Flann O’Brien’s ‘An Béal Bocht’ and the altitudinous authenticity of the Gael

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Flann O’Brien’s satirical, picaresque novel The Poor Mouth was written in Irish and a decent English translation was a long time in the making. O’Brien was deeply informed on the subject of Irish literature; his M.A. Thesis was entitled Nature Poetry in Irish. An Béal Bocht, to give it its original title, took its inspiration from the semi-fictionalised autobiographical memoir foisted on Irish schoolchildren, authored by Peig Sayers, or Tomás Ó Criomhthain. As a lifelong lover of the language, aswell as a not unskilled prose stylist in his own right, O’Brien seems uncannily capable of emulating the same understatedly ariose, yet monotonous and repetitive qualities that comprises the diction of these pieces. Capturing the very particularity of the pastiche that O’Brien was conveying with a straight face as far as the content itself goes, must have been a staggering task for a would-be translator. I’m glad it exists.
O’Brien’s satire takes particular aim at the essentialist notions of those who would hold the native Irish speakers up as being ‘the most Irish,’ of deserving beatification in the Irish Free State for their lack of engagement with the fiendish Saxons. Such notions are of course ahistorical; O’Brien names his protagonist Bonaparte O’Coonassa, reaching back to the failed revolution of the late eighteenth century in Ireland, and the assistance received from the French against the English. For this Napoleon was rewarded with canonical status in manifold artifacts from the Irish folk tradition, along the lines of enemy of my enemy is &c. rationale. If you’re into Irish folk/want to hear more along these lines here’s a link to an archived episode of The Rolling Wave from RTÉ Lyric FM on the subject.

The worst offenders against O’Brien’s sensibilities are the antiquarian, self-identified Gaeilgeoir academics who invade O’Coonassa’s region of Corca Dhorcha. In these scenes we see O’Brien re-treading the ethnographic trips of John Millington Synge and his ilk who beheld the inhabitants of the West of Ireland, in their prodigious poverty, a more meaningful or authentic Irishness, allowing the Irish Literary Imagination and those responsible for it to culturally agitate for self-determination, while retaining their disregard for the urban poor.

In these sequences, there remains the familiar trope of the native being completely misunderstood by the credulous would-be ethnographer, who, when seeking to record one of the many stories the islanders are known to have in their repertoires, instead becomes an internationally renowned and decorated scholar for recording the inchoate grunts of a pig dressed in a suit, dressed as such by the natives to game the government into providing them with cash for the welfare of their kids.

O’Brien is unsparing too in his treatment of the Gaelic, who he, in one of his correspondences, derided as being in many cases, a ‘moronic’ people. One should note that O’Brien modulates the ethnography trope slightly in that the subjects of the study are not getting one over on the interloper, but merely sit mute in darkness, unable to summon up a narrative for the benefit of the scholar. The pig merely takes the initiative. The backward indigence and fatalism of the natives comes in for O’Brien’s scorn, in one particular sequence in which Sitric O’Sanassa seems to be an object of some envy among his neighbours for the extremity of his starvation and poverty, makes a memorable request of his onlookers, which confirms the multi-directionality of O’Brien’s satire:
“would ye carry me to the seaside and throw me into the sea? There’s not the weight of a rabbit in me and ‘twould be small deed for well-fed sound men to throw me over a cliff.”

Garrett Phelan’s ‘Black Brain Radio’ at IMMA

imma-installation_4I really like Arts Tonight on RTÉ. Its quiet pace, insider baseball language and uncompromising commitment to taking a deliberate, intellectual approach to the arts would be easy to parody, but because of its informativeness and tendency to source academics for its panels, it is among the best arts programmes in radio, and I mean the best from both RTÉ and the BBC. I find that the BBC, In Our Timeaside, too often goes in for either Today Programme ebullience, in demanding straightforward-one-word, no-nonsense answers to weighty abstract questions or a whimsically boisterous tone, in pursuit of an imagined layman. It is sadly the case that it may be the among the only remaining serious arts programme left on the radio.

On a recent episode, on the subject of a book taking a retrospective view on five hundred years of Irish sculpture, Vincent Woods spoke on a particular work he once saw. What seems to have made this piece distinctive for Woods was its temporary nature and this allowed him to strike a personal note, which is welcome, and definitely rare in a programme that wears its occasional staidness with pride. Woods described ‘a sculpture trail in Achill, I think it was in 1996…I was lucky enough to see it and I’ll never forget, even some of the sounds, the sound of a cement mixer in an abandoned concrete house on the Edgewood Cliff…and a series of mirrors on Corrie Lake which just sat like petals, floating on the water…those sorts of images stay.’

