Category Archives: Musings

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?

“Direct” Democracy

I remember owning an undergraduate textbook called Models of Democracy. Today, you can read a comparable text (irrespective of whether you consider it authoritative or not) by simply typing the word ‘democracy’ into Wikipedia. Having done so recently, I was reminded momentarily of various theories to which I have not given much thought for quite a long time.

The inkling that led me to do so was witnessing a couple of surprising You Tube videos. One did not surprise me because of its contents but because of its participant: although 92 years old, Noam Chomsky is still “on the go” as a supremely articulate, if unconvincing, commentator.

He was suggesting that experiments in “direct” democracy in the 1960s did have an affect on the grounds that, superficial appearances aside, the nature of society “then” would actually be pretty unrecognisable “now” and things have actually “got better”. The other surprising You Tube video was seeing, for the first time, an interview with Aldous Huxley (d.1963), who is one of those many authors who seemed interesting to me when I was in my early twenties, if only because I do not think that I was exposed to similar lines of thought before reading authors like him at that time.

Sixty years apart as the interviews were, it struck me that here were two intellectuals who were seemingly very interested in the idea of “direct” democracy. When I say direct I am not thinking in terms of all ordinary citizens being able to legislate whatever they want. I am thinking in terms of people wishing to see their internal beliefs reflected externally in the laws of a state and, in particular, their sense of discomfort if such a develop was unlikely to happen. Is this a realistic expectation for an individual to have? And why should people have such a wish or expectation in the first place?

Studying and thinking about international relations in recent times had me surmising to myself that it is not a “hearts and minds” subject: it exists instead in the impersonal realm of statecraft. Is that a fair judgment? For people who get excited over the subject, it probably seems not. But it seems to me that it is. Whither democracy?

For a lot of people who wish to see their internal beliefs reflected externally in the laws of a state, to suggest that the freedom to be non-political is a fundamental human liberty rather than a reactionary stance is unacceptable. Some would even suggest that such an idea is “uneducated”. What, therefore, happened to the debate on the dangers of totalitarianism and the many different forms in which it can exist, invariably with the same root: allegiance to some kind of ideology? Is it simply “gone” in favour of a media spin that professes to sees direct democracy everywhere and within nothing in particular? Sometimes it seems to me that it is so.

If anarchists once equated liberty with a world without states then, contrary to G.K. Chesterton’s century old claim that the Archbishop of Canterbury, or his alter ego in Rome, may perhaps be considered the greatest anarchist of all, perhaps the global corporations of today, in overreaching individual states, have bypassed the danger of the totalitarianism of the state by creating a new hegemony of independent businesses and bankers. Lionel Curtis dreamt of the British Commonwealth becoming a “world government”. America said no to the offer of joining. But it took up the idea of conceiving of a world order. And therein lay the initiative of a World Bank, potentially with rotating chairpersons from different parts of the world although a quick glance at Wikipedia can remind one, if one needs reminding, that they have been predominantly American. Contemporary critics of globalisation have not rejected its premise or its offshoots, such as the United Nations. If it ceased to be, how different a time or place the present might seem. Would artistic media go back to propagating an introspective and individualist imagination like what was seen in Albert Camus’ Rebel or the melodramatic film of competing ideologies Le Combat Dans L’ile? Perhaps.

Maybe Noam Chomsky is right: the world has changed for the better since 1963, albeit not necessarily for the reasons that he purports to believe. Huxley may have felt ambivalent about “brave new worlds” but in his old age he would seem to have come to accept that existing in a society of consumer fodder is preferable to existing in a society of cannon fodder. From there has history been writ anew? If the sadism of the lord of the manor or his soldier victim no longer controls the pen, a military-industrial complex yet remains and is reputedly supreme. May it end up being tempered not by the directness of a vote but by a potentially egalitarian tool like a satellite? Kennedy said so before he was shot in 1963 on the same day that Huxley died. Some people used to pray to a Good Lord because they knew there was no such thing as a good lord on earth nor could there ever be. But if the future of politics lies in the future of satellites, maybe the earth will, in the future, start to reflect the heavens after all? Is there democracy in space? Say no more….

And what if historical conferences in the future no longer involve just historians? Bring the futurologists in too. What will be the result of the debates? A few less Star Wars fans? Or else, perhaps, just another incidental blog in a perennial present. Is that direct enough for you? As a part-time historian, it is usually good enough for me. But one can, of course, go deeper.

