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A Long Forgotten Art (2)

Once, I blogged about Augusta Holmes’ work as a long-forgotten art; one that had an Irish connection but did not have an Irish fame (to a French art critic in 1922 she had represented Ireland; in Ireland she remained and remains unknown). In an ideal world, without 9-5 burdens, I could perhaps devote myself to a study of romanticism and revolutionaries in Ireland in a manner akin to James Billington’s study of Europe, mentioned in my previous blog, but that is strictly for the long finger. Institutional support for such a goal, or appreciation for such an idea, is also unlikely in a country that reputedly subscribes to an Edwardian notion about itself: the only thing of merit in Ireland is, or was, its literature.

In the last few days, hearing the singer Lorcan Mac Mathuna has introduced me to a (Edwardian) James Connolly song I had never heard of (so much for my knowledge of Irish rebel history), although music of that vintage does not actually sound particularly Irish to me. Mac Mathuna’s sean-nós singing is another matter, however, and it has also led me to discover the reputed first-ever Irish song, or poem. So, through an exposure to folk singing, I have discovered a beginning to Irish history that was unknown to all my previous explorations.

Here is a rebel song that I have never heard before, but perhaps I should have, if I was the 19th century historian that I thought I was. I remember thinking that a lot of the songs in this book probably never “caught on”: often the long-forgotten are so for a reason. Sometimes, however, there are buried treasures to be discovered. If there were not, would there be such thing as historians? With that in mind, I’ll keep the thought of being a cultural archaeologist of the 19th century alive for a little longer.

Are Theories Bad?

Historians favour evidence. Political scientists/international relations scholars favour theory. True or false? Is there a great divide?

I remember reading a 19th century Irish figure denouncing journalism for consisting only of shibboleths, i.e., customs/language of a particular class that have no greater relevance.

Could one say the same (“shibboleth!”) regarding much academic terminology, particularly theoretical terminology? Are theories bad or good for a greater understanding?

Here is a YouTube video of someone saying they are good, almost to the point of saying you cannot do with them.

Yesterday, I picked up a book that I probably saw in my student days and now feel a desire to read again. If over-preoccupied with the growth of Marxism (it was written in 1980), It is a study of the mentality of revolutionaries from the 18th to 20th centuries and the language that they used. Some of it was theoretical. Some of it was not.

A surface glance today (the 15 minute coffee break phenomenon) reminded me how terminologies were in vogue at different stages during the 19th century that later disappeared, particularly amongst those who attempted to coin ideologies. My interest in reading, or re-reading, Billington’s text is to see how he covers all of them by denoting underlying themes. In doing so, I think (or hope) he treats the terminology as being of its time.

Do we do the same with theories? Do people think of political philosophers as beyond the time that they lived in? Who today typifies Thomas Hobbes as an English civil war era figure (which he was) rather than the master theoretician of realism for all the ages? Who thinks of Aristotle as Alexander “The Great”’s hireling (which he was)? Who thinks of Karl Marx as “just another journalist” (which he essentially was) among thousands? Not many. Instead, their theories are seen as timeless and touchstones for reasoning in every age. I guess that makes me a sceptic regarding notions of a “philosophy of history”, particularly if it is seen as an abstraction.

I’ve seen a few internet commentaries or contemporary news stories recently that surprised me a little because they were focused on the one question that preoccupied the political philosophers and which certainly is a perennial or central question: are people drawn primarily to individuality or social consensuses?

To what extent were the revolutionaries of the 18th to 20th centuries driven by individualism or abstract ideas of community? Which was the predominant trait? There is no easy answer to that. Maybe it is my own inclination to consider theory “bad” that leads me to consider the former as predominant. Yes, they were individuals. Nutty perhaps, but fascinating. Yet most would not fit the bill of what theoreticians today would describe as “liberal”. Neither were the civil servants of the day (bang goes the ahistorical “liberal democracy is with us since the 19th century theory”).

Does that present a paradox to the political historian? Not to my mind. It simply makes the subject, or era, more fascinating. “Fire in the minds of men” was Billington’s catchphrase (drawn from a Fyodor Dostoevsky story) to describe the revolutionaries. “Sunbursts in the minds of men” was a catchphrase that both authors and critics of Irish nationalist diatribes in the 19th century often used.

I remember suggesting once (or twice) that the 1916 rising was an 1848 style rebellion: first, for its format; and second, because Ireland did not experience a similarly broad spectrum of ideological debates as Europe did in 1848 until, in or about, barricades were manned in Dublin in 1916. But that is not “entirely true” and someday I will have to venture back, locating the Irish nationalist imagination c.1848-1916 into a transnational focus. Even as the historiography of the 1848 revolutions become more European in focus, with few exceptions, they are not usually spoken of as including Ireland. One can see European, British and American influences on Irish attitudes of the era. But how can it all be “summed up”?

I sometimes wonder if it would be a surprise to Americans that American history books can usually only be read by non-American authors in this part of the world. In turn, any time I read a history by an American author (be it about America or something else), the line of reasoning in the book (even the choice of language) always seems unfamiliar and, thereby, fascinating. The same can apply to works by European authors. “You see” British authors control the historical reading market here (both popular and academic) so “we” (most of us) think like them. Many cannot even conceive of seeing things differently and to suggest doing so is seen as either incomprehensible or shockingly inappropriate. “Ye cannae reject the canon”.

“Transnational”, being an American lexicon, may imply an American-biased focus. But what if the transnational is directed in every direction from every country? Place the pin in any part of the globe and go 360. Can history be more effectively internationalised? Simply put, that tends to be my intuition or, at least, suspicion, in the sense that if history were thus reconsidered its heart could become more evident. Idealistic or naïve, perhaps. But, “at least”, it is not a theoretical notion. It is an old fashioned, historical, literary and evidenced based one.

“And so on, and so on”.

Well, it is time for me to start reading Billington, I guess, and hopefully I will have something more interesting to blog about next month!

The Anniversary of…What?

Every calendar date is an anniversary of something, but what is in a date? Not to knock “Century Ireland”, but I do not think that centenaries of various newspaper articles provides one with a bigger picture, or vision. Can journalism?

