Further reinforcing the astounding idea that James Joyce constructed the physical text of Finnegans Wake as a simulacrum of the earthly globe is Roy Benjamin's theory expounded in his excellent article "What Era’s O’ering?: The Precession of the Equinoxes in Finnegans Wake" (from James Joyce Quarterly Vol. 48.1*) where he argues that the Precession of the Equinoxes and the ancient myths revolving around this phenomenon play a central role in the Wake.
It appears that Joyce not only shaped the whole of his book in the form of the spherical earth, he made sure to set it in motion, "whirled without end to end" (FW 582.20) amid the glistening theater of constellations. So accurately did he render its spin that even the earth's slight wobble, like "the spin of a coin" (FW 127.14) or "the spin of the top" (FW 163.18), and the resultant celestial re-positioning that ensues over millennia are featured in his simulacrum.
Remember, Joyce literally put painstaking effort into constructing his works down to the most minute details, especially Finnegans Wake. John Bishop calls it "the single most intentionally crafted literary artefact that our culture has produced." (I cannot refer to that statement enough.) This was not by accident. It's been 75 years since its publication and scholars are still uncovering new forms in its fractal latticework.
Roy Benjamin's groundbreaking essay on the Wake makes ample use of the 1969 book Hamlet's Mill by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend, a tour de force of precessional myths worldwide that argues for the vital importance of the oft-overlooked astronomical foundation in virtually all mythology and folklore. Just taking a cursory glance through Hamlet's Mill, I found numerous resonances with the overarching theme of cyclical change in Finnegans Wake, as for instance when the grinding mill symbol is explained in the book's Introduction:
This imagery stands, as the evidence develops, for an astronomical process, the secular shifting of the sun through the signs of the zodiac which determines world-ages, each numbering thousands of years. Each age brings a World Era, a Twilight of the Gods. Great structures collapse; pillars topple which supported the great fabric; floods and cataclysms herald the shaping of a new world.A quick overview of what we are referring to here is required: The precession of the equinoxes occurs because of a slight wobble in the earth's rotation on its axis, much like a spinning top. If you picture the earth's axis as a long point extending outward from the north pole, this point rotates very slowly, moving about 1 degree every 72 years, taking roughly 26,000 years to spin in a full circle. Throughout these "circumcentric megacycles" (FW 310.07), the pole star, the star even with the point of the earth's axis, gradually changes. The shift also leads to a change in the relative position of the sun in the zodiac during the equinoxes, shifting backward through the 12 constellations, hence the precession of the equinoxes. (This gif from Wikipedia renders this whole effect quite nicely.)
[...] even Plato did not escape the idea he had inherited, of catastrophes and the periodic rebuilding of the world. - Hamlet's Mill, pg. 3
This celestial phenomenon appears in many ancient myths, often in connection with spans of world cycles or apocalyptically destructive events (floods, fire, etc) leading to a rebirth in a new age. The centrality of the precession of the equinoxes in many of the world's myths was discussed by Joseph Campbell in a few of his books (Oriental Mythology, Mythic Image, Inner Reaches of Outer Space) and explored most thoroughly in Hamlet's Mill.
