Myth-oh!-logies of Re-turning: or, Finnegan’s Awake Again
Each month, we explore a theme through weekly MythBlasts, curated works, quotations, etc. This month's theme is Return.
I should probably warn you about bad puns and purple prose inbound this week. This month’s theme is Return and Campbell spent a lot of time thinking about this topic, specifically in his analysis of James Joyce’s masterpiece (or monsterpiece, depending on who you are) Finnegans Wake.
The title itself is a crazy pun in a book littered/lit-raptured with crazy grammars/grimoires, designed to insure/assure that the text cannot be read/red as historical/hysterical or literal/light-aerial truth/tooth, but only as alley-gorical or myth-oh!-logical.
Some context: the novel begins with the second half of a sentence, the first half of which is the last sentence in the book and so, literally/lit-airily in this book/case, the book ends at the beginning and begins at the end. The book bookends itself.
You can see where we’re headed.
In the conclusion to his A Skeleton Key to Finnegan’s Wake, Campbell reflects on the experience of reading this book:
Like a millrace it sweeps down and out of sight, to strike again the paddle wheel of revolving time. As the dark torrent disappears from view, we are left standing on the bank, bewildered, yet strangely refreshed by the passage of these miraculous waters. (p. 355)
I mention all this as a skeleton key to the topic more closely at hand: the turning of the year, the re-turning of light at the Solstice, and how our own lives can turn and/but never really re-turn in a widening gyre. Frankly, Campbell’s description looks like a pretty accurate historical/hysterical chronicle/carbuncle of the last few/phew! plague-filled years—although I’m not sure anyone is feeling refreshed yet.
Continue Reading the Mythblast
The primary pun is already present in the title of the book. It is the Irish hero, Finn, coming again/egan. What Joyce has in mind here, Campbell believes, is that as the world cycles through its stages of renaissance, decadence, and slime, resurrection awaits: brooding intently at the end, waiting to start the whole mess over again—after the wake and burial.
In this case, as is the case with every funereal wake, the battlefield mess is a place set aside for supper. That means resurrection is both the Last Supper and breakfast and bookends the paddling wheel of time.
Getting back to whacky re-turns, breakfast makes me think about the greatest breakfast of my life: a saffron cinnamon roll–infused, hot chocolate–saturated vision of a candle-lit goddess familiar to most children of Scandinavian descent: Santa Lucia Day. On Santa Lucia Day across Scandinavia, the oldest daughter or woman of the house, crowned with candles and wearing a white angelic gown, wakes everyone in the house with the aforementioned breakfast. It’s magical. I can still see the glow of candles in my room. The smell of hot chocolate and cardamom woke me up. And then: Mmmmmmmmmsaffroncinnamonbuns. How’s that for a great way, a great ritual, to remind children that the light will always return to the world?
You can see the previous paragraph is heavily metaphorical as well as nostalgic.
So what’s the re-turn part again?
Santa Lucia is another one of those religious observances mapped into the astronomical cycles of the year—and into the seasons of our lives. Santa Lucia Day, December 13th, ostensibly celebrates an early saint who received divine protection of her virginity but, more meadowphorically and lighterally, she is a little light (Latin: Lucius -> Lucy) and happens to be the Little Light that precedes and hints at the re-turning Big Light celebrated at the Solstice. It turns out that while days begin to get longer again after the Winter Solstice, sunrise and sunset don’t move at the same pace. While the sun keeps rising later until December 21st or so, the sun stops setting earlier about a week before the solstice. Astronomically that correlates with December 13th, Santa Lucia Day.
Scandinavians are good at celebrating the return of light to the world since they live in a place where there is a considerable amount of darkness and Santa Lucia is a great metaphor for the re-turn to a brighter world out of the darkness of our trials, travails, and the difficult initiations that turn us on the lathe of life.
So where does all this strike the paddle wheel of our revolving lives?
T.S. Eliot put it this way in his poem Little Gidding:
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start. (Eliot sec. V)
Although he may have been Gidding around.