I remember a line in John Wayne’s final film. As a dying “shootist” with absolutely no education, he buys a newspaper in the belief that if he read every line, he would know absolutely everything that happened on that day and so finally receive an education of sorts. In the film, it was intended as a moment of touching pathos: how only a person with no education, or significant experience of reading, could have such a blind faith in journalism as a meaningful or truthful entity. Yet people do try to convince others that it has precisely such a meaning.

From where springs such a conviction? I have had to ask myself that often. Why? I guess it is because if there is one thing that is also expected of historians, it is to speak with conviction. In my own self-estimation, I think that is partly why, historian though I am, I do not fit the bill for what is generally required of a professional history lecturer. Yes, I could speak well and spark the interest of others in a subject, to “a degree”. But the part of the actor required – to speak with the conviction of a “persuader” or as someone who believes that some aspect history is “important” or relevant to the present – I do not seem to be able to play that part. To play such a role seems absurd and that presents a mental block.

Pick any date and it is the occasion, or the anniversary, of a nearly infinite number of different events. Each of those events could be typified as a fragment of a short story that has never been written. The event itself tells no story. But it may invite us to try and create one. I am often haunted by a format of short story, where an interesting incident finishes “up in the air” with no resolution and yet it leaves a lasting impression. A first exposure to any historical source often makes a similar mental impact on me. This is partly why writing history always seems to me a bit like building a jigsaw where the picture has no definitive or predefined form.

A “devil’s advocate” argument once posed to me was: how can possibly one write a history of a revolutionary organisation if it left no archive? If there is no archive, there is no subject. But then, how are there histories with thematic subjects? Where is the archive for a subject like imperialism, or decolonialisation, or class, or women’s history? There is none. Instead, people are inventing their own jigsaw pictures from available pieces, like building castles in the air, and every resulting picture becomes unique to its author.

I remember the late Ronan Fanning saying once that there is no real difference between the investigative journalist and the historian. I may not have worked as a journalist for as long as Mr. Fanning, but I did not have that impression of the profession. Instead, I am inclined to think that there is a greater connection between the historian and the literary artist, being a creator of pictures with words. Journalism is immediate, of the moment, and incidental. History is crafted, an evolution, and a bigger picture.

Perhaps if an anniversary is a potential talking point for a journalist, it inherently means nothing to a historian, who must remain preoccupied with “the string”: a linear time without beginning or end that we attempt to, or evidently believe we can, define in some fashion. When we pass away, our own short story is finished, but a conception of time has nevertheless been put in print, in words rather than sheet music, and that remains as a composition. There can be history without an archive. There cannot be history without print. Such is the manner of my thought, which is perhaps why oral history has always seemed to me as only a source rather than a history. In turn, I think I prefer to write than to speak. Such a temperament, however, is a professional liability.

Time is silent. Maybe that is why we may imagine that it can be best reflected through print, as it the only means available whereby words can likewise exist in a perpetual silence. Would humankind be inclined to conceive of the existence of history without print? In my own way of thinking, “probably not”. I guess that it is why I have the suspicion that I would be a better historian if I were also an archaeologist, or a museum curator, even though the notion of valuing inanimate objects over humanity seems perverse to me. But it is true: the stone in my shoe may have a more interesting history than I do.

Can anniversaries exist in parallel dimensions? A meaningless coincidence caught my imagination recently: Camille Saint Saens, a French composer who died aged 86, seems to have entered his death bed in Algeria on the same date in 1921 as ‘articles of agreement for a treaty’ was signed by various English and Irish individuals in London, including someone (Arthur Griffith) of whom I once wrote a biography. 1921, from which we are now a century later, was not the end of a style of music. I am not inclined to think of it as a beginning or an end of a phase of Irish history either. But if we entertain the idea of centenaries, are we not automatically led to such assumptions, of a beginning or an end? How do we historians define the beginning and end of an event if the linear notion of time that we entertain is like the proverbial length of a piece of string? Only by attempting to fit an event into a bigger picture.

I was thinking that If I were asked to speak of the significance of either event on its centenary, I do not think I could convince myself that a centenary is an occasion for deliberate timings of such reflections. But on the other hand, why not? Why are there birthdays? Why do anything? So perhaps, for a change, I will make my next “blog” an article rather than a blog: on something specific, rather than general, in nature, like “Arthur Griffith and Irish republicanism”. But if it were to be defined in terms of just 1921 or its “centenary”, I fear the result could only be a meaningless snippet of string with no bigger picture being possible.

Urban and Rural “Mindsets”?

“The Irish Mind” was once a well-known book title. The idea of a national mindset seems obscure to me. Somehow, the idea of urban and rural mindsets does not. Often, I faff on about that idea to myself, as was probably reflected by a former blog or two here. Unsurprisingly, scholars have, on occasion, felt the need to address the issue in a more specific manner.

I was reminded of this recently on noticing a couple of different things. First, there was an announcement of a new project based on the premise that “Europeanists have often neglected rural Europe in their scholarship [despite the fact at least half of Europe is rural]”. Integrating rural perspectives into not just food distribution but “wider debates about social justice, environmental policy and community building in twenty-first century Europe” is a declared object of the project. Second, the urban-rural issue is an occasional policy issue for the Irish government and various interested parties, as some recent news reports have again highlighted. Not being a party to policy formation, I am inclined to think of the issue purely in the light of how it does, or does not, affect cultural perceptions in the humanities, including historical studies. One side of the coin is certainly methodological. Might the other side of the coin be often unacknowledged prejudices? (more on that later).

A study in recent years of “dangerous places” may have been notable for a few things, such as statistical analyses. I remember thinking, however, that it essentially portrayed political extremism as a threat posed to the urban world by rural discontents. Stated that baldly, that may seem a polemical notion, but the idea is certainly current in contemporary migration studies. In history, migration is a big theme too. In the 20th century, the fact that the study of peasant societies became a field for sociological, rather than historical, studies may have denoted their formerly unenfranchised place in political societies, yet the mass migration of rural populations to urban centres from the 1820s onwards became an acknowledged pivot of modern political history. Did these rural and urban worlds abide or collide from 1848 onwards? There is an old gem of a subject, as the recent Atlas of the Irish Famine may remind us. Underground revolutionaries between 1848 and 1918 were often rural migrants to cities. The theme was not always interpreted in a “dangerous places” manner, however.

