Poetry as Extorreor Monolothe: Finnegans Wake on Bakhtin

By | 1 February 2013

1. The voice of the scholar

I was out drunk with friends one night in Perth, Western Australia. My father had just died. We were walking home, so to speak, and our path took us past the Church of Christ. At that, I launched myself at the wall of the church, found a toehold and lunged up into the air. I grasped the ‘t’ decal and with all my weight managed to prise it from the wall. The Church of Chris looked down upon us all. I continued on my way home, or rather to here, but not without the occasional somewhat gratified memory of the incident. I cannot help thinking of the sudden appearance of the Church of Chris as a sort of revelation, with something to say about the truth of something. That is what reading Finnegans Wake is like.

It includes the following passage:

Let us now, weather, health, dangers, public orders and other circumstances permitting, of perfectly convenient, if you police, after you, policepolice, pardoning mein, ich beam so fresch, bey? drop this jiggerypokery and talk straight turkey meet to mate, for while the ear, be we mikealls or nicholists, may sometimes be inclined to believe others the eye, whether browned or nolensed, find it devilish hard now and again even to believe itself.

(Joyce 113; emphasis added)

What is a mikeall? What is a nicholist? Is a mikeall a follower of Michael, a nicholist a follower of Nicholas, on the analogy with Christian? That could well be the case, and certainly many Mikealls insist – like all good Christians – on attributing all that is good to Mike. Many a self-confessed Foucalldian does likewise in relation to Foucault. So too all those Deleusions, and Lacan Ians. But I also hear in Joyce’s phrasing the implication that anyone actually called Michael is a ‘mikeall’ insofar as he sees the world in the all-encompassing image of his own ‘primary narcissism’ (Freud 1984), and that would have to include anyone called Michel as well. As for Freud, he was a Freudian avant la lettre. ‘Harrystotalies’ was no different (Joyce 110). In short, they are all their own followers.

This essay concerns poetic voice, specifically the difference poetic voicing imports into the world. It is about poetic voice, but also about scholarship, the voice of the scholar. I am going to make two wild claims, one based on prior authority. The first claim takes its starting point from the phrase highlighted above, ‘be we Mikealls or Nicholists’, and concerns what Lacan has described as the ‘I-cracy’ of university discourse. That claim is as follows:

1. Scholarly discourse has less to do with objectivity than with the consistency of the speaker’s ego.

I will allow what I am getting at in this formulation to emerge from a contextualisation of the Joycean phrase given in bold above. For these two names (holy orders?) evoke Christogical references to be sure, but in the broader context of the chapter from which I have drawn them, they are just as likely to lead one to thoughts about the wishful narcissism of scholarly practice.

Book 1, Chapter 5 of Finnegans Wake takes the form of a professor’s learned discourse on a letter that was written by a relative of one of the Wake’s main characters, Anna Livia Plurabelle, and discovered in her family’s dunghill by a hen. The letter forms a sort of mock-cause for the mock-epic that the Wake comprises. Actually, I hesitate to describe Anna Livia Plurabelle as one of the book’s main characters for, as her name suggests, there is more than one of her. As for the professor, if the above sentence from his ‘Extorreor Monolothe’ (105) is not already sufficient (or was it his ‘steady monologuy of the interiors’ (119) that we were hearing back there?) to indicate something of the riot of voices he contains, the following excerpt will surely clinch the matter:

If the proverbial bishop of our holy and undivided with this me ken or no me ken Zot is the Quiztune havvermashed had his twoe nails on the head we are in for a sequentiality of improbable possibles though possibly nobody after having grubbed up a lock of cwold cworn aboove his subject probably in Harrystotalies or the vivle will go out of his way to applaud him on the onboiassed back of his remark for utterly impossible as are all these events they are probably as like those which may have taken place as any others which never took person at all are ever likely to be. Ahahn!

(110; emphasis added)

This continues for some 18 pages. ‘After this lecture on our academic ways,’ exegete William York Tindall remarks, ‘it is hard to see how any of us can still pursue them.’ (Tindall 101)

Tindall is referring to the relentless parody of textual scholarship over these pages, as the professor assays a range of interpretive strategies to take to the letter, from the Freudian –

Some softnosed peruser might mayhem take it up erogenously as the usual case of spoons, prostituta in herba plus dinky pinks deliberatively summersaulting off her bisexycle, at the main entrance of curate’s perpetual soutane suit with her one to see and awoh! who picks her up as gingerly as any balmbearer would to feel whereupon the virgin was most hurt and nicely asking: whyre have you been so grace a mauling and where were you chaste me child? Be who, farther potential? and so wider but we grisly old Sykos who have done our unsmiling bit on ‘alices, when they were yung and easily freudened, in the penumbra of the procuring room […]


– to the Marxist (‘for we also know, what we have perused from the pages of I Was A Gemral, that Showting up of Bulsklivism by ‘Schottenboum’, that Father Michael about this red time of the white terror equals the old regime and Margaret is the social revolution while cakes mean […]’ (116)); nor should we forget the professor’s reference to ‘what an innocent all-abroad’s adverb such as Michaelly looks like can be suggestive of’ (116). It is not obvious that such a polyvocally perverse professor can sustain an argument. Nor does he seem quite the one you would want to supervise your PhD. Tindall is taking Joyce to imply that we academics are all like him.

