This Municipal Sin Business

~ Finnegans Wake – A Prescriptive Guide ~

The Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man

This paragraph—which runs from 004.36 to 005.26 in my preferred text, The Restored Finnegans Wake—has to be read in conjunction with the two preceding paragraphs and the following paragraph. Taken together, these four paragraphs paint the popular Irish-American ballad Finnegan’s Wake in the colours of a Viconian Cycle. According to Giambattista Vico’s cyclical view of human history, civilization passes through three phases before collapsing into the chaos of uncivilization. But this chaos flows back into the first phase, and the Viconian cycle begins anew:

  • Theocratic Phase, or the Age of Gods
  • Aristocratic Phase, or the Age of Heroes
  • Democratic Phase, or the Age of Men
  • Collapse into chaos, and Ricorso, or Reflux

The third stage, the Democratic Phase or Age of Men, had its own characteristics that distinguished it from the other ages:

918 The third [kind of nature] was human nature, intelligent and hence modest, benign and reasonable, recognizing for laws conscience, reason and duty.

921 The third [kind of customs] are dutiful, taught by one’s own sense of civil duty.

924 The third [kind of natural law] is the human law dictated by fully developed human reason.

927 The third [kind of governments] are human governments, in which, in virtue of the equality of the intelligent nature which is the proper nature of man, all are accounted equal under the laws, inasmuch as all are born free in their cities. This is the case in the free popular cities in which all or the majority make up the just forces of the city, in virtue of which they are the lords of popular liberty. It is also the case in monarchies, in which the monarchs make all their subjects equal under their laws, and, having all the force of arms in their own hands, are themselves the only bearers of any distinction in civil nature.

931 The third [kind of languages] is by articulate speech, which is used by all nations today.

935 Finally, there were invented the vulgar characters [ie alphabets] which went along with the vulgar languages.

940 The third [kind of jurisprudence] is human jurisprudence, which looks to the truth of the facts themselves and benignly bends the rule of law to all the requirements of the equity of the causes.

942 There were three kinds of authority ... The third is human, based on the trust placed in persons of experience, of singular prudence in practical matters, and of sublime wisdom in intellectual matters. (Vico §§918, 921, 924, 927, 931, 935, 940, 942)

The Third Age also had its characteristic institution:

12 The second of human things is burial. (Indeed humanitas in Latin comes first and properly from humando, “burying.”) This institution is symbolized by a cinerary urn, placed to one side within the forest, indicating that burial goes pack to a time when men ate fruit in summer and acorns in winter. The urn is inscribed D. M., which means “to the good souls of the dead.” This motto represents the common consent of all mankind in the opinion later proved true by Plato, that human souls do not die with their bodies but that they are immortal. (Vico §12)

God Judging Adam (William Blake)

First Draft Version

Joyce’s first draft of this paragraph was surprisingly short and simple, tying the fall of Tim Finnegan in the ballad to the Fall of Man in Genesis:

And, as sure as Eve ate little red apples, wan warning Finn felt tippling full. His howth filled heavy, his hodd did shake. He fell from the latter. Damb! He was dead. Dump! (Hayman 47)

Tim’s head has become howth, the name of the headland that overlooks Dublin Bay. Howth derives from the Old Norse hǫfuð, head, and was linked to Finnegan (HCE) in the opening lines of the book (Howth Castle & Environs).

Note also how Finnegan’s death is punctuated by the word Dump! There is a rubbish tip or kitchen midden behind the Mullingar House, where Finnegans Wake is set. This dump is regularly associated with HCE’s burial mound, often being depicted as an ancient barrow or archaeological tell—a repository of the past, whose strata are to be read and interpreted like the pages of a difficult book.