Various well-known British historians of yesteryear (A.J.P. Taylor and Eric Hobsbawm come to mind) made such revolutionaries their initial research subject and, in turn, a launching pad for their later embrace of broader themes of international history, effectively reimagining historical time periods from the margins. “Lucky for them”. A recent painful catharsis for me was sorting notes and books I had collected a decade or two ago for Fenian studies that represent to me a work in progress that was not allowed to progress. Much of it was used for a PhD thesis (awarded 2003) and a subsequent book (2005 and awarded the “NUI Centennial Prize for Irish History”, i.e., the first “NUI Publication Prize”, in 2008) but because a PhD reaches its sell-by date in terms of one’s employability in three years, by the outset of 2007 I was simply forced to stop: if one is not registered as a student or employed as an academic, one’s access to research libraries ceases. It was painful not to be able to follow through on my subject, which instead of being a passion became a nightmare, causing me to breakdown with the conviction that I had completely wasted the last decade of my life (as a student). If UK historians like Taylor or Hobsbawm once had the intellectual liberty to reimagine the 1848-1918 time-period from the margins, should Irish scholars not be allowed the same liberty, according to their own lights? Two Irish politics professors (one from the south and one from the north) who wrote about revolutionaries in this period once said to me that the only reason why they taught politics, not history, as a career was because they knew that they would not be allowed the liberty to pursue this subject under the weird professional umbrella that is Irish historical studies. Evidently, Irish sociologists, literature students and some students of political theory may tackle such “grey-area” subjects, but the political historians cannot, professionally at least. “Tough”.

The urban-rural question can certainly illuminate the political history of many a country, however, including Ireland. It has been said that no new town was created in Ireland from the Cromwellian conquest (c.1660) until the development of the airport town of Shannon (c.1960). A belief that urban Ireland was not viable to sustain an independent country governed opposition to that idea, more so than cultural attitudes, and it was not until significant urban development in Ireland took place that this belief essentially dissipated. Modern Ireland was, in one politician’s words, “the back garden of Britain”, where farm produce was grown, and the ancient Romanic proverb “civilisation is inseparable from the city” underpinned many a text or debate too. Perhaps it does still.

The Europeanist debate cited above may suggest, however, that perhaps “urban and rural mindsets” are less a key pivot of societal studies that “urban and rural professions”. If most jobs available since the nineteenth century were in towns and cities and this led to a necessary migration there, may something of a reverse process occur and alter this balance? Can one realistically imagine such a trend? I am not sure if I can. And within that uncertainty we can come full circle back to the idea of mindsets.

Here is a micro mindset. A couple of days ago, having neglected to “do the garden” for a few months, I spent hours cutting back a wilderness of briars, without succeeding at getting to their roots and acquiring a dozen cuts in the process. Do I really like this rural world better than my sheltered urban home? Has it not been said a million times (by someone or another) that the rural world is inherently anarchical compared to the “orderly progress” represented by fine instruments of urban construction? Here is a micro-macro mindset. Looking at my dinner, I see an urban product of rural origins. This way in which urban and rural worlds have always coalesced is little likely to change, as the former cannot exist without the primordial latter because it is its only source of food.

What about macro mindsets: “the world of ideas”? Can we become slaves of definitions that ill befit our theme? For example, it has sometimes (but not always) seemed to me that the contemporary vogue to apply to term “ecosystem” not to ecosystems but to economic systems betrays how much investment patterns (governed by the urban world), rather than ecosystems, govern priorities in defining both the subject and challenge of “climate change”. The influence of this trend in international relations literature is certainly perceptible.

An old rule of thumb for all international relations since the year dot is the degree to which powers are “aligned” or “non-aligned” with military powers greater than themselves. Many studies (including, come to think of it, my own last book) are inclined to bypass that idea somewhat by focusing on economic orders instead. Some postulate that a new economic order has already redefined the nature of international relations with states (small, medium, or large) operating less according to the degree to which they are militarily aligned with others than according to a paradigm that states of similar size, or geographical characteristics, are most likely to find it beneficial to deal with each other, resolving their respective challenges through sharing ideas and initiatives. Thereby, a “small island nation” like Ireland will start working with other small-island nations; a “large agricultural mainland nation” will start working with other states of similar characteristics; and so on. “Perhaps”. More traditional geopolitical notions governing small states will, however, be the subject of a forthcoming study of mine, to cover something of a gap in my last, by attempting to locate Irish literature within the (surprisingly large) field of small-state studies elsewhere. However, even should I complete such a theoretical study to my own intellectual satisfaction, I expect to be sceptical about the result, perhaps for one basic reason: irrespective of all states’ existence, it seems to me that all urban and rural societies tend to identify with other urban and rural societies respectively. Herein may be the root of often unacknowledged prejudices.

I can recall hearing an American “digital humanities” expert talk about the great potential of their discipline to “urbanise” sections of society and eradicate what were deemed to be offensive political attitudes held by “rednecks”. As the American slang “redneck” denotes those with sunburnt necks from doing manual labour outdoors (be it in town or country), this American academic was effectively expressing contempt for the entire American working classes but, evidently, they have never been given a personal or career reason to acknowledge this prejudice. If “black lives matter”, why does this debate not focus primarily on (rural) Africa rather than urban America (and, by extension, its urban media/educational satellites abroad)? If “gender” is an important issue, does it include the entire natural world, rather than just (urban) human professions and, more specifically, their legal/financial regulation? How often do wordsmiths define issues in exclusively urban professional terms because we are unwitting prisoners of a purely urban environment, unable to see and accept the natural world for what it is because it does not fit with our professional occupations and resulting preoccupations? I suspect “quite a lot”. The issue, however, may not be prejudices or even legislation but partly one of semantics. There is another “frequently occurring thought” (for me, at least). For instance, a book I picked up yesterday was John Bew’s “Realpolitik”. In it, he reflects on different usages of that term over time (an interesting idea), yet I noticed in his ten-page introduction that he referred to an “Anglo-American mindset” ten times as a definable, or definitive and self-evident, entity in international relations. Is this a case whereby if something is presumed to exist, then it simply does, in terms of the world of ideas? It may often seem so, simply by the language that we use.

