Vivian Mercier (1919-89)


Life
[occas. Vivian Herbert Samuel; H. S. Mercier] b. 5 April 1919, Dublin; son of William Cochrane Mercier - of Huguenot descent - and Charlotte Olivia (née Abbott); brought up in the family house, “Epworth”, at Clara, Co. Offaly; educ. Portora Royal Sch., Enniskillen, and TCD (Foundation Schol.), where he shared rooms with Conor Cruise O’Brien in No. 4 [Front Sq.]; grad. 1st Class Mod. in Modern Langs. (French & English);
 
wrote a doctorate on ‘Realism in Irish Fiction, 1916-1940’, giving serious consideration to Beckett’s fiction; contrib. his earliest reviews to The Dublin Magazine; became friendly with Peadar O’Donnell and reviewed for The Bell - incl. a review of The Bell itself; studied Irish with David Greene in his mid-thirties [1950s]; issued The Irish Comic Tradition (1962), in which he argued the continuity of Irish literary tradition from earliest times, and characterised the comic tradition as its central trait (‘the mockery of Irish laughter [from which] no aspect of life is too sacred to escape’, p.248), though oddly beginning with the modern period;
 
Mercier never taught in Ireland but held chairs of English in several American Universities incl. City College, NY; Boulder, Colorado, 1965-74; ultimately at Univ. of California, Santa Barbara, 1974 - having previously taught there for a year in 1960 (during which his first wife Gina learnt that she had multiple sclerosis); taught Declan Kiberd [q.v.], then on an MA exchange programme in Santa Barbara; in that year; retired to Dublin; m. Eilís Dillon [his second wife], 1974; d. Friday 3 Nov. 1989, in London; contrib. chapter on Irish literary revival to New History of Ireland (1996); funeral service was held in St Patrick’s Cathedral, with an oration from the pulpit by Conor Cruise O’Brien; bur. Clara, Co. Wicklow. OCIL

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Works
Monographs
  • The Irish Comic Tradition (Oxford & NY: OUP 1962);
  • Beckett/Beckett (OUP 1977,1990), xv, 254pp., and Do. [rep. edn.] (Souvenir Press 1990, 2008), xv, 254pp. [273pp.];
  • The New Novel from Queneau to Pinget [A Reader’s Guide] (NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux [1971]), x, 432pp.;
  • Modern Irish Literature: Sources and Founders, ed. & pref. by Eilís Dillon, introduced by Declan Kiberd (OUP 1994), 381pp. [one of two projected volumes].
 
Anthologies
  • with David Greene, One Thousand Years of Irish Prose: Part I - The Literary Revival (NY: Devin-Adair 1952), xxix, 607pp., and Do. [rep. edn.] (NY: Grosset & Dunlop 1961), 607pp.;
  • ed. & intro., Great Irish Short Stories [1st edn. with corrections] (London: Souvenir Press 1991; 1992, 1999), 384pp.
 
Selected Articles
  • ‘Kate O’Brien’, in Irish Writing, 1 (1946), pp.86-100;
  • ‘James Stephens, His Version of Pastoral’, in Irish Writing, 14 (March 1951), pp.47-59;
  • ‘Savage Humour’, in New Republic (19 Sept. 1955), pp.20-21;
  • ‘Samuel Beckett and the Sheela-na-gig’, in Kenyon Review, 23 (Spring 1961), pp.299-324;
  • ‘The Irish Short Story and the Oral Tradition’, in Ray B. Browne, et al. [William John Roscelli & Richard Loftus], eds., The Celtic Cross [1964] (NY: Arno Press 1970), pp.98-116;
  • ‘Mortal Anguish, Mortal Pride: Austin Clarke’s Religious Lyrics,’ in Irish University Review, 4, 1 (Spring 1974), pp.91-99;
  • ‘The Professionalism of Sean O’Faolain’, in Irish University Review, 6, ‘Seán O’Faoláin Special Issue’, ed. Maurice Harmon (Spring 1976);
  • ‘Victorian Evangelicalism and the Anglo-Irish Literary Reviewal’, in Peter Connolly, ed., Literature and the Changing Ireland (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1980), pp.59-101;
  • [as V. H. S. Mercier, ‘Don Quixote as Scholar: The Sources of Standish James O’Grady’s History of Ireland’, in Long Room, Vols. 22/23 (Spring/Autumn 1981), pp.19-24 [cited in W. J. McCormack, From Burke to Beckett (Cork UP 1985; rep. 1994), p.254, Notes.]
  • [posthum.] ‘Irish Literary Revival’, in W. E. Vaughan, ed., A New History of Ireland: Ireland under the Union II, 1870-1921, Vol. VI (Clarendon Press 1996) [Chap. XIII; extract].
 

