So is there a choice? To be with the hegemony or against it? Most Irish writers would reject the dichotomy. ‘We are apolitical,’ they say. In the place of Politics Irish writers place politically neutral ‘causes’ such as Amnesty and other human rights organisations and various charities which give the illusion of being political while studiously avoiding commitment within the national boundaries. I heard the poet Theo Dorgan on the radio some years ago declare flatly that ‘no great art is political’9 . (As Beckett said somewhere, ‘Habit is a great deadener’.) But who are we to worry about ‘greatness’? Are we to abandon our duties as citizens because future generations won’t write theses on us?
To be fair, when a writer makes a political statement of any kind other than the banal he is soundly trounced by the press. Professional pundits with no better qualification than a career in ‘opinion’ writing are perfectly capable of rolling out the ‘why should we listen to a writer anymore than anyone else’ argument, and for the past eight years it has been fashionable, pace the USA, to condemn writers as ‘intellectuals’, although the gradual realisation that George W Bush and his cronies were particularly stupid took some of the tarnish off intelligence as a term of abuse. But we can as easily turn the complaint on its head and say, ‘Why should writers be exempt from the general anger that shakes the people of world, why should we be permitted our private cynicism?’
Nevertheless, the rain of odium that falls on a writer’s head when she dares to step outside the common sense view is daunting for a trade that works in isolation often with very little support. Finally, none of this is good for sales, and writers must make a shilling the same as everyone else in this benighted world.‘The times,’ as Sylvia Plath remarked, ‘are tidy’, at least from the point of view of the ruling classes, and there is indeed ‘no career in the venture/Of riding against the lizard.’
The reasonable thing to do in the circumstances is to adopt a ‘reasonable’ stance; to be critical where criticism can be voiced in safety; to be neutral where commitment can do damage; to support causes where those causes are respectable. Neutrality was the chosen position of Ireland’s most famous poet, Seamus Heaney, for example. His most famous political statement was to claim Irish nationality as a reason for not accepting an honour from the queen of England. Terry Eagleton,10 in his witty review of the Beowulf translation, placed Heaney firmly within the confines of ‘cultural colonisation’11. Heaney’s quietism, his solemn genuflection towards what Eagleton called ‘eirenic liberal pluralism’12, has become the high tone of neutral Irish poetry. Novelists and playwrights tend to follow suit. The market rewards the neutrals handsomely. There are vast sums on offer for faux-fiction (or pseudo-faction, if you will), shortlistings and prizes for fictionalised biographies, carefully balanced or revisionist historical fiction, clever flights of fancy or books set in exotic locations. Poets celebrate the pastoral, the private, the perverse — anything but the Political. Revivals dominate the stage, gaining the longest runs, the tours and the best houses. Despite honourable exceptions, this is the tone of contemporary literature in Ireland.
Probably the most successful of recent Irish novels is Colm Tòibìn’s The Master13 . Terry Eagleton described Tòibìn as ‘tight-lipped’ and a master of ‘extreme verbal evenness’ (in an extremely positive assessment of The Blackwater Lightship) but The Master is, as Hermione Lee called it, ‘an audacious, profound, and wonderfully intelligent book’. It won the 2006 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, was shortlisted for the 2004 Booker Prize, won the Los Angeles Times Novel of the Year, the Stonewall Book Award and the Lambda Literary Award, and was listed by The New York Times as one of the ten most notable books of 200414. It explores the psychology and creativity of Henry James in prose worthy of the man himself. Part of its attraction, for heterosexuals at least, is the fact that Tòibìn, as an openly gay writer, clearly identifies with James who most probably was secretly gay or at least a repressed homosexual.
The Master, in fact, is a highly accomplished and successful piece of fictionalised biography. What it does not do is challenge the reader — either in her view of how a writer thinks, or in terms of prejudices towards homosexuality. On the contrary it advances an image of the ‘safe’, celibate gay man, together with an image of the writer as a private intellectual with no significant contribution to make to the polity other than the grace of his art. Indeed, in Henry James, Tòibìn chose a man peculiarly hobbled by neurotic invalidism and repression, paralysed by a fear of sex, the epitome of the suffering obsessive writer. The public loved it, and Tòibìn, a fine raconteur and personally charming, can discourse wittily and learnedly about his subject at interview and in readings. The book has all the qualities that the public loves: its tone is high-melancholy; its subject is safely dead; the writing is undeniably elegant; there are no challenging ideas — either structural or in terms of subject matter; finally, it is a classic-by-association, being concerned with a canonised writer. In general terms, the book has many of the qualities that have made the poetry of Seamus Heaney so popular. In its own way it is equally eirenic, liberal and pluralist.