Will future generations start to see urban and rural mindsets not as a divide, as I think societies have always done, but instead as a unity? If so, will that affect the whole tenor of the humanities? I wonder. For instance, did the fact that printing presses existed in towns rather than the country effectively create the literary idea that “civilisation is inseparable from the city”? As digital print media is not predicated on physical location, will this literary conceit dissipate so that notions of civilisation become shaped less by cities than by peoples? Will notions of civilisation truly become “geo-neutral”, to invent a new phrase? Before environmentalism went mainstream in the 1970s, such a notion was voiced by very few individuals, except for a few old aristocratic-types (the supposed “far right” of the day) who were called cranks. But maybe they had a point. Come to think of it, to return to the subject of a Frenchy blog a month or two ago, I’ve read that was also the subject of an Eric Rohmer film that I have never seen but some people called his best. Maybe it is about time I gave it a glance. It has been said that ideas never die; they just keep changing the way they associate with other, semantically, in people’s minds. Even if that is true, however, I still doubt I will be able to clear the forest of chaos I can see out by back window before this weekend passes no matter what I may say.

5 LPs for St. Patrick’s Day

A weird melancholy is in the air, on the eve of a particular day, and five LPs are calling to me to be heard. So, in honour of St. Patrick’s Day, here is an honorary mention of five LPs that echo something that can sometimes seem to me to be more Eriu than Eriu.

1. Ceoltoiri Chulann, “Playboy of the Western World” (Gael Linn, 1963)

Irish folk music is usually heard only as dance music. But in this film soundtrack, Sean O Riada arranged airs to be played by a traditional group with a sense of dynamics akin to a chamber music ensemble. Thought provoking. Haunting. Still impressive. A “one off”, even if a later group (including some of the players on this record) occasionally attempted (I think unsuccessfully) to capture something similar without the actual chief who arranged this record. It is all about the dynamics.

2. Alan Stivell, “Renaissance” (Dreyfus, 1972) / ”Beyond Words” (Dreyfus, 2002).

The first, with Irish airs, is the famous one (of these two instrumental solo albums) but I’ll pick the second one. Stivell, a Breton, maybe overplays the idea of being the high priest/druid of all things Celtic (possibly the result of flirting with rock occasionally), but on “Beyond Words” he gets sonorities on the wire-strung harp that could well be the DNA of everything Eriu-ish. If you ever get bitten by the wire-strung harp bug, other players out there include Rudiger Oppermann (Germany), who is almost as “out there” as Stivell (or perhaps even more so without being Celtic-inspired), and then there’s the strictly trad. heads: Ann Heymann and Patrick Ball (USA) and Siobhan Armstrong and Paul Dooley (Ireland). The late Derek Bell may have been the first in Ireland (in recent times) to look back to “the” truly Irish harp, although Stivell was there before him, thanks to his dad having built him a wire-strung harp in the 1950s. Janet Harbison’s charity album “Prayer” is one where “the (modern) Irish harp” almost sounds like “the” (wire-strung) Irish harp. Hmm….and yet it was hymnal music rather than insane banshee music. How is this possible? Electricity and recording studios can do wonders, as Andreas Vollenweider might say.

3. Moving Hearts, “The Storm” (Tara, 1985).

Asking if this record is truly Irish (folk) music is a bit like asking if Dave Gruisin’s GRP Record Label was truly a jazz label. Maybe not. To me, this seems to be the quintessential Donal Lunny recording, rather than what the recording artists were known for, but it is another “one off” type of record. An independently produced Irish “traditional” record that sounds like the “smoother” end of 1980s jazz fusion. Bizarre, but noteworthy. Not all pop-Irish music of the period was inspired by Clannad’s soundtrack to Robin of Sherwood.

4. John Feeley, “E-Motion” (Black Box, 1997).

In the 1980s, Feeley arranged and recorded Irish traditional airs for classical guitar, often well. This record is eight world premieres of Irish classical guitar compositions and, if I remember right, the Voyage of Maeldun and the Shannon Suite were the standout ones. There’s no Celtic DNA playing on the nervous system on this record, but it is Irish and I have a fondness for classical guitar, which can also serve as the easiest introduction to classical music of every era and style because if you like the sound of a guitar a guitar can still only ever be a guitar.

5. Catriona McKay, “Catriona McKay” (Glimster, 2002).

Ok, so she’s Scottish, not Irish, but there’s Irish tunes here and this, her first, self-produced, recording haunts me just a little, not so much for the harp-fiddle duos (her claim to fame with Chris Stout) or for having the first recording of her most popular tune (The Swan), but because this was the first record I heard that featured a “new” style of doing Irish/Scottish airs that I found ear-catching: using a double-bass for comping and soloing with the traditional performers. It fills the music out well. Recently deceased jazzman Chick Corea once did a duet with bassist Stanley Clarke called “The Hilltop” that inexplicably sounded Irish to me (on a record called “My Spanish Heart”: was it Gayle Moran’s influence?). McKay’s record here is “hilltop” territory, not just because the first tune is called the Hill of Tara and the last is named after an Irish castle that does not exist, except perhaps in some Uladh dreams.

Additional note: having mentioned a few great harpists, I’ll add that Vincenzo Zitello’s album “Metamorphose” is a recent great discovery: an hour of music with the great tone of the old Irish harp. All original music and all good. Not being a creature of i-tunes, it is such a pity to me that it is available only as a digital download.

Reflections On Power

Last month, I was re-listening to an old synthesiser pop suite called “1984” around the same time as I was seeing many references online to both George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, so I decided to re-read those long-forgotten novels, which I temporarily christened (for my own entertainment) “the dirty duo”. Whatever impression I had of them in the past did not return. Instead, I was struck by how both authors seemed preoccupied with reflecting on the nature of power. Then, afterwards, I noticed a mention (yes, on Wikipedia) that both men corresponded briefly on the same theme as part of a mutual reflection upon the idea that societies are effectively always organised, one way or another. “Curious” behaviour indeed…and it’s the premise for this month’s improvised blog.

