‘Skatterlings of a Stone’: Finnegans Wake and the Moment of Philosophical Critique in Megalithic Archaeology

According to Max Ernst, when one brings ‘distant realities together on an apparently antipathetic plane (that which in simple language is called “collage”) an exchange of energy transpires, provoked by this very meeting’ (Ernst 1948: 19). In this conjunctive spirit I interpret aspects of the Neolithic of Atlantic Europe (c5000-c2000 BC) through the lens of a novel, Finnegans Wake (Joyce 1939), written by an author described as the foremost modern exponent of the ancient textual mode of Midrash (Levitt 1992: 58), James Joyce. In turn I interpret his novel, dialectically, through this archaeological optic, complying with Theodor W. Adorno’s injunction to ‘treat profane texts like holy scripture’ (Jopp and Martins 2018: 681).(1) However, ostensible immersion in this dialectic of open scriptural interpretation of archaeology and Joyce’s ‘book of Dumlat’ (FW 30.10),(2) his Talmud in reverse, is in actuality the occasion to reflect on the ‘theological moment’ in the thought of Adorno and Walter Benjamin, a moment intermittently punctuating Finnegans Wake. Appearing to refract a dialectic of ‘revelatory regulation’ (Raviv 2008: 168) whereby the greater the ‘inward concealment’ of concealed truths ‘the greater their outward revelation’ (Moses Cordovero, Sefer Gerushin, entry 52, p. 62, quoted in ibid.), what Adorno called ‘the coded character of our theology’ in which ‘our concepts are hidden’ (quoted in Naishtat 2019: 47-48) is ‘all the more destructive for being hidden’ (Benjamin 1931, quoted in Kaufmann 2001: 151). These cryptotheological traits are what Agata Bielik-Robson identifies as the ‘Marrano characteristics’ (Bielik-Robson 2014a: 191) of a critical enterprise which is cloaked in the language of philosophy, the ‘Greek wisdom’, but is directed against the untruth of ‘the totality of identical definitions’ (Adorno 1973: 144).

  1. Adorno, writes Sebastian Truskolaski, ‘frequently intimates codes, puzzles and riddles that rely on inversions of different kinds, a tactic that recalls Leonardo Da Vinci’s practice of encrypting sensitive texts by inverting their script using a mirror’ (Truskolaski 2021: 37), a tactic adopted too in Finnegans Wake.

2. Quotations from Finnegans Wake are indicated by the initials FW, followed by page and line number.

Full text here

Bill Brandt. Avebury Stone Circle, 1945.

‘Granted a vital spark by the original’: a bibliomantic reading of Benjamin

Today, using a kind of Sortes Benjaminianae, at a random page I opened my new copy of Walter Benjamin’s Other History: Of Stones, Animals, Human Beings, and Angels, by Beatrice Hanssen. Reading from the top of page 34, I reached this passage:

To the derivative categories of empiricist historiography Benjamin opposed the suprahistorical, intensive kinship or innermost relation among languages. By this he meant that, “a priori and apart from all historical relationships” (I 72; GS 4: 12), languages were related to one another by their intentionality to pure language. Although translations could not themselves produce or bring about this hidden relation among languages, they nonetheless could represent it, “realizing it in embryonic or intensive form” (I 72; GS 4: 12). But while individual translations remained singularly temporal and secondary in nature, they were granted a vital spark by the original, “catch[ing] fire on the eternal life [Fortleben] of the works and the perpetual renewal [Aufleben] of language” (I 74; GS 4: 14). Poised somewhere between poetry and religious doctrine, profane translations thus became the testing ground for the “hallowed growth of languages” (I 74; GS 4: 14) – a growth, Benjamin contended, that would last until their messianic end, until revelation. Until then, translations measured the distance from this end, exposing “how far removed is their hidden meaning from revelation, how close can it be brought by the knowledge of this remoteness” (I 74-75; GS 4: 14).

Hanssen, Beatrice. 2019. Walter Benjamin’s Other History: Of Stones, Animals, Human Beings, and Angels. Berkeley: University of California Press


‘Where thought has opened up one cell of reality’: Contemplating the Cist Cerrig ‘Almond’

Sometimes I’ve used Twitter as a kind of public notebook, as a way of sharing personal trains of thought. Earlier this year I became so immersed in thinking of the relationship between a geologically-formed pattern swirling in an upright stone of a Neolithic tomb and a passage in Adorno’s Negative Dialectics that a short series of tweets became a commentary on this and on the interruptive play of chance that surrounded this interpretation of text and image.

