“Finnegans Wake, Provection and the Threshold of Plausibility” by Jim Leblanc

In an essay that appears in his collection Inductive Scrutinies, Fritz Senn introduces the notion of Joycean “provection.”  A linguistic term normally used to describe various forms of phonetic mutation, Senn exhumes the term’s roots from the Latin verb pro-vehere, meaning “to go beyond limits set,” to mint a label for the kinds of linguistic, stylistic, rhetorical, and even thematic gestures Joyce employs in his works, and that we, as readers, often use to interpret them.

Provection, says Senn, is a “carried-away-ness … characterized by a forward motion in a given direction, by a marked increase (a tendency towards hyperbole); and by a change of direction, a departure, a deviation, derailment.” Finnegans Wake is, of course, the provective prose text par excellence, a work that seems to be based “on excess, carried-away-ness, on exuberance, on effusion … throughout” (48).  Further, and what is most relevant in this concept for this essay, is the idea that reading the Wake, too, is a provective enterprise, “a matter of hermeneutic provection” (48).

Finnegans Wake does indeed encourage provective reading, a tendency to go too far in an effort to make sense of or decipher Joyce’s challenging prose.  We experience, as well, an inclination towards devective reading – that is, a pulling back towards safer, more reductive analysis – when we dismiss certain attempts at rendering a puzzling passage as specious, irrelevant, anachronistic, or simply implausible.  If we do not apply these correctives ourselves, others are often more than willing to bring us back to the straight and narrow, “to be called back,” as Senn remarks, “by Bloomian common sense” (56).

But somewhere between interpretations that are relatively safe, solid, and convincing, interpretations that achieve easy consensus among our fellow readers, and those glosses that clearly exceed the limits of exegetical propriety and are readily scoffed at by our associates, is a middle ground of somewhat indeterminate demarcation.  This zone (for it is neither a point nor a line) is characterized by diligent semantic inquiry and hermeneutic adventurousness, and it is where provective and devective tendencies can often reach a meaningful equilibrium.  We might call this zone the threshold of plausibility, the position of which in the analytical vectoring that Senn describes is illustrated in this diagram:

Diagram courtesy of the author

Central to the figure is the field of interpretation, the hermeneutic space within which variant readings of Joyce’s text can be situated.  Moving from left to right, the narrowest section of this field encompasses those interpretations that are most readily convincing and on which most readers tend to agree; the broader section of the field contains those interpretations that most readers find improbable, irrelevant, or otherwise unacceptable.  The field is bisected by the area, the “threshold,” where the distinction between plausibility and implausibility becomes more obscure and more open to debate among readers.  As the arrows indicate, provective reading increases as one moves from left to right across this interpretive space, while devective reading increases as one backtracks towards the safer, more conservative corner of the hermeneutic space.

I’d like to suggest that it is on this threshold of plausibility that the activity of reading Finnegans Wake becomes most interesting and that issues concerning the aims and dynamics of Joyce’s later enterprise are most usefully illuminated.  Take, for example, this sentence in Chapter I.8:

“But all that’s left to the last of the Meaghers in the loup of the years prefixed and between is one kneebuckle and two hooks in the front”

Ostensibly part of a response of one washerwoman to the other about the legacy of ALP’s children, this statement hints, narratively speaking, at a meager inheritance to a line of descendants bearing the family name Meagher (or “marr” as it was commonly pronounced) that may amount to a single, possibly disintegrated item of clothing of which only metallic components remain: a kneebuckle and two hooks.  Whatever else this sentence says or connotes, most of us will likely agree on that much.  But what happens when we begin to dig, when we begin to broaden our analytic focus to more enigmatic aspects of the statement, when we begin to read provectively?  Who, for instance, are the Meaghers?

We note first and foremost that the “last of the Meaghers” may very well be a guy named Wally.  He appears just three pages earlier in the text among the recipients of ALP’s gifts to her many children: “a pair of Blarney braggs for Wally Meagher” (FW 211.11).  Walt Meagher is also named as one of the witnesses at HCE’s trial in Chapter I.3 (FW 61.13-27).  He resurfaces later in the book, in Chapter III.3, in Mamalujo’s questioning of Yawn: “Man is minded of the Meagher, wat?  Wooly?  Walty?” (FW 508.14-15). There are no other explicit occurrences of this family name in Finnegans Wake, nor does the name appear in its alternative spelling, M-a-h-e-r, anywhere in the book.