Tindall’s reading has its validity, and so does scholar Eric McLuhan’s decision to baptise the chapter ‘Joyce’s Dunciad’ in the course of his own analysis, which highlights the chapter’s parodic relation to the university as well (McLuhan 113). Yet both Tindall and McLuhan fail to comment on what strikes me as the most scholarly aspect of the whole affair: the ‘be we Mikealls or Nicholists’ phrase quoted above. For this figuring of narcissism serve to emblematise a particularly salient quality of academic speech, something the choral riot of the professor’s discourse seems itself geared to counterpoint and so highlight. I am referring to what Lacan calls the ‘I-cracy’ (Lacan 63) of university discourse: the myth that the speaker is the same as him or herself. People might tell us we have to write in the 3rd person singular, impersonal form (‘one can see’), and perhaps do so by way of the passive too (‘it has been demonstrated’), but this for Lacan is all a ruse: the academic subject is neither disembodied nor objective but rather totally personalised. I know this and I have the right to know it because I have done the research. I am the same as myself.

Take the email I received as I was researching this paper:

Topic: The Research Journey
from idea to output/outcome (it is an interesting process and one that I spend a lot
of time trying to get my own PhD students and postdocs to focus on!). From the
discussion I would hope to learn what this process is like outside the sciences as
well as giving people an insight into how it works in the sciences.
Lead by: Professor xxxxxx xxxxxx
Time: Thursday lunch 12:30-1:30pm
Dates: Fought-nightly 13/05/10, 27/05/10, 10/06/10, 24/06/10 
Room: 7C21 

(All staff email 5/05/2010; anonymised)

Focus on the second, subversive, voice speaking its tale of nightly struggle against dates – ‘Fought-nightly’ – which it finks away. This is the Finnegans Wake voice, as a random plucking of phrases from this chapter of the Wake indicates: ‘everywhair’ (Joyce 108); ‘anythongue at all’ (117); ‘if you police, after you, policepolice’ (113). As for its significance: there is no way the voice that erupts from a professorial email in this fashion could ever become a significant voice in the professor’s presentation of knowledge claims. Were it to appear in the course of a lecture it would be ignored. Were it to appear in a manuscript it would be copy-edited. Such voices from nowhere (i.e. the unconscious, tout court) are constitutively disregarded, or perhaps one should say censored, in the making and assessing of the scholar or scientist’s claim to know. We scholars present ourselves – I know this and I have the right to know it because I have done the research. I am the same as myself – as so many ‘mikealls’ or ‘nicholists’, as if we really were self-identical and univocal creatures. And you, whatever your name is, gentle scholarly reader, you work in the church of that name too. Be you Mikeall or Nicholist, Chris, Rita.

On the other hand, it strikes me that random, supererogatory voices such as this ‘fought-nightly’ can indeed play a significant, often even decisive, role in the contemporary lyric. In what follows, I am going to try to give some flesh to the wild notion – my second claim – that

2. Poetic composition draws upon something akin to slips of the tongue to achieve its distinctly polyvocal character.

Not just Finnegans Wake, but contemporary lyric itself as a slip of the tongue. That is where I am heading.

2. Bakhtin’s theory of the lyric

But first, I am going to consider the counter-argument to these conjoint claims, by tabling the following, rather strange fact. Mikhail Bakhtin, the great Russian theorist of polyphony and its role in literary and indeed political change since the Renaissance, has his own theory of ‘I-cracy’, i.e. of ego-bound discourse, the sort of thing Mikealls and Nicholists are prone to utter. Bakhtin theorises ‘I-cracy’ in a manner not dissimilar to Lacan. Only in his case it refers not to scholarship, but rather to lyric poetry!

For Bakhtin, lyric poetry is I-cratic in the extreme:

The language of a poet is his language, he is utterly immersed in it, inseparable from it, he makes use of each form, each word, each expression according to its unmediated power to assign meaning (as it were, ‘without quotation marks’), that is, as a pure and direct expression of his own intention.’ No matter what ‘agonies of the word’ the poet endured in the process of creation, in the finished work language is an obedient organ, fully adequate to the author’s intention.

