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What’s Hecuba to Him?

John Wilson Foster

Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain, by Fintan O’Toole, Head of Zeus, 217 pp, £11.99, ISBN: 978-1789540987

When I read in this overexcited broadside of a book that “the political erotics of imaginary domination and imaginary submission are the deep pulse of the Brexit psychodrama”, I was for a moment an envious author resembling the riveted deli customer in When Harry Met Sally replying, under fresh circumstances, “I’ll have what he’s having.” And it is but one of many such feverish, inspired and mostly unfalsifiable propositions. Try this: “punk also created the most powerful paradox in the deep neurosis of Brexit: the strange psychic mash-up of revolt and pain, of bondage and freedom, of liberation and self-harm”. Or this: “At the heart of the most effective anti-EU stories is oral gratification ‑ and those who would deny it. Brexit’s mythologies are all mouth and stomach.” And you naive Leavers out there in UK-land thought you were voting to escape an unelected bureaucracy in Brussels, the 4,000 pages (or is it more?) of regulations and (take your pick) the EU common agricultural policy, fisheries laws, freedom of movement policy, ad hoc immigration and refugee rules, or the brewing plans for an armed United States of Europe. How he gets to these lurid conclusions is, of course, the matter of Dr O’Toole’s entertaining and infuriating book, but just to quote them is to imply the odds against his journey’s being convincing. I am a huge admirer of Fintan O’Toole as a literary critic, newspaper columnist and perceptive cultural historian. But ironically, for a book that sees Brexit as malady, there is something disturbingly wayward about Heroic Failure.

Like Sally, O’Toole has method in his performance. Brexit for him “is essentially an English phenomenon”. “Essentially”, not “primarily”. (The author is big on getting to the defining nitty-gritty of everything: hence the 1969 comedy The Italian Job is “the quintessential English film” ‑ well, certainly for his purposes.) But if the Leave vote in the EU referendum was 52.5 per cent in Wales, 44.2 per cent in Northern Ireland (re-run that would be much higher, thanks to post-referendum Sinn Féin and their border poll) and 38 per cent in Scotland, surely “essentially” is not the mot juste. That’s an awful lot of people outside England who voted Leave. One of the two largest vacancies in Heroic Failure is the seventeen million people who voted to get out; their only identity is, by implication, that of useful idiots. It seems mighty insulting to claim that these millions out in the shires and counties had no thoughts of their own but were merely conned by a gang (his word) of Brexiteers into swallowing a “toxic cocktail” (see below). The other emptiness is the European Union itself (which after all somehow provoked Brexit), the virtues of which are nowhere flaunted in order to prove the madness of Brexit. Instead, the restriction of Brexit to its English essence allows the author to view it as a phenomenon that defines the truest England: “Brexit is at heart an English nationalist project.” That can be refined even further: Brexit is a fantasy of the “English reactionary imagination”, which he sees as having been at work for centuries (1066 and all that) and which ‑ it is his inescapable corollary ‑ is at the very core of Englishness. And that imagination is most active at the idiot apex of society: Brexit is “another upper-class jest” by the poncey English public school culture: “In keeping with the camp nature of the whole Brexit discourse, [Brexit] is a social class drag act.” At the summit we find, unsurprisingly, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg; indeed, as if it were litter on Everest, we find Brexit is somehow emblematised in Boris’s empty packet of prawn-flavoured potato crisps. For a man who prides himself on seeing through the conspiracy which he believes Brexit is founded upon (the chief Brexiteers are secretly out to dismantle EU protections on the environment, labour and social welfare), he has written us an exposure that looks very like a conspiracy theory itself.

