Gerry Kearns

“We may plesently heal Geoglyphy’s twentynine ways to say goodbett an wassing seoosoon liv” (Finnegans Wake, page 595, lines 6-9).

We may 

presently and/or pleasantly

hear and/or heal

Geography’s [as earth-writing] and/or Geoglyphy’s [as earth-carvings]

twenty-nine ways  to say 

goodbye and/or good-bed [even good-bad]


wishing to see you soon and/or washing [or watering] season 

love and/or live.

‘See you soon, love’ is, on the face of it, a paradoxical way to take one’s leave; the soonest-seeing could be ensured by staying.  ‘Goodbye’ may be a contraction of god-be-with-you, but since ‘bye’ is also now used as the diminutive, a good-bye might be too emphatic to be polite. Joyce enjoyed paradox almost as much as did his parent in crime, Oscar Wilde. Alongside paradox, however, Joyce had further fun with ambivalence. Take geoglyphy and Geography. It is not too difficult to imagine how the carving of pictographs (glyphs) into the earth (geo) might produce wounds that need healing but Geography as earth-writing suggests other, more geopolitical, associations and pains. Now, ‘bett’ is German for bed but ‘goodbett’ also sounds like good-bad, particularly in a sort of German-English stage accent. Our earth-writing might indeed render places as good beds, or homes, or as good-bad across borders, those clamorous territorial markers. Surely this is an earth that needs to be healed as well as heard. And it will be, it will heal itself. In Finnegans Wake the agency of language is matched by the agency of the Earth–our ‘geomater’ (page 297, line 1), an earth-mother practising hydrotherapy. For, while ‘wasser’ is German for water, ‘wassing’ sounds also like ‘washing’ in that same stage accent, and thus we get a season of washing and of watering. The watering season brings life again to an earth desiccate and scarred by its good-bad contentions, its geography. Water unites what geopolitics has put asunder.

Stones and water mark the flow of the Wake recalling the opposition that meant so much to William Butler Yeats lamenting the stony hearts produced by nationalist politics:

Hearts with one purpose alone

Through summer and winter seem

Enchanted to a stone

To trouble the living stream.

(Easter 1916, lines 41-44)

For Yeats, the single-minded nationalist was, as if hypnotized, antithetical to life and, inflexible and unswerving in purpose, able only to interrupt, or ‘trouble’ life’s gravid progress. Joyce’s earth-writing, his graphing of the geo, shares something of this polarity but his way of dealing with rock and water, and with nationalism too, is somewhat different. In Finnegans Wake, rock and water sometimes figure as husband and wife, as HCE and ALP, as Howth Castle and Environs and as Anna Livia Plurabelle, the hill and the river. This gives the novel a clear set of geographical referents around Dublin, and a wealth of gendered stereotypes to trouble. The story begins, or at least we tune into it, mid-stream as it were, with the ‘riverrun’ flowing through the city and then out into the bay where it loses its identity amid the waters of the opening sea before being pulled up again into cloud and returned via rain to the drainage basin within which it will cohere again as the Liffey, the river of life, Anna Livia herself. Along the way the river will do much and touch upon more. Mapping Dublin and its Liffey, Joyce cultivated a sense of the universal while attending to particularities, of topography and etymology, places and meanings, the waters and words of life.

Joyce prided himself on his recall of Dublin streets and characters but he also fed his imagination with broader reading and among the scholars on whom he drew for the vision at the heart of the Wake, was a Russian anarchist and geographer, Léon Metchnikoff. Joyce took notes on parts of Metchnikoff’s book of 1889, La civilization et les grands fleuves historiques. Joyce liked Metchnikoff’s claim that many great civilizations had formed around rivers and that these societies were focused on the great ports that received the rivers, to which Joyce adds in his notes ‘Dublin on the Liffey.’ Joyce attended closely to Metchnikoff’s discussion of race where the anarchist geographer attacked any notion of pure races, reasoning in part from the evidence of language. Metchnikoff argued that the races had been ‘divided, dispersed, mixed and crossed in all proportions’ and that most had already abandoned any aboriginal language ‘for that of their conquerors only then to abandon that one for a third, if not a fourth.’ After noting which, Joyce glozes ‘change language/ - marry.’ Languages connect cultures and, needing to be mutually comprehensible, languages borrow promiscuously in a manner like unto intermarriage with its consequent biological hybridity. Joyce had painted a beautiful refutation of linguistic nationalism in the ‘Oxen of the Sun’ chapter of Ulysses but Finnegans Wake went further, raising linguistic impurity to the power almost of a moral absolute. No wonder, then, that the Wake finds Joyce satirizing the Nazis, with their ‘seek hells’ (page 228, line 6) and ‘achdung’ (page 100, line 5).

