The Political Economy of the New Modernists

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A few weeks ago I saw the inaugural event of the Dublin Book Festival, which was a panel discussion between the novelists Anne Enright, Lisa McInerney and the poet Pat Boran. They were speaking on the publication of a book entitled Beyond the Centre, a collection of 26 essays reflecting on the 25th anniversary of the Irish Writer’s Centre, from the perspective of various figures from within Dublin’s literary scene. It was a great panel, and Seán Rocks did one of the best jobs as a moderator that I can recall seeing. Enright was caustic and witty, going off on how The Irish Times will commission hundreds of articles by female writers about being a woman watching the US election, but none about policy, how she doesn’t think men have a gender, and her recollections of the younger writers of her generation being shunted into the backs of vans at the start of their careers while the Johns Banville and McGahern were driven around in limos.

As someone writing a doctorate which involves an analysis of Enright’s fiction, I was hoping that the things she said would stray into areas pertinent to my work. I knew she was unlikely to talk about quantitative analysis, and the sorts of things that my dissertation will actually be pivoting around, but if at all possible I hope to cram some stuff about the socio-economic milieu that the new modernists come out of, into my dissertation, as a refutation to the infuriating yet pervasive canard of industrialisation + world war = first-wave modernism.

Enright obliged, and I got a substantial amount of notes on how the currently established generation of authors got a leg up early in their careers from a cultural exchange in the nineties arranged by the then Irish and French presidents, Mary Robinson and François Mitterand. Enright has written in the past on what it was like to live in the Ireland of the 80’s, with the intensifying contradictions between the Republic of McQuaid, with its laws against suicide, contraception, homosexuality, and the newly globalised, open to foreign investment Ireland, beginning to become apparent in our public discourse.

As Diarmaid Ferriter writes in his book, Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970’s, these signs of ‘increased modernisation, secularisation, Europeanisation and consumerism have to be placed in the context of a republic that…had ultimately created a conservative, authoritarian governing culture, that…created a very wide definition of dissent’. There is in this quotation, a nuanced and useful reading of these two different Irelands in tandem with one another, rather than as divergent. Too often in cultural studies of Ireland, I’m made aware of the phenomenon of the ‘time warp,’ and the ways in which parts of the Irish political landscape seem to be rooted in truisms not from the last century, but the one before that. Ferriter’s take is more subtle than this, thankfully.

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The time warp is a conceptual tool that tries to account for the ways in which Ireland as a state can simultaneously manage to be the beneficiary of an economic boom powered by the development of information technologies on the West coast of the United States while being complicit in the captivity and enslavement of women, to give just one example. As we well know, the capitalist nation state, both historically and in our present moment, is not a static enough concept to abhor contradictions of this kind. It might even be said to thrive on them. It is for this reason that the concept of the time warp is a bit useless, in that it instantiates a notion that we are always moving forward in some way; despite the appearance that some of these ‘kinks’ might give off, they’ll be ironed out in good time. (There’s a well-meaning senator with a report on the matter brewing in some back office on Kildare Street for nigh on half the term of the currently sitting government, and a seventieth of the Dáil might even show up on the day it’s to be discussed, just sit tight.) In order for particular ideologies to function, pockets of our society in which the most vulnerable reside must have their existences subject to relegation or dismissal as time warps, as if artefacts of the nineteenth century have the habit of peskily colonising the twenty-first. This gesture allows us to dispense with aspects of our national identities which might otherwise bring us to a point of contradiction. To take one example, Ireland can simultaneously believe itself to be a nation that is charitable, and LGBT-friendly, while placing many of those fleeing persecution (sometimes for their sexual orientation) in detention centres for an indefinite span of time.

Enright, among other things I’m sure, considers herself a product of this particularly Irish cultural discord, writing rather brilliantly in her work, Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood, about a particularly divisive time in Irish public life, the eighties, and its role in her attempted suicide, which I will now quote from at length:

I fell out of the world, temporarily, on Easter Monday 1986…Maybe I had Seasonal Affective Disorder, maybe it is genetic, maybe it was me being in my twenties, maybe it was Ireland being in the 1980s.

The older I get the more political I am about depression, or less essentialist — it is not because of who you are, but where you are placed. Ireland broke apart in the eighties, and I sometimes think that the crack happened in my own head. The constitutional row about abortion was a moral civil war that was fought out in people’s homes — including my own — with unfathomable bitterness. The country was screaming at itself about contraception, abortion, and divorce. It was a hideously misogynistic time. Not the best environment for a young woman establishing a sexual identity, you might say, especially one with adolescent morbidity and tendencies towards ecstatic suffusions of light, one who was over-achieving, but somehow in all the wrong ways, one who was both maverick and clever. I mean, what do we need here, a diagram?