In his essay on the precession of the equinoxes in Finnegans Wake, Benjamin opens by suggesting a new meaning for the circular diagram that appears on page 293 of the Wake. The Euclidean diagram, featuring two intersecting circles with a Vesica Piscis triangle forming in the center, is generally considered to be the book's centerpiece. It appears in the middle of a math and geometry lesson as Shem and Shaun are doing their homework in the so-called "Nightlessons" chapter, but the diagram also represents their mother ALP's vagina in the form of a triangular river delta, "your muddy old triagonal delta" (FW 297), the source of all life, "the whome of your eternal geomater." (FW 296)
It is a pregnant image, ripe with potential meanings and allusions. Benjamin builds on the observation by Danis Rose and John O'Hanlon in their book Understanding Finnegans Wake that this diagram is also "a map of heaven," comparing it directly to a map depicting the precession of the equinoxes taken from Hamlet's Mill. This map depicts the so-called Great Year, showing the earth's current polar coordinates superimposed upon the coordinates 13,000 years from now, essentially half of the precessional cycle, the pole star shifting every 13,000 years between Polaris and Vega with the pole of the ecliptic in the center:
|Diagram from Hamlet's Mill included in Roy Benjamin's article.|
Comparing the above two diagrams, Benjamin notes the following correspondences:
the "A" in Joyce's image corresponds to the alpha of Ursa Minor---our present pole star---while the "L" approximates Lyra---the constellation containing our future pole star, Vega. The center of ALP's vagina corresponds to the pole of the ecliptic, which is also known as "the Open Hole in Heaven because in that region there is no star to mark it." It is the fixed point around which the precession revolves.Mythologically, the shifting of the pole star has been associated with what Benjamin calls "cosmic upheaval" leading to the end of one world age and the birth of a new one. He informs us that Joyce was well aware of this symbolism since, in the Ithaca chapter of Ulysses, Bloom talks to Stephen "of the precession of the equinoxes" (Ulysses p. 698) at a stage near the end of the book where Bloom, representing "a profound ancient male... the accumulation of the past," is to be replaced by Stephen, "a quick young male... the predestination of the future." (U p. 689)
The theme of the downfall of the older generation and the rise of a new one is part of the basis of Finnegans Wake and is especially at play at the stage in the book where this circular diagram appears. Here, toward the book's center (Book II), the children unite to bring down HCE as the age of the parents gives way to the age of the children in this "family umbroglia" (FW 284.04). At the end of the "Nightlessons" chapter the children even send a Christmas letter "With our best youlldied greedings to Pep and Memmy" (FW p. 308) replacing "Yuletide" with "you'll die," preparing for the death of mom and pop.
The cosmic shift is evident in this chapter and references to it are especially concentrated near the circular diagram. The page immediately adjacent to ALP's diagram, Benjamin informs us, references the Platonic Year, "Platonic yearlings" (FW 292.31), which is the period of time it takes for the axial precession to go through its full cycle, about 25,920 years, also known as the Great Year. In the narrative of the Wake, the warring twin sons Shem and Shaun join forces to topple their father HCE. Sexual implications are involved in this transition with the children growing up to become sexually mature and overtaking the parents' generation as the new progenitors of humanity. This is suggested in the term "Platonic yearlings" which, in Benjamin's view, hints at the sexual immaturity (Platonic) of the young (yearlings) right before the transition signaled by the circular diagram. The transition is also described atop the diagram on pg 293, "as a poor soul is between shift and shift ere the death he has lived through becomes the life he is to die into." The sexual maturation of the children represents the decline of their parents, specifically HCE yielding to Shem and Shaun, father yielding to son(s), a theme familiar from Ulysses where Stephen theorizes, "[the son's] growth is his father's decline, his youth his father's envy, his friend his father's enemy."
Sifting through the same "Nightlessons" chapter one finds abundant cosmic references feeding into Benjamin's theory. Not only does the text admit that "we're globing" (FW 272.01), but an "orb terrestrial" is described to be "solarsystemised, seriolcosmically [serio-comically], in a more and more almightily expanding universe under one, there is rhymeless reason to believe, original sun." (FW 263) Later, an amusing astronomical-oneiric worldview is suggested: "When I'm dreaming back like that I begins to see we're only all telescopes." (FW p. 295)
That last line is an apparent allusion to W.B Yeats' A Vision which features heavily in this chapter as when likening the circular diagram on pg. 293 to Yeats' widening gyres "lurking gyrographically" (FW 292.28). As Benjamin explains, meditations on historical ages and cycles feature throughout Yeats' astronomic-mystical text. Yeats discusses the Great Year through quotes taken from Cicero's book The Dream of Scipio, another mystical text featuring cosmic cycles, otherwise known as Somnium Scipionis---a title we find in the Wake on the same page as the circular diagram, "somnione sciupiones." (FW 293.07)
|12th century illustration of Somnium Scipionis|
Another more oblique allusion to Cicero's Dream of Scipio occurs in the same chapter on page 284 where we read of a "Tullagrove pole" or telegraph pole that "has a septain inclinaison." J.S. Atherton connects this with "the pole on which the spheres revolve in Tully's Scipio's Dream" (Tully is the anglicized name for Marcus Tullius Cicero). The telegraph pole described would be the phallic pole of the father HCE with sexual inclination but, Benjamin suggests, it could also be the tilted earth's axis, the pole that "has a septain inclinaison" because it points toward the seven (sept) stars of Ursa Minor, the constellation featuring our current pole star Polaris.
