In the previous blog I mention Literary Alchemy, and the conscious effort that some poets and writers have made throughout history to interweave mysticism into their art in order to make it into something larger than themselves. This is not a new idea, and I am not the first one to notice it. When Sylvia Plath was at Smith College, she spent a great deal of time working on a thesis on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Joyce was a big practitioner of literary alchemy, and the famous mythologist and author Joseph Campbell, along with Henry Morton Robinson, wrote a whole book as to how Joyce structured Finnegans Wake, which is called A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake. Campbell’s book is the principle text of Plath’s time (and maybe of ours too) to understanding Joyce’s work, and Plath mentioned several times in letters (LSP, 762-3, 780).
Joyce spent eighteen years writing his book, published in 1939, and he died a few months later. Campbell says in the Foreword, “The book is a kind of terminal moraine in which lie buried all the myths, programs, slogans, hopes, prayers, tools, educational theories, and theological bric-a-brac of the past millennium.” (ASK, xxiii)
James Joyce was seriously fascinated by mysticism. A quick search of his name and the word occult will yield hundreds of journal articles and papers on his esoteric pursuits. Oh yes, Sylvia Plath chose the greatest teachers to model her work after. Everything Campbell said here can also be said for Plath’s Ariel poems.
After the Foreword is the Preface, because these old books enjoyed a lot of such things, and also of course because the world continues to change and updates are needed. In this Preface, Campbell says Finnegans Wake is “the integration, total and complete, of Joyce’s personality and creative powers.” (ASK, xxv)
In Introduction to a Strange Subject (Yes, an Introduction, after a Preface, after a Foreword), Campbell says Finnegans Wake is “a mighty allegory of the fall and resurrection of mankind.” He calls it a “gigantic wheeling rebus” with “mythological heroes and events of the remotest antiquity occupying space with modern personages and contemporary happenings. All time occurs simultaneously […] Multiple meanings are present in every line; interlocking allusions to key words and phrases are woven like fugal themes into the pattern of the work. Finnegans Wake is a prodigious, multifaceted monomyth…” Sound familiar? If you have read my work, it does.
The bottom of page 191 from A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake
Campbell says, “Thus, throughout the work, there is a continual intermelting of the accused and his accusers. All these characters, moving around and against one another, are but facets of some prodigious unity and are at last profoundly identical—each, as it were, a figure in the dream complex of all the others.” (ASK, 9)
Campbell continues about Joyce’s repetitive death and resurrection themes. He describes Joyce’s Cosmic Egg (Plath played with this idea in “Morning Song”; you can see it explained in Fixed Stars Govern a Life), and how its fall is Lucifer’s fall, and Adam and Eve’s, and the sun, and the fall of Rome, and Wall Street, Humpty Dumpty, Newton’s Apple, spring rain on seeded fields, and every man’s daily fall from grace. Each fall implies a corresponding resurrection, both again seen all over Plath’s work. Joyce made sure everything had a historical allegory too, drawing both on things of the long past and also the contemporary politics and happenings of his time. It’s all just so Plathian.
These high-level overviews are key to understanding the multi-dimensionality of Joyce, and then understanding that this is what Plath did too, making a model of him, to steal from “Daddy.” And “Daddy” is so appropriate here, because Campbell explains the older man-girl/father-daughter impropriety through Finnegans Wake which Plath cast as an Electra complex with the father seen from the Freudian-Jungian point of view, and the children in Finnegans Wake of course address their father “Daddy” in God-like reverence. Finnegans Wake also explores King Brutus’ founding of Albion, as William Blake saw it and cast it against the new world of America. For more on how these themes fit with Plath’s “Daddy,” please see my book, nm Decoding Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.”
In this Introduction, Campbell goes on to explain the parts of the story which we can actually identify as story (it gets tough sometimes): how twelve citizens of the jury represent the twelve signs of the zodiac; four senile judges are the four winds; the wife, “ALP” (which makes Plath’s “nine black Alps” from “The Couriers” have yet another meaning), Anna Livia Plurabelle. She is the “Bringer of Plurabilities” and all things possible with words. She is the letter writer in Finnegans Wake. She is Isis and Mother Earth with her 28 little companions (the days of the month); there is the battle between the sexes and the battle between brothers; good versus evil and magic versus ego—pretty much all of the polarities that make the world –and our heads–spin. Joyce even put autobiographical elements into Finnegans Wake, where his character Shem the Penman, the seer, poet, mother’s pet, and misunderstood artist, who writes “a phosphorescent book in a corrosive language which Shaun [who later becomes “Yawn,” his ego-focused brother] cannot understand.” (ASK, 11)
Campbell writes: “Shem’s business is not to create a higher life, but merely to find and utter the Word. Shaun, on the other hand, whose function is to make the Word become flesh, misreads it, fundamentally rejects it, limits himself to a kind of stupid concretism, and while winning all the skirmishes, loses the eternal city.” (ASK, 12) This, my friends, is the story of the majority of Plath scholarship today.
