Denis Donoghue, ‘Fears for Irish Studies in an Age of Identity Politics’, in The Chronicle of Higher Education (21 November 1997).

[Also on this page: Denis Donoghue, ‘Ireland, Race, Nation, State’ [Part 1], in Partisan Review, Vol. LXVI, No. 2 (1999), pp.223-34 - infra.]

I was a lecturer in the English department at University College in Dublin in the early ’60s, when I received a memorable invitation: Would I like to teach two courses, “Modern Poetry” and “Modern Drama,” at the next Harvard Summer School? Gladly. In teaching them, I felt some misgiving about the “Modern Drama” course, not being comfortable as a theater critic, but I was happy enough about “Modern Poetry.” I started with Whitman and went on to Dickinson, Hopkins, Hardy, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Frost. Modern poetry was an entity sufficiently vague to allow me to deal with it formally and narratively. I concentrated on poems that made creative discoveries among the possibilities of the English language. I didn’t emphasize the fact that the poets were American, English, or Irish.

The same was true when I later taught Jonathan Swift at the University of Cambridge. I didn’t make much of his being Irish. His styles concerned me more than his nationality or his version of nationalism. When I returned to Ireland and to Univerity College in 1965 as a professor of modern English and American literature - modern being deemd to mean “since 1600” - I found that the question of nationality and identity - at least in Irish writers - could hardly be avoided. The civil-rights campaign in Northern Ireland started in 1968 and soon turned into a lethal, if informal, conflict between the nationalists, who wanted independence from Britain, and the unionists, who wanted to remain part of it, between Catholics and Protestants, dissidents and the “security forces.” Before long, various forces, calling themselves the Provisional Irish Republican Army, the official IRA, and the Ulster Volunteer Force, along with other paramilitary groups, took to the gun and the bomb. Even in relatively peaceful Dublin, it was necessary to “take a position” on this conflict to the north. Mine was clear, or so I thought. I was a nationalist, in the sense that I conceived of Ireland as one country and loathed the division of the island into two parts: the South, an independent republic, and the North, constitutionally part of the United Kingdom. But my being a nationalist did not mean that I supported the IRA or regarded the existence of Northern Ireland as justifying the spilling of anyone’s blood.

After 1968 I found myself invited to give lectures on say, Yeats, not as a major poet who discovered new feelings in new structures of words, but as an Irishman who defined a certain role for himself in the drama of Irish identity. When an opportunity arose to publish in three volumes my selected essays on various forms of literature, I couldn’t think of any way to organize the material except on national grounds - Irish, English, and American. I called the books “We Irish”; “England, Their England”; and “Reading America”. Such was the force of identity politics. But my essays remained concerned primarily with the structure and language of individual works of literature.

The continuing political conflict has brought renewed attention to Irish literature and made it increasingly difficult for scholars to avoid the questions of nationality and empire. While these are legitimate issues, the emerging discipline of Irish studies has wedged the study of Irish literature into an ill-fitting theory developed from postcolonial studies of countries with very different histories and cultures. Not only is the postcolonial approach ill-suited to the Irish situation, it sacrifices literary understanding on the altar of politics.

When I returned to Ireland, the influence of nationalism and empire on scholars like me was still minor compared with the pressure exerted on Irish writers, North and South, to declare themselves on the political issue. The conflict, though bad in every other respect, was good for literature. In the South, writers such as Thomas Kinsella and John Montague felt impelled to turn their sense of “the North” into poems. The issue could not be left in silence. In the North, several writers - notably Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney, Seamus Deane, and Michael Longley - addressed themselves to the whole political and cultural quandary of England and Ireland, North and South. Friel’s play Translations and Heaney’s book of poems North emerged from the throes of Northern Ireland.

In 1980 Friel and the actor Stephen Rea founded the Field Day Project, a touring theater company involving Heaney, Deane, and others. The project also went on to produce pamphlets and literary collections attempting to define Irish literary, cultural, and political matters. The pamphlets studied various aspects of the political situation, and The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (1992) represented a large selection of Irish writing in the glare of the political conflict. That conflict has also resulted in increased critical interest in Ireland’s history and literature. The recent decades have brought a sustained and sympathetic response to contemporary Irish poetry, drama, and fiction. As a result, writers as different as Heaney, Friel, John Banville, Eavan Boland, and Roddy Doyle have gained an international reputation.

