Wakese 1: On the quintessential extraction of language

The style [of FW] is exploded blarney. (Wm Irwin Thompson)1

As cited in Ellmann’s 1959 biography of Joyce, Stefan Zweig recalled a conversation in which Joyce said:

I’d like a language that is above all languages…2

Joyce may have had in mind that he wanted to write in a language which would be elevated “above all languages”, like a god above the world. For he continued his observation: “a language to which all will do service”. But if he played with the sense of an elevated language in the phrase “above all” —  perhaps referencing the logos tradition for which “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” — he also and mainly wanted to write in a language which was “above all languages” in the sense of being a language which was somehow also, and fundamentally, plural languages

I’d like a language that is above all languages, a language to which all will do service.

He imagined a language that would first of all be “languages” as expressing what it was that enabled any language — to be language. Hence, as he further continued the passage:

I cannot express myself in English without enclosing myself in a tradition.3

The key problem here lay in the word ‘a’.  Against this, the language and tradition Joyce imagined would “above all”, first of all, be the essence of languages and traditions, plural.

Beckett put the point in reference to Work in Progress as follows:

This writing that you find so obscure is a quintessential extraction of language…4

The goal in Finnegans Wake was to write in a language which would expose the roots of all language(s), just as PIE (proto Indo-European) exposes the roots of its daughter languages from India to Ireland. Such a language would be made, dreamed up, as Volapük and Esperanto were, but it would not be rule-governed in their manner of transparently forming a kind of linguistic crystal palace. Instead it would be idiosyncratically particular and limitlessly associative in order to demonstrate the idiosyncratic particularity and limitless associativity of any and all language — which are somehow combined with a power to communicate.

It is just this combination of ineradicable particularity with communication that is the quintessence of language.

Thompson went on in his essay to opine that:

It is dubious whether [Joyce’s] symbolist technique compensates for the symbolic inadequacies of the work. The difficulty is that most of the references are not to experience (and therefore capable of exciting imaginative participation in the mind of the reader); they are [references] to other parts of the book, or to Joyce’s life.5

When an infant first learns to speak, or when humans first spoke, ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, what “experience” could elicit “imaginative participation in the mind” of the speaker? What could be present at all other than the inexplicable self-reference of the speaker, of the speaker’s language and, indeed, of the hearer’s understanding? And yet — language speaks. 

In this early essay,6 Thompson seems to have confused grad school hermeneutics with language.7 But these are far from the same thing. Language, all language, is somehow deeper than the idiosyncratic particularity, limitless associativity and ineluctable self-reference that characterize it. Unlimited in its outward and inward expansiveness, inevitably particular as regards the speaker, the hearer and the words between them, language yet communicates at such a deep level that it can be learned. Its communication can be communicated — even to babes in arms and to the rudest of rude savages, like you and me.

  1.  W. I. Thompson, ‘The Language of Finnegans Wake‘, Sewanee Review, 72:1, 1964, 81.
  2.  Quoted in Thompson, ibid, 73, from Ellmann, 1959, 410. Joyce’s ambition to express himself in “a language that is above all languages, a language to which all will do service” was anticipated, somewhat, in a letter Coleridge wrote to Humphry Davy on February 3, 1801: “what my heart within me burns to do, that is, to concentre my free mind to the affinities of the feelings with words and ideas under the title of ‘Concerning Poetry, and the nature of the Pleasures derived from it’. I have faith that I do understand the subject, and I am sure that if I write what I ought to do on it, the work would supersede all the books of metaphysics, and all the books of morals too.” I.A. Richards discussed this letter in Coleridge on Imagination, a book that was published in the year McLuhan arrived in Cambridge to study with Richards in the Cambridge English school.
  3. Such constriction would be ‘anal-phabetic’ without, however, being ‘an-alphabetic’.
  4. ‘Dante…Bruno. Vico…Joyce’, in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, 1929.
  5. ‘The Language of Finnegans Wake‘, 86.
  6. Thompson’s essay appeared in The Sewanee Review in 1964, twenty years after McLuhan began publishing essays there in 1944.
  7. Thompson was studying at Cornell at this time.  He obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. there in 1964 and 1966.