Justin Beplate, ‘Express or Exploit’, in Times Literary Supplement (23 Dec. 2005), pp.13-14

[...] Unpicking the tangled relations of culture, nationalism and modernism is one of the central preoccupations of Declan Kiberd’s The Irish Writer and the World, a collection of essays written over the last twenty-five years, all of which bear broadly on issues of Irish culture and national identity. Kiberd’s high profile as a cultural commentator was established by the success in the mid-1990s of Inventing Ireland, a work which undertook, with considerable intellectual flair, a wide-ranging inquiry into the ways in which the idea of Ireland has been shaped over the years, both by British colonisers and native inhabitants. There is a clear sense in all his writings, as in those of the late Edward Said, of an intellectual speaking over the heads of a narrow academic audience to the wider public. Part of the general appeal of his work, aside from its lucidity and rhetorical momentum is the sense that something politically important is being articulated, that, unlike the hopelessly abstract radicalism of campus-bound theory in the United States, there really might be something at stake in political terms. Indeed, the potential ramifications of cultural theory for political practice are explicitly drawn in The Irish Writer and the World, where Kiberd speculates that a fully developed philosophy of pluralist nationalism could help heal the wounds of sectarian violence, leading the warring elements of Irish history in time to some kind of genuine cultural fusion.

Many of the essays here, particularly those written in the wake of Inventing Ireland, are attempts to lay the foundations of just such a philosophy: a civic or pluralist nationalism that shuns the divisiveness of narrow-gauge nationalism, that pays its respects to multiculturalism without abandoning the core concept of a common Irish experience. At the centre of this common experience, in Kiberd’s scheme, sits the long history of colonization that has inexorably shaped the successive cultural and political formations of the island. “There may be no essence of Irishness, any more than there is of Jewishness”, writes Kiberd, “but both peoples have had a common experience - that of being defined, derided, and decided by others.” If colonialism was the nightmare of Irish history, then at the heart of this nightmare lies the Famine: an event that fundamentally altered the cultural and religious landscape of Irish affairs. Kiberd’s broad thesis is that the intensification of both nationalism and Catholicism in the nineteenth century follows directly from the decline of the Irish language after the Famine; they are thus to be seen as secondary formations feeding off the creeping paralysis and cultural trauma of post-Famine generations.

[...] In Kiberd’s view, the real value of Irish nationalism in the lead-up to independence was strategic rather than inherent, helping to dislodge the perverse self-hatred of an occupied people. Following Frantz Fanon’s analysis of the Algerian struggle for independence, nationalism thus emerges as a kind of Hegelian antithesis to colonialism, a transitional phase which will in turn give way to true liberation.

This reading is not without its perils, freighting a kind of lower-case nationalism through straits bound on the one side by the more hysterical strains of Gaelic or Catholic essentialism, and on the other side by the whirlpool of historical revisionism. This second danger is given extended treatment in essays such as “The Elephant of Revolutionary Forgetfulness” and “Museums and Learning”, where it is somewhat implausibly diagnosed as an insidious form of cultural amnesia spread by Stalinesque media types and misguided historians. In the case of the so-called designer Stalinists directing cultural debate in Ireland, Kiberd argues that the “airbrushing” of the Easter rebels out of history stems from a mistaken belief that the apparent triumphalism of Easter Week commemorations only fuels sectarian tension in Northern Ireland, along with a more insidious feeling that such displays of national sentiment are something of an embarrassment for a country increasingly intent on cosying up to Brussels.