In universities in Ireland, Britain, and the United States, the attempt to understand Ireland has led to the creation of professorships to study Irish history and literature and to focus on Irish studies more generally. The number of books and essays on Ireland published since 1968 is immense. Surely these are edifying developments? Certainly, they are. Every effort to undersand is worth making, especially when the object to be understood is a country notoriously fractured in its political and cultural development. One cannot escape the fact that in modern times, Ireland has had - and still has - two vernaculars, Irish and English; two often hostile races, one largely Gaelic, Catholic, and - at least in theory - politically independent, and the other largely Anglo-Saxon, Presbyterian, and insistently loyal to the British Crown. The country also has a muzzy division between North and South; an awkward disposition of rural and urban communities; a conflict between ancient pieties and the requirements of modernization; and an increasingly demanding reliance upon the European Union in economic and legal matters. A strange country, indeed.

But the important question is what constitutes the best approach to considering these exigencies. According to a current and - it seems to me - naive emphasis in Irish Studies, we are to think of Ireland as a postcolonial country and bring to bear upon it the vocabularies of Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Fredric Jameson, Chinua Achebe, and other political thinkers. The fact that those vocabularies were designed to deal with historical and political conditions in Africa, India, Algeria, and the Middle East rather than in Ireland is not allowed to count. Yet England has not been an imperial force in Ireland in the way that it was in India; by the same token, the historical relations between England and Ireland are quite different from those between Belgium and the Congo. To treat the situations intellectually as one and the same is flagrant distortion.

Not only is postcolonial theory ill-suited to the Irish situation, but the interpretations of literature that it produces are shallow and one-dimensional. Literary criticism cannot be reduced to political interpretation. The works of Yeats cannot be measured simply according to whether the poet was modernist or anti-modernist, a Fascist or something else, a self-deceiving myth maker or a spiritual visionary, a nationalist hero or a traitor to the nationalist cause. What goes unread in a political approach is his writing, his genius, his craft, the ways in which he chose and organized his words, the new feelings he summoned. Yet according to the rhetoric of cultural studies, where postcolonial theory has come to roost, we are to remain fixated on identity politics and engrossed with the postcolonial issue. We are to cede the initiative to historians and rebuke them only when they claim to be impartial. We are to approach a work of literature only for its symptomatic value as an illustration of some attitude already at large in the rhetoric of Irish identity. We are to smile at the notion of reading literature as “literature” and to mock anyone who thinks that a work of literature is in some sense and to some degree “autonomous.”

”When we are considering poetry,” T.S. Eliot said, “we must consider it primarily as poetry and not as another thing.” Eliot? That anti-Semite? Who is he to tell us how to read literature? “Poetry is not the inculcation of morals or the direction of politics; and no more is it religion or an equivalent of religion, except by some monstrous abuse of words.” Eliot again, so we are not allowed to think that he may be right. Take as examples of postcolonial theory applied to Irish literature two widely read and acclaimed books: Declan Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland (1995) and David Lloyd’s Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post-Colonial Moment (1993). A comparison of the two is much to Lloyd’s advantage, though the scale of Kiberd’s book is much larger. Inventing Ireland enforces on Irish literature the terms of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1988), with predictably banal consequences. Accepting wholesale Fanon’s vocabulary of “master,” “servant,” and “colonial mentality,” which was developed to describe the situation in Algeria, Kiberd applies it to Ireland, producing a reading of Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan,” for example, as being simply a poem about England’s “rape” of Ireland. The poem remains intact only because the commentary leaves its literary qualities untouched.

Lloyd’s book is far better. He makes the now-mandatory genuflections to postcolonial sages, but his sense of Irish literature is far more intimate, more telling, than Kiberd’s. His reading of Yeats’s “Coole and Ballylee, 1931” stays close to the rough ground of the poem, a lament for the decline of his friend Lady Gregory’s Coole Park estate and the school of writing associated with it. But, in the end, Lloyd is content to think that literature is ancillary to politics. A poem merely documents a political position; it illustrates a position taken, an attitude, a misconception, a prejudice in the political discourse of the subject. Lloyd hasn’t pondered the philosopher Michel Serres’s admonition that “you can always proceed from the product to its conditions, but never from the conditions to the product.” I wonder, too, why Lloyd is so hostile to the apparent fact that a work of art calls for aesthetic recognition. When he uses the word “aesthetic,” even in referring to Schiller’s “Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man”, he can’t interpret it except as a design to release the work of art from every relation to historical, economic, and social conditions. He insists on thinking that an aesthetic sense of literature is a prejudice according to which a work of literature is a prejudice according to which a work of literature is unconditioned and unmediated. I am an aesthete, but I don’t hold any such prejudice.

