by Robert Guffey
“Electricity comes from other planets.” – Lou Reed, 1968
McLuhan’s main influence was Joyce, and it is the contention of this essay that Joyce’s main imperative with Finnegans Wake was to approximate the hyperlink effect of the Internet in visual space fifty years before the Internet was even invented.
Before Marshall McLuhan became “the High Priest of Popcult and the Metaphysician of the Media,” as Playboy christened him in 1969, he was first and foremost a critic immersed in the world of letters and the traditional arts. He wrote numerous articles examining the fiction and poetry of such writers as G.K. Chesterton, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Edgar Allan Poe, and Ezra Pound. In 1969, after his transformation into a “media guru,” McGraw-Hill published a collection of his early literary criticism under the title The Interior Landscape. Prima facie, one finds little in these essays that hint at the freewheeling, satirical media analysis to come. It is indeed there, however, lurking just beneath the surface if one wishes to find it.
On May 2nd, 1967, McLuhan said, “I once wrote an article, “The Southern Quality” back in ’46 or ’47 where I explained why there was no human life on this planet. Since then human beings have been grown inside programmed media-environments that are essentially like test tubes. That’s why I say the kids today live mythically” (Dobbs, “Android Meme’s Xenochrony” 38). If one goes back and reads the article in question, “The Southern Quality,” an essay primarily dealing with the aesthetics of Southern novelists and poets, one finds in the opening paragraph a brief reference to the disappearance of human life connected to the detonation of the atom bomb in 1945 (McLuhan, Interior Landscape 185). If one was not familiar with McLuhan’s later writing, the comment would appear to be a complete non sequitor. Instead, it probably amounts to one of the most prescient comments he ever made. That he chose to do it in an otherwise straightforward literary essay shows that McLuhan had not yet found the proper outlet for his attitudes and theories.
It was not until he began teaching at the University of Wisconsin, where he came face to face with the cool aloofness of American youth, that he struck upon the answer. He realized that his students couldn’t be less interested in the literary work of esoteric writers dead for more than a hundred years. The only way to connect with his students would be to talk to them in their own language. He began studying pop culture, which led to his fascination with Madison Avenue advertisements and their use of literary and artistic techniques to control public consciousness. Instead of poems and stories and novels, he began bringing the ads to class in order to teach his students the form and function of these literary techniques. To his surprise, he found that a newspaper ad projected onto a classroom wall in the form of a slide would often elicit a hardy round of laughter. If the students had seen the very same ad in a magazine or on a billboard, they would have thought nothing of it. For some reason, removing the ad from its intended context transformed its very nature. Ultimately, this led him to the realization that “the medium is the message” (Understanding Media 23). Content didn’t matter. It led him to write the first scholarly text that attempted to analyze and codify what had once been an invisible art form: advertisements. Of course, there were also practical reasons for choosing to focus primarily on advertisements in The Mechanical Bride. At that time, advertisements were not copyrighted; thus, McLuhan could manipulate them in any way he wished without fearing legal reprisals.
Even as McLuhan extended his analysis to encompass such mundane but transcendental objects as the telephone, the automobile, the telegraph, money, clothing, clocks, comic books, weapons, televisions, and freeways, he never ceased drawing upon his vast knowledge of literary history. His 1962 exploration into the effects of the printed word, The Gutenberg Galaxy, opens with King Lear and ends with Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad. His 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, employs Shakespeare’s plays As You Like It, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, and Troilus and Cressida, William Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch, Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat, Wyndham Lewis’ Childermass, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, including various works by such diverse writers as W.H. Auden, Charles Baudelaire, Miguel de Cervantes, Agatha Christie, Joseph Conrad, e. e. cummings, John Donne, T.S. Eliot, Franz Kafka, John Keats, D.H. Lawrence, Andrew Marvell, Michel Montaigne, Francois Rabelais, Leo Tolstoy, Paul Valery, and William Butler Yeats. But the writer to whom McLuhan continued to return over and over again, perhaps most prominently in his 1968 book War and Peace in the Global Village, was James Joyce. And the book McLuhan drew upon most obsessively was Finnegans Wake.