(Bakhtin 1981c 286)

Anyone familiar with Bakhtin’s work will see in this description a polemical contrast with the genre Bakhtin claimed works almost entirely, ‘as it were’, in quotation marks. The novel relies on the fact that any language is ‘stratified’ not merely into linguistic dialects constituted by phonetic, semantic and syntactic differences, but also into ‘languages that are socio-ideological’ (272). Bakhtin refers to ‘the languages of social groups, “professional” and “generic” languages, languages of generations and so forth’ (272). The novel amasses such languages through its deployment of different characters and the distinct ways they speak. So, in Anna Karenina, Vronsky speaks an urbane city discourse, whereas Levin’s is the language of the countryman. Both ‘socio-ideological’ languages are Russian and yet both are distinctive of a particular social grouping. Karenin’s upper bureaucrat language is presented as a distinctive way of speaking too. Crucial to Bakhtin’s thought is the idea that the ‘author participates in the novel (he is omnipresent in it) with almost no direct language of his own’ (1981b 47). Even the narrator represents just one language system (or more) among others, as is evident in those instances where the narrator is presented as a character in the events – say in The Great Gatsby – with no damage to the overall form of the work. The fact that the narrator’s language is just as marked by group-based, generic features as that of any other character allows Bakhtin to claim that:

Literary language is not represented in the novel as a unitary, completely finished off and indisputable language – it is represented precisely as a living mix of varied and opposing voices (49).

Actually we can take this analysis further: for Bakhtin, the novel stages this ‘living mix of varied and opposing voices’ at the level of the individual sentence, and at times even the individual phrase.

I am referring to his theories of the novel’s characteristically polyphonic use of indirect speech. Consider an example from Margaret Attwood’s 1990 novel Cat’s Eye. The novel’s narrator, Elaine Risley, is at this point in the narrative a schoolgirl, and she is young in her class:

But I don’t feel younger than these people. In some ways I feel older. In our Health book there’s a chapter on teenage emotions. According to the book, I’m supposed to be caught in a whirlwind of teenage emotions, laughing one minute, crying the next, zooming around on a rollercoaster …

(Atwood 207; emphasis added)

Elaine is engaging in indirect speech here, something you find throughout novels. Most notable, from Bakhtin’s perspective, is the fact that this has her not merely paraphrasing the content of someone else’s speech (here a ‘Health book’), but also mimicking that speech’s distinctive style. Elaine finds herself using phrases redolent of another’s specific socio-ideological milieu, phrases she herself, an emotionally wooden young woman, would never utter, and retaining her own distinct identity in the process. As such, she is providing what Bakhtin would call a ‘novelistic image: the image of another’s language’ (Bakhtin 1981b 44). Note how temporally and geographically marked the ‘socio-ideological language’ Elaine thus depicts is: we are hearing 1950s North American teen English here. Even more precisely, what we are hearing through Elaine’s ironic refraction is how adults who tried to appeal cool to teenagers in the 1950s would ape such language, and that precision and specificity is a function of the texture of the words themselves, far more than any superadded critical analysis. You find nothing like this sort of sociological accuracy in Homer, or Shakespeare, who are so relatively light on indirect speech, and very little like it in the authors that span their epochs either, whether European or otherwise. Neither Homer nor Shakespeare were novelists.

Bakhtin’s progressivist history of the novel’s rise traces its emergence, in the Renaissance, from earlier forms of medieval parody, in particular the carnival’s devices of inversion and irony, and it sees François Rabelais’s wild texts as a particularly crucial junction. Concurrent with such transformations of parodic street art into the written word was an epochal cultural shift from seeking intellectual authority in canonical, past texts toward an embrace of ‘the present, in all its open-endedness’, the sort of place one finds oneself when amid a novel’s swirl of competing ‘socio-ideological languages’, each of which (and especially the authoritarian ones) appears relativised and often also trivialised by the others (Bakthin 1981a 40).

It was in the Renaissance that the present first began to feel with great clarity and awareness an incomparably closer proximity and kinship to the future than to the past. (40)

The present, thus depicted in all its radical multiplicity, is a place of uncertainty and possibility and as such it can just as well be equated with the future. In this way, the novel sidles up, more closely than any former literary genre, to the multi-voiced, poly-cultural and inherently future-oriented, nature of human reality itself. ‘On all its various routes toward the object, in all its directions, the word encounters an alien word and cannot help encountering in it a living, tension-filled interaction’ (1981c 279). Indeed, only

the mythical Adam, who approached a virginal and as yet verbally unqualified world with the first word, could really have escaped from start to finish this dialogic inter-orientation with the alien word that occurs in the object. (279)

Only Adam could avoid our inherently novelistic, polyphonic predicament, with all its presentiments of the future. And it is from the Renaissance on that literature begins to acknowledge this very fact, through the medium of the novel.

