Fourth Proposition

Some forms of literature interfere with the workings of the literate brain, posing a challenge to readers of all kinds. They pose as much of a challenge to the way states and statist thinkers conceptualize language, culture and community.

4.1 According to Stanislas Dehaene, the leading cognitive neuroscientist who specializes in literacy, anyone learning to read using the so-called ‘phonetic alphabet’ based on the Roman script – the underpinnings of most European writing systems – does so in ‘three major phases’: ‘the pictorial stage, a brief period where children “photograph” a few words; the phonological stage, where they learn to decode graphemes into phonemes; and the orthographic stage, where word recognition becomes fast and automatic’ (2009195). Crucially, each of these phases depends and continues to depend on the others. Expert ‘orthographic’ readers whose proficiency is ‘based on a direct lexical route straight from the letter string to its meaning’ – or, rather, to their own ‘mental dictionary of word meanings’ – are, for instance, obliged to revert to the ‘phonological stage’ when they encounter unfamiliar words (e.g. Thiruvananthapuram), painstakingly sounding them out in order to make sense of them before deciding how or whether to add them to their individual inner dictionaries (11 and 26). This is particularly true for languages, like English, with a relatively deep or opaque orthography. (Watch Dehaene talking about How the brain learns to read.)

4.1.1 It is worth recalling that we don’t naturally have a literate brain (i.e. literacy) – writing first emerged just over 5000 years ago – and having one became the norm across the world even more recently. The economist Max Roser puts it this way:

In 1820, only every 10th person was literate, in 1930 it was every third, and now we are at 85 percent globally. Put differently, if you were alive in 1800 there was a nine in 10 chance that you weren’t able to read; today more than eight out of 10 people are able to read. And if you are young, chances are much higher, since many of today’s illiterate people are old.

If you think science, technology, and political freedom are important to solve the world’s problems, and you think that it helps to read and write in order to use such tools, then look at the figures in absolute numbers. In 1800, there were 120 million people in the world who could read and write; today there are 6.2 billion with the same skill.

(See also Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina (2017) – “Global Rise of Education.” And visit dollarstreet to see photographs of books in the world by country and income).


4.2 Finnegans Wake has a central place on this site because it is, at one level, a compendium of puzzles designed to frustrate the literate brain. In some cases the puzzles are specifically visual. The sequence ‘bi tso fb rok engl a ssan dspl itch ina’, for instance, breaks the rules of word separation, showing how we rely on blank space as visual cue for fluent reading (124). In most cases, however, the puzzles are less obvious and more general because they have to do with the Wake’s own notoriously idiosyncratic deep (wayward?) orthography. Consider the following example which comes from the opening of Book I.5:

In the name of Annah the Allmaziful, the Everliving, the Bringer of Plurabilities, haloed be her eve, her singtime sung, her rill be run, unhemmed as it is uneven! (104)

For orthographic readers with an expertise in English, this might seem like a relatively transparent instance of Wakese. ‘Annah’ looks a bit odd (maybe ‘Hannah’ without the first letter?) but it sounds like ‘Anna’, and, given the word-like strings that follow, these readers can be confident that the figure being invoked is Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP), the Wake’s main female principle – we can’t really think of her as a character in the conventional novelistic sense.

In fact, ‘she’ is a play on ‘character’, since ALP (or Aleph) is also the first letter of the Semitic abjads, from which the Roman letter ‘A’ is thought to derive. In the system of sigla Joyce used while writing the Wake, he also represented her as Δ (or delta, the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet, see 119). In contrast, HCE (Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker in one guise), the male principle, is represented by the ‘baffling chrismon trilithon sign’ , something like (119). 

On this reading, ALP is a figure of intense wonderment (‘Allmaziful’), she is eternal (‘Everliving’) and she is the source of abundant beauty (‘Plurabilities’) – with the last English readers might have to recall that the French word ‘belle’ has been used to mean ‘fair lady’ in English since the 17th century. Or at least this is what they might at first be tempted to think, using the resources of their own inner dictionaries. On second thoughts – the Wake is a book of second, third and n thoughts – they might begin to wonder if ALP is also an endlessly puzzling labyrinth (‘Allmaziful’): a protean creature of the present continuous (‘Everliving’) who never allows anything to be just itself (‘Plurabilities’). As the phrase ‘rill be run’ hints, this indefiniteness is true of ALP herself. She is both a character-like female principle and the River Liffey (a ‘rill’ is a small stream) which has been Dublin’s connection to world and the world’s connection to Dublin at least since the Vikings settled there in the 9th century CE – hence the further play on delta.

