Kirkegaard and James Joyce: Finnegans Wake is a Kierkegaardian Novel


Joyce’s notoriously complex last ‘novel’, Finnegans Wake is in some ways a novel after Kierkegaard, particularly the Kierkegaard of Either/Or I. This volume in Kierkegaard is an exploration of the aesthetic, but it should not be separated from his ethical and religious dimensions, and it should not be given a lower status than those texts of Kierkegaard which are more directly about ethics and religious. If Kierkegaard thought these distinctions could be kept so strictly he would not have written the kind of texts he did.

Leaving aside questions of Kierkegaard commentary aside in this entry, we should note the presence of Kierkegaard and Either/Or in Finnegans Wake. On many occasions Joyce refers to ‘Kirk yard’, a play on the meaning of Kierkegaard’s name (church yard) and its closeness to Scots (the dialect of English spoken, some would claim it’s a language distinct from English though related to it, in lowland Scotland and Ulster) which has many Scandinavian influences going back to the Vikings. There are other points about that little example of Joyce’s extreme polyglot linguistic play in the Wake. The allusions to church and the church yard where the dead are buried brings out themes of the sacred, death and the commemoration of death which recur in the Wake. Joyce also frequently plays with Enten-Eller, which is the Danish title of Either/Or. The whole of the Wake can be looked upon as an attempt to follow up the idea of a purely aesthetic attitude which Kierkegaard explored in Either/Or I, and shortly before that in Concept of Irony. What he was particularly concerned with was he the Irony of the Jena Romantics or Romantic Ironists, Friedrich Schegel, Novalis and others who collaborated in the last two years of the Eighteenth Century. Concept of Irony makes this explicit and consider the relation of Romantic Irony with Fichte’s earlier philosophy, and in a more general way with Socratic Irony.

A particular issue that comes up from Eiher/Or in the Wake is the relation between hearing and vision. There are frequent references to eye and ear in the Wake which should be read in conjunction with the discussion of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni in Either/Or. One of Kierkegaard’s concerns is the relation between seeing and hearing in opera, a tense relation for him as opera has an obvious visual aspect but Kierkegaard thinks music is primary in opera and that is exemplified in Don Giovanni. The figure of the Don serves that because he is pure sensuality and music appeals to the most pure sensuality, The erotic side of the Don fits with the heightened aesthetic of opera. The Wake is concerned in many ways with the relation between sound and inscription in language. Don Juan/Don Giovanni is also a recurring figure who seems to belong to a general theme of the journey of life and essential human struggle.

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