I had quite forgotten that the “1984” novel ends with a long torture scene of someone with the typical English name of “Smith” by someone with the typical Irish name of “O’Brien” (was that a “doublespeak” reversal?), which is justified in the novel according to an expressed idea: power means an ability to inflict pain and suffering on another through a process of mentally dominating them. “Break them to make them” is an old army saying and it is a very definition of queer. Huxley’s novel ends with (a perhaps unintended) stripping of a person’s dignity, through the deprivation of privacy, and a resulting suicide. In short, both novels were horrible stuff.

Orwell’s preoccupation with the theme of power evidently stemmed from his background as an imperialist. By contrast, Huxley, whose family had known Charles Darwin, entertained the idea of picking orders in the animal kingdom being ascribed to people, who were programmed to be “alphas” down to “deltas”, but he did not entertain the folly of ascribing that idea of the purely physical to mentalities or, at least, if he did, it was not very much. This, after all, was the same author who later compiled his “Perennial Philosophy”.

And then…to top it all off…what happened next but that I tuned into an online conference, chaired by Michael D. Higgins (President of Ireland) in which (to my surprise) he decided to draw on Edward Said’s ideas on imperialism & culture in an intentionally provocative and interesting speech. Said, to my mind, had an interesting idea that he effectively ruined through overstating his case. But here, in an online lecture, were more references to that idea in Orwell’s novel: the exercise of power through an intention to humiliate. Should one be shocked by the idea? Is it acceptable to more people than one might imagine, not because it is “true” but because this is a way that societies have been purposively “organised” in the past? And are they still, unbeknownst to whom?

Such questions reminded me of two thoughts that I entertained early in my undergraduate days, in a long-forgotten youth, one being worthy of a mystic and the other being perhaps worthy of an Uncle Sam cartoon.

The first happened this way: desperately looking for an additional source to use for a medieval history essay on “is there such thing as a just war?” (we were supposed to have at least five sources and I think I only had four) I saw a copy of Huxley’s “Ends & Means” lying about at home and I noticed a sentence in which he claimed that the only two peoples in the history of the world that did not seem to have wars were Eskimos and Buddhists. I quoted that in my essay (proof of a “fifth source”) and the old Welsh gent who corrected my essay inserted the comment in the margins: “yes, but they also had wars”. Instead of making me reflect on my ignorance of Chinese history that comment made me think more of Huxley’s Californian sojourn as a sort of prelude to “hippie escapism”. Is that really past? Look around, be it in advertising or storytelling, and you will see many images denoting the idea of a place of sanctuary. But where does it exist if it does exist? Perhaps not amongst Eskimos (there goes that holiday intention). Not either in the (not) yoga holiday in “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring” or in the Christian chapel in “Andrei Rublev”, to cite two cinematic images that suddenly sprung to my mind. Is music (art) really “the” only real sanctuary?

The second thought entertained as an undergraduate about the way societies have been purposively organised (be that only in the past or else…) stemmed from reading some material about the United States and, in particular, a suggestion (by a perhaps not very authoritative American) on just “why” Americans do not necessarily pay attention to what is going on other parts of the world. The answer given was this: there is nothing worthy to emulate in the way societies have been purposively organised elsewhere, in the past or in the present, so why pay any attention to them: just trust in old Uncle Sam instead. Is that a purposeful American expression of belief in the need for a perennially “new world”, more given to futurology than history as a mode of thought as a means of “cleansing the world of ancient evils”? The interesting thing about that idea to me is not whether or not it is “true” in any sense. It is simply the fact that the idea seems (or seemed) to exist, not as a liberal mindset per se but as a set moral resolution. The conclusion one might draw from that premise, which I’ll make the conclusion of this pointless blog, is not the need for (alternative) reflections on the nature of power in society but that one must simply be on guard against the potential causes of abusive behaviour or personalities of any kind. Why? Because there is much in history, perhaps in the case of that of every society, that is little more than a tale, or cycle, of shame.

La gauche, la droite et l’ennui

The current strange times may prompt re-evaluations of one’s priorities or perhaps even encourage one to see one’s past life, or attitudes, in a different light. Receiving a biography of Eric Rohmer (1920-2010) for Christmas reminded me of my long-forgotten, twenty-something, self, when I had an actual enthusiasm for some of his films, such as “A Summer’s Tale” or “My Night at Maud’s”. I mentioned him in passing in the first blog on this site and I have discovered now that the details of his career are rather different than I had thought. For instance, he never formally studied history. Also, contrary to what I had heard, a late film of his was not criticised for being anti-republican (except by one socialist journal). Instead, its highly publicised launch was actually made the occasion for Rohmer to receive a state-honour for his life’s work (he had been a reserve soldier in World War Two and had done some documentary work for the French education department in the 1960s but otherwise he kept his distance from “official” France). So much for biographical details. I’m making the biography the subject of a blog now partly as a diversion from my current research and writing, and partly because reading it has prompted me to reflect “just a little” on debates that I have essentially always dismissed; namely, those who always attribute ideological significance to all forms of writing or storytelling.

Rohmer’s cinema was essentially innocuous. As per this book, however, his cinema found its audience for essentially political reasons. In the wake of the May 1968 student upheavals, people suddenly grew bored with talk of “left” and “right”, or “communism” and “anti-communism”, and an audience emerged, when there was literally none before, for Rohmer’s talkative films in which introspective characters dissect their own emotions on screen about “relationships”, “fate” and even “morality”. To my surprise, Rohmer’s relative disinterest in contemporary politics, beyond issues such as architectural planning and the environment, had led critics to deem him to be of “the right”, or even “the far-right”, in the pre-1968 days. This was because, in one critic’s words: “Rohmer raises human problems in moral terms: that is the contrary of a left-wing attitude…In his little world, moral behaviour can seem to be determined solely by a character’s will: this is a deracinated, idealist and thus finally reactionary view.” (p.256).

