Joyce’s Overlisting Eshtree: A Genetic Approach to Sacred Trees in Finnegans Wake
Ohio Dominican University
Religion unquestionably plays a key role in Finnegans Wake, as it does in all of Joyce’s writings. Even a novice reader will recognize allusions to not only Catholic doctrine and well-known Judeo-Christian narratives, but also to many other religious and mythological texts. A good example comes in III.3, Shaun’s third watch, as he is under inquisition and asked to describe a “garden” (503.4) in which his parents, the “illassorted first couple” (503.9) first met. In this context the prominent “tree stuck up” (503.30) quite bluntly points toward Genesis’s Tree of Knowledge, but additional religious allusions permeate this scene. Figures and trees from Norse mythology, Celtic paganism, and possibly Ovid's Metamorphoses also appear within a few pages. Examination of how Joyce treats the tree in this garden provides a valuable point of reference in considering the inter-relation of different religions within the Wake.
This issue warrants examination because much Wake scholarship treats religion either by looking at each tradition individually or by positing a single universal faith. Generations of explication have given us useful guides such as Mark L Troy’s Mummeries of Resurrection to trace Egyptian references, Dounia Bunis Christiani’s Scandinavian Elements to examine Norse mythology, George Cinclair Gibson’s Wake Rites for the Irish Pagan presence, Aida Yared’s “In the Name of Annah” to illuminate the presence of Islam in the Wake, in addition to works focusing entirely on Judeo-Christian elements, like Harry Burrell’s Narrative Design in Finnegans Wake. Some of these works claim that a particular religious tradition lies at the heart of the novel’s meaning, such as Gibson’s and Burrell’s assertions regarding Celtic paganism and Christianity, while others simply look at the contribution of a given culture. Other critics view Joyce as proposing an amalgamation of world religions. Bernard Benstock writes that “Joyce fuses the material of these texts, arrives at his own version of a common denominator of mythical prototypes, and creates his synthetic ‘bible’ of twentieth-century civilization” (179). Joyce’s encyclopedic penchant may give this impression, but such attitudes do not adequately describe the nature of Joyce’s fusing. The question I wish to explore regards the effect that these multiple religions have upon readers. How do we read them? What do they do together? Do they operate in a heteroglossic manner, the differences between traditions illuminating as well as complicating each other’s contributions to the book’s message? Or rather, are they meant to be ornamental, similar enough to be accepted as complementary and therefore emphasizing a single message?
Genetic criticism can offer some insight into Joyce’s process, and in that sense it may aid our interpretation of the text. My goal is not to uncover a definitive key to this garden scene in III:3 but rather to provide an additional interpretive tool. In his contribution to How Joyce Wrote Finnegans Wake, Jean-Michel Rabaté offers the caveat that “a category mistake is performed when we labor under the illusion that either genesis or source hunting is interpretation” (399). Quite simply I am interested in examining if religious symbols, such as the tree in this scene, originate as allusions to a single tradition, with further allusions added in subsequent drafts, or if multiplicity is present from the start.
Tracing the earlier drafts of scenes in which Joyce overlaps similar religious narratives will allow us to see how the traditions relate to one another at the most bare stages of the text. Because Joyce’s method of composition is one of repeated addition, an examination of the drafts exposes how he frames episodes and how those core ideas are expanded upon through successive layers. In the “garden” scene in the third watch of Shaun, I will contend that the relationship between religious traditions is not that of a single allusion to be echoed by subsequent additions to the text, but rather a relationship of complication encouraging a polyglossic approach.