If one returns to the idea of “whither democracy in international relations?”, a substitute for that idea (which can explain the equal interest of old academics like Chomsky or non-academics like Huxley) using the same archaic language is “whither humanity (in international relations)?”. There is a subject and a half. If one can conceivable say “direct democracy is impractical” who can say “direct humanity is impractical” and get away with it? Henry Kissinger perhaps…but, seriously speaking, how does one actually define “humanity”?

You see, in “international relations speak”, the parlance of “human rights” is about as nebulous as that of “democracy” yet it is, if anything, a much more deeply philosophical concept. One might expect historians to have much to say about it, therefore, but do historians actually have much to say about the concept? Irish political figures, from the days of DeValera to the present, have often assumed the posture that Ireland is “all for human rights”, but I’m not conscious of many Irish authors, including historians, making an impact in such debates. Or rather, if there are Irish individuals (think Mary Robinson perhaps), they are figures that have left academia, as well as politics, and exist in a rather different orbit from any identifiable sphere within Ireland itself, including its historical debates.

So…whither “Irish think tanks” on the subject (and when will I stop using that archaic word “whither”)? Abroad, there are certainly authors who have spent a lot of time attempting to philosophise about history, seeking an answer to the question of where human rights fits into international relations, if indeed it does. Witnessing a sort of trans-Atlantic, US-EU, debate in recent times online has alerted me to the existence of Samuel Moyn, a historian who has certainly had a lot to say about the subject matter and who previously held a position called “James Bryce Professor of European Legal History” at a leading American university.

Bryce, a native of Belfast who gets a mention or two in the first two chapters of my latest book, could be called an Irishman, but as he was a British diplomat (with a slightly guilty conscience about Ireland, or at least so he hinted in an article he wrote very shortly before he died in 1922) that was certainly not his claim to fame. To a significant extent, it was not even his diplomatic skills that made him famous. Rather, he was a writer who, adopting the intellectual framework of someone who was supposedly deeply interested in human rights, turned heads with his ideas about subjects such as the American constitution and the possibility of forming a League of Nations in Geneva. He was an “ideas man” and people who thought about subjects like “direct democracy” or “human rights” in his day often paid attention to what he said. Did his public profile or his intellect allow him to assume such a standing? Probably both, although if he did not put in the intellectual effort, to be sure, there would not be Professors of European Legal History in the United States today named after him.

How many Irish people can assume the standing of a James Bryce today? Or perhaps more to the point: how many Irish people would even “want” to assume the standing of a James Bryce today, if they could? Don’t ask me, because I don’t know. But I suspect: “not a lot”. But the absence of the same is perhaps telling. Fitting Irish history into international history was the theme of my last book. Let us presume that it could so fit. Then what? Can readings of both Irish and international history start to breathe anew, and in fresh directions, through such a marriage? No more or less than in the case of many other countries’ history, I suspect, but as the old expression goes “don’t hold your breath”. At least, however, it might give me something to think about, when doing an envisioned “Ireland in Europe” study at a future date. If peace in Europe is often seen as a philosophical as much as a legal concept, how much is the same true in Ireland? How many Irish ideas are first or second hand? I don’t know. But perhaps the more Irish historical authors read historical authors like Moyn, the clearer our sense of comparative perspective might become and, with that, what is truly original can be better seen for what it is. And as for “the rest”: I guess it can remain in the public house. Cheers.


While I was improvising last month’s blog, I was introduced to an autobiography by Benedict Anderson, the first chapter of which (available to see on Google Books) is interesting from an Irish perspective (why he chose to be an Irish citizen) and the remainder, which I discovered after picking up the book from an Irish seller, is mostly about Indonesia and academic politics. Anderson’s response to the question “why an autobiography?” was simple. He was asked to do it. His book, first published in Japanese, was written on request so that Asians could have a sense where western academics were “coming from”.

Literary theorists have probably spent more time theorising answers to the question “why are there autobiographies?” than the likes of me, even if they have not necessarily spent any more time thinking about the nature of writing. Historians spend time interrogating literary “sources”. They offer interpretations about others, but can they offer an “interpretation of themselves”? Can autobiographies by scholars be worthwhile, and what actually constitutes an autobiography? Can creators of popular Twitter or Youtube accounts possibly be conceived as engaging in an act of autobiography? Where does the divide between the creator and creation lie?