Arabian Nights Fantasy (Thomas Moran)

It was quite late in the composition of Finnegans Wake—in January and February 1938—that Joyce prefaced this brief sentence with fifteen lines of text of a distinctly Islamic flavour. But long before this, he had already begun to elaborate this paragraph. When an early draft of the opening chapter was published by Eugene Jolas in the first issue of the literary journal transition in April 1927, Eve’s eating of the apples was preceded by half-a-dozen new lines, including an allusion to The Thousand and One Nights, or The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment, which, while not specifically Islamic, turn our thoughts towards the Middle East:

What then agentlike brought about that tragoady thundersday this municipal sin business? It may half been a missfired brick, as some say, or it mought have been due to a collupsus of his back promises, as others looked at it. (There extand by now one thousand and one stories, all told, of the same). (Jolas 11)

Around the same time, Joyce also inserted a long passage in parenthesis, which makes it difficult to read this paragraph without forgetting where one was before the rude interruption. He also finalized—well, almost finalized—the closing lines of the paragraph:

Dimb! He stottered from the latter. Damb! he was dud. Dumb! Mastabatoom, mastabadtomm, when a mon merries his lute is all long. For whole the world to see. (Jolas 11)

Dimb ... Damb ... Dumb seem to mark the progressive loss of Finnegan’s senses of sight, hearing and speech—reminiscent, perhaps, of the act of falling asleep. His tomb is now a mastaba, another nod to the Middle East.


Municipal Sin

In the final draft, Joyce opened this paragraph with a statement that sets the democratic or municipal tone of the third Age of Men, men who are, as it were, looking far back into the past at the Fall of Man, which took place at the dawn of the first Viconian Cycle:

What then agentlike brought about that tragoady thuddersday this municipal sin business?

What really caused the original sin (Finnegan’s fall from his ladder as well as Adam’s Fall in Eden) on that tragic Thursday?

In the Democratic Age, the original sin of Genesis is treated as an industrial accident that must be investigated by the municipal authorities.

thuddersday reminds us that Thursday is named for the Norse god of thunder Thor. In Vico, God’s thunder drove the race of post-Diluvial giants into caves, where they created the first societies of the new world:

Giambattista Vico

1097 Let us now conclude this work with Plato, who conceives a fourth kind of commonwealth in which good honest men would be supreme lords. This would be the true natural aristocracy. This commonwealth conceived by Plato was brought into being by providence from the first beginnings of the nations. For it ordained that men of gigantic stature, stronger than the rest, who were to wander on the mountain heights as do the beasts of stronger natures, should, at the first thunderclaps after the universal flood, take refuge in the caves of the mountains, subject themselves to a higher power which they imagined as Jove, and, all amazement as they were all pride and cruelty, humble themselves before a divinity. For in this order of human things we cannot conceive how divine providence could have employed any other counsel to halt them in their bestial wandering through the great forest of the earth, in order to introduce among them the order of human civil things. (Vico §1097)

tragoady suggests that the Fall of Man is not merely tragic but dramatic—like a Greek tragedy. The word tragedy [τραγῳδια] is thought to derive from tragos [τραγος], a billy-goat (remember that hegoak in the previous paragraph?). Did Finnegan fall or was he pushed? What goaded Adam to sin?

Stylized Depictions of Muhammad’s Name in Kufic Script

Islam in Finnegans Wake

When asked in August 1922 by his patron Harriet Shaw Weaver what he was going to write, now that Ulysses had finally been published, Joyce famously replied:

I think I will write a history of the world. (Ellmann 536-537)

He could hardly have hoped to fulfil such grandiose ambitions without weaving into the fabric of Finnegans Wake an Islamic thread. Aida Yared, who has written the definitive introduction to Islam in Finnegans Wake, summed up the situation succinctly in her 2001 essay on the subject, Introducing Islam in Finnegans Wake: The Story of Mohammed in VI.B.45:

While writing Finnegans Wake, Joyce jotted down abbreviated entries in some fifty notebooks that he took great care to preserve ... When a given Notebook entry was incorporated into his Work in Progress, the Irish writer was in the habit of crossing it out with a colored crayon. Pages 103-110 of VI.B.45, that deal with Islam, are among the Notebooks pages most heavily marked in this fashion: they can be deciphered only when viewed through an orange-red filter, the color of the crayon used by Joyce in deleting the entries. Their source can be traced back to The Story of Mohammed, a biography of the Islamic Prophet by Edith Holland.

