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An LDS Translation of Finnegans Wake (work in progress)


Let’s begin with a sentence found in the eighth chapter of the first part of Finnegans Wake. Byway of briefest background, Finnegans Wake is the story of a dream, told in an obscure multilingual night language, run through with puns and allusions, of not a Finnegan, but one Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (commonly referred to outside of the text as “HCE”), his wife Anna Livia Plurabelle (“ALP”) and their three children (Shem, Shaun and Isobel [no abbreviations]). It is a dream about their lives in Dublin, but also a dream about the entirety of human history, and in this dream our five main characters and a large supporting cast come to represent a wide variety of figures from history, mythology, fiction and religion.

In Chapter Eight we find two washerwomen working on opposite sides of the River Liffey as it runs to and through the city of Dublin towards the sea. As they wash the clothes of HCE and ALP they gossip about their employers and their family—that is, they expose the family’s dirty laundry as they wash it, making “his private linen public.” 

This chapter is commonly referred to as “Anna Livia Plurabelle” as the longest of the stories told by the washerwomen has to do with her. But also because throughout the book, Anna Livia takes the role of/represents/or assumes the form of the Liffey, and the Liffey (known on old maps of Dublin as the “Anna Liffey”) takes the role of/respresents/or assumes the form of Anna Livia. 

Puns on river names saturate the roughly twenty-paged chapter, where Joyce has included the names of between 800 and 1000 rivers (or puns on these river names). Joyce estimated that he spent 1200 hours working on this chapter, work upon which he was prepared to “stake everything,” claiming “either [this chapter] is something or I am an imbecile in my judgment of language.” Joyce scholars often cite Chapter Eight as the literary highpoint of Finnegans Wake. Critic John Bishop calls it the book’s showpiece; Anthony Burgess (author of several books on Joyce, including an abridged version of Finnegans Wake) saying that “it remains one of the most astonishing pieces of audacity in the whole of world literature,” and that before it “the heart bows down.”

The sentence I wish to have a look at stretches from page 198 to 199. Here the younger of the washerwomen urges the older (“Tell me moher. Tell me the moatst”) to dish out some dirt on HCE, and the older obliges, describing Humphrey in a sorry state:

Well, old Humber was a glommen as grampus, with the tares at this thor and the buboes for ages and neither bowman nor shot abroad and bales allbrant on the crests of rockies and nera lamp in kitchen or church and giant’s holes in Grafton’s causeway and deathcap mushrooms round Funglus grave and the great tribune’s barrow all darnels occumule, sittang sambre on is sett, drammen and drommen, usking queasy quizzers of his ruful continence, his childlinen scarf to encourage his obsequies where he’d check their (199) debths in that mormon’s thames, be questing and handsetl, hop, step and a deepend, with his berths in their toiling moil, his swallower open from swolf to fore and the snipes of the gutter pecking his crocs, hungerstriking all alone and holding doomsdag over hunselv, dreeing his weird, with his dander up, and his fringe combed over his eygs and droming on loft till the sight of the sternes, after zwarthy kowse and weedy broeks adn the tits of buddy and the loits of pest and to peer was Parish worth thette mess.

Or, in other words: 

Old HCE was as glum as could be, sick and lonely in a desolate place, he’d check for death notices in the morning’s Times or by question and answer, just a hop skip and a jump from going off the deepend, with mouth wide open and birds picking at his teeth, angrily enduring his fate, with his hair combed over his eyes and dreaming until the stars come out.

As readers make their way through the Wake, they will occasionally come across word strings that stand out to them, pique their curiosity or which give them a vague feeling that they’ve  sensed a meaning or an idea. In my case, from this sentence this tiny phrase clicked with me:

he’d check their debths in that mormon’s thames

As pointed out above, translated from pun language, this sentence seems to say: “he’d check their deaths in that mornings Times.” But other meanings are possible to extract, in fact, I didn’t catch the “morning’s Times” pun until I began researching the excerpt in secondary sources. On my first reading, I read it more literally as “The Mormon’s Thames”, which I quickly took to mean the Mississippi River where, like London on the Thames, early Mormons built the city of Nauvoo. Connecting the Mississippi with “checking debths,” I thought of Samuel Clements, who took his pen name from the riverboat cry for a measured depth of two fathoms. Clements, like Joyce, also wrote a river book about a Finn and there are Twain puns and references beginning at page one (“...nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream of Oconee exaggerated themselse...”) of the Wake. 

