The “Anna Livia Plurabelle” chapter in Finnegans Wake is said to have been Joyce’s favorite, and was originally published as a standalone piece. In it, the tale of Anna Livia’s life is intertwined with the names of hundreds of rivers. “Anna Livia” is a pun on the Irish for the River Liffey, which flows from the Wicklow Mountains through Dublin to the Irish Sea. Anna Livia is thought to be symbolic of “the eternal feminine,” a mythic concept if there ever was one.
You can hear James Joyce reading from the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” chapter in this YouTube recording. It’s a conversation between two Irish washerwomen, wringing out clothes on the riverbank. Although one must see the text in order to puzzle out the dense wordplay, this recording demonstrates that Finnegan’s Wake truly comes alive when it’s read aloud.
“What would you like to talk about, Tabitha?” asked Dr. Anna Liffey. She sat across from Tabitha in the cozy consulting room, which had an insulated feel, like a womb. There were no windows. Framed Japanese ink brush paintings hung on the white walls, and a few vases of purple and yellow irises provided color. The plush sofa and armchairs, one of which she occupied, faced each other across the coffee table, on which sat a box of lotion-enhanced Kleenex. Dr. Liffey had waited for her to choose a seat first; she herself was now ensconced on the sofa. A legal pad and pen lay to one side, untouched, as she gave all her attention to Tabitha.
“The first thing you should know is that I’ve resisted doing this for years,” began Tabitha, trying not to sound belligerent. “My grandmother, Guinevere Hill, I think you know her?” Dr. Liffey nodded agreement. “Well, she’s been after me as long as I can remember to see a therapist. About my… my early childhood experience. It was rather unusual.”
“Yes. I Googled you. I hope you don’t mind; it’s standard procedure with a new client.”
“I don’t mind. But that’s not what I’m here about. Just so you understand that. I’m here because I’ve been having strange dreams. Really vivid ones. I’ve never experienced anything like them before, and when I wake up, I can’t get them out of my mind. It’s starting to interfere with my work.”
“And what would you like to achieve in our time together?”
Tabitha was taken aback by this. Her first thought was that the dreams needed to go away, to stop and leave her in peace. And yet she didn’t want them to end. In spite of the inconvenience they were causing, the loss of concentration, the nights she woke and couldn’t get back to sleep, she looked forward to them. If they stopped now, she would feel somehow… incomplete. “I’m not sure, Dr. Liffey,” she finally answered. “Maybe I just want to understand why they’re happening.”
“It’s Anna. I think we can make progress on that. First, may I ask you some questions about the dreams? How often do they occur?”
Tabitha explained that they happened almost every night, and that the first one had occurred on the night before her job interview. “It feels like I’m in someone else’s body, though not always the same person,” she said. “They happen in some long-ago place, where people wear homespun clothes, but with colors, and lots of jewelry. They have chariots and horses and swords. They speak a different language, but while I’m asleep, I understand it.” She was staring into her lap, growing more and more agitated as she spoke of the dreams aloud for the first time. The feelings they aroused were so intimate. Now she looked up at Dr. Liffey’s —Anna’s— face. “This sounds completely dorky and stupid, like I’m having fantasies about being in Game of Thrones.”
“It doesn’t sound stupid at all,” said Anna firmly. “Is there anything happening in your life right now that’s related to this subject matter?”
“I study medieval manuscripts,” answered Tabitha, “and there are lots of them at my new job, but I don’t see any connections. The language isn’t any of the ones I can read. It’s certainly not Latin. And I don’t think these people are Christians.” Suddenly, she thought of Mark. “I’m dating a man who does medieval fighting, you know, like re-enactments? Except he fights competitively,” she said.
“Is the relationship serious? Something you want to take further?”
“Maybe. We get along well,” she said. “He’s a nice guy.”
One of Anna’s eyebrows rose slightly. “May I take a few notes? Okay. How well do you remember the dreams? Are you ready to describe one?”
Tabitha swallowed. “I remember some parts very well, and not others,” she said slowly. “The language all flows away as soon as I wake up, but I remember the situations and feelings. The sense perceptions, like the heaviness of a jug, the sound of a baby crying. The smells are kind of earthy. They don’t bathe as much as we do.”
The doctor waited, not interrupting her, and she began, haltingly, to tell what she recalled of the first dream, how she had inhabited the tiny body, swallowed a golden fly, and had a vision of a Man of Light, who pierced her heart with his spear. When she finished, Anna said, “That’s a beautiful dream, Tabitha. It’s full of powerful symbols, mythic imagery. Do the symbols mean anything to you?”
“Well, it’s a sexual dream, I understand that,” said Tabitha self-consciously. “The Man of Light was the most beautiful male creature I’ve ever seen. And the spear. I guess everyone knows what that means. Besides, I had another dream where I —or she— gave birth to a child. But I had to give him up.” As she said this, her eyes suddenly filled with tears and her voice broke. Speaking of the dream brought back its powerful emotion. She had woken up that night sobbing, her chest painfully tight with grief.
She pulled a tissue from the box, and blew her nose.
“I think that’s enough for today. Our time is almost up,” said Anna. “As to the cause of your dreams, Tabitha, there are a number of possibilities. You’ve just started a new job, and any kind of major life change can lead to more vivid dreams. So can caffeine, or eating certain foods before you go to bed. If you have a coffee habit, it can’t hurt to cut back. We’ll continue discussing this next week. If you like, you could keep a journal of the dreams. It’s up to you.”
Copyright 2016 by Linnet Moss
Notes: The psychologist is named “Anna Liffey” because Anna serves as Tabitha’s guide into the mythic world of her own unconscious mind. Dr. Liffey’s office is womblike, a safe space where Tabitha can explore her dreams under the guidance of a wise maternal figure. I based Dr. Liffey and her office on memories of undergoing psychotherapy in my 20’s. In particular, I recall how my therapist waited for me to select a seat before sitting down herself. A box of tissues was always on the table, although I don’t think we had lotion Kleenex in those days.