I had almost forgotten that I own another autobiography by a historian: Eric Hobsbawm’s “Interesting Times”, which I picked up less from interest in Hobsbawm than the fact that these days charity shops in Ireland sell off what were once expensive items to collect – books, records, videos – for next to nothing. “No risk purchases”. Although I am not an admirer of either’s writings, an impressive aspect of both Hobsbawm and Anderson’s erudition was their knowledge of different languages was such that they could have been diplomats. What might an autobiography by a historian teach you? Hobsbawm and Anderson liked to think of themselves as internationalists (they certain had “international” backgrounds), although one might be inclined to think of them as simply British and American respectively. From Hobsbawm’s autobiography one can see that he was a politically active and committed British labour activist who saw political ideology as an essential lens on life (no surprises there) but one can also find surprising, if inconsequential, details such as that he used to hang around New York blues and folk clubs with people like John Hammond (the man who “discovered” Bob Dylan). And he also deemed the fact that he never wore blue jeans to be a historically significant action on his own part. Oh well.

If correspondence is raw material to historians, who bothers to keep it? A close relative donated to an archive a few suitcases of Dublin theatre and concert programmes, dating from the 1950s to the 1980s. She had once corresponded with critics but the thought of keeping that material seemed absurd and so it was not. I recall some of the first historical memoirs that I read were, at the time of their initial publication, political memoirs and the authors evidently kept their lifelong correspondence purely for that motive. It can be that an individual who was neither published as an author nor someone who kept his private correspondence for posterity becomes, as far as historians are concerned, someone who practically never existed because the sources are missing. Now you know why politicians write memoirs/books or why the Americans started naming libraries after their successive presidents. And if your postman donates all his private letters to an archive and you do not, historians will, in the future, be writing about him and not you. But who writes the history of these people? As per the “interesting times” autobiography of Eric Hobsbawm, people like this are immortalised in history by the enforced working-class status symbol of wearing a peaked cap. I guess some people have turned dress into an ideology too, but I doubt any such perspective assists in telling the story of people whom neither published nor kept private papers.

If historians interrogate sources to get an idea of “where someone is coming from”, do others? If traditional journalists are often critical of social media as a supposed unreliable source of information and vice versa (“fake news”), if one looks up the backgrounds of the authors of some of these “polemics” online they are often affiliated with think-tanks that operate with governments. I recall hearing politically important Irish figures praising a Dublin-born historian as if he was “one of their own”, by virtue of his place of birth and his willingness to speak at Irish events, but I do not think those same Irish figures were even aware that he was also a member of the Henry Jackson Society, the priorities of which are not necessarily similar to the author’s “fans”. Of course, there is also a danger of labeling or classifying individuals as being of a particular mindset that is neither fair nor accurate. If “life is a broad church” it is generally because people tend to be catholic in their interests and are not all of the one cloth. Who is? Although it does seem clear that ideologies can often come into play whenever authors on societal trends, contemporary or historical, either exercise their tongue or their pen. For many participants, that is evidently “the whole point” or the motive or the “fun”.

And where do I, or any of “us”, fit into “all this?” The expression “god knows” may seem a cop-out but it may also seems appropriate. My self-interrogations usually revolve around a purely personal perspective on personal efficiency. “When my intellect is active, my body is tired. When my body is energetic, my mind is gone (or I am like “a big hot-water bottle without thought”). That says nothing about me, I guess, other than the existence of some kind of sensitive temperament that, to me, is disappointingly inefficient, like “a cross to bear”. If I were an ideologue with a taste for social networking, would I have a drive in life that is more efficient? Is narrowing one’s vision to a self-serving or self-justifying ambition akin to a dumb or restricting materialism?

