2010 edition FW pages 83-99
1939 edition FW pages 104-125
I.5§1: The Letter, 83 – 90.14 (104 – 113.22)
In this section we consider the title of the letter, the conditions surrounding its inscription, its possible author or authors, its envelope, the role of the hen, an outline (or version) of what it says, and an explanation for it being legible only in part.
The chapter opens with an invocation to ALP, ‘Annah the Allmaziful’, and continues with a long list of the different titles by which her letter or ‘untitled mamafesta’ had been known at different historical times. Thus, inter alia, we hear of Groans of a Britoness, An Apology for a Big —, He Can Explain, Mum It is All Over and, most sensible of all, First and Last Only True Account all about the Honorary Mirsu Earwicker L.S.D. and the Snake (Nuggets!) by a Woman of the World who only can Tell Naked Truths about a Dear Man and all his Conspirators how they all Tried to Fall him by Putting it all around Lucalizod about Privates Earwicker and a Pair of Sloppy Sluts plainly Showing all the Unmentionability falsely Accusing about the Raincoats.
The Arms of the City of Dublin. Note the ‘Pair of Sloppy Sluts.’ The motto, which translates, The Obedience of the Citizen is the Felicity of the Town, is parodied in several places in the Wake.
As for the letter itself, its ‘proteiform graph’ discloses a ‘polyhedron of scripture’, suggesting that it represents the work of more than one scribe. At one time, we are persuaded, naive palaeographers would have ascribed it to the scribbling of a purely delinquent recidivist; but to the curious entomologist it reveals a sex-mosaic of nymphomania in which HCE — now fond of sugar, now of salt — finds himself infatuated with two Vanessas. A multiplicity of personalities, evidentially, has been inflicted on the document; and a prevision of a crime or crimes might carelessly have been made before a suitable occasion for it or for them had in fact arisen. Under the close eye of scrutiny, this apparent chaos and confusion self-eliminates and the ambiguities resolve themselves into a more or less stable state much as life, though to all appearances a continuum, consists rather of an unending succession of unconnected and staccato events.
Shaun (assuming that it is he who is examining the letter) wonders who on earth wrote the durned thing anyhow. And under what set of circumstances? Erect, seated, on horseback, leaning against a wall, in freezing cold, using quill or style, in dimness or perspicacity of mind, accompanied or not accompanied by mastication, rained upon or blown about? Was it written by a down-to-earth simpleton in the street or by a bespectacled professor burdened with a load of learning?
Before he can answer any of these questions (we must have patience: patience is a great thing) the examiner considers the known facts surrounding the letter. If, after years upon years of technical skill, a scholar solemnly informs us that the ‘great ascendant’ of the letter (HCE) was, properly speaking, three syllables less than his own surname Earwicker, that he did not in fact exist, and that the so-called ear was nothing more than a trademark and wicker simply local cant for an aeronaut, then where on earth are we to go to for an opinion that can be relied on regarding this ‘radiooscillating epiepistle?’ Where is the bright so-and-so who can slip us the dinkum oil?
We should not leap to uncalled-for conclusions. To conclude from the absence of ‘political odia and monetary requests’ in the letter that it could not have been written by such a person of such a period at such a place is tantamount to inferring from the absence of inverted commas that the author or authors was or were incapable of misquoting and/or of strict plagiarism.
First and foremost, we have the envelope. It exhibits little of what it might contain, to be sure. It is but an outer shell, a plain wrapping, a bland and all too innocent face. Yet to concentrate on the psychology of its scribe or scribes as established from its contents alone to the neglect of the significance of the envelope is about as insensitive and as distasteful as if a fellow on being introduced to a well-dressed young lady were straightaway to run off and picture her in the buff.
Shaun (or whoever it is) lets the facts speak for themselves. In doing so, he bids us remember what that ‘stern chuckler Mayhappy Mayhapnot’, Sir John Pentland Mahaffy, once said: in Ireland the inevitable never happens and the unexpected always does. In Chapelizod in particular the possible was ever the improbable and the improbable the inevitable. And, if that proverb hits the nail on the head then we can be sure we are in for a ‘sequentiality of improbable possibles’, though probably nobody who goes to the bother of looking up the subject in Aristotle or in the Bible will go out of his way to applaud Mahaffy on the grounds of originality. Utterly impossible as all these events are, they are probably as like to those that may have occurred as are others which never chanced to happen at all are ever likely to be.
Getting back to the original hen, it was she who originally found the letter as she scratched away, as only hens do, on a cold day one bleak January while pecking at a dump or midden. It was in mid-winter with Spring only a distant promise when, as church bells pealed out the hour, a shivering bantling observed an equally cold bantam behaving strangely on ‘that fatal midden or chip factory or comicalbottomed copsjute (dump for short) afterwards changed into the orangery’ and in the course of her rummaging unexpectedly claw up a ‘few spontaneous fragments of orangepeel.’ And while it is the case that the letter was most originally unearthed from the mud and lemon of the garbage heap by the hen, Kevin (Shaun or whoever it was) was later to join the ranks of those children who discovered such priceless national treasures as the Tara brooch and the Ardagh Chalice by protesting that the letter had been found by him as he strove in the freezing sleet to ‘wheedle Tipperaw raw raw reeraw puteters out of Now Sealand’ (that is, to dig up raw potatoes out of sea-sand) while he was in sight of the scene of the massacre of most of the Jacobites.
