Seamus Deane | Critical Review by Patrick Parrinder

This literature criticism consists of approximately 7 pages of analysis & critique of Seamus Deane.
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Critical Review by Patrick Parrinder

SOURCE: "Celtic Revisionism," in London Review of Books, Vol. 8, No. 13, July 24, 1986, pp. 16-17.

In the following excerpt, Parrinder delineates Irish cultural history as defined in A Short History of Literature, deconstructing Deane's bias against Irish national mythology.

[What] today can we mean by 'English' literature? Seamus Deane begins his Short History of Irish Literature by asserting that the term 'Anglo-Irish' for the body of writing with which he is concerned is now anachronistic. Deane here is lending powerful support to the modern tendency to appeal to national divisions, rather than language divisions, in defining a literature. Such a tendency will not be confined, I believe, to the other side of the Irish Sea. In future, we may need to distinguish Modern English literature, a Romantic offshoot of the same type and vintage as Irish, Scottish and American literature, from an older English literature as well as from the generic subject of Literature in English. In other words, the 'English literature' which began with Shakespeare and Spenser may be seen to have started to splinter irrecoverably during the lifetime of Samuel Johnson. If English imperialism, beginning with the Tudors, had allowed English to become one of the great literatures of the world, it also hastened its eventual disintegration into the separate national components of Literature in English. Modern English literature can then be read as an affair of (native or naturalised) English writers, expressing a complex but initially local English identity.

Before too many readers protest, let it be said that the foregoing paragraph is an experiment in taking an 'Irish' view, looking at English literature to see if it will conform to an Irish (or Scottish or American) model. The new books by Seamus Deane [A Short History of Irish Literature] and Liam de Paor [The Peoples of Ireland and Portrait of Ireland] are judicious and informative in their own right, but they have the added interest of embodying two influential and competing conceptions of cultural identity from an Irish perspective. De Paor is closest to the traditional Romantic outlook. His writing is sometimes reminiscent of Sean O'Faolain's vigorous study of The Irish (1947), a book which its author described in the uncomplicated idiom of forty years ago as a 'creative history of the growth of a racial mind'. Seamus Deane, by contrast, offers a political reading of cultural nationalism, bringing a steely scepticism to bear on the Romantic tribal mentality.

Of de Paor's two books, The Peoples of Ireland is straight history, while Portrait of Ireland is a personal (though scholarly) essay which the publishers have unfortunately tried to transform into a coffee-table book by the addition of a job-lot of tourist-board photographs. Both works reflect the historiographical advances and changed political perspectives of the last four decades. Nevertheless, de Paor's very readable summaries of Irish history, literature and topography in Portrait of Ireland are the prelude to a chapter, 'Time out of Time', in which (like O'Faolain) he seeks to define permanent features of, or at least permanent influences on, the Irish character and temperament. In this chapter de Paor's training as an archaeologist, which is a strength in both books, is very much in evidence. Much as Wordsworth turned to Stonehenge, the author of Portrait of Ireland turns to the Book of Kells and the Tara brooch for intimations of what is truly Irish. These masterpieces of ancient Celtic art share a grotesque and fantastic profusion of ornament, 'following a kind of mad logic through bewildering convolutions'—a pedantic intricacy similar, it has often been argued, to the fiction of Joyce and Jonathan Swift. Joyce himself was a firm believer in such 'Celtic' qualities, and they offer an obvious context for his own art. Do we have here—as Vivian Mercier, for one, has implied—an unbroken tradition of genuinely Irish expression reflecting the national character? De Paor, for all his appealing mixture of archaeological enthusiasm and scholarly caution, seems to me to imply that we do. Seamus Deane would almost certainly disagree.

As a Northern Catholic, Deane has the best of reasons for being suspicious of Romantic cultural nationalism. 'Reference after reference was made to Edward Carson, the Relief of Derry, William the Third, the British Empire and the Battle of the Boyne,' runs the newspaper report of a recent Ulster rally. Once the past is accepted as a legitimate guarantee of contemporary identity, the Book of Kells and the Tara brooch are not necessarily any better than the Battle of the Boyne. It is the fervour of the belief, not the beauty and antiquity of its symbols and totems, which seems to matter. Both in his Short History and in his distinguished recent collection of essays, Celtic Revivals, Deane mounts a fierce and even-handed attack on the pieties of Irish national mythology. From his revisionist viewpoint Yeats's championship of the Protestant Ascendancy and Patrick Pearse's sentimentalisation of the Spirit of the Gael are equally deplorable. Instead of a continuous national tradition, Deane's sense of Ireland's cultural history is of a series of discontinuous, and heavily ideological, historical revivals. Historical assertion in Ireland, he implies, has been one of the prime vehicles of false consciousness.