Yet Finnegans Wake is not really an intellectual exercise, however witty. Its language is also performative. That is, the sound of the words, their rhythm and cadence, impersonate a body/river waking, shaking free of sleep, flowing into its stride, which is also an unconscious coursing through the veins of the history and society of a city-civilisation, Dublin-on-the-Liffey. Meanings and allusions slip by, and we grab what we can, promising ourselves that we will go back over this ground and get it more clearly or multiply unclearly next time. Joyce submitted to recording part of the book, perhaps to show that a text variously lauded or castigated as unreadable, could indeed be read, if only it were read aloud: ‘Well you know or don’t you kennet or haven’t I told you every telling has a tailing and that’s the he and she of it’ (page 213, lines 11-12). And the tale-ing can be telling. And the text is saying goodbett, or at least it is once it is sounded. We can hear the German accents. And the ‘langscape’ (page 595, line 4), the written upon earth, endlessly surprises and Joyce warns us that these currents might take us to Newirgland. The dissipation of the waters into the bay promises connections with other shores, in this case of New Ireland, a German colony in Papua Guinea and in one phrase he cites Cape Strauch, the town of Lamusong, and Gazelle Channel, all locations in New Ireland: ‘gives relief to the langscape as he strauches his lamusong untoupon gazelle channel’ (page 595, lines 4-5). The New Irish might be German.

Olwen Fouéré’s riverrun takes the part of the stream within the Wake. In the ‘languo of flows’ (page 621, line 23), Anna Livia Plurabelle is not only lipped, ‘leafy speaking’ (page 619, line 20) but swum in, as Fouéré aspirates the text, performing its twenty-nine geographies as a gift of tongues. Among the geographies in Finnegans Wake, we find the Irish counties, ‘for limericks, for waterfowls, for wagsfools, for louts, for cold airs, for late trams, for curries,’ and so on (page 595, lines 12-13) and the Irish provinces, ‘used her, mused her, licksed her and cuddled’ (page 96, line 16), and versions of the shipping forecast ‘on the air, is now aboil to blow a Gael warning. In operation Eyrlands Eyot, Meganesia, Habitant and the onebut thousand insels, Western and Osthern Approaches’ (page 604, lines 22-24). These parodies are very funny but there may be more serious import with the inversion of the United Kingdom as ‘Great Erinnes and Brettland’ (page 25, line 28) and when Joyce set down four evangelists (‘mamalujo’, page 476, line 32) or historians (four masters, ‘quartermasters,’ page 477, line 13) to take stock of Ireland, he does not hold out very much hope for the republic for in making ‘the map of the souls’ groupography,’ they find in the Irish ‘Magis landeguage’ (page 478, lines 9-10) a plethora of terms for ‘monarch but have hace not one pronouncable teerm […] to signify majestate’ (page 478, lines 11-12). Authority, then, but without justice for Joyce was critical of de Valera, referring sarcastically in the Wake to ‘the devil era, a slip of time between a date and a ghostmark’ (page 473, lines 8-9) and vowing not to return to Ireland under its current dispensation. As the Liffey enters Dublin Bay and loses coherence, it is thinking about separation, even exile: ‘And we’d be married till delth to uspart. And though dev do espart’ (page 626, lines 31-32). 

For Fouéré perhaps, the politics of language is a family inheritance. Her father, Yann Fouéré, was a prominent linguistic nationalist in Brittany in the 1930s. Having remained in France, engaging in Breton politics during the German occupation, at Liberation in 1945, he left for Wales, and then Ireland. On the west coast of Ireland, he and Marie-Magdeleine Mauger raised a bilingual family, English and French. Olwen Fouéré herself performs in English and in French. She has adapted two of Roddy Doyle’s novels and performed them as Paula Spencer, la femme qui se cognait dans les portes, and returning the compliment to English has translated and performed Laurent Gaudé’s Sodome, my love. With riverrun, words and geography comingle with biography and art.

Works consulted
James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (London: Penguin, 2000 [1939])
Roland McHugh, Annotations to “Finnegans Wake” third edition (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006 [1980])
Len Platt, Joyce, Race and “Finnegans Wake” (Cambridge University Press, 2007)


Gerry Kearns is Professor of Human Geography at the National University of Ireland Maynooth