ON THINKING IN IRELAND (Full text)
In the coming period in Ireland precedence should be given to intellect over imagination.
In my review of Thomas Duddy’s book A History of Irish Thought, (I entitled it ‘The Irish Problem with Thought’), I reported something which the author recounts in his Preface. When he had mentioned to people in Ireland, and in London where the book was published, that he was working on it, he met with incomprehension or scepticism. Surely, people said, there wasn’t such a thing as ‘Irish thought’, at least ‘not in the sense in which there was English, French or German thought’.
This reaction is easily explained. In the first place, the words ‘Irish’ and ‘thought’ had seldom if ever been used together. Many educated people would know there had been a Scotus Eriugena, a Toland, a Berkeley and a Burke, but would not be aware of—because there has been no such thing—a more or less linked succession of well known Irish thinkers through the centuries into the present day. What is meant, of course, in this context by ‘thinkers’ is creative thinkers, offering new, arresting, argued visions of a broad aspect of human, cosmic or supernatural reality.
The second reason for that reaction to Duddy’s book title is that the works of creative thought which Irishmen have produced in recent times have been absent from the image of Irish writing that is presented by the Irish mass media to Irish people and foreigners. Insofar as these media—print media, radio and television—publicise or discuss Irish creative writers, they confine themselves to writers of prose fiction, poetry and plays; that is to say, to fictive writing as distinct from creative writing about the real. And about Irish fictive writing they make a loud noise, so that the impression is given at home and abroad that this is the only kind of Irish creative writing that exists. Add to this general characteristic of the Irish media the fact that they do not include, as do the media of many countries, one ormore magazines of ideas in which Irish thinkers might present themselves and their antecedents to readers at home and abroad by publishing new essays, debating with each other, discussing their antecedents, and having their books reviewed. Nor is there any approximate equivalent on radio or television of such a magazine.
This overall state of affairs has a result that can be exemplified with reference to some important works of Irish thought published in the last few years. The works were by Richard Kearney, James Mackey, Philip Pettit and William Desmond, in each instance in continuation of a long line of previous books. The educated reading public in Ireland is generally unaware that Kearney has recently published a trilogy named Philosophy at Its Limits, which comprises On Stories (Thinking in Action), Strangers, Gods and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness, and The God Who May Be: A Hermeneutics of Religion. A similar general Irish ignorance applies to Mackey’s two recent booksChristianity and Creation: The Essence of the Christian Faith and its Future among Religions and Jesus of Nazareth: The Life, the Faith and the Future of the Prophet; to Pettit’s A Theory of Freedom:From the Psychology to the Politics of Agency and Rules, Reasons, and Norms: Selected Essays; and, finally,to Desmond’s Is There a Sabbath for Thought? Between Religion and Philosophy and Art, Origins, Otherness: Between Philosophy and Art.
These four writers, have spent the larger part of their careers abroad; in America, Britain or Belgium. Three of them live permanently abroad. Having largely published in America and Britain, they are known to thoughtful readers there, but also elsewhere, partly through translations. However, any incidental awareness those readers might have of the Irish nationality of one or other or all of them, individually, would not outweigh the factors mentioned above which suggest that there is no substantial body of work, past or present, amounting to ‘Irish thought’.
Apart from Scotus Eriugena, Toland, Berkeley and Burke, there have of course been other Irishmen through the centuries who produced sustained creative thought. Duddy’s book was the first to search them out and give some account of them. His selection is shaped and limited by the fact that his point of view and criterion is that of a teacher of philosophy in a university (Galway); but he does find space for William Thompson and for some elements of Swift, Yeats, and even Oscar Wilde. No neglected genius is brought to light except perhaps Augustinus Hibernicus in the seventh century. Most of the thinkers treated are from the seventeenth century onwards and are predominantly Anglo-Irish Protestants. The final chapter entitled ‘Irish Thought in the Twentieth Century’ deals with Yeats, J.O. Wisdom, M.O’C Drury, Iris Murdoch, William Desmond and Philip Pettit. With the exception of Yeats, all those thinkers have in common that they spent—or have so far spent—most of their working life abroad and published all or most of their books abroad. The omission of the late Raymond Crotty and Tom Barrington reflects the professional limits of Duddy’s choice. But their inclusion would not alter the ‘largely abroad’ message which Duddy’s twentieth-century selection, added to the similar characteristic of Kearney’s and Mackey’s work, conveys.
In the Republic of Ireland a combination of factors discourages the formulation and expression of sustained independent thought. Not only does the public discourse conducted by the mass media ignore such writing, while informing abundantly about Irish fictive writing and discussing it copiously: that discourse also celebrates the fictive writing hugely, with the implication that it is the only kind of Irish writing that deserves notice or celebration. When occasionally contemporary thinkers do figure in the Irish mass media, they are foreigners who have won fame elsewhere—more precisely in London and New York—whom we are invited to attend to.
