Famous First Sentences: The opening of Finnegans Wake
This starts off as one of the most beautiful opening sentences I've ever read; and, no matter what you might think of the novel itself (if any of you get all the way through, would you let me know how it ends?), this first sentence has a power of its own.
riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
As I said, it starts off as a lyrical paean to the beauty of Dublin Bay. But then it gets a bit bumpy with the language. It's funny, how Joyce chooses to meld the sublime into the uncomfortable, and this unwieldy phrase -- "commodious vicus of recirculation" -- is funny itself, like a pompous old man in an Edwardian suit and tie, har-umphing before he speaks.
Joyce loved words. Their plasticity and their ability, in English, to contain roots of other languages and to invent tendrils of new meaning when packed as in a portmanteau with varying shades of meaning. He literally couldn't help packing puns, double meanings, and paronomasia into his writing for scholars to drool over. Words are just too much fun to let them lie fallow, when they could be burgeoning.
Past Eve and Adam's
Adam and Eve's is a Franciscan abbey on the south quays of the Liffey -- the river that flows through Dublin and out into the bay. ". . . riverrun, past Eve and Adam's" is starting the sentence, and the novel, in media res . Fittingly to the theme, the novel ends with the words "A way a lone a last a loved along the "; and the circular pattern is complete if we go back to the beginning from there.
So, if the book were a movie, we start with a view along the Liffey, past the quays, the abbey, and into the estuary, turning north and following the coast to where the land hooks south again, at Howth (where Molly Bloom said "yes" in Ulysses ). Everything swings around again, like the cycle of life itself, here echoed faintly in the circular landscape (see above).
Why "Eve and Adam's"? Ladies first, of course. It's also more sonorous, if one is gearing up, "past swerve of shore to bend of bay," to be pedantic. Or consciously verbose. But the words are all deliberate, so let's see what he's up to, here. "A commodious vicus of recirculation" is a very sesquipedalian way of saying the land curves round; the phrasing must, then, hold a key for us.
In 1725 Giambattista Vico published his New Science , in which he detailed his ideas on the cyclical nature of history, the ricorsi or cycles of which fell into four repeating stages. He was a professor of rhetoric, so would have interested Joyce for a couple of reasons. Finnegans Wake (the first edition omitted the possessive apostrophe -- the pun is intended: both the wake for a dead Finnegan, but also the statement that Finnegans do wake, and the cycle begins again -- we continue the omission to distinguish between the novel and the popular eponymous Irish song) falls into four sections, or stages, too.
This awkward phrase, then: "a commodious vicus of recirculation," is the key for reading the novel. "vicus" is literally a village (from the Latin) that would have originally peopled the shore north of the Liffey, but it is also a nod to Vico. Another commentator has stated that it also refers to a "vicious circle." Whether vicious or not, the cycle is there.
Howth Head, that little insula at the northern tip of Dublin Bay, is gorgeous: a rough sentinel against the sea, rocky coast and heather behind on the hill. The environs, the surrounding area, figure in Joyce's work at important moments -- most famously as the location of Molly Bloom's answer, "yes." The trail to hike winds around the circular little almost-island to the top, and the views are beautiful.
My end is in my beginning
Joyce's streams of consciousness can be intimidating, obscure, but ultimately rewarding. And the more I study his work, the more humor I find in his plainspoken Dublin characters with their rich imaginations and their powerful gift of the gab. Finnegan's Wake is a book I can dip into at any point, and find wonderful passages of great erudition and beauty.
In a sense (pure academics might laugh at me here, but what the heck: they can kiss my Irish ass) Joyce was bringing to life here his understanding of the great continuum of being -- the ceaseless ebb and flow of history in its cyclical renewals. The opening focus on the river running into the sea is a strong enough image for us; and the fact that on Howth (as on any promontory of eminence in Ireland) ruins of an abbey echo the reference to Eve and Adam's only brings us full circle.
[N.B. Before Ireland succumbed to the Euro, Irish Five Punt notes had this opening sentence of Finnegans Wake printed on the back. There's a joke in there, somewhere. . . .]
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