Seamus Deane, ‘Boredom and Apocalypse: A National Paradigm’, in Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing Since 1790 (Oxford 1997), pp.145-97.

[Note: The end of each page in the original is indicated by bow brackets - e.g., {159} for the end of p.159. The notes - here indicated by square brackets in the range from 25 to 43 are not supplied with this version. I have broken some longer paragraphs in the original for on-screen reading convenience. [BS]

The title of Deane’s book from which the extract is taken may reasonably be supposed to stem from a phrase from the following passage in The Third Policeman (1967): ‘I was clearly in a strange country but all the doubts and perplexities which strewed my mind could not stop me from feeling happy and heart-light and full of an appetite for going about my business and finding the hiding-place of the black box.’ (Penguin edn., p.37; my italics.)]


Exhausting the National Paradigm: Flann O’Brien
In literature, perhaps the work that represents the ever-shifting relation between the central and the peripheral, between the historical {157} and the contemporary, between all that is pseudo-romantic about Irish and all that is harshly actual about the squalor of the modern metropolis, is Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), a ‘novel’ constructed on the principles of proportional representation rather than on the single transferable vote system that is the political equivalent of the representing narrator in realist fiction. O’Brien’s novel, in effect, indicates that the best representation can do is to produce an unhappy coalition of interlocking discourses that remain in uneasy alliance with one another, rather than elect a one-party strong government that will be able to represent the whole melange of history, language, community, and narratives that both compose and discompose his fiction into so many dialects, chief of which is the mock dialect of the translation of the Irish language into the fustian English of a government-sponsored cultural nationalism. [25]

Among the most remarkable features of O’Brien’s writings is their organization around an internal schism that bears within itself an interpretation of Irish literary history. The schism is between fantasy and realism. It is endemic in O’Brien’s writings, powerfully operative in a number of subtle and usually hilarious forms. But it is also the schism that O’Brien uses in his ongoing battle with James Joyce, especially the Joyce who had been created by the interpretative practices of American academia. Further, O’Brien’s battle with Joyce duplicates the Free State’s battle with the Irish Renaissance. O’Brien’s rebuke to Joyce is of a piece with Patrick Kavanagh’s rebuke to Yeats and the Revival. [26] In a strange series of reduplications, a great deal of Irish writing, from the nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth, uses the same paradigm of opposition between ‘realism’ and ‘fantasy’, both within the work of individual writers and within those critiques that interpret that work as belonging either to the ‘fantasy’ (Irish Revival) phase or to the ‘realist’ (Free State) phase. The paradigm governs both a way of writing and a way of reading. Moreover, this opposition also coincides with the old distinction between linguistic extravagance and eloquence on the one hand and linguistic penury and harshness on the other. Various authors exhibit this: George Moore in the movement from Evelyn Innes to Esther Waters; Joyce from Dubliners to Finnegan Wake, {159} James Stephens from The Charwoman’s Daughter to The Crock of Gold; Eimear O’Duffy from The Wasted Island to King Goshawk and the Birds; Austin Clarke from The Vengeance of Roan to Later Poems; O’Casey from the Dublin trilogy to the later plays that begin with The Silver Tassie; and Synge and Yeats, where the variation is constantly produced within individual plays and poems, effecting contrasts between a harsh and impoverished version of Ireland and a radiant transfiguration of it into that imaginative fantasy that draws its strength both from the actuality out of which it grows and from which it turns away in disdain.

This schismatic divide is consciously exploited by O’Brien in his fiction and in his journalism. Indeed, even the division between these, often taken to be disabling, enforces his critique of twentieth-century Ireland and its literature(s) and language(s). In his fiction, he parodies the extravagant solipsism and esoteric jargon of the modernist author/hero; in his journalism, he attacks the extraordinary ready-made banalities of the contemporary hack writer. The first he attacks in one of the chosen genres of high modernism - the experimental novel; the other in the inescapable medium of the mass mind, the newspaper. The mark of the first is its fondness for the arcane, its search for uniqueness; of the second, its helpless subservience to the cliché, its thirst for consensus. The only writing that is permitted any claim to freedom from these extremes is writing in the Irish language; that is to say, what was written in that language several centuries ago, when it was free of the grotesque stereotypes that govern its use in the present day. It is not merely the case that these stereotypes are offensive and degrading; what is worse, they have been so effectively internalized by the Irish themselves that they have now come to be the standard means of Irish self representation - a process cruelly parodied in his novel An Béal Bocht (1941). [27]