Woods’ comments made me think of my own relationship with art that engages with its spatial component to such an extent that it often can’t be replicated elsewhere, or at least without inducing a logistical nightmare, such as site-specific or public art. I can always pick up a Yeats poem that made me feel something, or recall a sentence in The Green Road that makes something cold break over my spine and disseminate itself in my nerves, but I can’t summon up the way that Owen Roe reads an Oscar Wilde story, or Barry McGovern performs Beckett. Installation has that effect too, perhaps accentuated because of my relative ignorance when it comes to contemporary art in general, which may be an asset, because I haven’t yet lost that sense of challenge that confronts one when standing in a space with a thing that has a mass, that one has to mobilise oneself around, perhaps through, in order to grapple with it adequately.

With this in mind, around this time ten years ago I went to IMMA, and saw an installation that I’ve probably been thinking about ever since. The installation occupied one of the many white, airy rooms in the museum and it was on this occasion, that it was sparsely adorned and contained only a vintage-seeming radio, perched on a makeshift metal platform. One of the corners of the room was spray-painted black.

The installation was Black brain radio, and in a wider sense, beyond the confines of the room, it was a sequence of audio pieces recorded, collated and arranged by the artist Garrett Phelan. The pieces were broadcast for about thirty days in early 2006 on the 89.9 FM frequency and touched on topics as varied as the presidency of George W. Bush, the evolution/creationism debate and self-actualisation, albeit in each case, very obliquely. Phelan recorded himself reading reams of material from newspapers, books, or transcribed conversations from commercial radio. However, Phelan didn’t inflect his speech to suit what it was that he was reading, nor did he ‘produce’ his recording in the usual sense. His recordings were no-frills, highlighted by time he took to cough, yawn into the microphone or stop in the middle of a sentence.

I listened to it constantly for as long as it was broadcast, struck primarily by its strangeness and motivated by some desire to understand what the broadcast was adding up to. I think I knew it was mostly nonsense, or too fragmentary to be a whole, but I didn’t realise the extent of its aleatory qualities at the time. Phelan had cut his recordings into two-minute chunks, and randomised the broadcast on an MP3 player, so whatever sequentiality Black brain radio developed was always accidental, always provisional.

Since becoming conscious of how possible it is to purchase just about anything on the internet, I’ve been searching for some hard copy of Black brain radio, and I was thrilled to eventually find it on Discogs; a guy in Holland owned one of the 200 pressings of the broadcast issued by Nine Point records. I was disappointed to realise that the CD doesn’t contain the entire broadcast, but of course, that would’ve been too easy and insufficiently conceptual. My copy has two, apparently random, 30 minute chunks.

The product itself contains a fairly lengthy essay in its sleeve which makes some gesture towards enclosing the meaning or significance of Black brain radio. Of course, it makes no such claims for itself, but it’s hard not to regard it as a manifesto for the work, outfitted with Dadaistic murals and slogans, positing radio as a more immanent mode of dissemination than television; its history more implicated with the opposed forces of revolution and fascism. It’s a slightly essentialist history, it claims radio has a power to foster community while running counter to globalisation, but it’s a well-written and a competent anatomising of the project, and how it aims to transcend fascistic taste-makers of art and democratise its appreciation. Now I will criticise it. I don’t think that Black brain radio quite rose to the heights of anti-globalisation, de-naturation of self and disarticulation of the simulated nature of community that the essay posits, nor do I see the kind of engagement with manufactured consent, the point at which opinions are generated by our encounters with mass-media outlets. Rather, I see it as definitively located within a critique of the artifice of commercial radio.

Ben Anderson praises the vitality and capacity of radio to create communities through voice, but Black brain radio seems far too drained, or doubled back on itself to be indicative of a community spirit being generated in this way. Rather, I see or behold in Black brain radio an antiquarian anxiously parsing transcripts of an irretrievably lost past with no sense of its context, or even how it should beread. Phelan speaks in a cold, blank drawl and what springs to mind of course is Beckett’s radio plays, but without Beckett’s rhythm or bursts of lyricism. This is highlighted all the more by the sardonic intrusions of the overplayed radio hits of the day used occasionally as an audio bed (albeit without the high standard of production one would expect from a ‘normal’ broadcast). Snoop Dogg’s tune Signs(feat. Justin Timberlake & Charlie Wilson) features, followed by the usual senseless over-production, overheard from FM 104 that Phelan leaves on while he’s recording, that leavens mass-media artefacts. ‘Fun fact’ type segments wherein tedious information is rehearsed also, interspersed with milquetoast banter from co-hosts in the same lifeless, blank tone of an over-long exhalation.