…I…wrote some books. They were fragmented books, because this is what I knew best, but also, I fancied, because I lived in an incoherent country. They were slightly surreal, because Ireland was unreal. They dealt with ideas of purity, because the chastity of Irish women was one of the founding myths of the Nation State (well that was my excuse). But they were also full of corpses. Beautiful ones, speaking ones, sexual ones, bitter ones; corpses who did not forgive, or rot. Who was the corpse? It was myself, of course, but also Christ, the dead body on a stick. And it is the past that lies down but will not shut up, the elephant in the national living-room.

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To read these paragraphs, and the other paragraphs in the same chapter (do pick it up, it is so, so good) is to become aware of how irrelevant women’s health and their autonomy was to the Irish establishment of the time. It’s no surprise then, that the Irish literary establishment was mostly suspicious regarding the raft of new wordists who came to a kind of prominence in the late eighties and early nineties, the vanguard of whom was probably Roddy Doyle, though Enright also named Patrick McCabe as a trailblazer. This generation’s early novels weren’t reviewed, and when they were, they were eviscerated. This apparent lack of a domestic audience, or the unwillingness of the tastemakers to cultivate one, required that Irish authors sell themselves abroad, and only then, by commodius vicus of recirculation, return to the domestic market. This route generally led to euphemistic conversations about formal qualities such as ‘lyricism’ and other such words acting as stand-ins for question marks over one’s authenticity.

This is why the cultural exchange’s timing was so opportune, and made, by necessity, Irish authors far more permeable to international influences. They all gained hugely from it, ‘they’ meaning, I assume Enright, Joseph O’Connor and Deirdre Madden.

Donal Donovan and Antoin C. Murphy’s study, The Fall of the Celtic Tiger: Ireland and the Euro Debt Crisis requires us to take a leap forward about by just under two decades and outline the ways in which Ireland’s position changed from a peripheral, insufficiently industrialised state, ‘the poorest of the rich,’ to a contemporary globalised market economy within the framework of the European Union. No Irish citizen who remembers the eighties will be unaware of the effect that this union has had on our general standards of living. I think. I wasn’t alive at the time. But I am interested in what this change from peripheral backwater to post-modern globalised economy has on our self-perception. It is perhaps inevitable that we encounter the time warp once again, albeit in the context of Ireland’s leap into means:

while the ‘catch-up’ paradigm explains part of the story, the speed and extent of Ireland’s transformation was primarily driven by high-tech multinationals, the vanguard of a major worldwide revolution in information technology…in the post-industrial high-tech world, these concepts had started to become anachronistic.

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So too do many governing metaphors of the literary landscape become de-legitimised. The matter of literary influence in particular, becomes increasingly knotty in a global marketplace. Brian Dillon writes in the London Review of Books that if there is a modernist resurgence in Irish literature today, it is less a return, than a demonstration of the extent to which authors today can draw from any number of traditions, even experimental ones. As such, it is less important to talk about the new modernists because they’re Irish, but what this literary self-identification signifies. Not all of this is voluntary, of course; just being a female novelist in Ireland has a profound political resonance, as anyone familiar with the career of Edna O’Brien will know.

The Irish free State made clear its suspicion regarding modernism and modern art in general, by introducing film censorship in 1923. The first Irish review of Ulysses was also blocked by the printer of The Dublin Magazine, forcing its author, Con Levanthal, to set up a one-off journal, Klaxon. The Catholic Truth Society took an active role in Ireland’s cultural life over the next few decades by stymieing the dissemination of anything perceived as indecent, modern, or Protestant. Those of the literary world reacted to this with outrage, as these bans generally effected avant-garde works rather than pornographic ones, but their objections never translated into popular political support. David Dickson, in Dublin: The Making of a Capital City,points out that this emphasis on censorship can ignore the extent to which musical and theatrical forms often thrived, but for the most part, Dublin was a place to leave in favour of other urban capitals, where one was more likely to obtain a patron, public or private.