As I continued to ponder that piece of the sentence, I thought of another possible reference. Analyzing the Wake can feel like pointing out shapes in clouds—sometimes everyone in the park can agree that a certain cloud looks like an crocodile, other times you might think you see castle in another cloud, but can’t seem to get anyone else to see it. This next reference most likely falls in the latter category of clouds and seems to strain what you could expect James Joyce to know of Mormonism, but once I started to detect its shape I couldn’t let it be. Could not the “Mormon’s Thames” be a Thames of Mormon, a river of Mormon, or the waters of Mormon, the “fountain of pure water” where, in Mosiah Chapter 18, Alma baptizes about two hundred souls? And if you’re going to be baptizing by immersion, you’d also better check the depth of that water.

Through baptism, one symbolically begins a new life as a follower of Christ, and baptismal imagery fits well with Finnegans Wake, where one of the predominate themes is death and rebirth. The book takes its name from an Irish folk-ballad from the mid-1800’s that tells the tale of Finnegan, a brick carrier who, drunk on the job, takes a fatal fall from a ladder. At his riotous wake his mourners drunkenly spill whiskey on his corpse, causing Finnegan to leap back to life and join in the celebration. After an overture of sorts, the first chapter of Finnegans Wake includes an account of “The fall…of a once wallstrait oldparr.” After the “great fall of the offwall” of the “erse solid man”, this Finnegan is revitalized by a splash of whiskey at his wake, but his mourners ease him back to sleep, persuading him that he is better off where he is, leaving him to be replaced in his patriarchal role by the arrival of HCE. HCE himself will go on to spend some time buried at the bottom of a lake as he avoids the implications of some heinous and never clearly explained allegations, later emerging from beneath the lake’s waters exonerated (at least for a while) of these accusations.

So, this mormon’s thames, it’s an interesting little line that lead to this Mormon reader’s imagination shooting off into several different readings that birthed additional insights (or inventions)—but the curious thing is this isn’t the only reference to Mormonism in the book. In fact, after a couple of readings of Finnegans Wake, I’ve identified twelve other puns that play on Mormon words along with themes that can be tied, sometimes neatly and sometimes creatively, to Latter-day Saint history and beliefs. 

For a puzzle book of 672 pages, 12 references isn’t many (especially if we again consider the 800-1000 references to rivers in the 20 pages of Chapter 8)—but isn’t it 13 more references to Mormons and Mormonism than you were expecting to find in the book? In contrast, the word “Mormon” appears just once in Ulysses (expressing some sinister Study in Scarlet style sentiments), during the book's hallucinatory Circe episode, itself an obscure night story: 

FIRST WATCH: He is a marked man. Another girl’s plait cut. Wanted: Jack the Ripper. A thousand pounds reward.
SECOND WATCH: (Awed, whispers.) And in black. A mormon. Anarchist.

In my research to follow this introduction, I will examine each of Finnegans Wake’s references to Mormonism and attempt to decode them in relation to their context within the story and possible additional meanings. Some of these references will prove to be solitary puns, others little stones that set off avalanches of possible additional meaning. We’ll see what might be references to conversion, figures from the Pearl of Great Price, a couple of cameos by Brigham Young and at least one from Joseph Smith, Temple-worship esoterica, and more. After examining the references, I’d like to take on two other tasks: examining some themes of the book with noteworthy parallels to Mormon history or belief (such as a recurring tale of a hen, a garbage heap, and a truth-disclosing letter of multiple authors and the repetitive Viconian history cycles that provide the Wake with its structural backbone) and, in trying to figure out where these sometimes seemingly learned references came from, attempt some research into what James Joyce knew about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and how he came to know it, as some of the possible readings of the 13 references seem to suggest Joyce knew more (or knew of more) than one might first expect of a genius.

Fig. 1: A Breakdown of References in that Sentence
(sorry that this looks rough, I turned a PDF into some images because I couldn't figure out how to insert a table with Squarespace).