As a scholar and critic, Seamus Deane seems to have little interest in the long perspectives: his chapter on 'The Gaelic background' is much the shortest in his Short History. What unifies Irish literature, for him, is principally its status as the literature of a colony given to outbursts of historical revivalism. As a colonial literature, it has no proper beginnings, no founding epic (the first substantial work analysed at any length in the Short History is [Swift's] A Tale of a Tub), and no settled relationship to the Irish people or their language. It strengths lie in its interrogation of forms and the wariness of its language. The unspoken parallel history of Modern English literature is needed to put the tradition that Deane surveys in its literary context. This 'colonial' reading of Irish literature is forceful and candid, and much of its impact comes from its pithy and penetrating assessments of individual writers. The book is generous in its use of quotation, and contains some memorable epigrammatic judgments. Deane's bias may, however, be questioned in two respects. First, his hostility to Romantic cultural nationalism perhaps leads to a few forced readings. Secondly, my suspicion is that cultural nationalism is too formidable an adversary to be slain by any individual critic. A state of complete detachment from nationality and of imperviousness to its myths is unattainable in the contemporary world. To attack one set of cultural-nationalist presuppositions may be an effective way of endorsing another set.

Deane's impatience with Romantic antiquarianism can be sensed in the Short History when he comments on John Montague's poem about a group of old country neighbours: 'Like dolmens round my childhood, the old people.' These old people, who inspire mixed feelings of tenderness and repugnance, are compared by the poet to a 'standing circle of stones'. For Deane this is a 'petrifying inheritance', and he credits the old people with a 'Gorgon stare' which is in danger of distracting Montague from 'the appeal of the sensual, the sexual, the living landscape'. Though Deane has few rivals as a commentator on contemporary Irish poetry, the misjudgment here is doubly ironic. It is ironic that Deane misses Montague's Wordsworthian reverence for the dolmens, which by no means belong to a 'dead' landscape (whatever that might be), and ironic too that he expresses his distaste for these monuments of Irish prehistory by means of a metaphor derived from ancient Greek mythology. Above all, what Deane has missed is the subtle sensitivity and tact of Montague's evocation of old age and its impact on the young.

Part of the general vocabulary which Deane brings to bear on Irish literary history consists of terms like 'culture', 'community', 'solidarity' and 'dispossession', which seem to be indebted to Raymond Williams. Following the implicit direction of some of Williams's work, one senses that Deane might have written a short history of Irish literacy—a cultural history, that is, of the practice of writing and reading in Ireland—rather than sticking to a chronological account of the literary canon. Many of his comments on language, on the deliberate construction of a nationalist heritage and on Irish writers' perceptions of (and failures to perceive) their country's colonial status seem to point this way. Such comments cannot be followed up within the conventional literary-historical textbook format. The result is something of a compromise.

One sign of the compromise is that prominence is given to a number of confessedly very bad books, on the grounds of the historical significance that is claimed for them. The myth that the Short History endorses (though it cannot altogether sustain it) is, I believe, that of an ultimately seamless relationship—almost a profound congruity—between a country's political history and the development of its literature. The literature is stunted by the politics, but it also in some way completes the politics. The one is a distorted and often inverted, but still recognisable, reflection of the other. Seamus Deane's Irish literature is political in origin (its birth being effectively marked by the assertion of a non-English identity within English literature), and it is still political today. This means that in the Short History a political and a literary-critical vocabulary exist side by side; neither subsumes the other, and each is tacitly supposed to have renounced its hegemonic claims. The results are often highly persuasive, even if a doubt remains about the method. 'Irish literature sometimes reads like a series of studies in dying cultures; the moment of political death is the dawn of cultural life,' remarks Deane at one point. Contemporary writers, he adds, have been intent on finding a way out of this labyrinth of 'Irishness'.

The achievement of Samuel Beckett, whose 80th birthday we are currently celebrating, does not directly challenge this Caudwellian view of Irish literature, though it may make us wonder about its relevance. Beckett surely stands as the archetype of the kind of modern writer who has tried to put his work beyond the reach of any political thesis. In Deane's words, Ireland functions in his work as a 'mode of absence': but Beckett is now being reclaimed by the Irish. (Shades of Stephen Dedalus—is Beckett important because he belongs to Ireland, or is Ireland important because it functions as a mode of absence in Beckett?) The Beckett Country records a photographic exhibition, including superb pictures by David Davison and Nevill Johnson, of locations mentioned in Beckett's writings. These have been devotedly traced—and in a few cases tactfully invented—by Eoin O'Neill.

Cultural tourism, as Deane observes in Celtic Revivals, found its most influential Irish apologist in J. M. Synge. Yeats added his considerable support—notably in 'Under Ben Bulben', when he ordered his epitaph in Drumcliff churchyard (citing a clerical ancestor of whom remarkably little had been heard until the poet needed an Irish burial-place). The 'Beckett country' around Foxrock and the Dublin mountains, though attractive enough, can hardly match the resonance of the Yeats Country and the Aran Islands. And though Beckett's father was an Anglo-Irish Protestant, there is little of the aura of cultural death about this prosperous Dublin commuter and his family.

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This section contains 1,867 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Patrick Parrinder
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