The media’s discriminatory celebration of fictive writing is reinforced by the cultural policies of the Irish State as implemented through the three agencies it has established to honour and fund Irish creative individuals. Aosdána, a self-electing institution, defines such individuals as ‘artists’. Since its foundation in 1981, it has elected to its membership, which is limited to 250, practitioners of visual art, musical composition and literature. Of late it has added architects and choreographers. It pays annual stipends to those members who prove their financial need.
Inasmuch as it caters nominally for what it calls ‘literature’, one might expect to find in its membership creative writers as various in kind as those who make up the canonical literatures of, say, England, France or Germany. But Aosdána at its foundation formally and eccentrically defined ‘literature’ as consisting of only the fictive kind, that is, prose fiction, plays and poetry. Thus while Aosdána admits photographers, it excludes philosophers, regardless of their literary merits. Because Plato, Kierkegaard and Freud created merely new visions of human reality, they would not, if living in Ireland today, qualify for election to Aosdána.
In the matter of publication the Arts Council discriminates similarly. On the grounds that sales might well be relatively small, Irish publishers are reluctant to accept works of thought. To obviate this objection in the case of prose fiction, plays or poetry, the Arts Council subsidises the publication of such works. The only possibility of similar facilitation for works of thought arises if the thinker is an academic; his academic institution can subsidise publication of his work. But those thinkers who, like many of history’s most influential thinkers, are not professors of philosophy, lack even that recourse. (Indeed, the curious situation exists that an Irish thinker of that ilk can on account of some self-published work be awarded the degree of D.Litt (Doctor of Literature) by the National University of Ireland and still have his work refused by the University’s college presses on the grounds that it is not academically accoutred and peer-approved!)
A third state-funded agency, Culture Ireland, is charged with promoting and subsidising Irish culture internationally. With the difference that it has no branches abroad, its nominal role is similar to that of the British Council, the Goethe-Institut or the Alliance Française. In the year 2008 it subsidised 282 Irish cultural events; mainly Irish events abroad but also some international events at home in which Irish people participated. All these events fell under the headings of theatre and dance, film, music, visual art, literature and architecture. And the ‘literature’ in question was again solely of the fictive kind. In other words, the 282 events included none—not one—in which Culture Ireland subsidised an Irish thinker addressing a foreign audience about some aspect of reality; perennial, contemporary or past. Thus ‘Irish culture’—note the agency’s name—is officially represented to the world as a culture lacking any notable thought.
What these discouragements, taken together, seem to amount to is the Irish establishment and its subordinate tiers working to confirm that very English notion, notably articulated by Matthew Arnold, of the ever so imaginative, thoughtless Celts: gifted entertainers of their pensive Saxon masters cogitating on how to run the world.
Certainly our past history plays a role in this. The Republic of Ireland was not born out of thin air. The objective discouragements which it presents to creative thought both grow out of, and reinforce, a subjective inherited discouragement present in many of its citizens. To see something, to see a circumstance, differently from how your friends, neighbours and colleagues see it, differently from how the accepted experts in that field, at home and maybe also abroad, see it; and then to search for and find grounds and arguments to support the truth of your vision of it; and to write all that down and offer it to those around you as the reality and truth of that circumstance—this requires confidence in your ability and right to discover truth independently. But the legacy of centuries-long mental colonisation of the Catholic Irish—the great majority, the conquered ‘natives’—by the English, their colony in Ireland, and the Catholic clergy (disproportionately influential for lack of a native government), deprives many of us of that dual confidence.
On the one hand, the training of generations of our ancestors in the belief that it was only ‘others’—the Anglo-Irish, the English, the priests—who had that ability and right has left an inherited ingrained mark in many. On the other, thousands of those so marked are active in the Republic’s mass media, government, schools and seats of learning, and subliminally delivering a similar doctrine, with the ‘others’ now located outside Ireland. Accepted subconsciously, that confidence-destroying doctrine renews in the upcoming young the colonised mental inheritance.
This goes far to explain why, when the Catholic Irish ultimately achieved the chance to call the shots, they created a republic that within its own territory discourages creative thought, and makes its sustained expression there a guerrilla enterprise. In view of the substantial sequence of creative and speculative thinkers which Duddy’s book reveals among the Anglo-Irish in Ireland from the seventeenth century into the twentieth, it is likely that in an Irish republic fashioned by the Anglo-Irish the case would have been different. But we have what we have.
