Joyce and Tao

james joyce
Joyce and Tao

By Robert Anton Wilson

From The James Joyce Review, vol. 3, 1959

Throughout the long day of Ulysses the thoughts of Stephen Dedalus and Mr. Bloom repeatedly return to the East; and this is not without reason. Ulysses is so profoundly Oriental in mood and conception that Carl Jung has recommended it as a new Bible for the white race. Molly Bloom’s fervent “Yes” mirrors the author’s acceptance of life in its entirety – an acceptance that transcends the dualisms of light and dark, good and evil, beautiful and sordid.

But every sensitive reader of Ulysses knows that this “acceptance” involved only part of the author’s sensibility. The agony, the misanthropy, the (at times) neurotic satire, all testify to Joyce’s incomplete realization of what his instincts were trying to tell him. Only in Finnegans Wake does the true Oriental note sing uninterruptedly from beginning to end. The morbid rebel against the most morbid Church in Christendom had to go the long way round to reach the shortest way home. The affirmation of Ulysses is forced (not “insincere” any more than the neurotic’s desire to be cured is “insincere”); the affirmation of the Wake engages every level of the author’s sensibility, from cortex to cojones – the whole man affirms, as in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.

The purpose of this present brief essay is to show that the Chinese philosophy of the Tao contributed largely to the shape of Joyce’s affirmation. “Laotsey taotsey” (page 242), or Lao-Tse’s doctrine of the Tao, explains a great many things about Finnegans Wake: the river -woman symbol, the Shem-Shaun dualism, the special quality of Joyce’s humor, the “time” philosophy underlying its form.

Chapter 6 of the Tao Te Ching says:

The valley spirit never dies
                                    It is called the Eternal Female.

Some Sinologists trace this “Eternal Female” back to a Chinese “Urmutter” myth of pre-Chou times, but Lao-Tse was far beyond primitive mythology. He was using this myth as a pointer, to indicate the values that must have been in the society which created the myth. The distinction between Patrist and Matrist cultures made in such books as Ian Suttie’s The Origins of Love and Hate and G. Rattray Taylor’s Sex in History (not to mention Robert Graves’ The White Goddess ) places the Taoists as representatives of a Matrist social-ethical system living in Confucian Patrist China. The “Golden Age” of the Taoists did actually exist, whether or not it deserves to called Golden: it was the Matriarchal. pre-Feudal China destroyed by the Chou State and official Confucian philosophy. Chapter 28 of the Tao Te Ching defines the psychology and ethics of Taoism:

  He who knows the male, yet clings to the female,
                              Becomes like a valley, receiving all things under heaven

The female qualities of receptivity, acceptance, passivity, etc. are preferred to the masculine ethical rigor of Confucianism. Kuan Tzu explains this in its simplest terms: “The sage follows after things, therefore he can control them.” Every married man knows how typically feminine  – and how effective – this is. What is not so obvious is that this is, really, the philosophy of modern science. Bacon says: “We cannot command nature except by obeying her.” (Cf. the Marxian “freedom as the recognition of necessity.”) A letter by – of all people – Thomas Henry Huxley drives home the point, showing the innate connection between religious humility and scientific method.

Science seems to me to teach in the highest and strongest manner the great truth which is embodied in the Christian conception of entire surrender to the will of God. Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses Nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.

The Taoists saw this attitude represented most clearly by women and by water, and made these the chief symbols of their religion. Orthodox Christians can understand why this approach is valuable to the scientist, but that it is the highest form of religion also, is certainly difficult for anyone conditioned to dogmatisms to accept. The Taoists put “acceptance” where the West puts “faith.”

The female also stands, in Taoist thought, for those two forces regarded with most suspicion in Patrist societies: sex and love. The orthodox Freudians have said enough to familiarize us all with the neurotic illness that has come into Western culture with the triumph of anti-sex religions; what is not so obvious is how love, also, is under a pall in our society – see the chapter on “The Taboo on Tenderness” in Ian Suttie’s The Origins of Love and Hate.

Water is, as we have said, the second great symbol of Taoism. It is, of course, the receptivity and yieldingness of water that recommends it to Lao-Tse and Chuang Chou. The philosophy of Judo (a Taoist invention) has come out of the observation of water, it is said. Judo co-operates with the attacking force, as water molds itself to its environment. Water and the Judo student bend and survive where bamboo and the ordinary man stand firm and break.