The author tells us that most of the book is new, though outgrown from his Irish Times articles, but the propulsion of the book stays true to the spirit of the Times. The writing sparkles (perhaps too dazzlingly) and the general historical knowledge on display is impressively broad-ranging, but O’Toole is in a rush, so much so that the book assumes that Brexit has already happened and has been an unmitigated disaster; this is to take the journalistic scoop to its limits; his Titanic has not yet left port. He scorns the English “journalistic hyperventilation” during the “mad cow war” (one of his vivid historical analogies and prologues for Brexit) but like early-stage Sally and the author himself, I too was hyperventilating over many pages of O’Toole’s primer of Brexit psychology.   

And psychology, not political science, is the “discipline” which drives Heroic Failure. England is anthropomorphised as a patient on a couch whom the author diagnoses in order, supposedly, to effect a cure. Any English history adduced in the book is evidence of behaviour betraying a national disorder. The most evident symptom of an inner malaise is self-pity, which, we are told in a passage quoted from Herbert Spencer, mixes a sense of self-worth (“implied superiority”) and the perception of undeserved treatment from others, which O’Toole melodramatises into a deep sense of grievance and “a high sense of superiority” because he already has the English in his sights. Indeed, within the paragraph the self-pity which somehow drives Brexit has become a fevered imagining of “a revolt against intolerable oppression”. This characteristic escalation is possible because Brexit is never analysed as the Exit of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union but instead trips off the keyboard in six letters and is analysed biographically as a man (a white man, a middle-aged or elderly man, an angry man, a racist man, an arrogant man and, I’m afraid, a straw man). We are told that Brexit Man (England, for O’Toole’s intents and purposes) wallows in self-pity, suffers the “torment” of being unable to square feelings of inferiority with feelings of superiority, alternates neurotically between sadism and masochism, lives on delusions, courts and celebrates failure, suffers the state of abjection and as 200 pages tell us, engages in all manner of surrogation, transference, displacement and scapegoating. Basket Man, in a word. A somehow living, breathing toxic cocktail.

It is a country-as-patient that once again is exhibiting these sorry and bad-habit conditions, this time through Brexit. Presumably Rees-Mogg and Johnson are not actually candidates for the loony bin, but how can these psychological traits and maladies, which impute a great deal of subjectivity, operate at a national level without the agency of individuals? Surely this was worth clarifying. In the meantime, if Brexit is a person, a villain, indeed, a very Iago (he is also expressly identified as Fortinbras at one point but never the tormented Hamlet, who is a good guy), then all manner of supporting evidence can be recruited, particularly from novels, several of which are seconded as players in O’Toole’s own Condition-of-England novel. As though a modest proposal, it is suggested that “It does not seem entirely beside the point that, in the years immediately leading up to Brexit, by far the biggest-selling book by an English author in any genre was E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey.” There follow four pages of analysis of the novel’s submission-and-domination dynamic. English author, S & M theme, bestseller: ergo the Zeitgeist, indeed Brexit n’est-ce pas? But what of the novel in unmentioned EU-loyal Ireland? Almost half a million books in the Fifty Shades of Grey series were sold by 2015, making €5 million for the author; the first in the series was the fifth-ranked Irish bestseller the same year; in one week it sold 24,500 copies. The English (and not just the ones with reactionary imagination) allegedly bought the novel to reinforce their dominance-and-submission habit that would soon be given a real-life work-out in the EU referendum. So why did the Irish buy it?

Cartooning the English when the Irish culturally overlap so amply with them is a risky business. The author recalls the typical English meal out in the 1980s as starting with prawn cocktail (there follows the vulgarly unappetising recipe): indeed, I remember it well from Dublin dining tables in those years. He is determined to make a meal of prawn cocktail – “the quintessential English idea of fine dining” (as Reagan might have said, “there you go again”) ‑ and cites at length Johnson’s tongue-in-cheek embattled defence of prawn-cocktail-flavoured potato crisps against the food Nazis of the EU; he ignores the tongue in cheek in favour of emphasising Johnson’s opportunism in exploiting a quintessential English piece of naffery, the prawn crisp. But it was Tayto Crisps (Ireland) that invented the first flavoured crisp production process and one of Tayto’s best-selling varieties is prawn. (For such a witty man, the author time and again fails to credit with his own quotations the English for their frequent self-mickey-taking and accepts what is being satirised as solemn evidence of deplorable truth ‑ Johnson's crisps clowning, Jean Rook’s ironic self-portrait of the English in the Daily Express, the Daily Mail’s reaction to the EU crisps directive: “Der crunch is coming for munchers of the more exotic-favoured crisps”. Brexit is said to be, unbeknownst to the English, like Dad’s Army ‑ but the English conceived that self-deprecating comedy.)