4.2.1 For readers with an expertise in Turkish, or at least the romanized form of written Turkish Mustafa Kemal Atatürk introduced in 1928, the opening clause might create other resonances. After hearing or seeing the word ‘Annah’ as ‘ana’, which means ‘mother’ (also ‘main part’) in Turkish and ‘mazi’, which means ‘past’ or ‘bygone’, these readers might begin to think of this as an invocation to the river-mother through which the ‘Allmaziful’ past, the ‘Everliving’ present and the ‘Plurabilities’ of the future flow.

Note A: After the break up of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War, Mustafa Kemal founded the independent secular Republic of Turkey. Replacing the Arabic writing system of the imperial Sultanate and Islamic Caliphate with the Roman was part of his project to modernize the state along European nationalist lines.

Note B:Mazi Kalbimde Bir Yaradır‘ (The Past is a Wound in my Heart), a popular Turkish song also from 1928, features in William Kentridge’s installation O Sentimental Machine which was first exhibited at the 14th Istanbul Biennial in 2015. It, too, opens up Joycean questions about languages, history, revolutionary art and ideas of the state.

4.2.2 Learning to read is, however, not just about developing the basic linguistic and orthographic skills that come with literacy. Since the literate brain is always an artefact of particular cultures at particular times – and particular writing systems – acquiring these skills inevitably involves engaging with, and expanding our knowledge of, the written traditions of a culture. When it comes to what we take to be our ‘own culture’, this begs the vexed question of how educators, who may be state authorities, conceptualize it. Readers with the relevant cultural competence may, for instance, recognize that the sentence opening Book 1.5 is not only a play on English and Turkish. It also parodies two of the world’s great religions of the book: Christianity and Islam. It echoes the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer as given in Matthew 6:9-10 and in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (1549):

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done;
on earth as it is in heaven.

At the same time, it mimics the phrase (or basmala) used at the beginning of all but one of the Qur’anic suras or chapters: بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ or bismi-llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm (“In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful”). This adds another layer to the interlingual and interscriptual blending of English and romanized Turkish, pitting the invocation of the worldly, imperfect and always mutable river-mother ALP (her ‘rill’ is as ‘unhemmed’ as it is ‘uneven’), who is now also linked to ‘eve’, against two monotheistic and often masculinist conceptions of the deity. For the purposes of this discussion, we can leave to one side the many theological, grammatical and translational disputes about the gender of God that have long haunted these and many other religious traditions.

4.3 As a compendium of puzzles designed to interfere with the workings of the literate brain, the Wake can perhaps deservedly be left to crossword enthusiasts and literary professors to enjoy in the privacy of their own homes or seminars. Yet, as even this partial account of one sentence indicates, Joyce clearly (quixotically?) felt his monstrous work had a vital part to play in public life. As a radically anti-clerical atheist or secular-humanist who firmly rejected the Catholic faith into which he was born he took issue not only with Christianity and Islam but with, among others, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, as well as a range of idealist philosophical traditions, setting the Wake’s endlessly ramifying stream of letters against all absolutist traditions of the definitive or divinely sanctified word (see Fifth Proposition). As a politically-minded artist who, in his twenties, decried nationalism and identified variously with the internationalist traditions of socialism and anarchism – though he also called himself an inveterate ‘vagabond’ (Letters, 2:48) – he was no less willing to challenge the principles of sovereignty, self-determination and uniformity that underpin the modern state, principles often enshrined in written constitutions.

Portrait of the Artist as a Anarcho-Socialist

4.3.1 Joyce began the Wake in 1922, the year in which the Irish Free State (Saorstát Eireann) was founded, and he completed it in 1939, two years after the Free State became Ireland (Éire) – it formally became the Republic in 1949. For an Irish-born writer who chose English as his literary medium, these were not background events. Both the constitutions of the Free State and Republic included provisions making Irish (or Ghaeilge) the ‘national language’ and English (or Sacs-Bhéarla, meaning ‘Saxon-language’) the ‘second official language’. Long a key nationalist aspiration, the constitutional elevation of Ghaeilge also reflected the kind of thinking about language Éamon de Valera, the leading Irish politician and Catholic nationalist of the period, articulated during a party-political speech in 1937 when he argued that ‘the best way to preserve the philosophy of life, to preserve the distinctive and spiritual and cultural life, of the people is the language’ (Ó Tuama, ‘Revisiting’, 70). This understanding of language, which was central to the German idealist tradition most commonly identified with anti-statist nationalists like Herder and statist liberals like Humboldt, has played a part in many other nationalist and anti-colonial movements as well. In most cases, language as such, or the indigenous ‘mother tongue(s)’, has been the focal point, though with Kemal, as we have seen, writing was central too. As part of his larger programme of reforms designed to assert and modernize the distinctive national culture of the Turkish people, he set out simultaneously to purify the language by ridding it of foreign (notably Arabic and Persian) words and to Europeanize it by adopting a modified version of the roman writing system – he believed the latter would also help to spread literacy (see Coulmas, 199-212).