The Winter Solstice is a great time of year to muse about the illegible stones and paddle wheels on life’s way. The Big Wheel turns and one stage of life transitions into the next. We’ve lived through plague and division and unwelcome tribal schism, but we’re promised the light will return. That’s the good news in the burning travel log of Yuletide. Still, we have to be careful about the illegibility in a stony life. A moment of grammatical clarity, like the icy clarity of a deep December night when the starlight makes a twinkling tinkling sound as it strikes the pines, can be handy here.
To turn is never to re–turn. To turn again never re-turns us to where we started.
I watched the V’s of geese go by and gather for their migration on Barton Pond this week, just as I did last year—but a year of plague has called up different geese, created in me a different goose-watcher, and of Barton Pond a different epitaph. Will the hero return to the work of a hero carrying the boon of their trials?
Santa Lucia Day is a good day to go walk in the woods, find the tree, listen to the starlight land, and light a candle to mark another turning of the wheel. Oh, and hot chocolate. That might summer-ize the season.
Thanks for musing along.
Mark C.E. Peterson is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies with the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, and President of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture. He began his work at the University of Toronto focused primarily on Hegel’s natural philosophy and its links to the history of science and technology. These interests evolved to constellate around the larger questions of how humans are related – scientifically, philosophically, and spiritually – to nature. A practitioner of both taijiquan and kundalini yoga for over 40 years his academic research is currently engaged in a semiotic analysis of the relationship between explanatory and narrative/mythological accounts of nature and an Aristotelian re-examination of environmental ethics.
There is one phrase in Finnegans Wake that seems to me to epitomize the whole sense of Joyce. He says, “Oh Lord, heap mysteries upon us, but entwine our work with laughter low.” And this is the sense of the Buddhist bodhisattva: joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.
Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, A
Countless would-be readers of Finnegans Wake—James Joyce’s 1939 masterwork, on which he labored for a third of his life—have given up after a few pages and “dismissed the book as a perverse triumph of the unintelligible.” In 1944, a young professor of mythology and literature named Joseph Campbell, working with novelist and poet Henry Morton Robinson, wrote the first guide to understanding the fascinating world of Finnegans Wake.
Page by page, chapter by chapter, A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake outlines the basic action of Joyce’s book, simplifies and clarifies the complex web of images and allusions, and provides an understandable, continuous narrative from which the reader can venture out on his or her own. This current edition includes a foreword and updates by Joyce scholar Dr. Edmund L. Epstein that add the context of sixty subsequent years of scholarship.
“As 2021 comes to a close, it seems fitting that we end this year by taking a step back and spending some time exploring the origin story of humankind. Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Graphic History is a beautifully constructed novel (one of two) that brings forth some of the most crucial—and often overlooked—aspects of how we got to where we are. When did we create our principle social constructs? How long have we had the capacity to change the ecological structure of Earth? And in the grand dance of the universe, how significant or insignificant are humans, really? Harari and a host of terrific characters take us on a tour of the world long ago, and in the process, bring us that much closer to home.”
Editorial Advisory Group
Joseph Campbell Foundation
The Way of Art
Our gift to you this month is eSingle. Access this download for free until the end of the month.
In this extraordinary conclusion to The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, Campbell explores art as a tool for “mythopoesis,” or the creation of new myths for a new world. The artist, he argues, is the new hero, and the creation of art—of what James Joyce called proper art—is the perilous adventure on which artists must journey in order to bring back the boon of myth and meaning.
News & Updates
Monday, December 13, is The Feast of Saint Lucy in Christian traditions in honor of the martyr Lucia of Syracuse, although there is evidence of an earlier Lucy as far back as the 4th century. Scandinavians observe Santa Lucia day with wreaths of candles and hot chocolate, while Italians leave out coffee and cake for Santa Lucia on La Festa di Santa Lucia so she might have a snack (and leave some treats) as she rides past on her donkey. In the small island nation of Santa Lucia, locals observe National Day and celebrate with a festival of light.
Tuesday, December 14, Jains observe Maunajiyaras, a day to meditate upon the merits of the five holy beings: monks, teachers, religious leaders, Arihants, and Siddhas. Many Tirthankaras (Pathfinders, spiritual teachers of the dharma) are said to have been born on this date.
I.2.1.15 - The Stages of Life - India(audio clip source)
Kundalini Yoga: Yoking to the Source of Consciousness
Uncovering Anna Perenna: A Focused Study of Roman Myth and Culture(learn more)