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Parsing Irish Paralysis

Terence Killeen

Outrageous Fortune, by Joe Cleary, Field Day Publications, 320 pp, €25, ISBN: 978-0946755356

In the final chapter of his Irish Classics (Granta Books, 2000), Declan Kiberd describes and decries the intellectual stagnation and somnolence of literature departments in Irish universities, as far as Irish literature was concerned, from the foundation of the state until at least the late 1960s. In this chapter, called “Irish Narrative: A Short History”, he tells how all the intellectual running in those decades was made outside the academy: by people like Sean O’Faolain, Conor Cruise O’Brien and Vivian Mercier, while the various English departments of the colleges lay in slumber deep.

Kiberd advances several reasons for this strange phenomenon: the one most relevant to our present purposes is that the external, international critical discourses then prevailing (New Criticism, the higher Anglicanism, Leavisite discriminations etc) were very difficult, if not impossible, to apply to Irish literature, taken as a whole. Irish writers tended to escape the narrow confines of a New Critical discourse in which irony, ambiguity, “balance”, “maturity”, “order”, were valued above all else. (Irish writers tended not to be very mature or orderly, either as people or as scribes.)

This lack of fit between an imagined or implied national literature and the critical discourse that could potentially surround it seems to have stymied academic studies of Irish writing during those decades: without an appropriate external framework within which to discuss this literature these scholars would been obliged to invent their own, a task that seems to have been beyond them. It is possible that Kiberd’s indictment is a bit broad-brush and that things were not quite as quiescent as he claims, but it remains the case that no sustained critical discourse, nothing approaching a theoretical framework, encompassed the academic study of Irish literature in those years.

Matters have changed greatly in recent decades: Irish academics, even those based in Ireland, are now very comfortable in forging their way through the sometimes dense thickets of Irish literature; the younger scholars are particularly at ease. The reasons for the change are again complex, but to stay with just one factor it is clear that the situation outlined in the previous paragraphs has been reversed. There now exists a critical discourse within which the vagaries, the unpredictability of Irish literature can be securely addressed: that discourse is postcolonialism, which has become a highly important determinant, if not the dominant one, in academic literary studies here. Whatever else may be said about this phenomenon, it is at least the case that its refusal to accept the isolation of the literary object from historical and social contexts has been enormously stimulating in an Irish context. Moreover, the existence in Ireland of a counter-discourse to postcolonialism, namely revisionism, has conduced at least to a lively intellectual climate of debate and dispute.

To the distinguished roster of Irish academic critics, many of them based in this country, writing in a generally postcolonialist mode – Kiberd himself, Seamus Deane, Emer Nolan, Luke Gibbons, and abroad, pre-eminently David Lloyd but also Enda Duffy and others – can now be added the name of Joe Cleary. Based in NUI Maynooth, Cleary has in Outrageous Fortune made a stimulating and original contribution to Irish cultural studies, taken in its most general sense. The book, a collection of eight essays with an introduction, is indeed general – it ranges from an historical essay (the weakest one in it) on “Locating Ireland in the Colonial World”, followed by an attempt to account for the difficulties in categorising the nineteenth century Irish novel to (most startling this) an examination of “The Pogues and the Spirit of Capitalism”. Along the way there are, inter alia, discussions of naturalism as a force in Irish literature, film (Into the West and The Field), plays to do with Northern divisionsand more theoretical essays with titles such as “Modernization and Aesthetic Ideology”. The fact that Cleary is a co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Modern Irish Culture indicates the range of his interests.

While Cleary shares these interests with a number of other critics – although his range is particularly broad – he possesses one quality which is much rarer: he is an exceptionally lucid and felicitous writer. On Dubliners, he remarks: “The reader may be kept on his critical toes and be put through his mental paces by the narrator’s finely filamented ironies.” “Finely filamented ironies” is a phrase one can only envy and wish one had thought of. Again, at the end of “Modernization and Aesthetic Ideology”, he writes “… maybe Ireland now had more than its share of the autumn of the de Valera patriarchy and the rechronicling of deaths long foretold” – a fine summing up of a complex argument.