VI.B.45 was compiled, according to Danis Rose, in Jan-Feb 1938. By that time, Joyce was very familiar with Mohammed and the Mohammedan religion. His reading on the topic, as evidenced by his note-taking, spanned the period during which he was working on Finnegans Wake. He owned a copy of the Koran in a French translation by J.-C. Mardrus, and took notes from its first few pages in 1926 (VI.B.12.137). Other works he had closely read include the Encyclopædia Britannica (article Mecca, VI.B.24.209-216) in 1929-31; The Speeches and Table-Talk of the Prophet Mohammad by Stanley Lane-Poole (VI.B.31.45-69) in April-November 1931; and Sir Richard Burton’s The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, which has extensive marginalia on “the manners and customs of Moslem men,” and to which Joyce intermittently turned from 1922 to 1939 (Notebooks VI.A, VI.B.28, VI.B.32 and VI.B33). Additional notes on Islam are scattered throughout the Notebooks, and include a sizeable cluster on Islamic rituals (VI.B.31.180-182), taken from a source that is still untraced.

Joyce inserted numerous details of Mohammad’s life and creed—including the origin and structure of the Koran, into Finnegans Wake, where they appear as important components of the framework and collective unconscious of the book. (Yared)

Yared contends that while Joyce researched Islam extensively for Finnegans Wake, he never actually read the Koran. Certainly, the pages of Mardrus’s French translation were never cut (intonso)—Joyce only read Mardrus’s thirty-two-page introduction—but this does not preclude the possibility that he read an English translation, or even Robert of Ketton’s Latin translation of 1143 CE. According to James Atherton, there is a reference to Robert at RFW 343.34-35 (Atherton 201). Atherton, moreover, was satisfied that Joyce did read the Koran, if not in Mardrus’s French:

But Joyce certainly read the Koran in some version, and a knowledge of the contents of the sura which is being named is often needed to understand his text. (Atherton 202)

Atherton cited George Sale’s English translation of 1734 as a possible source-text. Yared agrees, even going so far as to claim that Joyce used Sale in lieu of the Koran itself. And to the list of reference works mentioned by Yared we might also add Thomas Patrick Hughes’s A Dictionary of Islam, which Atherton singled out as a significant source (Atherton 201), Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, the second lecture of which deals with Mahomet, and Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the fiftieth chapter of which is devoted to Mahomet and the rise of Islam.

The Kaaba at the Great Mosque in Mecca

Our Cubehouse Still Rocks

As Atherton noted, the importance of Islam in Finnegans Wake is underlined by the prominent position Joyce assigned to it on the second page of the book. Rather than attempt my own line-by-line or word-by-word exegesis of this passage, I will let Atherton interpret it for us:

‘The cubehouse’ is a literal translation of the Ka’aba, the centre of the Mohammedan world. ‘Arafata’ is the plain and the hill near Mecca, where all pilgrims spend the hours from noon till sunset on the ninth day of their pilgrimage. ‘The whitestone’ is the famous Black Stone of the Ka’aba, which is said to have been as white as milk when it came down from Paradise, but to have been blackened by the sins of mankind. The Muslim missiles are the stones thrown in the pilgrimage ceremony of ‘pelting the devil’, in memory, it is said, of Abraham’s having driven the devil away with stones when tempted to disobey God’s command, to sacrifice Isaac, and also the Black Stone itself. Several other allusions to Islamic lore follow and are linked up with other religions by the mention of Ka1i and Horus. Then Joyce goes on to list the five set times of obligatory prayers. These should start at noon, but Joyce’s list begins with ‘what time we rise’. The rest of the list fits perfectly, so presumably Joyce is indicating noon as the time he usually got out of bed. ‘When we take up to toothmick’ is when the sun is half-way towards its setting. Mohammed is known to have been very fond of using a toothpick; Ayesha handed him one as he lay dying. ‘Before we lump down upown our leatherbed’ is the sunset prayer. The ownership of leather beds was one of the subjects of discussion after the Battle of Badr and is mentioned in Sura 8: The Spoils. ‘In the night’ is the prayer when night has closed in; and the last one, ‘at the fading of the stars’, is the prayer just before dawn. This is to be said at ‘the morning moment he could dixtinguish a white thread from a black’ (63.25 [RFW 051.09-10]). Even without the interspersed allusions to things Islamic there can be no doubt but that this is meant to be an account of the Islamic prayers; and it is significant that Joyce chose this set of prayers to open Finnegans Wake. It disproves completely, I think, the contention still being made in some places that Joyce remained to the end a Catholic or even a Christian. What he seems to have been attempting was some kind of blend of all religions—whether as equally true or untrue is not so certain, but I incline to the belief that the former was his view. (Atherton 210-211)