Can we glean anything further from this family name to justify its appearance at this point in Joyce’s work – something extratextual, perhaps, because we know that historical figures, major or minor, often appear in the Wake in either literal or distorted form?  If we read this sentence provectively – that is, if we push beyond the limits of conventional interpretive norms – we might consider a certain Francis Wallace Meagher, (known more familiarly as Wally Meagher), an Australian rugby athlete, a scrum half, whose career flourished between the years 1923 and 1927.

Meagher, F W - 1926
The Australian scrum half, Francis Wallace Meager.

Meagher was a good and famous enough player to have been recently inducted into his team’s (the Wallabies’) Hall of Fame in 2012.  He played for the Wallabies against New Zealand’s national team, the All Blacks, in Wellington in 1923.  The latter is the same team that played against the French in the Olympic Stadium outside of Paris in early 1925.  The possibility that this name refers to a rugby player from the antipodes is not necessarily far-fetched, as we know from Richard Corballis, who cites evidence from an obituary for Joyce’s sister Poppie, that Joyce attended this 1925 game between New Zealand’s All Blacks and the French. Further, Corballis cites the modified version of a haka – a Maori war chant often performed immediately before the All Blacks’ matches – which appears in Chapter II.3 of the Wake (FW 335.04-23) to reinforce his contention that Joyce knew something about rugby and about the All Blacks, at least.

But the All Blacks were New Zealanders, not Australians, a fact that would not necessarily rule out Joyce’s knowledge of the Wallabies’ young scrum half.  More telling, however, is the initial appearance of the name Wally Meagher in a fair copy manuscript of the washerwomen chapter in February 1924 (JJA 48, 49) – that is, only a few months after Wally the Wallaby first began his career and almost a year before Joyce saw the All Blacks play on a pitch outside Paris.  These circumstances thus subvert the plausibility of this reading, from which we are forced to retreat.

One of the films for which Wally Maher was better known. Photo from imdb.com

We would similarly retreat from any attempt to identify this character in the Wake with the Hollywood screen actor and radio voice, Wally Maher, in spite of Maher’s appearance with Clark Gable and Myrna Loy in John M. Stahl’s biopic of Charles Stewart Parnell (Parnell), which came out, alas, in 1937, a scant year after the American Wally Maher’s first film credit and more than a decade after Joyce added the name Wally Meagher to what would become Finnegans Wake. 

Scene from Parnell. Wally Maher played a villager in the film, and does not appear in many scenes. Photo from Turner Classic Movies

In both these cases, we have clearly gone too far and stepped beyond the threshold of plausibility.

But who are the other Meaghers, of whom the washerwoman assumes Walt or Walty or Wally to be the last?  After all, she invokes the entire family as she picks up Wally’s worn-out garment, not just Wally himself, when she refers to “all that’s left to the last of the Meaghers.”  It is in this provective exegetical deviation that the text, or more precisely the effects of the text, start to get interesting and strangely compelling.College-Crest-Colour

We know from a letter to Stannie dated September 18, 1905, that Joyce was taught by a “Father Tommy Meagher” (LettersII, 108) at Belvedere College.  And we know from Richard Ellmann’s gloss of this comment that the Jesuit school master to which Joyce refers was actually the Reverend Thomas Maher, who did indeed teach at Belvedere from 1894 to 1897.

Belvedere College, photo from the school’s website

Ellmann also remarks that “Joyce’s spelling of the name [in the letter] is influenced by Thomas Francis Meagher … the patriot and writer” (LettersII, 108, footnote).  It is this latter Meagher with whom Irish readers in the early part of the twentieth century are likely to have been most familiar.

Thomas Francis Meager was born in 1823 in Waterford and attended Clongowes Wood College in the 1830s.  He would undoubtedly have been one of the school’s most renowned alumni during the years Joyce spent there, for Meagher went on to lead the Young Ireland movement in the Irish Rebellion of 1848.  Meagher was deported to Tasmania for his involvement in the Rebellion, but escaped to the United States in 1852.  There he participated in the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s, forming and leading the Irish Brigade, and becoming a brigadier general in the Union Army.  At the Battle of Antietam, Meagher sustained injuries when he fell off his horse, allegedly the result of his severe drunkenness during the fight.

Thomas Francis Meagher, 1864 portrait from the Thomas Brown Brook Photographs Collection at Montana State University

Meagher was later appointed acting governor of the Montana Territory where he died of drowning in the Missouri River in 1867, after what was rumored to be another drunken fall, this time from a moored steamboat. Now, although Thomas Francis Meagher is not explicitly named anywhere in this chapter, the resonance of this figure among the Meaghers to which the washerwoman refers is stronger than any other, except for the obvious connection to the fictional Wally Meagher, apparently one of ALP’s children, mentioned just three pages earlier in the text. Why is this, and what distinguishes this particular provective reading from others that we are more inclined to dismiss?