This policy didn’t make for good neighbours, of course. As Eavan Boland wrote, ‘No two establishments in this community regard one another with more suspicion than those of the Arts and the State.’ This was due to the fact that the Free State’s scepticism regarding modernism extended, to the arts in general. The Arts Council existed, in name only, up until its role was formalised in the late seventies. Up until then, it provided cheques to artists on a hand to mouth basis, had no women on its board and had no particular remit or code of behaviour. Public funding for the arts was also about 30% less than in the United Kingdom.

Related to this, (I know I’m moving around a lot, but it’ll come good in the end), Garret FitzGerald’s analysis of Ireland joining the EU was as follows:

Our independence was won for us just in time to enable most of Ireland to enter to European Community as one of Europe’s ancient nations, rejoining once again the Europe from which for so many centuries she was cut off by the imposition of British rule. We shall negotiate our entry as a sovereign state…the voice of Ireland will be heard in Europe in the decades ahead. But for the sacrifices of those who won our freedom, none of this could have been. We have the right to believe that they will feel as they view this prospect that their sacrifices were not all in vain.

Despite the gloss that FitzGerald puts on Ireland’s joining the union as in a continuity of Irish independence movements, Ferriter argues that Ireland joined primarily because England was joining. The dominant understanding of Ireland’s membership is one of economic, social and cultural gain; lucrative agricultural grants, social justice legislation, worker protections, consumer and environmental regulation, all have their origins in EU initiatives. In a cultural sense however, it can be seen an inducing another form of peripherality, relative to the wider continent, rather than to England. Ireland is, after all, a relatively small state in a union driven by larger nations. Joe Lee has argued that joining the union has had the effect of encouraging our leaders to continue to apportion blame for their failures to external factors, rather than scrutinising and reforming our own industries and regulatory frameworks. The playwright Brian Friel viewed the Irish state around this time as a ‘tenth-rate image of America’ and indeed, there seemed to be little to distinguish the Ireland open to multi-national capital and foreign direct investment, a consumer-driven economy in the post-modern sense, from any other Western city.

Works from Enright’s oeuvre such as The Portable Virgin, The Wig my Father Wore and The Forgotten Waltz, all fit rather nicely within this interpretation, and inventively engage with the conversation between traditional mainstays of Irish identity and the post-modern market economy which had grown up around them, which made the old certainties complicit, as much as it ‘unsettled’ them.

I’ll talk about the ending of the short short story ‘The Portable Virgin’ because it seems to encapsulate a lot of what I’m talking about:

I am sitting on Dollymount Strand going through Mary’s handbag, using her little mirror, applying her ‘Wine Rose and Gentlelight Colourize Powder Shadow Trio’, her Plumsilk lipstick, her Venetian Brocade blusher and her Tearproof (thank God) mascara.

My revenge looks back at me, out of the mirror. The new fake me looks twice as real as the old. Underneath my clothes my breasts have become blind, my iliac crests mottle and bruise. Strung out between my legs is a triangle of air that pulls away from sex, while my hands clutch. It used to be the other way around.

I root through the bag, looking for a past. At the bottom, discoloured by Wine Rose and Gentlelight, I find a small, portable Virgin. She is made of transparent plastic, except for her cloak, which is coloured blue. ‘A present from Lourdes’ is written on the globe at her feet, underneath her heel and the serpent. Mary is full of surprises. Her little blue crown is a screw-off top, and her body is filled with holy water, which I drink.

The narrator is having an affair, the ins and outs of which we can never be totally certain -each player’s identities remain fluid throughout the story. Dollymount Strand is a significant enough place to consider sumjex and objex, but when one’s extra-marital activities have been ironically genuflecting before a Judi Dench costume drama, also about infidelity and inappropriately stately furniture, the stakes feel as though they have been heightened. The various accoutrements of contemporary female identity ‘Gentlelight Colourize (note the American zee) Powder Shadow’ are to the fore, and while the tacky symbolic representation of old Ireland has been discoloured by the errant make-up, it’s still there. At least until it’s sent surging out to sea at the end. Enright, being a sophisticated as well as an intellectual novelist, doesn’t foreground this sort of thing, that is to say, it doesn’t place demands on the reader as such, it never gets in the way of the fun.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, with its profound sense of formal dislocation, and an origin point within the economically depressed, culturally stifled Ireland of the 1980’s, is another important node of discussion here; McBride has encouraged such analyses by making reference to it as a sort of a refracted autobiography. But while tracing over the wrecked and bloodied sockets of a fragmented subjectivity, it also aims to revivify the cornerstones of the institutionalised modernisms as practiced by James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. No part of the novel makes this point clearer than the novel’s beginning, because it is its beginning, and uncompromising off the bat:

For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.