The values that Taoism sees in woman and water are their harmony with the Tao. I have not translated this key term, and I do not intend to; but Ezra Pound’s translation – “the process” – seems to me more adequate than “the Way,” “the Path” and most of the other attempts. Students of General Semantics might understand if I say that the “Tao” comes very close to meaning what they mean when they say “the process-world.” The Tao is the flux, the constant change, amid which we live and in the nature of which we partake; or it is the “law” of this change. (But, of course, the “law” and the “change” itself are not different in reality, only in our grammar and philosophy.) A Zen master asked how to get in harmony with the Tao, replied, “Walk on!” Water and woman represent adjustment to the Law of Change, which “man, proud man, dressed in his little brief authority,” and his abstract dogmas, tries to resist.

Anna Livia Plurabelle, the water woman, represents the values of the Tao in Finnegans Wake . The very first word of the book, “riverrun” – not the river and the running of the river, but “riverrun” – places us firmly in the “process-world” of modern physics, which is the world of the Tao. As Molly Bloom in Ulysses, Anna gets the last word in Finnegans Wake, and it is a word that transcends the dualisms (Bloom and Stephen, Shem and Shaun, Mookse and Gripes) and affirms the unity behind them.

The parable of the Mookse and the Gripes expresses this characteristic Taoist attitude with a quite characteristic Taoist humorous exaggeration. Adrian, the Papal Mookse, takes his stand on space, dogma and aristotelian logic; the mystic Gripes verbally affirms time, relativity and the flux; but both are equally emneshed in abstractions and both wither away in futile opposition to each other. Both, in short, are caprives of the dualistic System they ahve themselves created. Nuvolettam the avatar of ALP in this episode, is the Taoist female, unimpressed by the “dogmad” behaviour of the male. With Molly Bloom’s resignation, she says:

—I see…there are menner. (page 158)

It is important to grasp the distinction between the Gripes and Nuvoletta. Seemingly, they represent affirmation of the same cluster of things: time, the river, flux, mysticism, relativity, sex, love, the earth, Nature. Actually, the Gripes’ affirmation is verbal only, whereas Nuvoletta’s affirmation is anything but verbal. None of Joyce’s great Earth-Mother figures are given to philosophizing about “affirmation of Nature,” etc. – they just do it. This is a crucial difference. As Lao-Tse says:

Those who speak do not know;
                                 Those who know do not speak.

Shem is a “sham and a low sham” because he is a “forger.” Stephen Dedalus wanted to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race;” but Shem merely seeks “to utter an epochal forged cheque on the public.” Shem is one of those who speak but do not know; that his career is a satire on Joyce’s own is the kind of irony implied in Christ’s “Why callest thou me good? None is good but the Father,” or the Sixth Patriarch’s “I do not understand Buddhism.” Probably everyone who ever gains any experience with the Tao begins by faking a little; it is really so much easier to verbalize about this affirmation that to live it. Joyce’s portrait of the artist as a young forger is a self-confession that does penance for the whole race; “you and I are in him.”

ALP, the river-woman, does not have any such confession to make. Like the hen Belinda in Chapter Four, who “just feels she was kind of born to lay and love eggs” (p.112), ALP lives in the Tao without question and without making a fuss about it (wu-shih). Her polar opposite is that figure whom Joyce describes as “Delude of Israel,” “Gun, the Father,” or “Swiney Tod, ye Demon Barber” – the “phallic-destructive” Hangman God whose “criminal thumbprint” on the rock hangs over Ulysses and makes one realize that Molly Bloom’s affirmation was something Joyce had not yet quite experienced when he wrote that saturnine masterpiece. In Finnegans Wake the Hangman God is securely put in his place and from the first word, “riverrun,” to the last dying murmur “a way a lone a last a loved a long the,” the female figure of affirmation dominates the book.


Putting the Hangman God in his places does not mean abolishing him; it means transcending him, in sweat and blood, rising above the dualistic delusion that makes Him seem credible. Nietzsche’s “I write in blood, I will be read in blood,” is testimony as to the superhuman effort required for an Occidental to make this transcendence.

Earwicker, as typical a product of Western dualism in its advanced stages as was Melville’s Ahab, is, like Ahab, split down the middle by his own dualistic thinking. Joyce does not symbolize this as Melville did – by the scar from crown to toe that disfigures Ahab – but by projecting the two sides of Earwicker as Shem and Shaun, the Mookse and the Gripes, Butt and Taff, the Ondt and the Gracehoper. The Taoist orientation of Joyce’s treatment of these dualities is indicated, on page 246, by the distortion of “Shem and Shaun” to “Yem and Yan.” Yin and Yang are the Taoist terms for the paired opposites whose innate connectedness generates the entire world-process. Yin is feminine, dark, intuitive, etc.; Yang is masculine, light, rationalistic, etc. Neither can exist without the other, and both are parts of the Tao, and hence parts of each other.