The image of father figure HCE as the cosmic axis or World Tree or "Tullagrove pole" is a common one in the Wake where Joyce frequently likens the book's main character to Yggdrasil, the world-tree of Norse mythology. HCE is a "Yggdrasselmann" (FW 88.23), a "treemanangel" (FW p. 505) embodying the Ash tree around which the world revolves. Page 503 asks the question, "An overlisting eshtree?" where the symbol is doubly suggested through the German Esche for Ash tree (an everlasting ashtree) and Joyce's remarkably clever pun to invoke the image of the earth's titled axis with the word "list" which, in nautical terms, refers to a ship inclined or tilted to one side.
|Yggdrasil; world tree/cosmic axis in Norse mythology.|
In his footnotes, Benjamin refers to the Wake's description of HCE as a "supershillelagh where the palmsweat on high is the mark of your manument" (FW p. 25) which links him to the Hindu god Manu, described in Wikipedia as "the progenitor of humanity, who appears in the world at the start of a new kalpa (aeon), after universal destruction." In this image HCE is also an embodiment of the world tree in the form of a giant shillelagh, an oaken walking stick. The word "hegoak" from page 5, Benjamin explains, combines the cosmic oak tree and the pole star Polaris which was called the "he-goat" in ancient times. Learning of the Wake's frequent allusions to Polaris, I think back to Robert Anton Wilson's book Coincidance where he puzzled over the Wake's frequent references to bears and bear-gods---perhaps it has something to do with Ursa Minor (ursa is Latin for "bear"), the constellation where our pole star lies.
The theme of cosmic transition continues to appear in the chapter after "Nightlessons", where we experience the rowdy scene inside HCE's pub (Book II, chapter 3). Benjamin argues that the events of this chapter are supposed to be concurrent with the previous one (ie, while the kids were upstairs doing their homework, this is what was going on downstairs in the pub). Throughout this chapter, the pub crowd is absorbed in watching a television (or radio) program featuring a battling comedy duo, Butt and Taff, avatars of the warring twins Shem and Shaun. The broadcast is occasionally interrupted by sports updates providing news about a horse race, Taff envisioning a "saggind spurts flash" (second sports flash) announcing that the racer "takes a dipperend direction and... orients by way of Sagittarius towards Draco on the Lour" (FW p. 342-343). Benjamin explains: "Here the different direction takes us from the pole star in Ursa Minor, the little dipper, to a new point of orientation---the pole of the ecliptic in the constellation Draco." Roland McHugh notes that "on the Lour" comes from the Dutch "op de loer" for "on the lookout." Shaun (or Taff) is always associated with the eye and the waking mind of the dreamer and Book III---which may have more cosmic references than any other part of the book---is known as "The Four Watches of Shaun." Citing another source on mythologies of cosmic aeons, Benjamin notes, "The myth of Ladon-Draco symbolizes the fixity of the ecliptic pole preserved by an unwearying, unblinking guardian." Taff/Shaun is known for being on the lookout and now he's intent on taking over as the pole star, justifying the crooked axis of his father and restoring balance to the universe.
The precessional myth is implicit as well when Butt refers to a point "roughnow along about the first equinarx in the cholonder" (FW p. 347). The first equinox in the calendar is, as Benjamin points out, "the main coordinate that allows the precession to be measured." It's when the axis stands upright and the equator aligns with the ecliptic (the sun's path across the sky). The precessional shift becomes evident, the tilted pole has been stabilized, and a new age is born. The sons are prepared to usurp the father. Benjamin alerts us to Joyce's incredible pun summing all of this up, likening poor old HCE with his bulging midriff, "where the midril met the bulg" (FW p. 347), to the actual physical cause of the earth's precessional wobble, a slight bulge around the earth's equator caused by the gravitational pull of the sun and moon (an effect discovered by Newton---"old Sare Isaac's...specious aristmystic" FW 293 [spacious arithmetic]).