All the essays, including that on the Pogues, possess their points of interest, but they are inevitably uneven in achievement. Many were first delivered as lectures at The Irish Seminars (the modesty of the title is itself striking, as if there were no other Irish seminars anywhere else) of the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame, which, despite appearances, actually take place in Dublin each year and are by now the paradigmatic locus for postcolonialist discourse in this country. (Of course, the irony that these activities occur in an establishment endowed by two uber-capitalists is so blatantly obvious as to be almost embarrassing.) Versions of several essays have appeared in various collections of a similar ideological cast in recent years. Given these diverse sources and occasions, it is natural that there are diverse products here; this is not a coherent book in the sense of developing a sustained argument, so much as a set of instances illustrating a few central theses.

The most original and ambitious essay, and the one which is in many ways at the heart of the book, is “This Thing of Darkness: Conjectures on Irish Naturalism”. It is here that Cleary makes what seems to me a distinctive contribution to Irish critical discourse (at least two other essays, “Into What West?” and “Modernization and Aesthetic Ideology”, are developments of its central ideas).

Naturalism is a late nineteenth century development, characterised chiefly by its minute attention to a certain small segment of reality, either a place, as in Hardy’s Wessex or Joyce’s Dublin, or a class, as in Zola or Gissing. It eschews the big social picture, à la Balzac, and one of its main impulses is a detached, quasi-scientific approach to its subject matter. The individual instances are meant to illustrate some general “law” (immanent, blind destiny in Hardy, inescapable economic and social forces in Zola, social repression and hypocrisy in Ibsen), but nonetheless the main achievement of naturalism is seen to be the minute, detailed and precise accuracy of its depiction of a particular “slice of life”. As Joyce puts it, “a part so ptee does duty for the holos”. For better or worse, such are the limitations and the merits of naturalism.

“This Thing of Darkness” is mainly a survey, charting the progress of Irish naturalism from its origins in George Moore (Edward Martyn should have received at least a mention) up to the 1960s (other chapters take the story even further). Naturalism suits Cleary’s method very well as a genre because it can be so closely tied to social, political and economic developments and this is exactly what he does. The broadness of his approach is again very appropriate here: he goes through a great swathe of Irish literature, taking in plays (O’Casey, Tom Murphy) and poems (“The Great Hunger”) as well as fiction in his progress. Contrary to the claim in The Irish Times review of this work, Cleary’s emphasis on naturalism is not a revolutionary discovery – its importance as an Irish literary mode has long been acknowledged – but it has rarely, if ever, received such a comprehensive and carefully considered treatment in all its dimensions and phases as it receives here.

Along the way, however, some distortions occur. That Dubliners is largely a naturalistic work is true, but it is also a good deal more than that: there are elements of allegory and symbolism in it to which a purely naturalistic account cannot do justice. It might have been advisable to make at least some allusion to those. Moreover, it is very debatable whether the narrator of these stories and the reader are really united in a smug superiority over the characters depicted, as Cleary claims. The concept of “narrator” is very tricky here: the stories are not so much told by a detached narrator as written from the inside out, from within the situation they deal with, not removed from it. The kind of narrator that Cleary imagines is operative is a Mr Duffy-type figure, looking down on the city of which he is a citizen. But the story that deals with Mr Duffy, “A Painful Case”, itself demonstrates the inadequacy and the failure of such an attitude of superiority to life and its emotional implications. (Cleary does allude to this implication but too quickly dismisses it. It is hard to believe that a writer is practising a certain literary technique while at the same time composing a story which completely demonstrates its inadequacy.)

Another story that might have given Cleary pause is “Eveline”, where the narration is so deeply enmeshed in Eveline’s consciousness and world as to take on some of her own language as well. It is true that in some of the more naturalistic narratives, “Counterparts” particularly, perhaps “Ivy Day” as well, (though Cleary should perhaps be careful of too hasty an assertion that Hynes’s poem in that story is “a sorry piece of doggerel” – again, that is itself a superior attitude which the story itself does not necessarily endorse) there is an element of detached, clinical observation, but that does not necessarily translate into an attitude of superiority – the effect given is more a sense that this is “how it is” and how it is likely to remain.

