Finnegans on the Path to Waking
May 25, 2010 § 13 Comments
Since I’m starting to pull together the “Desire” issue, I’m especially struck by these lines from “Little Gidding” by T.S. Eliot, which a reader graced this blog spot with after my last post: “This is the use of memory: For liberation–not less of love but expanding of love beyond desire, and so liberation from the future as well as the past.” I’ve never thought of it this way before, but remembering is a way to expand love beyond clinging, beyond the anxieties and needs of the moment. Remembering can be a path to compassion, a way off the wheel of conditioning that determines the future as well as the past. The trick is remembering ourselves and those we love right in the present moment–bringing a finer, more liberated attention right into the thick of things.
Lately, I’ve come to suspect that this liberated attention comes from the heart, not the mind as we usually think of it. The other night at our “Parabola Live” event, Phil Robinson sang a great rendition of “Finnegan’s Wake,” an Irish ballad that arose in the 1850s. In the ballad, the Tim Finnegan, born “with a love for the liquor”, falls from a ladder and is thought to be dead. Lo and behold, whiskey gets spilled over Finnegan’s corpse at the wake, causing him to come back to life and join in in the celebrations. Whiskey causes both Finnegan’s fall and his resurrection— and good old wiki reminds us that “whiskey” is derived from and Irish phrase that means “water of life”.
Phil Robinson reminded us that “Finnegan’s Wake” was the basis of James Joyce’s final and according to some his greatest work Finnegans Wake (1939), in which the comic resurrection of Tim Finnegan is employed as a symbol of the universal cycle of life. A few days later, Phil sent me the wiki link that described how “as whiskey, the ‘water of life’, causes both Finnegan’s death and resurrection in the ballad, so the word ‘wake’ also represents both a passing (into death) and a rising (from sleep). ” Wiki goes on to explain that Joyce removed the apostrophe in the title of his novel “in order to suggest an active process in which a multiplicity of “Finnegans”, that is, all members of humanity, fall and then wake and arise.”
It really astonished me to learn that Joseph Campbell borrowed the “monomyth,” i.e. the journey of the hero that appears in mythologies in virtually ever culture, from Finnegans Wake. Heroes were important to Campbell because they conveyed universal truths about the path to meaning and liberation. Intriguingly, Campbells’ first important book (with Henry Morton Robinson–no relation to Phil) was A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944). I have to confess that I haven’t read either of those challenging book. But I have read The Dead, which I excerpted in the “Love” issue. Come to think of it, the protagonist Gabriel Conroy can be understood as a kind of modern hero. He comes to glimpse the kind of remembering that Eliot’s great poem speaks of. He moves past selfish vanity to compassion. He learns that beneath the surface glitter and glare of the social world(everything about Conroy from his hair to his glasses and shoes is shiny) there is deeper world of love, a subtle world where appearances and divisions between living and dead dissolve. Like Finnegan, he died and glimpsed a new world. He waked up.