Cropherb the Crunchbracken

Cropherb the crunchbracken is our first introduction to the Four Old Men’s donkey. Atherton believed that Joyce drew his inspiration for the Four Old Men from the Struldbruggs of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, immortals who age but never die (Atherton mistakenly calls them Struldbugs):

Swift’s [Struldbruggs] seem to be the original source of Joyce’s four old men. The particular number of the old men comes, of course, from quite different sources. The old men are the four Evangelists, the four provinces of Ireland, the Four Masters, the four cardinal points, the four winds and many another four. But the conception of immortals who have outlived their potencies and retain only envy, covetousness and vanity; who waste their undying lives in doddering and malicious gossip; this conception is Swift’s and Swift’s only. The island they lived in was named Luggnagg. By Joycean etymology this could be taken to mean a place where people lug, that is ‘drag with difficulty’, a nag, which should mean a wretched horse but could perhaps be taken to mean a donkey. This may have been the way in which Joyce was first prompted to have his old men accompanied by a donkey. (Atherton 121)

In Finnegans Wake, whenever the Four Old Men put in an appearance, their ass is sure to follow. Here, represented as a female camel (the dreamydeary), she speaks for the Four Old Men, who are holding an inquest—Innquest?—into Finnegan’s fall from the ladder. We will be hearing from her again in the first chapter of Book III. The donkey—now a jack, or male donkey—is the principal narrator of the The First Watch of Shaun.

Times Square, New York, in the 1920s

In Parenthesis

At quite an early stage in the composition of this chapter, Joyce crafted a parenthetical passage of a dozen or so lines that interrupts the main narrative in the middle of this paragraph:

(what with the wallhall’s horrors of rollsrights, carhacks, stone-engens, kisstvanes, tramtrees, fargobawlers, autokinotons, hippohobbilies, streetfleets, tournintaxes, megaphoggs, circuses and wardsmoats and basilikerks and aeropagods and the hoyse and the jollybrool and the peeler in the coat and the mecklenburk bitch bite at his ear and the merlinburrow burrocks and his fore old porecourts, the bore the more, and his blightblack workingstacks at twelvepins a dozen and the noobibuses sleighding along Safetyfirst Street and the derryjellybies snooping around Tell-No-Tailors’ Corner and the fumes and the hopes and the strupithump of his ville’s indigenous romekeepers, homesweepers, domecreepers, thurum and thurum in fancymud murumd and all the uproor from all the aufroofs, a roof for may and a reef for hugh butt under his bridge suits tony) (RFW 005.11-22)

Finnegans Wake is replete with similar parentheses. Some of these are spread over several pages and are interrupted by their own shorter parentheses. At twelve lines, this one is quite modest in comparison. But how should one approach such passages? Should the reader skip over them initially and only return to them after finishing the main clause? Or should one just plough through and hope it all makes sense in the end?

I believe the latter policy is more in keeping with the spirit of Finnegans Wake. Go with the flow : Analysis comes later.

Whenever one encounters any interruption to the general flow of the text, however long or short it may be, one should ask oneself a few simple questions: What occasioned this interruption? Why did Joyce insert this parenthesis at this particular point? The answer to these questions may go a long way in helping one unlock the meaning of the parenthesis. And those answers are usually to be found immediately before the parenthesis.