I think I have a something of a individualist temperament, a bit like an old 19th century “romantic”. I have never considered that a reason to consider myself as “bourgeois”. In old French critical writing, however, to be an individualist was supposedly inherently “reactionary” and even offensive in its absence of a publicly-orientated morality. This attitude was evidently a “left-wing conformism” of the day, even if an infamous Italian novel of the era (by a self-professed “left-wing author”) implied, notwithstanding the final twist in its tale, that only “the right” were capable of being “conformist”. To some extent, I think I am inclined to see all political people as inherently “conformist”. Why? Essentially, because they make the thought, or values, of others their own mental reference points. Consider this too: up until at least 1968, left and right wing journals in Europe evidently served as their own “echo-chambers”, each with their own “subscribers” who felt connected with a particular idea of society through this paper-edition of what is now known as “social media”. If it was a “bourgeois” attitude to consider this trend to have been all a great folly, how does that compare to criticisms of social media today?

Returning to Rohmer, however, some evidently always criticised his work for invariably including young, pretty and white “bourgeois” figures who, in ignoring politics, were supposedly interested only in banalities. These people, in refusing to embrace “the left” or the “the right”, had evidently succumbed to some form of “boredom”. Conversely, does that mean that those who embraced commitments to “the left” or “the right” did so precisely in order to avoid “boredom”, countering indifference with commitments? Rohmer himself rarely referred to politics, but he is quoted at one stage in the biography as saying this: “I wasn’t hostile to May ’68, but whereas the people who participated in it saw it as a beginning, I saw it rather as an end. May ’68 was the first stone thrown into the pond of Marxism. The ideological collapse of Marxism began in ’68 because I believe that May ’68, paradoxically, cured many people, including perhaps me [a former Sartre fan], of communism and anticommunism. I think that the kind of Marxist fever that took place after May ’68 carried within it its condemnation and its end: it was a last flare-up. That’s how I saw May ’68 and that is why, personally, I remained absolutely indifferent, serene, with regard to what might happen. I continued with my work (p.210)”

As per his biographers, Rohmer’s private life and that of his wife and children were too mundane to be of any interest. Instead, the key detail of the life of this unsuccessful fiction-writer turned film critic and then successful filmmaker was that Eric Rohmer (real name: Maurice Scherer) was “intended” to be an academic but he always failed to gain admittance into academia because he was poor at oral interviews. In short, his manner was deemed too shy and hesitant to command authority as a fellow persuader. The diffident shall not be seen or heard…

Despite the best efforts of the authors (who, as critics, were perhaps more interested in Rohmer’s 1950s career as a film critic than his later work as a film-maker), it seems to me that his work occupied a type of middle ground that made it relatively immune to critical analysis. That may have been both its appeal and its merit. It focused on individuals rather than ideas. Furthermore, any disinclination to define one’s thought with reference to the ideas of others tends to be the very antithesis of academic writing, the motto of which could be said to be “never think alone” (as if to think alone would be inherently dumb, rather than the opposite). Therefore, it is hard to think of either Rohmer or his work in any sort of academic terms.

The unexpected political context to the biography (the first to be based on Rohmer’s private archive) is, appropriately, not its primary thrust. On the whole, it is a overly verbose and typically French read. Translated from the French, the authors’ use of language seems to have sought a precision, or refinement, in the description of sentiments, rather than rational thoughts, rather like the characters in Rohmer’s own films. That may be a quintessentially French literary trait and Rohmer was a man who evidently always loved literature (he had also taught classical and French literature in schools), so much so that a frequent criticism of his films was that people spoke more like they did in a literary novel than in “real” life.

Details revealed in the biography show that, in their initial cinematic reception in both France and abroad, practically speaking, he had a handful of “hits” and then many films that very few went to see. For example, his two late historical films, The Lady and The Duke (2000) and Triple Agent (2003), apparently had an audience of something like one million and ten thousand respectively. The first, uniquely for him, featured CGI (to depict the French Revolution); the second was filmed in his conventional style or, rather, one that was established in his successful late 1960s films and frequently repeated thereafter. In short, the film focused on daily scenes, separately by still-frames of calendar dates, in which characters do little except talk, while the film’s conclusion is as inconclusive as the blank diary-dates in which its events supposedly took place.

For me, the exceptional appeal of films that took such an inherently dull form was that it had the capacity to make life seem to be exceptionally vivid no matter how mundane. This was evidently intentional. Rohmer believed that the camera’s documentary-like ability to capture a scene exactly as it was enabled it to become the perfect contemporary instrument for the creation, or perhaps even the revival, of a “classical” sense of realism through the following method: every scene he shot took place in natural surroundings, be it in town or in country, and the actors were mostly young, unself-conscious, amateurs who were asked to be themselves as they were filmed amongst an actual general public. The actual and fictional was thus blended into one. Rohmer also believed that a story could be told as effectively in a film as in a novel if this purely observational, documentary-like, tone was maintained. That was the Rohmer “school”, although he had relatively few followers. His biggest fan amongst his “new wave” colleagues was evidently Francois Truffaut, who financed a few of his films (most notably his initial success Maud) and, surprisingly, Truffaut got a mention on the RTE homepage recently.

Bizarrely, when Rohmer died in 2010, his relatives and his professional associates met awkwardly for the first time for the funeral of a man that they had only known under a completely different name. His parents (who wanted him to be a university-man) loathed the bohemian world of cinema, so he had kept his growing involvement a secret. To his parents, as well as his wife and children (who knew of, but knew nothing about, his professional life as a filmmaker), he was Maurice Scherer, a very private and reserved teacher of French and classics, amateur historian and later (albeit not after until his parents died) a part-time, guest college lecturer on film. However, to the public and the world of film he was Eric Rohmer, a reclusive figure who directed not only of a particular style of films but also a troop of amateur-turned-professional actors that could be counted on to turn up in each of his films, if in few others. In effect, he ran a very successful cottage industry. But did he succeed in creating a new vision of art? Was Rohmer’s fictional world, which generally consisted exclusively of “nice people” expressing refined thoughts, too contrived to be natural or not?

Although Rohmer used his own scripts (many of his early films were based loosely on unpublished fiction he had written over twenty years previously), to give his work a natural tone he relied heavily on his own actors for their input. To his great dismay while he was dying, one of those actors attempted in court to claim the royalties for one of his films as a co-author (a claim that was only dismissed after he died). This sad affair was, in the words of one of his actors, ridiculous, because “when you worked with him, you knew his method, you knew exactly how he took his inspiration from the life of his actors and actresses. We have gave him stories, expressions, anecdotes, part of our lives. He transformed them into a story, dialogues and a film” (p.546), documenting social life in a non-committal and non-judgmental way. From about 1982 onwards, very many of his films not only involved a central female character but, this book reveals, actually ended up being done on the suggestion of his actresses, whom he had either recruited or, often, had actually initially approached him, as a fan, making suggestions or even demands (including she who later attempted to claim authorship of one of his films). This trend grew so much that, in his later years, his production crew consisted almost entirely of women, although feminist film critics evidently never admired either their or Rohmer’s own chaste (possibly even slightly “Catholic”) vision of cinema. Although he was ill and virtually handicapped for much of the 2000s, Rohmer still went to his office everyday (carried by the arm by his long-time female secretary) and was apparently working right up until he died. One of his old actors, Arielle Dombasle (who had made her film debut in Rohmer’s unusual vision of Perceval in 1978), had persuaded him to do a film about a (relatively) young pop-singer (herself) who was “eccentric, weird and Catholic and who…makes friends with an astrologer” (p.547). Riveting stuff. It was perhaps fortunate that he never got around to doing that one.

On a personal level, I suspect that what gave Rohmer’s work an appeal to my younger self was the extent to which it allowed society and people in general to seem “nicer” than they actually are: in other words, a slightly “rose-tinted glasses” view of life that could serve as a counterbalance to the petty “one-up-man-ship” or even cruelty one might well witness in others during one’s actual life, including in “relationships”. Rohmer’s characters, even if they could be self-absorbed, were never so self-seeking, deceptive or vindictive and I think I identified with that “vibe”. However, perhaps that is also why he got labelled as a “bourgeois” storyteller? There was a gentility and yet a naturalness to his work that may not have been seen before and that may not be seen again. Part of me, at least, still tips my hat, in respect, to Eric Rohmer, “le grand momo” (“the great irritant”: his nickname amongst his professional contemporaries), who somehow managed to keep working and producing films of a high quality for six decades despite the fact that the rest of the world was reportedly always looking in the opposite direction.

As a conclusion, I’ll note that this biography surprised me by revealing that Rohmer, at least as a youth, had some elitist ideas about the superiority of “western civilisation”. However, I find it hard to agree with the notion that he was of “the right”, even if he was self-evidently not of “the left”. As a documentarian of everyday “boredoms”, however, he perhaps managed to occupy a unique position, where the worlds of the documentary, literary fiction and the soap opera somehow blended entirely into one. There is no “middle” within that trinity. The deceptive simplicity of his style sought to be of such self-evident worth in an entirely “contemporary” (i.e. of the current day) fashion. That may have made his work refreshing or, at least potentially (I have not watched his films for years), perpetually “fresh”, no matter how mundane their subject matter. I have heard it said that it is “human nature” for people to mentally dramatise one’s own life in order to create motivations for one’s present or future actions, be they actual or only potential, so as to feel “alive” or to be in tune with one’s passions. A cinematic documentary of our everyday lives may show up, as in the scenes and dialogues of one of Rohmer’s stories, the difference between our actual appearance and actions and the nature of those very thoughts that, in our self-understandings at least, are the principal animators of our lives. We may mentally cherish things, people or ideas not for what they are, but only for what they may seem to represent in our internalised vision of the life that we lead. We may, in fact, be engaged in an endless struggle against…”boredom”!

Who Is On The Level?

Just before Christmas, some Irish writers on the RTE home page were suggesting historic parallels between ongoing UK-EU negotiations and circumstances during the 1960s. Surprisingly, it was not mentioned that the central issue at that time was that the reason why the French said “non” to the UK application was the latter’s effort to attain the privileges of EEC membership not just for itself but for the entire British Commonwealth. If Britain had access to the European Common Market and, at the same time, could potentially utilise the British Commonwealth’s “common market” to compete with the European, it was feared that this could lead to the break up of the EEC from within through Britain having a means to set both its internal and external trading priorities simultaneously. As per the French view, this was not a “level playing field”.

The recent UK-EU agreement is certainly big news and perhaps a historic moment. Media coverage implied that its negotiation was, literally speaking, a “fishy” affair, although surely the key concept raised in the publicly-mentioned negotiations was the “level playing field” idea? The reasoning behind the EU allowing the UK only a conditional access to the European common market may not be entirely dissimilar to the 1960s situation, no matter how much “times have changed”. Behind the UK-French spat of the 1960s also lay the United States, which was favourable to UK membership partly because the UK, then as now, was evidently more enthusiastic about NATO than France. The “great reset”, advertised on the World Economic Forum web page, that awaits may have a lot more to do with the future financing of NATO than anything that directly relates to ordinary peoples’ lives. Co-sponsored by the UK (which is due to chair several global financial bodies next year), it is an initiative to bring about changes in the global economy and, in particular, improve the coordination of international bodies in response to issues such as pandemics by reforming the World Bank. The politics of this is rather mind-boggling, because it is a purely “high finance matter”, and this can explain why conspiracy theorists have enthusiastically latched onto the “great reset” idea: its consequences will be hard to guess and impossible for all but some bank and finance officials to follow. Therefore, one can make whatever claim one likes regarding it and no-one is likely to contradict you. A field day for polemicists.

Do writers, including me, need word play to keep life interesting? The rhetoric of “level playing fields” created a literal association for me: “who will be on the level?” Or “who is on the level?” Silly as it may sound, it would not surprise me if new media euphemisms about “spirit-levels” shall be in vogue in the next year or two in a comparable fashion to how euphemisms about “populists” were a couple of years ago. That actually reminds me of a thought I had contemplated “blogging about” before. “Demagogues” were often criticised in the past for being anarchical in claiming to represent masses’ interests against elites in a purposively vague, polemical and provocative way (populism). Perhaps the most famous example of that in Irish history was actually Daniel O’Connell. And what happened? People ended up erecting an imposing statue to him and renaming a capital’s main street after him. If you want to make something popular, criticising it for not meriting its popularity is perhaps the surest way of achieving that goal. So why on earth did “the establishment” criticise “the populists”? Go figure. And then…once that goal is achieved the rhetorical device can cease because it has served its purpose. Is that a repeating media pattern in modern life to the extent that is actually quite “normal”? Perhaps…but, being a historian, I am inclined to think that it is not an entirely “new” phenomenon. Seasons pass but the wheel of life keeps turning and every new generation will include its own rhetoricians and writers, including historians, who are like spokes in a wheel or, at least, so it seems to me. Meanwhile, my own personal “great reset” for the new year is simply the nuisance of having to buy a new computer and all the operational changes that requires.

The Unanswered Question

The Unanswered Question” may be Charles Ives’ “one-hit-wonder”. Reputedly, its contents and title were meant to convey a specific idea: raising the question of where divinity exists in life is simply the wrong question to ask.

If “History” is full of unanswered questions, or riddles, how far is this because we are “asking the wrong questions”? If I had to pick an “unanswered question” in history, I think I would pick this one: “when is an empire not an empire?” There is a supposed answer to that riddle: “when it’s an anti-imperialist empire”. Within that paradox can be fitted many a historiographical debate, which may imply that empires are a perpetual feature of “history”: the old “rise and fall” paradigm sets the tone, far and wide or within and without.

I think I can recall writing in my first book on the IRB that a debate, or rather a political rhetoric, about imperialism did not really emerge in Ireland until after the First World War. Later, I came to regard that as a mistaken idea. However, there are nearly always two sides to the coin whenever one looks at “the imperial question”.

It is a peculiar dynamic in history: anti-imperialist rhetoric is frequently born within an imperial power itself because the greatest impact of imperialism is naturally felt within “the empire” itself. The small states that borrow the rhetoric do not necessarily have the same meaningful experience or purpose as those who pioneered the same rhetoric. And, of course, empires compete with each other.

Empire’s Twin“, an American collection of historical essays on anti-imperialism, reflects an interesting trait of the Republican tradition in America. Abroad, it is often labelled as “isolationist”. In America itself, it is often seen as “anti-imperialist”, although the meaning of that term is rather like a former rhetoric within Britain: too much focus on power abroad leads to insufficient attention to how this was impacting, potentially very negatively, on the homeland by valuing the periphery at the expense of the core, leading potentially to the collapse of that core. It is like a “damage control perspective”. Hence, it is an irony that anti-imperialism is frequently conservative and imperialism liberal in perspective, yet people’s hearts and minds can be made to feel that the exact opposite is true (e.g. ‘liberal’ Gladstone made the British Empire more than ‘conservative’ Disraeli and yet that is not how they were usually perceived by the general public).

In America, Dwight Eisenhower types can be critical and supportive of a “military-industrial complex” at the same time in their efforts to “make America great again, in its good life” at home, and that can have a knock-on affect abroad. For instance, the American stance of “you pay the bills, not just us, for NATO” may have led to shifts in US-UK-EU relations over the past five years, which may or may not realign themselves now (for an interesting Irish perspective on that contemporary debate look here) but, being a historian, the contemporary is far less interesting than the possibility of perceiving patterns in history.

If too much attention abroad can lead to deterioration in circumstances at home by simply having one’s priorities wrong, the reasoning of the same state(s)’ counter-stance is equally clear: “if one steps back, someone else unwelcome may step in to take one’s place”. And thus “empires” shall perpetuate themselves, unable to revert into their supposedly “pure” republican form any more than they can turn back the waves. Yep: empires may be a riddle of history; even Irish history. For instance, if one goes back to the “Tom Clarke days”, theoretically one could suggest that an Irish anti-imperialism was, in itself, a reaction to an Irish imperialism: why should Irish talent serve Britain abroad when such talent could better become a bedrock for an Irish nationalism at home = Sinn Féin Amháin. There’s an idea that isn’t heard much anymore, and quite probably for good reason.

And why concern oneself with an “unanswered question” anyway, especially if it is unanswerable? One does try, just as one does feel a reason to contemplate making an effort to raise one’s spirits at this time of the year. So, being attuned to American tunes at this moment, perhaps I shouldn’t spend my Christmas thinking like Mr. Ives but think of merry little ditties like this old (Irish?-)American curiosity instead. Now: does the world seem like a more cheerful place? Perhaps. But, next year, many different historical conundrums will probably surface and preoccupy once more, as sure as day follows night. But let us not overindulge in history.

Online Times

Big stories in the media – inconclusive European negotiations, American elections and, most of all, a virus that will not just “go away” – may all indicate times of uncertainty and change, although smaller stories of the time may impact on us far more directly.

If you are like me, you probably never heard of video conferencing software like “Zoom” before about six months ago but I will probably have to become more accustomed to such media soon because it has become an important forum, be it in the workplace or in the world of scholarship.

The push to create more open-access material may be associated with making the world of scholarship public rather than private. A good piece of recent news on that front is the decision to make the Dictionary of Irish Biography publication open-access from next spring.

Turning from publications to presentations, if college lecturers must currently speak online this may encourage not only shifts in style but also more public presentations that utilise the same format. Perhaps this may also encourage more cooperative ventures? In Ireland, Cork often seems to produce novel initiatives of this kind. It was fascinating recently to be able to hear a lecture by the Defence Forces chief of staff online for free, thanks to University College Cork. By contrast, other events, like the politician-friendly MacGill Summer School, may also have gone online but they still require registration fees. “Pay to hear me talk” does not seem like a friendly idea.

The psychologically attuned often speak of “growth” and “fixed” mindsets, equated with positivity and negativity respectively, with the former being characterised by a perpetual openness to learn and perseverance in new challenges and the latter being associated with a belief that our aptitudes and abilities are set in stone so there is no sense in welcoming being thrown off balance by having to operate outside our comfort zones. To be perfectly honest, I am not sure to what extent I fit into either category. I am probably more “fixed” than I realise. Spending time online may create an illusion of public engagement, although actual engagements online may enhance the degree to which we are attuned to public communication. If our comfort zone exists primarily when we can hang up a “do not disturb” sign, perhaps our comfort zones need to change?