Not as much to ‘play’ with as Enright might give us, shorter sentences, shorter words, less things, but more baggage, meaning this, of course, in the best possible way. What we have is a swift and deep immersion into the materiality of language, all the rhymes, assonances, repetition and rhythm of which it’s capable, which, in an increasingly bland literary marketplace, is revolutionary. After having read The Lesser Bohemians, and Claire Lowdon’s review of the two of them, I’m slightly loathe to praise it without clarifiers, but I do think there is a lot that it is good in its incorporation of the elements familiar to the Irish misery memoir within a high modernist register. Because misery is for life, not just for the realists.

I hope it will be clear from all this that contemporary modernists draw on a history of formal experimentation, regarded with suspicion by the Irish state with a view to challenging the received wisdom of its theocratic tendencies, marginalisation and violent oppression of women.

van-gogh-self-portrait-e1361405076205In one of the more well-worn anecdotes of literary history, Marcel Proust’s masterpiece Du côté de chez Swann was rejected by Humblot, a reader for a publishing house. In a letter, Humblot wrote the following: “My dear friend, perhaps I am dense but I just don’t understand why a man should take thirty pages to describe how he turns over in his bed before he goes to sleep. It made my head swim.”

Trotting out these anecdotes in general introductions to cheep and cheerful Wordsworth editions serve a very particular end, a phenomenon that Julian Barnes describes in an essay written on Vincent Van Gogh’s life and work in the London Review of Books: “this…spurs us towards self-congratulation: look how we who have come later appreciate your work, how superior our eye and taste and sympathy are to those who snubbed and misprised you back in the day.” In other words, we look back at Humblot as perhaps the most tone-deaf reader in literary history, in contrast with us, those who, if the contingencies of fate were only aligned differently, would have been born in late nineteenth century France and would have appreciated Proust’s writing, as so many of his contemporaries did not.

This is to miss, if not the point, a point.

One of the themes that Proust consistently refers to is the relationship that exists between sensibility and habit. The general track of the novel (says I, being currently (almost) half way through) is how the narrator’s sensibility, his openness and receptivity to the world around him in all its strangeness and assorted differengenera comes to be overwhelmed by his habits. Sexual debauchery, love, drunkenness, no matter how novel and abject these feelings are when we first experience them, we, with surprising rapidity become adjusted to them, to the point that we barely can be said to experience them at all.

Habit is not a malign however, though it calcifies our precious and individual sensibility. It is a wholly necessary force, allowing us to grow accustomed to people and places that our sensibility led us to despise instinctively. As Proust writes: “habit…also undertakes to endear us to people whom we disliked to begin with, alters the shapes of their face, improves their tone of voice, makes hearts grow fonder.”

The average sentence length in English writing is around 15-17 words, style guides generally recommend that sentences longer than twenty words be shortened as it is likely that they are unclear or convoluted. From a very rudimentary quantitative analysis, I found Proust’s sentences to be, on average, 35 words long. It is therefore possible to view Humblot as not just the first, but one of the more perceptive of Proust’s critics, immediately getting to the heart of what it is that is unique about Proust’s style.

The point behind Proust’s excessively long sentences is precisely this – their excess. What we judge as a coherent sentence in a novel runs to a certain length. We are accustomed to it and when we read, we are within the realm of habit. Proust’s prose is intended to be shocking, to awaken us to the possibilities of language and thought, to appeal to our sensibilities again by having our texts violently defamiliarised from ourselves.

I would accord more with Humblot’s reading than with the mainstream understanding of Proust as a canonical author, among the other masterpieces that we stock our bookshelves with and rarely read. James Grieve, a translator of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, speaks pithily of Proust’s irreconcilable strangeness, based on the highly irregular nature of his prose style: “Proust’s reflections, his enunciation of philosophical and psychological truths…are often more importance to him than his verisimilitudes. His composition was often not linear; he wrote in bits and pieces; transitions from one scene to another are sometimes awkward, clumsy even.” If that wasn’t devastating enough, Grieve delivers a final cruelty: “His paragraphing often seems idiosyncratic.”

Far from being a word virtuoso, a fluent weaver of imaginative reality, Proust is in many ways inept and it is in this way that we should appreciate him; his idiosyncrasies are what make In Search of Lost Time such a brilliant and bizarre novel.   

