Knowledge of Things Human and Divine: Vico's New Science and ''Finnegans Wake''

Knowledge of Things Human and Divine: Vico's New Science and ''Finnegans Wake''

by Donald Phillip Verene

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This is the first book to examine in full the interconnections between Giambattista Vico’s new science and James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Maintaining that Joyce is the greatest modern “interpreter” of Vico, Donald Phillip Verene demonstrates how images from Joyce’s work offer keys to Vico’s philosophy. Verene presents the


This is the first book to examine in full the interconnections between Giambattista Vico’s new science and James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Maintaining that Joyce is the greatest modern “interpreter” of Vico, Donald Phillip Verene demonstrates how images from Joyce’s work offer keys to Vico’s philosophy. Verene presents the entire course of Vico’s philosophical thought as it develops in his major works, with Joyce’s words and insights serving as a guide.
The book devotes a chapter to each period of Vico’s thought, from his early orations on education to his anti-Cartesian metaphysics and his conception of universal law, culminating in his new science of the history of nations. Verene analyzes Vico’s major works, including all three editions of the New Science. The volume also features a detailed chronology of the philosopher’s career, historical illustrations related to his works, and an extensive bibliography of Vico scholarship and all English translations of his writings.

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Knowledge of Things Human and Divine


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2003 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-09958-4

Chapter One

The Joycean Vico: A New Key

Here are notes. There's the key. One two three. -FW 236.11-12

The Descent into History

In the sixth book of the Aeneid, Virgil describes the descent of Aeneas into the Underworld. Aeneas has left the coasts of Troy and, after suffering the tribulations and wanderings caused by the wrath of Juno, he arrives at the Greek settlement of Cumae on the western coast of Italy, just north of the Bay of Naples. On one of the two summits at Cumae is the temple of Apollo, built by Daedalus in gratitude for his safe flight from his imprisonment on Crete by King Minos.

With his ships at anchor and his men ashore, Aeneas seeks out the cavern of the Sibyl, which could be approached through a passageway of the temple. He wishes to learn from the Sibyl, who is possessed by Apollo, where to find the entrance to the Underworld. He hopes to encounter the shade of his father, Anchises, former prince of Troy. Aeneas learns that the gate to the Underworld is not far but is surrounded by a deep wood. The Sibyl tells him that in order to pass beneath the earth he must secure a golden boughgrowing high in one of the trees. The bough is to be brought to the queen of Pluto, god of the Underworld. The Sibyl says the bough can be plucked with ease if Fate is calling Aeneas to make this descent; if not, no amount of force can break the bough.

In despair of finding the single tree in the endless wood, Aeneas prays for guidance. A pair of doves, his mother's birds, appear and lead him to the golden bough, which he plucks easily. He returns with it to the Sibyl, and she accompanies him as they cross the threshold into Pluto's realm. Progressing through the scenes of the souls caught in Hades, including meeting his lost comrades and a sad encounter with Dido, who, on his departure from Carthage, committed suicide over her love for Aeneas, they arrive at the end of this fearful region. There Aeneas places the offering of the bough. They enter a land of joy and green fields. Here they encounter Anchises surveying the souls that are to pass into the light above. In this intermediate state, Anchises says, each suffers in accordance with the nature of his own spirit, the genius that accompanies a person throughout life and into the other world. Some good and magnificent souls, Anchises says, go on into the Elysian Fields, and with the turning of the great wheel of time, are reborn into the world of the living.

Anchises shows Aeneas his future-how he will marry his Italian wife Lavinia and how from this union the Trojans will produce the race that will populate Latium and Italy. He shows him the figure in Elysium who will be his last-born and will rule Alba Longa and how from this noble line will come Romulus, who will found Rome. Having inspired Aeneas with the love of fame, Anchises tells him of the wars he must wage in order to achieve it. Then he passes the Sibyl and Aeneas through the gate, back to the upper world. Aeneas rejoins his ships, the cycle of his life before him. With the Sibyl's guidance he has recapitulated his past and in the present learned his future.