The identity of the opposites, a central theme of Taoist thought, is indicated early in Finnegans Wake. The very first appearance of Shem and Shaun is as “the Hindoo, Shimar Shin,” (p.10) a single figure. Through the rest of the book they are split into two figures, but they are constantly changing roles and merging into each other (for instance, in the “Geometry Lesson” chapter, where the Shem-type notes, left side of the page, leap suddenly to the right side, and the Shaun-type notes leap from right to left.) Again, in the Mercius and Justius dispute, Shem and Shaun are picked up at the end and carried off together by ALP. “Sonnies had a scrap,” she says with feminine equanimity.

The two philosophers most frequently mentioned in the Wake, Nicholas of Cusa and Bruno of Nola, taught a dialectic of resolution of opposites. Joseph Needham in his monumental Science and Civilization in China, repeatedly mentions both Bruno and Nicholas as the only two Occidental philosophers before Liebnitz to have a basically Taoist outlook.

Every sensitive reader has noted the difference between the humor of Ulysses and the humor of Finnegans Wake . In writing Ulysses, Joyce’s intention seems to have still contained a large element of the motive expressed to this publisher when describing Dubliners: “to show Ireland its own ugly face in a mirror.” The humor in Ulysses is mostly satiric and negative, Swiftian; the joyous, Rabelaisian element is comparatively small. But in Finnegans Wake the humor is not only Rabelaisian, but Carrollian: it has that element of nonsense and childishness which only the well-integrated can sustain for long.

But this humor is also Taoistic. It is now suspected by scholars that the chapter of the Confucian Analects (Lun Yu) which contains a description of the Taoists as a band of madmen was interpolated by a Taoist writer! The mad, jolly, very un-selfconscious parody of Joyce himself in the “Shem the Penman” chapter has the same type of humor. Probably only an Irishman could understand that text about making oneself a fool for Christ’s sake as a Taoist would understand it. Joyce, bending his incredible genius to the concoction of place names like “Wazwollenzie Haven” and “Havva-ban-Annah” (not to mention “the bridge called Tilt-Ass”) is exemplifying something that exists outside the Wake only in Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear and the Sacred Scriptures of the Taoists.

(“The Tao is in the dung,” said Chuang Chou.)

To the Taoists, humor was what paradox is to Chesterton: a manifestation of divinity. Tao fa tsu-jan: “The Tao just happens.” (Footnote to this: The entire passage reads: Jen fa ti, ti fa ti’en, ti’en fa Tao, Tao fa tsu-jan. “Man is subject to earth, earth is subject to heaven, heaven is subject to Tao, Tao is subject to spontaneity.” In short, determinism on one level results from chance on another level, as in thermodynamics.) Whether you call this Organicism and wax as self-consciously profound as Whithead, or call it Materialism and get as self-righteously priggish as the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism, you still miss the point. That the Tao just happens, that it has no purpose or goal, no regard for man’s self-importance (“Heaven treats us like straw dogs,” Lao-Tse says) – this is not a gloomy philosophy at all. When one understands this fully, on all levels of one’s being, the only possible response is to have a good laugh. Taoist humor results from realization that the recognition of the most joyous truth of all seems to the egocentric man (you and I) frightening and gloomy.

Joyce is nowhere more thoroughly Taoist then when he answers all the paradoxes and tragedies of life with the brief, koan-ish “Such me.” Genial bewilderment (“Search me!”) and calm acceptance (“Such I am”) meet here as they meet nowhere else but in Taoism, and its intellectual heirs, Zen and Shinshu Buddhism and the neo-Confucianism of Chu Hsi. We cannot understand; neither can we escape – “Such me.” (page 597)

It is this attitude  – which women seem to be able to grasp much more easily than men – that gives Finnegans Wake its air of goofy impartiality. The Buddhist (outside of the Zen school) labors strenuously to rise over the opposites; the Taoist dissolves them into a good horse-laugh. Joyce’s method is Taoistic. “Sonnies had a scrap;” “Now a muss was the little face;” “You were only dreamond, dear” – the tolerant, existentialist female voice, vastly unimpressed by masculine abstractions and ideologies, breaks in at every point where a Big Question is being debated. The Zen Patriarch who said, when he was asked for religious instruction, “When you finish your meal, wash your plates,” had this attitude.


Wyndham Lewis saw in Ulysses an implicit acceptance of Bergson’s time-philosophy and denounced Joyce, in his Time and Western Man, for contributing to what he called “the Time Cult” (other members: Einstein, Ezra Pound, Picasso, Whitehead, the Futurist painters, Gertrude Stein.) Lewis, a classicist, set up the dualism of space philosophies (aristotelian, rational, conservative, masculine, etc.) against time philosophies (oriental, intuitive, radical, feminine, etc.) Joyce wrote the Wake from “the Haunted Inkbottle, no number Brimstone Walk, Asia in Ireland” (page 182) placidly, even eagerly, accepting the non-aristotelian position Lewis had attributed to him.

