated, partly because of his pusillanimous character and partly because of how uncomfortably his oeuvre sits relative to those of his contemporaries. Even Romanticism, a literary movement noted for its excess of feeling and visionary tendencies, falls short when labelling an author such as Blake. For a man who spent his life in the shadow of less notable peers, this section from Virgil by way of Dryden no doubt provided some level of consolation, especially for a man who invested so much of himself in a belief in the power of imagination and visionary insight to augment a more mundane reality.

It is with this in mind that I propose reading James Joyce’s anti-novel Finnegans Wake stichomantically. Having never found myself capable of reading it in anything other than short bursts, I hope that this technique will provide a door through which one can finally enter. Stichomancy in relation to the Wake has the added bonus of allowing one to bypass the linear drudgery of page after page of sometimes incomprehensible text. This is a book that is kaleidoscopic enough that consuming it sequentially is not mandatory.

The page that I opened the Wake to was page 537 of my Wordsworth edition, a page in chapter III.3 beginning with “mens in gladshouses they shad not peggot stones.” Those of us who have been paying attention to the news in recent years will have noticed and will have become bored by the frequent appearance of the narrative of a public figure saying (or, in the case of Emily Thornberry, former Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury, apparently implying something) being called out for it by an amorphous Twitter outrage machine, denying having said it, apologising for having said it and then losing their job over it.

The voice in this section, who I assume to be Henry Chimpden Earwicker, protagonist of the Wake, is apparently making some form of public apology for a perceived indiscretion, the nature of which, is licentious in nature, but not stated directly by the narrator. Joyce’s satirical instincts are in flying form as he represents perfectly the tone of the public apology. Earwicker is both humble and defensive. He appears contrite and yet he is also quite self-aggrandising. As one can see above, he makes a number of references to the nineteenth-century British and Irish political landscape, invoking the liberal Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone and refers to the Parnell letters forged by journalist Richard Piggott in an attempt to destroy Parnell’s career. These are issues, arguably of a wider significance than Earwicker’s perceived public improprieties. He makes the link nevertheless.

Furthermore, he seems determined to impose upon those listening, (one thinks of the hapless Leopold Bloom being prosecuted by an angry rabble in ‘Circe’) the narrative of having had a road to Damascus moment, his apology is often framed in terms of a Christian redemption narrative: “allbe I discountenanced beallpersuasions, in rinunciniation of pomps of heretofore…” Earwicker has a penchant for overstatement, promising such an extravagant change in character that it can be considered comparable to the conversion of Ireland from sun-worshipping Paganism to Christianity: “when I will westerneyes those poor sunuppers and outbreighten their land’s eng.” Earwicker is obviously pandering to his audience and despite his pledged renunciation of “pomps,” there remains a sordid undertone to Earwicker’s contrition: “(here incloths placefined my pocketanchoredcheck),” suggesting that this is a mercantile exchange, an attempt to buy bribe the public into approving of him once more.

I will finish this slapdash analysis by drawing attention to one of Joyce’s ingenious palimpsestic neologisms, which combine words into multi-layered puns. On this page, on such example is ‘grubstake.’ A ‘grubstake,’ is firstly, an investment, given to an entrepreneur, with the expectation that the investor will share in the dividends of a particular enterprise. Furthermore, one can detect a reference to Grub Street, a street in East London, known for the density of its population of poets and writers, who would often take on journalistic hack work. What we see in this word, is therefore a synecdoche of one of the themes of this page in general, how mercantilism pervades every aspect of public life and how it is in this environment that public gestures, such as apologies, can often seem contrived. While this reading of the Wake may not prove conciliatory in the same way that Blake’s did, it does prove an effective means of parodying the inauthenticity and the transparently self-interested nature of the public apology.


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