Herein lies the nub of Bakhtin’s criticism of lyric. It claims the very Adamic perspective and indeed privilege we have just heard Bakhtin dismiss as myth: the poetic word trains its sights not on reality’s ‘dialogic inter-orientation with the alien word,’ i.e. these multifarious languages, all around us and anything we touch, but rather on ‘the inexhaustible wealth and contradictory multiplicity of the object itself, with its “virginal” still “unuttered” nature’ (278). Lyric would tell the truth of the object, in its own words. It’s a form of dogmatism, one that

forgets that its object has its own history of contradictory acts of verbal recognition, as well as that heteroglossia that is always present in such acts of recognition (278).

For, where the novelist will edit the ‘I’ out of his or her work, precisely to allow the multiple ‘socio-ideological languages’ around any object to emerge, even from the voice of his or her very own narrator, the lyric poet assumes a directly opposite tactic. Not only will he or she use the word ‘I’, the poet will attempt to purify that ‘I’ of all the ‘heteroglossia’ described above the better to get at the truth of the object, and will even invent new words and phrases and grammar to succeed in that aim. The poet aims at achieving an ‘unmediated power to assign meaning’, as if that poet were ‘the mythical Adam’ assigning names to things for the first time ever. For in lyric, the poet’s I is everywhere. His/Her’s is an I-cratic discourse, in the extreme: ‘[e]verywhere there is only one face – the linguistic face of the author, answering for every word as if it were his own.’ (297)

I am tempted to adduce a poetic example of what Bakhtin means only that would be a bit misrepresentative for Bakhtin almost totally refuses to provide specific examples of the I-cratic lyric. He makes a passing reference to the attempts of futurists like Velimir Khlebnikov to create a special ‘transrational’ poetic language (288), implying that such supposedly avant-garde aspirations merely resurrect the Adamic project of finding the perfect name for what the poet sees. As such, Klebnikov’s futurist project is, for Bakhtin, all too archaic: ‘the idea of a “poetic language” is yet another expression of that same Ptolemaic conception of the linguistic and stylistic world’ (288). But that relegation of one of his famous peers to the dustbin of history is about as specific as Bakhtin gets. When actual poems or poets enter his discourse they are more likely to stand as examples of the way ‘novelisation’ has spread to encompass other genres, such that they themselves begin to look more and more like novels, e.g. Pushkin’s Evgenii Onegin, which escapes the condition of monologicity by dint of its mastery of the verse novel form, with all the reliance on indirect speech that imports (1981b 43-51). In place of specific examples of lyric, Bakhtin is more inclined to add riders like ‘[i]t goes without saying that we continually advance as typical the extreme to which poetic genres aspire’ (1981c 287 fn12). As for those Adamic extremes, they add up to an art form that is ‘authoritarian, dogmatic and conservative’ (287), in its each and every word!

Now Bakhtin certainly has some accuracy in his aim. W.H. Auden, for instance, quite willingly embraces the Adamic metaphor when suggesting that poetry has something baptismal about it: ‘ the true test of the imagination is the ability to name a cat’ he writes in ‘Making, Knowing and Judging’ before proceeding to add that

the first chapter of Genesis tells us that the Lord brought to unfallen Adam all the creatures that he might name them and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof, which is to say, its Proper Name. Here Adam plays the role of Proto-poet, not the Proto-prosewriter. A Proper Name must not only refer, it must refer aptly and this aptness must be publicly recognisable. (Auden 34)

Further, the idea that lyric is relatively monoglot – compared to the novel and indeed compared to everyday experience – has a certain sense to it, as in the maximalist version Vered Shemtov offers in a 2001 article on Bakhtin’s theory: we need, Shemtov argues, to realise that Bakhtin does not see ‘voice’ merely as a ‘metaphor for the discursive rendition of a particular consciousness’ but rather that for him ‘voice’ implies that ‘a character’s identity is presented through the actual sound of his or her speech’ (Shemtov 69). When reading Cat’s Eye, the Atwood novel discussed above, we do indeed hear, albeit in our heads, a whole range of different voices, much more than one per character. The text she gives serves almost as a score to them. Atwood’s lyric poetry, on the other hand, stays much more closely bound to the sound of a singular authorial I, whispering in our ears as we read (of course this is to assume that that I does not itself present as multiple, which I would debate). Indeed, one can find various ways to nuance Bakhtin’s extremely reductive genre theory. But the above précis of his argument is probably already enough to indicate that there is something totally insane about these almost perfectly (albeit anachronistically) ‘post-structuralist’ arguments of his, if they are not in fact completely perverse.

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