St Kevin’s tub

I obey laws I have not chosen. (Joyce to Jacques Mercanton on FW)1

Danis Rose’s edition of Finn’s Hotel is controversial regarding the question of whether Joyce ever had the notion of building its ‘little epics’ into a self-standing work. But there is no question that these notes from 1923, after Ulysses and before the Wake (as Rose says), are critical for an understanding of the transition between the two.

The third of its epyllia concerns Kevin, the patron saint of Dublin, who founded a monastery in Glendalough, ‘the valley of two lakes’, in the seventh century. The name ‘Kevin’ goes back to Cóemgein, ‘the handsomely born’, that is to say, ‘the appropriately born’, that is to say ‘the reborn’, ‘the regenerated’. The crossing of the two in the valley, whether of lakes or births or generations, is the matter at stake and questions arise as to how this occurs and what relation it has to what is before it and what is around it.

Joyce’s retaling (formulated in free verse, alone among the episodes)2 situates these questions as concerning a ‘tub’ — namely Ireland or here-comes-everybody’s head3 — and its relation to a prior surrounding ‘ocean’:

A Tale of a Tub

KEVIN BORN on the island of Ireland in the Irish ocean

having been granted privilege of a portable altar cum bath goes to Lough Glendalough between rivers

where pious Kevin lives alone on an isle in the lake

on which isle, a plot perimetered with three watercourses, is a pond

in which is an islet whereon holy Kevin builds a beehivehut the floor of which most holy Kevin excavates to a depth of one foot

which done venerable Kevin goes to the lakeside and fills time after time the tub with water which time after time most venerable Kevin empties into the cavity of his hut thereof creating a pool

having done which blessed Kevin half fills the tub once with water which tub then most blessed Kevin sets in the centre of the pool

after which saint Kevin girds up his frock to his loins and seats himself, blessed saint Kevin, in his circumferential hiptubbath

where, doctor solitarius, he meditates with ardour the sacrament of baptism or the regeneration [gein] of man by water.

The ninth episode in the Finn’s Hotel series of eleven epiclets is ‘Here Comes Everybody‘ — “concerning the genesis of Harold or Humphrey“, and his ancestry, or not, from “the Earwickers“:

Discarding once for all those theories from older sources which would link him back with such pivotal ancestors as the Glues, the Gravys and the Earwickers of Sidham in the Hundred of Manhood or proclaim him a descendant of vikings…4

The episode would explicate his origins instead, or at least first of all, as going back to Eden and to:

the grand old gardener [who] was saving daylight one sabbath afternoon in prefall paradise peace by following his plough for rootles in the rere garden of ye olde marine hotel when royalty was announced…

The tendency of these notes to Finnegans Wake is clear and the central question would appear to concern the roots — and also the rootles(sness) — of genesis.

The crux of the matter has to do with the subjective genitive at stake here. Roots and rootles(sness) belong first of all to genesis, not to us.5 Just so, water is re-generative for Kevin exactly and only because it is not his! He needs to retrieve it — in his tub.6

McLuhan put the matter in negative mode — that is, in terms of our cul-de-sac or “opaque prison” — in ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’ in 1954:

For that school of thought for which the external world is an opaque prison, art can never be regarded as a source of knowledge but only as a moral discipline and a study of endurance. The artist is not a reader of radiant signatures on materia signata but the signer of a forged check on our hopes and sympathies.

It had earlier appeared in positive mode in ‘Mr. Eliot’s Historical Decorum’ in 1949 where the “reader of radiant signatures” has the calling to re-turn to “source” and

To read not in the book of the self but in the book of the existent and subsistent world…

Our home in an “existent and subsistent world” is original. Once fallen away from that birth-right, it may not be re-won by reading further into “the book of the self” (an absorption that leads nowhere but deeper and deeper into the “opaque prison”), but only (only!) through a re-version to origin. From there, and only from there, is a “re-generation” to be experienced along with St Kevin, in reception of its amniotic embrace and power. This is a gift — actually the gift above all other gifts — enabling a “radiant” relation to an “existent and subsistent world”.

  1. Jaques Mercanton, ‘The Hours of James Joyce, in Portraits of the Artist in Exile (ed Willard Potts), pp 209-221. Cited at Peter Crisp’s fine FW blog along with the Joyce to Hoffmeister quotation in note 4 below.
  2. The spacing of the verses points to the spacing at stake in the tale between plural waters and plural tubs and plural births.
  3. One of the further questions raised by the episode is whether the riot of our tubshead’s consciousness/unconsciousness sits in us and/or we in it.
  4. And yet, as both a particular individual and as ‘everybody’, Harold/Humphrey — Haromphrey — proves to be an Earwicker after all. (Joyce to Adolf Hoffmeister: “Everyone is anyone and every instant is any instant.”) When asked by the “sailor king” (in this ninth episode of Finn’s Hotel), what he was up to, “honest blunt Haromphreyld answered in no uncertain tones (…) Naw, magersty, aw war jist a cotchin on thon bluggy earwugs. Our sailor king, remarked (…) we have for trusty bailiwick a turnpiker who is by turns a pikebailer no less than an earwicker!” Now bailiwick and pikebailer (bailiff) are collective designations, earwicker as ‘earwuger’ or ‘earwigger’, a very particular one — like Haromphrey’s dialect. In fact, Haromphrey is “a turnpiker who is by turns” the collective figure “no less than” the particular one. (Joyce to Arthur Power: “I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”) “Comes the question: are these the facts as recorded in both or either of the collateral andrewpomurphyc narratives? We shall perhaps not so soon see. The great fact remains that after that historic date all holographs so far exhumed initialled by Haromphrey bear the sigla H.C.E. and, while he was only and long and always good duke Umphrey for the hungerlean spalpeens of Lucalizod and Chimbers to his cronies, it was equally certainly a pleasant turn of the populace which gave him as sense of those normative letters the nickname Here Comes Everybody.” All human beings, like “Haromphreyld”, but each one differently, are de-rey-ld and de-railed and the question is whether the cost of this ‘de-fall-t’ can be de-phreyld — where defray goes back to broken (‘to pay for damages caused by breakage’) and/or to peace (among the fragments).
  5. At the same time, however, the rootlessness ‘of genesis’ is also an objective genitive since rootlessness is not later than genesis or subsequent to it: rootlessness is what genesis ‘is’.
  6. These notes would seem to show Joyce as situating his narratives in an ontological context characterized by the cul-de-sac of modernity defined by Nietzsche and repeatedly depicted by Joyce’s friend and compatriot, Samuel Beckett. The central question is how far our tales obscure and/or reveal the real. (Persse O’Reilley, one concretion of HCE, refers on to perce-oreille, French for earwig. Both Persse/perce (as per se) and O’Reilley/oreille refer on to the real.) This question, in turn, has always reverted to the further one of origins. What journey have we already started ‘off on‘ and what other journeys might be possible for us and how does one go between journeys? The sun and moon appear to be impelled by just these questions when they rise and fall and rise and fall again and again in some regenerative relation to the surrounding ocean — a pattern that Kevin, as Cóemgein and the patron saint of doublin’, would re-trieve and re-establish.