In May of 1894, when James Joyce was twelve years old, a Grand Oriental Fête was held in Dublin in aid of the Jervis Street Hospital. The fête was called “Araby” and, if we are to believe the narrator of Joyce’s short story on the subject, this “magical name” cast an “eastern enchantment” over the future writer. In Dubliners his puerile fascination with the mysterious East is balanced by a short-lived fascination with the Wild West in the story “An Encounter.” But Joyce’s Oriental interests, once awakened, continued to develop. His friend Stuart Gilbert, one of the earliest interpreters of Ulysses, remarks on the frequent references to the East, to its occult sciences and to the “oriental sources of all religion” in that book. Even in Ulysses, however, Joyce’s horizon does not extend very far beyond the Jews, Greeks and Phoenicians of the Mediterranean littoral and the Near East. In Finnegans Wake his last and most difficult book, it is very different. Here—as Dr Zulfiqar Ali Choudhry shows in this fascinating study—Joyce may truly be said to have become “Europasianized.” His manifold allusions to the Koran and to the Thousand and One Nights are apparent to the most casual reader of a book in which the heroine appears in one of her incarnations as “Annah the Allmaziful,” and the hero as “Haroun Childeric Eggeberth.”
Even the long, looping opening-and-closing sentence of Finnegans Wake may be interpreted as initiating a geographical movement towards the East. The book begins in mid-sentence with “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s,” a reference to the eastward-flowing River Liffey and, we are told, to Adam and Eve’s Church in Dublin. The ensuing “commodius vicus of recirculation” suggests, at the most literal level, that the river waters describe a tight circle around Dublin Bay ending abruptly at the phallic promontory of Howth Castle and Environs. But Dublin, in this book, encapsulates the whole of human geography and history, so that “Eve and Adam’s” is also the Biblical paradise. Passing to the east of Eden we come (according to the Book of Genesis) to the Land of Nod, which Joyce’s Irish predecessor Jonathan Swift identified with the land of sleep—a land that any book offering, as Finnegans Wake claims to offer, the “keys to dreamland” must necessarily enter. During the seventeen years that he spent writing his book set in the Land of Nod, Joyce greatly extended and deepened his knowledge of Asiatic cultures, religions and languages.
Within the vast critical literature on Joyce there are, needless to say, a few introductory commentaries on Finnegans Wake as well as a much larger number of specialist studies. Practically all of them have been written by Westerners brought up in the Christian and Jewish traditions, so that Dr Ali Choudhry is thoroughly justified in claiming that his is a sorely neglected topic. Whereas the Eastern aspects of the thought of Joyce’s contemporaries W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot are relatively well known and well understood, scholars with the relevant qualifications have fought shy of the linguistic and narrative challenges thrown up by Finnegans Wake. Dr Ali Choudhry is not so easily daunted, however. Among his few predecessors we might mention J. S. Atherton, who in his pioneering study of The Books at the Wake identified the Koran as one of the Wake’s “sacred books” and listed its references to individual suras. Clive Hart in Structure and Motif in “Finnegans Wake” explored Joyce’s use of cyclical structures, including the Indian cycles outlined in H. P. Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled. And there, more or less, the matter stood when Dr Ali Choudhry first came to ithe study of Joyce. (Fittingly, Clive Hart became one of his mentors.) Dr Ali Choudhry differs from his predecessors in being an expert in the languages and cultures of the Subcontinent, but like any good Joycean he is an incarnation of the “ideal reader” possessed by an “ideal insomnia.” His study of Finnegans Wake’s roots in the Koran, in Hinduism, in the Thousand and One Nights and in Persian vocabulary and thought is at once a definitive work in itself, and a source of inspiration for future Joyce scholars and students. May they share something of the determination, the intrepidity and the endless curiosity that have gone into the making of this book.
Patrick Parrinder The University of Reading, England
Patrick Parrinder is a Professor of English at the University of Reading, England. His books include James Joyce (1984).