A new age is dawning, the old age is dwindling and at this moment in the Wake, "when we sight the [zodiacal] beasts" (FW p. 347), an epic deluge washes down destroying the world in preparation for a renewal. The fourth and final chapter of Book II brings all these themes together with the Tristan and Isolde story. The young, virile Tristan steals the wife of the old impotent King Mark (an avatar of HCE) and we watch Tristan and Isolde floating along the seas in their love boat "after the universal flood." (FW 388) The chapter contains references to countless mythological floods and disasters at sea, while a recurrent "S.O.S." signal ("sess old soss" FW p. 316) connects to the ancient Mesopotamian soss for the number sixty, a basic unit of measurement that was used in calculating the Great Year. Joseph Campbell covers these "mythametical" (FW p. 286) facts in The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, noting that 432 years multiplied by sixty (soss) gives us 25,920 years which is, incredibly enough, the modern estimate for the length of a full precessional cycle. (That 432 multiplier is also plenty relevant in mythology and in the Wake.)
While the young lovers cavort in their boat, the displaced HCE rests at the bottom of the sea. Quoting from Hamlet's Mill, Benjamin notes that the chaotic transitional period between astrological ages was represented in myths as a time when "the Emperor sleeps on in the depth of the Watery Abyss." This image recalls both the sleeping giant Finn MacCool of Irish legend and also King Arthur, about whom it is written in Hamlet's Mill, "King Arthur did not really die but lives on in the depth of the mystic lake." The Tristan & Isolde chapter of the Wake describes the image of fallen HCE and the newly risen youth similarly:
The arzurian deeps o'er his humbodumbones sweeps... Runtable's Reincorporated. The new world presses. Where the old conk cruised now croons the yunk. (FW p. 387-388)The roundtable reference, Benjamin explains, suggests not only the Arthurian legend but the "roundtableturning" (FW p. 285) of the celestial equator coming into alignment with the ecliptic. The Wake continues to link King Arthur with the transition of astrological ages through references to the star Arcturus, as in the densely allusive Book IV where we read of "the reneweller of the sky...Arcthuris comeing!" (FW p. 594 [a newel being the central supporting pole of a spiral stairwell further feeds into this theme) and ALP's prayer for "Send Arctur guiddus!" (FW p. 621).
As wonderful as Benjamin's essay is, I think it's only the opening salvo in what could presumably be expanded into a much larger study. His piece focuses mostly on Book II, with some coverage of Books III and IV, but with his argument for Joyce's embedding of the theme of the transition of cosmological ages into the Wake being so strong, one would think these threads are discoverable all throughout the book. I do recall when reading the Shaun chapters (Book III) that there were tons and tons of references to planets and stars. Benjamin offers a cursory look at this while hinting at there being so much more.
"What Era’s O’ering?: The Precession of the Equinoxes in Finnegans Wake" is a truly groundbreaking piece of scholarship, opening up a new area for Wakean archeologists to dig further and further into. I consider this essay to be among the best pieces I've ever read about Finnegans Wake. It strongly reinforces the utter amazement at Joyce's intricate construction because not only did he weave the precessional shift into the overall structure of the book, he embellished that with allusions to so many related mythological figures and themes. Axis Mundi, King Arthur, Noah, Tristan/Isolde, Manu, Mahamanvantaras, Yggdrasil, the string goes on and on in an endless music. The music of the cycling spheres. Joyce's complexly geared musical cubebox isn't just an astonishingly designed artifice but a deeply meaningful series of motifs linking various world myths from all ages and places together. Finnegans Wake is an Ode to the Earth.
Among the many great anecdotes about Joyce's stated intentions for his painstakingly crafted final book is the story that, while he had tried to contain all of Dublin inside of Ulysses to enable the city to be rebuilt piece-by-piece out of his book in case it were ever destroyed, he wanted to squeeze the entire universe into Finnegans Wake for similar reasons. As we've seen with his mathematically crafted geographic design of the Book as Globe and now with his embedding the Globe's millennial "spirals' wobbles" (FW p. 300) and its changing position among the stars into the basis of the text, maybe those stated intentions weren't quite as exaggerated as first thought.
*Benjamin's essay appears in the same volume of the JJQ, coincidentally, in which I received not one but two mentions about my 2011 conference presentation on Joyce and Salvador Dali (I'm currently expanding that presentation into a book).