Review from Journal of American Folklore, 1986 Karl Reisman
Children’s Lore in Finnegans Wake. By Grace Eckley. (Syracuse,
N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1985. Pp. xxii + 250, preface, acknowledgements, conventions adopted, appendices (3), notes, list of works cited, index.
“How farflung is your fokloire,
and how velktingeling your volupkabulary!”
Joyce, of course, is very explicit about the presence of “folklore” in Finnegans Wake – as part of the book’s concern for Irish and world history, and as part of other dimensions of its subject. As Grace Eckley notes, folklore fills a place as the first history in Vico’s cycle of ages, a major organizing scheme of the book.
The quotation above follows Joyce’s play on “esiop’s foible”: “the Ondt and the Gracehoper”. But, as Gaelic foclöir means a ‘lexicon’ or ‘vocabulary’ (O Hehir 231), it also relates the range of Joyce’s folklore to the range of his languages – something we will need to keep in mind. His apparent glorification of the range of his folklore and linguistic knowledge runs into the usual built in contradiction of all assertions in Finnegans Wake – as we hear an echo of the traditional children’s parody of Chinese: “Who flung dung?”. The “farflung” British Empire echoing here suggests one of Joyce’s paths around the globe, but its play with “farflung” also suggests how superficial that map of the world was (and is quite possibly a comment on British and Euro-centred folklore studies).
An even more ‘political’ view of folklore is suggested, with a light mocking of the academic, in the “Lessons” chapter (264.R2):
“THE LOCALISATION OF LEGEND LEADING TO THE LEGALISATION OF LATIFUNDISM”.
So can we know Joyce’s approach and attitude to folklore? One clue may come from his use of anthropology. Lévy-Bruhl appears along with a side glance at the role of anthropology in colonialism and spying: “though the reason I went to Jericho must remain for certain reasons a political secret” (150.20).
And anthropology as an apology – in several senses – appears in “I need not anthrapologize” (151.07).
What is significant here about Lévy-Bruhl’s appearance is that it is combined with Lowie (as well as with a German version of the British Lion) in: “Professor Loewy-Brueller” (150.15 – see also 232.28 “crowy” + .22 “moiety”). In Lowie’s 1920 book, *Primitive Culture*, there is a Boasian critique of Lévy-Bruhl. Given Joyce’s habits in relation to the clues he left we can assume his familiarity with the Boasian critique of general categories of the primitive and of easy cultural universals. (Lévy-Bruhl is himself used by Joyce to show that there are *more* than 2 kinds of souls – shadow and breath – through his report on the “*earua*” among the Suau Tawala in *The Soul of the Primitive* (132; FW214.09)).
Joyce’s knowledge of the Lowie-Boas critique is significant because it must be brought to bear on any view of Finnegans Wake as simply adumbrating a set of clear universals of human relationship and cultural development. And this has been the typical view in discussions of the book. It also seems to be Dr. Eckley’s view, following in part from her approach to folklore.
If I take so much time about folklore in relation to a book with “Children’s Lore” in the title, it is not only because this is a folklore journal but because Dr. Eckley’s book began as a study of folklore in general in the Wake, and its first reader was Richard Dorson (xiii). Joyce also stretches ‘children’ to include some mighty adult matters and texts, and Dr. Eckley follows.
Apart from tales, rhymes, riddles (where she bows to the recent work of Patrick McCarthy, 1980) and an extended treatment of games, we also get detailed discussion of a variety of matters relating to Aesop, Finn MacCool, Tristan and Isolde, Burton’s version of the *Arabian Nights*, the psyche of Lewis Carroll and the interpretation of *Alice*, child prostitution and the career of William Stead, her candidate for H.C. Earwicker.
Dr. Eckley has confidence that deep reading using proper methods can unlock the keys to Finnegans Wake and unfold its meaning. Her basic focus in this book is on Joyce’s view of the relations of childhood and adulthood, childhood sexuality often, and what they reveal of Joyce’s moral and philosophical view of the world. In a long chapter on “Epistemology” she sees the role of folklore in the Wake, following from Joyce’s way of using Kant, as “mind-imposed form rendered in the context of experience” (23). And while she notices a number of other functions of folklore in FW, this seems to be her fundamental approach. In the process she discovers a number of very valuable sources, significant readings, and important facts about the shape of the book as a whole.