As is well known, the events of the Wake occur “at no spatial time” and cannot be sharply defined because “every parson, place and thing in the chaosmos anywhere at all connected with it was moving and changing all the time” (page 118). In short, we are within the Einsteinian universe; and Joyce realizes, as did Alfred Korzybski, that the aristotelian “laws of thought” cannot hold in such a universe: “The sword of certainty which would identified the body never falls” (page 51). The Law of Identity, that is, cannot hold in a process-world “where,” as the mathematical physicist says, “every electron has a date and is not identical to itself from one second to another.”

The Taoists were familiar with these relativistic considerations long before Einstein.
Chuang Chou writes:

   There is nothing under the canopy of heaven greater than the tip of an autumn
             spikelet. A vast mountain is a small thing. Neither is there any age greater than
             that of a small child cut off in infancy. P’eng Tsu himself died young. The universe
             and I came into being together; and I, and everything therein, are one.

A better description anywhere of the “inner logic” of Finnegans Wake can hardly be found. To ask what “is really happening” on any page is like asking a physicist whether light “is really” waves or particles. Shaun’s sermon to the leap-year girls is confession of Earwicker’s incestuous desires; is a barrel rolling down the Liffey river; is a postman making his rounds. Anna Livia Plurabelle is a woman, and she is also a river. Earwicker is a man, a mountain, an insect, the current Pope, the Urvater of Freudian theory, Finn MacCool, and he is also both Shem and Shaun. He is, as a matter of fact, every person, place and thing in the Wake – just as every man “is” the sum total of his own perceptions and evaluations. Earwicker is finally able to accept and affirm his world, Joyce is finally able to accept and affirm his world, because they recognize that “I, and everything therein, are one.” “Such me.” (Footnote to this: Physics, psychology, semantics an several other sciences have entirely rejected the view which sees the universe as a collection of block-like entities. WE now think in terms of relations and functions: iron rod A has no absolute “length,” but only length = 1, length = 2, length = 3, etc., as it moves through the space-time continuum. Smith has no absolute “self” but only a succession of roles in a succession of socio-psychological fields. A world of such inter-related processes is a seamless unity, and every perceiver is that unity at every second. That is why Emerson could write – and Joyce could demonstrate – that “The sphinx must solve his own riddle. All of history is in one man.”)

To the space-consciousness of a Wyndham Lewis a chair is a static “thing” out there, apart from the observer; given, concrete, identifiable. To the time-mind of Joyce, the chair is revealed as a process, a joint phenomenon of observer and observed, a stage in the transmutation of energy: “My cold cher’s gone ashley,” he writes, (page 213) seeing the future ashes in the present object. (Cf. Hiu Shih’s paradox, “Ann egg has feathers.”) Zen Buddhist teachers make this point, somewhat obliquely, by pointing to a picture of Bodhidharma (who was bearded), and asking the puzzled student, “Why doesn’t that fellow have a beard?”

The answer of the witty Gracehoper to the conservative Ondt: (page 419)

Your genus is worldwide, your spacest sublime,
                    But Holy Saltmartin, why can’t you beat time?

is Joyce’s answer to Wyndham Lewis and the entire Western Tradition back to Aristotle which backs him up. The Gracehoper had “jingled through a jungle of life in debts and jumbled through a jingle of love in doubts” but, as the rhythm and vocabulary suggest, he had vastly enjoyed himself doing so. Time, which strikes him down, will eventually strike down the “anal-acquisitive” Ondt also. All the abstractions man invents to give himself control over events and stave off doubt, all the preparations man makes to stay out of debt, are as nothing before the inscrutable workings-out of the Tao; the search for security, Alan Watts has frequently observed, is the main cause of insecurity. As Nuvoletta says, “Ise so silly to be flowing, but I no canna stay.” (page 159) The secret of Taoism, the secret of Finnegans Wake, is very simply expressed in Poe’s “Descent Into the Maelstrom,” whose hero saved himself by “studying the action of the whirlpool and co-operating with it.”

This is the trick that explains Judo. It also explains Anna Livia Plurabelle’s calm acceptance of her own end as she flows out to sea:

The keys to. Given. Lps. A way a lone a last
                         a loved a long the

The only word that can possibly complete that sentence is the “riverrun” at the beginning. We can find ourselves only by losing ourselves, all mystics testify. Anna loses herself into the ocean, but what she becomes is the true self she has always been: “riverrun,” the process.

-New York City


(Unearthed by Michael “RMJon23” Johnson)