This combination of discouragements has militated against the Irish achieving, in its intellectual aspect, the aim of the Irish Revolution: that they would become again a ‘normal’ nation—to cite Daniel Corkery’s succinct description of that aim.1 Normal, in the sense of being in every respect, like other free nations, a collective human adult, exercising autonomously all the faculties of a full-grown human being. Those faculties include the formulation, publication and digestion of argued independent thought. While the Catholic and post-Catholic Irish continue to frustrate the exercise of these faculties in Ireland, Irish life, conducted on the basis of unscrutinised derived thinking, falls short of adult life; resembles that of minors guided by what adult elders elsewhere think
1. Daniel Corkery, Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature. A Study. Cork University Press, 1931, p.242. In an intellectual field adjacent to philosophy, the following detail illustrates the persisting absence in Ireland of adult normality. While there have been many histories of Ireland written by Englishmen, not one Irish historian has written a history of England, the nation that has most impinged on Irish history.
But then, today, within that national life of minors figuratively speaking, what guidance do or can the actual minors receive from the senior generation in the matter of avoiding undirected lives? As we witness, distressed, the swollen numbers of young suicides and the regular or occasionally spectacular nights of self-destructive youthful frenzy, a voice is sometimes heard saying: ‘Now that in great measure our young people lack the guidance previously given by the Catholic Church operating through believing parents, teachers, clergy and religious, and transmitted through society generally and its laws and customs, what a shame that we have not inherited a thought-out philosophy of life and ethical behaviour, with the result that we lack such a philosophy now!’ What is not added is: ‘and that we do everything we can to prevent its production’. That is not added because, being so intrinsically a part of how our republic operates, it is not noticed. And, while not noticed or put in the way of remedy, Irish post-Catholic moral minors (adult in shape and size) continue clueless in the face of their own (literally speaking) minors, and undirectedness of that emerging generation grows and spreads..
I know what I am talking about. Since my student days in Dublin I have been in a modest way, never reaching soaring heights, a creative thinker. I hesitate to say ‘philosopher’, but since the 1960s that description—in the broad sense of looking and thinking beneath and around the representations of things and writing accordingly—has been applied to me by others.2
2. In pages 46-55 of Beyond Nationalism: The Struggle against Provinciality in the Modern World (Ward River Press, 1985) I give an account of my reluctant development into a ‘philosopher’. in the 1960s, and of the discomfort this elicited in those around me. I also summarise a remarkable essay by J.C.M. Nolan, then a postgraduate student of philosophy, in the student magazine St. Stephen’s for May 1961. Mr Nolan’s main argument was that the continuing task of ‘creating the Irish nation’ had reached the point where a ‘philosophical initiative’ by way of ‘personal perspective’ was required.
Neither metaphysical nor divine reality, but the worldly or historical kind, has been my field. It is the field in which Tom Barrington, Joe Lee, Raymond Crotty, Brendan Clifford, John Robb, Richard Kearney and Dónal Ó Brolcháin to mention some—have been occasional or enduring Irish colleagues. Working always in the essay form (even when the book was a travel narrative) I have used, apart from books and pamphlets, Irish newspapers before the dumbing down; magazines of ideas (Irish when there were still such); and in recent years my website.
A recurrent experience through the years has been private communications from young Irishmen which expressed interest in or gratitude for something I had written. Frequently I was told that I was providing a quality of insight not easy to come by in Ireland. I sensed a curiosity as to how I, another Irishman, came to be thinking and writing this way. Sometimes there were questions about, or disagreement with, something I had written. I answered the questions, dealt with the disagreements. I always replied. And then when each brief correspondence ended, I often thought about the young man in question, wondered was he trying to think out the world or some part of it for himself, trying to emulate my way of seeing and thinking but not wanting to take up more of my time by further correspondence. An effect of this was to make me aware that by thinking and writing as I was doing I was encouraging others to try to do likewise.
Arrived now at eighty years of age, and with no further challenge to think beckoning me, I want to add to that encouragement by example the encouragement of a brief tutorial. Naturally, it will amount to directive advice drawn from my experience of thinking in the ‘worldly’ or ‘historical’ field, as distinct from the fields in which strictly philosophical thought or the theological kind operates. And it will reflect my own particular way of tackling worldly themes, as distinct from other ways in which these might be and are tackled. But I believe that starting to think creatively, and continuing to do so, is a more or less similar process in all fields of reality. And I am aware that a
given thinker’s particular way of conducting his thought derives primarily from his particular temperament and will therefore inevitably not be reproduced exactly by another thinker.
First of all, to clear the ground between us as Irish persons, an anecdote. More than thirty years ago, in a community hall on Inishbofin, an island off the Connemara coast, I attended a play called The Illaunaspie Triangle. It was by the late Sydney Bernard Smith, a witty and erudite Scotsman who had lived many years in Ireland. In the play a being from outer space has landed in the form of a man on Illaunaspie, a small island off the Connemara coast. One of a number of emissaries from a star whose inhabitants are wise and far-seeing, he, like they, has been dispatched with an urgent message to the rulers of our planet. Going by the name of Patrice and speaking with an English accent, he thought he was landing in London. Having met an island man, Mickeleen, and realising his mistake, he strikes up a drinking acquaintance with Mickeleen in the local pub. Their conversations range widely and a philosophical question arises. Patrice, in doubt as to the answer to it, says he had best consult his mentors on his star – he has a black box which enables him to communicate with them. Mickeleen remarks ‘But you know, true thoughts can be thought on Illaunaspie’.