In this particular case, for example, the parenthesis occurs immediately after the mention of Eve’s apples (ivvy’s holired abbles). Now, the ballad of Finnegan’s Wake is set is New York (Tim Finnegan lived in Walker Street), and New York is the Big Apple—the forbidden fruit that proves irresistible. And there you have it: on a first analysis, the parenthesis can be read as a description of the bustling metropolis of New York, which Tim is looking down on from the skyscraper he is building—the wall from which Humpty shall fall. Is he looking down on it as a god on Olympus might look down on the world of men—Vico’s Third Age? Or is the Devil tempting him as Satan tempted Christ:

Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.” (Matthew 4:8-9)

This parenthetical passage is polyphonic, with several lines of meaning running parallel to one another. The principal voice depicts the noisy traffic of New York:

  • walhall’s: Vauxhall, a type of motor car
  • rollsrights: Rolls Royce, a type of motorcar
  • carhacks: cars, hackney cabs
  • stone-engens: steam engines
  • kistvaens: vans
  • tramtrees: trams
  • autokinotons: (Modern Greek) autokinêton, automobile
  • hippohobbilies: hobby horses, (Greek) hippos, horse
  • streetfleets: “fleet of motorcars” (Finnegans Wake Notebook VI.B10.43)
  • tournintaxes: turning taxis

There are also clear references to streets—though not all of them are in New York:

  • circuses: a round open space in a city where multiple roads meet
  • streetfleets Fleet Street (Dublin and London)
  • wardsmoats Dublin is divided into wards
  • mecklenburk Mecklenburgh Street, Dublin
  • bore the more (Irish) bóthar mór, main road
  • Safetyfirst Street 71st Street, New York

The phrase the fumes and the hopes and the strupithump of his ville’s indigenous romekeepers echoes Horace’s Odes 3:29:12:

Fumum et opes strepitumque Romae [The smoke and the wealth and the noise of Rome].

Stonehenge (James Ward)

Another important thread running through this parenthesis concerns the burial of the dead, the institution that characterizes the Third Age of Vico’s cycle:

  • wallhall’s Valhalla, where Norse heroes goes after death
  • rollsrights Rollright Stones, a stone circle in England
  • carhacks Carhaix in Brittany, where Tristan died
  • carhacks Carnac, Brittany, a megalithic site
  • stone-engens Stonehenge
  • kisstvanes kistvaens, a simple burial-chest or burial-chamber made of stone

There is so much more meaning buried in this paragraph, and we have barely taken a bite out of it.

But so sore did abe ite ivvy’s holired abbles


  • James S Atherton, The Books at the Wake: A Study of Literary Allusions in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale IL (1959, 2009)
  • Richard Francis Burton, The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, Volumes 1-10, The Burton Club (1885-1888)
  • Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, Chapman & Hall, London (1840)
  • Hugh Chisholm (editor), The Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, Volume 17, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (1911)
  • Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford (1982)
  • Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 9, Strahan & Cadell, London (1776)
  • Edith Holland, The Story of Mohammed, George G Harrap & Co, London (1914)
  • Quintus Horatius Flaccus, Lord Lytton (translator), The Odes and Epodes of Horace, Harper & Brothers, Publishers, New York (1870)
  • Thomas Patrick Hughes, A Dictionary of Islam, W H Allen & Co, London (1885)
  • James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, The Viking Press, New York (1958, 1966)
  • Joseph-Charles Mardrus, Le Koran: Traduction Littérale et Complète des Sourates Essentiales, Eugène Fasquelle, Paris (1926)
  • Stanley Lane-Poole, The Speeches and Table-Talk of the Prophet Mohammad, Macmillan & Co, London (1882)
  • Danis Rose, John O’Hanlon, The Restored Finnegans Wake, Penguin Classics, London (2012)
  • George Sale, The Koran, J Wilcox, London (1734)
  • Giambattista Vico, Goddard Bergin (translator), Max Harold Fisch (translator), The New Science of Giambattista Vico, Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY (1948)
  • Aida Yared, _Introducing Islam in Finnegans Wake: The Story of Mohammed in VI.B.45 _, Genetic Joyce Studies, Issue 1, Spring 2001, University of Antwerp (2001)

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