4.3.2 The Irish constitutional provisions created an obvious choice for writers: either they could reclaim the dignity and distinctive ‘cultural life’ of the Irish people by writing in Ghaeilge, or they could remake the foreign language the colonizers imposed on them by indigenizing Sacs-Bhéarla as an independent Ireland’s ‘second official language’. When he came to write the Wake, Joyce sidestepped both options, living up to his self-declared status as a ‘vagabond’ etymologically linked to the Latin vagārī, meaning ‘to wander’, the word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, refers to a person who roams ‘from place to place without settled habitation or home’. Instead of reclaiming Ghaeilge, an idea he consistently opposed, or indigenizing English, an idea he dabbled with, he chose to re-foreignize the language of the former colonizer, partly through his signature device of the interlingual portmanteau – that is, concocting Turkenglish words like ‘Allmaziful’ (104), Kiswahinglish words like ‘majik’ (‘maji’ means ‘water’ in Kiswahili, 203) and, indeed, Irenglish words like ‘cara weeseed’ (‘cara’ means ‘friend’ in Ghaeilge but also ‘dear’ in Italian and ‘way’ in Indonesian, etc., 625). As I argue in the book, the effects of this strategy were not merely linguistic or orthographic. They were political and philosophical as well, since they made it impossible for English to be construed as the bearer of any one people’s ‘philosophy of life’ or to be understood as the expression or property of any sovereign, self-determining and uniform nation-state.

4.3.3 The Wake does more than sidestep the language provisions of the Irish constitution, however. It poses a challenge to the idea of the state that has dominated European and much post-colonial thinking since the eighteenth century. At one point a collective voice, speaking on behalf of a newly independent Ireland (‘we in our wee free state’), declares that ‘kapnimancy and infusionism may both fit as tight as two trivets’ (117). This readable but still obscure phrasing sums up the Wake’s concerted attack on idealist or transcendentalist absolutisms of all kinds. As the OED notes, ‘infusionism’ refers to the Christian ‘doctrine that the soul is a divine emanation, infused into the body at conception or birth’, while ‘kapnimancy’ is a play on ‘capnomancy’ or ‘divination by smoke’. The same voice immediately links this wishful way of thinking – the quasi-ritualistic practice of calling up the eternal ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ of the people by some form of divination – to constitution-making by recalling the ‘prestatute in our charter’ (117). Articulating its own form of infusionism, the Constitution of the Irish Free State Act (1922) starts by ‘acknowledging that all lawful authority comes from God to the people and in the confidence that the National life and unity of Ireland shall thus be restored’. The opening of the preamble to the Constitution of Ireland (1937) appeals to a more explicitly Catholic doctrine of infusionism: ‘In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred’. The founding phrase of modern republicanism then follows: ‘We, the people of Éire’. Compare this to the first Article of the inaugural Constitution of Turkey (1921) which declares in its unofficial English translation: ‘Sovereignty is vested in the nation without condition. The governmental system is based on the principle of self-determination and government by the people.’ Rehearsing and augmenting this secular vision, the more elaborate preamble to the latest Constitution, which was adopted in 1982, begins: ‘Affirming the eternal existence of the Turkish Motherland and Nation and the indivisible unity of the Sublime Turkish State, this Constitution, in line with the concept of nationalism introduced by the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Atatürk, the immortal leader and the unrivalled hero, and his reforms and principles’.