What Belinda, the bird in the case, was scratching at was a letter, a goodish-sized sheet of paper originating by transship from Boston (Mass.) ‘of the last of the first’, 31 January. And what it read, loosely speaking, was:
Dear Maggy (see N42 (VI.B.31).249(e)): Well all at home's health heat turned the milk General Elections a lovely face born gentleman beautiful present of wedding cakes for dear thank you, Christine grand funeral of poor Father Michael don't forget unto life's & Maggy well, how are you Maggy & hoping soon to hear well & must now close with fondest to the twins
X X X X
The terminal of the letter-paper, he points out, is stained with what he takes to be tea (indicative indeed), thus marking it off on the ‘spout of the moment’ as a genuine relic of ancient Irish peasant ‘pottery’ of the ‘lydialike languishing class.’ Only a few of the original words can still be made out; for, as a chemist, if queried, will confirm, a positive made from the negative of, say, a photograph of a horse which has chanced to melt while under development will exhibit a blur of equine images. So it is quite understandable how the letter got into the condition it is in, considering the effects on it of slow heat engendered by internal pressure in the compost-heap during its long period of burial.
Its condition notwithstanding, for all its imperfections the letter exists. And we can be grateful that what we have is not another idle case of hearsay about an anonymous letter. O, no! We have the paper. We can note the watermark. We can read whatever we can make out. And we can rest assured that its authoress (assuming ALP is responsible) is not out simply to dazzle us with a plethora of portmanteau glossaries, or with Latin and Greek. Not on her life. She is, after all, a plain woman. It is, she writes, a simple fact, she feels, that no man has the right to kick another. All she wants, she writes, is to tell the God's truth about HCE, little by little, without mincing matters. The man had to see life fully, had to see it in black and white. There were three men in him. Dancing was his only foible, dancing with harlots.
I.5§4: The Manuscript, 90.15 – 99 (113.23 – 125)
Jumping straight into Section 4 (Sections 2 and 3 never made it into the book, at least not here, but there is a version of Section 2 — the Revered Letter — further on, in Book IV, if we make it that far) the manuscript is investigated using all the methods of advanced palaeography and textual scholarship. It is modelled on Sir Edward Sullivan's effusive introduction to his facsimile edition of the Book of Kells, a copy of which Joyce carted round with him for years and gave as an inspiration to his daughter, though he denied vehemently that it served as any sort of a model for her illuminated letters (her ‘lettrines’).
The narrator knuckles down to commenting on the physical evidence of the letter before him. The first thing that strikes him is that it is written both vertically and horizontally in ruled lines that appear to have been drawn in soot with a primitive writing implement, namely a blackthorn stick. The intention behind this system of notation eludes him, though he thinks it might have been ‘geodetic’ or ‘domestic economical.’ As for the paper itself, he points out that it contains — above the original sand, pounce powder, shreds of blotting paper, and soft rag used in its manufacture — an accretion of ‘terricious matter’ acquired while loitering as litter in the past. Its ‘teatimestained terminal’, he feels, is hugely significant, as a thumbprint, a trademark, or indeed a thumbnail portrait of the author. Its importance in establishing the identity of the writer cannot be overlooked when it is borne in mind that it is not unheard of not to sign a letter. Why, he rightly asks, sign anything? Why, when every pen-stroke, every letter in every word, the spacing between one sentence and the next, is a perfect signature in its own right? A true friend, surely, is more easily recognised from his habits, movements, gait, mode of dress, response to appeals for charity, and so forth, rather than by his bootlace?
As for the vocabulary found in the letter, he indulges, speaking of incest and other salacities, in a purely digressive pseudo-psychiatric analysis of the writer. The letter, he argues, may well be about a prostitute and a curate, but what precisely are we to understand by these terms? A specialised vocabulary, one in which the sense of the words differs from the everyday meaning, is as pertinent to an author, is it not?, as it is to, say, a solicitor?
Let us imagine that the letter boasts just such a specialised vocabulary, in any tongue at all. While one may well have doubts as to the sense of the whole, the interpretation of any phrase in it, the meaning of a particular word in a phrase so far deciphered, one cannot surely doubt in one's heart that, all this apart, someone wrote it, somewhere, at some time. But is it really as simple as all that?
Every person, place, and thing anyway connected with the letter was moving and changing all of the time, the inkhorn, the pen and paper, the continually more or less mutually misunderstanding minds of its collaborators, and the inexorable variations in the passage of time in the inflections, pronunciation, spelling, and normative sense of each and every word in it. It is not therefore an inconsequent mass of blots and blurs and scrawls and scribbles and hoops and loops and wriggles and squiggles. It only looks that way. Rather than complain, we ought to be grateful for what we have: a written-on-with-now-dried-ink scrap of paper, particularly when we reflect on what it must have gone through in the past. We must ceaselessly return to it and cling to it as a drowning man would to a straw, and hope that all the confusion about it will eventually be cleared up, as it ought to be, as the alternative would surely never do.