Bang! The words hit me so forcefully that I have remembered them to this day. I felt that Sydney—I knew him personally—was delivering a message to us, one that he thought we needed. He was after all a Scotsman, from a nation that has, or had, a tradition of strong independent thinking, and he had lived in Ireland many years. I have related that memory, as I said, to clear the ground between us as Irish persons by establishing my premises. I assume that the wider import of Mickeleen’s remark is no news to you.
Note, then, to begin with, that the world, and your part of it, have always operated, and are now operating, on the basis of flawed assumptions about how things are; and that these assumptions mainly derive from the understandable acceptance by most people of the prevalent representations of how things are. These more or less untrue representations are prevalent because those who control by one means or another the general behaviour of people also control, in a general way, the representation of what is the case; and naturally, therefore, ensure that this primarily serves their control of people’s behaviour rather than the truth.
This state of affairs has been notably useful in two ways. In large or small areas of our planet, it has often produced good public order: a fair degree of safety for adults and children in the streets and countryside, enabling work to proceed usefully and youth to reach old age. And given that the immediate purpose of creative thought is to reveal truth in one domain or another, that same state of affairs has always constituted, and now constitutes, the rich and challenging field in which creative thought operates.
When you engage in probing thought about present or past matters, you are attempting to replace with some truth, the untrue representations, and the flawed assumptions which spring from them. To what ultimate purpose? People are endowed with the capacity to search for and to uncover truth; to see, at least broadly, how things really are. So with every piece of truth you discover and reveal, you are becoming more fully human, more a human adult, and helping those who read your work to do likewise: to be adults rather than minors..
Aristotle said that philosophy begins with wonder. Unaware of that, I called my first book, which was mainly concerned with travel in the very strange countries of the Far East, Mainly in Wonder. Certainly creative thought begins with an open-minded consideration of a circumstance and a search for words that describe it accurately. The ‘circumstance’ may be a set of circumstances amounting together to a composite circumstance. ‘Open-minded’ means with your mind emptied of anything you have heard about the matter—suspending your awareness of how the considered circumstance is generally or sometimes described or evaluated.5
How does this act of reflective wonder come to focus on a particular object? It may be that you choose that object because for some reason you feel a need and desire to know it well. Such was the case when I fixed on ‘Asia’; and when subsequently I sought a commission from Hutchinson of London to write a book on Sweden. And again, after Sweden had disassembled my view of the contemporary western world and I wanted to reassemble a view of it, that need and desire embarked me on an enquiry into the modern history of the western world in the book that became Beyond Nationalism. But the act of focusing thoughtfully on a particular circumstance can come about in many ways. 3
3. See the chapter ‘Approach to Asia’ in Mainly in Wonder, London: Hutchinson, 1959; also pp.13-18 in The Turning Point: My Sweden Year and After, Dublin: Sanas Press, 2001
You may perform it because someone commissions you to do so, as when, after my Far Eastern journey, Douglas Gageby of The Irish Times commissioned me to go north and write six articles on ‘The Northern Catholic’ (thus beginning in 1958 what would later turn out to be a long engagement with the Northern Ireland problem). Or you may notice a prevalent misrepresentation of a circumstance, as I did with regard to that very problem in 1969 or, many years later, with regard to Seamus Heaney’s quality as a poet—and wish to correct it. Or again, a theme may be thrust on you by your moving to a place which features publicly as, and is in fact, a problematic place. This happened me when I moved to the Connemara Gaeltacht in the West of Ireland, a twosome of problematic places that impelled me onto a path of creative thinking that reached far beyond them. Or mere chance may bring about the fortunate fixation, as when (with a momentous outcome) I went to visit a friend in a village in Washington state, USA; or later, in Italy, travelled to an exhibition of the painter Guccio in Siena.4
4. The Irish Times article series ‘The Northern Catholic: An Enquiry’ was published as a pamphlet by Mount Salus Press.. For my American holiday, see Uncertain Dawn: Hiroshima and the beginning of post-western civilisation, Dublin: Sanas Press, 1996 and ‘What I Discovered in Chicago’ in the present book,. The impulse from that holiday rumbled on in repeated refocusings through The Postwestern Condition and A Revision of European History to more recent books.., For the sequel to my visit to the Guccio exhibition, see ‘Beyond Vasari’s Myth of Origin’ in About Behaving Normally in Abnormal Circumstances (Belfast, Athol Books, 2007).
