Alan Tucker

Finnegans Wake and March Demon:

a collaged text by Morris Cox

'The danger is in the neatness of identifications.'

          - Samuel Beckett in Our Exagmination round his factification

In Dante… Bruno… Vico… Joyce.. Samuel Beckett starts worrying. Would Philology and Philosophy be falsely twinned disciplines? 'Giambattista Vico himself could not resist the attractiveness of such coincidence of gesture'… 'hoisting the real unjustifiably clear of its dimensional limits'. Then adds at the end of the paragraph 'And now here am I, with my handful of abstractions…'

By some such coincidence of gesture in 1939 Faber rejected Morris Cox's March Demon just as they were about to publish (with some misgivings) Finnegans Wake. Cox used to say Faber turned him down from a natural reaction to Joyce: enough already. They had taken one chance and were not in the mood to promote another uncommercial book, particularly from a totally unknown writer. Though the looming war of course made publication of anything a gamble.

March Demon is a file of 10 + 232 individual leaves filed on brass screwed pegs to make a text block with top and bottom canvas boards, hand-coloured by Cox in a magic square design. The front board has small printed label. All Cox's books have an immediately striking appearance. Unfortunately that can mean they are looked at (by collectors) more often than read.

In 1939, about to spend the war in the uniformed Civil Defence, living through the London blitz and the flying-bomb years, Cox stored the returned package in a cupboard. After the war he made little if any effort to try elsewhere. He had other concerns and Faber's rejection letter didn't exactly encourage further waste of postage.

He remembered it when we were talking about Joyce one day in the late seventies, early eighties. He lent it to me. When I returned it, full of praise and admiration, he said 'You'd better keep it, it seems to have been written just for you '. Later he borrowed it back to issue in his Gogmagog Photocopy Library (1984, Franklin 46. – as far as I recall I refused a copy of this, already having the original restored to my care). Before looking at how the story of the book is presented it may be as well to establish that the nature of the subject appears to be quoted at the head of page three: 'I found that the knowledge of God is that property in bodies, by which, on being bent or pressed, they spring back into their natural form.'

[the property being I take it, Life, resilience, which the passage goes on to describe as a continual creation. The speaker finds education, the prosaic subject of the book, to be hard and brittle. He hopes to restore its elasticity.]

A typed note follows the title page:

'This collage is altogether made up of the following short and (most likely) forgotten works:'

There are then eight mounted title pages:

The Maiden Monarch; or, Island Queen. in two volumes. Vol 1 R Hastings. 1840

The Tell-Tale: An Original Collection of Moral and Amusing Stories. Harris & Son 1823

Louisa Fetherington and Other Tales. The Religious Tract Society (no date. no record in COPAC)

The Child's Guide to Knowledge; Being a Collection…arranged in the most easy and simple language by A Lady. forty-eighth edition. Simpkin Marshall 1874

The Girls' Reading Book or chapters on Home Work and Duties by Mrs Henry Sandford. W&R Chambers 1877

A Guide to the Knowledge of Life, Vegetable and Animal: being a Comprehensive Manual of Physiology… by Robert James Mann M.D.,F.R.A.S etc. Third Edition. Jarrolds nd.

The • World's • Birthday "In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth" (GEN i.I) A Book for the Young by Professor L. Gaussen, Geneva. T Nelson & Sons 1865

Model Lessons for Infant School Teachers and Nursery Governesses by the author of 'Lessons on Objects' R.B.Seeley and W. Burnside 1838

All the books were bought for a few pence on Faringdon Road or at chapel fetes. Note the seventh title is devoted to the Sabbath, the 8th to objects. Why eight books? Maybe an arbitrary number, though the first title is out of character with the rest, and probably indicates Victoria, eight letters to her name, still a maiden in Vol 1. Solomon of course was born (and buried) on a Monday. On the last page the hero gets married and imagines he has arrived in heaven.

Page one opens in mock didactic style 'at the inner end of the external canal of the labyrinth of life':

I hope you can work out from the scan that there are 52 collaged slips including two detached commas (after stars and bodies). The u of unheedful in the penultimate line is also detached, maybe to indicate the author's detached view of most readers' attention. As with the Wake, how much care can a reader take? Opening the book at random, on page 76 there are 76 collaged slips cut from the master volumes.

note the word 'slipped' is slipped in, on its own slip of paper.

Isn't this the Joycean method, though Cox's idea of collage came first from Schwitters and Max Ernst. Werner Spies in his monograph on Ernst quotes from Novalis:

'Anything that is strange, accidental, individual can become our portal to the universe'
But then of course no collage is accidental, and the discovery that it isn't, that it is designed, that this author has created design out of accidence (defined as changes in the form of words by internal modification or by affixation) doubles the pleasure of reading. Both the Wake and Demon are full of information transmuted into presentation and presentation rediscovered as unlikely fact. Sterne and Lewis Carroll showed how apparent nonsense has to make hard sense and needs evidence or it's just a joke. Elaboration and fantasy is not enough, it has to be deadly serious as well. Someone has used the word 'arabesque' about the Wake. I think that's quite wrong. Nothing is decorative. Everything is serious hypothesis and proof of the nature of the universe as it appears through language, people and their lives. All comic masterpieces are based on believable character.