In the first canto of the Divine Comedy, Dante begins the description of his entrance into Inferno. Midway in the journey of his life, Dante finds himself in a dark wood. Unlike Aeneas, he has not entered this wood purposefully but has strayed into it, as if in a dream. Symbolically this dark wood is the error of our lives, and Dante must strive to find in it the true way of Christian salvation. In the darkness he comes upon a hill illuminated by divine light, but as he attempts to ascend toward the light he is overcome by fear. His way is blocked, first by a leopard, then by a lion, and finally and decisively by a she-wolf. Symbolically the three beasts foreshadow the regions of the Inferno, in reverse order. The she-wolf (lupa) represents the sins of the flesh and the appetites; the lion (leone) the sins of violence and ambition; and the leopard (lonza) the sins of malice and fraud, the worst sins that corrupt the spirit and destroy friendship and social order.

With his way finally blocked by the ferocity of the she-wolf, Dante can only glimpse the light of the delectable mountain (il dilettoso monte). In his despair there appears to him the shade of Virgil. Dante recognizes him as the author of the Aeneid, whom he calls his master in poetic style. Virgil offers to be his guide and suggests that Dante may avoid the beasts and achieve entrance to St. Peter's gate by an arduous and indirect route passing through the regions of Inferno and Purgatorio. Unlike Aeneas, who deliberately seeks out the Sibyl, Dante acquires Virgil's guidance unexpectedly. Dante doubts whether, as a living man, he should attempt to enter such regions. He asks Virgil why he has come. Virgil explains that he has not arrived by chance but comes at the request of Beatrice who, because of her divine love, wishes Dante to be set on the true path.

Virgil is a virtuous pagan; having been born before Christ, he cannot enter heaven. He warns Dante that he cannot escort him for the full journey. At the end of Purgatorio Virgil slips away, giving Dante into the hands of Beatrice to proceed to Paradiso. As he completes his progress through Paradiso, Dante has before him not the specific events of the second half of his life's journey but a total wisdom of things human and divine. He has grasped the beginning and the end of all things. In the last canto of the Divine Comedy he says that what he has grasped will defy the powers of language to express. Compared to what he can remember of his journey, his words, he says, will fall even more short of capturing it than would those of an infant, who can utter only expressive sounds.

In the first chapter of Finnegans Wake Joyce describes the fall of the primordial giant Finnegan and his awakening as the modern family man and pub owner, H. C. E., to be known as H. C. Earwicker and by other variations on his name, such as Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, Haroun Childeric Eggebert, Haveth Childers Everywhere, and Here Comes Everybody. Finnegans Wake is Joyce's descent into the underworld of history. It is his book of the dark, his "experiment in interpreting 'the dark night of the soul'" (SL 327). Finnegan's fall is the fall of humanity into history, with its constant repetitions, its courses and recourses of events, and their meanings, which can be expressed only in double truths. Finnegan's descent is an abrupt fall, without any clear purpose: an act of chance, an accident. He wakes to find himself, whoever he is, in the dream of history. As Stephen in Ulysses says, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake" (U 28.377).

For his guide, Virgil's Aeneas sought out the Sibyl, at a place just north of Naples, and he ended his voyage at Lavinium. For his guide, Dante takes Virgil himself, who, on a voyage while finishing the Aeneid, contracted a fever at Megara, died, and was buried at Naples. For his guide in the descent into history, Joyce takes the Neapolitan founder of the philosophy of history, "Old Vico Roundpoint" (FW 260.14-15), who showed that history "moves in vicous cicles yet remews the same" (134.17-18). As Vico's metaphysical assistant Joyce takes "Bruno Nolano" (of Nola, near Naples), who, Joyce says, held that "every power in nature must evolve an opposite in order to realise itself and opposition brings reunion etc etc" (L I:226).