Chapter VII of A Skeleton Key is devoted to Shem the Penman. Shem’s section includes alchemical operations and Campbell explains how Book II is full of alchemy while also paralleling Christianity. Chapter II, Book II in A Skeleton’s Key, called The Study Period— Triv and Quad, explores what Campbell admits is the hardest part of Finnegans Wake: Kabbala (Campbell’s spelling). (ASK, 163-193) This chapter explores the creation of the universe, history, myth, playing with verse by other poets, letters and numerological correspondences, nine principles, polar [opposite] principles, more alchemy, Latin invitations to spirits of the ancients, mythology, double-meanings, Judaism, cosmology and constellations, Veda, Sanskrit, Celts and Druids, Tantric spellings, Bible stories, Freud, the Atlantic Ocean, syllables and the Kabbalistic Sephiroth, representations of the numbers one through ten in Kabbala, manifesting God through word construction, and of course, riddles and puns. Read this book and The Painted Caravan, and just try to tell me Plath didn’t know about Qabalah and Alchemy. She knew plenty.
A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake continues with a Synopsis and Demonstration (we still haven’t gotten to Chapter One yet!) where the author talks about word structure and sound, what happens in each part, and the children’s (and readers’) lessons in Kabbalistic Theology, Viconian Philosophy (a cyclical theory of history), the seven liberal arts and cosmogony (ASK, 19). A lot of British colonialism is built into this book, with “raped India and Ireland,” as well as gypsies, sprinklings of the German language—ideas that Plath also played with in her “Daddy” poem.
Campbell writes of how the author Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) appears often in Finnegans Wake, and interestingly, Plath played with ideas of Twain in “Lady Lazarus.” Campbell also mentions other symbols also seen in both “Lady Lazarus” and in Finnegans Wake: the goddess of fire, Brigit (the Gaelic Isis) who speaks, “I am, I am”; Venus; Helen of Troy (ASK, 156—not found in the Index); the Qabalistic importance of the decade, or ten years; a poem of Exiles (ASK, 108); The Egyptian Book of the Dead, Lilith (p. 79 of ASK, but not in the Index), Adam and Eve; the fallen angel Lucifer; the wreck of the Hesperus (ASK, 255—not found in the Index), the Tree of Life as Liberty (p. 309 of ASK—not found in the Index). See Decoding Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” for more on how these themes fit with Plath’s “Lady Lazarus.”
We finally get to Chapter 1, Finnegan’s Fall. There is an apostrophe here because this speaks of a character named Finnegan who fell. The lack of apostrophe in the title leaves the title open to other meanings, Finnegans Wake might even being read as a directive to all Finnegans (every man) to awaken. Finnegan is Mr. Finn who will resurrect and be Finn-again. He is Ireland’s legendary giant, Finn MacCool. Campbell explains that in those first seventeen pages, Joyce wove in geography, pre-history, medieval history and Joyce’s history, fragments of folklore, and even a comical vaudeville song. (ASK, 39)
A part of Finnegans Wake I have not gotten to read yet, but read about first in A Skeleton Key, is the character Sylvia Silence, the girl detective (ASK, 70, 312-313), which must have given Plath a laugh. Suddenly now, I get the joke that was behind this short film series. Plath probably also enjoyed the character St. Sylvanus and the importance of the Elm tree.
I have owned A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake for years, and skimmed it, but until my recent trip to Ireland and newfound personal interest in Joyce’s book, I hadn’t looked at Campbell’s too closely. I knew Joyce was a model and influence for years, but I did not fully understand the extent until now. A part of me wishes that I had read these books first, before having written my first three books. But I am also delighted. “No man is an island,” as the great John Donne said, and Sylvia Plath did not create herself, but let her influences guide and create her. I always knew that A Painted Caravan first taught Plath the basics about tarot, alchemy and Qabalah. I knew also that Finnegan’s Wake was a model of Qabalah, but I didn’t have the specific details as to how. Now, I do. We all do. A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake was Plath’s instruction manual. It is such a huge and wonderful validation of my Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath work. If only HCE and Shaun could realize.
A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake: Unlocking James Joyce’s Masterwork
by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morion Robinson
1944, New World Library