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Celebrating the Sacred in Ordinary Life

James Joyce and the Renaissance Magus


Tom Absher

This book is an introductory examination of the Hermetic tradition in the Renaissance and how James Joyce made use of certain of its salient features in his four works of fiction: Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake. This book makes a useful contribution to literary studies of Joyce’s work as well as introductory cultural studies of the Hermetic tradition, its philosophy and important figures, like Marsilio Ficino and Giordano Bruno.

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Chapter 8. Finnegans Wake



Finnegans Wake

In his book, detailing the tortured publishing history of Ulysses, Kevin Birmingham wrote briefly about the Wake pointing out that: “almost no one liked Finnegans Wake. When Ezra Pound first read a portion in 1926 he replied: ‘I make nothing of it whatever.’” Joyce’s important patron Harriet Shaw Weaver wrote to him disapprovingly of his “Wholesale Safety Pun factory […] It seems to me you are wasting your genius.”1 Earlier I cited Joyce’s response in an interview with the Czech writer Adolf Hoffmeister in which he explained that his work goes in a straight line of development from Dubliners on, adding “it is almost indivisible, only the scale of expressiveness and writing technique rises somewhat steeply.” This latter comment probably refers mainly to the Wake and its “writing technique,” which certainly rises steeply, to say the least. However one assesses it, and there are opinions up and down the scale, positive, negative, and everything in between, everyone agrees that it is an extremely challenging, even daunting book.

For my purposes here as an introduction to the work, I want to emphasize its continuity with Joyce’s other works and his vision generally, looking at it in his terms as part of his “straight line of development.” Richard Ellmann writes about Joyce’s development, pointing out that “in Dubliners he had explored the waking consciousness from outside, in A Portrait and Ulysses from inside. He had begun to impinge, but gingerly, upon the mind...

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