In my usual impressionable way, I was pondering along such “not entirely logical” lines recently before I suddenly discovered a couple of unknown sources on a theme I was writing about – American-Irish relations – that opened my eyes to a different, or more “personal”, way at looking at the same “impersonal” subject. I don’t believe it will affect my judgement; it may (at best) feed, slightly, into my perspective as but one small of very many myriad factors. But anyway, “here goes”: in private, some Irish nationalists who met American government officials a century ago deemed the latter to be incapable of seeing any value in life beyond a man’s level of personal wealth. In private, some of these same American government officials deemed the same Irish nationalists to be strangely inefficient creatures that were evidently burdened by some vague mysticism and poverty that made their reasoning obscure, inconsequential or irrelevant. There’s an interesting little snapshot of a moment in time that could be said to mean something or nothing at all. Let us take the premise that it means nothing at all. What conclusion could one draw? People met and were instinctively or purposely imagining the biography of someone they could hardly be said to have known. A social interrogation became a moment of biography. But did it become a moment of autobiography or self-interrogation? Evidently it did not. And with that thought I’ll sign off from this blog, still unsure if there is any real consequence to the introspective act of autobiographies. If autobiographies of entertainers can be entertaining in their perspective, the autobiographies of historians are unlikely to attract a wide readership for understandable reasons. And yet it is surprising sometimes how many writers end up writing one or more autobiographies. Is it a vanity or a confessional exercise? Perhaps neither. It is just another excuse to write? And there may be an answer in terms of the question “why are there historians?” Some love to write. Some love to teach. Some love both. But perhaps not all are cut out for both. The didactic can be pedantic.

What is a National-(g)ist?

When I was a student, people often implicitly treated war as a result of an excess of nationalism. Putting two and two together, people sometimes made associations between themes like Baden Powell’s formation of boy scouts and a later military carnage, as if war begins in an individual soldier’s psyche. In examinations of the causes of the First World War, the rivalry between states to either attain or maintain pole position in the world of commerce is rarely mentioned because that is a competition that happens “all the time”. But realistically speaking: how else can be a war be either started or funded? An economy has to be prepared and mobilised for that purpose or goal. Wars do not happen by accident. They are “declared” by states but, even so, they need to have a military-industrial complex behind them. It is not just a mental choice. To this day, it is said, NATO is still first and foremost a nuclear alliance, but how many consider how that affects the performance or the stance of the states that we inhabit from day to day? Hmm…

I remember a few years ago experiencing the usual confusion that I experience whenever a presidential election is being held on the other side of the world and I hear locals speaking as if it were a matter that concerns them. The same underlying assumption is evident in conversations as it was when I was a child: if a Ronald Reagan type is elected, the world is heading for a “Dr. Strangelove” scenario or catastrophe because those American-style patriots naively do not understand like we do how dangerous nationalisms are. If Karl Marx professed to have seen Britain as the best hope for a particular type of revolution, he also tended to see nationalisms in all other countries as a problem. Many still abide by that thought and students used to (and perhaps still do) look back at writings by Ernest Renan or British historians like Eric Hobsbawm and Hugh Trevor Roper in order to dissect the nationalist imagination of others. Is Wikipedia correct that Benedict Anderson was an Irish citizen? Yes, apparently it is. How true it is, for me, that one learns a new thing every day.

All this probably reads as if I am about to offer a theory of nationalism myself but, in fact, the thought has returned to me passively today simply as a result of having watched a youtube video, of unknown origin, about Ireland’s neutrality in World War Two, which was uploaded around the same time as my latest book was published (literally days before the pandemic broke out, unfortunately), and witnessing a particular mindset in the comments section. The mindset was less “nationalist” than “national-gist”, which is a word that I’m making up right now to denote the idea of a “gist” of a nation’s history. In Ireland’s history, supposedly, the “gist” behind all understanding is the civil war of 1922-23; a way of looking that, to my mind, is the most depressing of mind-sets. If an administration forcefully imposed a political settlement in Ireland at that time, it actually served to remove both of the supposedly opposing camps in a civil war from any kind of commanding influence, so the essential question was the nature of that administration itself and the degree to which it was subsequently reformed, but that idea is perhaps too boring to excite the popular imagination. I came across a quote recently in a book, which supposedly came from a 1950s document in the US State Department, which stated that so long as civil war politics existed in Ireland, the Irish state could enjoy no international relations. Is it sad to think that, seventy years later, a similar question or answer can possibly dawn upon the mind? “Look around” and one might feel hopelessly out of touch, not from an awareness of nationalists but from a sense of being unable to abide by a national-gist. An attraction to the arts rather than a body politic has perhaps never been difficult to understand.

What makes a life “radical”?

If one becomes jaded, some people’s solution is exercise; for others, it is to seek “fuel for the imagination”. Probably best is some combination of both.

Being extremely jaded of late, I’ve been getting flashbacks to my student days, when I had an insatiable enthusiasm for researching in archives and a level of energy that is only a distant memory now. Attempting to understand the lives of obscure “radical” figures mentioned in decaying police reports threw my historical imagination into overdrive, often not stopping to think of a somewhat obvious point that my supervisor threw at me one day: “don’t forget, the one [the radical] cannot exist without the other [political intelligence departments] so they actually keep each other in business.”

