Review: ‘The sigla of Finnegans wake’

by Roland McHugh (Edward Arnold, London, 1976. 137 pp.)


Shari Benstock


Just when it seemed that those early pioneers of Finnegans wake, the post-Campbell and Robinsons who published works on the Wake between 1956 (Adaline Glasheen’s first Census) and 1965 (Bernard Benstock’s Joyce-again’s wake) had moved comfortably into their collective middle ages without producing another generation of hardy enthusiasts ready to wield newly-forged pickaxes against the hard rock of the Wake, the year 1976 produced two such new recruits, Roland McHugh and Margot Norris (The decentered universe of Finnegans wake, John Hopkins University Press). Approaching the text from opposite perspectives, these two miners arrive—ironically enough—at rather similar views of the Wake, both taking issue with much of the earlier spadework published in the first thirty-five years of the Wake’s existence.


Roland McHugh notes in The sigla of Finnegans wake that much of the criticism in these years progressed little beyond the initial work of the Campbell-Robinson Skeleton key, and he argues that ‘unfortunately, much published exegesis exhibits a depressing indifference to context and continuity, which results from the disproportionate acquaintance with the text possessed by most exegetes’ (2). Insisting that any exegesis ‘must be able to account for the position of any unit in FW as a transition between the units on either side of it’ (what McHugh calls the ‘syntactic complex’) as well as account for the unit’s ‘contribution to the tone of the section’ (2), he sets out to consider Joyce’s use of sigla, those marks which ‘appear in the author’s manuscripts and letters as abbreviations for certain characters or conceptual patterns underlying the book’s fabric’ (3). Admonishing the reader to keep his well-marked copy of the Wake close at hand for ready reference, he sets out on his task, demonstrating first how the sigla themselves generated from Joyce’s rough notes to the final fourteen which make up the set examined by The sigla.


McHugh’s approach is traditional in that it acknowledges the existence of the basic family unit in the Wake and examines the roles of members of that family assuming that they are recognizable personages with distinctly marked personality quirks which remain, once established, fairly consistent. (In this assumption he is at direct odds with Ms Norris whose approach emphasizes the extent to which Wakean characters divide and ‘reamalgamerge’ in a constant redefinition of the Wake universe, eventually breaking it up into chaotic fragments.) McHugh picks up all these fragments and Puts them back together again—by Way of Joyce’s sigla. In a sense he works backwards from Adeline Glasheen’s now famous listing, ‘Who is who when everybody is somebody else?’ (HCE is Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, Humpty Dumpty, Perrse O’Reilly, Mr Porter, etc.), by insisting throughout that characters are not dispersed and cannot be separated by such simplistic means as identifying Earwicker, for instance, as ‘Porter’ during his waking hours as a Chapelizod publican becoming ‘Earwicker’ at night when he is dreaming; rather personalities are condensed—and the sigla stand for the condensation.


The book is organized along straightforward lines: the family characters are presented (father, two sons, daughter, mother) in an examination that counter-balances and constantly juxtaposes the events in Books I and III, approaching the difficulties and admitted obscurities of Book II next, and ending with an analysis of the structure of Book IV. Any reader of the Wake would recognize this progression as logical (it follows Joyce’s composition of the parts of ‘Work in progress’ and, presumably, holds to the stated generic process offered by the changing and developing sigla).


Acknowledging that this evolution of the various sigla works well for McHugh’s argument, and noting that for the most part the book is admirably readable (much of Wake criticism is patently not readable), I must add that Chapter 10 would better have found its way into an earlier portion of the book. The justification for the sigla method and his stated reservations about the use of FW manuscripts should have come sooner. A complete listing of the fourteen sigla, with notations to their components, would have aided the reader as would the listing of these in the index.


Apart from such minor quibbles, I do find some major questions concerning character components still nagging. To choose just one, McHugh’s notations about Issy seem contradictory, as indeed the daughter’s character seems to be: ‘The motivations distinguishing ¤ and Λ can be rationalized verbally, but the female split is too absolute for this .  .  . No observer can derive her polarities from a specific influence, for they are simultaneously all differences and no difference’ (49). But then McHugh gives what has become the standard notation on Issy’s character, quoting Adaline Glasheen via James Atherton: the ‘chief source’ of Issy’s personality split is from Morton Prince’s The dissociation of a personality (49-50). If Issy is distinctly split, as Glasheen and Atherton suggest, then there should be some means of identifying the two components (as there is with Prince’s patient), and McHugh’s interest in the sigla would seem to spur such a further questioning of her personality make-up. McHugh merely says that ‘the female [antagonisms] merge so easily that it is never possible to pinpoint their mutual orientation’ (52). If not, then what is the importance of the Prince source and how does it fit with McHugh’s assumptions as to how Issy’s sigla work in the Wake: are they merely mirror reflections; do they hint at something like multiple personalities; are there distinguishable voices represented by the two sigla? A book which argues that readers ‘must be able to account for the position of any unit in FW’ and berates previous readers for ‘a depressing indifference to context and continuity’ should itself scrutinize carefully the inconsistencies in its own readings and its acknowledged sources. If ‘I— is so obviously an unreal or virtual image, perpetually carried about by —I as part of her definition’ (52), as McHugh states, then the reader needs to know a great deal more about the antithetical sigla than McHugh is willing to divulge.


It has become increasingly clear since those early days when critics could naively offer a ‘skeleton key’ to Finnegans wake that this work is too vast, too intricate, and too difficult to be fully rendered in any single exegetical work. Critics are perforce sent to tabulating and extemporizing on those aspects of the book which most interest (or puzzle) them. By addressing himself to the sigla, it would seem that McHugh has narrowed his approach to a definable topic, but the topic—as we see from his tightly compacted prose—encompasses the whole of what the Wake is. It is most discouraging then, after dutifully following McHugh in his attack on those aspects of the Wake which interest him, for which he has found answers, to which he addresses a new and ‘fundamental’ approach to the ‘correct appreciation of FW’ (P.135) to be told that unless one is a resident of Dublin, one will be unable to ‘appreciate the book fully’ (p.137). Such a requirement would restrict Wake readership to a mere handful, and would eliminate nearly all those hardworking exegetes listed in McHugh’s bibliography, many of whom have contributed heavily to his fulsome appreciation of the Wake.