Needless to say, art, graceful or otherwise, is always a public good, but in terms of ideological hegemony, ars gratia artis is really art for the status quo, and inevitably (especially now that the status quo has become status quo ante in the collapse of free-market globalism) it must be nostalgic. But we need a poetics of anger not of nostalgia for, as the Palestinian poet Mourid Al-Bhargouti observed in another context, nostalgia is no more than a form of ‘romantic impotence’. Iconoclasm, not nostalgia, must be our watchword now. Anything else is unconscionable.
Anger is the spectre that haunts all of this ‘eirenic liberal pluralism’ because the first law of The Commonsense is there shall not be anger. Citizens may complain as much as they like, and there are organisations that deal with complaints and procedures for remedy, albeit slow and costly ones, but an angry citizenry is a dangerous entity. The planet is burning; the capitalists have stolen the world, including our land, water and air; health, social services, education are battered and impoverished; unemployment is at an unprecedented level; oil-wars blight the lives of millions. Nevertheless, reasonableness, quietness, calmness, meditativeness, are continuously advanced as terms of affection by literary critics when the world calls for anger, savagery and satire. Where is our Jonathan Swift, our Shelley, our Saramago, our Neruda, our Orwell, our Huxley? It may well be that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’15 as Auden would have it, but that is no excuse for not trying. ‘Language implies boundaries,’ Loren Eiseley wrote, ‘[a] word spoken creates a dog, a rabbit, a man. It fixes their nature before our eyes; henceforth their shapes are, in a sense, our own creation.’16 Thus it is possible to call into being our own reality in opposition to that of the market. Guy Debord’s startling insight17 in the 1960s, that we no longer saw the spectacle but inhabited it has proved true, but the spectacle itself, capitalism incarnate, has this very year presented us with the one terrible chance of our generation to interrupt. It will take more than reasonableness and quiet meditation to shake the structure. So let us begin by the simple process of naming our enemy.
Firstly, a taxonomy of rapine, a genealogy of avarice.
[ref]Nancy, J-L, ‘The Compearance: From the Existence of Communism to the Community of Existence’, 20.3 Political Theory, (1992), p371, p375
1 ‘In a crisis, the antithesis between commodities and their value-form, money, becomes heightened into an absolute contradiction.’ Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I
2 Antonio Gramsci, Selections From The Prison Notebooks
3 Ibid, Gramsci
4 Slavoj Zizek, In Defense Of Lost Causes5 ‘Anglo Irish Bank is a major financial institution whose viability is of systemic importance to Ireland.’ Minister for Finance on the decision not to allow Anglo Irish Bank to collapse. The ‘systemic’ nature of banks means that, by and large, they will be allowed to do their business unhindered and protected when they fail
6 Costas Douzinas http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jan/09/greece-riots
7 Shakespeare, King Lear
8 Yeats, The Man And The Echo
9 For example: Composers — Shostakovich, Beethoven; Painters — Picasso, Goya: Writers — Saramago, Neruda, Calvino, etc. etc. The list is far too long to be bothered with
10For an interesting portrait of Eagleton check the Guardian at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2002/feb/02/academicexperts.highereducation
11 Terry Eagleton, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/1999/nov/03/seamusheaney
12 Ibid, Eagleton, the term eirenic refers to a branch of Christian theology that sees pacifism, unity and reason as ultimate values and that rejects polemics. It would be difficult, I believe, to find a better single word to describe Heaney�s stance.
13Excluding Romantic Fiction or ‘chick-lit’, which is by far the most successful literary form in Ireland. Men have had the equivalent (in the form of westerns, war books and thrillers) for generations, but since women read more books, romantic fiction is much more successful. Nevertheless that doesn‘t stop men being patronising about it.14Source Wikipedia
15 WH Auden, In Memory of WB Yeats
16 Loren Eiseley, The Invisible Pyramid
17 Guy Debord, Society Of the Spectacle, may be downloaded free at The Situationist International, http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/pub_contents/4