Social media, of course, isn’t neutral. In trying to describe the way I’ve engaged with it in this particular case, a passage from Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle arises insistently to consciousness: ‘Where the real world changes into simple images, the simple images become real beings and effective motivations of hypnotic behaviour’ (Debord 1983: para 18). Perhaps, in a deliberate misreading of Debord, the simple image at Cist Cerrig became the effective motivation of a state of consciousness mediated through textual fragments of Adorno and real-life events, as I now attempt to explain.


On May 5 2019 I tweeted, with this picture:

‘Objectively, dialectics means to break the compulsion to achieve identity, and to break it by means of the energy stored up in that compulsion and congealed in its objectifications’ – T.W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics.

Natural whorl pattern within an orthostat at Cist Cerrig.

A few days later, on May 8, I went on to ‘quote-tweet’ the above with the following comment:

It’s only now dawned on me that the almond-shaped ‘aureole’ around the whorl forms a constellation with Adorno’s metaphor of ‘conceptual shells that were to house the whole’, redolent of a Sabbatian theme in which the Shekhinah is ‘the nut within the shell’. A work in progress.

I quote-tweeted this, in turn, on 10 May, headed with the following passage from Adorno’s Minima Moralia:

‘Where thought has opened up one cell of reality, it should, without violence by the subject, penetrate the next. It proves its relation to the object as soon as other objects crystallise around it. In the light that it casts on its chosen substance, others begin to glow.’

The above is the concluding part of a short paragraph in Minima Moralia, which began: ‘Properly written texts are like spiders’ webs: tight, concentric, transparent, well-spun and firm. They draw into themselves all the creatures of the air’ (Adorno 2005: 87). In the process of copying out that passage to compose the tweet, something happened. I leave it to the tweet I posted three hours later to describe that something:

While copying out the bit where Adorno says properly written texts ‘draw into themselves all the creatures of the air. Metaphors flitting hastily through them become their nourishing prey’, a cat burst in, a screaming baby blackbird in its jaws. High drama but rescued & released.

A frantic cry and clapping of hands startled Lolly into releasing her ‘nourishing prey’, and after shutting her out of the room I eventually caught the juvenile bird with a light scarf. With the scarf unravelled in front of the porch, this creature of the air flitted hastily to an oak tree across the road. I was left to marvel at an intervention of chance which, in a very strange way, realised Adorno’s metaphor, ‘flitting hastily’. Perhaps an incidence of thought penetrating, without violence, the cell of reality: ‘It proves its relation to the object as soon as other objects crystallise around it. In the light that it casts on its chosen substance, others begin to glow’ (Adorno 2005: 87).


Adorno, Theodor W. 1973. Negative Dialectics. New York: Continuum. Translated by E.B. Ashton

Adorno, Theodor W. 2005. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. London: Verso

Debord, Guy. 1983. The Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red. Translated by Fredy Perlman and friends


‘But on Shabbat, the Queen divests Herself of this garb and puts on beautiful raiment’

In preparing images earlier this year to accompany a presentation, it was gratifying to see the resemblance between Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh’s painting, Cinderella,* and the geologically-formed, almond-shaped aureole in one of the orthostats of the Neolithic portal dolmen, Cist Cerrig, in North Wales, which I had photographed at sunset. This conjunction of images illustrates the way chance unexpectedly furnished what I didn’t know I was looking for, shedding light on Benjamin’s ‘total immersion and absorption’ in ‘the being of truth’, which is ‘an intentionless state of being… beyond all phenomenality’ (Benjamin 1998: 36). For, in the process of choosing pictures, the morphological similarities of these images did not become apparent until sometime after they were on file.


Their consonance with the ovoid shape formed by the overlapping circles of the ALP diagram on page 293 of Finnegans Wake – already chosen as the thought-image, to concentrate ‘all gazing and all consciousness’ (Debord 1983: para 3) – emerged additively to augment the starry pattern at the dusk of mourning, forming a constellation between Finnegan’s Wake‘s ‘cinder Christinette’ (FW 280.21-22) with ‘amygdaleine eyes’ (FW 94.16-17) and the Sabbath Bride of Jewish kabbalah who dwells in the Nut Garden:

Shekhinah is the kernel within… The outer qelippah [shell] connotes the alien domains which clothe Her. But on Shabbat, the Queen divests Herself of this garb and puts on beautiful raiment’

(Ginsburg 1989: 239).

*This is a photograph of a panel painted on vellum, in the Hunterian Art Gallery Mackintosh collections. Image found here.