In McLuhan’s eyes, Joyce was the true prophet of today’s cybernetic, hypermedia culture. With Finnegans Wake, McLuhan believed Joyce succeeded in crafting “an extremely complex ‘artificial language’ to respond to the challenge of the syncretistic and synaesthetic tendencies of the emerging modes of communicative and expressional technology” (Theall, Virtual McLuhan 161). The technique in Finnegans Wake that McLuhan continually highlighted was Joyce’s synaesthetic fusion of the dream-time and our media extensions, the Menippean ability to mix carnivalesque humor with a scholarly, historical overview of how “the shifts within scientific thought… impinge on human communications” (Theall 176). For the centerpiece of War and Peace in the Global Village McLuhan presents his analysis of Joyce’s ten thunders, those enigmatic one-hundred-letter words that periodically explode from the pages of the Wake, as representing the ten technological stages of mankind.
That it took almost thirty years for a serious scholar to analyze the ten thunders in something more than a transient manner underscores the attitude of ambivalence that most literary critics have displayed toward Joyce’s masterpiece. The relationship that most critics have had with the work could properly be described as one of approach-avoidance. It’s one of the least read entries in the canon of acknowledged classics. To this day literature majors on college campuses all across the globe consider the book to be “unreadable” and avoid it like an envelope dipped in anthrax. If it sits upon one’s shelf, it is assumed by visitors to be nothing more than a dust-covered commodity intended to represent one’s feigned intellectual superiority. The idea that one might actually enjoy reading the work, just as much as the next-door neighbor might enjoy reading the Holy Bible or the latest installment of the Weekly World News, is unthinkable.
This attitude is not new. In 1939, the year the Wake was published, the influential American critic Alfred Kazin wrote in the New York Herald Tribune, “As one tortures one’s way through Finnegans Wake an impression grows that Joyce has lost his hold on human life. Obsessed by a spaceless and timeless void, he has outrun himself. We begin to feel that his very freedom to say anything has become a compulsion to say nothing” (Henderson 54).
It took five years for the first serious study to be published. A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson drew heavily upon various psychoanalytic theories, particularly those of Dr. Carl Jung, unveiling the book’s archetypal and mythological subtext. Most importantly, Campbell and Robinson demonstrated that the book was not “spaceless and timeless.” It had a traditional plot that could be deciphered if one was diligent enough to try. The only reason the book seemed “to say nothing” to the casual reader was because it refused to be tied down to a single culture. It drew upon hundreds of different mythologies and religions and languages, highlighting the connections among them rather than the elements that divided them. It’s easy to see how the Wake may have inspired Campbell’s later breakthrough work, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which traced the underlying similarities among myths and fairy tales throughout various cultures and time periods.
A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake influenced almost every work of Joycean scholarship that followed. Critics latched onto the mythological interpretation and began searching for archetypal symbols in the book like eager children hunting for Easter eggs. This trend lasted for about a decade, ranging from the publication of William York Tindall’s James Joyce: His Way of Interpreting the Modern World in 1950 to Marvin Magalaner’s Time of Apprenticeship in 1959.
The year 1959 also marked the publication of Richard Ellman’s biography, entitled simply James Joyce, which to this day is considered the definitive text on Joyce’s life. Its influence on Joycean critics was enormous, for it shifted the focus away from fastidious dissections of archetypal symbols to less lofty studies of the autobiographical content in the Wake. The impact of Ellman’s biography can be detected in the most important critical studies of the ‘60s, including S.L. Goldberg’s The Classical Temper and Robert M. Adam’s James Joyce: Common Sense and Beyond.
The year 1963 marked the founding of the James Joyce Quarterly. In 1967 came the international James Joyce Symposia. Not surprisingly, these two developments helped facilitate a deeper maturation of Joyce criticism. The work became longer and more complex, as with Arnold Goldman’s application of Kirkegaard’s philosophical theories to the Wake in his 1966 book The Joyce Paradox (Lernout 23-24).