It seems that an English cult of heroic failure has been one historical method of marrying masochism with a sense of superiority. In itself, the theme of heroic defeat or failure in English culture through time (borrowed from a book by Stephanie Barczewski) has legs; but it is, of course, merely a part of the structure of feeling not, as O'Toole makes it, intrinsic to English identity and its central load-bearing beam. We get (all of them anticipating Brexit) the evacuation of Corunna, the charge of the light brigade, the Franklin expedition, Scott of the Antarctic, Isandlwana, Khartoum, the Somme and the “flight” from Dunkirk ‑ but silence on Wellington and Waterloo, Shackleton, Rorke’s Drift (what Brit recalls in preference Isandlwana?), the Battle of Britain, D-Day, the conquest of Everest (an English expedition), Roger Bannister and the four-minute mile, Wembley 1966. O’Toole complains about a “vertiginous analogy” Daniel Hannan, MEP and Brexiteer, made between the condition of the Irish Free State in 1921 and Brexiting Britain in 2018. But the precedents, prologues and parallels for Brexit in Heroic Failure are an unremitting series of vertiginous analogies. One of them is the Hundred Years War (begun in the early fourteenth century) which is summarised over three pages. What is the connection? Well, England’s answer to the problem of military manpower in France: “Its solution was one that would appeal to most of the free-market ultras behind Brexit: the war was privatized and outsourced to gangsters” resulting in “terrorism on a great scale . . . They stormed towns, raping and killing”. With chivalrous bathos we are reassured that “Even the worst Brexit will be nothing like the catastrophe of the Hundred Years War”; for this relief much thanks. But it is still worth recalling, apparently, because the effects of Brexit could last a hundred years, the number of years being the only connection, and a wild surmise at that.

Failure it seems is hardwired into the English psyche and Brexit is more of the same. Worse, it is the spawn of the usual suspect, the Empire. Brexit as nasty imperial nostalgia is a main plank in the author’s platform. The decision to withdraw from the EU and seek trading opportunities in the bigger world beyond, with China and India, North America, the south Pacific, to reorientate the country and in doing so unfetter pent-up energies ‑ these have nothing to do with Brexit: no, Brexit is Little England in the cockpit of Empire, not Big World; the quintessential aim of Brexit is to reconstitute the old white colonies – “putting the old white empire back together again”. Perish the thought that apart from vast overseas markets that the UK at present cannot independently exploit there might be practical economic and logistical advantages in trading with partners who share history, a language, and memories of a common culture. Talk about the hermeneutics of suspicion. The author is wildly more conscious of the British Empire than the average Brit Leaver is.

But then retro-imperialism is part and parcel of the problem posed by “The rise of reactionary and xenophobic nationalism in England” to which membership of the EU is the implied solution. Agreed, an English rightward trend is indeed worrying, but does the English right wing begin to compare for extremism and the threat of violence with the right wings in Germany or France, two pillars of the EU? Are there far right-wing parties in the British parliament? No matter, Brexit is a right-wing movement which is not even centrally about the EU; it is a sublimation of rage, not at EU bureaucracy or increasing loss of national sovereignty, but at black Britons, the sublimation necessitated by the decline of overt racism in England. Heads I win, tails you lose. This free-floating English nastiness simply scoured the land for a new cause to inhabit and happened upon the EU. Would the average Leaver not feel a mite insulted on reading this?

