Joe Cleary, 'Reeling through the years’, review of Richard Kearney, Navigations: Collected Irish Essays 1976-2006, in The Irish Times (7 July 2007), Weekend.

Richard Kearney is one of Ireland’s most distinguished philosophers. He established an early reputation with his Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers (1984) and consolidated it later with works such as Modern Movements in European Philosophy (1987), The Wake of Imagination (1988) and Poetics of Imagining (1991). Never a narrow specialist, he was also co-editor of The Crane Bag (1977-85), and he has published widely on Irish writing and politics.

Divided into five sub-sections, 'Political Narratives’, 'Literary Narratives’, 'Dramatic Narratives’, 'Visual Narratives’ and 'Dialogues’, Navigations assembles three decades of Kearney’s essays on Irish topics. As the Preface acknowledges, 13 of the 27 pieces gathered here have already appeared as the volume Transitions (1988); indeed, both the Introduction and the Conclusion to this collection are revised versions of the introduction and conclusion to Transitions.

The publication of a 453-page collected essays obviously constitutes something of a monument to a career or phase of a career coming to completion. How well does Navigations stand up in this respect? What does it tell us of the heft and direction of Kearney’s development? The opening section on Political Narratives begins with an essay, 'Towards a Postnationalist Archipelago’ (2000), that enthusiastically celebrates the reconfiguration of national sovereignty in these islands enabled by the Belfast Agreement. This gets the volume off to what feels like a lively contemporary start, but the very next essay, 'The Irish Mind Debate’ (1985), transports us back into the mid-1980s, and the subsequent two on republicanism, 'Myth and Martyrdom’ (1978) and 'The Triumph of Failure’ (1978), deliver us back to the days of the Hunger Strikes. The essay on 'Faith and Fatherland’ (1984) that follows rebukes the hypocrisy of Irish society at that time when "We believed it our national duty to buy Irish but bought British whenever the opportunity arose (as the Newry bus amply testified)". To most people under 40 the Newry bus may well require a footnote, and, even for those who can remember it, the world it spirits up now seems as quaintly distant as De Valera’s rural pastoral must have done when Kearney originally penned that essay. In sum, the whole effect of this section is one of reeling out the years or of travelling the Newry bus backwards in time to a rundown Ireland in serious distress and indeed to a domestic intellectual scene generally as sadly bereft of analysis or answers as were the political classes.

The sentiments expressed in this opening section are unexceptional and unobjectionable. Kearney calls for less triumphal forms of Catholicism and Protestantism, for more pragmatically open-minded versions of republicanism, and for the cultivation of Irish intellectual as well as imaginative traditions. These pieces are somewhat spongy and lack analytical force because they offer no searching account of the social, economic or even cultural and ideological forces that stymied the emergence of the more liberal society Kearney yearned for. Re-reading them now, these works convey little visceral sense of that foul concatenation of Thatcherite and Haugheyite modernisation and austerity, conservative Catholicism and Protestant fundamentalism or international economic depression and an emerging neoliberalism that conditioned the whole climate of Irish politics at the time. Nor are these studies fine-tuned to any of the bottom-up social forces that would deliver us from the distressed conditions of those decades.

The essays in the subsequent cultural sections display a more sustained analytical drive. Joyce and Beckett command three essays each, Yeats, Heaney, Friel and Tom Murphy each get one. Other figures - Flann O’Brien, Francis Stuart, John Banville or Neil Jordan and Pat Murphy - share space.

Kearney is considerably more attentive to northern matters than were most southern cultural critics at the time, but despite his homage to postnationlist pluralism the artists that most compel him are male, nationalist and mainly literary. There are many references to fellow Irish critics - Seamus Deane’s name recurs frequently - but Kearney never really engages his critical or philosophical compatriots in any extended way. The arguments of 'The Irish Mind Debate’ (1985) notwithstanding, the volume remains far more interested in Irish imaginative than in Irish intellectual writing.

In the case of the Irish writers and artists discussed, the tone is invariably admiring and appreciative. Kearney’s critical temperament is non-combative, indeed resolutely irenic, seeking and finding felicities.

Joyce and Beckett prove more congenial company than Yeats, and the essays on literature and drama, viewed as a sequence, celebrate a perceived transition away from an inflated romanticism to an apparently more circumspect, self-reflexive modernism. "The Romantic imagination," Kearney remarks in 'Yeats and the Conflict of Imaginations’ (1979), "always assumes postures of belligerence before the exteriority of the world. Its habitual attitude is warmongering and divisive." His two most recent essays on Joyce, 'A Tale of Two Cities - Rome and Trieste’ (1997) and 'Epiphanies and Triangles’ (2006), track this transcendence of romantic hubris and celebrate a "growing up" moment in Joyce’s career when Stephen Dedalus’s grand literary theories are shed in favour of an acceptance of the quotidian world of Bloom. For Kearney, the key turning point in Ulysses is the episode in the National Library where Stephen leaves his literary peers and follows Bloom out into the Dublin streets: thereafter "No longer striving to fulfil the Great Expectations of Immortal Art . . . Stephen is ready to take his lead from a simple adman, Bloom". Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone then; it’s with Yeats and Dedalus in the grave and, apparently, good riddance to it. Well, the now not-so-simple admen (slicker types than Bloom) certainly do rule contemporary Dublin!

Many of the honourable values of the liberal middle-class intelligentsia that Navigations articulates have now been considerably advanced in contemporary Ireland and the labours of Kearney’s generation have not been in vain. All sorts of problems remain to trouble our new world - gross economic inequalities that make a mockery of democracy, the catastrophic dimensions of capitalist development. To these dilemmas the standard liberal prescriptions of pluralism, postnationalism, pragmatic modernisation or multiculturalism are no avail. The peregrinating early Irish Christian saints and scholars that set out for Europe supply Kearney with the voyaging motif for his title. Like most Irish liberals, Kearney is also enthusiastically pro-European and would have Ireland sail closer thither for its future. But history’s tides have carried him, like Ireland generally, towards Boston, not Berlin. There he remains as industrious as ever, his most recent work developing a hermeneutics of religion. Readers wishing to explore further may be interested to consult two recent studies of his work, Peter Gratton’s Traversing the Imaginary: Richard Kearney and the Postmodern Challenge (Northwestern UP, 2007) and John Monoussakis’s After God: Richard Kearney and the Religious Turn in Contemporary Philosophy (Fordham UP, 2005).

[ Joe Cleary is a senior lecturer in English at NUI Maynooth. His latest book, Outrageous Fortune: Capital and Culture in Modern Ireland , has just been published by Field Day Publications. Navigations: Collected Irish Essays 1976-2006 By Richard Kearney The Lilliput Press, 453pp. €25 ]

 

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