Se also Mercier’s review of James Joyce, Scribbledehobble, ed. Thomas Connolly, in 1961, given under Joyce, “Commentary”, infra.

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Criticism
See Declan Kiberd, introduction to Modern Irish Literature (1994); W. J. McCormack, ‘The Biographia Literaria of Vivian Mercier’, in Bullán, 2. 1 (Summer 1995), pp.79-100. See also Conor Cruise O’Brien, ‘My time at Trinity College’, in The Recorder: Journal of the Irish American Historical Society, Spring 2000), espec. p.26ff.

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Commentary
Declan Kiberd, review article and literary tribute, ‘A New Species of Irishman’, in The Irish Times, 19.10.1991. ‘It is only two years since his death and he has already joined the pantheon of super-critics [...] It was Mercier who called Godot ‘the play in which nothing happens [...] twice’, a bon mot which has long passed into the anonymity of folk tradition.’ Kiberd stresses his consciously learning Irish as an adult in order grasp the whole tradition, and that he was unapologetic in his appreciation of what he regarded as the Protestant tradition in Irish writing, which spawned the literary revival; Kiberd notes that Conor Cruise O’Brien challenge the supposition in The Irish [Comic] Tradition that the ‘Irish mind’ was uniform. [See infra.]

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Suman Gupta, ‘What colour’s Jew Joyce …: Race in the Context of Joyce’s Irishness and Bloom’s Jewishness’, in Bullán, 1, 2 (Autumn 1994), in which he characterises Mercier’s attempt to provide a scientific basis for an essentialist concept of Irish mind as ‘the most sophisticated of its kind’, but less promising than Conor Cruise O’Brien’s, as follows: ‘The idea that there is “an Irish mind”, continuing with its own peculiar quirks, not shared even by other Europeans, from medieval times to the days of Samuel Beckett, seems to me implausible. [Dr. Mercier, although not consistently a victim of this idea, gives it rather more credit than it deserves]. There is probably no continuous and distinctive “Irish mind”, but there has been since the sixteenth century at least an Irish predicament: a predicament which has produced common characteristics in a number of those who have been involved in it.’ (Writers and Politics, London 1965 [reprinted from the New Statesman], p.101; Gupta, p.63; also in part in W. J. McCormack, ‘The Biographia Literaria of Vivian Mercier’, in Bullán, 12, 1 Summer 1995, p.92.)

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W. J. McCormack, ‘The Biographia Literaria of Vivian Mercier’, in Bullán, 2. 1 (Summer 1995), pp.79-100: ‘We know that the literary revival had sources beyond those which can be readily listed or drilled into a causitive argument. But what we are left with is a series of chapters, some of them synthetic in a different sense, which moves from questions of Gaelic sources into details of religious practice without further elaboration.’ (p.96.) McCormack explores and exposes the thinness of Mercier’s revelation that the literary revival had its roots in the spirit of Protestant evangelicism, seeing this as a simplification of the Protestant formation in Irish life as well as a case of almost autobiographical special pleading; he further criticises the extreme carelessness of academic apparatus in the book, and the discontinuity of its sections; a detailed history of publishing events in their contemporary context provides a ‘literary biography’ of Professor Mercier, particularly in relation to his attempted ‘convergence’ with the native tradition; the essay rounds off with criticism of Declan Kiberd’s monolithic conception of the Protestant culture of Ireland (summoning Yeats’s epistolary quotation from Swift, ‘When I am told that somebody is my brother Protestant, I remember that the rat is a fellow creature’), and ending, ‘Declan Kiberd’s question only promises one more reinvention of the millstone.’ (p.98.)

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Gerry Smyth, Decolonisation and Criticism: The Construction of Irish Literature (London: Pluto Press 1998), noting Vivian Mercier, ‘An Irish School of Criticism?’ (Studies, 1956), in which the author confronts deplores the absence of a native critical tradition (Smyth, p.3); Further, quotes from that article: ‘The gulf between scholarship and criticism seems even wider and deeper in Ireland than in other countries. Those who criticise don’t know - those who know don’t criticise. In other words, our critics are too unscholarly, our scholars too uncritical or too indifferent to the common reader.’ (An Irish Schol of Criticism?’, in Studies, 1956, p.86; Smyth, p.131; see also under Greene, for joint editorial of the anthology.)