Joyce’s encyclopedic technique is no secret, but it seems pertinent to note that the trees of this episode are counter-posed, not merely juxtaposed. This is not a matter of gathering a series of similar references to establish a thematic response, but rather more akin to Joyce’s portmanteau words in which one signifier points toward a number of signifieds. As noted above, if one looks just at page 503 the allusion to Genesis emerges through the basic setting and cast members: a tree, a garden, and the “first couple.” But we also have an “evernasty ashtray” (503.7) and “everlisting eshtree” (503.30) pointing toward the everlasting ashtree, Yggdrasil, of Norse mythology. And still further, the “grawdest crowndest consecrated maypole” (503.33) suggests the centerpiece of pagan May Day celebrations, but also, its “consecration,” calling to mind the Eucharist and hence the Christian cross, an allusion developed in the following pages. Moreover, as Yawn and the four old men continue their discussion over the next few pages, the tree is likened to Jack’s “beingstalk” (504.19), then to Darwin’s Tree of Life as it provides “the origin of spices and charlotte darlings” (504.28). Further still, the text suggests a transformation of human into tree – “his acorns and pinecorns shooting wide out all sides of him…, her leaves, my darling dearest, sinsinsinning… and each and all of their branches meeting and shaking twisty hands all over again” (505.4-11), perhaps echoing moments in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Readers may interpret this array of trees in a number of ways, but I wish to outline two basic approaches. First, readers might see the trees as representing Joyce's aforementioned encyclopedic penchant. This could be a maneuver akin to what A. Walton Litz sees in the heavy inclusion of river names in I:8. Litz found that names of rivers from around the world were mostly added in 1925 revisions, and in his mind they “reflect a new aim, the emphasizing of Anna Livia's river-like nature” (109). This practice can also be observed in Yawn’s inquisition and his description of the garden. A glance at McHugh will reveal references to trees in various languages. Page 504, for example includes the word “tree” in Irish and Latin, plus references to things that grow on trees (in various senses of the term) including leaves, oranges, apples, and mistletoe, and further, reference to Yggdrasil, the quicken tree (mountain ash), and “King Sweeny who nested in treetops” (McHugh 504). One might say that these allusions emphasize the tree-like nature of the scene – everything is branching, connected. Events have myriad, far-reaching consequences, perhaps most basically summoning genealogical impressions.
If this first approach promotes one single, broad response to the text, a second explanation might be that the various allusions elicit no response. Rather than simply resonating tree-ness, or specifically echoing the Tree of Knowledge in this passage, this arrangement of trees might serve to complicate the exegesis of the scene in a manner that forecloses conclusive interpretation, and further, detracts attention from their interpretation at all.[i] Litz even alludes to a similar effect with the river names in I:8, expressing his wish that Joyce had “halted his revision of Anna Livia sooner,” because the preponderance of names creates a distortion of syntax, such that the text ultimately promotes “a movement away from the 'narrative' situation” (114). Thus in this second approach, reference to multiple trees prevents, or at least hinders, the reader from developing a concrete representation of the scene because the meaning is sublimated to the artistic enterprise of Joyce's language.
However, the scene in question invites a different response than the river names throughout the ALP chapter. At issue is how, or if, the text points toward a particular tree from a particular narrative or if the text asks readers to layer multiple trees. Despite earlier reference to the preponderance of tree names, there is an additional mechanism acting here. Beyond those tree names lending a general, abstract quality of tree-ness to the scene, allusions to trees from various religious or mythological texts invite the reader to consider and apply other aspects of those narratives to the scene (aspects not directly referenced). If the tree in the garden is the Tree of Knowledge, are we then expected to read HCE and ALP as Adam and Eve, and further, to take into consideration things we know about Adam and Eve even if those qualities are not directly alluded to in the episode? And if that tree is also another sacred tree, what happens to the analog to the Genesis story? Is it challenged or obscured by other religious narratives? Do the characters take on multiple roles? Or rather, is the effect not to obscure but to amplify? Does the layering serve not so much to introduce new trees, but merely to emphasize the “sacredness” of this single “tree stuck up” described in Yawn's watch?
These are interpretive questions to be sure, but an examination of the earliest drafts might help uncover Joyce’s creative process. In essence, the question posed above regarding interpretation of this tree(s) may simply boil down to whether the trees are layered or aligned during the composition process. Does Joyce begin with a single sacred tree, only to add additional identities as he proceeds through drafts? Or does he begin with a tree whose identity is already conflicted?
A handwritten draft of Yawn’s inquisition, dating from December 1924 – January 1925, makes the scene’s references to Genesis relatively apparent. Yawn is asked if he “know[s] the kikkenmidden where the couple first met with each other?” (BL 47484a-16; JJA 58:117). Corrections made soon after, to a January 1925 typescript, already refine the identification further to “illassorted first couple” (BL 47484a-103; JJA 58: 184). Another element in the first handwritten draft that points toward the Genesis narrative is the exclamation “Upfellbown” (BL 47484a-17; JJA 58:118), similar to the German “Apfelbaum,” apple tree. Further, the leaves make a “sinsinsinning” sound (BL 47484a-17; JJA 58:118), suggesting the original sin.
