Giordano Bruno's Last Meal in Finnegans Wake
By Thornton Wilder

An essay by the noted playwright. First appeared in 1963, in Hudson Review.

On any page of Finnegans Wake the reader finds a number of interwoven themes and to the difficulty of deciphering and isolating any one of them is added that of furnishing an explanation for their juxtaposition. I am about to show that pages 404 through 407 are largely concerned with Giordano Bruno's trial and torture and with his death at the stake, which took place on 17 February 1600 in the Campo dei Fiori at Rome. Interwoven with this material are at least five other themes: the seven colors of the spectrum; the entrance of Shaun the Post in the first act of Boucicault's play Arrah-na-Pogue; the composition of a pack of playing cards; some events of the last days of Christ's life, together with the liturgical offices which commemorate them; and the account of a barrel of Guinness stout rolling down the Liffey to Dublin Bay. I shall consider here only the first four of these.
To readers who have not the volume before them I must emphasize that all these varied themes are being pursued simultaneously. By startling feats of ingenuity Joyce forces a phrase or a single word into service for two or more purposes at the same time. A "wheel" is at once a form of torture employed by the Inquisition and a playing card in the Tarot pack. The "blessings of Haggispatrick and Huggisbrigid" (404.35) are not only an allusion to this prodigious meal, to Shaun the Post's preferred saints, to a chorus in the distance singing the Trisagion, but to the fact that Bruno was a Dominican condemned by Dominicans. Because of their black-and-white habit the order was popularly identified with magpies; in Old English dialects the magpie was called a "haggis." The bird was also called a "margaret" (the French called la pie "la margot") and we find that at this meal there is a "bulby onion (Margareter)" (406.7). We shall presently see what associations are set in motion by such words, not found in any dictionary, as "Juhn" and "lightbreakfastbringer." The style of Finnegans Wake may be called that of the "collocation of disparates." In the principal passages studied in this paper Joyce employs it for effects of grinding horror; but the novel is of wide diversity. Elsewhere by superimposing on one page a pubkeeper's wife, Homer's Hera, and a song by Robert Burns; or on another page Melville's Billy Budd, Eamon de Valera, and the Buddha, he obtains effects of lyrical beauty or of savage satire. It can be said that this style is something new in literature and that by extending in various ways the function of metaphor it moves largely in the realm of poetry. The first impression one receives is that it is a work of comic intention, for verbal distortions always appear to us as proceeding from wit, even when they arise from the unconscious; but though there are innumerable puns in the novel, Joyce's interest is not primarily in the puns but in the simultaneous multiple-level associations which they permit him to pursue. Finnegans Wake appears to me as an immense poem whose subject is the continuity of what is Living, viewed under the guise of a resurrection myth. This poem is conducted under the utmost formal rigor controlling every word and in a style that enables the author through apparently preposterous incongruities to arrive at an ultimate unification and harmony.
Now to return to the four themes in the passage we are studying: I suspect that the colors of the rainbow are here to remind us of another heroic person burned at the stake, Jeanne d'Arc. Her name like Shaun's is derived from John, and by one of those coincidences that so often gave support to Joyce's propensity toward superstition her name recalls the rainbow; she was indeed an are-en-ciel. Moreover, both Bruno and Jeanne illustrate one of the most frequently recurring symbols in the book, the phoenix. Like the "bird of Arabia" they were consumed by fire and are continually reborn in the mind and spirit of aftertime. At the close of this paper I shall show that Joyce elsewhere associates Ste. Jeanne with Bruno.
The spectrum appears as "red" (404.25, with the Russian "krasnapoppsky," papal red); "orange" (405.33); yellow, "guilbey" (German yell, gelbe) (406.33); green, "pease, rice, and yeggyyolk" (the colors of the Irish Free State, giving us another yellow) (404.29-30); blue, "starspangled zephyr" (star . . . sapphire) (404.27); "indigo" (404.18); and purple, "mauveport" (407.21). |