What do I fear? In my reading, I have found that the application of postcolonial theory to African-American, Asian-American, Native American, and women’s literature produces similarly dismaying results, interpretations unable to distinguish between a poem and an editorial. I hate to think of the literature of my own abused country being subjected to such an indignity, a welter of discourse in default of genuine literary criticism.

[Supplied by Suzanna Hicks on Irish Diaspora E-List; Thu, 20 Nov 1997 12:07:12 -0500 (EST); From: <> To: Subject: Donoghue Article.]


Denis Donoghue, ‘Ireland, Race, Nation, State’ [Part 1], in Partisan Review, Vol. LXVI, No. 2 (1999), pp.223-34
Gives autobiographical details, b. Tullow, Co. Carlow; moved to Warrenpoint; ‘a notional allegiance to Irish, a language we laboured to learn’ [224]

‘my memory has been shown to be fallible’ [224]; on Davis’s ballad, ‘I should have wondered by Ireland, to become a nation rather than a province, must exhibit the bravery of Greece and Rome.’ (p.225.)

quotes Arnold, ‘the shrunken and diminished remains of this great primitive race […] failure to reach any material civilisation sound and satisfying, and not out at the elbows, poor slovenly, and half-barbarous.’ [225]; chose for epigraph line from Macpherson’s Poems of Ossian: ‘they went forth to the war, but they always fell.’ [226]

Their genius counted for something ‘in the inward world of thought and science [but for nothing] in the outward and visible world of material life’; Arnold said in 1887 that the Irish could be ‘a nation poetically only, not politically’; Arnold endorses a claim of Henry Martin’s that the Celt’s were ‘always ready to react against the despotism of fact’ [227]

In ‘The Incompatible’ essay, Arnold noted that England had ‘completely failed to attach Ireland’, and that ‘We find ourselves the object of glowing fierce, unexplained hatred on the part of the Irish people’; urged Ireland to ‘acquiesce in the English connection by good and just treatment’; ‘the equitable treatment of Catholicism’ in regard to education; George Moore call Ireland ‘a primitive country and barbarous people’ in Parnell and His Island; acc. Donoghue, Moore ‘tormented ‘the Irish’ for the grim fun of it’ [228-29]

On Joyce: There is no reason to think that he is being ironic at Stephen Dedalus’s expense when he has him exclaim: “I go to encounter … race.’ It is possible to read that declaration ironically, but the irony soon becomes ashamed of itself.’ [229]

‘Yeats’s main achievement in his early poems, plays, and essays was to bring to composition and form a plethora of natioanl desires that hardly knew themselves to be desires. He told many Irish mena nd womne what they felt, wha they wanted, and the more strenuous things they should now want.’ It was an [p.229] achievement the more remarkable because he spoke from the experience of a social class in decline, the Protestant professional class of parsons and businessmen, and he thought to arouse from their sleep a people mainly Roman Catholic, a type he always disliked and in hs later years feared.’ (pp.229-30)

‘Some scholars of nationalism present it as a discursive formation without any ground in one’s actual experience. I find this an implausible argument. At least in Ireland, the nationalist conviction has not begun or ended in words; it has been provoked by issues of land, ownership, tenancy, the famine, and apparenty continuous humiliation.’ (p.230.)

Yeats emphasised Unity of Race … It is regularily maintained that he posited for the Irish people a fixed identity, as if such a quality were independent of circumstances and forces. I don’t think he did. His reflections on race, type, and national character seem to me not at all essentialist. He always allows for mobility by making every postulate yield to the transforming power of one’s imagination. He submits the ostensibly fixedconception of nature, history, character, self, and origin to subjective transformation, such that they become forms of freedom, gesture, personality, and style. Irish identity is what he wants to creatre, by many acts of summoning and conjuring; it is not deemed to be already there in a fixed form. (p.233). […] ‘The problem was not how to consume the world but how to make this apparently opaque thing appear to be transfigured, become transparent by virtue of one’s imagination.. (p.234.)

Biog. note: Denis Donoghue teaches English and American letters at New York University and is the author of “The Practice of Reading”, to be published next year by Yale University Press.]

[END; to be continued in PR3/Summer.]

Note: Journal Issue incl. Sean Lysaght, ‘Hegel’s Horse’s’, p.[308].


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