In Lo spaccio de la bestia trionfante (The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast), Giordano Bruno writes: "The beginning, the middle, and the end, the birth, the growth, and the perfection of all that we see, come from contraries, through contraries, into contraries, to contraries." In Finnegans Wake, Bruno's title appears as "Trionfante di bestia!" (305.15). This doctrine of coincidentia oppositorum in Bruno is influenced by Nicholas of Cusa, who is presented in Finnegans Wake in terms of both Vichian corso and ricorso and Brunian contraries: "Now let the centuple celves of my egourge as Micholas de Cusack calls them,-of all of whose I in my hereinafter of course by recourse demission me-by the coincidance of their contraries reamalgamerge in that indentity of undiscernibles" (49.33-50.1). We find also "the learned ignorants of the Cusanus philosophism" (163.16-17), a reference to Cusanus's De docta ignorantia. Joyce's principle of contraries appears on the first page of the Wake as "twone" (3.12).

Both Bruno and Vico appear in the first sentence of Finnegans Wake as "a commodius vicus of recirculation." Vicus is Vico's Latin name, signifying a road or lane (Italian, via, vicolo), also meaning a village, vicinity. In the Dublin suburb of Dalkey there is a "Vico Road," which appears in Ulysses and in Finnegans Wake. A commode or chamberpot is a "jordan" (Italian, Giordano), Bruno's first name. A jordan is originally a bottle of water brought from the Jordan River by Crusaders or pilgrims, later transferred to mean a pot or vessel used by physicians and alchemists. Two of Bruno's sources are the alchemist Agrippa of Nettesheim and the alchemist and physician Paracelsus. In Ulysses there is "loosing her nightly waters on the jordan" (169.806-7). The first word of Finnegans Wake is "riverrun," recalling the nearly one thousand identifications of rivers in Joyce's work, including the Jordan. Vico is connected to the Jordan River by his first name, Giambattista (Giovanni Battista), which in English is John the Baptist, the saint who preached and baptized along the Jordan. Vico, having been born on June the 23d, was named and baptized on June the 24th, the day of St. John the Baptist.

Joyce has his two resurrected, "recirculated" philosophers: Vico, who concludes the New Science with the assertion that its wisdom must carry with it the study of piety and who throughout the work repeats that his science is for the glory of our true religion, and Bruno, the heretic who was burned at the stake on February 17, 1600, in the Campo de' Fiori at Rome. Joyce says: from "a jambebatiste to a brulobrulo!" (FW 117.11-12). We hear the sound of the burning faggots in Joyce's play on Bruno's name. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Stephen records his argument with his teacher, Father Ghezzi: "He said Bruno was a terrible heretic. I said he was terribly burned" (P, 271). In the Latin passage of the classbook section of Finnegans Wake Joyce writes "Jordani et Jambaptistae," recirculating the first letters of his own name, J. J., as the first letter of both names, using the I of Latin in its elongated form of J (the double truth of Joyce, the Catholic non-believer).

This Latin passage asks us to consider an explanation given in "the Roman language of the dead" of how "people of the past (or you dead)" and those "who are still to be born" are the stuff from which the "great races of humanity are to arise." Joyce plays on the title of Vico's De antiquissima Italorum sapientia (1710) (On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians): "Let us turn over in our minds the most ancient wisdom [antiquissimam ... sapientiam] of both the priests Jordan and Jambaptista: that the whole universe flows safely like a river, that the same things which were poked (fututa is obscene) from the heap of rubbish will again be inside the riverbed, that anything recognizes itself through some contrary, and finally that the whole river is enfolded in the rival banks along its sides" (FW 287.23-28).

Joyce merges Bruno, the philosopher of opposites, "the Nolan of the Calabashes" (336.33), with his opposite, "Saint Bruno" (336.35), the founder of the Carthusian monks and the name of a pipe tobacco. A calabash is a pipe with a curved stem, made from the calabash gourd for smoking tobacco. Joyce sets off into the dark world of history with his pious Saint John the Baptist, who as H. C. E. is a modern pub owner, pouring libations for his twelve clients, and his heretic Saint Bruno of the recirculating commode, who as the Nolan was terribly burned.

