A somewhat rickety Irish scholar and budding experimental author of a collection of stories has the manuscript rejected several times. Dispirited, he leaves his beloved Emerald Isle, never to return. His works, however, all concern, in some way, his dear birthplace and their searing clarity and depth stands out as all the more startling for it.
The author is forced to move during the war (“What did you do in the Great War?”, asks the army officer; “I wrote Ulysses... what did you do? Bloody Nerve” replies the author) to Zurich and eventually settles down to belle Paris, where he embarks on Work in Progress.
From which, some would say, he never managed to extract a readable story. Or, as others would have it, the novel, which mutated into Finnegans Wake sometime in the late thirties, and which very few people could swear to actually having read. Of course, as riverrun points out, that doesn’t necessarily matter – it is a book for dipping into, for feeling, taking bites at, turning upside down, to dream about, and so forth. Anyway, the author is, of course, the enigmatic, gifted, intellectual, sensitive, talented
Mr Ripley James Joyce, beloved by (pseudo-)intellectuals and scorned by those who would really prefer Mills & Boon novels to replace Gideon’s Bible in hotel rooms world wide.
So, what’s a Thunderword then? Well, basically, Joyce loaded Finnegan’s Wake with the decapartate family of this vaguely onomatopoeic collection of ten one-hundred letter words. Oops – almost right. I remarked the preceding to an English teacher once, for which she accosted me bluntly. The point being that there are exactly nine words of one-hundred letters and one word of one-hundred-and-one letters in length, making an Arabesque 1001 letters in total.
Work in Progress opened with a slightly shorter thunderword – call it a Rumbleword, for wont of better – which Joyce protracted by adding twenty-five letters to the start and in Finnegans Wake it apears as the second. The first Thunder is on the first page, the extended ‘rumbleword’ is the second in the list below.
“But please mister, why? For the love of all things associative, why?"
Marshall McLuhan writes:
"There are ten thunders in the Wake. Each is a cryptogram or codified explanation of the thundering and reverberating consequences of the major technological changes in all human history. When a tribal man hears thunder, he says, 'What did he say that time?', as automatically as we say 'Gesundheit.' – Robotwisdom.com
So, are we ready? Well, certainly no less than the unsuspecting reader who saved his last shillings to buy the first edition. Anyway, people who’d read the troubled Ulysses had already been introduced to such word-conjury as "contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality" in the Proteus episode.
Right then. Tally Ho!
- The very first Thunderword erupts onto page 3 of the standard edition.
It contains references to all the prehistoric technologies developed by man such as speech, fire, tools, and early forms of clothing. It would be basically Paleolithic man becoming Neolithic man. The Tower of Babel (the Bababa… at the start of the first Thunder) represents the first speech.
- The second thunder, twenty pages on, heads the Prankquean (“Prank-Queen”) sequence. She heralds the genesis of visual space. Jealousy, gluttony and other sins are concentrated here, together with the novel social heirarchy of wealth and clothing. With that, society starts to organize itself.
- Another twenty-odd pages on “Klikkaklakka…”, the third thunder, comes into being. Representing structural order, it symbolizes cliques or settlements.
- "Bladyughfoulmoecklenburg"… sounds foul, dirtied, muddy even. Mediaeval life is shown here, agrarian markets and the like. "Blady" seems to mean bloody. "Moecklenburg" sounding quite Germanic, refers to mud town.
- Number five is far more pronouncable than the preceding four Thunders: "Thingcrooklyexineverypasture" “himaroundhers” "mindlookingated." Above simple structure, as the second and third thunder pertain to, here we find the inchoate industrialization. We’ve been thrown into the nineteenth century in five hundred letters; it’s quite a logarithmic process, taking longer and longer as we plunge towards the present.
- There’s a large jump to around one-third of the book to "Lukkedoeren…". Which is the return of the Prankquean. Matriarchy has come into its own, by having true control over the supposed rulers of the world, the men. Also, dealing with the protagonist, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, there is further symbolism in his intials, which also stand for Here Comes Everybody as the new “female male”, or rather androgynous human being.
- Then, it gets tricky. Really, it seems to me that the last four Thunders are all intricately related to the modern age (i.e., the time of the author), which is why we can deal with them together.
They all deal with the electronic age, reverberating the whirring clanking beeping noise of the twentieth century. Remember, if you will, for a moment, that the novel was written mostly in the early thirties…
Various excerpts demand further research: Bothallchoractors “Both all characters” (immersed in the seventh); macwhackfall (which resides in the eighth); caffincoffin “cough up your caffeine and end up in a coffin” (from the ninth) for example.
It is the tenth and final Thunder which contains one letter more than it’s brothers, and it deals, according to my source, with television. It appears just a few pages after the ninth, and refers to the “post-visual and post-acoustic tactile man”. Supposedly showing that the tenth word emcompasses and surpasses the previous four thunders of the modern era - six, seven, eight and nine, Joyce commented that the tenth thunder is the last word of perfect language, the electronically reborn, electric tactile environment.
Ironic of course that the ‘perfect word’ contains an extra letter compared with the others, making it feel a bit out of place. But never mind, together there are 1001 letters; an obvious nod to Scheherazade’s "The Thousand and One Nights". So each letter contains a story, and once you have gleaned them all from Finnegans Wake, you have been presented with “ a second look at the whole history of the modulations of man”.
In other words, you have become a "Finnegan aWake”.
Phew! I’m outta here :-)
I le(a)nt heavily from the following sources:
- Eric McLuhan, The Role of Thunder in ‘Finnegans Wake' (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997).
- http://cstl-cla.semo.edu/gurnow/joyce.htm has lots of links, books and other resources