On the Narratology of Concept-Being, Lecture 3: Confessions of the Manicheans

by Joseph Nicolello

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. No, you are not hallucinating: I am wearing one shoe. Please bear with me, as I shall explain momentarily. Today we are, as promised, going to move away from this idea of utilizing aspects of Hegel to assume that the idea of assumption, as pertains to literary practice, has gotten us nowhere. Thus one wants to abolish assumption, and perhaps have a little more fun with literary cognition and the sociology of narrative over the coming mornings. Hence on the one hand, we’ll gloss what a medieval philosopher named Nicholas of Cusa meant to James Joyce as the latter chipped away at Finnegans Wake. We’ll want to keep in mind that Nicholas of Cusa has a profound place in the medieval dialectic of identity/difference, and he is a station on the way from Plotinus to Hegel that the scholar Andrew Cole mapped out in 2014, but left us ultimately dissatisfied, something like going to a chocolate shop whereby free samples are offered by themselves and nothing else; there is a piece or two that is good but nothing that one can box up with a nice sky-blue ribbon and really take home with oneself in more than one form. Such is the crisis of a more general audience. I was reminded of this when I was completing a series of applications some months ago, when on occasion an institution would ask one to fill out one’s religion. There were about twelve to choose from. But I thought it was a shame Manichaeism was nowhere on the list. It struck me as excessively disrespectful. I subsequently wrote to the Chief Officer of Diversity but received only in response what I surmised was a copy-and-pasted set of paragraphs adorned with smiley faces, incomplete rainbows, and clenched fists therein, choleric words and irascible images designated for diverse students who are not a particular type of diverse. And if the diverse is itself ordained, is an institution actually invested in concept-diversity? One can not get too hung up, as one is on a mission. Thus I recalled James Joyce’s method was a bit Manichean, and so, friends, is mine: the constituent elements of γνῶσις. There are some out there who are still angry – despite having successfully censored me – for making a clear case of inquiry in asking if employees at 7-11, White Castle, and university janitors were also Essential Workers. This was when doctors and nurses and their underlings were beings raised to the high heavens, and I wanted to know if, seeing as janitorial work and fast food production continued unfettered through the crisis, were equally risking their lives. I am one of those rare scholars who has actually worked in factories and other unglamorous places colleagues are prone to theorize alone, and I thought it would be helpful for the community to understand if there were different degrees to which one risked one’s life in a pandemic. Everywhere I turned, there was that word one had along with David Bowie outgrown by the end of one’s teenage years, having moved onto the Stranglers: [No More] “Heroes”; even grocery store cashiers were given the label. But never fast food cooks or janitors. I un-sardonically wonder why. We have been post-Orwellian for years; but it is always intriguing to see that other little book come to life, i.e. Animal Farm. Perhaps Nicholas and Joyce can help us weave toward the prospect of a clue. Then we’ll move on to an obscure Augustinian friar named John Mirk, and a touch of late medieval drama, before moving into Plotinus, Dante, and Milton. You will have to excuse me for failing to explain why I am wearing one shoe. I was trying to think of a good story, but the truth alone shall have to do: I stepped in dung three blocks from my apartment and, running late, threw the wingtip into the garbage and kept apace. I wish it was more interesting than that, but there it is; the truth, strewn with manure, in a city garbage can on its last legs, presumably struck with a sledgehammer in the wee hours of morn.


These matters are difficult indeed, and far removed from the

senses of those who ponder corporeal and visible things [684B].



The technologicity of nature developmentally begets automated mammals, barbaric with the technology that offers the image of enlightenment, but only because it is a regression into bondage. Philosophy and literature worth their name are subsequently more interested in truth than reputation. This is not common sense, but it should be. Subsequently, and in a similar way, the influence of Vico and Bruno on Joyce is if not common knowledge, then at least extensively documented knowledge. But as Donald Verene notes, echoing scholar Adaline Glasheen, “To my knowledge no Joycean has yet read Nicholas of Cusa” (Verene 55). Such is my task, which will of course here be an abridgment of an abridgement. Bruno himself wrote that “This Cusa hath known and understood much; he is indeed one of the most remarkably talented men who hath lived in our world” (Verene 55).

Bruno and Nicholas claimed to have squared the circle, whereas Joyce said it was a matter of circling the square; and the coincidence of these opposites, I wager, has its parallel in literary theory refocused upon the medieval rather than the Marxian, namely the medieval dialectic of Identity and Difference that culminates in the feudalistic threshold of the Phenomenology of Spirit. Likewise, there is a sense of culmination in Finnegans Wake: anything modeled after it is in vain, and its inception sets the stage for a final reexamination of what is called fiction. Thus, in order to better understand the Joycean strains of Vico and Bruno, let us finally give long-due attention to Nicholas of Cusa from a literary point of view, which at the same time converges with the blood, fire, and Hegelian ruin of theory’s foundational reimagining.

