Joyce’s “allforabit”

If at first glance we can’t figure out what Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is all about we might at least recognize one of its themes as the alphabet. Beckett told us Wake is about normal things in the usual sense: “Literary criticism is not book-keeping.” Explaining Vico, Beckett said, “When language consisted of gesture, the spoken and the written were identical.” Later, “Convenience only begins to assert itself at a far more advanced stage of civilization, in the form of alphabetism.” Beckett argues that Wake is “direct expression,” in a pre-alphabet way. “They (words) are alive. They elbow their way on to the page, and glow and blaze and fade and disappear…His writing is not about something; it is that something itself.” 

Turning to Finnegans Wake itself, directly (never-minding the book-keepers), we find the alphabet itself. “(Stoop) if you are abcedminded, to this claybook, what curious signs (please stoop), in this allaphbed! Can you rede (since We and Thous had it out already) its world?” (p. 18).

Finnegans Wake, like most of Joyce’s work, is, in fact, memorable; its auditory impact sticks long after its photographic memory fades. For example, we continue to hear “When a part so ptee does duty for the holos we soon grow to use of an allforabit” (pp. 18-19) long after we read it.

Wolfram von Eschenbach notwithstanding: “I don’t know a single letter of the alphabet” (last paragraph Book II, Parzival, translated and with an introduction by Helen M. Mustard & Charles E. Passage. Vintage Books Edition, March 1961).

Our Exagmination Round His Factification For Incamination Of Work In Progress, first published as New Directions Paperbook 331 in 1972.

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