The book ends (Fin), only to begin once more (again); James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is the eternal return of its hero, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. This time around, the book may read differently, as it always does, but the basic plot remains the same. Whether we’re talking about Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (as Joyce does), Charles Stewart Parnell (as Joyce also does), or Julian Assange (as I now do), the hero who ushers in a new age under his or her leadership is marred by allegations of sexual impropriety. These allegations haunt our hero throughout his leadership, before he is done away with and someone else takes his place.
The fate of Assange is yet to be determined, but I want to indulge in this narrative if I may. And it is of course only a narrative; I do not want to play down in any way the seriousness of the allegations contained — in whatever detail — in the arrest warrant issued by the Swedish authorities. It is understood that Assange is accused (but not yet charged) of committing serious sexual offences against two women in Sweden last August.
In a bizarre interview broadcast by BBC Radio 4 on 21st December, Assange entertains the suggestion that he is something of a martyr, or at the very least some sort of messianic figure who escapes or eludes death.
‘Everyone would like to be a messianic figure without dying,’ Assange tells BBC journalist John Humphrys. The cause to which the martyrdom or messianism refers to is the era of transparency that Wikileaks is bringing about. As the interviewer suggests, this is the transparency of typically western governments and not, say, of Wikileaks or of Assange themselves, who both come out of this looking ironically secretive as many commentators have suggested. But the Age of Assange is an age of transparency (of mainly western governments), fuelled by the publication of vast amounts of previously private or classified information, and all in the name of justice — which is Assange’s main assertion in the radio interview for the necessary ascendency of Wikileaks.
The interview was also about the alleged sexual offences Assange is said to have carried out in August. He denies those allegations. It is clear, from the interview as well as what we know about the alleged crimes, that detail is lacking in the formal documentation surrounding the criminal proceedings and the arrest warrant, and that the gaps in the formal documentation have been filled in generously by media ‘gossip’ and myth-making. What we know — and apparently what the British authorities and Assange’s lawyers know — about the allegations emerging from Sweden is almost nothing.
It is through gossip — as well as through song — that we know of HCE’s crime in Finnegans Wake, which incidentally also involved a sexual offence against two women or girls. Indeed, there are several similarities between HCE’s crime and Assange’s alleged crimes. The documentation or evidence against HCE is likewise lacking in content and form. During the trial, HCE is tried-by-gossip, but as the court moves towards verdict and sentencing, a member of the public shouts ‘The letter! The litter!,’ reminding the court that it has a duty to proceed by evidence. The ‘letter’ — some documentation evidencing HCE’s innocence or guilt — receives a full hearing, but it doesn’t really say very much at all. It is a ‘letter’ which is at once ‘litter,’ a piece of rubbish which says nothing about the truth of the allegations against him. That all we need to change ‘letter’ into ‘litter’ is nothing more than a mere letter puts us straight into Joyce’s world.
HCE gets off ‘scotfree’ — like the Scots Law finding of ‘guilt not proven.’ But he never recovers from the shame and embarrassment of what he supposedly did. Much of the remaining parts of the novel seek a deeper understanding of HCE’s reign; but he is done for, and his funeral is being prepared. It’s not a spoiler to say that he was accused of indecency in the park — possibly exposing himself to two girls, including his own daughter. What Joyce does here is show that the rise of a hero or a leader, dare we say a sovereign, is inextricably linked with sex, which in turn brings about the hero’s decline. Psychoanalytic approaches to this theme might say that sovereignty is an ‘incestuous right’ — recalling the moment prior to the Totem and Taboo patricide when the very becoming-father (or becoming-sovereign) of the Father was the seizure of the maternal object that was so dear to both father and son alike (this very point is made in Panu Minkkinen’s book, Sovereignty, Knowledge, Law, p3, and offers a way of conceptualising the origin of sovereign power as distinct from law). Although Joyce had misgivings over psychoanalysis, he was likewise clearly interested in the idea that the power to rule arouses in many an interest in the sexual conduct of our rulers such that it can also be mythologised. To the extent that we can say that Assange is ushering in a new era under his leadership — which is the thesis presented in the radio interview and elsewhere in the media, and not my thesis — we may be able to account for the narrative of sexual misconduct by engaging with this question of heroism or leadership or sovereignty. As a narrative, we can conceive of this (as well as dismiss, challenge, deconstruct, dismantle, etc.) with or without psychoanalysis. But we ought to engage with the question of why and how Assange, or any other leader for that matter, is scrutinised in terms of their sexual conduct, and how this narrative drives the rise and fall of heroes and anti-heroes.Richard Bowyer is a Research Student and Sessional Lecturer at Birkbeck College’s School of Law.