Obviously, in order to bring that seminal act of looking to its first conclusion in language that is provisionally accurate, you must draw on your prior store of sure knowledge. This means, if the circumstance is unique, on your prior knowledge of facts pertaining to it; or, if it is a circumstance of a kind, on your prior knowledge of other circumstances of that kind and of how they are described accurately. And you must do relevant research to increase your store of sure knowledge. If you find that the language habitually used about the matter in question shows a serious misunderstanding of it, you have hit gold, you have a lot of work to do.
However, from personal experience I must add that you can also ‘find yourself’ launched into far-ranging thought and new vision without having fixed your mind probingly on any particular circumstance. It can so happen that a stimulating combination of forces in your environment makes you feel ‘full’ and in need of verbal release, and that this release begins with jottings and then flows on as far-reaching, visionary thinking. In the mid-1960s it was like that for me when, simultaneously, the movement of Church renewal emanating from the Second Vatican Council, the build-up to the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, and an exciting conflicted phase in Dublin painting, pressed in on me. ‘Cuireadh chun na Tríú Réabhlóide’ in Comhar magazine and ‘Irish Catholics and Freedom since 1916’ in Doctrine and Life flowed from that. Likewise, other essays in Doctrine and Life, in Herder Correspondence, and pieces on painting in Hibernia. If that sort of thing happens to you, well, you just go with it, let it rip.
You are not a polemicist. There is nothing wrong with being a polemicist; nothing wrong with taking to bits, critically and perhaps aggressively, a view or narrative presented or divulgated by an individual or a group with whom you seriously disagree. But after doing so, you have not coherently expressed your own thought-through view of the matter in question; which is the work of the thinker. So being a thinker, you elaborate and ground your own divergent view insofar as is practicable without attacking any individual or group who believe or argue differently. And if that, for reasons of your argument, is impossible, then your dealing with their error will consist merely in pointing it out, without insulting or denigrating them. After all, your thought when published to the world will, if you are lucky enough not to meet with silence, encounter opponents; no point in making them venomous enemies.
It will occasionally happen that persons who dislike the thrust of what you have written misrepresent it in whole or in part, alleging that you have said something which you have not said. For example, this has happened to me more than once with regard to my pamphlet on Seamus Heaney. If you consider their misrepresentation sufficiently important to require correction, the best response is to ask them publicly to cite the sentence or passage where you have said what they allege. Their inability to do so will expose their misrepresentation.
The worst response you can encounter is public silence; either literally, or in the form of no coherent response If your theme concerns specifically an Irish circumstance which is somehow topical, and your thought is both deviant and prominently published, you will encounter publicly a silence of the second kind. There will be condemnation and name-calling from upholders of the current orthodoxy—formerly Catholic-nationalist, now left-liberal. This response, while depriving you of useful feedback, has the benefit of advertising your thought, even if negatively. At the same time, privately, you will receive commendation and enquiry.
If your work is both deviant and of book length, has a relevance broader than merely Irish, and you are not an academic, you will find it impossible to discover an Irish commercial publisher willing to give you a contract. Only if you are an academic, and your institution is willing to subsidise publication, will you have some chance of success. You may have to do, as I have done on some occasions: pay the costs of printing and publication yourself, or alternatively, forego royalties. If you do manage to get such a work published in Ireland, be prepared: you will encounter public silence (with private responses). Those Irish who are in the habit of making public pronouncements, having heard no pronouncement on your novel thought from London or New York, will not know how to respond.
For this reason, if you have written a work of broader than Irish relevance and you remain in Ireland, you might attempt to get your work published in Britain. For a non-academic this will be a difficult undertaking because the British publishers and quality press are not programmed to expect thought from Ireland, let alone publish it. Having an academic post, with the possibility that British academic advisers to the British publisher will approve your work, would help. Alternatively to all this, you could use the internet—a blog or a personal site—and hope for the best.
If you are by profession an academic, you do not of course, in your thinking, behave academically, in the sense of working out and presenting a variation, slight or striking, of the standard vision of your theme. You prove yourself a thinker by subverting the standard vision, not as your aim, but as a side-effect of your finding that no variation of it convinces you.
What you most hope for, of course, is to encounter by one means or another serious articulate opponents or, much better, painstaking critics pro and con. They would enable you to refine your thought. Even your best effort cannot capture the full truth of your theme; at most it will constitute a substantial advance towards the full truth. That, the full truth, is always something ‘out there’ which a competing fraternity of mutually correcting thinkers can approximate to.