An evocative, personalised description of the calligraphy in the letter follows: ‘For who that in scrutinising marvels at those indignant whiplooplashes: those so prudently bolted or blocked rounds; the touching reminiscence of an incomplete trail or dropped final’, its weird and commanding beauty, its subdued and goldless colouring, the baffling intricacy of its fearless designs, the clean, unswerving sweep or rounded spiral, and the creeping undulations of serpentine forms that writhe in artistic profusion throughout the mazes of its decorations.
Though the commentator's command of technical terms in discussing the idiosyncrasies of the manuscript is perhaps a trifle weaker than Sullivan's, a selection of some of the extraordinary signs used in the manuscript are particularised: ‘the meant to be baffling chrismon trilithon sign H’, a ‘village inn’ (N), ‘an upsidown bridge’ (A or w?), ‘a multiplication marking for crossroads ahead’ (X), a ‘pothook’ (D), the ‘family gibbet’ (C), ‘their old fourwheedler’ or ‘bucker's field’ (N again or U?), ‘a tea anyway for a tryst’ (T), and, finally, ‘his oneside missing for an allblind alley’ (J).
Other details of the document are equally remarkable: the words, the strokes, the very colophon itself, the individual graphemes. The narrator looks at some of them: p and its enantiomorph q that resemble two sisters dressing alike (‘the pees with their caps awry are puite as often as not taken for pews with their tails in their mouths’); the simple stable b (‘that absurdly bullsfooted bee’); the disdainful e (‘those superciliouslooking crisscrossed Greek ees awkwardlike perched there and here out of date like sick owls hawked back to Athens’); the genuflecting g (‘jesuistically formed at first but afterwards genuflected aggrily toewards the occident’); the wide w (‘those throneopen doubleyous seated with such floprightdown determination’); the erratic f (‘that fretful fidget eff’); the elusive h (‘those haughtypitched disdotted aitches’); the hard-to-pin-down i (‘jaywalking eyes’); the ‘strange exotic serpentine’ s that uncoils spirally and swells ‘lacertinelazily before our eyes;’ the warlike r (‘those ars — rrrr! — those ars all bellical’); the multi-limbed m crawling along like a millipede (‘the fartoomanyness of all them fourlegged ems’); the ‘big thick dhee’ (d); the ‘cut and dry axs and wise’ (x and y); and, last but not least, the terminal ‘zed.’
We can marvel too at ‘the steady monologuy of the interiors;’ the ‘pardonable confusion;’ the classical presence of obeli; the erudition betrayed in every line; the studious omission of ‘year number and era name from the date;’ the ampersands standing with their unifying swirls; and the ‘cruciform postscript from which three basia [kisses] or shorter and smaller oscula [kisses] have been overcarefully scraped away, plainly inspiring the tenebrous Tunc page of the Book of Kells;’ the intrusiveness of the elongated ‘c’, alias head-under-the-wing or turn-under-the-path, indicating that the words that follow are to be read after the end of the next full line, and ‘the curious warning sign before our protoparent's ipsissima verba’.
Warming to the subject, the letter's style is described, citing the critic ‘Duff-Muggli’ as authority, as ‘the ulykkean or tetrachiric-quadrumane or ducks and drakes or debts and dishes perplex’, a four-handed, Ulyssean, dot-and-dashes problem indeed! And it should not come as a surprise to us to find this is so, for the whole construction is a compilation, in much the same way as in the long-forgotten past a ‘periplic bestteller’ — a Punic Admiralty Report — had been cleverly plagiarised, re-imagined and republished as a ‘dodecanesian baedeker.’
Aesthetics aside, the identity of the scribe finally came to light when it was found on holding the folio against a lit rush that the sheet lacked punctuation of any description, but was instead punctured by numerous gashes and stabs. These holes, of which there were four definable variations, were first surmised as having been inflicted upon the page by a professor seated at his breakfast table trying to introduce a sense of time onto a plane surface by punching fork-holes in its i-space.
The ‘Tunc’ page of the Book of Kells depicting ‘exactly three squads of candidates for the crucian rose awaiting their turn in the marginal panels of Columkiller, chugged in their three ballotboxes.’
Plausible, perhaps, and useful enough in its way for putting a name and date to the letter, this theory was soon to be hotly dropped when it was reasoned that a professor would hardly treat so precious a document in so violent a manner and for so frivolous a cause and, more to the point (or points), the punctures were found to coincide exactly with the beak-pecked holes of the hen herself. In the face of this incontrovertible evidence, the hypothesis of the fork-jabbing ape was pushed to one side and the more tenable theory held out that the letter was in all probability put to paper by that odious and even today insufficiently despised note-taker, Shem the Penman (ugh!).