Franz Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ and vermin

Folk who know nothing else about the Czech novelist Franz Kafka know that he wrote a short story in which the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, is turned into a cockroach. The irony is that this is more a function of illustrations of the novella than it is derived from the text. In the below talk on translating Kafka from the London Review of Books, (featuring Will Self, translators Anthea Bell, Joyce Crick, Karen Seago and Amanda Hopkinson) one topic of conversation is the fact that this boils down to a mistranslation of the first sentence of The Metamorphosisfrom the original German.

The word ungeziefer is more accurately traduced as ‘vermin,’ ‘pest’ or ‘insect,’ than ‘cockroach.’ Although trying to get a firm grasp on what kind of insect Gregor Samsa has become, not to denigrate Vladimir Nabokov’s efforts, is irrelevant. Kafka specifically directed his publisher to not provide any illustrations of Gregor post-metamorphosis: “The insect itself is not to be drawn. It is not even to be seen from a distance.” Retaining indeterminacy = the order of the day.

Some anatomical features that are reported – lots of adhesive legs, a sensitive head, a hard back, suggestive of a thorax or carapace, indicates that has become insectoid, but exactly what kind is never said directly. The chambermaid addressing Samsa, almost fondly, as a ‘dung-beetle’ shouldn’t be trusted; it is more suggestive of her idiosyncrasies than suggestive of Samsa’s new form.

‘Vermin’ would seem to be a far more resonant translation in this case, as I would argue that it conveys another layer of meaning, beyond the surface monstrosity of Samsa’s condition. ‘Vermin’ amounts also to a subtle condemnation of his environment. In the same way that the word ‘weed’ refers to a plant growing where it is unwelcome, a ‘vermin’ is an animal in an environment where one judges it to be intruding. ‘Vermin,’ could just as easily refer to rats, foxes or even dogs.

The word ‘vermin’ in the first sentence therefore anticipates the Samsa family’s attitude to Gregor, as they becoming increasingly unwilling to share their household with him, no matter how certain they are that the insect is their son, though how they come to believe this is never outlined. The Samsas take action to euthanize him, ironically, after Gregor is tempted out of his room by the sounds of his sister playing the violin, appealing to his inner, very human, self. In some ways this is surprising; as the story continues, our sense of Samsa’s interiority recedes. Although on the other hand, he has been kept in a room for a few months and has been reduced to overhearing his family’s conversations in the other room. One shouldn’t necessarily blame him for withdrawing into himself, away from the reader’s vantage point.

In another sense, Gregor’s loss of personality traits or human characteristics has also begun long before the narrative proper begins. On awaking to this new state of affairs, he seems utterly unperturbed, regarding it as a mere inconvenience, and is far more troubled by the time that the train he intends to catch to work leaves the station, how much time he must allow himself if he is to catch it etc, rather than finding himself no longer in his own body. The tone of commonsense pragmatism with which he attempts to placate his freaking out family members, (he has lost the ability to speak) is one of the most horrifying aspects of the text, and points to how alienated Gregor is from himself:

“Do you want to let me set out, do you? You see Chief Clerk, you see, I’m not stubborn, I like my work; the travel is arduous but I couldn’t live without it.”

Perhaps the most obvious reason for this is the menial nature of Gregor’s occupation as a travelling salesman; based on how quickly his supervisor turns up at his home to reprimand him, one might conceive this text as a fabulist critique of the dehumanising nature of modern work.

One should also remember also that the word ‘vermin,’ and words like it, were used in the Nuremberg rallies, and the belief that the Jewish people were unwelcome within the lebensraum in the same way that Samsa is in his own home, was to have disastrous consequences in the decades following Kafka’s death.

Colm Tóibín in conversation regarding Elizabeth Bishop

colmtoibin_raptoresquireColm Tóibín in the London Review of Books bookshop, discussing the poetry and life of Elizabeth Bishop, with reference to his book on the poet with Ruth Padel. Great readings, good insights and inappropriate laughter in the background. It has everything.

http://www.lrb.co.uk/2013/08/31/colm-toibin/colm-toibin-in-conversation

Colm Tóibín on Easter 1916

A lecture delivered by Colm Tóibín which paints a picture of the historical background from which the vivid faces of the Easter Rising emerged; with particular focus on Padraig Pearse, his poetry, his religious beliefs and how his pedagogical theories relate to his nationalism.

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n07/colm-toibin/after-i-am-hanged-my-portrait-will-be-interesting