You are not a moralist let alone a moraliser. Whether the terrain in which your mind is operating is contemporary or past, you will find it mined with moral characterisations and moral judgments expressed by a great variety of epithets. Not being yourself, as thinker, a partisan of any cause but that of factual truth, you ignore these and employ none of your own. Naturally, where there occurred, or is occurring, a breach of the moral or legal rules in force around an action, you say so as a fact of the matter. At the same time you know that no one ever did anything with the intention of doing evil, but always to achieve a real or imagined good. So where clarifying a motivation seems relevant, in the service of truth you mention in passing such intended goods.
In sum, simply in order to practise no higher virtue than that of a thinker who keeps to his craft, you always heed St Paul’s injunction in his letter to the Ephesians ‘to speak the truth in love’.
What if you realise ultimately, or are persuaded of it by others, that your version of the truth is fundamentally wrong? You accept this as well as you can, knowing that you made your best effort in a good and worthwhile cause, and intend to try again, having learned much.
I return to Aosdána, specifically to its founding rule that excluded from its membership Irish creative writers about human reality. Let me point out in passing that some Irish creative persons of all kinds find a certain superior satisfaction in not being part of it, in not ‘joining the throng’. But it remains a fact that, as the principal embodiment of official Ireland’s dealing with Irish creative individuals, Aosdána’s behaviour towards such persons has a symbolic significance.
To be precise and to clarify: in accordance with Aosdána’s practice, it was not the institution as a whole that formulated that rule barring philosophers, but its body of writers—about a hundred in number, the largest organised grouping of Irish writers—acting for the whole. It was these men and women, collectively, who decided that an Irish Plato, Kierkegaard, Freud or Marx, if he should appear, was not eligible to enter their fellowship or to receive the stipends many of them receive. And when I say an Irish Plato, Kiergegaard, Freud or Marx, I could equally say an Irish Pascal or Nietzsche, or a Marcuse, Fukuyama or Habermas, or a Roger Scruton or John Gray. Even Berkeley or Edmund Burke, redivivus, would be barred.
I return to the matter in order to discuss and interpret a curious detail I did not mention earlier, namely, that in the course of the last ten years the Aosdána writers have breached their rule on eligibility in two individual instances of the same kind.
The first breach was for an Englishman, long resident in Ireland, who has made splendid maps of Connemara, the Burren and the Aran Islands, and written step-by-step accounts of those landscapes in elegant prose. The second breach, five years later, was for another Englishman, long resident in Ireland, who is mainly known for a weekly newspaper column on the doings of Nature around his West of Ireland home, but who has also written several books of Irish natural history. In short, an English writer about Nature and, five years later, with deliberation, another English writer about Nature. What can this new departure mean?
I believe it throws light on what kind of writer the Aosdána writers had fundamentally in mind when they made that rule excluding writers who offer a new thought-out and argued vision of some important aspect of reality. I believe it was not writers about the real, in general, that they had fundamentally in mind. As it was gradually borne in on them that that meant excluding many good writers, and that this was absurd, they decided that some correction was necessary. So on two successive occasions, separated by five years, they allowed that two good English writers about Nature were indeed eligible.
Pondering on this very deliberate and repeated choice from among all kinds of writers about the real, I have recalled something I wrote six years ago. And recalling it has led me to identify the real, though perhaps only subconscious, intention of the excluding rule. Though in appearance broad in reference, it was motivated fundamentally by abhorrence and fear of what seemed to that body of Irish fictive writers the most daunting (and properly non-existent) kind of writer about the real, namely, the Irish Philosopher.
To give this conclusion its explanatory context I reproduce that earlier piece of writing below. The passage in question occurs in the course of my arguing (in 2003) that ‘no Irish prosefiction since Joyce has supplied a notable (i.e. iconic) depiction of the contemporary human condition’. To elucidate what I meant I had cited many instances from contemporary English and American prose fiction which had supplied such icons of the contemporary, either in the form of ‘worlds’ (Graham Greene’s, Philip Marlowe’s, Nineteen-Eighty-Four, etc.) or of individual characters (in writers from Bellow and Donleavy to Updike and Le Carré). I continued:5
5. From the essay ‘A Provincial Passion: Cleansing Irish Literature of Irishness’ in Cutting to the Point: Essays and Objections 1994-2003. The essay had originated as a paper read at the Kerry International Festival of Living Irish Authors, Tralee, 1997, and appeared in successive, amended versions in Éire-Ireland (Morristown, New Jersey, Samhradh/Fomhar, 1997 and in InCognito, Dublin, Vol.2, 1997.
It seems to me that apart from notable representational skill and subtle insight what qualifies fictional writing to be notably contemporary, by the measure I am using, is its contemporary adult theme. By that I mean, roughly, a recognisably contemporary adult person or persons involved in typically contemporary preoccupations and activities. Given that most westerners alive today, in Ireland as elsewhere, are such people, this is a theme category central to the consciousness and interest of our times. (True, I am using the word ‘adult’ to refer to something more than mere age without troubling to define exactly what more, trusting that rather to be understood.)