Whatever the merit of this analysis, it is less useful in explaining the more rigorous criticisms of leading revisionists. How is it, Kiberd wonders, that at some point patriotic Irish historians such as Conor Cruise O’Brien and Roy Foster became so leery about paying their dues to those revolutionary events that paved the way for an independent Irish state? Unfortunately, having posed the question, he can do little more than explain it away by speculations as to the extent to which personal frustrations and experiences of political disillusionment in the wake of the Troubles in Northern Ireland may have coloured the authors’ sceptical, at times mordant, take on recent history: O’Brien’s blocked anti-Partitionism, for example, or Foster’s (Protestant) wariness of anything smacking of Catholic triumphalism. Kiberd is not averse to applying such breezy, broadbrushed psychologising to other apostates of nationalism: Sean O’Casey’s caustic take on the Rising in The Plough and the Stars is diagnosed as a flawed attempt both to justify his own desertion from the Citizen Army and to ‘purge’ his unspent aggression on the rebels of the play. and we are invited to view James Joyce’s self-imposed exile as a moral compromise, a guilt-wracked refusal to engage more directly in Irish affairs during this tumultuous period.

In a sense, this confrontation with the forces of revisionism is part of Kiberd’s wider attempt to situate nationalism, whether it be the historical forms of nationalism conceived by Yeats and Pearse, or the civic nationalism Kiberd himself sponsors, in relation to a highly mobile and cosmopolitan modernity. In Strange Country (1997), Seamus Deane frames this issue in the context of Burke’s response to that cataclysmic harbinger of modernity, the French Revolution, suggesting that the problem Burke addresses in his Reflections [... &c.] boils down to this: how is one to accommodate notions of national character and cultural tradition within a theory of modernity fundamentally hostile to both? The Irish Writer and the World does not tackle this problem head-on; [13] indeed, by discriminating between “modernisms” along national lines (Irish modernism, English modernism, &c.), Kiberd effectively ducks the issue. Yet the problem remains: if the various expressions of nationalism are made coherent by a belief in the value of historical continuity and tradition, then they cannot be readily accommodated within a movement that arose most powerfully as a break with tradition.

Nowhere is this unresolved tension between modernism and tradition more evident than in Kiberd’s survey of the Salman Rushdie affair, “Multiculturalism and Artistic Freedom”. Casting a critical eye over the response of Western writers and intellectuals to Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa, Kiberd makes the provocative claim that these strident defences of Rushdie, couched as they are in the language of secular rationalism and utterly lacking a sense of self-critical awareness, smack of the very bigotry they profess to reject. “How multi”, he asks, “... is a culturalism which loads its language heavily in favour of the secular West?” Taking the opportunity to rehearse the liberal Islamic case against Rushdie, he argues that the author of The Satanic Verses may have a case to answer after all - the charge that his narrow secularist ethic is, in fact, fundamentalism parading as liberalism. “For a traditionally religious people, secular modernity is not something that flowers naturally out of a prior existence: rather it seeks to blot out much previous history.” The Burkean contours of Kiberd’s thinking here are unmistakable: the threat of secular modernity is presented as a force both destructive and foreign, the great leveller of tradition, whether it be Arab Islamic or (and the implication is clear) Irish Catholic.

If Kiberd’s insistence on Ireland’s postcolonial character allows for some often illuminating comparisons (African négritude and Irish nationalism, for example), it also throws up some odd distortions. His claim that one might have expected the Irish to have sympathised more with the Muslim critique of Rushdie is premissed on a counter-intuitive degree of Irish estrangement from Europe; it is a short step from here to the frankly astonishing claim that many Irish people might well view the secularising tendencies of modern European states as the forced imposition of Protestant notions of self-election - as one more chapter, in other words, in Ireland’s long experience of foreign domination. “Multiculturalism and Artistic Freedom” also highlights the difficulty in applying the concept of “cultural pluralism” with any degree of theoretical consistency. Joyce’s great project in Ulysses - a work that shares with The Satanic Verses the distinction of being damned by clerics - is celebrated in Inventing Ireland as an attempt to “unleash a plurality of voices which would together sound the notes that moved beyond nationalism to liberation”; yet here Rushdie’s “plurality of voices” is condemned as no pluralism at all, since his many voices speaking without conclusion or resolution merge in the monotonous tyranny of secular scepticism.

