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”.