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Kevin Barry, ‘Priming the Protestant Canon’, review of Modern Irish Literature: Sources and Founders, in The Irish Times (28 May 1994), quotes the opening of Mercier’s essay on the Evangelical Revival in the Church of Ireland: ‘It would be outrageous to suggest that the true purpose of the Irish Literary Revival was to provide alternative employment for the sons of clergymen after Disestablishment had reduced the number of livings produced by the Church of Ireland [however, the Revival] ‘did have this unintended side-effect.’ See also review by Bernard O’Donoghue, ILS (16 Dec. 1994), giving a full account of the genesis of the work.

Maurice Harmon offers a stern critique of Mercier’s chapter on the Irish Literary Revival in W. E. Vaughan, ed., A New History of Ireland (OUP 1996), remarking especially on its derisory scope and detail (Books Ireland, Feb. 1996).

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George O’Brien, ‘literary criticism since 1960’, in W. J. McCormack, ed., The Blackwell Companion to Irish Literature (Oxford 1999; 2001): ‘[...] The possibilities of synthesis explored in Vivian Mercier’s The Irish Comic Tradition (1962) have largely not been pursued. The subject of his A Reader’s Guide to the New Novel (1971) is a reminder thatn, among other issues, internationalism has remained a synonym for anglo-centricity. Mercier’s Beckett/Beckett remained the most substantial study by an Irish critic of a modern Irish author until Anthony Cronin’s Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernism appeared in 1996. / In addition, the establishment of criticism as an aessentially academic enterprise, based on a conception of literature as a discipline and carried out in the name of strictly methodological presuppositions raised important questions about more traditional views of literature as an agent of Irish culture. [...]’

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Quotations

‘The typical Anglo-Irish boy learns that he is not quite Irish almost before he can talk. He later learns that he is not English.’ (Beckett/Beckett, 1977; reiss. 2008; quoted in Catriona MacKernan, reviewing same in Books Ireland, Oct. 2008, p.221.)

The Bell, reviewed in The Bell, 10, 2 (q.d.): ‘For Seán O’Faoláin is The Bell. He is not just a figurehead - he is the magazine, as you find out after, or before, you have written one article for it. He writes his own Editorial, all 3,000 words of it; he usually has another piece - a lecture, short story or what not - under his own name; he writes the little blurb in italics which appears at the head of most Bell contributions; and if I am not careful, he will write most of this article too.’ (p.157.) Further, ‘It fulfils for Ireland the functions which in England , e.g., are carried out by a multiplicity of periodicals - some monthly, some weekly.’ (Ibid ., 159; quoted in Kelly-Anne Matthews, PhD [Draft in 2007]).

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The Irish Times: Mercier contributed to a debate on the status of The Irish Times in 1944-45, responding to Eamon de Valera’s suggestion that the newspaper was written for and by those whose ‘spiritual home is not in this country’ (30 Sept. 1944, p.3) and a constant reminder of ‘foreign rule’ (11 Oct. 1944). Mercier wrote in The Bell that the newspaper ‘presents the public with the spectacle, in its own reincarnations, of the Protean nature of modern Irish life’ adding that the ‘dyed-in-the-wool, dry-as-dust, dead-in-the-last-ditch Ascendancy organ, the sworn enemy of the Irish people’ had been transformed by R. M. Smyllie, who [‘]aimed it at the educated classes, Catholic and Protestant alike.’ (The Bell, Vol. IX, 4, Jan. 1945, p.296.)

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The Irish Comic Tradition (1962): ‘The prevalence of the comic spirit in Anglo-Irish literature of the twentieth century needs no demonstration. One has only to start listing the names of writers - Joyce, Synge, O’Casey, George Moore, James Stephens, Lady Gregory, Frank O’Connor - and at once the point is made. Even W. B. Yeats or Samuel Beckett has his own special vein of defiant or despairing humour. / During the nineteenth century Irish wit and humour were already proverbial lin the English-speaking countries. Indeed, it has often been remarked that most of the masters of English stage comedy since the Restoration - Congreve, Farquhar, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw - either grew up in Ireland or came of Irish stock. / all sorts of theories have been advanced to explain these indisputable facts. Shaw actualoy gave the credit to the Irish climate, as if wit or a sense of humour were a disease like rheumatism or tuberculosis, both of which are often blamed on the prevailing dampness of Ireland. It seems more reasonable, however, to attribute cultural phenomena in the first place to cultural causes. If it can be demonstrated that Gaelic literature has from the earliest times shown a bent for wild humour, a dielight in witty word play, and a tendency to regard satire as one of the indispensable functions of the literary man, then the prevalence of these traits in Anglo-Irish literature is most probably due to cultural continuity. / Gaelic literature is notorious for its conservatism: the use of archaic diction and orthography, of archaic allusions, of an archaic subject matter recurs throughout its long history - no doubt primarly because for many centuries most of the literature was produced by a professional caste or class of poets, inheritors of the druids and most familiar to English-speaking readers under the name of “bards”.’ (For full-text version of the Preface, in RICORSO, Library, “Critical Classics”, via index, or direct.)