What Irish writing continues to be notable for, and most valued for, both abroad and in Ireland, is its occasional, strong depiction of life that is sub-adult, sub-literate, offbeat, weird, poor, and possessed of a naïve, occasionally hilarious, charm. Life, in short, which is an attractive marginal oddity. This is, of course, an age-old stereotype of Irishness in the English-speaking world.
I am thinking, most immediately, of the recent, simultaneous success—abroad and by definition in Ireland—of the novelist Roddy Doyle, the memoirist Frank McCourt and the playwright Martin McDonagh. Frank McCourt, whose remembered depiction of life in Limerick slums, and of those awful Catholic priests and nuns, was extracted, prior to publication, in The New Yorker, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, and is being advertised in London—I saw the posters—with this quote from a review: ‘Out Roddy Doyles Roddy Doyle…It is amazing’. London Irishman Martin McDonagh, launched by the Druid Theatre in Galway with his play The Beauty Queen of Leenane, went on to scale the heights in London, and will soon be big in New York, with plays entitled A Skull in Connemara, The Lonesome West, The Cripple from Inishmaan. The titles adequately reflect the content.
But I am also thinking—in terms of theme only, let me stress—of the other Irish novels and plays that have drawn most hype and acclaim in recent years in Britain, or in Britain and America, and therefore, of course, in Ireland. Dermot Healy’s A Goat’s Song, with its trumpeted bucolic title and mainly West of Ireland setting, where the narrator’s central concerns—when lonesome without his woman or despairing in her company—are whether something alcoholic is left over from the night before, and which pub is the best one to begin the day’s drinking in; Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy, about a curious, violent, idiot-boy, seeing visions of the Virgin, begorrah, and other marvels in a moronic Border town; John McGahern’s Amongst Women, about the dour peasant, Moran, patriarching his womenfolk in a timewarp Irish rural scene set in timeless Irish amber; fascinating book-at-bedtime reading—‘Really quite remarkable people, the Irish, and what beautiful writing!’—for the folk, jaded with contemporaneity, who heard it ‘at bedtime’ on BBC 4. And for good measure, Brian Friel, with his tales of Ballybeg peasants, and above all his great international success, Dancing at Lughnasa, where those Donegal wenches get up and jig like mad on the kitchen table and chairs to the music from the old steam radio.
These are the sort of fictional works for which Ireland remains notable. All of them are valued by the contemporary English-speaking world as icons of Irishness, which define by their contrast the adult normality of that world. This valuation translates into a demand for such works. Partly in response to it, partly because of the happy chance that many Irish writers like depicting such ‘Irishness’, the representation of it has been, and remains, the dominant tendency of Irish fictional writing….
It is reflected on the level of television soaps. Although Irish television is centrally situated in the English-speaking world, it has failed in its forty-one year history to make TV soaps which other countries want. The only serial drama it has exported outside the domestic or ethnic-Irish markets is Glenroe, which has been shown on Australian television. An excellent drama series, Glenroe is set in a recognisably contemporary Irish rural village, and mingles serious human matters with the charm of the simple life.
By contrast, Australian television, which is hardly advantaged over Ireland by its situation in the English-speaking world, sends a flow of TV dramas around the world, including Ireland. These include, to mention two we have seen on our screens, soaps with such contemporary adult themes as Australian harbour police going about their duties (Water Rats) and doctors using planes to bring medical services to remote rural communities ( Flying Doctors). Irish television, as it happens, has never made a soap with such typically contemporary, adult themes.
The weakness of Irish fiction with regard to the adult contemporary is reflected in the reading habits of the representatively contemporary people who inhabit Ireland. True, in the last ten years, Maeve Binchy, Patricia Scanlan and Deirdre Purcell have successfully supplied mainly female readers with an Irish near-equivalent of contemporary popular fiction elsewhere. But men who require popular fiction with a contemporary edge, and all sophisticated readers of both sexes, look mainly to British and American writers to supply novels which reflect their lives: mentally, emotionally, occupationally; in a word, circumstantially.
And this is small wonder when, to mention only the most obvious, there is almost no notable fiction reflecting the life and work of well-to-do Dubliners in recent decades—their dramas of money, power and rivalry, of sex, politics, morality and the spirit, their gyms, health-food shops, dress designers, call girls, and tribunals of public enquiry. On the evidence presented by Irish fiction, one would not know or believe that Dublin, a few years ago, liked to think of itself as ‘the night-club capital of Europe’ or has lately been priding itself as the powerhouse of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy. One could also instance the lack of an outstanding novel by an Irish novelist on the Northern Ireland conflict and its international ramifications.
