Seamus Deane, Heroic Styles: The Tradition of an Idea [Field Day Pamphlet, No. 4] (Derry: Field Day 1984).

[Note: the text as given here is a selection of the whole - sadly without elipsis - and though some paragraphs flow on directly from each other as in the original, others don’t. The pagination refers to bottom of page in the original pamphlet.]

It would be foolhardy to choose one among the many competing variations [ways of reading - Irish literature and history - Romanticism, Victorianism, Modernism; Idealist, Radical, Liberal] and say that it is true on some specifically historical or literary basis. Such choices are always moral and/or aesthetic [5].

What I propose […] is that there have been for us two dominant ways of reading both our literature and our history. One is “Romantic”, a mode of reading which takes pleasure in the notion that Ireland is a culture enriched by the ambiguity of its relationship to an anachronistic and a modernist present [sic]. The other is a mode of reading which denies the glamour of this ambiguity and seeks to escape from it into a pluralism of the present. The authors who represent these modes most powerfully are Yeats and Joyce respectively. The problem which is rendered insoluble [5] by them is the North. In a basic sense, the crisis we are passing through is stylistic. That is to say, it is a crisis of language - the ways in which we write it and the ways in which we read it. In a culture like ours, ‘tradition’ is too easily taken to be an established reality. We are conscious that it is an invention, a narrative which ingeniously finds a way of connecting a selected series of historical figures or themes in such a way that the pattern or plot reveal to us becomes a conditioning factor in our reading of literary works. (p.5-6.)

A poem like “Ancestral Houses” owed its force to the vitality with [which] it offers a version of Ascendancy history as true in itself. The truth of this historical reconstruction of the Ascendancy is not cancelled by our simply saying No, it was not like that. For its ultimate validity is mythical, not historical. In this case, the mythical element is given prominence by the meditation on the fate of an originary energy which becomes so effective that it transforms nature into civilisation, and is then transformed itself by civilisation into decadence. The poem, then, appears to have a story to tell, and, along with that, an interpretation of the story’s meaning. It operates on the narrative and on the conceptual planes and at the intersection of these it emerges, for many readers, as a poem about the tragic nature of human existence itself. Yeats’s life, through the mediations of history and myth, becomes an embodiment of essential existence.

The trouble with such a reading is the assumption that this or any other literary work can arrive at a moment in which it takes leave of history or myth (which are liable to idiosyncratic interpretation) and becomes meaningful only as an aspect of the ‘human condition’. This is, of course, a characteristic determination of humanist readings of literature which hold to the ideological conviction that literature, in its highest forms, is non-ideological. It would be perfectly appropriate, within this particular frame, to take a poem by Pearse - say, “The Rebel” - and to read it in the light of a story - the Republican tradition from Tone, the Celtic tradition from Cuchulainn, the Christian tradition from Colmcille - and then reread the story as an expression of the moral supremacy of martyrdom over oppression. But as a poem, it would be regarded as inferior to that of Yeats. Yeats, stimulated by the moribund state of the [6] Ascendancy tradition, resolves, on the level of literature, a crisis which, for him, cannot be resolved socially or politically. In Pearse’s case, the poem is no more than an adjunct to political action. The revolutionary tradition he represents is not broken by oppression but renewed by it. His symbols survive outside the poem, in the Cuchulainn statue, in the reconstituted GPO, in the military behaviour and rhetoric of the IRA. Yeats’s symbols have disappeared, the destruction of Coole Park being the most notable, although even in their disappearance one can discover reinforcement for the tragic condition embodied in the poem. The unavoidable fact about both poems is that they continue to belong to history and to myth; they are part of the symbolic procedures which characterise their culture. Yet, to the extent that we prefer one as literature to the other, we find ourselves inclined to dispossess it of history, to concede to it an autonomy which is finally defensible only on the grounds of style.