But there are significant limitations to her perspective. The range of folklore she covers is limited by her fairly traditional view of folklore, which is Euro-centered with extensions into the classics of other high civilizations that have entered the European cannon. One result, for example, is that she completely ignores the rather heavy presence of African folklore, and important extensions of content through materials on Africa and slavery in passages she often cites but glosses over. (She has an annoying habit, in her apparent desire for total coverage, of citing many passages and saying nothing about them.) These include: Ananse, the Ashanti trickster spider 199.10 + 198.16 ‘Ashanti’; 233.29+.36; 89.26+.13 ‘Esu’; 439.08; 239.21+’emancipated’; 397.28+367.34+533.20; 244.13 +, Brer Fox 245.09; 574.04, the Dozens (“Ducking Mammy”- 176.12+.10,.14,.18; + “Here’s our dozen” -read ‘fucking’- “cousins from the starves on tripes” – 265.L2+.27 + “wustworts”; + “mummy, ducking” – 194.33; + refs. to mother incest on 506.30,105.08, 231.28), day names (the common rhyme is cited by Worthington, one of her sources), folksongs such as the Jamaican “Mary Ann” (9.14,5.23), among a myriad of relevant themes and items.
Sources not discussed include, among others, *Huckleberry Finn*; George Washington Cable; E.C.L. Adams, *Congaree Sketches*; Hesketh Bell, *Obeah*; Henry G. Murray’s *Tom Kittle’s Wake* (Jamaica); Allen, Ware, and Garrison, *Slave Songs of the United States*; and Du Bois’s use of spirituals, “Sorrow Songs”, in *Souls of Black Folk* – in particular his use of “When I lay this body down” which parallels in theme and function Eckley’s discussion of Stead’s edition of *Letters from Julia*, that is – from *After Death*.
Her discussion of Aesop, while quoting a source that recognizes Ethiopian connections, misses a major allusion: “A darktongues, kunning. O theoperil! Ethiaop lore, the poor lie.” (223.28, with allusions also to Carleton’s *Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry* and its section: Geography of the Irish Oath”, an “essay in folkloristic fieldwork” + Fulfulde *kuna* ‘oaths” Hausa *kunne* ‘ear’; and with “the poor lie”, in aposition to ‘Aesop’s lore’, being one more allusion to Nancy-Ananse stories, with their tag, “And so I came to tell you this little lie”). In general she plays down the whole slave theme associated with Aesop, and denigrates the fine perceptions of Adeline Glasheen in this area.
Her perspective not only leads to overlooking areas of folklore, but also leads to imbalanced views of key passages. In “the bluegum buaboababbaun or the Wellingtonia Sequoia” it leads her to treat the second half of the phrase but not the first, with its African tree, the baobab, its echoes of Babu language, Hausa *babu* ‘No’, the tower of Babel, the babbling of children, and Italian *Babbo* (‘father’, in the Joyce household), not to mention “bluegum” and ‘baboon’. A relevant issue here is child language and baby-talk, illustrated by Dante’s treatment of the vernacular, when he says that one should not use childish words such as *Babbo*, and then proceeds to do so (see Robert Hollander in Mosaic, 1974).
The point is not that the line of African allusions or the syllables in *ba* are so important, but that such lines, in the thoroughness with which they are represented and the profound way in which they are treated (which there is no space at all to explore here) stand in for hundreds of themes that could be followed – each one of real significance in understanding the book.
The problem is not with what Dr. Eckley has done, but with her assumption that because she can pursue her lines of inquiry at length and in depth they represent unique solutions to the nature and content of Finnegans Wake. In fact they are a fairly narrow slice of the content and attitudes of the book.
Her desire to find *the* answer also leads her, unconsciously I am sure, to misread many other scholars, attributing to them views more superficial – in their perceptions of the multiplicity of Joyce’s book – than they actually have. This is true of her discussion of Margot Norris whom she uses as a foil to state her position, as well as of others.
One issue in the search for understanding of Finnegans Wake is whether its content can be shown through a set of abstractions: sex, light, sin, life, death, etc. or whether it is through its particulars and the complex poems of its associations that it puts us most in touch with Joyce’s intuitions and perspectives. It is not that human universals are irrrelevant to FW, but they must be seen in an extraordinarily complex way.
And finally there is the question of laughter. Dr. Eckley frequently refers to Joyce’s humor as “dressing” the book in
lightness. Her separation of the “serious” understanding of the book from its humor seems to me false. It is in the laughter
that Finnegans Wake reaches its most profound seriousness, and in its darkness that its most brilliant light shines.
Any reader of *Finnegans Wake* who will take the physical and spiritual time necessary to really enter into its depths is
someone our culture should treasure, for FW is ever more clearly one of the great creations of the century, of European culture,
and of the human mind. Grace Eckley is one such person, and should be treasured accordingly whatever disagreements one may have with her way of seeing the book or with her proceedures. In fact every proceedure that is serious has value in relation to FW as long as it does not seek to become the arbiter of our reading of it.
McCarthy, Patrick, 1980, The Riddles of Finnegans Wake., Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses.