Literature with Other Arts
Edited By Haun Saussy and Gerald Gillespie
Among Schoolchildren. Joyce’s “Night Lesson” and Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe
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Joyce’s “Night Lesson” and Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe
Goldsmiths, University of London
In the second chapter of the second book (II.2) of that very unusual novel that is Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), the children—twin boys and a girl—have their “Night Lesson” before their dinner and before going to bed. Apart from a relatively short section (from FW 287.17 to 292.321) this forty-nine page long chapter (FW 260 to 308) has a very recognizable layout: the main text is printed as a central column, with marginal annotations by the children, evoking the appearance of a medieval manuscript. The twins annotate on the sides: Shem (the naughtier child) on the left, in italics; Shaun (the more pompous and well-behaved) in capitals and on the right (they switch sides on p. 293). Issy, the daughter, annotates the texts too, in footnotes that are often very saucy.
The “Lesson” is a long and complicated one: “We’ve had our day at triv and quad and writ our bit as intermidgets. Art, literature, politics, economy, chemistry, humanity, &c.” (FW 306.12-15). The reference to the medieval liberal arts of the trivium and quadrivium (grammar, rhetoric and logic; arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) reinforces the sense of a medieval lesson and of the chapter’s (indeed, the book’s) encylopaedic breadth.2
Issy is associated with letters, and in particular vowels, with narrative (she is, tells, and is the...
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