The major breakthrough in Joyce criticism came in 1968 with the publication of Marshall McLuhan’s War and Peace in the Global Village. Its concise overview of the ten thunders would later serve as the outline for Eric McLuhan’s 1982 PhD. Thesis Menippean Thunder at Finnegans Wake. Eric, Marshall’s son, was raised on his father’s breathless monologues expounding on the significance of the Wake. Fifteen years later, his thesis would evolve into the book The Role of Thunder in Finnegans Wake. In the preface to this book, Eric McLuhan writes:
“Many of the discoveries and insights that make up this essay are latent or were foreshadowed in [Marshall McLuhan’s] writings and observations about culture and technology. He was never reticent about the debt he owed to Joyce in particular, and frequently uttered and published such statements as this: ‘Nobody could pretend serious interest in my work who is not completely familiar with all of the works of James Joyce….’ Such statements were intended to be taken quite literally: a full appreciation of McLuhan’s work is impossible without the sort of perceptual training that such familiarity instills [. . .]. He once remarked to me, as I know he did to many others, that his work on media and culture was, in the main, ‘applied Joyce.’ Conversely, then, it might be fair to say that no one can claim a serious appreciation of Joyce’s work without a complete familiarity with the full spectrum of McLuhan’s work. (xi-xii)”
Many critics seem to agree. McLuhan’s work in the field of communications has inspired such later Joycean scholars as Umberto Eco (The Aesthetics of Chaosmos, 1982), Robert Anton Wilson (Coincidance, 1988), Robert Dobbs (Phatic Communion, 1992), and Donald Theall (James Joyce’s Techno-poetics, 1997). To a greater or lesser extent, each of them has applied McLuhanesque theories not only to Joyce’s work, but to other works of literature as well. Given McLuhan’s broad spectrum of interests, his theories can be applied to almost any man-made artifact. After reading enough McLuhan, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between “art” and “artifact.” Robert Dobbs has applied McLuhanesque critical theories not only to the music of Frank Zappa and the films of David Lynch, but also to crop circles and the destruction of the World Trade Center (Dobbs Interview). With somewhat less erudition, I have applied McLuhanesque theory to the Wachowski Brothers’ science fiction film The Matrix (see “Synchronistic-Linguistics in The Matrix” in Paranoia #22 or at www.paranoiamagazine.com/matrix.html).
Because he was a generalist, McLuhan’s work seems to speak to a vast number of people outside academia, to professionals and non-professionals alike. The present author is acquainted with a 53-year-old man whose expertise in the field of communications far outweighs that of any tenured PhD., and yet he works as a janitor at a high school in Reseda, CA; he’s currently writing an eccentric, McLuhanesque interpretation of the films of Walt Disney. As McLuhan himself once demonstrated, “Professionalism is obsolete” (The Medium Is the Massage 92-93). And yet the paradox is this: numerous professionals, particularly those working at the cutting-edge of computer technology, consider McLuhan to be the Patron Saint of the Wired World: “[. . .] many recognized writers on the subject of hypertext and/or virtual reality—such as Michael Heim, George Landow, Richard Lanham, Stuart Moulthrop, Jay Bolter, Michael Benedikt, and Howard Rheingold—specifically include McLuhan as one of the important anticipators of the contemporary cyberculture [. . .]” (Theall 162).
This shouldn’t be surprising since McLuhan’s main influence was Joyce, and it is the contention of this essay that Joyce’s main imperative with Finnegans Wake was to approximate the hyperlink effect of the Internet in visual space fifty years before the Internet was even invented. Further, it is the contention of this essay that there are twelve thunders in Finnegans Wake, not ten; the eleventh represents the final technological development of the 20th century. The twelfth represents something even more staggering: an evolutionary jump in the future consciousness of the human race.
The first thunder (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbrontonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenethurnuk!) appears on p. 3 of the Wake. Like all the thunders, it is peppered with various words for “thunder” from a wide variety of cultures throughout the ages. On a surface level, it is “the noise made by the thumping of Finnegan’s body tumbling down the ladder,” a noise that is “identical with the Viconian thunderclap, the voice of God’s wrath, which terminates the old aeon and starts the cycle of history anew” (Campbell 31). But when does history begin? For Joyce, as for McLuhan, the history of mankind begins with the history of technology. The first thunderclap contains numerous references to the earliest forms of technology. For example, “bad” is German for “wheel” and “ghara” is Hindu for “a wheeled cart.” “Thur” is Arabic for “revolution,” which evokes the function of a wheel as well as the recorso structure of the entire novel. “Nor” is Arabic for “fire,” perhaps the earliest of all technologies. “Narro” is Latin for “tell” or “report,” which evokes the function of speech, yet another embryonic technology. “Hoor” is Danish for “flax,” a plant whose stem provided the threadlike fibers that enabled early man to weave the earliest forms of clothing (McLuhan, The Role of Thunder 50-55), which is an appropriate segue into the second thunder.