Brexit, then, is a force concealing its aggressive neo-imperialist and ultra-right-wing agenda (it wants to exit multiculturalism, feminism, immigration, globalisation and Islamism as well as the EU) behind an apparition of its inverse; to succeed, it “needs to imagine that it is a revolt against intolerable oppression”. O’Toole sees no oppression at work, just the fantasy of such, nor anything to get worked up about, but at no point does he remind us of the benign workings of the EU that malevolent Brexiteers have distorted for their own deplorable ends. The notorious EU regulations are but “petty annoyances”, though in a recent Irish Times article by the author (February 12th) they are more than outweighed by the bureaucracy from which the EU allegedly frees the member nations. (Is this not damning with gossamer faint praise?) In only two pages (130-131) is the EU his real focus and on them he lists only negatives of the EU: its drift from social democracy, its installation of a technocratic elite, the alarming increase in economic inequality, the dastardly treatment of Greece. (The last is page-turningly recounted in Yanis Varoufakis’s Adults in the Room, the most convincing case for Brexit I have read.) Yet for the author, there is no better alternative to the EU. O’Toole says he, like all of us, was warned there is no better alternative by the EU itself, which therefore “In the best sense” has been a Project Fear. (More perversely faint praise.) So the UK will get no credit for staring down that fear. He will not champion at any length the virtues of the EU, but merely insist that Brexit is self-harm, in addition to its Trojan horse carrying-capacity for some very bad hombres.

At all costs, the book will not countenance reasonable or mundane explanations for Brexit (whether you then accept them or not), nor the enormous complexity of the ongoing event and of the participants, for and against, who come in all shapes and sizes and from all social classes and backgrounds, with or without other agendas. But on page 41 O’Toole makes a wise observation that ought to have been his starting point for a patient search for its cause: “As an idea, the EU had a distinctly weak grip on English allegiance” (and on a significant portion of Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish allegiances). Yes, the EU has never been a good fit for the UK. Yet the boredom, indifference or bemusement on the eve of the UK’s entry into the Common Market shown by the writers, scholars and commentators whom O’Toole quotes amounted in his opinion to “a treason of the clerks”. Perhaps. But what of the virtual unanimity of the current commentariat in Dublin and London, and on all the campuses (now bastions of conformity) in favour of the vast machinery of the EU and its dubious political aspirations? What of their contempt for the people for their “illiberal” views at the coal-face on the EU, multiculturalism, immigration, Islam? Is this blanket orthodoxy, suspect if not smelly, with dissenters despised as reactionary, not also treason of the clerks? (Especially since the clerks often have vested interests, EU scholarly largesse, for example, or non-EU political agendas or biases.) Orwell is plentifully quoted and it is easy to recruit his musing on the desirability for a democratic socialist united Europe in support of the EU; but something tells me he would have recoiled from a quasi-democratic mega-bureaucracy.

Over the decades British allegiance weakened further until a decision was taken to escape from a behemoth-in-progress, a majority decision taken by seventeen million citizens, rightly or wrongly, and after a strenuous pre-referendum campaign. It is arguable that we are witnessing with Brexit an astonishing, overheated, even worrisome exercise in democracy ‑ our democracy in full media and social media cry ‑ not an undemocratic tussle between a few over-privileged and louche bad guys and the many good guys (though the English anti-Brexit good guys are oddly thin on O’Toole’s ground). Those good guys have of course given Heroic Failure rave reviews, reflecting the very self-deprecation and tolerance (even in the face of effrontery) that O’Toole fails to find much evidence of in contemporary England. To complete the irony, it is three impressive commentators of Irish background, living in England, who have a very different take on Brexit ‑ Daniel Hannan, Liam Halligan and Brendan O’Neill.