The appearance of Shaun the Post from Boucicault's play introduces the heroine, "arrah" (404.4); Shaun himself (404.7); and Beamish (MacCool) (405.16). Page 404 gives us a general description of his costume as we see it in the theatrical documents and the name of the actor who played it for years on both sides of the Atlantic. The name of Chauncey Olcott appears elsewhere in the novel -- where it is also associated with Shaun -- as "my chancey oldcoat" (451.2). Here we glimpse "a classy . . . o'coat" (404.17). Other theatrical references are "superior" (404.18, sipario, Italian, a theater curtain) and "hand prop . . . prompt side to the pros" (404.16). Behind "indigo brew" (404.18) we can hear Chauncey Olcott bringing down the house with the ancient Irish war-cry "Erie go bragh" -- "Ireland forever."
One event from this play furnishes a beautiful symbolic idea recurrent in the novel. Arrah frees a man from prison by transferring the "key" to him by way of a kiss through the bars. The image is present in the last words in the volume. It is not Shaun, however, who is liberated, though he is her lover. Beyond the fact that Shaun is a bringer of messages it is hard to see why the figure of the simple-minded postman is superimposed upon that of Bruno. But this is the principle of collocation. Just as in a moment we are to see an agonizing death presented under the image of an enormous banquet in a city bright with flowers and riotous with card-playing, so it may be for contrast we are here shown a rural Irish scene, a merry-hearted youth, and a naive theatrical performance.
The pack of cards is displayed as follows:
On page 405, spades, "spadefuls"; clubs, "leave your clubs in the hall"; hearts, "knives of hearts"; diamonds, "the diamond bone" (406.16). The following are all on page 405: ace, "prime card"; king, "No mistaking"; queen, "the once queen of Balrothy"; jack, "his knives of heart"; ten, "up Dacent Street" with Dublin accent, derem; nine, "punch"; eight, "would eight through the months"; seven, "this even's"; six, "hundred and sixty"; five, "a pint" (Greek, pente); four, "fourpart"; three, "threepartite"; two, "twice." The joker is on the preceding page, "his popular choker" (404.25-26). In addition we are given "the Wheel of Fortune" (405.24), which is the tenth card in the Tarot pack. Readers may also find references to whist, whisk, tricks, trumps, and so on. Bruno was burned in a Jubilee year, 1600. Rome was filled with pilgrims from all over Europe. Autos-da-fe were part of the general "jubilation."
There are hundreds of allusions to Bruno in Finnegans Wake, and in general Joyce identifies Bruno with himself as Shem -- speculative, rebellious against authority, and -- in his own eyes -- persecuted. On many pages, however, he is an aspect of Shaun; yet Shem and Shaun are ultimately one, just as the stationery partners on Nassau Street, Browne and Nolan, become one: Bruno of Nola. (Another astonishing coincidence.) The passage before us occurs in the first of the Four Watches of Shaun. Bruno's name is constantly appearing in all of them, though it is not explicitly present in these pages unless we pick up the "brown" of 406.25. But the circumstances of his last days are given: the Pope was present at a session of the trial: the Russian papal red of 404.24-25; tu Petrus (407.15); and his stake was "peatrefired" (405.35). There were several bishops, "evectuals" (405.36), "avic" (406.14), "aver" (406.22). Here is his vicar, Paolo di Mirandola, "merendally" (406.1, merenda, Spanish for "lunch"). The stake was set up in the Flower Market, "aflowering" (406.24) and "floreal" (406.36). The witness beholds the occasion with the "hundred and sixty odds rods and cones" of his retina -- yes,, the number is "odd" for he has lost a zero to give the year 1600. The Papal Nuncio ("punch, " 405.17) had had much difficulty in extraditing Bruno from the Republic of Venice.
We have no record that Bruno was tortured, for the records have mysteriously disappeared from the archives; but we know that Campanella, author of The City of the Sun, a similar case, was put to the torture many times, once for twenty-four hours. Here we have already found the "wheel"; there is also the "grid" (406.5) and even a St. Lawrence, "Saint Lawzenge" (405.24), who is so often represented holding the gridiron of his martyrdom in his hand. One of the tortures of the Inquisition, particularly favored in Scotland, was the "boot," a construction of spiked iron enclosing the foot and leg. Remembering that "sparable" is a small nail used by cobblers, we are now ready to read 404.20-21 and .30-33. He had "thick welted brogues" (perhaps one hears "Maxwelton's braes") "on him hammered to suit the scotsmost public . . . iron heels and sparable soles . . . breaking over the ankle and hugging the shoeheel." Much later in the novel, H.C.E. will give his bride "patters for her