The revival of the language by its translators and by its new race of speakers - the babbling and ferocious gaeilgeóiri has raised a spectral monster that is a grotesque deformation of the actual speech and writing of the past. Of course, the same is true of the English language; it too has been rendered unrecognizable by modernist authors or all too recognizable by contemporary journalists. O’Brien plays ingenious variations on the opposition between the {159} extraordinary and the infraordinary, between fantasy and realism. The most frequent and successful is the adaptation, as conversation, of the language and formulas of the Civil Service, emphasizing thereby the surrealistic element that is embedded in and even released by bureaucratic conventions. Prominent among these is the questionnaire, transmuted by O’Brien into a literary sub genre. The questionnaire has a montonous decorum and persistence. It appears in the most opaque linguistic disguises - clichés, circumlocutions, periphrases, literalisms - and produces the most extraordinary and often equally opaque answers.

O’Brien’s art discovers humour in the repetition of stock words and phrases that come to achieve an almost canonical status in his writing. ‘Class’ is one of those words; ‘a member of the author class; ‘a member of the farming class’; ‘choosing his boot, the buttoned class’; ‘holder of Guinness clerkship, the third class’; ‘a member of the clergy, enclosed class’. Almost equalling it in frequency and effect is the word ‘party’ - ‘a party by the name of Bagenal’ [28] The comic relation between the individual person or object and the conventional sociopolitical meanings of ‘class’ and ‘party’ highlights the discrepancy between the registers of official and colloquial speech; the eccentricity of the single person or object is the more evident through its association with standard formations that have lost their political life and become clichés. And, of course, O’Brien adopts the questionnaire as an integral element in his narrative in At SwimTwo-Birds.

And how is our friend? he inquired in the direction of my bed. Nature of my reply: Civil, perfunctory, uninformative.’ [29]

All of O’Brien’s work employs such mock-specifications that exploit the elements of impersonal precision and colloquial familiarity that he dormant in ordinary speech and in bureaucratic routines. His personae, ‘the brother’, ‘yet man’, ‘Keats and Chapman’, ‘the Plain People of Ireland’, have the same blend of qualities - intimately known and yet entirely anonymous. [30] It is the predictability and the strangeness of their discourse that make it both familiar and alienated. In the pervasive banality that suffuses all, the surreal lurks - ‘the surrealism of the habitual’. [31] They collude and collide with one {130} another in deft sequence, The compendium of bureaucratic conventions satirized by O’Brien in his Mylesian disguise is additionally potent precisely because it contains within itself an inversion; the written word, the documentary procedure, the obituarist’s format, has become the speech of the common populace. In a bureaucratic world, the formatted document is sovereign; speech is no longer prior to such conventions; it is an after-mimicry of them. There is a peculiar kind of local comedy involved in the personae of the newspaper column, for they combine a specious individuality with a complete typicality; in a comparable manner their reported speech combines the inflections of eccentricity with those of a ‘bureaucratic fatality’. [32]

It is true that in At Swim-Two-Birds O’Brien, in writing a novel about his undergraduate author writing a novel about Dermot Trellis who is himself writing a novel in collaboration with another writer, William Treaty, about characters who finally rebel by writing Trellis into another fiction, is bringing into question the system of illusion upon which fiction and its putative other, ‘real life’, depends. But in this book, as in The Third Policeman, written directly afterwards, although not published until 1967, and in The Dalkey Archive (1964), a strange recycling (if that is the word) of its predecessor, O’Brien explores the sinister implications of the systems of representation upon which literature and indeed the whole social system, depends. The conversion of one world into another - of Joyce into ‘Joyce’, of men into bicycles, of authorship into a series of infinitely receding personae, of the ordinary world into the extraordinary one of the self (das Selbst, De Selby) - is effected not only by a switch of discourse but also by virtue of the credence given to such discourses. Such credence is produced by acts of interpretation. Discourse is not something to be interpreted; it is itself an act of interpretation. All discourse is interpretation; all interpretation is discourse. In the epistemological free fall that is called writing, some halt must be called; at some point, discourse must hit bottom. Otherwise, every believer in discourse becomes a monomaniac, someone who is entirely given over to his or her language as a system that is sufficiently autonomous to replace the world.