The second thunder (Perkodhuskurunbarggruauyagokgorlayorgromgremmitghundhurthrumathunaradidillifaititillibumullunukkunun!) appears on p. 23 in the section on “the Prankquean,” the underage seductress who combines elements of Lilith, Cleopatra, the witch Isolde, and the infamous Irish pirate Grace O’Malley. According to Robert Dobbs, the Prankquean represents the beginnings of visual space.
“[. . .] the beginnings of piracy, exploitation, pillaging and creating wealth reservoirs. Then clothing comes in as social weaponry. Clothing becomes fashion, or aggression [. . .]. So before that you just had non-visual man, he was not visually designing himself. The second thunder starts to bring in the visually designing levels of social organization and social power. (“On the Ten Thunders 1)”
Clothing as weaponry: transforming one’s house into a suit of armor. The references to clothing in the second thunder are numerous. “Odhus” refers to Cornelius Otis, an actress famous for having thrown her clothes off while on stage. “Dhus” refers to Eleanora Duse, another actress similar to Otis. “Husk” refers not only to clothing, but to the beginnings of agriculture, another nascent form of technology. “Orlayor” refers not only to a “layer” of clothing, but also to the fact that everybody in Dublin wants to “lay her” (“her” being the Prankquean). Not coincidentally, this is followed by “grom,” which is Arabic for “love.” “Thrum” is Old English for “waste threads,” which ties back into the first thunder where we encountered the Danish word for thread, “hoor,” which sounds suspiciously like a certain English word often used to denigrate women like the Prankquean. Returning to the second thunder: “Ara” could very well refer to Aran, an isle where cloth was woven and ships were built. “Diddle” is, of course, English slang for sexual intercourse, an act that most often occurs only after one has removed his or her clothes. “Unuk” sounds suspiciously like “eunuch,” which represents the role reversal of matriarchal sexual dominance, a superior status the Prankquean has attained by using her clothes against men as if it were a weapon (McLuhan, The Role of Thunder 70-74).
The third thunder begins with the syllable “klik” (Joyce 44). This refers to the beginning of “cliques,” when priests begin to run society.
The fourth thunder begins with the syllables “Bladyyughfoulmoecklenburg” (Joyce 90). “Foulmoecklenburg” literally refers to dirt-ridden medieval “burgs” (towns) filled with “moeck” (muck). We’ve now progressed from the Egyptian B.C. times of priest castes to the medieval era when economic systems began to dominate “patterns of nature” (McLuhan, War and Peace 47). The penultimate syllable in this thunder is “nach,” which is Arabic for “cash.” The preceding, overlapping syllable is “anach,” which is Gaelic for “path,” referring to the building of roads. This thunder represents the beginning of market gardens, “carts and oxen delivering food to a market” (Dobbs, “On the Ten Thunders” 2).
The fifth thunder begins with the syllables “Thingcrooklyexineverypasture” and ends with “mindlookingated” (Joyce 113). This brings us to the distortion of human thought patterns via the invention of the printing press. We’ve reached the industrial age of the photo, the newspaper, and assembly-line reproduction. This is a crucial section, in which Belinda the hen retrieves the Letter from the dung heap and a Kafkaesque jury sits in judgement of its supposed “obscene” contents, no doubt mirroring Joyce’s earlier legal entanglements surrounding Ulysses. The subtext, however, is far more complex. The first syllable (“Thing”) is Norwegian for “tribal council” (i.e., the jury). “Inger” evokes the French word “encre,” which means “ink” (i.e., the printed word). “Crook” is an English word meaning “thief,” which refers to the visual/spatial concept of plagiarism, an Occidental bias that words (i.e., ideas made of “ink”) are actual physical objects, “things” that can be stolen like bags of food or money. Synchronistically, the word “crookly” is Norwegian for “print.” “Yex” evokes the French word “yeux,” which means eyes (i.e., visual space) (McLuhan, The Role of Thunder 126-27).