These days, “digital storytelling” is often used a synonym for purely personal narratives as a primary focus of interest. The appetite for stories about the lives of individuals, especially “radical” individuals, seems to be paramount. Fascinating stories can emerge all the time, including these recent historical exposes of an Irish nun in the French Resistance and an Irish Buddhist monk acting as a critic of European colonialism in Asia.

Is this a giant revival of the 19th century tradition of romantic individualism we are witnessing within digital media these days? Tim Blanning’s “we-are-all-still-living-in-the-nineteenth-century” Romantic Revolution thesis was based on the idea that people are obsessed with the idea of exciting individual lives, be it as a personal aspiration or as a necessary “fuel for the imagination”.

Apply that to politics and the 1950s thesis of a French sociologist seems persuasive that the appeal of Marxism in the twentieth century was largely the romantic, or intellectual, appeal of individualism, because in an age where all politics was sown-up by political parties acting under the unitary control of party whips, to profess oneself as a Marxist was a means of rejecting all that by claiming for oneself an image of one’s motivations whereby there is nothing obstructing a sense that one’s judgment or freedom of choice was still all one’s own.

A counter argument to that perspective, of course, was the extent to which efforts to create ruled-bound international labour organisations existed, although that was also a mainstream phenomenon: if one considers the history of the International Labour Organisation (1919-to-date) that was operated by the great “capitalist” Western powers (albeit without the United States up until the Cold War), the much smaller and directly rival initiative of Comintern were but a poor state’s variation of the same thing.

If a state is experiencing a devastating civil war (as Russia was) it is not actually initiating an international/world revolution: it is more accurately trying to protect itself from one, although it is still common to witness state and university-funded historians treating the radical/Marxist thesis of “world revolution” seriously enough to portray it as a much greater or central phenomenon than it actually was. In so far as states and, in turn, historians could claim that this “radical” threat was central, then the importance of the other (in this case, the International Labour Organisation) was enhanced to either the same or to a much greater degree: “don’t forget, one cannot exist without the other”. Similarly, in the days before the “Truman Doctrine” led the US to take on the UK’s self-imposed job of containing Russian influence in Europe/the Mediterranean, the US government was evidently more inclined to see Comintern-like initiatives as a tool of British intelligence than of Russian because of extent to which the International Labour Organisation was then a British-dominated body, used to extend British influence in international affairs.

How far is radicalism a tool for promoting polemical attitudes for ulterior motives? Consider this: if society could be persuaded that the social mores of aristocrats (i.e. the most wealthy) had been unfairly discriminated against in the past through having being falsely accused of being perverse, society could be persuaded to march instead to defend and champion the social mores of these poor aristocrats as a “new normal” code of behaviour and as a matter of “policy” to boot. Next up, perhaps: the Caesars were not such bad guys after all, even if they got their kicks by throwing innocent people to the lions (amongst other things). “Roll on the new empire with flags unfurled”. Indeed, if it is as true, as some have claimed (I don’t actually have the figures), that there is a much greater disparity of wealth between rich and poor “now” than at any other time in human history, the new “aristocrats” have evidently been remarkably successful in protecting their own interests, with traditional vehicles of criticisms, such as religious charities or the former US Republican tradition of professed vigilance against corruption or imperialism, having become marginalised, stigmatised or even downright unpopular. Self-interested human behaviour moves in mysterious ways.

And what was the appeal of studying “radical” nineteenth-century Irish lives for me? And why does that appeal still exist, to a significant degree? Irish radical organisations were surely also partly a containment tool of their professed opponents. “OK”. But “the time and the place” still fascinates me. You see: if “the Comintern days” can fascinate all those with an interest in the mental universe of early twentieth-century figures of the Aldous Huxley or George Orwell variety, “the Republican days” can fascinate all those with an interest in the mental universe of the nineteenth century. A sense of aristocratic privilege ruled supreme in church and state and “the common people” simply did not exist in most political, artistic or cultural endeavours.…or, then again, did they? “The usual [Fenian] suspects” police gazettes can seem to tell as fascinating a story as a protagonist of an unknown Charles Dickens or Mark Twain novel. In some nineteenth-century French fictions, these prototype-characters do actually seem to exist (Emile Zola’s “Savage Paris” comes to mind).