Postscript [as the above written in Italy]: A few months after I had completed this essay, an American woman to whom I showed it questioned my statement that no Irish prose fiction since Joyce had become a ‘representative icon’ of contemporary adult experience. The fictional world of Edna O’Brien had attained this status. I accept that—it slipped my mind. It is true of that part of O’Brien’s fiction that has non-Irish settings. But this exception doesn’t affect the general rule that Irish fiction specialises—with success—in the ‘sub-adult, sub-literate, weird and charmingly primitive’. The examples multiply. In a recent interview with Thomas Kilroy in the magazine InCognito, Kilroy tells us that his forthcoming novel is about ‘an innocuous little man in a small Irish town who starts to have visions’. In Rome, where I am living, the two latest Irish books to appear in translation are Angela’s Ashes and Seamus Deane’s prize-winning novel Reading in the Dark. On the cover of the former is a little girl, on that of the latter a little boy.
The rule running through current Irish fiction—including the fictional memoir and drama—seems to be a central character, or characters, that are ‘less’ in age, physical stature or mental/moral development (or all three) than the author and the people he associates with: in their own minds contemporary grown-ups in every sense.
Consider now, in contrast, the philosopher. Thinking, as is his main role, about human reality in general or about a particular collective embodiment of it, his thought is of necessity about human beings. And needing—for his thinking about these to proceed—to assume some norm in their regard, he assumes that they are adult humans, in possession of all the human faculties, whether using them all or not. And because the humanity presented to him in the first place is contemporary, and he wishes his thought to seem relevant to his audience, his writing will allow his familiarity with the contemporary human condition to show in what he has to say. Now suppose that the philosopher is Irish, and you have the bogeyman of the Aosdána writers.
Imagine the discomfort, and even terror, which the prospect of having such an Irish writer among them inspired in the Aosdána writers as they framed the rules of membership for their comity. An Irish writer of that ilk would brush aside the clouds of accumulated fiction, home-produced and foreign, which envelop the Irish human reality. Writing about it, with first-hand knowledge of it, he would reveal its real condition.
Given human adulthood as his norm, he would make evident that while sub-adulthood does occur in Ireland, it is not, characteristically, a matter of smallness, childhood, mental deficiency, naiveté or antique rurality. He would show it to be, rather, a characteristic of the Irish collectively due to the insufficient public exercise among them of the thinking faculty and their insufficient nourishment by such home-produced thought. And not only would he, by writing in these terms, make those Irish—including the Aosdána writers—who consider themselves grown-ups uncomfortable and embarrassed; he would undermine those writers’ favourite and lucrative fictive construct of the Irish condition. He would thereby, in short, be a being who, strictly speaking, ought not exist; a sort of monster. Nothing more natural, then, than that the Aosdána writers should construct a firewall excluding all creative writers about reality, no matter how creative, lest by any chance the discomfiting and feared kind might slip in.
But then as knowledge of other nations and how they define ‘literature’ and ‘creative writing’ spread among them, and as the absurdity of their blanket rule was occasionally pointed out to them, they made a decision. They decided that to save face, and appear less abnormal among the nations, they must amend that catch-all ban on writers about the real. So with great caution, keeping in mind the sort of writer about the real who must forever be barred, the feared one, they decided to open the door a chink. He must not be a writer about human reality, for that would be giving the feared one a terrain to exploit; nor Irish for that was the first word of the two that make up the description of him. The solution, they concluded, was to open the door, first to one, then to another, good English writer about inanimate Nature resident in Ireland. That, among writers about the real, was the remotest kind they could plausibly think of from, God save all here present and bless the mark, the Irish Philosopher!
I have dealt here with how the Irish mass media, the Irish State through its cultural agencies, and the Irish university presses, discriminate against Irish thinkers and thus discourage them. To conclude positively, I propose seven steps towards remedying this nationally impoverishing state of affairs.
Replace Aosdána (retaining the name) with a self-electing body that has the same broad terms of reference as the French Academy but a much larger membership. Replace the Arts Council with a Council for Cultural Promotion. Have the agency Culture Ireland include Irish thinkers in its promotion of Irish culture abroad. Have the Irish university presses establish jointly, alongside their lists of academic books by academics, a list which, twice yearly, publishes a book characterised simply by ground-breaking, non-academic thought. Let the Royal Irish Academy take example, annually, from the Académie de Dijon whose national essay competition on a prescribed theme in 1750 was the occasion of launching Rousseau into his writing career. Find funding to transform the magazine of history and ideas Church and State, edited by Pat Maloney from Cork and sold by subscription, into a fortnightly magazine of ideas available in all newsagents. And let RTẾ have a weekly one-hour radio discussion among Irish intellectuals debating some brain-stretching theme.
If those measures were taken, Ireland would have again an intellectual life: more precisely, an intellectual life of the quality it had during the revolutionary years. Thus equipped, we Irish could in due course help to found the coming new civilisation as many of our learned and holy predecessors helped to found Europe.