trilibies that know she might the tortuours of the boots" (548.29-30). Another torment was the "cangue" -- a wooden frame like the stocks but carried on the shoulder and not attached to the ground. The Dominicans were particularly engaged in the ferreting out of heretics and by a pre-Joycean pun were known throughout Europe as Domini Canes, "Hounds of the Lord." Bruno was himself a Dominican and the General of the Order sat on his court. We are told elsewhere (424.3-4) that Shaun had thought to "join the clericy as a demonican sky terrier." Here we read that he has "an Irish ferrier collar, freeswinging . . . from his shoulthern" (404.19-20). We are told that on the way to the stake Bruno's tongue had been tied; here we shall see that during the meal he will have some trouble in "getting his tongue arount it" (406.13). Victims were subjected to the "water" torture. Shaun was served "a clister of peas, soppositorily petty" (406.19) -- the water was imposed in the form of an enema.
The execution itself is presented as one extended horrifying pun upon the words "stake" and "steak," together with allusions to frying and roasting and other forms of cooking. Of the steak-stakes we have, on page 405, "prime," "No mistaking," "round, " "top, " "porterhouse, " "clubs, " "chucks," "rump" (in "frumped," 405.28), "cold forsoaken steak," and on page 406, "round steak, very rare"; "Braten's," "saddlebag steak," "steak . . . pepper the diamond bone." He even had a grubstake ("he grubbed his tuck all right," 407.2).
The joke is so appalling and Joyce's relish in his own ingenuities so evident that the tone seems to be one of mere savage derision. I turn some seventy pages to find a mitigation. Shaun has finished his sermon to the leap-year girls. He takes his leave. He will be missed, but will return. "Dearest Haun of all, you of the boots . . . Iampaddyfair . . . our rommanychiel!" (472.20-22). Bruno was the author of a De lampade; we shall see in a moment why he is identified with the gypsies. Until his return, however, time will be ". . . rived by derby's chilldays embers, spatched fun Juhn . . ." (473.9).
Here are Darby and Joan, and the span between December and June. Here are two dialogues by Bruno: La cena de la ceneri, The Ashwednesday Dinner and its embers (elsewhere, also with the phoenix: "when the fiery bird disembers" (24.11); and the Spaccio de la bestia trionfante, the driving out of what was interpreted as the Pope. Seeing Darby and Joan and the age-levels implied by the months, we now read: by that time even the children ("childer" is a favorite expression of Joyce) of those now aged will have turned to dust, their fun over; just as Bruno and Joan of Arc will have become ashes. Joyce has compressed three allusions into the word "Juhn" -- the proverbial aged spouse, the month of June, and St. Joan. I suspect that the spelling is to remind us of Schiller's Johanna, "Die Jungfrau von Orleans."
Bruno was for Joyce the type of the phoenix, symbol of immortality, and by two more coincidences Joyce in his Paris apartment watched over two small date-palms (botanically, Phoenix) reminding him of Dublin's handsome Phoenix Park. To understand the continuation of this passage, the following information is necessary: the Egyptian word for the phoenix bird was Benu; Bruno was born in the environs of Naples under Spanish rule; and here Joyce alludes to two powerful arias in Verdi's Il Trovatore. In Stride la vampa the Gypsy Azucena contemplates her imminent death at the stake and that of her mother before her; and in Di quella pira her supposed son Manrico sings of the same death. (Joyce has earlier invoked the first of these arias: "O murder mere . . . Thrubedore I did . . . striding on the vampire . . ." (411.25-31).) We continue:

Shoot up on that, bright Bennu bird.... Eftsoon so too will our own [that is: Joyce's] sphoenix spark spirt his spyre and sunward stride the rampante flambe. Ay, already the somber opacities of the gloom are sphanished. Brave footsore Haun! Work your progress! . . . The silent cock shall crow at last. The west shall shake the east awake. Walk while ye have the night for morn, lightbreakfastbringer.... Amain.

We know why he is "footsore." "The silent cock shall crow at last" -- when those who have denied their Lord will be confronted with their betrayal. "Light . . . bringer," "How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!" "Break fast" -- Lent is over!
Bruno wrote a De progressu. "Work your progress!" What higher homage could Joyce extend than to identify Bruno's book with Finnegans Wake, which, when chose lines were written, was still entitled Work in Progress?

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