So while Gustave Flaubert or whoever was indulging in some “sentimental education”, involving petticoats and scented handkerchiefs or the like, there were some guys meeting in some backroom somewhere, possibly off a street or (Parnell-ite) square that you already know (many Dublin Fenians I read police reports about in Ireland’s National Archives lived and met on the exact same street as where Ireland’s National Archives now sits), dreaming of forming a newspaper of their own or fantasising about turning the world of Dublin Castle upside down. How did the world seem to them? Was their smattering of education and revolutionary fantasies an expression of the same ambition that motivated those who enlisted in armies to acquire some formal education, the rare privilege of international travel or even social prestige (uniforms could do wonders for “the image” in those days)? Did revolutionary journalists, including Karl Marx (whose lifetime coincided with the heyday of the British Empire), aspire to the same prestige as “the great and good” by virtue of their utilising or inhabiting the exact same (print) media? Quite possibly…

And from there can emerge a picture of a whole world of really quite mundane “radical” lives that, unlike those in a novel, did actually exist, but with their stories untold. If there is any greater fuel for the imagination than that, I’m still not sure if I know of one within the world of historical studies. Lives may not, in fact, be radical in their making, but I’m inclined to suspect with Mr. Blanning that “the romantic revolution” still lives on, from the nineteenth century right up until “now” and probably well enough into the future too, in terms of people’s imagination, both public and private. Beethoven still has a lot to answer for or to be praised for, depending on your own point of view.

The Stuff that Dreams Are Made Of

That “not so eloquent” line from the end of a Humphrey Bogart movie came to mind recently when the thought dawned on me: why did I never realise that “The Maltese Falcon” was supposed to have come from Malta? Indeed, why do I never think about Malta? Or Cyprus?

You see: it is not just the fact that I have never been to the Mediterranean. It is one of those tangential issues that slips the mind: “my country” (Ireland) and Malta and Cyprus are three “small island” nations within the European Union. Islands of strategic significance in the Mediterranean and an island of reputed strategic significance in the Atlantic may not obviously have much in common, although this recent talk by an Irish foreign minister was of interest to me for throwing out an idea that I had also entertained: the “small” can potentially have their ideas, or opinions, shared and, in turn, spread within the European system as much as the “large”, providing they are fully engaged with all debates. Are “we” engaged?

You know, a large facet of European studies is very legalistic: witness studies like this one. I have studied law “but a little” but enough to know that legal studies generally require a full-time commitment. Not possible for me. Which perhaps makes it “all the better” that bodies such as the Council for European Studies, which also do an interesting free newsletter, are publishing good multi-disciplinary studies like this one that bring together authors from many different countries and, fortunately for linguistically-challenged individuals like myself, are all written in what is effectively my native tongue.

Often, noticeably absent from such studies are a) a focus specifically on the question of small states; and b) contributions by Irish authors. The latter trend perhaps automatically follows on from the former, although perhaps the b) could start thinking more conceptually about rectifying the a)? That is a question that I think I will make an attempt to address in the future, potentially without Cyclops vision, although somehow I doubt it will be the stuff that “dreams are made of”.

On a different tangent, another curiosity about Malta and Cyprus is that, although within the EU, they are also members of the British Commonwealth of Nations, which, if no longer effectively an economic bloc, is still a unit in international relations, encompassing all former territories of the British Empire (including India and Singapore and, so junkies for current affairs might tell you, possibly again someday Hong Kong). Ireland is actually the only state to have “ever” successfully left that bloc, although on a partitioned island subtle pressures to re-join are no doubt always present even if they are not necessarily noticed. But that is the subject of a different story.

Lockdowns in Imagination

It is the season of “the lockdown” and its unavoidable social restrictions. A more perennial thought, for me, has been “when are there lockdowns in imagination?”, i.e. why are various queries, activities or subjects not pursued, for one reason or another? Often there is a very good reason (including available time). But how does this affect the “historical imagination”…?

If an imaginative thought hit a student like “I wonder what the relationship was between Czechoslovakia and Bolivia in the fourth century…” they might well be corrected with the observation that no such relationship existed and therefore that would not be a good idea for a subject after all.