The last four syllables of the fifth thunder examines the theme of visual space even further. The word “mindlooking” seems to evoke the concept of ESP. Thus, the word “mindlooking” literally means that the rise of the printed word has suppressed (“gated”) mankind’s facility for direct mind-to-mind communication; a concept often written about by occult writers such as Madame Blavatsky, whose works were well-known to Joyce (Ellmann 179).
The sixth thunder begins with the syllables “Lukkedoerend” (Joyce 257). “Luk” refers to visual space once again. “Lukke” evokes the name of the Norse god Loki, thus referring to the return of tribal gods. “Lukked” is not too far from “lukket,” which is a Danish word for “closed.” “Lukkedoer” sounds very similar to the English phrase “lock the door,” while the word “oerend” sounds like “era end” (the end of an era). Embedded in the middle of the thunder we find the word “looshoofer” (Lucifer), which overlaps with the word “oofer” (evoking the Arabic word for bird, “asfour”), which overlaps with “ofermo” (inferno). Inferno-bird=fire-bird=phoenix. This thunder refers to the metamorphosis of visually biased man with the introduction of electric environments: the death of the old gods, and from their ashes the birth of the new fire (electricity) (McLuhan, The Role of Thunder 146-48).
Though it would be advantageous to study each thunder in extreme detail, space constraints prevent such an in-depth level of analysis. By this point the reader will probably have begun to understand the general structure of each thunder. Thus, out of necessity, the following summations will be more concise. Thunder seven appears on p. 314, thunder eight on p. 332, thunder nine on p. 414, and thunder ten on p. 424.
“[. . .] seven is the beginning of the first electric technologies (the telegraph and radio era). Number eight is the wedding of sight and sound, the silent movie with the radio talkie, the radio soundtrack, the radio acoustic. So you have the integration of sight and sound again. Thunder nine deals with the technologies of the airplane and the automobile. Thunder ten deals with television. Those are the last five thunders, but number six gives the general pattern of the metamorphosis caused by those electric technologies [. . .]. (Dobbs, “On the Ten Thunders” 3-4).”
At least one thing that should be clear from the preceding overview of the thunders is the way in which various words link to one another, exactly as on the Internet, overlapping and forming new concepts that sometimes contradict the definition of the previous meaning. This technique is not limited to the thunders; it occurs all throughout the Wake. The book is one gigantic mass of chaotic paradoxes. It doesn’t seem possible that any single book could contain every element in the Wake at one time, and yet somehow the structure manages to hold. Conversely, the entire story is stored within each individual element. As early as 1944, Campbell and Robinson pointed out that the first four paragraphs of the Wake contain the book’s entire contents in embryonic form. One might propose that Joyce structured the book to behave like a hologram. Just as a fraction of a hologram contains all the information of the original image, the entire structure of the Wake is contained within each page, each paragraph, each sentence, each word. Joyce intended the Wake to be a summation of the entire universe, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the field of quantum physics would later propose a theoretical model of the universe as a hologram. If each element of the universe contained the entirety of the whole structure, then such “paranormal” phenomena as ESP and precognition would seem quite plausible (Talbot 205-13).
As Marshall McLuhan wrote in his last book The Laws of Media, when pushed to extremes every technology flips into its opposite function (9). Thus, every man-made artifact has a recorso structure, like the Wake. It makes perfect sense, then, that mankind’s precognitive and telepathic abilities wiped out by the rise of the printed word would be retrieved through the ubiquity of the electronic environment. In his 1972 book Take Today, McLuhan wrote:
“ESP IS OLD HAT WHEN EFFECTS PRECEDE CAUSES. The patterns of formerly hidden processes now begin to obtrude on every hand. Prescience, prophetic vision, and artistic awareness are no longer needed to establish an understanding of the most secret causes of personal and social processes. Mere electric speed-up makes X-ray awareness natural. (193)”
The electric environment, which formerly divided the human population into solipsistic bubbles of existential angst and urban despair, is now bringing disparate minds together at a speed just below that of thought itself. The Internet is a technological approximation of ESP. The electric environment, just as McLuhan predicted, has flipped into its opposite extreme. McLuhan would never have been able to make this prediction if he hadn’t been a devoted student of Joyce. With Finnegans Wake, Joyce predicted the effects of the Internet on mass consciousness. The Wake was Joyce’s attempt to approximate that effect in terms of visual space.