When Aeneas enters the opened cave of the Underworld, Virgil says the "ground rumbled underfoot" (Aen., VI.256). As Dante begins his descent into the Inferno he says: "A heavy thunderclap broke the deep sleep in my head, so that I started like one who is awakened by force" (Canto 4.1-3.). As the primordial Finnegan falls on his head on the first page of Finnegans Wake, there is heard the first of Joyce's ten hundred-letter thunderwords (the tenth has 101 letters), the longest words in the English language: "bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!" (3.15-17).

Finnegan falls, Humpty-Dumpty fashion, "the great fall of the offwall ... the humptyhillhead of humself...." (3.18-20). In Vico's New Science, the first appearance of Jove to the giganti, the protohumans who roam the great forests of the earth, is a thunderclap, and they invent the first act of speech by imitating its sound. In the invention of language they awake to their human nature and begin to found families and cities. On the first page of his autobiography Vico relates his own childhood fall from a ladder in his father's bookshop, which alters his naturally cheerful temperament into an adult temperament of melancholy and acerbity, typical of the meditative thinker.

The golden bough that Aeneas carries to allow his passage alive through the Underworld is terrestrial, as is the noise that accompanies his entrance-the rumbling of the earth. Dante's golden bough is his initial glimpse at the dilettoso monte that alerts him to the light of divine love. The appearance of Beatrice assures him of this love, and like Anchises with Aeneas she will escort him through the regions of paradise, where he will grasp the beginning and the end. Dante's device is the number three, the terza rima, the three parts to the comedy, each with thirty-three cantos, with each of their terzine consisting of thirty-three syllables-the three of the Trinity. Three is the number of movement. In philosophical dialectic the opposition of two terms is itself in opposition to a third, which is a term in a new opposition. In terza rima the first and third lines of a tercet are in opposition to the second, the last word of which establishes the rhyme for the first and third lines of the next.

Joyce's golden bough is Vico's providence, the divine perceived or heard within history. Joyce transforms the three ages of gods, heroes, and humans of Vico's "ideal eternal history" of corso and ricorso into a structure of four, with providentiality as the fourth-the stage of dissolution, heralding renewal at the end of a cycle. There is, for example, "thunderburst, ravishment, dissolution and providentiality" (362.30-31); or a play on Vico's three principles of humanity-religion, marriage, and burial: "intermittences of sullemn fulminance, sollemn nuptialism, sallemn sepulture and providential divining, making possible and even inevitable" (599.12-13). In a letter to his benefactor, Harriet Shaw Weaver, in March 1928, he explains the line in the passages on "the Ondt and the Gracehoper"-"harry me, marry me, bury me, bind me" (414.31-32)-as a play on Vico's terms: "harry me &c = Vico, thunderclap, marriage with auspices, burial of dead, providence" (SL 330).

Joyce's device is the number four. Instead of squaring the circle Joyce circles the square, "circling the square" (186.12). As he wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver: "No, it's a wheel, I tell the world. And it's all square" (L I:251). This is the shape of Joyce's "vicociclometer" (FW 614.27). His model is not the Trinity but the four Gospels, "the 'Mamma Lujah' known to every schoolboy scandaller, be he Matty, Marky, Lukey or John-a-Donk" (614.28-30). Three is always taken up into four, either directly, as in Joyce's absorption of Vico's three ages, or by multiplication, in his use of twelve-the twelve apostles, the twelve customers at H. C. Earwicker's pub, the twelve on the jury at Earwicker's trial, with the four judges.

Three opens time; four closes it. The two of the four always doubles itself. Joyce's coincidences are "cocoincidences" (FW 597.1). Joyce's truth is derived from Dublin. Truth is double truth-"doublecressing twofold thruths" (288.3). "Would it be in twofold truth an untaken mispatriate" (490.15-16). Joyce is always "doublin existents" (578.14). The double of Dublin is Dublin, Georgia, "by the stream Oconee" (Oconee River) on the first page of Finnegans Wake.


Excerpted from Knowledge of Things Human and Divine by DONALD PHILLIP VERENE Copyright © 2003 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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