As a perennial student of sorts, the thought came to me recently that I should try and tease out the whole history of the dynamics of American-Irish relations in a single journal-article length study. On mentioning this to someone, I received a puzzled look and a query of “do you actually mean to say that there is such a thing as American-Irish relations?” Little diplomatic courtesies often do not tell a very full story but if a story is nevertheless there how should it be told? I do not mean to offer an answer to that question “here”, in this “blog”, but little fleeting pictures do nevertheless come to mind, to form tangential points of contrast…

An American who reflected on the theme (“way back” in 1973) once suggested that culture and economics were a more significant connection between America and Ireland than politics or statecraft. That is an “understandable” perspective. However, “way back” (before I ever started studying history) a potentially opposing thought to even that perspective struck me on glancing at a little publication called “an outline of American geography” while I was essentially still a child. A cartoon-like detail that caught my imagination was that Ireland was so small compared to the United States that the island could actually sink if it was placed in one of America’s “great lakes”. This made me think that Americans would probably have as much reason to ever think about “Ireland” as Irish people would ever have to think about the legendary eel population submerged in Lough Neagh. Small fish, indeed, and how might such an observation affect perceptions? Are differences in scale so large that if an Irish person ever attempted to “view America”, or an American person ever attempted to “view Ireland”, they would inevitably be looking through the wrong end of the telescope (or microscope, as the case may be)?

In the months before “the lockdown” put an end to recent commuting, one light read on the bus was a book by Alistair Cooke about his travels across America during the Second World War. He had spent about 25 years in America, “explaining America” to a British audience from his New York journalistic base, but in his posthumously published “Second World War diaries” he came to the conclusion that he had never actually “seen” or understood America until he began his “nationwide trek”. He marvelled at how each state in America seemed to be designed to serve a different but complementary economic purpose (some agricultural, some industrial etc.) and was reminded of the fact that the term “united states” does reflect the fact that there are many different and diverse states within America, many of which are bigger than most European countries. In short, the sheer scale of the “U.S. of A” was such that Cooke reflected that, despite being considered as the leading British authority on “America” who had lived in the country for half his life, he could not actually offer an “explanation of America”: its scale was so large that it was almost beyond human comprehension or, at least, human powers of description. I guess, therefore, that it is no wonder that “many” have suggested that it is the federal aspect of the government of America that inevitably forms the actual glue that binds “the nation” together, although Cooke did not decide to follow down that mental path…

If the thought of “America” (or, in particular, offering a “definition of America”) proved too much for Cooke’s perceptive capacities, how askew must be many perceptions of America amongst other peoples, including, no doubt, the general population of Ireland. Recently, I saw a biography of J.F. Kennedy, written by his former secretary just after his death, and I remember a little observation stood out for me. The author suggested that America has had “interests” to defend in the wider world, particularly since WW2, but the challenge of looking after those “interests” was so time consuming that America did not have either the time or the inclination to ever think about projecting “an image” of the country abroad. That might seem like a slightly dishonest claim in the light of how much peoples around the world have allegedly been “exposed to American culture” via various commercial medias, but is there another side to this coin? Was the author, in fact, saying something rather like Cooke: that America is actually too large or diverse to have a definable image, even for Americans, and therefore any notion of projecting a distinct image of the country abroad was too absurd a proposition to entertain? Peoples abroad may see and hear American politicians talking about international “values”, as well as various commercial entertainments originating within America, but these same peoples are unlikely to ever “see America”…and, perhaps, there is nothing that the American government can conceive to do about it even if it wished to.

And “so what”? Well, I think the “what” of this blog is an observation to explain why the idea of offering a definition of a subject such as “American-Irish relations” is one that is liable to produce “a lockdown in imagination” and so be avoided entirely. Can it be done without entertaining irrelevant paradigms? Are definitions possible? Is the subject too diffuse or vague to “pin down”? Perhaps. But then again “why do historians exist?” Sometimes I think it is to offer “a definition of the indefinable”. To be sure, most historians have not acted as basic “chroniclers of facts” since the first day that they started writing sentences, as opposing to attempting to detail data with all the fallibility of the fallible (and who today believes in the accuracy of medieval chroniclers? Oh well…).

But…to return to the theme of “the lockdown”…I had suggested to someone who was organising an Irish history seminar, due to take place at the end of this month, that I would try giving a talk on the history of American-Irish relations, but that was before “the lockdown” had closed down venues and, needless to say, put a cramp on everyone’s style. However, if I can “find the time” to study, reflect and “compose” history again, perhaps I will have come up with a worthy paper, for a talk, by this time next month? The extra-curricular existence of a part-time historian may continue, even amidst lockdowns, of one sort or another. Or, at least, “so I hope”.