riverunning running and running running…
Passages from Finnegans Wake, Mary Ellen Bute, 1966
I got my first real glimpse of that beast in the Burger Chef restaurant that used to occupy the basement of the Cathedral of Learning, at the University of Pittsburgh, in my senior year, when a classmate in Josephine O’Brien Schaefer’s Ulysses seminar tossed a paperback copy across our table and dared me to open it to any page and make head or tail of what I found there. At that moment I was feeling surprisingly equal to the challenge. Under the captaincy of Professor Schaefer I had sailed undiscouraged between the wandering rocks of Ulysses, clear through the book’s later chapters, in which sense and intention lay in ambush and rained flaming arrows of rhetoric on us as we rowed madly past them. So it was with a traveled optimism that I accepted my friend’s throw-down that morning, opened the book to its first page, and wondered, as readers around the world have done since 1939, at the problem posed by its first sentence, with its beautiful first word. A word unprecedented, enigmatically uncapitalized, with a faintly Tolkienesque echo, to my nerdish ear, of Rivendell and Rohirrim. Indented and dangling, mid-page, mid-sentence, a sentence twisting like an inchworm from its filament:
riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle & Environs.
So: a river, running past Eden or some Eden analogue, swerving and bending as it made its way to Howth Castle and its surroundings, i.e., Dublin on the Liffey, a city whose geography I knew well enough by now to be able to recognize at once the name of Howth, the castle hill on whose slopes Leopold Bloom had proposed to Miss Marion Tweedy. Maybe, I considered—having played Mr. Antrobus, a modern Adam, in my high school’s production of The Skin of Our Teeth—in this book Joyce did for the story of Adam and Eve what Ulysses did for the Odyssey, transposing it to contemporary Dublin to ironize the indignities and intricacies of twentieth-century life and consciousness.
Clear enough—apart from that “commodius vicus of recirculation.” Of those four words I could manage only 50 percent comprehension, and one of my keepers was “of.” Obviously the water in the river was recirculating—history repeating itself?—but when it came to “commodius vicus” (adjective-noun? Latin phrase describing Dublin as a “vicious commode”?), I had nothing. The sentence seemed to have been smeared over at its center with a greasy thumbprint.