It is in seeking such a ground that O’Brien (like Kavanagh) is an author of {161} the Free State, the little world that succeeded to the extravagant rhetoric of the Revival and the Rising and the War of Independence and the Civil War. It is a world that has lost faith in the heroic consciousness of the heroic individual and has replaced it by the unheroic consciousness of the ordinary, of the Plain People of Ireland. Of course O’Brien is ironic, to say the least, about the PPI. But the attraction of the Free State world, in its ready-made language, cliché, consensus, is that it is a shared world, that it observes, even relishes, limitation. In that regard, it is an antidote to the preceding world and history of the fantasy worlds of Joyce, Yeats, the revolutionary leaders, the rhetoricians of a form of monomania to which they tried to make the actual world conform. In so far as it had forsaken its earlier, apocalyptic history, it had given up a system of representation, whose literary expression was modernism, fora representative system, whose literary expression was anti-modernist bureaucratese.

A bureaucratic democracy has no natural relation to heroicized narratives. In Franco Moretti’s terms:

democracy is not intovaed in the production of good novels. If anything, it aims at limiting the domain of the novelistic, at counterbalancing the destabilizing tendencies of modernity. it aims at reducing the rate of ‘adventure’ in our lives while expanding thejunsdiction, - so inert in narrative terms - of ‘security’. [33]

The globalism of the Revival had, in these terms, succeeded to the localism of the Free State; whatever the myriad defects and stupidities of the latter, censored and censorious, it was so steeped in cliche that it would never run the modernist risk of becoming a fantasy that prided itself on its escape from the ordinary. Localism moved in the other direction; its movement into fantasy, or nightmare, was predicated on its power to assimilate everything, especially the drama of personal identity, ‘into a culture of procedural rationality’. [34] The vocation of ‘non serviam’ of Stephen Dedalus had been replaced by the obedient functionary’s job in the Civil Service. The fake nation, with its inflated rhetoric of origin and authenticity, had given way to the fake state, with its deflated rhetoric of bureaucratic dinginess. In the passage from the fantasy {162} of one to the realism of the other, the entity called Ireland had somehow failed to appear.

In a similar fashion, it could be shown that many of the Big House plays and novels of the twentieth century in Irish writing, most of them deriving from the Yeatsian model, conversely operate by claiming that it is precisely that cultivated Anglo-hishness these derelict houses and people represent that has not been incorporated within the new state system - that the Anglo-Irish civilization, like the Irish-speaking civilization, is not represented by being treated as something archaic and remaindered, subsidized by the state but not integral to its functions. [35] One of the most enduring characteristics of a postcolonial state is the presence within it of remaindered communities, formations that cannot be incorporated politically and must therefore be sustained culturally by the life support machine of the aesthetic or the touristic, two intimately related practices. These display both the power and the failure of a system of representation that can only effect its purposes by a process of peripheralization for those elements within the national state system that are presumed to have served their historical purpose and therefore are fossilized within a regime of tourism or writing or film that has to deal with their complex, fuzzy realities by stereotyping them as typically national, ‘Irish’ in one or other of the senses of that limited, but monotonously fertile, category.

Of course, it is also true that these peripheralities conceive of themselves in the very same terms as the pre-state nation conceived itself - as a form of authen ticity environed by inauthenticity, as an elite group environed by a mob, as history incarnated in a group that has been cast away as no longer belonging to the present. If this is true in the Republic, it is much more harshly true of the two communities in the north, both of whom wish to speak the same language of economic development while also adhering to different cultural languages. And both experience the same plight of being told that their communities must surrender the archaic language of difference - because it is irrational, improvident, insusceptible to civilization - and surrender it to a more controlled and controlling language of ecumenism that will permit economic development to proceed and a sad history to be left behind as nothing more than an object of touristic pleasure. {163}

As always, there is a great deal of shadow boxing carried on in these staged displays. There is always the recourse to the notion that the Lebennvelt, the life-world, is threatened by the impersonal system, local custom succumbing to rational uniformity, ‘oul dacency’ giving way to heartless anonymity, aristocratic splendour fading into plebeian and philistine vacuities. It is not sufficient to call this specious combat boring; it is a combat that has boredom at its Centre. Boredom is the only interesting issue that is raised by it.

[End sect.]

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