Meagher of the sword. Thomas Francis’ sword from the Civil War. Photo from Bishop’s Palace: Treasures of Georgian Waterford

First of all, there are the facts of Thomas Francis Meagher’s life, the overwhelming likelihood that Joyce knew these facts, and, most importantly, the appropriateness of this historical figure for the narrative context in which his family name occurs.  Thomas Francis Meagher, the Irish patriot, sustained at least two infamous drunken falls: one from his horse on a battlefield, and the other a fatal fall into the “miss- … sewery” river (FW 207.13).  Both these inebriated falls, as well as Meagher’s drowning in a river, reflect major themes of the Wake and of this particular chapter, respectively.  And in a book where meaning is usually no more than imminent or potential, rather than soundly verifiable, the very structure of Joyce’s prose both invites and, at times, even demands theoretical consideration of this kind of extratextual correspondence.  We are driven to understand the Wake, as Senn suggests, by a kind of provective imperative.

It is unlikely that we would take such interpretive liberties with any other prose work, which brings us to the second reason why readers may be inclined to give more credibility to this particular overtone, the evanescent figure of Thomas Francis Meagher, in the passage in question.  In a conversation with Arthur Power about Ulysses, Joyce asked rhetorically, “though people may read more into Ulysses than I ever intended, who’s to say they are wrong: do any of us know what we are creating?”

I would argue that in Finnegans Wake Joyce knew exactly what he was creating, macrocosmically, at the same time leaving the interpretive door open to inventive, even reckless reader involvement in distilling the meaning of his work, both upon the threshold of this doorway and in the semantic wilderness beyond.  As Senn suggests, Joyce gave us a text that resists attempts at normal reading and encourages, even demands, both provective exploration and correlative devective circumscription of our interpretive excesses.  In other words, if Joyce had not wanted his readers to detect traces of Thomas Francis Meagher – a drunken Irish hero who died by falling and drowning in a river – at this moment in the washerwomen’s conversation, he would have written the book differently, perhaps in a more traditional fashion, to ensure that we did not mistake his intentions.

It is precisely at these moments when the language and style of Finnegans Wake, in their most teasing, semantic chiaroscuro – that is, signifying in apparent clarity while cloaking their potential significance in obscurity – engender the book’s boldest, though compellingly substantive readings.  It is at these moments that we find ourselves on the threshold of exegetical plausibility, a zone both enticing, yet transgressive.  To step back from this threshold onto safer, more conservative interpretive ground is to refuse to engage with the radicality of Joyce’s text.  To step beyond this threshold is to risk falling into an analytic free-for-all, a kind of hermeneutic psychosis, in which we risk losing all bearings with the reality of the text, wandering in a limitless field of interpretive effusion.  It is indeed a question of balance, but a voluntarily precarious balance that does not deny us the joy of teetering on the edge of this threshold.

–Jim Leblanc, Ph.D.   Cornell University Library

Notes (should you not have hovered and observed in the text)

1 Fritz Senn, Inductive Scrutinies: Focus on Joyce, ed. Christine O’Neill (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1995), 39-40.

2 This surname is most commonly pronounced “mahr” and is sometimes spelled Maher.  It derives from the Irish word for “hospitable” and was a common surname in Ireland at the turn of the twentieth century.  See Basil Cottle, The Penguin Dictionary of Surnames, 2nd ed. (London: Allen Lane, 1978).

3 Richard Corballis, “The Provenance of Joyce’s Haka,” James Joyce Quarterly 44:1 (fall 2006), 128.

4 Paul R. Wylie, The Irish General: Thomas Francis Meagher (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007), 165-166.

5 Ibid., 305.

6 Thomas Francis Meagher does appear obliquely (and provectively) elsewhere in the Wake.  In Chapter II.1 we encounter a Shem figure described as “a marrer of the sward incoronate” (FW 250.35).  Among numerous other glosses of this dense, semantically overdetermined phrase, we catch an echo of “Meagher of the Sword,” a moniker by which Meagher was popularly known after being dubbed so by William Thackeray in his poem “The Battle of Limerick” – see William Makepeace Thackeray, Ballads and Verses and Miscellaneous Contributions to “Punch” (London: Macmillan and Co., 1904), 181-184.  Thanks to Patrick O’Neill for alerting me to this gloss in the FWEET database.

7 In Finnegans Wake, “all meanings are potential” – Roy Gottfried, Joyce’s Iritis and the Irritated Text: The Dis-Lexic “Ulysses” (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1995), 21.

8 Arthur Power, Conversations with James Joyce, ed. Clive Hart (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 89.