Nicholas of Cusa was – among other things – a German-Italian philosopher and theologian born in Germany in 1401 and died in 1464. He was a great Neo-Platonist who preceded Descartes in the way that Hegel preceded Stephen Hawking. Nicholas’s doctrine of “learned ignorance” is a Christianized application of Socratic ignorance, proceeding from a place of knowing nothing in order to uncover as much as possible. Negative theology – that is, working from what is not-God in order to approximate the formerly unfathomable – is conjoined with a methodology of opposites that, from the metaphysical point of view, coincide not by accident, or in a universe of chaotic happenstance, but that the seeming opposites of both history and contemporality are deliberate, brought into perpetual being by necessity. But Nicholas’s confrontation with reconsidering futility in order to approach an absolute sense of overcoming works from a Platonic rendering of Paul, who had centuries earlier written that his strength was made perfect in weakness. The Neo-Platonic collision of opposites has, however, perhaps its first truest sense in the Heraclitean fragment, “all things happen by Strife and Necessity” (57).

So in considering Finnegans Wake as a means by which to stabilize, carry out the autopsy of theory’s hovering corpse by way of Nicholas of Cusa, its ever-present circling of the linguistic-narratological square, we must give a frame of reference for its being-as-form and being-as-subject. In the former it is the culmination of a tradition begun either by Cervantes, Rabelais or letter-writing, depending on who one asks, but which leads either way to Swift: Joyce takes Irish literature, or what is called fiction, to its breaking point and brings both modernity and world-letters with it. As for the being-as-subject, we must locate the transmission of interpretation in the work of none other than Plotinus. It is therefore a coinciding disintegration of late antiquity, forming materials of the earliest middle ages, and its structure of dialogical imagination that implodes in Finnegans Wake. Nearby Plotinus and in the spirit of that aforementioned negative theology we have Pseudo-Dionysius; and it is remarkable that about one thousand years of sparks and traces of literary cognition do not dissuade Nicholas of Cusa from his considering Pseudo-Dionysius as the true father of the Platonic-theological school; and it is the textual spirit that runs from Pseudo-Dionysius to Nicholas of Cusa that gives us Joyce’s utilization of Vico, which again brings us into the theoretical realm of negative dialectics taken to the heights of ontology.

Nicholas and Joyce respectively reach the ends of both divisional limitation and aesthetic typography. Either writer does not just perceive but recognizes themselves at the end of one tradition and the hypothetical birth of another; the heuristic canons have given way to a new sense of going beyond the limits of empirical observation. This is precisely the reason that in his letters Joyce writes that Freud and Jung pale in comparison to Vico; the household names do nothing for him while Vico bridged the chronological water separating Gerty McDowell from the two washerwomen. What Joyce learns from Nicholas is eclipsing what Andrew Cole rightly calls the “capacities of adequation”; there are no longer imaginative dialectics on the one hand and metaphysical dialectics on the other: “For Not-other is the most congruent Form (ratio), Standard, and Measure of the existence of all living things, of the nonexistence of all nonexisting things, of the possibility of all possibilities, and so on for all things of this kind. I see in the Not-other all nameable things.” In his effort to move beyond the ontology of things visible and invisible, Nicholas has an imaginative ally in Joyce. For Joyce, by the time of Finnegans Wake, has taken Cusa’s Not-other dialectic of medievalism and conjoined it with Dante’s theological geography: the prosaic result is an invisible torrent rendered triumphant in its recognition and annihilation of conceptual history.

            But neither takes empirical dogma seriously enough to dispute conceptual reality as a process of the One moving from itself back into itself. This confluence of invisible realities is for both writers a means by which to apprehend the road of literary cognition that leads to the dual place of procession and return whereby negation takes procession over affirmation. Scholar William Hoye writes that “Cusa displays a remarkable capacity to adopt quite different philosophies, apparently disregarding their mutual incompatibilities… ‘Faith is the beginning of understanding. ‘Whoever does not believe, will not have knowledge.’ Faith includes all that can be known. The intellect’s knowledge consists in the unfolding, the explication, of faith. The intellect is led by faith’ Likewise, Joyce had noted in Ulysses, echoing the Psalmist, that God – or Wisdom – is a shout in the street. After a while, however, he decided to go have a listen for himself; and there language went from invisibility to literality, employing the cadence of muted strings. And as in the case of Cusa, writes Hoye, “Should one eclipse God, one has prepared part of the world to disappear into darkness”; and this is precisely what Finnegans Wake is, as Joyce’s book of the dark: a journey into the nocturnal mind, as daylight prose has been exhausted. His novelistic survey of the taken-for-granted mirrors Nicholas’s understanding of the theologians having amounted to what Aquinas called ‘a lot of straw’; they have said everything about which they know nothing, and have thus failed to say anything about which they know everything, which is nothing.

