Seamus Deane | Critical Review by Conor Cruise O'Brien

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Seamus Deane.
This section contains 1,025 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Conor Cruise O'Brien

Critical Review by Conor Cruise O'Brien

SOURCE: "Cult of Blood," in The Observer Review, August 18, 1985, p. 18.

In the following review, O'Brien addresses certain nuances of Irish politics, nationalism, and revisionism examined in Celtic Revivals.

The modern writers examined in these essays [Celtic Revivals] are Joyce, Yeats, Synge, O'Casey, Patrick Pearse, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Kinsella, John Montague, Brian Friel, Derek Mahon and Seamus Heaney.

At his best, and especially when contemporary politics don't come into play, Mr Deane is a very good critic. Most of his essays are illuminating in one way or another—though sometimes verging on the precious or the pompous, and sometimes going over the verge. Some pages are brilliant; some are profound; some are both (and a few are neither).

The essay on 'Joyce and Nationalism' is, I believe, the best thing that has been written on this subject. Mr Deane shows that what is often called 'Joyce's repudiation of Irish nationalism' is something considerably more complex than a repudiation. The essay ends with the words:

Ireland as an entity, cultural or political, was incorporated in all its mutations within Joyce's work as a model of the world and, more importantly, as a model of the fictive. In revealing the essentially fictive nature of political imagining, Joyce did not repudiate Irish nationalism. Instead he understood it as a potent example of a rhetoric which imagined as true structures that did not and were never to exist outside language. Thus, as a model, it served him as it served Yeats and others. It enabled them to apprehend the nature of fiction, the process whereby the imagination is brought to bear upon the reality which it creates.

The essay on Patrick Pearse is also I believe the best on that subject; though this is a less impressive feat, since the critical literature on Pearse's writings is neither abundant nor impressive. Mr Deane is good on Pearse's relationship to the British imperialist ideology which dominated these islands, and a lot of other places, in Pearse's day:

In Ireland, the only mythology which could compete with this imperial one was the nationalist ideal. They were, in some respects, remarkably similar. Each lived in the conviction that there was a sleeping giant, liable to be raised to life again by the spectacle of the Hun at the Gate or by the Fenian Dead.

Mr Deane is also interesting on Yeats, who comes into several of his essays. There is a pretty phrase on the Celtic Twilight: 'an idea of tradition and continuity so vague as Ireland's needed all the dimness it could get.' (The use of the rather moth-eaten word 'Celtic' in the title contains, I take it, various shades of irony. These may well elude some Anglo-Saxon readers.)

As the jacket of Celtic Revivals says, these essays 'examine the close connection between literature and politics in Ireland,' and that examination does produce some good insights. But the reader is likely to be confused—and may well feel some disquiet—about the political angle from which the examination is being conducted. At times Mr Deane may sound like some kind of Marxist. Thus he writes that 'separation from socialism left Irish nationalism ideologically invertebrate.' So you might think, when he comes to compare the socialist Sean O'Casey with Yeats—whose 'sympathy for fascism' and 'support to the philosophy of fascism' Mr Deane acknowledges—that O'Casey's politics would be found more acceptable than those of Yeats.

Quite the reverse; for Mr Deane's basic political criterion is nationalist not Marxist. It is in Yeats's plays, he says, not O'Casey's, that we find 'a search for the new form of feeling which would renovate our national consciousness….' Poor O'Casey, on the other hand, is no more than 'a provincial writer whose moment has come again in the present wave of revisionist Irish history, itself a provincial phenomenon.'

Brief note on 'revisionism,' as used in Ireland: An 'Irish revisionist' is not a deviant Marxist, a Hibernian disciple of the late Eduard Bernstein. An Irish revisionist is one who, like me, believes that the cult of Patrick Pearse and of blood-sacrifice has helped the emergence of the Provisional IRA, is in other ways unhealthy, and ought to be challenged. O'Casey's sin, in the eyes of anti-revisionists like Mr Deane, is to have written plays—'Juno and the Paycock' especially—that depict manic nationalism, and its consequences, in an unfavourable light. Yeats, on the other hand, was generally pretty sound on subjects like blood-sacrifice, as anti-revisionists see these matters. 'The script calls for freshly severed human heads.'

Another good example of the anti-revisionist approach is contained in the essay on Seamus Heaney. Mr Deane quotes the following lines from the poem 'Punishment' in Heaney's collection, North:

    I who have stood dumb
    when your betraying sisters,
    cauled in tar,
    wept by the railings,
 
    who would connive
    in civilized outrage
    yet understand the exact
    and tribal, intimate revenge.

The reference is to girls tarred and chained to chapel railings by the IRA in Catholic areas of Northern Ireland. Mr. Deane comments (in part): 'Heaney is asking himself the hard question here—to which is his loyalty given: the outrage or the revenge? The answer would seem to be that imaginatively, he is with the revenge, morally, with the outrage.'

That antithesis seems to me a sight too neat. 'Morality' and 'imagination' cannot really be segregated like that. The poet's imaginative reaction is not free from moral concerns and contradictions: it clearly contains pity and horror and guilt, as well as an acknowledged complicity—through 'understanding'—with the punishers. To classify the poet as being 'imaginatively … with the revenge' is to do him much less than justice. But the critic's phrase is illuminating, as to the role of the imagination in the 'renovated national consciousness' to which the anti-revisionists aspire.

I believe that the present political orientation of this distinguished but uneven critic is regrettable, both in itself and as now affecting his critical work. His impulsion towards manic nationalism may have helped him with the understanding of certain aspects of modern Irish literature, but it obscures or distorts others. His future progress as a critic seems to depend on getting that Old Man of the Irish Sea off his back. The essay 'Joyce and Nationalism' could perhaps be the beginning of that dislodgement.

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This section contains 1,025 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Conor Cruise O'Brien
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