Similar issues arise in the treatment of another writer in this essay, John McGahern. It is safe to assume that Cleary did not actually live through the development of McGahern’s oeuvre, did not read the books as they came out, and, perhaps as a result, his account is rather skewed. The striking thing about the early McGahern, which Cleary does not stress, is that he was not a naturalist writer, but a modernist, or would-be modernist. It is true that the first novel he published (not the first he wrote), The Barracks, is a naturalistic classic, but even there the treatment of Elizabeth Regan’s consciousness possesses an intensity and inwardness that transcend naturalism. Also very much in evidence is the influence of the philosophy which was contemporary with McGahern’s own development, namely existentialism, an influence which has been somewhat neglected by his critics, who have been anxious either to link him directly to high modernism or to various versions of Catholicism. (In fairness, Cleary does allude to the existentialist dimension.) However, it is in his next published novel, The Dark, (written first) and in his first short story collection, Nightlines, that McGahern really establishes his modernist credentials. In The Dark, the fractured syntax, the blurring of divisions between the self and the outside world, an intensity of experience (and not just in the opening chapter) that is communicated with extraordinary force and directness, are quintessential modernist devices. Similarly, in Nightlines, the extraordinary economy of the stories, their ability to convey complex states of mind by means of a single telling image, a single throwaway phrase, the sense of psychic exploration they convey, equally combined to suggest that a major new modernist writer had emerged, that Joyce and Beckett had a worthy heir in rural Ireland.

As Cleary demonstrates, this is not quite what happened: McGahern became a rather different kind of writer, a much-loved rural pastoralist, a rather passive chronicler of a vanished world. In That They May Face The Rising Sun, as Cleary says, the only character who possesses any kind of disruptive force in this near-idyll, Quinn, is just a freak, embodying none of the potential for change possessed by, say, the central consciousness of The Dark. I feel myself that this development is accompanied by an artistic weakening, but Cleary’s focus is much more on the retreat from potential revolutionary energies that he discerns in the later McGahern (and, indeed, even sooner, in Edna O’Brien).

Cleary’s comments in this context point to an element that is present throughout this work: writers tend to be assessed in terms of their contribution, or lack of it, to a putative Irish historical struggle, the unmasking of state and social structures that inhibit genuine historical change, the charting and unfolding of potential revolutionary energies. This is a postcolonialist paradigm. In the mid-1960s, the late Augustine Martin wrote a then famous essay called “Inherited Dissent”. In it, he rebuked younger Irish writers of that era for taking up an oppositional attitude to their society which he believed owed more to the strength of certain prestigious literary precursors (Joyce, pre-eminently) than to what he believed to be the reality of the modern, guilt-free, liberated society in which they lived. In a sense, parts of Cleary’s book could be called “Inherited Consent”: once again, the same writers are being rebuked, this time for not carrying their critique of their society far enough, for not dissenting enough, for accepting a “drastically narrow” conception of the historical and the political, for being content to settle for the old paradigms of paralysis and negativity and hopelessness instead of acting as agents of real social change – and again, the problem is once more attributed to a paralysis, an inherited conditioning, that seems to go all the way back to Joyce. If you live long enough, it all comes round again.

It would be wrong and unfair to end on that sour note. Much of this book is very brilliant and very stimulating. To take one quick instance, Cleary’s argument that Tom Paulin’s play The Riot Act: A Version of Sophocles’ Antigone is not really about “the bitter divisions in Northern Ireland” but rather about Paulin’s own divided consciousness as a writer of Northern unionist stock who is at odds with his society will be hard to gainsay. And more generally, his demonstration, in “Modernization and Aesthetic Ideology” that works such as Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, John McGahern’s Amongst Women, and Jim Sheridan’s The Field “cognitively confirm[ing] a sense of national progress by reassuring us that the old Ireland of the past is about to disappear or has disappeared already”, while they “also shelter us sensorially from the consequences of that progress by keeping its whole sensorial economy at bay” is a triumphant vindication of the relevance of a social dimension in the reading of artistic works. The works are not diminished: they are instead placed in an inescapable context. Postcolonialist or post whatever you like, this – like much else of Cleary’s work – is criticism in action.


Terence Killeen is a journalist and author of Ulysses Unbound: A Reader’s Companion to James Joyce’s Ulysses.

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