The consideration of style is a thorny problem. In Irish writing, it is particularly so. When the language is English, Irish writing is dominated by the notion of vitality restored, of the centre energised by the periphery, the urban by the rural, the cosmopolitan by the provincial, the decadent by the natural. This is one of the liberating effects of nationalism, a means of restoring dignity and power to what had been humiliated and suppressed. This is the idea which underlies all our formulations of tradition. Its development is confined to two variations. The first we may call the variation of adherence, the second of separation. In the first, the restoration of native energy to the English language is seen as a specifically Irish contribution to a shared heritage. Standard English, as a form of language or as a form of literature, is rescued from its exclusiveness by being compelled to incorporate into itself what had previously been regarded as a delinquent dialect. It is the Irish contribution, in literary terms, to the treasury of English verse and prose. Cultural nationalism is thus transformed into a species of literary unionism. Sir Samuel Ferguson is the most explicit supporter of this variation, although, from Edgeworth to Yeats, it remains a tacit assumption. The story of the spiritual heroics of a fading class - the Ascendancy - in the face of a transformed Catholic ‘nation’ - was rewritten in a variety of ways in literature - as the story of the pagan Fianna replaced by a pallid Christianity, of young love replaced by old age (Deirdre, Oisin), of aristocracy supplanted by mob-democracy. The fertility of these rewritings is all the more remarkable in that they were recruitments by the fading class of the myths of renovation which belonged to their opponents. Irish culture became the new property of those who were losing their grip on [7] Irish land. The effect of these rewritings was to transfer the blame for the drastic condition of the country from the Ascendancy to the Catholic middle classes or to their English counterparts. It was in essence a strategic retreat from political to cultural supremacy. From Lecky to Yeats and forward to F. S. L. Lyons we witness the conversion of Irish history into a tragic theatre in which the great Anglo-Irish protagonists — Swift, Burke, Parnell — are destroyed in their heroic attempts to unite culture of intellect with the emotion of multitude, or in political terms, constitutional politics with the forces of revolution. The triumph of the forces of revolution is glossed in all cases as the success of a philistine modernism over a rich and integrated organic culture. Yeats’s promiscuity in his courtship of heroic figures — Cuchulainn, John O’Leary, Parnell, the 1916 leaders, Synge, Mussolini, Kevin O’Higgins, General O’Duffy— is an understandable form of anxiety in one who sought to find in a single figure the capacity to give reality to a spiritual leadership for which (as he consistently admitted) the conditions had already disappeared. Such figures could only operate as symbols. Their significance lay in their disdain for the provincial, squalid aspects of a mob culture which is the Yeatsian version of the other face of Irish nationalism. It could provide him culturally with a language of renovation, but it provided neither art nor civilisation. That had come, politically, from the connection between England and Ireland.

All the important Irish Protestant writers of the nineteenth century had, as the ideological centre of their work, a commitment to a minority or subversive attitude which was much less revolutionary than it appeared to be. Edgeworth’s critique of landlordism was counterbalanced by her sponsorship of utilitarianism and “British manufacturers”; Maturin and Le Fanu took the sting out of Gothicism by allying it with an ethic of aristocratic loneliness; Shaw and Wilde denied the subversive force of their proto-socialism by expressing it as cosmopolitan wit, the recourse of the social or intellectual dandy who makes [8] such a fetish of taking nothing seriously that he ceases to be taken seriously himself. Finally, Yeats’s preoccupation with the occult, and Synge’s with the lost language of Ireland are both minority positions which have, as part of their project, the revival of worn social forms, not their overthrow. The disaffection inherent in these positions is typical of the Anglo-Irish criticism of the failure of English civilisation in Ireland, but it is articulated for an English audience which learned to regard all these adversarial positions as essentially picturesque manifestations of the Irish sensibility. In the same way, the Irish mode of English was regarded as picturesque too and when both language and ideology are rendered harmless by this view of them, the writer is liable to become a popular success. Somerville and Ross showed how to take the middle-class seriousness out of Edgeworth’s world and make it endearingly quaint. But all nineteenth-century Irish writing exploits the connection between the picturesque and the popular. In its comic vein, it produces The Shaughran and Experiences of an Irish R.M.; in its Gothic vein, Melmoth the Wanderer, Uncle Silas and Dracula; in its mandarin vein, the plays of Wilde and the poetry of the young Yeats. The division between that which is picturesque and that which is useful did not pass unobserved by Yeats. He made the great realignment of the minority stance with the pursuit of perfection in art. He gave the picturesque something more than respectability. He gave it the mysteriousness of the esoteric and in doing so committed Irish writing to the idea of an art which, while belonging to  “high” culture, would not have, on the one hand, the asphyxiating decadence of its English or French counterparts and, on the other hand, would have within it the energies of a community which had not yet been reduced to a public. An idea of art opposed to the idea of utility, an idea of an audience opposed to the idea of popularity, an idea of the peripheral becoming the central culture - in these three ideas Yeats provided Irish writing with a programme for action. But whatever its connection with Irish nationalism, it was not, finally, a programme of separation from the English tradition. His continued adherence to it led him to define the central Irish attitude as one of self-hatred. In his extraordinary “A General Introduction for my Work” (1937), he wrote:

“The ‘Irishry’ have preserved their ancient ‘deposit’ through wars which, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, became wars of extermination; no people, Lecky said ... have undergone greater persecution, nor did that persecution altogether cease up to our own day. No people hate as we do in whom that past is always alive ... Then I [9] remind myself that remind myself that though mine is the first English marriage I know of in the direct line, all my family names are English, and that I owe my soul to Shakespeare, to Spenser and to Blake, perhaps to William Morris, and to the English language in which I think, speak, and write, that everything I love has come to me through English - my hatred tortures me with love, my love with hate … . This is Irish hatred and solitude, the hatred of human life that made Swift write Gulliver and the epitaph upon his tomb, that can still make us wag between extremes and doubt our sanity.”

The pathology of literary unionism has never been better defined.

The second variation in the development of the idea of vitality restored [viz., separation] is embodied most perfectly in Joyce. His work is dominated by the idea of separation as a means to the revival of suppressed energies. The separation he envisages is as complete as one could wish. The English literary and political imperium, the Roman Catholic and Irish nationalist claims, the oppressions of conventional language and of conventional narrative - all of these are overthrown, but the freedom which results is haunted by his fearful obsession with treachery and betrayal. In him, as in many twentieth century writers, the natural ground of vitality is identified as the libidinal. The sexual forms of oppression are inscribed in all his works but, with that, there is also the ambition to see the connection between sexuality and history. His work is notoriously preoccupied with paralysis, inertia, the disabling effects of society upon the individual who, like Bloom, lives within its frame, or, like Stephen, attempts to live beyond it. In Portrait the separation of the aesthetic ambition of Stephen from the political, the sexual and the religious zones of experience is clear. It is, of course, a separation which includes them, but as oppressed forces which were themselves once oppressive. His comment on Wilde is pertinent:

Here we touch the pulse of Wilde’s art - sin. He deceived himself into believing that he was the bearer of good news of neo-paganism to an enslaved people ... But if some truth adheres ... to his restless thought ... at its very base is the truth inherent in the soul of Catholicism: that man cannot reach the divine heart except through that sense of separation and loss called sin.”

In Joyce himself the sin is treachery, sexual or political infidelity. [10] The betrayed figure is the alien artist. The ‘divine heart’ is the maternal figure, mother, Mother Ireland, Mother Church or Mother Eve. But the betrayed are also the betrayers and the source of the treachery is in the Irish condition itself. In his Trieste lecture of 1907, “Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages”, he notes that Ireland was betrayed by her own people and by the Vatican on the crucial occasions of Henry II’s invasion and the Act of Union: “From my point of view, these two facts must be thoroughly explained before the country in which they occurred has the most rudimentary right to persuade one of her sons to change his position from that of an unprejudiced observer to that of a convicted nationalist.” / Finally, in his account of the Maamtrasna murders of 1882 in “Ireland at the Bar” (published in Il Piccolo della Sera, Trieste, 1907), Joyce, anticipating the use which he would make throughout Finnegans Wake of the figure of the Irish-speaking Myles Joyce, judicially murdered by the sentence of an English-speaking court, comments: “The figure of this dumb-founded old man, a remnant of a civilisation not ours, deaf and dumb before his judge, is a symbol of the Irish nation at the bar of public opinion.” This, along with the well-known passage from Portrait [viz., ‘my soul frets in the shadow of his language", Portrait of An Artist, Chap. 5] in which Stephen feels the humiliation of being alien to the English language in the course of his conversation with the Newman Catholic Dean of Studies, identifies Joyce’s sense of separation from both Irish and English civilisation. Betrayed into alienation, he turns to art to enable him overcome the treacheries which have victimised him.

In one sense, Joyce’s writing is founded on the belief in the capacity of art to restore a lost vitality. So the figures we remember are embodiments of this “vitalism”, particularly Molly Bloom and Anna Livia Plurabelle. The fact that they were women is important too, since it clearly indicates some sort of resolution, on the level of femaleness, of what had remained implacably unresolvable on the male level, whether that be of Stephen and Bloom or of Shem and Shaun. This vitalism announces itself also in the protean language of these books, in their endless transactions between history and fiction, macro- and microcosm. But along with this, there is in Joyce a [11] recognition of a world which is “void” (a favourite word of his), even though it is also full of correspondence, objects, people. … His vitalism is insufficient to the task of overcoming this void. [... &c.]