How could Joyce have known about the coming computer revolution? Res ipsa loquitor. How could he have known about the invention of L.S.D., three letters that recur throughout the Wake (pp. 68, 107, and 260 are only three examples), or the detonation of the atom bomb (on p. 353) and the subsequent destruction of Nagasaki (“nogeysokey” on p. 315)? Robert Anton Wilson, co-author of the best-selling Illuminatus! Trilogy, has even gone so far as to suggest that Joyce anticipated the structure of DNA in Ulysses over thirty years before Watson and Crick made their discovery (Wilson 169-70). But why should that be a surprise? After all, we know for a fact that Joyce discovered the quark (Joyce 383).
Gerry Fialka, who leads a Finnegans Wake reading group at the Venice Beach Public Library the first Monday of every month, once asked Robert Dobbs, “Did Joyce have ESP?” Dobbs responded as follows:
“ESP is something most poets have in a slight way. But it is not important to have ESP. He had a cultural ESP [. . .]. When you understand the effects and see where the causes of those effects come from, you are seeing things from beyond any cultistic [perspective]. Part of the reason [Joyce was] suppressed was his message: his message was the death of the visual medium by the new modern 20th century electric technologies. FINNEGANS AWAKE. It’s a headline. A warning. Finn’s awake! The electric environment is here to whip us out. Part of Joyce’s ethos was media ecology. [He] knew the electric environment was a new ramparts, a new battle cry, a new fire from outer space, that was consuming the whole planet. And it did happen. It ended with the bomb. For some literate scientists, the atomic bomb was predicted by Finnegans Wake. They saw the title as a phrase that expressed what happened to man when he ended history with the atomic bomb (Dobbs, “On the Ten Thunders”16-17).”
The idea that Joyce possessed ESP has been hinted at by Joyce himself. He often referred to himself as an “amanuensis” (Dick, Piper in the Woods), a word Webster defines as follows: “one whose employment is to write what another dictates, or to copy what another has written.” But from whom was Joyce taking dictation? Perhaps the answer is “the uncreated conscience of [his] race” (Joyce, Portrait 218), what Dobbs referred to as “cultural ESP,” what Joyce’s colleague Ezra Pound was referring to when he called the artist “the antennae of the race” (McLuhan, Understanding Media xi). It’s interesting to note that Pound chose to use the word “antennae,” which immediately evokes images of television, a medium that plays a significant role in the Wake.
On p. 52 of the Wake Joyce wrote, “Television kills telephony in brothers’ broil.” What Joyce meant by this statement was that each new medium inevitably comes in conflict with the old one. As McLuhan wrote in War and Peace in the Global Village, “Every new technology necessitates a new war” (98). Television is the tenth thunder. Inevitably, it must come into conflict with the eleventh thunder. But aren’t there only ten thunders in Finnegans Wake?
The eleventh thunder is the Internet. At a time when one can read e-mail messages on a wristwatch, it’s almost unnecessary to point out that the Internet is the zenith of “nanotechnology.”1 However, this concept was once considered laughable even in the realm of science fiction (with the possible exception of Isaac Asimov’s 1965 novel Fantastic Voyage).
I am in possession of a rare copy of one of the earliest “alien contactee” books entitled Other Tongues, Other Flesh (http://www.sacred-texts.com/ufo/otof/index.htm), within the pages of which George Hunt Williamson relates the following information allegedly given to him by extraterrestrials: in the future, spacecraft will be powered by sentient crystals that have the ability to make decisions independently and house whole libraries within a storage space as wide as the tip of one’s index finger (290-92). This at a time (1953) when the most sophisticated science fiction authors were still writing about futuristic “central computers” the size of cities. The idea of “miniaturization” was simply not a popular one at the time. It’s appropriate, then, that Joyce chose to represent the Internet as an abbreviated form of the word “thunder”: “Thud” (Joyce 612). The miniaturized thunder. The Wake, too, is an early form of nanotechnology: the entire universe compacted in a book no thicker than three centimeters.
Any thunder that follows the invention of the atom bomb (“The abnihilisation of the etym,” as Joyce writes on p. 353 of the Wake) would inevitably seem anti-climatic. Thus, Joyce chose to represent the penultimate thunder as a lingering echo of the explosion that ended history: “Thud.” The period that follows the exclamation point. The whisper that follows the scream.