4.3.4 Seen in Joyce’s terms, this is simply a secular version of the explicitly theological infusionism on which the Irish constitution-makers drew and, as such, it is just another kind of ‘divination by smoke’. Rejecting the transcendentalist logic of infusionism in all its many guises, the Wake asks its readers to put their faith not in any unchanging ‘soul-made-flesh’, whether secular or theological, but in ‘Annah the Allmaziful, the Everliving, the Bringer of Plurabilities’. These may, in the first instance, be the many forms its own unrivalled but all-too-human heroine ALP takes. They are also the ‘variously inflected, differently pronounced, otherwise spelled, changeably meaning vocable scriptsigns’ that are right before our eyes, that is, the Wake’s own irredeemably human(e) graphemes that refuse to incarnate any single phoneme, open up a lexical route to any ultimate or definitive meaning, or, for that matter, restrict themselves to any single language (118). As Samuel Beckett remarked in the 1920s, if Joyce’s post-infusionist ‘Terrestrial Paradise’ of letters signifies anything, it is ‘the absolute absence of the Absolute’ (1929, 22). A monstrous articulation of the poetic side of Plato’s ‘ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry‘, the Wake is, to this extent, a designedly literary provocation inviting exclusion not just from the absolutist philosopher’s ‘well-ordered city’ but from the constitutionalist traditions of the modern nation-state (Republic, Book X, 607b and 619c). (For a contemporary reflection on Plato, revolutionary art and the modern state, see Walter Benjamin’sThe Author as Producer‘ (1934) which is addressed to an imaginary audience interested in studying Fascism in the 1930s.)

4.3.5 The Wake’s incomplete final sentence (‘A way a lone a last a loved a long the’, 628) is often linked back to the uncapitalized opening sequence (‘riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay’, 3), reflecting the circular logic of Joyce’s endlessly ‘millwheeling vicociclometer’ (614). Yet, as the final page indicates (see below), it can equally be seen as an invitation to follow the printed (and now digitized) black letters as they flow into the blankness of the white space beyond. On this reading, the final page refuses its own finality in a different, non-circular way, challenging us to take Joyce’s ‘Tobecontinued’s tale’ (626) into the future, adding our own marginal notes to its post-infusionist vision of a world in which languages, writing systems, cultures, and communities have no divinely or humanly, theologically or constitutionally guaranteed unity and where there is no such thing as the last word – or, as the penultimate phrases have it, where no one has the keys to the kingdom of heaven (‘The keys to. Given!’). One such gloss could be the following, a declaration the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy made in the immediate aftermath of 9/11: ‘Faced with the monstrous outcomes of thought (or of “ideology”) that confront one another for no less monstrous stakes of power and profit, a task presents itself, one of daring to think the unthinkable, the unattributable, the intransigent qualities of being-with, while not subjecting it to any kind of hypostasis‘ (2001, 34). Since the Wake is Joyce’s answer to the monstrous outcomes of thought in his own time and an invitation to think the unthinkable along the lines Nancy envisages, it is difficult to imagine a better first note to add in the space between ‘the’ and ‘Paris, 1922-1939’. Other glosses are of course possible – recall Tagore’s critique of the ‘calculating mind’, for instance (see Third Proposition). I consider some of them in Part 2 of the book.

To hear the poet Bernard O’Donoghue reading the final lines of the Wake, press play 

FW last page web version


Beckett, S., ‘Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce’, Our Exagmination round his Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (London: Faber and Faber, 1929).

Coulmas, F. Guardians of Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Dehaene, S., Reading in the Brain (London: Penguin, 2009). To see Dehaene lecturing on his work in 2013 follow this link. For more on the literate brain/reading mind, see Maryanne Wolf, Tales of Literacy for the 21st Century (Oxford, 2016); Daniel T. Willingham, The Reading Mind (Jossey-Bass, 2017), Mark Changizi’s site, and Kate Nation’s blog post. For a related and extraordinary global literacy project, see Curious

Joyce, J., Finnegans Wake (1939; London: Faber & Faber, 1975).

Joyce, J., Letters of James Joyce, eds. R. Ellmann and S. Gilbert, 3 vols (London: Faber, 1957).

Nancy, J-L., ‘The Confronted Community’, trans. Amanda Macdonald, Postcolonial Studies 6.1 (2001; trans. 2003): 23-36. See also

Plato, The Republic, trans. A. D. Lindsay (London: J.M. Dent, 1992).

OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015,, accessed 3 August 2016.

Ó Tuama, S., ‘Revisiting the Irish Constitution and De Valera’s Grand Vision‘, Irish Journal of Legal Studies, 2.2 (2011), 54-87.

The portrait of Joyce forms part of The Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York. For more details, click here.

For more on William Kentridge’s O Sentimental Machine, see Andrew van der Vlies, ‘Thick Time: William Kentridge, Peripheral Modernisms, and the Politics of Refusal‘, Modernism/Modernity (March 2017).

For a further account of the limitations of statist thinking, particularly when it comes to conceptualizations of identity, see James C. ScottSeeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale, 1998).

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