Five years and counting of higher education, have prepared me to approach all manifestations of a creative impulse with a scalpel, murdering to dissect and to have a thing to say, for fear of coming away feeling like a dope. In his introduction to William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, William Gass offers the critic an alternative:

“No great book is explicable, and I shall not attempt to explain this one. An explanation…would defile it, for reduction is precisely what a work of art opposes…Interpretation replaces the original with the lamest sort of substitute. It tames, disarms.”

This is increasingly coming to my mind when I listen to academic papers, Arts Tonight or when I read the essay that accompanies the CD, written by Sarah Pierce. It doesn’t matter what’s under discussion, the history of the Irish Sea, Leda and the Swan, or the errant jotters of Leonardo da Vinci, almost everything discussed features some variation on limits, peripheries, narratives, stereotypes, re-conceptualisations, differential networks of meaning, straw man paradoxes, etc, this programmatic patter that smothers what is unique about everything, and makes it the same tortured play of nothing. I’m not opposed to criticism, I never will be, but I’m sure we all recognise the patterns of reductionism, and recognise too, real, dynamic, elevating critiques every bit as vital as their subject.

This sense of wonder, this physical reaction that certain works of art can engender in us is not a mysterious quintessence antithetical to its explanation; criticism as its best can intensify, even prompt it. These received routes of understanding should be eschewed and replaced by something amazing.

Lucia Joyce Radio documentary

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Plenty I wasn’t aware of regarding Lucia Joyce’s life laid out in this documentary. Lucia’s involvement  in bohemian Paris, how her psychosis may have been barbiturate withdrawal, and how Joyce was her primary advocate for Lucia’s welfare in the family. Lucia’s strained relationship with Nora and Giorgio meant she was to become isolated after his death in 1939.

Has a nice reading from Finnegans Wake also, but not, sadly, her novel, which was destroyed, and I mourn for.

http://www.rte.ie/radio1/doconone/2013/0604/647434-radio-documentary-podcast-lucia-james-joyce-bloomsday/

Patrick Kavanagh: London Poet?

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I’ve never ranked Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry very highly, ‘The Great Hunger’ aside. If I had to generate a fancy reason for why, rather than the simplistic sounding, ‘I don’t like this,’ it would be my consciousness of his biography, as I find him far more engaging as a representative of his era, than as a poet.

If you’ve never read Pat Walsh’s book Patrick Kavanagh and the Leader, for example, do, it gives a thorough account of future Taoiseach John A. Costello’s intensive cross-examination of the poet when he sued the Dublin publication, The Leader, for libelling him. The courtroom drama is begging to be adapted from the page after page of snappy, witty dialogue, with the poet and future Taoiseach arguing over where the irony in a particular line in Shelley resides. Yes, really, they debate this at length. Kavanagh gives as good as he gets I think, and it’s no wonder there were queues outside the courts for the days and days that the trial ran on for.

Notions of Ireland’s cultural stagnancy in the forties and fifties are being rolled back at this point, but there is something bleak that persists about Kavanagh’s generation, himself and Flann O’Brien sitting in Dublin pubs rife with backbiters and destined for varying shades of obscurity and penury.

The RTÉ documentary below complicates the picture we have of Kavanagh quite a bit, giving a detailed account of the years he spent in London, enmeshed in its cultural and artistic scene, which all seems quite a bit more vital and indeed, enjoyable for Kavanagh than his years spent in Dublin. There is a suggestion in the documentary that there are those who prefer Kavanagh in his current state, as a peasant, Dublin-canal poet, but whatever side you fall on interpretively, I think the consciousness of Kavanagh as more metropolitan than most people are aware, can only ameliorate, rather than diminish his reputation.

Listen also for Flann O’Brien’s advice for what to do if an author you’ve never read comes up in conversation.

http://www.rte.ie/radio1/doconone/2015/0107/670862-fleeting-city-the-london-years-of-patrick-kavanagh/