But from the first draft onward, the tree is identified in curious ways. Yawn’s initial reaction to the query of the tree’s presence is affirmative, describing it as “the crandest maypole in all the world” (BL 47484a-17; JJA 58:118). Maypoles have a complicated history, being connected to the worship of both the Roman goddess Flora and a celebration of the Druidic new year, Beltane. The Druidic connection certainly makes sense, especially since the description of the garden scene is immediately preceded by a broader inquisition about the setting, including the note that “there were fires on every bald hill in holy Ireland that night” (BL 47484a-16; JJA 58:117), a description consistent with Beltane, celebrated on the first of May (see for example Frazer 715). Even for a reader without knowledge of Beltane or Mayday celebrations, the maypole's broad association with pagan tradition remains relatively accessible.
Also, the tree is identified with the Norse Yggdrasil in the lengthy description that follows the maypole reference. Yawn first refers to it as a “Father and mother of a plant!” (BL 47484a-17; JJA 58:118). He goes on to offer the image of “treegirls” growing upon the tree, and boys who “climb to her crock.” There are cranberries and “birds of the air” perching within her, including robins that hatch out of “mistletoe eggs.” “Creatures of the wild” abuse the tree as they “claw and rub” at its “infernal roots” (BL 47484a-17; JJA 58:118). In this early draft Joyce does not mention Yggdrasil by name, though later revisions make the connection apparent. Mistletoe “eggs” changes to “eggdrazzles” in December of 1928 or January of 1929 as Joyce prepares the transition 15 text (BL 47484a-208; JJA 58: 358). A 1937 set of revisions also brings in the phrases “everynasty ashtray” and “overlisting eshtree,” (BL 47487-68v; JJA 58: 132), directly hinting at the everlasting ash tree. Despite the fact that these more obvious references come late in the composition and editorial process, many of those above-mentioned features of the tree parallel descriptions of Yggdrasil in the Norse Prose Eddas. Just as the tree in Finnegans Wake has its roots attacked, in the Prose Eddas a serpent named “Níðhögg gnaws at the root from below” (Sturluson 43). The Eddas further inform us that Yggdrasil has three roots (42), and Joyce quickly changes the initial “infernal roots” to “triliteral roots” in his first revisions in 1925 (BL 47484a-45; JJA 58: 185). Other elements from the Prose Eddas include an eagle perched in its branches, and “four harts” that “eat the shoots” (Sturluson 45), corresponding to the “birds of the air” perching in this tree in the first draft, as well perhaps to the “creatures of the wild” that claw and rub at the tree.
detail regarding this tree (or these trees) in the earliest drafts is the
apparent transformation of this first couple into trees: “hermits barking their
shins over her infernal roots and his acorns flying
ˇwideˇ all sides out of him after the birds of the air and her leaves
sinsinsinin [...] and all of their branches meeting ans cˇsˇhaking
twisty hands” (BL 47484a-72; JJA 58: 154).
This description bears some similarity to the fate of Baucis and
Philemon in Book VIII of Ovid's Metamorphoses. In this tale an old couple is rewarded
for their hospitality by being transformed into intertwining trees: “Baucis saw
Philemon putting forth leaves, Philemon saw Baucis” and they became “two trees
standing close together, and growing from one double trunk” (455, 457). The story thematically parallels certain
Judeo-Christian narratives that resonate through the Wake, such as the
Old Testament stories of Noah and Abraham.
The gods in Ovid’s tale declare the people in Baucis and Philemon’s
region to be wicked and promise to punish everyone, but grant exception to the
elderly couple. But if Joyce has Ovid in
mind, he does not develop it to the extent of the Christian or Norse elements
of the passage, as little else points us toward Baucis and Philemon.
