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Critical Review by Eamon Hughes
SOURCE: "Tradition and Modernity," in Irish Literary Supplement, Vol. 16, No. 2, Fall, 1997, p. 21.
In the following review, Hughes addresses the ambiguities he finds in Deane's definition of modernity in Strange Country.
Taking Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France as his "foundational text," Seamus Deane examines the "contrast and contest between tradition and modernity" which extends through and beyond the Irish nineteenth century. This discourse appears in a number of oppositional pairings—culture and economics, the national and the rational, speech and print, Ireland and England—and issues in the nineteenth century in "a narrative of strangeness" about Ireland because Ireland cannot be absorbed into a normalising narrative of progress and economic development.
Moving from Burke to Flann O'Brien, Deane's concern is with the way in which writers have negotiated between oppositions with the aim of destabilizing stereotypical ascriptions. The theoretical co-ordinates of Strange Country are, then, broadly deconstructive with a Foucaultian sense of discourse as a series of negotiations rather than a stable position. Thus Burke's defence of tradition is part of the anti-revolutionary thrust of his work, and yet, with regard to Ireland, that defence of tradition becomes revolutionary. Thus, Ireland's "strangeness" is both a cause and an effect of the way in which it is treated by Britain and can then be taken as both a sign of dependency by the English and as a sign of independence by the Irish nationalist. Either way it remains discursively locked in.
Deane pursues his argument through a variety of authors, texts and topics stretching from Edgeworth to Flann O'Brien and taking in inter alia Mangan, Mitchel, Yeats's "The Second Coming," Synge's Playboy, Irish typefaces and revisionism. Deane, it goes without saying, is a powerful and shrewd critic with whom it is at times a pleasure to agree, and an equal pleasure to disagree when in the face of his persuasive power one is forced to rethink. His readings, to take just a few examples, of Mangan, of Yeats's "The Second Coming" and of Flann O'Brien are therefore all to be recommended.
Of the questions that the book raises, Deane's own position is probably the most important, partly because the broadly deconstructive force of the book is destabilizing of position and partly because of its lack of acknowledgement that it participates in the very discourses which it addresses. As a lecture series the book emerges from speech into print. Deane is in the position of the rational intellectual translating the strangeness of Ireland to an English audience; and finally he is just as much subject to his question about whether an impartial spectator position is available as the revisionist historians he attacks in the final pages.
Now, I am not asking for Deane to have produced a set of lectures which took their own form and occasion as their subject matter but this absence of self-reflexivity is of a piece with the absence of definitions of the key terms of the book. To understand Deane's position we need to understand how he defines tradition and modernity. In regard to the former, Deane seems to accept Burke's sense of tradition, especially as his definition of a "foundational text" ("one that allows … for a reading of a national literature in such a manner that even chronologically prior texts can be annexed by it into a narrative that will ascribe to them a preparatory role in the ultimate completion of that narrative's plot") is so reminiscent of T. S. Eliot's definition of "tradition." But if Deane accepts Burkean "tradition," there is a curious lack of definition of "modernity."
Deane is right that we need to be wary of accepting modernity uncritically, but that wariness needs to be informed. "Modernity" for Deane is associated with global capital and distinct from modernism and modernization, but these implicit definitions beg numerous questions. Is nationalism to be seen (as has traditionally been the case) as anti-modern, or as itself part of modernity; Benedict Anderson's association of nationalism with the technologies of print and time defines nationalism as a phenomenon of modernity which asserts a claim to be traditional. Does "modernity" have an aesthetic aspect; if so then what Deane has to say about the difficulties of representing Ireland may be better understood not as difficulties with existing representational modes but as modern forms of representation.
Alternatively, modernity may take in issues such as migration and urbanization about which Deane has only passing comments to make. Then again modernity may be understood in its industrial, scientific and technological aspects, about which Deane is again silent. 1916 provides a moment at which these various aspects of modernity all occur. This is the year of book publication of A Portrait; the year of both the Easter Rising and the Somme; and the year in which Ireland adopted Greenwich Mean Time partly, at least, for the convenience of modern transport systems. At the end of reading Strange Country I know that I am to be wary of modernity, but which of its aspects I should be particularly wary of I am not sure.
I cannot therefore escape the sense that at some level Deane is himself a Burkean, concerned to maintain tradition as both concept and practice, in the face of a modernity which he still (however much he protests and deconstructs it) sees as somehow English. Certainly this would explain the puzzling absence of Shaw's John Bull's Other Island which explores exactly the same range of issues, stereotypes and ambiguities which make up Deane's discursive archive. Similarly, Deane's reading of Synge's Playboy is traditionalist; his sympathies are clearly with Christy whose "language of heroic solitude" he reads the play as celebrating.
Pegeen is then an anachronism confined to the zone of the sexual; but isn't hers the true language of heroic solitude within the play? Aren't her final grief-stricken words only an acknowledgement of the consequences of her opening words, spoken as she writes them in a letter, thereby connecting herself to the modern world of print and postal systems? She is the modern hero who having lost the traditional past must face into an unknowable future.
For all of its power in addressing the ambiguities of Ireland and in deconstructing stereotypes Strange Country is an oddly stifling book, buried under the weight of collapsing polarities with no way out. Modernity is not only about losing the past; it is also about losing any secure sense of the future. Traditional societies have a firm idea of what the future will hold because the future is for them always already prefigured within the past. Robbed of tradition by progress such societies now have no such prefigured future but rather must face the condition of futurity. This can be contrasted with Deane's interesting passages on boredom which relate back to his Foucaultian and deconstructive models in which everything always already is; futurity as promised by the modern is the sense that something else will be. He approaches this in his reading of Yeats's "The Second Coming," but seems to me to fail to realise that Yeats's desire for apocalypse is tempered by a sense that the future is unpredictable that it is the future which is the truly strange country.
This section contains 1,193 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)