Roy Foster has persuasively argued, both in his biography of Yeats and his modern Ireland (1988), that the “rediscovery of Irish identity” by early twentieth-century revivalists was in large measure a reaction by urban intellectuals against their perception of Ireland’s creeping embourgeoisement - hence the strange alliance of the spiritual aristocracy of the peasant and the intellectual ethos of the Protestant Ascendancy in Yeats’s patrician vision of Irish culture. Too often, the line from Irish cultural revivalism to political insurrection is drawn in stark terms, overlooking the arguably more significant influence of events such as the Boer War and the First World War in radicalising post-Parnell Irish politics. Despite Kiberd’s objections, this kind of argument does not underestimate the role of culture in fomenting social and political change; nor does it necessarily devalue the bravery of a handful of rebels who, nearly a century ago, openly defied the British Empire in the name of political independence. Yet political independence does not equate to freedom, a point Kiberd himself makes time and again in his wide-ranging analysis of colonial structures of thought, creeping post-colonial paralysis, and historical debts yet to be paid. What role, then, does a reinvigorated theory of nationalism have to play in Ireland’s unfinished business of liberation?

One possibility, and it is the one on which The Irish Writer and the World stakes much of its claim, is the unifying power of the idea of nationhood for a community cross-hatched by sectarian divisions. This is not the same thing as a unitary national identity - another English invention, to Kiberd’s mind, foisted on Ireland - but rather a way of creating the conditions propitious for the flowering of a true national pluralism. The paradox, as Kiberd points out, is that a secure belief in a national philosophy is the crucial condition for achieving an open tolerance to alternative codes, whether such codes are understood in political terms (Unionist and Republican), religious terms (Christian and Muslim), or any number of other possibilities. But even if one accepts this proposition, the old problem returns. On what basis should, indeed could, such a “national philosophy” be expressed?

As Kiberd rightly points out, falling back on the categories ‘Gaelic’ and ‘Catholic’ as touchstones of “Irishness” has been historically disastrous for all parties. Nevertheless, there is in his view a common experience that gives coherence to the idea of Irishness, even if this idea has been historically distorted and suppressed. More than once, he draws an analogy between Hamlet and Patrick Pearse, both men who played roles forced on them by history just as they were about to come into their own. The wider argument is that “colonialism had denied the Irish personality the right to know itself”; that in modern Ireland, “people have never had the opportunity to become themselves”. There is an undeniable appeal about this kind of straight talking, one that consigns the intricately argued anti-essentialism of his post-colonial colleagues as, at best, a kind of sophistry oblivious to the way history really happens for those on the ground and, at worst, an unwitting collusion with colonial discourses of control and repression. He therefore rejects outright the notion that any claim to a strong national identity, whether it be that of the coloniser or the colonised, is ultimately a form of mimicry lacking an authentic origin. “There is in the world”, he writes, “an English personality type and a countervailing native identity which, even though it cannot always define itself for interviewers, can nonetheless feel its own oppression.”

The fundamental problem with this approach is that, having derided the historically reactionary tendency to express Irishness as “not English”, having discarded the idea of construing a modern national identity in racial, religious or linguistic terms, the theoretical underpinnings of Kiberd’s own contribution to a new national philosophy appear locked into the old dynamics of resistance and oppression. If this approach is to avoid the trap which Kiberd identifies in his essay “The War Against the Past” as a “self-sustaining tradition”, what are the cultural values being fought for under the aegis of this new nationalism? There is in fact a strong sense that, like many of the Irish revivalist before him, Kiberd’s real target is the threat of unchecked materialism; the language of liberation in the abstract thus translates, in contemporary terms, as “freedom” from the twin perils of naked consumerism and complete integration into the European Union. All the pointers, Kiberd ruefully notes, are that succeeding generations in Ireland will throw off their religion as readily as their ancestors did the language, leaving in its wake a spiritual vacuum, a shallow cosmopolitanism posing as universal humanism. [...; &c.]

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