Yeats was indeed our last romantic in literature as was Pearse in politics. They were men who asserted a coincidence between the destiny of the community and their own and believed that this coincidence had an historical repercussion. This was the basis for their belief in a “spiritual aristocracy” which worked its potent influence in a plebian world. Their determination to restore vitality to this lost society provided their culture with a millenial conviction which has not yet died.’ Whatever we may thing of their ideas of tradition, we still adhere to the tradition of the idea that art and revolution are definitively associated in their production of any individual style [12] which is also the signature of the community’s deepest self. [… &c.]’ (pp.12-13.)

There is a profoundly insulting association in the secondary literature surround him that he is eccentric because of his Irishness but serious because o his ability to separate himself from it. In such judgements, we see the ghost of a rancid colonialism. But it is important to recognise that this ghost haunts the works themselves. the battle between style as the expression of communal history … and Joycean stylism, in which the atomisation of community is registered in a multitude of equivalent, competing styles, in short, a battle between Romantic and contemporary Ireland.’ [Goes on to apply these ideas to the crisis in Northern Ireland.] (p.13.)

Joyce, although he attempted to free himself from set political positions, did finally create in Finnegans Wake a characteristically modern way of dealing with heterogenous and intractable material and experience. The pluralism of his styles and languages, the absorbent nature of his controlling myths and systems, finally gives a certain harmony to varied experience. But, it could be argued, it is a harmony of indifference, one in which everything is a version of something else, where sameness rules over diversity, where contradiction is finally and disquietingly written out. In achieving this in literature, Joyce anticipated the capacity of modern society to integrate almost all antagonistic elements by transforming them into fashions, fads - styles, in short. (Ibid., p.16.)

There is, therefore, nothing mysterious about the re-emergence in literature of the contrast which was built into the colonial structure of the country. But to desire, in the present conditions in the North, the final triumph of State over nation, Nation over State, modernism over backwardness, authenticity over domination, or any other comparable liquidation of the standard oppositions, is to desire the utter defeat of the other community. The acceptance of a particular style of Catholic or Protestant attitudes or behaviours, married to a dream of final restoration of vitality to a decayed cause or community, is a contribution to the possibility of civil war. It is impossible to do without ideas of a tradition. But it is necessary to disengage from the traditions of the ideas which the literary revival and the accompanying political revolution sponsored so successfully. (p.16.)

Although the Irish political crisis is, in many respects, a monotonous one, it has always been deeply engaged in the fortunes of Irish writing at every level, from the production of work to its publication and reception. The oppressiveness of the tradition we inherit has its source in our own readiness to accept the mystique of Irishness as an inalienable feature of our writing and, indeed, of much else in our culture. That mystique is itself an alienating force. To accept it is to become involved in the [17] spiritual heroics of a Yeats or a Pearse, to believe in the incarnation of the nation in the individual. To reject it is to make a fetish of exile, alienation, dislocation in the manner of Joyce or Beckett. [...] They inhabit the highly recognisable world of modern colonialism. (p.18.)

One step towards that dissolution [of the mystique] would be a revision of our prevailing idea of what it is that constitutes the Irish reality. In literary that could take the form of a definition, in the form of a comprehensive anthology, of what writing in this country has been for the last 300-500 years and, through that, an exposure to the fact that the myth of Irishness, the notion of Irish unreality, the notion surrounding Irish eloquence, are all political themes upon which the literature has battened to an extreme degree since the nineteenth century when the idea of national character was invented. The Irish national character [...] has been received as the verdict passed by history upon the Celtic personality. That stereotyping has caused a long colonial concussion. It is about time we put aside the idea of the essence - that hungry Hegelian ghost looking for a stereotype to live in. As Irishness or as Northerness he stimulates the provincial unhappiness we create and fly from, becoming virtuoso metropolitans to the exact degree that we have created an idea of Ireland as provincialism incarnate. These are worn oppositions. They used to be parentheses in which the Irish destiny was isolated. That is no longer the case. Everything has to be rewritten - i.e., re-read. that will enable new writing, new politics, unblemished by Irishness, but securely Irish.’ (pp.17-18; end.)

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