Benjamin, Walter. 1998. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. London: Verso. Translated by John Osborne

Debord, Guy. 1983. The Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red. Translated by Fredy Perlman and friends

Ginsburg, Elliot K. 1989. The Sabbath in the Classical Kabbalah. 2008 ed. London: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization/Liverpool University Press

Joyce, James. 1939. Finnegans Wake. London: Faber & Faber


Breaking thinking out of its molluscan shell

Crows breaking mollusc shells on rocks at Broad Sands, near Paignton, February 2019

After watching crows on a Devon beach ascend with mollusc shells in their beaks to drop them on the rocks below – the better to reach what was inside – I read a passage from Theodor W. Adorno’s Negative Dialectics and recognised the value of what had been witnessed earlier: ‘What has been cast aside but not absorbed theoretically will often yield its truth content only later’ (Adorno 1973: 144).

This image was ultimately incorporated into the draft of a longer text (Crook, forthcoming), in a section associated with a passage from Walter Benjamin’s Trauerspiel, concerning ‘The bleak confusion of Golgotha’ (Benjamin 1998: 232), displayed as ‘the allegory of resurrection’ (ibid.). Here, ‘in the death-signs of the baroque the direction of allegorical reflection is reversed; on the second part of its wide arc it returns, to redeem’ (ibid.). Here too was a striking echo of the crows, solving ‘the riddle of the most fragmented, the most defunct, the most dispersed’ (Benjamin 1998: 232). Struggling against strong headwinds, throwing shells to the rocks as they themselves were thrown by the wind, it was impossible for the crows to retrieve immediately what they had dropped, the interval of their ascent and descent turned into a wide arc.

The texts of Adorno and Benjamin continue to yield startling insights, especially to someone at a relatively early stage of navigating their way around their writings and numerous and diverse interpretations of them. Over six months on from making the connection between the birds that symbolise the alchemical phase of putrefactio, and Adorno – who himself drew upon this phase in his image of ideas ‘left behind as the caput mortuum of the life that has been abandoned by the spirit’ (1970a: 92, quoted in Foster 2007: 106) – came another startling realisation. Reading part of Roger Foster’s book, Adorno: The Recovery of Experience, after completing the draft within a whisker of its maximum word count, I came across a passage where Adorno speaks of the rigidity of conceptual classification – its closing itself off to the moment of expression – as ‘molluscan’ (2003a: 121, quoted in Foster 2007: 150). As Foster elaborates, ‘Thinking can break out of its molluscan shell by “giving itself over” (sich überlassen) to the objects, “without reservation,” or even “without a lifebelt,” allowing its categories to open themselves to the contours of what is experienced (p.189)’ (Foster 2007: 150).

If I thought I’d have difficulty incorporating this within the bursting limits of what I had already written, Foster’s discussion of Adorno’s notion of the Schwindelerregend – the dizzying, or vertiginous – goes beyond such limits, while staying relevant to the dizzying ascent and descent of the crows at Broad Sands beach. Adorno asserts that dizziness is an index of truth, in that cognition is pulled up short by experience, its capacity ‘to destabilize our routine forms of classification’ (Foster 2007: 150). The momentary appearance within concepts of ‘their dependence on something that cannot be assimilated as a categorizable content’ (ibid.) is illustrated by the following passage translated from Adorno’s Negative Dialektik, which seems to encapsulate, paradoxically, the disintegrative, dizzying display observed on the beach:

Traditional thinking and the habits of common sense [Gewohnheiten des gesunden Menschenverstandes] that it left behind after passing away philosophically, demand a frame of reference in which everything will find its place… As opposed to that, cognition that wants to come to fruition will throw itself, à fond perdu, to the objects. The dizziness that this provokes is an index veri; the shock of the open, the negativity, as which it necessarily appears within the covered and never changing. (Adorno 1966: 43, quoted in Foster 2007: 150).

Johann Daniel Mylius, Philosophia Reformata, Emblem 9, ‘Putrefactio’. Engraved by Balthasar Schwan, 1622 (Wikimedia Commons).


Adorno, Theodor W. 1973. Negative Dialectics. New York: Continuum. Translated by E. B. Ashton

Benjamin, Walter. 1998. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. London: Verso. Translated by John Osborne

Crook, Simon. Forthcoming. ‘Skatterlings of a Stone’: Finnegans Wake and the Moment of Philosophical Critique in Megalithic Archaeology.

Foster, Roger. 2007. Adorno: The Recovery of Experience. Albany: State University of New York Press