These similarities suggest that the tree in the earliest draft of the scene is not a single tree, but that it is associated with at least three sacred “trees”: The Tree of Knowledge, maypoles, and Yggdrasil (though not named, evidence suggests Joyce had this in mind), and perhaps other trees as well. Most striking about these allusions is the sense of difference – these images do not neatly parallel, but they are tangentially associated. All involve trees and some sort of supernatural promise - knowledge, fertility, or sustenance - but little else unifies the arboreal references. Some of these trees are forbidden while others are freely given. Some are singular and mythical while others are ceremonial talismans. These differences would suggest a high degree of instability in the symbolism, an ambiguity and freedom of interpretation allowed to both the reader and to Joyce as he expands later drafts. Any new tree allusion could be added, so long as it contributes to the muddled theme of “trees and sacredness.”
Given the difference between these symbols, it may prove more fruitful to suspend efforts until we find a unifying element. Jean-Michel Rabaté deals with a similar issue in his efforts to determine the speaker in Finnegans Wake. In trying to reconcile the seeming inability to locate a coherent and consistent narrative authority, he writes that “the solution lies not in a recourse to variation, but in the proximity of the difference, still lurking at the core of identity” and further: “The strategy of Joyce’s lies precisely in this reversal, which necessitates a deft manipulation of differences even though the sameness is outwardly predominant” (“Narratology” 201).
The reader attempting to sort out or weigh arbor references in the garden scene of III:3 faces a similar experience of outward sameness betrayed by underlying difference that complicates interpretation more and more as the source narratives of the different trees are considered. This issue can be avoided, and it often is, if the reader simply assumes that one narrative functions as the dominant allegory in the text. And with Finnegans Wake that narrative has long been the Christian one. The effect that this assumption has upon the reader is witnessed in Christiani’s discussion of Norse mythology in the Wake: “But let us remember that Yggdrasil is no ‘Abfallbaum,’ and that Ragnarok is not in any way the result of a fall from the divine grace…. A book so obsessed, we might say, by sin and guilt can hardly be said to breathe the spirit of the Eddas or the sagas” (45). That dismissive tone, which disregards the significance of the Norse in light of the strong Christian themes of the book, reflects a mindset that seeks unity. But if the Norse is not regarded as a second thought, not seen as an echo, in relation to the Judeo-Christian “obsession,” then readers may begin to appreciate and more fruitfully examine the fact that Yggdrasil is not the Tree of Knowledge. That very difference enriches the text. Furthermore it is the same difference that distinguishes Joyce’s combination of religions from simple synthesis as suggested by Benstock and other early commentators.
What is significant in the garden description from III:3, is not the arbor references that tie Christian theology to Scandinavian saga to Pagan tradition, but rather the difference between these stories as well as the extended implications from the trees’ source narratives that readers are invited to bring into their considerations of the symbol. Most notably, in the Genesis narrative the tree functions as a catalyst to sin and downfall. In the Norse sagas the tree is altogether nourishing, as evident by the above-mentioned animals that roost in Yggdrasil’s boughs and feed upon its leaves. Readers can easily conflate HCE and ALP with Adam and Eve when tree allusions are presented, and this invites readers to apply the qualities of Adam’s sin to HCE: he faces external judgment and his act represents the downfall of all humankind. If the reader weighs Yggdrasil as something juxtaposed with the Tree of Knowledge, not a mere thematic compliment, both the nature of the sin and HCE’s character become more complicated. Looking to the Sagas, in fact, might lead readers to see the “first couple” of this scene not as Adam and Eve, but as Ask and Embla. The creation of humanity as described in the Norse Sagas resembles Genesis in that a divine hand was at play, but rather than being fashioned from clay, “[T]he sons of Bor found two trees and they picked these up and created men from them…. The man was called Ask [ash tree] and the woman Embla [elm tree]; and from them have sprung the races of men” (Sturluson 37). This reading becomes particularly inviting as Joyce's tree takes on human qualities, both male and female, later in the scene: “pinecorns shooting wide all sides out of him” (505.4) and “that exquisite creation of her leaves” (505.9), and male and female together, “their branches meeting and shaking twisty hands all over again” (505.10-11). Each of these descriptions from the published Wake remains do not change from their appearance in the January 1925 draft (BL 47484a-45; JJA 58: 185).