It seems every word in the Wake is a suitcase stuffed with meanings, ragbag and riches. In March Demon the placement on the page is the case. Both are methods of counterpointing story and language, artifice and observation. For language can become a false redesigner of consciousness, retelling us what we might have known better without the explanation. It marches ahead like an army shod in dictionaries, trampling on the inarticulate. It can't help becoming a class structure, necessarily conformist and conservative. Like Sterne and Carroll, Joyce and Cox found new ways to subvert and democratise the authoritarian use of language. There are cracks in the structures of human society built by language. Joyce was one with an eye for the crack. Cox more briefly places it all on the page to show how hilariously ridiculous it can be.

Cox was brought up in the non-conformist church. The teaching of religion – and citizenship – was done at Sunday School. There are no Sunday School Classes in Alice in Wonderland – they were for poor children to allow their parents time for each other on a Sunday afternoon. March Demon presents the Sunday School version of the world, its incontrovertible truths and exhortations. He turns the chop logic upside down by mocking the nuts and bolts method, a meccano of words, whereas Joyce throws the whole bagwash in the river and lets it float apart.

Right from the start I've linked the two books in my mind. They liberate the imagination in the same way. They subvert rhetoric by (affectionate) ridicule. They let words float free then catch them again, see them as physical associations. They're both practical and realistic to the way the mind actually functions (as opposed to the way it 'works'). ' Hoisting the real unjustifiably clear of its dimensional limits.' Dreams of heaven, purgatorial earth, the whole thugogmagog (see The River Romps to Nursery, Wake p222)… the many streams of consciousness.

Mollie Bloom's soliloquy, passing water into the widening river. Whose dream is it, the Wake? It is life that is dreaming, specifically Irish life, the Liffey. Again like Tristram Shandy, you can pick it up at any page anywhere; even on page one there is always what came before. Jump in or dive head first (the academic method) it goes swimmingly. Beckett quotes Stephen Daedalus's description of Epictetus as 'an old gentleman who said that the soul is very like a bucket of water'. An image of the imagination, Bucket and soul. Don't look down, keep going. 'Never stop. Continuarration! You're not there yet, Garonne, garonne!' (Anna Livia Plurabelle)

I've yet to read the Wake from beginning to end. I've just lived with it a while. That's as much as you can say about your own life. Events, facts, opinions, lies, jokes, people you've met, married, given birth to, maligned, murdered, or now intend to slaughter in retrospect, whatever, the lowdown, all the obvious material. A proper study. Shore a lifetime book I'll be taking on the desert island – if that eventuality should arise with due notice and pretty soon. I doubt it's the ideal book for a nursing home. That passage of time ahead I've already marked down for repeated re-readings of Malone Dies. Anyway didn't the Wake appear erratically in sections, sold a stretch at a time like a trout stream? Do you need all of it at once?

A stack of pages all numbered one. Certainly Beckett saw it comes to the same thing, eternal reoccurrence. Back to his classifications:

Philology. n. (no longer in scholarly use) says the HarperCollins discretionary. There goes the love of words, washed away downstream.

Philosophy.n. an academic discipline investigating intelligibility by means of rational argument concerning presuppositions, implications, interrelationships and suppositories in particular questioning the nature of reality. Statements in words on what cannot be expressed in words. Definitions of truth numbered and propped up by propositions. Twinned with the above by Samuel Beckett. A timber yard dying for a flood.

Idiom is the drawback with perfected art, the Wake so oarish, san ferry Anne. And Cox's colloquy: Wyndham Lewis has a phrase for it (in The Demon of Progress in the Arts) 'The moon sawed up into square blocks.'

The Wild Irish Harp is having a turn. Proper upright uptight efficient clipped English is out: pompous, self-righteous and protestant. Not enough childering, too much chiding. Cox's favourite composer was Domenico Scarlatti. Skittering brilliance of interdependent notes across the keyboard, the most hands-on music ever written. If there was music he disliked next to pop it was Bach. He found it humourless, a menace (like the military band origins & orchestrations of Haydn & Mozart & Beethoven & Schubert & Wagner & Bruckner & Mahler). No, he liked Scarlatti, intricate patterns. He achieved his effects with great care, as evidenced by some proof sheets of earlier poems collaged before March Demon was started. Like most of us he worked hard to appear effortless.

In the end he martialled his material in order to create a book. Both the Wake and March Demon are probably best read as extended prose poems. They both have interludes and dramatic moments. For example, the page sequence (pp 93-94) from March Demon leads brutally from one of the many sections on education into a completely unexpected litany. The shock on turning over the page into the new chapter anticipates the kind of effect found many years later in the Gogmagog Press books, structurally magnificent. It's as good as a Bach fugue, Morris.

(next page)

This concludes the present Exagmination of these progressive works with another brief quotation from Beckett: 'A last word about the Purgatories. Dante's is conical, Mr Joyce's is spherical,…'   Beckett's bilingual, Cox is terrestial? Is their no ascent?

                                                                                                                                    - Alan Tucker
                                                                                                                                      28 July 2009


also by Alan Tucker:

Skinny Dipping in the Liffey

Skinny Dipping in the Liffey: Notes

Finnegans Wake and March Demon