A recurring theme in UFO literature is the idea that the aliens began their surveillance of Earth due to the detonation of the atom bomb (e.g., Williamson 157). Indeed, a remarkable increase in UFO sightings occurs at that very point. One need only check the headlines of the L.A. Times at that time period; hardly a day goes by without a dramatic flying saucer report emblazoned on the front page. Given Marshall McLuhan’s conception of the atom bomb as the end of history, it seems darkly ironic to think of the aliens arriving the day after the world ended. (We needn’t stretch our imagination too far to come up with an alternate theory: that the completion of the Wake drew the aliens to Earth, but it took them seven years to arrive.)
Perhaps this is why Joyce included communication with Martians as mere marginalia in Part II of the Wake (263): “Mars speaking.” It’s as if Joyce is saying: Mars is speaking, but nobody’s listening. (Joyce could also have been referring to McLuhan, whose close friends knew him by the nickname “Mars.” Of course, nobody listened to him either.) The possibility of communication with extraterrestrials has fascinated mankind long before the work of Wells, Welles, or Williamson. A recurring theme in “contactee” lore is the idea that the aliens behave as an insectoid “hive mind” who communicate with one another through telepathy (Chapman 13, 75). If so, perhaps these beings were not always capable of such advanced forms of communication. Perhaps their technology made them that way.
“When a man-made environment circumvents the entire planet, moon, and galaxy, there is no alternative to total knowledge programming of all human enterprise. Any form of imbalance proves fatal at electric speeds with the superpowers released by the new technological resources representing the full spectrum of the human senses and faculties. Survival now would seem to depend upon the extension of consciousness itself as an environment. This extension of consciousness has already begun with the computer and has been anticipated in our obsession with ESP and occult awareness. (McLuhan, Take Today 14)”
Joyce anticipated the effects; we’re providing the causes. Perhaps when the new digital environment has subsumed and merged with the old electric environment, Finnegans Wake will be as easy to read as the Holy Bible or the Weekly World News.
In a recent issue of the latter publication, aliens from Zeti Reticuli were interviewed about their predictions for the coming year. One alien, named P’lod, was quoted as saying internet companies would enjoy a remarkable increase in profits in the early months of 2007 (Foster 49). McLuhan would not be surprised to hear that the economic “THUD” of the dot-com world was only a transitory setback in the digital revolution. Nor would he be surprised to learn that “Thud” is just one letter away from “thur,” the penultimate syllable in the first thunder, as well as the Arabic word for “revolution.” Thus, like the Wake itself, our own personal revolution has spun us back to the beginning.
We need add only one more thought in order to complete this journey. If Joyce could predict the discovery of DNA and the invention of lysergic-acid-25, the atom bomb, and the internet, then it should be possible for a modern day reader to predict future societal trends using the Wake as a divinatory tool. What comes after the global consciousness facilitated by the internet? Joyce’s protégé, Samuel Beckett, once wrote, “Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.” In the near future human beings might very well communicate without the need for any form of technology, including speech.
The twelfth thunder is silence (Joyce 629).
©2007 Robert Guffey. Robert Guffey is a graduate of the Master of Fine Arts Program at California State University at Long Beach. He is also a graduate of the Clarion writer’s workshop in Seattle, WA. His first published short story “The Infant Kiss” received an Honorable Mention in the 2001 edition of The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror (Vol. #14). His short stories, articles and interviews have appeared in such magazines and anthologies as After Shocks, The Chiron Review, The Fortean Times, Like Water Burning, Modern Magic, Mysteries, New Dawn, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Paranoia, The Pedestal, Riprap, Steamshovel Press, The Third Alternative and UFO Magazine. He is currently teaching English at CSU Long Beach. He can be contacted at [email protected].
Campbell, Joseph and Henry Morton Robinson. A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake. New
York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1944. The first serious work of scholarship analyzing James Joyce’s final book.
Chapman, Douglas. “The Abduction Enigma.” Strange Magazine 1 (1987): 10-18, 74-77.
An overview of possible explanations for the “alien abduction” phenomena.