The concept that the Adam and Eve figures might not just be led astray by a tree, but further that they metamorphose into the tree itself, becomes more compelling when the episode’s inclusion of the Christian cross is taken into consideration. Strongly Christian elements, such as reference to the Felix Culpa or fortunate fault (“Oh Finlay’s coldpalled” (506.09)) and African-American spiritual music (“Were you there when they lagged um through the coombe?” (506.11-12)), only make late appearances, added after the 1929 publication in transition. But reference to the tree as “consecrated” (FW 503.33) is as early as January 1925, and further, a distinctly Christian element is emphasized in the earliest drafts through reference to “fires on every bald hill in holy Ireland” pointing toward St. Patrick's Easter vigil showdown on Tara in A.D. 433 (BL 47484a-16; JJA 58: 185). HCE’s role is now more complicated, on the one hand he represents the source of sin, and on the other hand the path toward salvation.
It is interesting that Joyce chooses the Negro spiritual to directly introduce Christ as an additional allusive layer to HCE’s identity. This particular approach emphasizes the humanity of Jesus – his death and placement in the tomb – while resurrection is merely implied. Furthermore, Joyce draws associations between HCE and a downtrodden people. Indeed the divinity of Christ seems sublimated behind human suffering and a philosophy of patience. “Grauws on me…” turns our attention back to Philemon and Baucis’ transformation into trees. As a result HCE becomes both Christ and the cross on which Christ dies, creating a paradoxical layering of identities. Is HCE divine or an object? Is he an agent or a symbol? Is his sacrificial act something to which he agrees or is he an unwilling participant?[ii]
Recognizing that already in the first draft the foundational identity of the tree draws from multiple traditions, invites readers not only to seek similarities – that Yggdrasil and the Tree of Knowledge are both sources of “nourishment,” for example – but rather, suggests that it is more important for readers to consider points of departure and how these points can or cannot be reconciled. In the Christian reading, Adam’s sin necessitated Christ, suffering, and resurrection, while the mortal Ask plays no role in the Norse end time Ragnarök. Readers might then attempt to mediate these contractions, perhaps seeing HCE as not divine, but also not merely individual. His sin is symbolic of all people, but also self-inflicted. And despite this self-infliction, the implication of his suffering might be, like Christ’s, universally resonant. In this way, Joyce fashions a specific protagonist who borrows from several sacred systems without having a specific analogue in any.
In this process of contemplating difference, rather than attempting to repair or overcome it, Joyce invites readers to consider the whole narrative of each of these religious traditions, the whole story of creation from beginning to end and all of the implications for humanity that accompany these narratives, even when these aspects are not directly referenced in the text. The apocalyptic aspects attached to these traditions are one example. Direct reference to the destruction of the world or to final judgment is not prominent, though we do see “the four last winds” (503.18), inviting us to consider the “four last things” - death, judgment, heaven, and hell, as outlined in Christian eschatology. As a point of complication, the everlasting aspect of Yggdrasil signaled by “evernasty ashtree” (503.7), on the one hand reinforces the Christian promise of eternal life, but deviates, on other hand, if we consider the relative unimportance of humans in the Norse concept of Ragnarök.
As these trees point us to the “end” of the religious and mythological narratives, readers examining the difference rather than the similarity will uncover challenges to the dominance of Christianity as a simple analog to HCE and his sin. The Norse Ragnarök is, of course, more cyclical. Rather than passing into a new realm, rather than witnessing the complete vanquishing of evil, the event is followed by a re-peopling of the earth, as Líf and Lífthrasir become new Adam and Eve figures. Second, in the Norse myth there is no judgment day. Finnegans Wake repeatedly plays with judicial themes, and so the use of an end-time scenario that does not include a divine judgment helps to downplay the evangelical overtones in HCE’s trial. His sin certainly remains significant, but as part of a cycle, not some final pinnacle. Further, if HCE and ALP turn into a tree in a Metamorphoses–like transformation, the concept of metaphysical consequences is diminished significantly. Their fate is recorded, public and symbolic, but redemption is replaced by memorial.