Heroic Failure is by no means O’Toole’s last word on Brexit. Between November 2018 and February 2019, I have read and bookmarked at least eleven heated columns by him in The Irish Times; some of them I would judge to be Brit-bashing. The preoccupation exceeds the demands of journalistic reportage (these are deeply engaged and freighted opinion pieces) and hints at a fixation. But since Brexit is a matter for the UK and since ‑ apart from DUP-bashing (plucking low-hanging fruit) ‑ O'Toole shows no more real interest in Northern Ireland than the rest of the Southern Irish intelligentsia, I found myself echoing Hamlet’s puzzlement: “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba?” In his introduction he says it is amicable concern: “when your neighbour is going mad it is only reasonable to want to understand the source of their distress”. But the mocking gibes are too vicious (“The only stiff upper lips on display in England now belong to the victims of botched Botox jobs”) and the caricatures too reductive, and sometimes cruel, for me to believe that. Something else is going down.

Brexit may have provided a seemingly legitimate opportunity for some venerable reflex anti-Britishness in the South of Ireland. One hopes this is not the explanation for Fintan O’Toole’s diatribe, though I fear that this might explain some of the Schadenfreude. I am hazarding another explanation, however. I believe the heatedness of Heroic Failure and the Irish Times columns is generated by that of a worried stakeholder’s very real investment; Fintan O’Toole, though based in Dublin, is deeply embedded in English culture. His distant models may be Shaw and Wilde, who wittily derided the English but who lived among them and were honorary English writers. The tension and contradiction in their identity no longer vexes only those who were called Anglo-Irish. The educated Irish have for decades lived what I call two-passport lives, culturally inhabiting Ireland and England without incongruity ‑ or challenge. One thinks of all those Irish entertainers, sportsmen, professors and lecturers, BBC reporters and correspondents who live and work at the heart of British culture, and help that heart pump the blood of the culture, yet oddly have nothing good to say on the intimate Irish-British relationship. O’Toole has rightly given himself permission to explain mockingly the English to themselves because like Wilde and Shaw he not only stands among them but, at the level of educated culture, to flip Byron, is of them.

It is Brexit that is laying bare the scope of the investment. Beneath the virtually unanimous revulsion against it in educated Ireland I detect some panic that the two-nation cultural “Schengen” area, the UK and Ireland, is under threat. The panic has provoked the over-reaction. Promoting the EU by lip-service is the current official face of Irishness but it is unconvincing; I have yet to read a heartfelt Irish championing of the EU, and Heroic Failure is not it either. The author’s personable introduction recalls his first visit as a boy to an England that was terrifying and strange despite the fact that he had devoured British comics. The Irish self now looking back sees that the English-Irish relationship was and is extremely complicated and two-way. But the political and social implications of this cultural descant are not here explored, nor are they explored by the educated Irish generally, for whom the cultural expression of Irishness must deny the cultural experience of being, often seamlessly, of these islands. For O’Toole to confine himself to English Brexit instead of exploring UK Brexit was a bright book-making decision but a dimmer cultural decision that passed over a door to a complex inconvenient truth yet to be investigated and explained. The book that he discountenanced would have been the pioneering one. The Irish denial of their deep archipelagic identity was, a century ago or more, perfectly understandable and laudable; the denial had to be made in order to achieve a measure of necessary independence. But over the past half-century it has wrought damage on these islands, creating dangerous binary choices, though here is not the place to assess the damage. (I may be more alive to this damage as a Northern Irishman.)

As well as cleverly entertaining and seriously infuriating me, Heroic Failure has, I admit, caused me to look twice at Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg and some of the more dubious aspects of the Brexit campaign and I thank Fintan O’Toole for that. But because in his peculiar vehemence he has overplayed his hand, what I see as the unacknowledged subtext of his book has convinced me that the longer-term solution to our shared interminable and painful political predicament is a cultural coming-clean, though for the foreseeable future it will be the road not taken in the South of Ireland.

1/3/2019

John Wilson Foster is professor emeritus, University of British Columbia. His latest book is Pilgrims of the Air: The Passing of the Passenger Pigeons (New York Review Books, 2017).

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