            But for Nicholas the enterprise of subsumed perception is a universal shudder that must be isolated and unpacked. Centuries from Heidegger, Nicholas began to process through inward and external – or church – structure, tension, and reformation, that every age is an age of disruption, and how one perceives reality is a choice. His trinitarian theology could equally be applied to a partial character list of Joyce’s:

Not-other and Not-other and Not-other – although this expression is not at all in use – the triune Beginning is revealed most clearly, though it is above our apprehension and capability. For when the First Beginning – signified through the ‘Not-other’ defines itself, in this movement of definition Not-other originates from Not-other; and from Not-other and the Not-other which has originated, the definition concludes in Not-other. One who contemplates these matters will behold them more clearly than can be expressed.

Such is the outcome of a theological dialectics where all faces have beauty, but none is beauty itself; of a mystical humanism focused on the authenticity of human existence philosophically and ideally leading to wisdom rather than science; which through the perpetual process of coincidental opposites destroying one another while giving birth to the unforeseen, which is in turn made visible and set against its rejoinder, it is thereby the very unforeseen that is the oscillating innards of Finnegans Wake, brought from shadows to reality. It is the imperceptible, albeit penetrable voice of the world-stage calling through the ages. The systematic of the text is the systematic of ontological interpretation: by striving desperately to finish off subjectivity, the coming of everyone, the subject is left with one’s self multiplied by linguistic anthropology taken to the Geist, transmitted from the stars down to earth upon rectangular world-stage.

            As such, for Nicholas the Not-God engages the reader with an ultimatum that is both fresh and terrifying: you must now, if you wish to proceed, get to know what you do not know; for in doing so more will be revealed to you than in repetition: the demolition of familiarity is the beginning of familiarity for both Nicholas and Joyce. Joyce then takes the Not-God of unconsciousness and flips its practitioners on their already-dated heads: the stuff of dreams is the stuff of fiction, as the stuff of God is the stuff of men. Joyce, in the spirit of Nicholas, takes the text and moves from dogmatic modernity to plenipotentiary dialogism; both writers see empiricism for what it actually is, no mere comfort of madness but rather, that which was described by Deleuze some decades later thusly: “Empiricism is by no means a reaction against concepts, nor a simple appeal to lived experience. On the contrary, it undertakes the most insane creation of concepts ever seen or heard.”

Therefore, Nicholas’s notion that Absolute Sight is present in all seeing proved fertile imaginative soil for Joyce, who was at work wondering just how he might prove that there is no such thing as the recording of a dream, as there is no irrefutable historical fact. Rather, there are gross exaggerations and subjective geographies, the Homeric fact that philosophy is a literary genre, and nothing else. There is Neoplatonism, and then there is Nicholas of Cusa; there are novels, and then there is Finnegans Wake: “Chance,” said Joyce, “Furnishes me what I need. I am like a man who stumbles along; my foot strikes something. I bend over, and it is exactly what I want.”[1]

As Susan Sailor puts it, “Joyce does not work with satisfied desire in the Wake, but only with its absence, which is to say, desire as a presence.” This not-desire is the germ of theology and hence theory; it is a positive take on negativity, or an application of its ever-present origin in the text. Negation is thus taken up as a platform upon which; and hence negation of negation for Joyce culminates in a cyclicity that goes beyond the linguistic into the sphere of Nicholas whereby, as in theory, negation is simultaneous canvas and wellspring. But whereas unity is grounded in the infinite for Nicholas, for Joyce – as quoted by Beckett in Ellmann, “Reality is a paradigm, an illustration of a possibly unstable rule.” This possibility of a cosmic poetical anarchy is both the line of vision that enables the text to approach totality and infinity by virtue of negative dialectics, and it is the same spirit, is an acceleration into a darkness that is light: that in the end one realizes there is no end, and therein grasps a bit of that Heraclitean running river, past Eve and Adam, of the end. Joyce’s “babbling pumpt of platinism” (164.10-11) therefore disseminates, by way of critique and crisis, “Investigating concepts and their linguistic history as as-much a part of the minimal condition for recognizing history as is the definition of history that has to do with human society” (Koselleck 20).

Joyce takes Nicholas’s learned ignorance and negative theology not as maxims to live or die by, but as a cumulative perchance to dream on the way to language; and such is, in that tormented essence of Van Gogh’s smoking skull, Finnegans Wake. As Rita Felski remarks, the literary-theoretical key refrain is a blistering excoriation of society; and this is directly linked to the exilic identity and difference of negative theology, where suspicion and interpretative unease are provoked rather than imposed. This allows Nicholas of Cusa to complete the Plotinian project, whereby Joyce brings it to the architectonic of fictionality, summarily rendering unto theory what is theory’s.

[1] [Joyce as quoted in “The Hours of James Joyce.”]