Dick, Philip K. Interview. Piper in the Woods. By Gregg Rickman. Audio cassette. Rickman,
1987. Dick discusses the philosophical subtext of his work.
Dobbs, Robert. “Android Meme’s Xenochrony.” Flipside 117 (March/April 1999): 38. A
single installment in an on-going series of diary entries featuring conversations between Dobbs and many influential thinkers such as Marshall McLuhan, Mae Brussell, Reinhard Gehlen, William Taub, and Frank Zappa.
—. “Bob On the Ten Thunders of Finnegans Wake.” Venice Beach: n.p., 1992. Later
published under the revised title “Bob Dobbs Explains Finnegans Wake Via the Ten Thunders.” Flipside 98 (October/November): 64-74. A concise summary of the McLuhanesque view on the Ten Thunders.
—. Telephone interview. 11 September 2001. An hour-long dialogue focusing on Dobbs’
McLuhanesque interpretation of the terrorist attacks on New York City.
Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. New York: Oxford U P, 1959. This is widely regarded as the
best and most comprehensive biography of Joyce ever written.
Fort, Charles. The Books of Charles Fort. 1941. New York: Henry Holt, 1957. A collection of
Fort’s four books of speculative journalism including The Book of the Damned (1919), New Lands (1923), LO! (1931), and Wild Talents (1932).
Foster, Mike. “P’lod Predicts the Future!” The Weekly World News 25 Sep. 2006: 49. A
tabloid article that purports to feature an interview with an extra-terrestrial from the Zeti Reticuli star system.
Henderson, Bill. Rotten Reviews. New York: Viking Penguin, 1987. Collects early negative
reviews of novels that are now acknowledged to be classics.
Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. 1939. New York: Viking, 1968. An attempt at approximating
the hyperlink effect of the internet in visual space.
Lernout, Geert. The French Joyce. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1990. Traces the history of
Joyce criticism from 1939 onward.
McLuhan, Eric. The Role of Thunder in Finnegans Wake. Toronto: U of Toronto, 1997.
Interprets the Ten Thunders in Finnegans Wake in terms of the ten technological stages of mankind.
McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy. 1962. New York: Signet, 1969. Posits that the
invention of the printing press radically altered the consciousness of mankind.
—. The Interior Landscape. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969. A collection of McLuhan’s
literary criticism dating from 1943 to 1962.
—. The Mechanical Bride. 1951. Boston: Beacon P, 1967. A Menippean satire of Madison
Avenue’s advertising techniques.
—. Understanding Media. New York: Signet, 1964. Probes the effects of electronic
communications upon man and the twentieth century.
McLuhan, Marshall and Eric McLuhan. The Laws of Media. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1988.
Introduces the concept of the tetrad, a four-step process that can be performed upon any man-made artifact to determine their present and future effects upon society.
McLuhan, Marshall and Barrington Nevitt. Take Today: The Executive as Dropout. New York:
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972. Explores the programming of human consciousness
via retrievals and replays of the tribal unconscious.
McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore. War and Peace in the Global Village. New York:
Bantam, 1968. A fusion of photographs, ads, illustrations, and text meant to expose the absurdity of modern consumer culture through Menippean satire.
Talbot, Michael. The Holographic Universe. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. An in-depth
application of quantum theories, particularly those proposed by David Bohm and Karl Priban, to the field of the “paranormal.”
Theall, Donald. James Joyce’s Techno-Poetics. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1997. Analyzes
Joyce’s work in the context of contemporary cyberculture.
—. The Virtual Marshall McLuhan. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s U P, 2001. The best and most
recent biography of Marshall McLuhan.
The Velvet Underground. VU. Polygram, 1984. A collection of previously unreleased
recordings dating from Feb. 1968 to Sep. 1969. Includes the song “Temptation Inside Your Heart,” from which the opening epigraph of this essay is derived.
Williamson, George Hunt. Other Tongues, Other Flesh. Amherst, WI: Amherst P, 1953. An
autobiographical account of Williamson’s encounters with an apparent non-human intelligence.
Wilson, Robert Anton. Coincidance. Phoenix: Falcon P, 1968. An anthology of various
articles, the centerpiece of which is a four-part essay examining synchronicity and isomorphism in Finnegans Wake.
1 In using this word I’m simply referring to the “miniaturization of technology,” not necessarily the “nanotechnology” that Eric Drexler writes about in such books as Engines of Creation.