The interplay of these sacred trees is, of course, complemented by the non-religious trees that also appear in the episode. As with the sacred references, these secular trees expand through difference. Jack's beanstalk is first appears in January of 1925 (BL 47484a-45; JJA 58: 185). The beanstalk, or “beingstalk” as the published Wake has it (504.19), echoes the qualities of Yggdrasil in joining the heavens and earth. And, if we consider this plant's purpose, yielding beans, it provides sustenance, like Yggdrasil. Does its presence, then, invite us to read HCE as Jack, and if so, is HCE's “sin” conflated with Jack's folly of a purchase, thereby downplaying the seriousness of the trespass? So too, the presence of Darwin’s Tree of Life, alluded to through May 1926 additions of “the origin of spices and charlotte darlings” (BL 47484a-137: JJA 58: 259), works against the sacred interpretation, presenting a scientific counter by offering theories and explanations over mystery and faith. Sill, Darwin complements religious themes, in particular by calling attention to the notion of successive generations. And though natural selection is referenced, the morality of sexuality is hardly forgotten as Darwin’s well-known phrase is transformed to “unnatural refection” (BL 47484a-137: JJA 58: 259).
Whether sacred or secular, the drafts reveal that this tree possessed multiple identities from the earliest stages of composition, and further that those particular identities possess both elements that converge or complement and elements that contrast and complicate. The result is a symbol that highlights its own complexity. Finn Fordham suggests that Joyce explores his “romantic theories of ‘organic’ form and formation” through this episode, symbolizing a “proliferation of knowledge and structured reason” through natural growth as well as the more mechanical, controlled growth he calls Joyce’s “’everplanned’ text-producing machine.” (“Writing… Part I”). While such observations of the concurrent organic and engineered aspects of Joyce's text are surely apt, the religious underpinnings of the trees in this passage invite an additional level of inquiry.
As the sacred trees such as the Tree of Knowledge and Yggdrasil allude to the introduction of sin and the destruction of the world, the issue becomes eschatological in several senses of the term. The Oxford English Dictionary lists two entries for “eschatology”: “a. The department of theological science concerned with the ‘last four things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell,’” and “b. In recent theological writing… the sense of this word has been modified to connote the present ‘realization’ and significance of the ‘last thing’ in Christian life.” This latter definition more closely concerns the Greek root of the word, eschata, furthest or uttermost, and in that light deals less with an end point, but rather with the perception, or realization and contemplation, of an end. The study of an “uttermost” understanding becomes oriented more toward process than product. In essence, contemplation of future death brings meaning to action in the present, or as theologian Paul S. Fiddes puts it, eschatology is “Christian hope” concerned not with terminality, but rather with “how consciousness of an ending affects individuals in the present” (5). The juxtaposition of sacred trees in a manner that resists the emphasis of a single tradition or a definitive synthesis, prompting ongoing reconsideration, makes the interpretation of the tree always uttermost.
Of course this eschatological slant is paradoxical, since Joyce use of multiple traditions comes around to reflect Christian doctrine. The alternate religious and mythological allusion in this garden scene serve not to mock or undermine the Christian narrative, and therefore do not appear to operate as a criticism of the Church or a defense of the author's apostasy. Rather, they illustrate Umberto Eco's observations that Joyce “loses his faith but remains faithful to the orthodox system” (5). Unable to write a truly Catholic book, Joyce employs an array of traditions, but falls back upon his Jesuit roots. Robert Boyle notes that, like Shakespeare and Gerard Manley Hopkins, Joyce used “religious language, dogma, attitude, and emotion to stress the point that literature, too, essentially focuses on mystery” (8). The presence of multiple religions in Joyce’s writing helps us to observe that he infused his book with mystery, with symbols that correspond but refuse to neatly align, thereby demanding ongoing contemplation. Their presence in the earliest drafts suggest that there is no single dominant religion, while the others function as post hoc echoes. And close consideration of the various traditions reveal that Joyce does not meld religions to suggest that all paths lead to the same place or that spirituality is ultimately universal. Rather, he uses them to promote an ongoing spiritual meditation – with a Catholic tinged, though not purely Catholic, engagement with mystery.
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[i] Finn Fordham’s “The Writing of Growth and the Growths of Writing” in Hypermedia Joyce Studies (8.2 and 9.1), does examine the “tree-ness” of this particular passage in the Wake by exploring how it resonates Joyce’s belief in an organic growth mechanism in language.
[ii] Though I have seen no evidence to suggest that Joyce has this is mind, the personified tree on FW 505, in such close proximity to images of the crucifixion on FW 506, calls to mind the medieval poem “The Dream of the Rood.” That poem’s typology, as the cross itself takes on a speaking role and mirrors the suffering and sacrifice of Christ, does offer a means of comprehending a character as Christ-like, while still non-divine and not an active agent.