On Samuel Beckett: ‘We have the peculiar case here of an Anglo-Irishman who, like Swift, seems to fit comfortably into the Gaelic tradition yet has almost no conscious awareness of what that tradition is. Beckett might be described as in the Gaelic tradition but not of it.’ (Quoted in Barbara Reich Gluck, Beckett and Joyce: Friendship and Fiction, Bucknell UP 1979, p.164.)

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Victorian Evangelicalism and the Anglo-Irish Literary Reviewal’, in Literature and the Changing Ireland, ed. Peter Connolly, Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1980, pp.59-101: ‘It would be outrageous to suggest that the true purpose of the Irish Literary Revival was to produce alternative employment for the sons of clergymen after Disestablishment [in 1867] had reduced the livings provided by the Church of Ireland .. bt it did have this unexpected side effect.’ (p.59; quoted in Salome Houston, PG Dip., UUC 2011.) ‘[T]hey were trying to create in the cultural domain a national unity that had become more and more elusive in the political arena’ (p.90.) Note: compare Mercier's tentative view of the relationship between Disestablishment and the origins literary revival here (p.59, as supra), and in MNodern Irish Literature, 1994, as infra.)

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John Eglinton as Socrates: A Study of Scylla and Charybdis, in James Joyce: An International Perspective, ed. Suheil Bushrui & Bernard Benstock (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1982), pp.65-81: ‘My own particular favourite, for a great variety of reasons, is “Scylla and Charybdis”. This essay will put forward a number of those reasons, but I suppose the overriding one has to do with Irish cultural chauvinism. I resent those critics who perform a kind of Caesarean section with Joyce, ripping him from the womb of Irish tradition generally and the Irish Literary Revival in particular. No passage in Joyce’s work refutes them more effectively than “Scylla and Charybdis”. The scene of this episode, according to Joyce’s own schema, is ‘The Library’, but it is not just any library: we find ourselves in the Assistant Librarian’s office in the National Library of Ireland. The art with which the episode is concerned is Literature. A number of the great figures in world literature are mentioned, and Shakespeare, of course, is examined in detail throughout: nevertheless, by far the largest national group of living authors referred to is Irish.’ (P.65.) See also final note: ‘[I]t is hard to remember how much I owe to Williarn M. Schutte’s brilliant Joyce and Shakespeare (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1957). Certainly I learned a great deal from it about Bloom’s resemblances to Shakespeare. Even at the time, though, I was disappointed - or perhaps relieved - that Schutte in his final chapter reached a conclusion quite different from mine. When I first read the passage just quoted in Ellmann, I could have said with Hamlet, “O my prophetic soul!” Perhaps I ought to have published this article twenty years ago, but I have been using some of the material in teaching Ulysses for at least 25 years, besides giving three public lectures based on it during the past decade.’ (p.81, n.15.) [For full text, see Library, Criticism, “Major Authors” - James Joyce, infra.]

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Modern Irish Literature: Sources and Founders (Clarendon Press, 1994): ‘The true purpose of the literary revival was to provide alternative employment for the sons of clergymen after disestablishment had reduced the number of livings provided by the Church of Ireland’ (‘Evangelical Revival in the Church of Ireland, 1800-69’ [chap.], p.64; quoted in Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland, 1995, p.423.)

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Irish Literary Revival’, in A New History of Ireland: Ireland under the Union II, 1870-1921, Vol. VI, ed. W. E. Vaughan (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1996) [Chap. XIII]: ‘The relationship of Irish literature to Irish politics under review in this chapter offers both paradox and symmetry. The paradox lies in the fact that the Anglo-Irish literary revival, which saw itself at first as an alternative to, or even a denial of, politics, helped to foster a new separatist political tradition. The symmetry will be found in the fact that although the writers’ disillusionment with political gave way temporarily to a celebration of revolution … the setting-up of the Irish Free State soon led to a new disillusionment.’ (p.356.) [For longer extract, see RICORSO Library, “Irish Critical Classics”, via index or direct.]

Modern Irish Literature: Sources and Founders, ed. & pref. by Eilís Dillon, introduced by Declan Kiberd (OUP 1994), incls. a summary chapter on as ‘The Rediscovery of the Irish Past’].

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Irish mind: ‘Anyone who knows the contradictions of the Irish mind may come to suspect that the sceptical parodist is but the bard or hagiographer himself in a different mood’ (Comic Tradition, p.12); ‘Is it possible for a writer to work in a tradition without being fully aware of it? I believe it is, and I have tried to prove that Joyce was such a writer.’ (p.239; quoted in Gupta, ‘What colour’s Jew Joyce …: Race in the Context of Joyce’s Irishness and Bloom’s Jewishness’, in Bullán, 1, 2, Autumn 1994, p.63.)

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Anglo-Irish drama: ‘The secret of Anglo-Irish success in stage comedy, particularly of manners, lay with the play-spirit: young men who had grown up in Ireland could not take the English fashionable world seriously: viewing it as a game, they so presented it upon the stage. Wilde carried this tendency to its farthest limit in the pure playfulness of The Importance of Being Earnest, while at the same time treating all preconcieved ieas of the nature of drama as his playthings.’ (Irish Comic Tradition, 1962, p.244; cited in Selina Mooney, MA Diss., UUC 1999, p.37.)

Irish Short story: ‘Because most modern Irish writers possess this awareness of audience, this sense of dramatic rapport between writer and reader, the typical Irish short story is more likely to be a story, not a prose poem, than its counterpart in other literatures.’ (Pref., ed., Great Irish Short Stories, Abacus, London, 1992, p.15.)

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Notes
Sheeran’s thanks - on discussing the antinomous nature of Irish fiction, suspended between realism and romance: ‘The Irish dramatic tradition presents a similar picture of the differences. We are attempting to highlight between a literature that tends to move through contradictions to forms of harmony and reconciliation and one content to resolve disharmonies, if at all, by limited means such as pastoral or melodrama. To continue the necessary dogmatic vein of the discussion so far we can say that Irish dramatists, when they turn to English society for their material and audience write comedy of Manners.’ (p.137; here acknowledged his debt to a conversation with Vivian Mercier.) (Sheeran, “The Novels of Liam O’Flaherty: A Study in Romantic Realism”, Ph.D., UCG 1972, pp.136-37; for longer extract, see in RICORSO Library, “Criticism” attached.)

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Bon mot: Mercier is the author of the celebrated remark that Waiting for Godot is a play in which ‘nothing happens twice’ (Beckett/Beckett, p.xii.) Note that the oft-quoted sentence is cited in Alec Reid's Irish Times article on the announcement of Beckett's Nobel Prize - see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, infra.]

Polymath’ is the epithet adopted by Hugh Kenner in his dedication to Mercier in A Reader’s Guide to The New Novel, From Queneau to Pinget (London: Thames & Hudson 1971 [US 1973]).

Self-portrait: Mary Junker, Beckett: The Irish Dimension (Dublin: Wolfhound Press 1995), cites Mercier’s remarks that he himself comes from ‘the same rather philistine Irish Protestant background’ as Beckett (Beckett/Beckett, p.x; Junker, q.p.).

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Vade mecum: Vivian Mercier is among those (with Helen Joyce, John Kelleher, Fritz Senn, et al.) who provided help with annotations to James Joyce’s “From a Banned Writer to a Banned Singer”, rep. in The Critical Writings of James Joyce, ed. Ellsworth Mason and Richard Ellmann (1957 & Edns.)

Conor Cruise O’Brien quotes Vivian Mercier on Yeats: ‘We should allow that his views were closer to Hamilton’s or even to Jefferson’s than they were to Mussolini’s. (To Pierce the Dark Mind’, The Nation , 10 Dec. 1960; see ‘Passion and Cunning’, in Passion and Cunning and Other Essays, NY: Simon & Schuster 1988, p.42.)

Jean Martin - who played Lucky in the first production of En Attendant Godot (Paris 1953) - died in Feb. 2009. In the Guardian obitary notice, Mercier's famous remark on the play is cited: "The success of the play, in which "nothing happens, twice", according to the critic Vivian Mercier in the Irish Times, gathered momentum during its first run, not least because of the controversy it created. (See further under Samuel Beckett, Notes - as infra.)

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